The Fire Between High & Lo (Elements #2)


by Brittainy C. Cherry

Prologue

Alyssa

The boy in the red hoodie kept staring at me in the checkout line.

I’d seen him before, many times, including earlier that Monday morning. Every day he and his friends hung out in the alleyway behind the grocery store where I worked. I’d see them when my boss made me break down boxes and toss them outside.

The boy in the red hoodie always showed up with his friends each day. They’d make a ton of noise, smoking cigarettes and cursing up a storm. He stood out, because the other guys laughed and smiled. He seemed mute, almost as if his mind lived far away from his surroundings. His lips hardly ever turned up; I wondered if he knew what smiling was. Maybe he was a person who simply existed instead of lived.

Sometimes we’d lock eyes, and I’d always look away.

I found it hard to look into his caramel eyes, because they looked sadder than any eyes his age should’ve ever looked. Deep, purplish bags sat under them, along with wrinkle lines, but still, he was handsome. A handsomely tired boy. No boy should’ve looked that exhausted, or that gorgeous, all at once. I was almost certain he’d lived one hundred years of struggle all within his youth. I could tell he’d been through worse private wars than most of the people walking the earth just by the way he stood: shoulders rounded forward, back never straight.

But not all of him looked so broken.

His medium-length dark hair was always perfect. Always. Sometimes he’d pull out a small comb and run it through his locks, as if he was a greaser from the 1950s. He always wore the same kind of outfits, too: either a plain white T-shirt, a plain black T-shirt, and sometimes the red hoodie. His jeans were always black, along with his black shoes that were tied with white shoestrings. I didn’t know why, but even though the outfits were simple, they gave me goose bumps.

I noticed his hands, too. His hands were constantly wrapped around a lighter he flicked on and off, nonstop. I wondered if he was even aware that he did it. It seemed almost as if the flame shooting from the lighter was a part of his existence.

A mundane expression, tired eyes, perfect hair, and a lighter in hand.

What kind of name would fit with a guy like that?

Hunter, maybe. It sounded kind of bad boyish—which he was, I assumed. Or Gus. Gus the greaser. Greasy Gus. Or Mikey—because it sounded sweet, which would be the complete opposite of what he seemed to be, and I enjoyed things like that.

But, his name didn’t currently matter.

What mattered was that he was standing across from me. He showed more expression than I’d ever seen from him as he stood in the alleyway. His face was beet red and his fingers were fidgety, as he stood in my checkout line at the grocery store. There was such a strong, poignant embarrassment in his eyes as he swiped his food stamps card over and over again. Each time it was declined. Insufficient funds. Each time he grew gloomier. Insufficient funds. He bit his bottom lip. “That doesn’t make sense,” he murmured to himself.

“I can try it up here on my register if you want. Sometimes those machines are wonky.” I offered him a smile, but he didn’t smile back. His face was filled with stern lines of coldness. His brows were knit and aggressive, yet he handed me his card. I slid it through my machine and frowned. Insufficient funds. “It’s saying there isn’t enough money on the card.”

“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” he mumbled.

Rude.

“This is bullshit.” He huffed, his chest rising and falling. “We just got money on it yesterday.”

Who was ‘we’? None of your business, Alyssa. “Do you have another card we could try?”

“If I had another card, don’t you think I would’ve tried it?” he barked, making me jump a little. Hunter. He had to be a Hunter. Mean, bad boy Hunter. Or maybe Travis. I’d read a book once with a Travis in it, and he was a very bad boy. Travis was so bad that I had to close the book to keep myself from blushing and screaming all at once.

He took a breath, studied the line of people forming behind him, and then locked his stare with mine. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell.”

“It’s okay,” I replied.

“No. It’s not. I’m sorry. Can I just, leave the shit here for a second? I have to call my mom.”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll just suspend the order for now, then we can ring up your items once we get the issues worked out. No worries.”

He almost smiled, and I almost lost it. I didn’t know he knew how to almost do that. Maybe it was just a twitch in his lips, but when they slightly curved, he looked so handsome. I could tell he didn’t partake in the act of smiling very often.

As he stepped to the side and dialed his mom’s number, I tried my best not to eavesdrop on his call. I took the next customers’ orders, but still, my nosy ears and eyes kept finding their way back to him.

“Ma, I’m just saying, I feel like a fucking idiot. I swiped the card and it keeps getting declined.”

“I know the pin number. I entered the pin number.”

“Did you use the card yesterday?” he asked. “For what? What did you get?”

He moved the phone from his face as his mom spoke to him and rolled his eyes before putting the receiver back to his ear.

“What do you mean, you bought thirty-two cases of Coca-Cola?!” he shouted. “What the hell are we going to do with thirty-two cases of Coca-Cola?” Everyone in the grocery store turned toward him. His gaze met mine, and the embarrassment returned to him. I smiled. He frowned. Heartbreakingly handsome. Slowly he turned his back to me and returned to his call. “How are we supposed to eat for the next month?”

“Yeah, I get paid tomorrow, but that’s not gonna be enough to—no. I don’t want to ask Kellan for money again—Ma, don’t cut me off. Listen. I have to pay rent. There’s no way I’ll be able to—” Pause. “Ma, shut the hell up, okay?! You spent our food money on Coca-Cola!”

Short pause. Crazy arm movements of anger.

“No! No, I don’t care if it was Diet Coke or Coke Zero!” He sighed, running his fingers through his hair. He sat the phone down on the ground for a few moments, shut his eyes, and took a few deep breaths. He picked it back up. “It’s fine. I’ll figure it out. Don’t worry about it, all right? I’ll figure it out. I’m hanging up. No, I’m not mad, Ma. Yeah, I’m sure. I’m just hanging up. Yeah, I know. It’s okay. I’m not mad, okay? I’m sorry I yelled. I’m sorry. I’m not mad.” His voice became as low as it could, but I couldn’t stop listening. “I’m sorry.”

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