It was a sweet operation until it went sour. The stuff we were selling, you couldn’t get just anywhere. I’m telling ya — kids wanted it. In fact, they couldn’t get enough of it. You see, all the schools had jumped on the “healthy living” bandwagon. Childhood obesity had been on the rise for years, and the adults were trying to control everything we put in our mouths. You couldn’t buy this stuff at the tuck shop, and you got it confiscated by the authorities if it showed up in your lunch bag. Meanwhile, teachers would be sneaking it into the staff room, and cops were hitting every drive-thru window in town. Yeah, those adults had stickier fingers than us, and we couldn’t say squat because they made the rules and doled out the punishments.
But that all changed the night I discovered the Hostess delivery truck that some nitwit had left unlocked in the parking lot of the local bakery. I was on my way home one evening after a gruelling day of cutting grass for cheap old ladies in the neighbourhood. It must have been the hunger that made me unlatch the door and climb inside. Right there, stacked exquisitely before my eyes, was every delectable treat you could imagine, from Twinkies to Ho Hos to Fruit Pies to CupCakes. There were even a few packs of Zingers tucked away in the back. It was too good to be true. There was no way I could walk out of there without having just one taste. I tore into a pack of Twinkies, bit into the buttery golden cake, and licked my fingers of evidence. It was glorious. I wanted more but I had to bolt because I knew Constable Butowski, a.k.a. Butts, would circle by soon. He had been trolling the neighbourhood every night that summer, trying to catch the lousy teenager who kept plunking poop into people’s mailboxes.
That teenager was my older brother Tommy, of course. Yeah, Tommy was always getting himself into sticky situations like egging houses and spray-painting boxcars. He even did a stint in juvy for pushin’ over porta potties. Compared to Tommy, I was the golden child, pure as the cream inside a Twinkie. My grades were decent and I still went to church with my mother every Sunday. You might even call me responsible — for a twelve-year-old.
But not Tommy. Nah, aside from being a first-class jerk, my brother was reckless. He didn’t have the guile to be sneaky or the patience to be organized. It was like the teachers said: “Organization is the key to success.” It was the only smart thing those pastry packers ever taught me.
Anyway, I grabbed as many boxes of goodies as I could from the truck and hightailed it home, where I hid the loot in the backyard shed. I figured the first night was a fluke, that truck being left unlocked, but when I went back the next night and unlatched the door with ease, I knew it was the beginning of something good.
I let my best friend in on what I was doing and from there it was easy. Twitch was the perfect thief, agile and alert — he guzzled energy drinks like they were going out of style. Sometimes there were two, even three, trucks left unlocked at the bakery. Twitch and I would raid each one carefully, making sure we took only a few goodies from each stack so no one would notice anything was gone.
We started peddling to neighbourhood kids and we kept it under wraps. It wasn’t long before we were pushing whole boxes out. Most deals took place in the churchyard after dark. If we had to do a deal in the daytime, we did it at the movies during a matinee or in the dugouts at the baseball fields. The clients we sold to were told to have the money up front and to keep their mouths shut. Otherwise, they suffered the consequences.
Every well-run organization needs muscle, and Salty was ours. He was a beast of a kid for a twelve-year-old. Almost six feet tall with the body of a linebacker, Salty was the goon of all goons. Everyone knew him because he hung out at the corner store, beating up kids for chip money. The best part was, all Salty wanted as payment for his jobs was an unlimited supply of salt and vinegar chips, which we brought back in pillowcases.
If someone didn’t pay, we sent Salty to get the cash. Seems like just yesterday we had this kid Andy — a pretty boy from the north side who’d tried to rip us off — pinned to the iron fence behind the church.
“Don’t do this, Patty,” he begged, eyes bouncing around like Ping-Pong balls.
I got real close, stared him straight in the eyes. “You disrespected me, Andy. Now you gotta pay the price.”
“Please, Patty. You have to believe me. I’ll get you the rest of the money. Gimme a chance!”
“I don’t give chances,” I said, walking away.
For three blocks I could hear him screaming. It was the sound they all made when Salty crushed a handful of salt and vinegar chips into their eyes, grinding the crumbs in so deep the burn would last for days. Yeah, we were ruthless but we had to be. The business was growing by the day and we couldn’t have anyone snitchin’ to the adults. You see, it was all about respect — don’t speak when your mouth is full.
When the money started improving, so did my appearance. I got myself a new haircut and some fancy threads — not to mention I didn’t look so scrawny anymore because of all the Twinkies I’d been downing. It wasn’t long before Scarlett Jones started coming around. She was the most popular girl in our grade, and there was a time when she didn’t even know I existed. Now, she found herself in the mood for something sweet.
When Scarlett came looking for some sugar, I made sure I was prepared. I met her at dusk behind the church. Boy, she was somethin’. Auburn waves and skin as creamy as the inside of a CupCake.
“I got something real special for ya,” I said, handing her the package.
Her lips parted into a smile that could melt a Sno Ball. “Aw, Patty,” she said, dipping her chin and gazing at me with golden eyes. “It’s a Honey Bun. You shouldn’t have.” When she bit into that glazed classic, I felt my knees go weak because I was in love. She was my Honey Bun and I wasn’t gonna share her with anyone.
After the Andy incident, the north side started sending a mule named Slim Riley to do their runs.
“You got anything that’s gluten-free?” Slim Riley asked at our first meeting.
Twitch and I rolled our eyes. “We don’t have gluten-free,” I said. “What do ya want gluten-free for?”
Slim Riley picked up a box of Twinkies. “I can’t put this stuff in my body. Makes my gut swell up. I get bad gas, stomach pains, the whole nine. Say, I bet you guys could make a fortune selling gluten-free. You should think about it, Patty.”
“Yeah, yeah. Listen, we need you to get this out on the street fast,” I said, handing him the newest product — a box of Jos. Louis.
Slim Riley packed the goods in his bag. “Got it. Don’t worry, Patty. You can count on me.”
With everything running smoothly and Twitch managing the rest of the guys, I was able to enjoy some much-needed leisure time with Scarlett. We had recently started holding hands and I couldn’t get enough of it. Her slender fingers entwined with mine erected a feeling inside me that only my health teacher could explain.
“Maybe it’s time to start taking it easy on the Twinkies, Patty,” she said as we sat down under a tree outside the public pool.
“Take it easy? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Her eyes fell to my midsection. “Nothing, Patty Cakes.”
“What, you don’t like my love handles?” I said, grabbing the extra layer of chub under my ribs. “They’re for you, Honey Bun! Don’t you like having something to grab on to?”
The corners of her mouth turned up slightly but she shook her head. “It’s not the weight, Patty. It’s how the stuff makes you act. All that sugar messes with your head. Just look at Twitch. He’s like a squirrel on Fun Dip. Mixing that stuff with energy drinks is no good for ya. I’m worried about you guys.”
“Relax, Honey Bun,” I said, taking her hand. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it. Me and the boys got everything under control.”
Not a minute after those words left my mouth, Twitch came barrelling through the park toward us, eyes bulging, face covered in icing sugar.
Scarlett and I hopped to our feet. “What happened?” I demanded when he got close.
“It’s Slim Riley,” Twitch said, voice quavering. “They got him.”
I glanced around. Other kids had started watching us, so I pulled him behind the tree. “Calm down, Twitch. Look at you! You’re a mess. Give him a towel, would ya, Honey Bun?”
Scarlett scooped up my beach towel and thrust it at Twitch.
“Wipe your face. Geez, you got sugar all over, looks like you’ve been inhaling the stuff. What the heck happened?”
Twitch wiped his face. “I’m real sorry, Patty. I didn’t know what else to do. I went to meet Riley for a deal, nothing major, just a few Ho Hos. Everything went fine. He was about to take off with the stuff when we saw a cruiser round the corner.”
“Hold on. You did a deal on the sidewalk in broad daylight?”
He raked a hand through his hair. “I figured it would be easy if we kept the stuff hidden! I thought we could pull it off.”
I shook my head, baffled. “And then what?”
Twitch glanced around, paranoid. “We started walking in the opposite direction of the cruiser but it was getting closer. I panicked. There was nowhere for us to go, empty playgrounds on either side of the street.” His face crumpled.
“Out with it, Twitch! What’d you do?”
“There was nothing for us to do but eat the stuff, you know, get rid of the evidence.”
I nodded. “So what went wrong?”
He released a breath. “Slim Riley. You see, we were jamming the Ho Hos into our mouths, chewing and swallowing as fast as we could. The cruiser was going slow and I wasn’t sure if Butts had spotted us yet.” Twitch shook his head. “Riley must’ve eaten ten Ho Hos to my five. You know how it is when you first try the stuff.”
“Yeah, you go crazy for it.”
Twitch went on. “Anyway, right after I shoved the empty packages down my pants, Slim Riley collapsed! I’m telling you, Patty, just as the cruiser slowed to a stop behind us, Riley face-planted and started rolling around like a pig in mud! His belly got all bloated and he was groaning and squealing and begging for his mother.”
I rubbed the back of my neck as I pictured the situation.
“But that ain’t all,” Twitch said, looking me in the eyes. “It was his farts, Patty. They smelled like rotten eggs rolled up in wet cardboard, and they were so thick you could chew ’em! I couldn’t stand the smell. I swear, I was gonna barf. You would’ve done the same thing I did.”
“What’d you do, Twitch?”
He raised his head and looked at me with glossy eyes. “I left him there.” He dropped to the ground and slumped against the tree.
That was the beginning of the end.
The second I walked into my house that day, my brother put me in a headlock and dragged me upstairs to his room. I could barely breathe, his grip was so tight.
“What ya been up to, Patty?” he demanded, forcing me against the wall with his elbow.
“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, Tommy. Now get your hands off me!” I struggled under his hold but I was no match for his strength. He was determined to make me talk.
“Oh, you don’t know what I’m talkin’ about, Patty?” he said, releasing me and backing toward his bed. “What do ya have to say about this?” He threw up the quilt, uncovering a pile of Ding Dongs. “I found ’em stashed in the back shed.”
My heart skipped a beat.
“I know what you been doin’, Patty. You been stealing these and selling them around town.” He ripped into a package. Then he bit into the chocolate cake, inhaling deeply through his nose while he chewed. “Oh, that’s good, Patty,” he said, a crazed look in his eyes. “I bet the kids are paying good money for these.”
“What do ya want from me, Tommy? You want money to keep your mouth shut?” I reached into my pocket and pulled out a twenty. “Here.”
“I don’t want your money,” he sneered, smacking my hand away.
I went to jam the bill back in my pocket but he yanked it from my hand, slicing a paper cut straight across my palm.
I winced. “Thought you didn’t want my money.”
He shrugged me off. “Yeah, well, I’m taking it anyway. You better stop this, kid. Butts has been sniffin’ around. He thinks it’s me who’s hawking this stuff on the streets, and I’m not going to take the rap for you. You better shut this operation down or I’ll make sure everyone knows your shiny reputation ain’t worth a cent.”
I was dazed, blindsided. I didn’t want to quit the life but my brother had left me no choice. I turned before leaving his room. “You’re a real jerk, Tommy. You know that? A real jerk.”
I did what Tommy said and told everyone we were taking a break until I could figure things out. I was upset about what had happened to Slim Riley. Apparently, after the cops took him home and his mother found out he’d eaten gluten, she grounded him for the rest of the summer. Tommy putting this on me was the icing on the CupCake. I had been laying low for days. I needed something to make me feel better, but I was afraid to go back to the bakery with Butts nosing around and Tommy’s voice in the back of my head.
Instead, I went to find Scarlett. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of days and I knew that holding her hand would give me a rush sweeter than sugar. I went to our spot under the tree at the pool but she wasn’t there. I searched the neighbourhood high and low but Scarlett was nowhere to be seen. I had given up hope and was heading home to sniff vanilla-scented candles when I spotted her inside the corner store, talking to Salty.
“Honey Bun!” I said, bursting through the door. The jingle of the bells startled them both. I rushed over to grab her hand. She was like a warm Fruit Pie on a cold winter’s day. “I’ve missed you.”
“Patty. What are ya doin’ here?” Her caramel eyes flicked to Salty and then back to me.
That’s when the palm of my hand started to burn. I tell ya, it burned straight through to my heart. I looked Scarlett dead in the eyes. “You been holdin’ hands with Salty?”
She pulled away. “Come on, Patty. What are ya talkin’ about?”
I gave Salty a hard look and stepped in front of him. “You been holding hands with my girl?”
Salty held up his hands and took a step back.
I lost it. I snatched the bag of chips from his hand, grabbed a handful and smashed them right into his guilt-ridden eyes.
Seemed like no one was on my side anymore. I thought about going to Twitch but he was so hopped up on sugar and energy drinks that his mother was having him tested for ADD. My world was crumbling like a stale loaf of bread. I was hollow, like a Twinkie with no cream. I needed a filling.
It was just before midnight when I arrived at the bakery. I slunk behind the building and scoped out the parking lot. The last thing I needed was Butts taking me home in a cruiser. My hands were shaking and my head felt weak. I was going to pass out if I didn’t get some sugar in me.
I flung open the door of the truck, only to be blinded by a glaring beam of light. Butts must’ve planned a stakeout! I spun on my heel and took off like a pack of Rockets.
“Patty! Get back here, now!”
I stumbled to a halt. The voice was all too familiar, the way it ordered me around. I turned to face him, fists clenched. “I should’ve known you’d try to snake me, Tommy.”
A grin spread across his shadowed face as he lowered the flashlight. “You ain’t cut out for this kinda life, Patty. I told ya, get out while you still can.”
A rage as thick as chocolate syrup oozed through my veins. I leapt into the truck and rammed him against the metal shelves. The flashlight fell to the floor. He clamped a hand over my face and pushed me back. I went at him again but a flourish of red light swept through the parking lot. We froze. “Run!” Tommy urged.
I hopped out of the truck and sprinted down the alley beside the bakery. Tommy was behind me, his footsteps pounding on the asphalt. A siren ripped through the night air. Tommy and I rounded the corner, crossed the street and weaved into the walkway behind the church. There was a screech of tires, a car door slamming, and another set of footsteps in close pursuit.
We kept running. My lungs were burning and my legs felt like rubber. All those Twinkies had made me soft. I was losing momentum fast. Tommy had gotten ahead of me and was running through the churchyard toward the bell tower. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t breathe.
“Gotcha!” Butts tackled me to the ground. He was panting harder than I was, that doughnut-diving dimwit.
I was too tired to put up a fight. That was it for me. It was over.
Butts grabbed a pair of handcuffs from his belt.
“Let the kid go!” Tommy yelled, appearing from behind the tower.
Butts looked up and snorted. “Well, if it isn’t the big brother. Getting the young ’un to do the dirty work for ya now, Tommy?”
Tommy got closer. “I said, let Patty go. The kid had nothing to do with it.”
I looked at my brother, confused.
Butts pushed himself up off his knee. “Oh, really?” he said with a smirk. “You’re telling me you’re the only guy running this operation?”
Tommy stuck his nose right in Butts’s face. “That’s exactly what I’m telling you.”
Then he lifted his shirt, pulled a pack of Zingers from his pants and threw it to the ground.
Butts twirled the cuffs and chuckled. “Dumping poop in mailboxes is one thing, Tommy. But larceny?” He flashed his eyebrows and grinned. “Let’s just say, the two of you won’t be seeing each other for while.”
I started to protest but Tommy gave me a look that told me to shut my mouth. I trudged behind Butts as he led my brother back down the path toward his squad car.
I stood beside the cruiser while Tommy sat inside. “Didn’t this place ever teach ya anything, kid?” he asked, glancing at the church.
My brother looked at me with graveness in his eyes. “Promise me you’ll be good, Patty. Otherwise you end up like this.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I promise, Tommy.”