Keegan O’Rourke sat in his ancient Buick in the Dairy Queen parking lot waiting for Amelia. She was ten minutes late as usual. Ordinarily, her seeming indifference to punctuality would piss him off, but he didn’t mind today. Maybe the secret he’d been keeping from her for a few weeks caused him to revel in a subtle sense of smugness. He knew he was being immature, but at nineteen, he didn’t have much else going on in his life to feel smug about. So far he’d lost twelve pounds on his secret diet. Amelia hadn’t noticed. He had to admit, he hardly noticed a change either. It was technically spring, but the temperature hadn’t ventured out of the 50s yet. With the Buick’s defogger permanently stuck in the off position, he encouraged the windows to cloud up, obscuring him from any onlookers. Keegan pressed Play, held his telescoping baton aloft, and began to conduct Escala, the female electronic string quartet. Their rousing rendition of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir made him dizzy. He was instantly transported from the fat weird kid, as his former school mates had so altruistically dubbed him, to a slim and brilliant maestro. His upper body bobbed in time to the stirring music. His head thrusting from side to side as his excitement rose with the urgent, driving strokes of the strings. Just before the rearview mirror misted over completely, he caught a glimpse of his reflection and lost a bit of his fervor. He was disappointed in his lack of floppy hair. Keegan knew that not all conductors had long locks to bounce and fly as the music lifted their souls, wheeling in ecstatic circles as it ascended heavenward. But he knew it would sure look better, definitely a distraction from his prematurely receding hairline leaving him with that unfortunate widow’s peak inherited from his maternal grandfather. Keegan made a mental note: No more haircuts for a while. Maybe he should start wearing a hat until his hair grew in. But he wasn’t sure if he was a hat-wearing sort of guy. He didn’t even like to wear a hat in the winter time. Not since Keegan’s green hunting cap with earflaps had grabbed off his head and some seniors had played Hot Potato/Monkey-in-the-Middle with it in the school yard. Keegan had the sense to stand silently by knowing they’d tire of taunting and ridiculing him as they often did, rather than making a spectacle of himself like some boys, leaping about trying to retrieve a pilfered article of clothing, or breathlessly crying out for them to stop it and return the snatched property. Keegan knew that foolish tactic just fed the moronic monster. He’d made that mistake in the lower grades but soon learned to almost dissociate himself and just wait. The fun would go out of it for them when they didn’t get the reaction they were hoping for. Besides them being pretty lazy, Keegan knew eventually the bell would ring and they’d disperse, probably tossing his cap up onto a mound of snow or the basketball hoop. Keegan didn’t cry while the boys had cavorted with his hat. He’d had years to master his emotions, years of shoveling down his feelings of inadequacy, disappointment – in himself and the disappointment he felt from his mother. And the massive disappointment his father must have felt in having a ‘less than’ son. So massive was Keegan’s father’s disappointment that he up and left him behind and moved clear across the country to start a new family that would give him the right sort of sons. With experience, Keegan had mastered the ability to keep his blood pressure level, his adrenaline from spiking and boring a hole in his stomach with acids, and emblazoning his cheeks with the crimson stains of shame. To an onlooker back then, Keegan must have seemed like a sophomore casually waiting for a bus, not a sixteen year old who was struggling. Struggling to keep his fears in check and to appear indifferent to the older boys’ shenanigans. Struggling to stifle the urge to get his hands on an assault weapon and pull a Columbine on their asses. There weren’t enough bullets in the world to squelch Keegan’s rage. That’s how he felt when he allowed himself to be dramatic and feel sorry for himself. But that time, Keegan hadn’t gotten his green cap back until that slimy assistant principal, Mr. Pewter Boyd arrived on the scene and told the older boys to return it. And then Mr. Boyd had to ruin Keegan’s life by saying he resembled that Ignatius Reilly character from A Confederacy of Dunces. Most of the boys were unfamiliar with the book but laughed anyway. What a riot that was to have an assistant principal mock and humiliate a student.Keegan knew all too well who John Kennedy Toole’s protagonist was, having read the book the previous summer after overhearing two men whispering on the bus about the homosexual references. The insistent, frenetic strings of the three electric violins and cello that made up Escala had captured him heart and soul the moment he’d first heard them. And now, with a flick of his wrist, Keegan directed them to give it everything they had. He imagined them beyond his fogged windshield to be standing just beyond the headlamps, their long hair blowing in a slight breeze, their long slender legs exposed in their short dresses, keeping rhythm. The almost stern expressions on their faces as they played their hearts out, feeling each note with every fiber -- “It’s official, I’m a genius,” Amelia announced, sounding very pleased with herself, if not a little breathless, as she yanked open the passenger door, totally unaware she had shattered Keegan’s intense fantasy. Keegan’s right index finger shot out to abruptly stop the music and quickly slipped his compressed baton into his pocket. She slid onto the passenger seat and flapped her men’s tuxedo jacket open and shut to fan herself. “Dude, you been heavy breathing in here?” A cock of her chin indicated the opaque windshield. “Shut up,” he mumbled and made a show of exhaling heavily above the dashboard. “The defroster’s not working right.” Amelia crossed her skinny legs and bounced one Doc Marten-booted foot. “You need to get that fixed.” She plumped the crinolined skirt of her faux vintage sock hop dress.“Well, I’ve been waiting here for like an hour.”“You so have not,” Amelia said and laughed.His stomach growled. He had to stop skipping breakfast. It wasn’t helping his waistline shrink and was only giving him cranky headaches. “So, why are you a genius today?” He found it hard to conceal his disinterest.“You know how I told you I hate working at Nooks & Grannies ‘cause it smells like one ginormous moth ball and it’s like worse than some funky old church basement rummage sale with chipped knick-knacks and pilled sweaters?” She dug in her orange Vitello Daino Small Hobo bag. “Gum?” she offered.Keegan shook his head and looked away. He couldn’t bear to look at her hands. He’d given up on remarking about her penchant for walking around for all the world to see with her chewed-to-the-quick nails and chipped polish; sometimes different colors on different fingers reminding him of what Van Gogh’s palette must have looked like in his latter stages of insanity. Amelia shoved a piece of stale chewing gum in her mouth and chomped in silence for a moment until she could soften it enough to talk around it.Keegan removed his glasses that were now misting up with Amelia’s added body heat. He pinched the bridge of his nose and fought the urge to catch a glimpse of himself in the rearview mirror. That new pimple on his temple was really starting to throb but he didn’t want to bring attention to it. He knew the CoverGirl matte full cover finish that he’d shoplifted from RiteAid in tenth grade was not living up to its side of the bargain. Maybe it knew he hadn’t paid for it and therefore refused to work.Amelia’s voice jarred the image of his tenth grade self kneeling in the back of his closet examining his ill-gotten wares by flashlight. “And how my boss freaked when he found out I’d been secretly throwing out some of the crap ‘cause it reeked of old?” she continued and rolled her eyes dramatically. “Do you have a tissue?” she asked and opened the glove compartment.“Hey! You don’t just go around opening people’s glove compartments.”“Why not?” She turned to him. “What have you got stashed there, kiddie porn?” She took out the new Escala CD and glanced at the photo on the plastic jewel case.Keegan stopped wiping the lenses of his glasses with his red mitten and glared at her.“Oh, stop. I was joking.” She tossed the CD back into the glove compartment and resumed her quest for a tissue in her bag. “You listening?”“Of course I’m listening. I’m, like, two inches away from you and your voice is ricocheting off my cranium.”Amelia tsked. “Wow, if you’re gonna be all pissy about it, I’ll just go.” She slammed the glove compartment shut and gripped the door handle.“I’ve got a headache is all,” Keegan said quietly. “I’m not in a very good mood today. And you know it annoys me when you say ginormous. And, frankly, you’re always complaining about your job, but at least you have a job.”Amelia sighed. “Dude, it’s eight-fifty an hour standing around waiting for some nutjob to walk in wanting to buy some vintage something-or-other and watching their faces drop when they’re met with a sea of garbage. Truly. It’s like a landfill or something. I’m surprised seagulls don’t circle overhead. I don’t even get any of those hipsters coming in that I could make fun of.”“Hey, I’d do it. For eight-fifty an hour? Yeah.”“Well, I’ll ask Bruce if he’s got any expansion plans in the works and could use you.”“Why do you have to call him Bruce? His name is John or something.”“I call everybody Bruce. What is up with you?” Amelia shot Keegan a glance, then studied the fraying hem of her skirt. The scotch tape she’d applied to hold it in place had long since dried and was giving up the ghost.“It makes you sound homophobic is all.” “What? That is so gay, Keegan. I can’t believe you said that.” She shook her head to show him her disappointment.“See? My point exactly.”“God, you are acting like such a girl today.” Amelia turned sideways in her seat so she could get a better look at him. “You’re acting like you’re going to break up with me. If you were my boyfriend, which you’re not, and not like I’d know what it was like to have one ‘cause I’m such a rousing plague no guy could tolerate me…”Keegan sighed and cracked the driver’s side window open an inch and sucked in some fresh air. It made him mental the way Amelia had the knack for turning something around to being about her if she thought she’d get some vicleage (victim mileage) out of it. But on the occasions he mentioned she needed a manicure and should lay off the cheap at-home dye-jobs that were ruining her hair, Amelia would get all whiney and cry.“This is where you say something nice,” Amelia prompted softly.“No, this is where I tell you it hurts my feelings when you make anti-gay comments and if you don’t stop it…I don’t think we can be friends anymore.” He forced himself to take his gaze from his mitten and look her in the eyes.Amelia’s jaw hung open, a chunk of chewing gum visible, wedged between a molar and her cheek. After a long moment, she shut her mouth. Keegan took a deep breath. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m not even a real person to you. It’s like I’m an accessory or something. Like your knock-off Prada bag,” he motioned toward the textured pebble-grain calfskin bag in her lap. “That you like to show off but treat like crap since it’s not a real Prada.”Amelia’s face contorted, trying to understand him. “What the hell are you talking about? I treat you like my handbag?”Keegan nodded. “Like you think it’s cool that you hang out with ‘a gay’.” He made air quotes. “Or you think it somehow makes you cool, that you’re so liberal and open-minded as to actually befriend ‘a gay’. So you’ll parade me around in front of other people, but when we’re alone you treat me the way you do that Prada knock-off.”“Damn, Keegan,” Amelia’s voice cracked and she began to cry. She dug in her pockets for a tissue. “That’s some heavy shit, dude.” She blew her nose and dabbed at her eyes.Keegan shrugged.“Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. You make me sound so shallow, so fake. Dude, we’ve been friends since kindergarten. You really don’t want to be my friend anymore?”Keegan shook his head. “Not if you’re going to continue like that.”She blew her nose. “OK, I’m sorry. I won’t do it anymore. I wasn’t aware it bothered you. Damn, Keegan, you know I love you, man.”He nodded.“Friends?”He nodded.Amelia shook her head. “I can’t believe you’re bothered by ginormous.” “It’s not a real word,” Keegan said louder than he’d intended.“OK, OK, Mr. Spelling Bee Champion for all of Bronx County.” “It wasn’t for the whole county. Just the school district,” he mumbled.Amelia sat quietly for several seconds smoothing her skirt and twirling a lock of damaged hair around her fingers. “Anyway, remember Josie, the slut, who was dating that foreign exchange student senior year?”Keegan’s face furrowed as he tried to conjure up this Josie person. He shook his head after a moment. “Nope.”Amelia rolled her eyes and swatted at him, nearly knocking his glasses from his grasp. “You know her. She had the weird walk. Like she had one leg shorter than the other or something. Remember?”Keegan held his glasses up to examine the lenses. He squinted at them and paused. “Nope.”“Oh, my god, you are such a jerk. You said you thought she was kinda cute when we saw her waiting for the bus that time in the rain and you said maybe you’d offer her a ride. Remember?”“Stop jabbing me, will ya? Yes. Now I remember. The incident more than Josie. What about her?”“Well, it turns out there was something wrong with her. Don’t you feel bad now that you didn’t give her a ride in that downpour?”“Now that I recall it, you were the one who said not to offer her a lift; that she had head lice.”Amelia gave an exaggerated sigh. “Stop clouding the issue with your made up remembrances, OK? Anyway Josie’s grandmother’s next door neighbor is a hoarder.”Keegan slipped his glasses back on and wiped at the windshield directly in front of his face with his mitten. The picture of the ½ lb. Flame Thrower GrillBurger dazzled him. It was calling to him. He was pretty sure Amelia could hear it, too. It had been months since he’d had one due to his secret, subtle diet. The melted cheese and bacon were calling to him alright. By name. But he’d skip the milkshake and go for a diet soda instead. But that was such a fat thing to do. His mouth was surprisingly full of saliva and he swallowed audibly. Who was he kidding? Keegan knew he’d surrender once he pulled up to the window and order a Snickers Blizzard. How could you go to DQ and not order a Blizzard? It was downright un-American.“So, you in?” Amelia asked and pulled the gum from her lips in a long swaybacked string and returned in to her mouth.“You bet!” Keegan said enthusiastically.“Really? Wow, I figured you’d be all argumentative and shit.”“Why would I do that?”Amelia shrugged. “You know, going into a stranger’s house full of junk. I know what a germophobe you are.”“Stranger’s house?”“See? You weren’t listening. Damn, Keegan. The hoarder who lives next door to Josie’s grandmother. I’m thinking we go see if she’s got anything for Nooks & Grannies.”“You’re kidding, right?”“No. How awesome is it? We’d be doing her a favor. She’s got a house full of junk and I need some junk.”“A real win-win situation,” Keegan said and shook his head at her. “Look, I’ve got things to do.”“Such as?”“I have to go to my grandmother’s house and make sure there are no squatters. Air it out.” He shrugged. “Run the water so it doesn’t come out rusty if a real estate agent shows the house.”“OK, we can go to your grandmother’s after the hoarder’s.”“I don’t know…” Keegan began but couldn’t think of a good reason other than he didn’t feel like it. His head was starting to throb and the growls from his stomach were growing louder.“I’ll pay you,” Amelia said. “I’ll even treat you to lunch.” She pointed at the DQ drive-up window as she pulled her wallet from the recesses of her bag.Keegan’s willpower collapsed. #Keegan insisted upon stopping at Walgreen’s and made Amelia buy face masks and latex gloves. “Just in case. You never know what kinds of plague-ready germs some of these hoarders have growing under their kitchen sinks. And one dead animal of any kind and I am out of there.” The GrillBurger was more delicious than he had anticipated and the fries had just the right salt-to-ketchup ratio. But the Snickers Blizzard had given him a brain freeze and the queasiness the combination created grew exponentially with his guilt for ruining his diet. Keegan felt waves of nausea during the entire drive to the hoarder’s house. “Isn’t your boss expecting you back at the store?” he asked and suppressed a burp. Amelia shrugged. “He never comes in. Besides, I pulled a wire from the store phone so it doesn’t work. If he calls my cell, he won’t know if I’m there or not.” She smiled. “I told you I’m a wicked genius, not to brag.” “What if he calls your cell phone and asks you something that you can’t answer not being in the store?” “Look, I’m out trying to dig up stock for his damn vintage store. He better be happy with that or I quit.” Keegan shook his head, wondering how Amelia thought the way she did. “Stop! This is it.” Amelia’s left arm clothes-lined Keegan. “See? It looks like a regular house on the outside,” she said in awe. “Just like on TV.”Keegan slowed the car and pulled into the vacant driveway. “You sure?” He leaned down to peer at the house from under his sun visor.Amelia held a crumpled piece of paper up to his face. He shoved her hand away and shut off the ignition. Amelia opened her door and stepped out, her flat-soled boots crunching the gravel.“Wait. What are you going to say? Have you planned this out?”Amelia shrugged. “I’ll think of something.” She flounced to the front door of the tidy exterior of the small mid-century brick house, with a skip in her step past the garden gnome.Keegan sighed and lumbered from the car to where Amelia stood ringing the bell and knocking. “One or the other,” he whispered. “You don’t have to do both.”“What if the bell doesn’t work?” Amelia knocked louder. “Nobody’s home. Let’s go.” Keegan turned to leave.“You gotta give ‘em time. She’s probably climbing over mountains of stuff to find a pathway to the door.”The interior door opened, revealing a short, plump white-haired woman. “Hello,” she said through the screen door. She daintily dabbed at her nose with a cotton handkerchief, then slid it up inside the sleeve of her light blue cardigan.“Hi!” Amelia said in the über perky, loud voice she used with people over 60. It made Keegan cringe. “I’m Amelia Grange. I went to school with your neighbor’s granddaughter Josie.” Amelia used her entire body to indicate either side of the woman’s house being home to Josie’s grandmother.“Whatever you’re selling I’m not interested,” the old woman said rather pleasantly for such a statement, and rested her hands on her midsection.Keegan tugged on Amelia’s tuxedo sleeve.Amelia jerked away from him and kept her gaze on the old woman. “Oh, we’re not selling anything, ma’am. Nice apron,” she said. “My Nana used to wear those big ol’ bib ones. You bake much? No? Yeah, my Nana was a baker. Not by profession, but ‘cause she liked to bake. OK, well, anyway, you know that TV show Hoarders?”Keegan groaned.“Yes,” the woman said and smiled.“Yeah? You watch that? Me, too. Some of those people are real weirdoes, right?” She rolled her eyes and chuckled. “I mean what is wrong with them?” Amelia cupped her right hand at the right side of her mouth and called out, “Get rid of that junk, will ya, pal?”Keegan pressed his lips together and turned his face to the side.The old woman nodded.Amelia lifted the hem of her sock hop dress a few inches on either side and did a little curtsey like a kindergartner. “So,…like my dress?” “Oh, my Lord,” Keegan breathed and took a few steps away.“Why, yes, it’s very cute,” the old woman said. “But the kids aren’t wearing that style nowadays.”“Well, this kid is.” She grinned as she tapped her chest with her thumb. “Listen, I work in a vintage shop called Nooks & Grannies. Ever heard of it? No? Well, I was hoping we could make a deal.”“What kind of a deal?” the old woman narrowed her eyes at Amelia.“Um…you let us come in and take whatever old junk we want.”“Oh, my god,” Keegan cried and crossed the lawn to the car.“Hey, where are you going?” Amelia hissed after him.“Is your friend alright?” the old woman asked.“He’s fussy is all,” Amelia said and made a limp wrist gesture. “So, whaddya say?”“Well, I don’t know. Why would I…”“Oh, c’mon,” Amelia cajoled. “We’ll clear out some of your stuff and you’ve got more room to roam around in.”“I’m not sure…”“Can I at least come in and take a look around? Would that be OK with you?”“Is he going to get the camera?” the old woman asked.“Huh?” Amelia’s gaze followed the woman’s finger pointing toward Keegan as he got back into the car. “Camera?” She chuckled. “Oh, you want us to film it? Sure. We could do that. But first I’d need to see if your place is um, up for the challenge. Know what I mean?” She craned her neck, trying to see beyond the woman into the hallway. “Like that green clock for instance.” Amelia indicated a sunburst wall clock. “What is that, avocado? That was popular back in the ‘60s, right? Does it still work?”“Oh, yes. It works. I wouldn’t have it on the wall if it didn’t,” the woman assured her. “Well, some would,” Amelia said and winked conspiratorially.“Say, you’re not up to any funny business, are you?” The old woman asked. She put her hand on the door knob as though ready to shut it if Amelia confessed that, yes indeed, she was up to some funny business.Amelia gave her a warm smile. “It’d be great if I could just take a peek, you know,” she held out her index finger and thumb just an inch apart. “ ‘Cause my friend, er, my cameraman, is a little sensitive to …um…certain germs which I’m certain you don’t even have since you look like such a nice lady in your grandma bib apron and all. But if you do have ‘em, we’ve got masks and gloves, so don’t worry.”“What kind of masks? Not like those Richard Nixon masks?” She shuddered.“Oh, no, ma’am. Whoever that is. You know, like the one’s your dentist wears to keep your spit from flying into his face. So, if I could maybe just get a quick preview while my, while he gets the camera...that’d be sweet.”The old woman unlocked the screen door. “OK,” she said and pushed the door outward for Amelia to enter. “But no funny business. I’ve got a can of mace,” she said and patted her apron pocket.”“Wow,” Amelia said, slightly taken aback. “OK, that’s cool.” She crossed the threshold and inhaled. “Wow, something smells surprisingly delightful.”“Thank you. I’ve got a maple walnut cake baking in the oven.”“Yum. So, how about this clock?” Amelia paused before the star-shaped avocado clock and plucked one of its metal spokes. “You feeling about ready to part with it?” She looked to the left from the hallway to the neat living room with a couch, two arm chairs, coffee table, and old-fashioned boxy TV and plenty of floor space. She glanced to her right into the spacious, tidy, sunny kitchen. “You’re extraordinarily clutter-free for a hoarder.” “A hoarder? Oh, I’m not a hoarder.” The old woman sounded offended.“Oh, you don’t have to be embarrassed about it. Some people have weird compunctions. Is that the word? Yeah, compunctions that make them do things they normally wouldn’t do. So, you’ve managed to keep the downstairs free of junk but, like, is the upstairs crammed to the rafters?”“You must have me mistaken with someone else, Amelia. I am not a hoarder.” She gestured for Amelia to retrace her steps to the front door as though shooing away a stray cat in her yard. She lowered her voice. “I think the woman across the way may be a hoarder, but I’m not sure.”“Oh?” Amelia whispered. “Really? Thanks.” She paused in the hallway. “Now, about this clock…”“Take it,” the old woman said and reached up to slip the metal clock from its resting place on the wall.“Gee, thanks. Are you sure I can’t have a tiny peek upstairs?” She reprised the hand gesture with her index finger and thumb just an inch apart.Keegan arrived back at the front door to see what was keeping Amelia and was just about to knock.“May I remind you, Amelia, I have a can of mace in my pocket.”“OK, OK, got it. Thanks for the clock.” Amelia pushed open the screen door, causing Keegan to leap backwards. She shot him a look that told him to start the car.Once back in the Buick, and the clock propped on the backseat, Keegan put it in gear and slowly rolled out of the driveway. “That’s the house,” he said and cocked his head to the left, indicating a ramshackle ranch-style house across the street. “Can’t you even read your own writing?” He tossed the crumpled piece of paper she had been holding when they’d set out earlier. Amelia squinted at the smudged writing. “Oh, the six looks like a five. But that should be next door to this one, not across the street.”Keegan stared at his friend. “Amelia. It’s even numbers on one side and odd on the other.”“Really? Since when?”“Since always.”“Wow, that’s kind of anal, isn’t it?”“No, Amelia. It’s not anal, it’s orderly and organized.” He exhaled slowly to calm himself. “Hey, aren’t you going to stop?” she asked, turning and pointing back to the ramshackle ranch.Keegan glowered at her and continued driving. “So, we heading to your grandmother’s house now?”He nodded. “Speaking of…”My Nana?” Keegan asked. “I’ve never heard you refer to your grandmother as Nana.”“I was going for the down home vibe so she’d feel comfortable with me,” Amelia explained.“Yeah. How’d that work out for you? ‘Cause when I got to the front door I heard her threatening you with a can of mace.”Amelia gave his arm a shove. “She wasn’t threatening me.” She chuckled. “Like the clock?” #“Wow, I haven’t been to your grandma’s house in, like, I don’t know how many years.” She gripped Keegan’s knee. “Did that curtain move?” Keegan sighed at her attempt to scare him and opened his car door. “There are no curtains.” “Just kidding.” She stepped out of the car. “Is it haunted?” “It might be,” Keegan said. “Last few times I was here I heard stuff. Maybe you should wait in the car.” “Oh, hell no. I want to hear it, too. What was it, something ghoulish or painfully sad?” She followed him to the front door and stood on her tiptoes, peering over his shoulder as he worked the key into the lock. “Don’t crowd me,” Keegan said and jiggled the doorknob. Amelia strode into the living room. “Crown molding, good. Ooh, I like the stained glass up there.” She indicated the transom above the dining room doorway. “Who’s your realtor? How long’s it been on the market? What’s the listing price? Is that a working fireplace? That’s always a plus,” she rattled off in rapid fire. “Paint this wall a nice neutral sage green and that one a light tan. My Uncle Clement - remember him? –works in that fancy paint store. He’d probably give us a discount. Oh, wait. He’s mad at me. Yeah, forget the discount. But you should definitely stage this with just the bare essentials. I could do it for you, no problem. I know all about real estate. I watch those shows on TV. Wait!” She gasped. “You and I should move in here. It’s all paid for, right? Think of the money we’d save on not paying rent.” Moving in together with Amelia was the last thing on Keegan’s mind. She’d have him batshit crazy in under a month.