We joke and laugh the rest of the walk to his house, half a block from the store. As we get to the yard, he starts walking through the grass, indicating this is his yard. There are three men sitting on the front porch smoking cigarettes. I hate being around smokers. My step-dad smokes and I am allergic to it I think. "Hey, dudes. This is my friend Heather," Brad says, pushing me in front of them.

Nervously, I force my steps backward a couple steps, "Hi." The guys all simply nod their heads back once in acknowledgement of my greeting, taking pulls from their cigarettes and exhaling the smoke, unconcerned with the fact that it's coming toward my face. I move aside, trying to get out of the path of the putrid smoke, but it seems attracted to my location and follows me wherever I step.

"Where's mom?" Brad squeezes between the guys and pulls the door.

"She's in bed," one of the men says as he looks at me, smiling. I stay put. I want to be with Brad, but I'm too scared to squeeze past the men like he had just done. The man that answers looks like he could have been handsome once, but now severe acne scars cover his face on both cheeks. It's not pimples like some of the older kids in 5th and 6th grade have though. It looks like the two chicken pock scars I have, only all over.

Brad pushes open the door from inside. "You comin' or not?" I hesitate and look at the three men that sit between the entrance and me. They all three stand and step aside and let me pass. I look back over my shoulder as I enter and see one of the men looking at me in a way that makes me uncomfortable, mostly because he's looking at my legs and not my face. I've seen boys do that at school. I know what that means.

"Hi. You must be Heather!" A high-pitched, feminine voice demands my attention. "My name's Patricia, but my friends call me Patty. I'm Bradley's mom and that lump over there on the couch doing homework is my daughter and Bradley's older sister, Megan."

I nod as Megan raises her hand without looking away from her books. "Don't mind her," Patty says, "She thinks she's going to be a doctor some day. School is the only thing she ever does. Pretty boring if you ask me, but I guess I'm gonna need someone to make good money and take care of me when I'm old, 'cause I'm not doing a very good job of making money to grow old on."

"Where do you work at?" I'm not really interested, but feel like I should say something.

"I haven't worked in a long time; too busy spendin' time with all my friends to waste time on work. Don't really need to anyway, since I get money from Welfare for having these kids." I'm suddenly distracted. Three brownish bugs crawl across the surface of the cracked white wall right behind Patty's head. She notices my eyes follow the bugs and says, "Oh, don't worry about those. I'm not scared of roaches any more. When you live with so many people that tends to happen." I force a smile. The thought of living with bugs makes my skin crawl. I don't mind bugs, but I want them to live outside, not inside. Except spiders, I don't mind them as long as they aren't the poisonous kind. If I see those, I catch them in a jar and take them to a field and let them go. Patty jumps in again when I fail to speak, "Your poor face is red. You want somethin' to drink?" I shrug my shoulders. "How about a glass of cold water to help cool your body down?"

"Sure, thanks." We walk through the tiny living room to an even smaller kitchen. As Patty flips on the light switch, what appears to be a hundred roaches scatter into the cabinets attempting to escape the light. I am horrified at the sight of this and rub my head, worried some may have landed on me. Patty opens the cabinet door and grabs a glass without seeing the roach that just scurried off the glass and onto her hand. I point and say, "You got a..." Patty looks at her hand and casually flicks the roach off her arm, which falls onto what I thought were clean dishes. She puts the glass under the faucet and turns the cold water handle. As the water begins to flow, the faucet jumps and allows the water to begin flowing easily, carrying the carcass of a roach with it into the glass. Patty sees the bug and pours the water out and refills it with bug free water.

"Here ya go sweetie." She looks at me, waiting for me to take a long drink to cool off. I try not to look as horrified as I feel, swallow hard, and take a drink. "Okay you two. Outside. Scoot. I've got more unpacking to do, so unless you wanna help, then go play."

"Okay. Nice to meet you Patty and Megan. Come on Brad." No longer concerned with the men on the stairs, I rush past them to the yard with Brad following closely behind me. Once on the grass, I look at Brad and speak only with my eyes.

He whispers, "Sorry. You get used to it... eventually." Three groups totaling four more men and a couple of teenage boys walk into the yard, in similar fashion as the roaches that I had just seen crawling around in the kitchen. They seem to come from all directions, just much slower than the roaches had moved. "What's goin' on guys?" I watch as Brad confidently high-fives them all as they pass us. They all look at me inquisitively. 

"Who's that chic?" The teenage boy wearing the tattered Slayer t-shirt asks as he presses his finger through a tiny hole near his chest and points at me. His fingernail is black underneath the edge.

"Guys, this is my friend, Heather. Brad points to the guys, introducing each one as they individually wave a hand at the sound of their own name, "This is Sean, Ron, Curtis, Frank... Greg, Danny, Jason and the three on the porch are Stewart, Kevin, and Mike. She goes to my school. She's nine years old and in the 4th grade. We are gonna be walking together every day."

Jason teases, "Is she your girlfriend?"

"None of your beeswax." Brad blushes. The guys all start teasing, "Brad and Heather, sittin' in a tree..."

"Shut up you guys!"

"...K. I. S. S. I. N. G." most trail off but one continues, "First comes love, then comes... herpes, then comes the doctor with a baby carriage." Brad picks up a few clods of dirt and starts chunking them at the guys who continue to laugh and tease making kissing sounds with their mouths. They all laugh and walk toward the door and go inside.

Brad is blushing, but clearly not angry. He loves these guys. I can tell that they all love each other, in a weird way. I am totally grossed out by the house, but I am jealous of his life. No one has yelled at him. No one is crying. No one is ignoring him. They're all paying attention to him. I wish I had that.

"So," Brad begins, both hands hidden in his jean pockets. "Do you wanna, like actually, be my girlfriend?"

"Um." I think for a moment. "Sure." We begin walking toward my house together. "Your friends are nice, I guess. I mean, you're lucky that so many people like you." I feel a lump form in my throat, which I quickly suppress.

"Yeah they are all really nice, except to people that try to screw us over. I trust them and they are always there for me and my mom and sister. If you are my girlfriend, they will be there for you too. You'll be sick of friends soon, trust me."

"I don't think I could ever get sick of friends." Arriving at my driveway, Brad leans in toward me and kisses my cheek. I turn my head away and giggle like a dumb girl. I see my mom's car already in the driveway. "See you tomorrow?" 

"Yeah... I gotta walk my girlfriend to school and home, don't I?" He smiles as he walks away. I smile and walk toward the house and through the front door.

The End

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