Tommy strolled down the street nonchalantly on his 18-inch Huffy bicycle considering the best possible stories to explain his tardiness to his mother when he returned home. His mother bought him a watch two days ago because he so often simply said that he was late because he didn’t know what time it was. He couldn’t use that excuse now, so he was once again forced to rely on his creativity to avoid being grounded. It had been a very long time since he was last grounded in spite of the fact that he was almost always doing things of which his mother would never approve. He was almost always able to come up with some sort of story to get out of the trouble into which he’d gotten himself, but his stories weren’t quite as convincing as he would’ve liked to have thought. The truth of the matter was that his mother just really didn’t enjoy having him around, so as long as he came up with even the most far-fetched excuses, she wouldn’t punish him. For a while she’d sent him to the library rather than punishing him, but it wasn’t long before the librarians decided that Tommy needed a year to think about the value of books, and then he could try to be a patron again. In fact, that had probably been the last time Tommy was grounded.

Today Tommy was actually late because he and his friends decided that they wanted to ride their bikes out to the junkyard about three miles south of town. They spent a grand total of just under four hours rifling through the vehicles, grabbing anything and everything of any value (though most of it was only valuable to twelve and thirteen year-old boys). They probably would’ve been there much longer had the owner not seen one of the boys digging through a car situated rather close to the main office and chased them away. On their way back into town, they stopped at the park to compare their collections of car keys and cigarette lighters. After they finished fighting over the trades they had made, they left half of their hard-earned loot sitting on the ground underneath a park bench to chase after three girls who rode by on their bikes. They followed them for three or four blocks, just enough to give them a good scare, before changing their course to head over to the gas station for refreshments.

The clerk at the gas station was always sure to keep a close eye on these boys, because they came in at least once every day and lingered for ten and fifteen minutes at a time. In the end, one or two boys would come to the register and purchase a can of pop and a candy bar while the other boys left the store. Though he’d never actually seen any of them taking anything, he was sure that they either were trying to, or actually were, shoplifting in mass quantities from the candy aisle. He had made a resolve to one day catch them in the act and call the police to give these boys a good scare, but each time they seemed less suspicious than the time before. Either he was growing more at ease with these boys’ presence or they were becoming quite skilled young burglars.

When the boys first arrived today, the clerk was a bit apprehensive because the store was somewhat busy and he had a hard time keeping an eye on them. The rush died quickly and he as able to devote ample attention to our young criminals-in-training. As usual, the boys walked directly to the coolers in the back when they entered the store. They stood there for an inordinate amount of time. They have to know that I’m watching them; they surely wouldn’t try to fit a can of pop into their pockets… After they had stood and argued for a few minutes, one of the boys reached for a Dr. Pepper, hesitated, then picked it up. They walked around the back of the store to enter the candy aisle, and the clerk was growing evermore watchful. The clerk locked eyes with one of the boys and they held a glance that was just slightly longer than comfortable for both of them. The boy promptly looked down at the floor and then up at the candy rack. He and his friends sauntered up and down the aisle for a time, occasionally picking up a candy bar or pack of gum and then setting it back on the rack. The boys kept looking back up at the clerk and then at each other, and the clerk had become so vigilant that he forgot what he was doing. There were three cars in the lot waiting for the clerk to authorize their gas pumps, but he ignored the beeping and continued watching the boys. He knew that they kept looking at him because they were afraid he knew, so he was bound and determined to catch them this time, not tomorrow, not next week, but today.

The clerk just about jumped out of his skin when the bell on the door jangled to sound the arrival of an irate driver. “What is going on in here?? I’ve been trying to pump gas for that last ten god-damned minutes! Don’t they pay you worthless bastards enough to hit the damn button when a car pulls up??” The guy was fuming, and the clerk tried to watch the boys while calming the man down.

“I’m sorry sir, I’ll get that started right away,” he said, never taking his eyes off the boys, even as he punched the authorization buttons, which would later amaze him. Some days he had a hard enough time hitting the right buttons even if he was looking at the machine, but today he got all three cars authorized without losing sight of the rogues in the back of the store. The irate customer grumbled as he walked back out to pump his gas and the boys were still looking up at the counter in very brief intervals. Tommy finally began to approach the counter as the other boys walked toward the door. The clerk was sure that he saw a bulge in the first boy’s jacket pocket. I’ve got ‘em this time, he thought, a grin forming across his contented face.

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