An Invitation to Be Very Afraid!
Edo van Belkom
People don’t scare as easily as they used to.
Fifty years ago, teenagers went to the movies on a Friday or Saturday night, ready to be thrilled by stories of robot monsters, giant bugs, and big-headed aliens.
Today those things are campy. They make us laugh.
So what happened? What changed the way we get our frights?
Well, there are plenty of explanations for it, but one of the most important causes was the invention of television. Television brought the news of the world into our lives more quickly and graphically than newspapers, radio, and newsreels ever could. Suddenly, the news was more real than ever.
And the news wasn’t always good.
As a result, people no longer had to go out looking for things to be afraid of. Frightening things could be found on a daily basis – around the globe, across town, and even on the block they lived on.
Today we don’t have to head out to the movies to be afraid. All anyone has to do these days is… log onto the Internet, ask a girl out on a date, try to fit in with the crowd, or act all grown-up.
This book is all about those personal fears – the fears we hold closest to our hearts, and the fears that cut us straight to the bone.
Each of these stories has its roots in the everyday lives of young people as they try to make their way in the world.
They’re all harmless-sounding words – almost boring, in fact – but in the hands of expert writers, they become subjects to be afraid of.
To Be Very Afraid! of…
Just One Taste
Randy D. Ashburn
The cardboard lady had been watching them ever since they walked into the mini-mart. Just standing there beside the cash register in a backless evening gown, staring over her shoulder and clasping between her fingers a long white cigarette that threatened to pierce her bright red smile any minute now. “Savor the Flavor of Elegance” was printed in gold across her. “Lucky Kings Ultraslim.”
“You sure he’ll sell them to us?” Andrea whispered to Chelsea, who was still pretending to page through Teen People.
The other girl waited to answer until an old man who was dragging something down the next aisle was far enough away. “Not a problem.”
“I mean, you’ve, like, actually seen him do it, right? It’s not just something Mandy told you about?”
Chelsea tossed her hair in that same old annoying way she had ever since she moved into the neighborhood in the fifth grade. “I bought a pack just last week.” She switched the Teen People for a Cosmo Girl. “All we gotta do is wait till the store empties out a little bit, so the manager can’t get into trouble.”
The man behind the counter was stuffing a plastic bag full of candy bars and nodding at a woman with five kids, his smile as unmoving and unreal as the one on the cardboard lady in the evening gown. Above his head an icy blue banner declared, “Stay Cool – Smoke Arctic Menthols.”
Chelsea crinkled her nose. “Gawd, if I ever turn into a sow with a litter of piglets, just promise you’ll shoot me, okay?”
Andrea tried the obligatory polite laugh, but it came out sounding so much like a giggle that she wished she’d just kept quiet. It was too much to hope that Chelsea hadn’t noticed, but at least she went back to the magazine without saying anything.
The old man in the next row wheezed and hacked like a dishrag was stuck in his throat.
Andrea spotted a picture of a boat in a storm on the window. A man was carrying a woman into the cabin, and despite the waves washing over the side, both had huge grins wrapped around their cigarettes. “Roanoke Lite 100s,” the words under the boat read. “Just One Taste and You’ll Know the Difference.” She sure hoped whoever wrote that knew what he was talking about. So far, nothing else had made Todd realize she was more than just his best friend’s “baby” sister.
Behind the ad, the parking lot of the mini-mart was growing dark. Of course night came a lot earlier now that they’d been back in school for a couple of months, but how long did Chelsea think they could hang out at the magazine rack before they heard that famous this-ain’t-no-library speech?
“Chels, Mom’s expecting me home by eight and –”
“Eight?” She said it like that was Andrea’s age, not her curfew.
“Yeah, well, you know moms.” Her head dipped toward her Nikes.
The woman with the bag of candy herded her children out the door. That left only the old man still in the store, and he was safely off in a corner mumbling to cans of dog food.
“Okay,” Chelsea said, “if you’re gonna go getting all nervous and everything.” She put one hand on her hip and thrust the other one toward Andrea.
It took a while for her to realize she wanted money.
Chelsea took one look at Andrea’s ten-dollar bill and plucked a fashion magazine from the rack. “Don’t worry, you can see it when I’m done.”
Andrea decided it wasn’t worth drawing everyone’s attention to tell Little Miss Obnoxious what a total snot she was being. Besides, if they took time out to argue, who knows how many people would pick that as the perfect moment to come in for a Slushie.
Andrea followed Chelsea to the cash register.
It was funny how every step they took seemed to get shorter and shorter, so that by the time they actually reached the manager, Chelsea was barely shuffling. She turned away as she slipped the magazine in front of him.
“Evening, ladies.” He glanced down at the fashion model whose glossy eyes stared up from the magazine cover. “Anything else I can get for you?”
“Ummm…” Chelsea looked like somebody who was trying not to worry about who was watching. She grabbed a twin pack of Ho Hos so hard you could see the indentations of her fingers when she mashed it into the fashion model’s face.
The manager’s smile disappeared from one side of his mouth, like only half of him had the patience to wait for Chelsea to get around to asking for what she really wanted.
Andrea stared hard at Chelsea and nodded toward the rows upon rows of cigarettes behind the counter. She was trying one of those impossible things — moving her head just enough so that Chelsea would notice but the manager wouldn’t. She stopped when she realized she probably looked like she was having some kind of epileptic fit.
“Oh, yeah,” Chelsea finally said. “And my friend here would like a pack of Lucky Kings too. Ultraslim.” She swallowed so hard you could actually hear it. “Please.”
Andrea’s mouth was moving, but no sounds were coming out. She stopped breathing. For hour-long seconds, the manager’s eyes went from one girl to the next. Then he shook his head, reached behind him, and tossed a tiny box onto the counter. It landed with a muffled plop next to the Ho Hos.
When Andrea finally exhaled, it sounded so uncomfortably close to a giggle that she had to turn away. The cardboard lady in the evening gown still hadn’t managed to get that cigarette all the way into her mouth.
Savor the flavor, baby.
“Coffin nails,” the old man screamed. “Nothing but coffin nails you drive into these little girls!”
Andrea’s heart jumped up into the place where her tonsils used to be. The old man was coming toward them, his hobbling steps probably the closest he could get to running. She couldn’t believe they’d come so close to getting away with it, just to have everything ruined at the last minute.
The old man shook one frail fist in the air, and his nostrils flared so angrily you could see the scabs where yellowed tubes had been shoved up his nose. The tubes ran down the front of his shabby brown sweater to an oxygen tank that he dragged behind him on a tiny cart, its uneven wheels making it clank and yelp across the linoleum tiles like some vicious little dog nipping at his heels.
Chelsea was trying to disappear deep inside her middle-school jacket, and Andrea had already taken one step toward the door when the manager spread both his hands in front of him.
“Mr. Dmicek, please,” he said. “I’m just trying to make a living here, you understand.”
“A killing is more like it, yes? These girls” – Andrea jumped back so his gnarled twig of a finger wouldn’t brush against her as he waved it around – “they are under the age. You cannot see this?”
The manager rolled his eyes. “So go find a cop. I’m sure they’ll take time out from chasing real criminals to rush right over.”
“Fah!” The old man leaned against the counter, trying to catch his breath. “Back home… there they know how to do the punish for the crimes, yes?” His voice could barely be heard over the beeping as the manager scanned prices.
“Well, Pops, maybe you just need to head right on back to the old country, then, ’cause over here we believe in freedom of choice. Somebody wants to smoke, ain’t nobody else’s business. That’ll be $8.52, miss.”
“Is your business, from what I am seeing.”
Andrea couldn’t decide how long they’d been standing there. Seemed like hours – probably less than a minute. Too long either way. Even if the manager wasn’t afraid of the old man, what would happen if somebody else came in while they were still arguing? He’d never be able to sell them the cigarettes then.
Andrea made little shoveling motions with her hands, praying Chelsea would remember to give the manager the money before he changed his mind. When she finally got the message, Chelsea practically threw the ten-dollar bill onto the counter.
“Girls, you believe the lies he sells you with the cigarettes? Look at me.” The old man gargled and growled around something all the excitement had pushed up into his throat. Andrea didn’t even want to imagine what it might be. “Look at the face of someone who knows, my children. The chemicals. They put the chemicals in there so that one taste and they get you, yes? Just one little taste, and you keep right on making them rich even when you finally figure out they kill you.” He pulled a half-empty pack of Laramie Filterless from his pocket and held it in his trembling, leathery hand. The tubes shoved up his nose hissed and sputtered as he tried to suck some air into the black and withered sacks that used to be his lungs. “This thing I know. Is not right to have to pay your own murderer.”
Chelsea picked up the plastic bag with one hand and the change with the other.
“Please to listen, little girl,” the old man said, reaching toward her.
Chelsea backed away, but her voice was barely shaking. “Sheesh, like, go back to the nursing home and take your pills, okay, Grandpa?”
He frowned so hard that his wrinkled face seemed to fold in on itself, leaving only those smoldering gray eyes staring out of the crevices. “One taste and you know truth. You see.”
“Come on, Andrea.”
“Show you like they do in old country, yes. You all see then!”
He was still yelling when they walked out the door, but it didn’t seem much like English any more, and besides, all the coughing crowded out most of the words anyway. The whoosh of the automatic doors cut off the last of the sound, and Andrea exhaled long and hard.
They’d actually done it.
A moose driving a red sports car winked down at them from a billboard across the street. A cigarette dangled from his furry lips, the blue smoke around his antlers spelling the words “Destination: Satisfaction.”
“Can you believe that freak?” Chelsea turned and marched toward Andrea, stiff-legged and with arms out like the Frankenstein monster. “Beevare zee coffing nails, leetle gurlz!” She nearly doubled over with laughter, but Andrea could still barely manage a smirk as she got onto her bicycle.
“So,” she said, “where are we gonna, you know, do this?”
“Well, if you’re in such a hurry, I guess we could just go around back. Assuming the winos haven’t settled in for the night, I suppose we could hang by the dumpsters.”
They sat down on the concrete steps at the back door of the store, and Chelsea emptied the plastic bag. The pack of cigarettes was gold and silver like a tiny treasure box, the cellophane wrapper making it sparkle under the dim light above the door.
Chelsea pulled out an old-fashioned silver lighter with a fancy H engraved on the side and laid it on the concrete while she tried to open the cigarettes.
“Where’d you get that?” Andrea asked.
“It’s my grandmother’s.”
“How’d you sneak it out?”
She looked up from fumbling with the wrapper. “Chelsea Hill, master thief.”
There was no way Andrea was going to risk three giggles in one night, so she just smiled.
“Like, she’s a couple hundred years old, okay? Every time I go over to her house, she’s asleep in fifteen minutes. Anyway” – Chelsea held up the open pack, its lid barely hanging on at one side, where she’d ripped it – “it’s not like she’s really supposed to be smoking either.”
Andrea hesitated for just a second.
But that was more than enough time for Chelsea to screw her face into That Look. “Don’t tell me you’re letting that old lunatic get to you?”
“No! I mean… I dunno.”
“He’s just like my grandma and all the rest, you know? All they ever think about is dying, so they’re not happy till that’s all you can think about too!” Chelsea held out a cigarette. “I’d rather obsess about living, wouldn’t you?”
The cigarette felt strange between Andrea’s shaking fingers, and even stranger between her lips – stale paper on the tip of her tongue rubbing away the last hint of bubblegum. She jumped when the tiny yellow-and-blue flame from the lighter exploded right in her face, the fire dancing so near that she was sure she’d get burned. But Andrea leaned in close so the other girl would see she wasn’t scared.
Chelsea was right: smoking was no different from bungee jumping or rock climbing. It was a way to stare right in death’s tiny glowing eye and scream at the top of your lungs that you were alive.
But that first stinging mouthful wasn’t really like smoke at all. More like fire crowding into her, crawling up the inside of her nose and singeing the bottom of her brain. Her eyes watered. She felt dizzy.
Worried what Chelsea might think, Andrea tried to suck the smoke in deeper, but it caught in her throat like an angry cat somebody was trying to shove into a burlap sack. Smoky claws dug in, scratching and slicing until Andrea was sure they were going to rip right out through her neck.
Chelsea laughed as she took the cigarette away. “Yeah, it’s always like that the first time. You get used to it, though.”
Andrea pressed her hands flat against the concrete and kept swallowing as hard as she could in between coughs, praying that the meatloaf and macaroni she’d had for dinner weren’t about to make a second appearance on the steps behind the mini-mart.
Chelsea smiled around the cigarette. She looked so much older sucking on that glowing little tube, hardly coughing at all.
It didn’t take long for the worst of the burning to go away, and Andrea found that the tingling that was left was almost . . . well, maybe “nice” wasn’t quite the right word, but it wasn’t all that bad either. Maybe she really could get used to it.
“Let me try again.”
This time the bagged cat at least kept its claws in as it crawled down her throat. She tried taking long, deep breaths so there’d be no room left over for coughing. One puff. Two. Her head was a balloon slowly filling with smoke, floating up, up, up with each draw on the cigarette. Spinning. Drifting.
“Mmm, is the flavor country, yes?” The old man spat something thick and green between the two girls. It landed on the magazine, jiggling like Jell-O for a few seconds before it finally stood still right between the fashion model’s eyes.
He was standing in the open doorway, the light from inside the building spilling around his dark form, blinding Andrea. Only the glowing little pinpoints of his eyes stood out from the silhouette, and thin lines of blue smoke drifted up from them in slow curlicues toward the October sky.
“Is time. A little taste of truth for little girls. You know then, I think.”
Andrea was on her feet before Chelsea. That’s probably why the old man’s twisted and swollen fingers only skimmed across her shoulder instead of wrapping tightly in her hair as they did with Chelsea.
But one touch was all it took.
Andrea could feel the smoke of tens of thousands of cigarettes flood into her. Clogging her lungs with concrete. Filling her up with an entire lifetime’s worth of elegance and cool and satisfaction.
And then the coughing came. It started somewhere deep inside her gut, not in those useless clumps of burned-up raisins in her chest. It was a jagged saw raking up and down her spine again and again and again. But no matter how hard she coughed – no matter how many fist-sized balls of thick, greasy slime she spewed onto the asphalt – the smoke was still there. Clinging to her insides. Hiding in forgotten places of herself.
But Chelsea wasn’t so lucky.
She was shriveled, smaller. Her hair now more pale than blonde, so dry it snapped off in the old man’s hands like uncooked spaghetti. Her face was the brown-gray leather of old, dusty shoes. Her coughing no more than a single unending, whispered wheeze.
Andrea jumped past the old man and through the open door, locking it behind her. But even that short run left her gasping like a grounded bass, desperately trying to shove even the tiniest hint of air down her tightly clenched throat.
“Help me.” But she could barely hear herself as she staggered from the storeroom to the front of the mini-mart.
The manager was sprawled across the cardboard lady, his body covered from head to foot in nails – “Coffin nails,” Andrea gasped – so that he looked like some roadkill porcupine.
Andrea collapsed into the racks behind her, an avalanche of cigarettes falling all around her. And at that moment she knew, really and truly knew, just like the old man had said she would. The worst part wasn’t what he’d done to Chelsea or to the manager – or even to her. The worst part hadn’t happened yet. It would come tomorrow, and for every tomorrow after that for however many years she had left. Because along with a taste of the smoke, the old man had also given her the hunger. The need.
Andrea sat in the pile of cigarettes, desperately trying to hold her hands steady enough to open another pack.