✘ 8:30 PM ✘

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8:30 PM—sam's diner, NJ


SOMEONE IS YELLING AT ME. I snap my head up and look at Matteo, who sits across from me at the small, two-person table. Looking out the window at the dark sky, I realize that I must have been zoned-out for quite a while. The half eaten pizza on my plate has a fly sitting on it. I stare at the insect, fascinated.

"My God, what is up with you?" Matteo stares at me like he's never met me before, his thick eyebrows knitting together.

I push my plate closer to him, "you want it?"

Without hesitation he grabs the piece of pizza and starts to choke it down, still watching me strangely. I look around the dingy, old pizzeria, one end full of people, and our end completely empty. Sam, the extremely fat cook, stands in the kitchen with a walkman pressed against his ear, listening to the latest game on replay. Normally, I would go over to talk to him and catch him up on my family. But he seems preoccupied based on the way sweat drips down his forehead.

"You gonna tell me what happened at the store?" the curly-headed boy pries, talking with his mouth full.

I simply shrug my shoulders, convincing myself that there's nothing to tell, other then the fact that I let a thief get away. He puts the crust back down on the plate, along with the three other breaded ends, and wipes the crumbs off his hands. His arms cross on the table and he looks around cautiously, making sure no one is watching, before bringing his face closer to mine.

"Listen," he starts, his booming voice reduced to a whisper, "I saw everything."

My eyes dart over to his, curious as to what he has to say. Matteo is the town busy-body and has a tab of everyone from Hoboken-to-Hackensack. When I first met him he gave me a rundown of everything any government system could possibly know about me and my family. It made me laugh and since then we've been inseparable. But, because of his little talent of finding out every-single-detail, I do tend to, subconsciously, hide things from him.

"Joel Barner," he continues, and I can't help but sit-up in my seat at the sound of the name, "stay away from him, Fia." Without elaborating, he gets out of his chair and goes over to the counter, pulling out his wallet and handing cash to the hostess.

Quickly, I get out of my chair and rush up behind him, "that's all you're going to say?"

The woman behind the counter thanks him and hands him a receipt. He nods and waves good-bye to Sam, who remains focused on his game. I follow him toward the door which he holds open for me, scratching the side of his head, and taking his turn of avoiding eye contact.

A cool breeze hits me and I very quickly regret forgetting my jacket at the store.

"You can't just say something like that, Matteo!" I walk down the street a little ways, the lanky boy right there beside me. I loop my arm in his, "why do you want me to stay away from him?"

He tilts his head back and looks up at the sky, our pace slowing down dramatically. A sort of smile appears on his face, "you can never let anything go, can you?"

"Come on, you know you love it," I start, watching the expression on his face widen then soften. "Please tell me."

With a sudden stop, he grabs my shoulders, looking down into my eyes. His green ones take the most serious tone I've ever seen, and a slight flash of worry hitches like a lump-in-my-throat. He takes a deep breath, still starring at me, his thumbs circling on my shoulders. "I need you to let this go, because if I tell you, I know it's only going to make you go all Fia and end-up landing you in trouble."

I push his arms off of my shoulders and cross mine against my chest, "I'm not going to go all Fia, I swear."

His eyebrow lifts before he turns on his foot and continues walking down the slightly declining street. I lag behind him, my mind buzzing and most definitely going all Fia. Matteo isn't allowed to keep things from me. What bothers me is that he knows he can't keep things from me and therefore has never attempted to—until now.

We walk in silence, passing a few men smoking cigarettes in one of the dark alleys. Matteo slides his hand on my lower back, pushing me so that I'm walking in front of him. I look back over-my-shoulder and notice one of the men is staring at me and I can't help but look up at my friend, a glint of something strange in his eyes.

"Just keep walking," he whispers, the presence of his hand becoming stronger.

He lets his hand fall back down once we're out-of-sight and he wrings both of his wrists, letting out a deep breath.

"I don't need to be protected Teo," I say as quietly as possible, not wanting to make him more stressed than he already seems.

He nods his head a few times, licking his lips before glancing over at me, "I know you don't, but when I'm here I feel the need to make sure you're safe ... so, just let me do it."

Silence gains power over the two of us, my desire to argue with him faded. I find myself looking up at the sky, trying to spot even a single star in our polluted town. I've always wondered what it's like to live in the country— to be able to breathe without choking. I bet country people look at the stars every night.

"Hey, dreamy," Matteo says, getting me to focus again, "hop in." He holds the passenger door of his hunk-a-junk truck open for me. I look up at the sky one more time before sliding in and slamming the door shut.

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