By the time Jheric got to the car, it was too late. The blue Toyota Corolla had already backed out of its space. Its window rolled down a notch and Vhong’s hand reached out for the coins. Then the car was on its way out of the supermarket parking lot.
“Hey! That was my customer! You know it was!” Jheric shouted.
“Ha! Early bird and all that, runt!” Vhong said. He jangled the coins in his hand.
“It’s mine! It’s mine!”
Vhong held Jheric back at arm’s length. Jheric flailed but his hands barely even reached Vhong’s shoulder. A small crowd of boys had gathered around them. “Go, Jheric! Give him what for!” They laughed. Vhong pushed Jheric. Jheric fell on his butt.
“Eat more, runt!” Vhong said. “Then maybe, just maybe….” More laughter.
“What’s going on here?” Jhoris burst through the circle. A hush descended. More boys came running towards them.
Vhong backed a step from Jheric. He didn’t take his eyes off Jhoris. He balled and unballed his fists. Then he broke into a grin and laughed.
“Ah, screw it,” he said. He threw down three one-peso coins and shouldered past the spectators. Already he was chasing after the red Honda Civic that had just pulled into the lot. A few boys followed him.
Jhoris pulled Jheric up by the arm. Tears rolled down Jheric’s face, but a few muzzled sobs were all that came from his lips.
“What did I tell you, huh? What did I tell you?” Jhoris twisted Jheric’s ear.
“Ow! Ow! It wasn’t my fault!” Jheric cried.
“Go home to Grandma now!” Jhoris said. He gave one final twist to Jheric’s ear. A few snickers from the boys that remained, but now most of them had gone.
The coins lay on the pavement. No one made a move for them. Jheric picked them up. He slipped them into his pocket. He wiped his snot with the edge of his sleeve.
“Please, bro!” Jheric said. “I need the money for school!”
“Project? Ha! Who’s fooling who? Now go home! Last thing I need is you getting into a fight.”
“But Teacher will make me stand in front of the class again! They’ll all laugh at me. I don’t want that!”
Jhoris chewed on his lip. He scanned the parking lot. “All right,” he said, “you get those two slots there. But only till sunset. Don’t forget it’s your turn to cook tonight.”
“But it’s almost dark!”
“Git!” Jhoris shouted. Jheric scampered away.
Over the next hour, cars came and went, but never to Jheric’s slots. It was too far a walk from the main entrance of the supermarket. Jheric waved at every car that came into the lot. A few paused, then moved on again.
Now and then, Vhong would stroll by, hands in pockets. When he caught Jheric’s eye, he made sure to sneer and snort. Jheric would scowl, then scan for Jhoris, who was not too far away. The two older boys gave each other black stares but kept their distance.
Near dusk, a shiny black Isuzu Trooper drove in. Jheric waved both arms and hopped up and down. “Here! Here!” The Trooper paused momentarily. Then it came up to the side and backed rear first into the slot. Jheric’s slot. He ran up to the driver’s door. The Trooper gave one last roar before the engine shut off.
The door opened and the driver stepped out. He was a big man. Jhoris would barely come up to his shoulder. He wore a red shirt and black slacks. His black shoes reflected the light from the lamp posts. His oily face glistened with a sheen of sweat.
“Watch your car, mister?” Jheric said.
The man regarded him. His thick lips curled and his eyes squinted.
“Don’t touch my truck. Okay?”
He jabbed a finger at Jheric’s nose. “Don’t…touch…my…truck….” Then he strode off into the supermarket.
Vhong, watching from two slots away, laughed loud. “Ha! Ha! Loser! Lo-oooser!” He flashed Jheric an L with his index finger and thumb. His tongue wagged.
Jheric picked up a loose rock. He gripped it in both hands. He glared at Vhong.
Vhong rushed Jheric. “You want a piece of me, runt? Huh? You want some?” He pushed his chest into Jheric’s face.
From the other side came Jhoris. He intercepted Vhong in a tackle. Vhong went down, Jhoris along with him. Vhong grabbed hold of one of Jhoris’ wrists, but Jhoris’ free hand delivered short jabs. Vhong flailed with his other hand, trying to block the punches. The two boys rolled on the ground. They screamed at each other.
The other boys came running. They formed around Jhoris and Vhong. “Fight! fight! fight!” they chanted. Alternately, they cheered one side and then jeered him. Then they did the same with his opponent. Jheric was pushed out of the circle. He tried to get back in, to no avail. Finally, he crouched, trying to take in as much of the fight through the maze of bare legs and slippers.
Just as quickly the fight was over. The circle thinned out just a little bit. Vhong’s and Jhoris’ T-shirts both were ripped. Jhoris was missing a slipper. Vhong’s nose ran blood. On both of them were various cuts and bruises. But Jheric stood over Vhong. Vhong crossed his arms over his face. He was crying.
“Get out of here!” Jheric said. He padded for his slipper. Jhoris ran up to him; he was crying, too.
The group began to disperse. A couple of boys helped Vhong to his feet. One eye was shut, but the other glared at Jhoris through the tears. The two boys held him by the armpits. They cooed soothing words, occasionally breaking into half-hearted jokes. They half-dragged Vhong away from Jhoris and Jheric.
With a twist, Vhong broke free. He reached down, and when he came back up, he hurled a rock at Jhoris. The missile sailed over Jhoris’ head, missing it by a few inches.
The rock struck the windshield of the Isuzu Trooper. There was a dull crack. A spider’s web formed on the glass. The Trooper wailed in alarm. Its headlights and tail lights flashed yellow and white.
From the supermarket, two guards came running. Their blue slacks were invisible in the dark. Their white uniformed torsos bobbed up and down. Their clip-on ties flapped behind them. They had their nightsticks out.
Out came the driver of the Isuzu Trooper too. He burst through the supermarket doors. He gaped in the general direction of the flashing lights. He stood for a moment, immobile. Then he roared and stomped up and down and around, his arms waving in the air. The manager of the supermarket came out.
Jheric looked at Jhoris. Jhoris looked at Vhong. Vhong looked at the approaching guards, then around him. The two boys who had helped him up had already gone. So was everyone else.
Without another word, they melted into the night.