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Fifth Wheel

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It was a terrible idea, a Tuesday night for Pete’s sake and there was that test coming up and that little boy was missing. Stupid. It was stupid to go, and sitting there awkwardly between two couples, Barb had never felt more ashamed. She wasn’t like these kids—reckless and risk-taking and ready to laugh at anyone’s suffering in order to feel part of something separate, to feel superior. Steve was an idiot, and Nancy desperate to prove she could be cool.

Barb, by contrast, would never be cool. She knew this. She accepted it with grace every morning when she slipped on her heavy glasses and pulled up her somewhat ill-fitting jeans. She had no interest in the cruelty rituals of the socially gifted.

On top of that, Barb had better things to do, and a babysitting job she turned down for this, and The A-Team was on, and then after that Three’s Company, which wasn’t her favorite but it made her laugh, and once again, in case it wasn’t clear before… this was stupid.

But Barb also had a car, so she’d been used: roped into facilitating this sneaky ill-advised mid-week tryst at the expense of her own self respect. She’d become an alibi, rather than a friend.

Well, screw that. She wouldn’t do it again. She’d tried to hang out with these people and thanks, but no thanks. When she cut herself trying to open a beer, that was it. She was done. She washed her bleeding hand and wrapped it, feeling like the world’s biggest loser, knowing they’d probably laughed at her as soon as she’d stepped inside.

“This isn’t you,” she pleaded one last time to Nancy, hoping her friend would see reason. Nancy only made it too clear that this new social plateau wasn’t for her. She told Barb to go home.

The red-haired girl stood for a moment, feeling her own pulse throb in the cut on her thumb, feeling the blood start to seep into the washcloth she’d wrapped around it. She contemplated wallowing in social exile for a while, waiting for Nancy, making sure she was okay. Because what if Steve took things too far, and Nancy was trapped here?

But Nancy had used her and told her to go home twice. Barb had been a fifth wheel all night, and the last thing she wanted to do was overstay her welcome, to seem even more pathetic. So instead of wandering to the kitchen door and back out by the pool, she flipped the bird to the empty staircase where Nancy had just abandoned her, turned to the front door, and left.

Crunching along the driveway, she felt a strange warble in the air—a kind of slow whomp, like a change in air pressure. The previously crisp October air developed a thickness to it, and it seemed suddenly darker than before. A slurpy, dragging sound nearby made her jump (Were there fat dust motes in the air? Did it smell different?), and then just as soon as it had happened, the world shifted back to normal, like a light switch had been flicked. Barb stuffed her hands in her pockets and jogged the remaining distance to her car, spooked.

The engine started fine. She drove home.

At school the next day, she wouldn’t make eye contact with Nancy, who wanted, Barb could see, to apologize. Team Steve was bad news. Things in this town were getting freaky. Barb would study for her math test, watch The Facts of Life, and go to bed early tonight, if it’s all the same to you Ms. Wheeler.

So that’s what she did, and Barbara Holland lived happily ever after.