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Houdini's Delicatessen on 34th and N was known for fast service, limited tables, and a mean BLT panini. From 12.30 until 1.15 PM on weekdays, however, it was known for something else: being Teenager Central. A block from Thomas Edison High, the place became packed with students eager for a hot sandwich, cool soda, and plenty of chit-chat on their lunch break.
The tinkling bell above the deli door announced John's arrival. Swimming through the crowd to the counter, John ordered the usual ("Club sandwich on pumpernickel loaf"), before dodging past a series of backpacks and a cloud of teenage angst to Table 3.
"Dude, what took you so long?" Paul asked.
"Mr. DeCarlo," John replied, sliding into the cracked plastic seat to Paul's left. "He keeps giving me flak about that GM crop paper he wanted today. I told him I couldn't get it to him because my flash drive self-destructed, but no, he has to keep lecturing me at every turn about the 'importance of responsibility' and doing homework and blah, blah, blah."
"Can't blame him," sniggered Rick. "I mean, if you're going to come up with an excuse for not doing your homework, you might as well make it something less lame or more likely than 'my flash drive self-destructed'. At least 'the dog ate my homework' is possible."
"I don't have a dog," John grumbled. "Besides, my flash drive did sort of go kaput. Okay, so it still works if you slam it into the USB drive real hard at just the right angle, but the point is—"
"But the point is it was a completely see-through excuse."
Unable to come up with an appropriate comeback line, John chose to busy himself with his sandwich.
"Zeke, why do you have that out at lunch?" Paul asked. 'That' was Zeke's Ecology textbook; Zeke blushed and replied, "Because I have a test today."
"A test? Since when do you study for tests? And why are you blushing?"
Zeke's blush deepened at Paul's words. "All right, I heard that Emma Grybowski digs guys who are 'academically minded' and all into the green Save–the-Environment movement."
Rick snorted 7-Up. Zeke glared at him.
"Achoo?" Rick asked innocently.
"Gesundheit." Paul said. "So, you gonna ask her to prom?"
"You've got sauerkraut on your chin."
"You're changing the subject!"
"No, I'm not," said Zeke. "So, John, you ready to pulverize the Titans on Friday?"
"Pulverize, plunder, you name it—their football team is no match for the mighty quarterback John Fitzsimmons!"
"Mighty arrogant quarterback John Fitzsimmons," Rick muttered between bites of grilled cheese and ham.
"What was that, Rick?"
"Must have been the breeze. Seriously, you guys, you need your hearing checked." Rick brushed some cheesy crumbs off his chin. As he reached for the napkins, his eyes fell upon the beat-up wristwatch he always sported.
"@%#*!" Rick leapt up, knocking a half-empty can of 7-Up all over Zeke's Ecology textbook.
"Hey! Watch it!"
"What's the rush, Rick?" Paul asked. "Meeting some secret Juliet?"
"No," Rick replied, patting his coat down in search of his locker key, "just really hoping I have time to study Mr. G's vocab words before he sends me to detention again."
"Tsk, tsk, Rick," John mocked, "you mean you haven't memorized all the definitions of 'gestalt'?"
"Is that even English?"
"You just wait and see."
Rick's goodbye was the finger.
"Actually, I'd better get going as well," Paul said, stuffing the remainder of his BLT into his mouth. "I af oo go oo sfe th deerectoo."
Paul swallowed. "I have to go see the director. I want to see if I can drop Ethics."
"Good luck with that."
"Appreciate the sympathy." Flipping his backpack over his shoulders, Paul stepped into the sea. John licked the last bits of relish off his fingers and glanced over at Zeke.
"Not a chance," Zeke replied, looking miserable. "I still have no date and no idea what any of this Eco-stuff means." John stood up, clapped a hand on Zeke's shoulder, and responded, "I hate to say it, but I'm afraid you're going to be in Houdini's Delicatessen for a very long time then."
"Well, at least I'll have a lifetime supply of sandwiches."
John whistled. "Tempting, but…I've got class." Grabbing his coat, John dived into the mass and out the door.