IN LINE • by T.C. Powell

Steve watched Ron kiss Anni goodbye. He acknowledged Steve with a nod, pulled his white jacket tight, then navigated through the throng swarming Hollywood Boulevard. It was cool in the Southland for a day so near summer, even in the midst of the crowd, though Ron could have helped himself by buttoning his shirt. He had a man’s chest and wanted the world to know it.

Pointless peacocking. Already had the girl, after all.

“Hey, Steve,” Anni said. She flashed a smile as radiant as Farrah’s in her poster. “Guess we should’ve gotten tickets ahead of time?”

Steve grimaced. “I had no idea it would be this popular.” The Star Wars line stretched down the street until it turned into the Chinese Theater complex; Steve had arrived an hour early and still was barely past the towering Ionic columns of the Masonic Temple. Steve continued: “Someone came out ten minutes ago — said we’d make the next show. What do you think? Stay here? Or see what’s playing at the Paramount?”

“No,” she said. “This is fine. This is what we planned on, after all.” She looked down at the black sidewalk, covered in glittering red stars and flattened chewing gum. Steve knew what she felt — today was goodbye, and soon she and Ron would move upstate to Salinas. Five hundred miles gulfing wide between the long-time friends.

“Don’t be that way,” Steve said. “I’ll visit, all the time.”

Anni laughed. “How? You sold your van, boy genius, and anyways gas might be getting cheaper but it’s still out of your price range.”

“Well, I’ve been thinking… maybe I’ll move up there myself. Set up shop around San Jose. That wouldn’t be so far.”

“Right. The business.” Anni didn’t believe much in Steve’s entrepreneurial dreams. She thought him too flighty, too unstable. Not that he could blame her; they’d dropped acid together a few years back, and she’d seen him at his most… far out. And yes, he dropped out of college. And given up his first stable work to seek enlightenment in the mountains of India. All that was true, yet, he was convinced that he was really onto something this time. This time things would work out.

“They really liked us at the convention, Anni — you should’ve seen it. Lots of smart people think we’re onto something.”

The line ambled forward, Anni not saying a word. A Charlie Chaplin look-alike came by, cane in one hand, red roses in the other. He held the flowers out, intimating Steve should buy them for the lady.

Steve dug into his jeans pocket, scrounging for cash, and came up with a lint-covered single. Chaplin dropped his head exaggeratedly, swapped the bill for a solitary rose, then shuffled away.

Steve offered the rose to Anni.

“Oh Steve,” she said. “I’m with Ron.”

“You’re not married.”

“But I might be someday. And when I am, I’ll need someone stable. Ron’s an engineer with a job lined up in defense. I’ll be provided for.”

“He’s too old for you,” Steve said. And he’d also bailed on their business, taking a measly $800 buyout from their other partner. He didn’t want to be “saddled with debt.” Now he was leaving. Taking Anni away. Of all possible virtues, why would Anni pick “stability” over passion, loyalty or courage?

“You’re just jealous,” she said, teasing.

“Damn right, I am.”

Anni pulled away slightly and looked forward to the head of the queue. “We’re getting closer.”

They stood in silence for a long while, periodically moving forward. Finally they entered the main courtyard of the Mann theater, walking across cement blocks cast with foot and handprints from Tinseltown’s past.

“Look,” Steve said, “my feet are as the same size as Jack Nicholson’s.”

“Nicholson. I liked his early stuff, but what’s he done since Cuckoo’s Nest? I think the Manson thing really messed with him. It’s silly, isn’t it, putting someone’s feet in cement, pretending like there’s something that’s going to last forever. Nothing lasts. Especially here.”

“I don’t know. Some things last.” He stared meaningfully at Anni. “You know, if things don’t work out… in Salinas — ”

“Maybe this was a bad idea,” Anni said. “I should get going.”

“No, you can’t — ”

“Why not?”

Steve grinned. “Because I spent my last buck on the rose. I was counting on you to get me in.”

Anni laughed and slugged Steve in the shoulder.

“Seriously though,” he continued, “I just want you to understand that…” That what? That he dreamed of her soft blonde hair every night? “…that I’m here for you. As a friend, to talk, to stand in line — whatever you need. I’m here.”

“I know that, Steve,” she said. “I’ve always known.” Anni tiptoed up and placed a small kiss on Steve’s cheek. “But look, I’m going to take off. I don’t want to make anybody jealous… I’ve got your rose. I’ve got your phone number. I’ll keep them both.”

“You’ll miss the movie,” he said. It’s supposed to be pretty good.”

“That’s okay. You might be right about Nicholson, but I’ve heard this movie’s a bunch of people in robot costumes, so…”

Anni held up a five dollar bill and Steve took it, trying to avoid her eyes.

“Goodbye, Steve. Good luck with your computer things. Just think about what I said about the name, okay? The fruit thing is strange.”

Steve smiled, knowing that a smile was appropriate, then he watched as Anni struggled through the crowd, not looking back.

There was pain in watching her go, but somehow Steve knew it was okay. He knew that, in love as in business as in waiting for a film, there was no hurry — that if you held your place long enough, eventually you would move to the head of the line.

His own line moved another step forward.

T.C. Powell starves full-time and is a freelance writer on the side. He has been published by Flash Fiction Online, New Myths, Big Pulp, and others. Additionally, he has twice been selected as a Writers of the Future Semi-Finalist.

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