“Are we at the wrong wedding?”
There was no point in denying it any longer. Violet looked way different from what Clara remembered. She didn’t think Violet even remembered her, let alone the rest of her friends at the table. They were in different classes, physically, socially, and economically. She wouldn’t have gone if the baby skin invitation didn’t reek of an open bar.
“Why do you think that?” Max asked. “She looks pretty normal to me.”
“Do you ever remember her being super religious? Or that blonde?”
He shrugged. Hallie made a good point. The wedding venue was out of place. The First Baptist Church of Clearview wasn’t exactly everyone’s dream destination. The hallways stunk of baby powder and mildew, the rotting ceiling beams were decorated with chipping white paint, and the little Jesus hanging above the altar looked solemnly at the sea of guests instead of gazing at the Heavens.
And Violet’s roots were too good.
“Jack was pretty controlling,” Finn said. “He would always talk about wanting a blonde like Cindy Shallcross.”
Clara watched as Violet’s new husband smeared velvet cake over her face. The crowd cheered and laughed. Despite not knowing who this girl was, Clara couldn’t help but be jealous. She glanced over at Max. Her left hand ached.
“I swear it’s not her.” Hallie stood and grabbed her bag. “We should go. I feel guilty.”
“Go where?” Finn asked. “Not like this town is up-and-coming. That rotting gas station on Main is still up.”
“I used to hang out there. It’s not that bad,” Max said. The vodka cranberries lurched in Clara’s stomach. “And if it wasn’t her, how did we get invitations?”
“I don’t know, the same way you miraculously graduated on time?” Hallie sighed. “I just feel guilty, okay? I don’t want to be at someone’s wedding I don’t even know.”
“Fine,” Max groaned. “But if we leave now, we’re going to that gas station.”
“Clara and I wouldn’t go there with a ten-foot pole. Especially not with you.”
Clearview Gas N Go was once the town’s main income stream until its untimely demise. Danny Welch had quite a spill while the manager was on his cigarette break. The front walls were seared, and the front windows were shattered. Inside, the plastic ceiling tiles had melted onto the cashier’s desk and the snacks. The manager had taken the insurance money and buzzed off to the town over. The empty boarded-up building attracted a lot of delinquent kids wanting an out-of-sight spot from their tattletale siblings so they could do big kid stuff.
Max prided himself on being the King of the Clearview Gas N Go because of all the big kid stuff he did. It made Clara sick.
“I don’t know-”
“Come on, Clara! You’ve never even been,” Max insisted.
Clara took a final glance at Violet and stood as well. “Fine.”
Hallie trailed behind as Max and Finn sauntered out the wooden double doors and onto Main Street. “You alright?” She asked.
Clara watched Max and Finn trot carelessly down the street, laughing. “Wasn’t expecting my little schoolgirl crush to make an appearance.”
“I’m sorry. He’s still clearly an idiot, and you don’t want to be with a guy like that.” She paused. “Besides, I never heard of anyone having a good experience with him. He was kinda creepy.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence until Max abruptly stopped and turned around. He grinned, and another pang rang through her chest. He must have done more big kid stuff than she thought. “Just like I remember.”
Hallie stopped beside him. “Dilapidated and gross?”
Black hoses snaked across the parking lot, diving past broken bottles and piles of cigarette butts. Mother Nature had tried to cover the offensive graffiti with a thick layer of green foliage. All the windows were boarded, and a KEEP OUT hung sideways on the door.
Max motioned them forward and continued walking down toward the back of the building. Here the vines had yet to cover up all of the graffiti markings. Next to the measly gray metal door was a spray-painted stick figure man with curly black hair. Atop was a gold crown.
Max nodded proudly as he opened the back door with ease. “I was the King of the Clearview Gas N Go.” He gestured inside.
Finn followed first, with Clara and Hallie trailing hastily behind. Max closed the door behind them. They stood in what appeared to be an old break room. Three plastic chairs surrounded an old table with playing cards strewn across the tile floor. The only light came from the crack between the wooden boards on the windows.
“This is gross.” Clara looked at Max. He stood in a small puddle of what was hopefully water. Mosquitoes buzzed around his feet.
“God, it smells like something died in here.” Hallie stood with her arms around her torso. The air was cold and damp. “Maybe that wedding wasn’t so bad.”
“Oh, come on, you’re fine.” Max again motioned them to follow him out of the break room and into the hallway. The smell of death was stronger. Clara held a hand over her mouth.
“I think we get the point.” Max didn’t acknowledge her and disappeared through another door down the hallway. Finn fell in step with her and Hallie.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “He’s got some macho thing to prove, I guess? We will leave A-S-A-P.” Finn continued ahead and stopped sharply in the door frame. “Max what —” His voice caught.
“What’s the matter?” Clara marched forward and peered over his shoulder.
The girl, or what appeared to have been a girl, leaned backward in a plastic chair. Her head lolled to the side at a painful angle. The pants she wore were chewed up to the knee. A few stringy muscles were left in her arms, and clumps of brown hair were swept with the dirt and cobwebs on the tile floor.
It was the vest she wore that scared Clara the most. The cloth was stained black with dried goo, but the name tag was still pristine on the side of her chest.