Sweeney’s

Lia and I shuffled past the three faded race car rides and the pay phone out front of Sweeney’s Grocer. I’d never known them to work–the cars or the phone–but I used to always have to sit in the cars and pretend when I was little. Sweeney’s had been around since my grandparents’ time. With vomit colored walls, dim lighting, the floor tiles were worn gray down the middle from the years of cart-pushing and shelving.

It was tiny compared to the super stores up the road. A few years back, the first S had gone out in the big SWEENEY’S sign out front and I’d thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever were seen. It had been fixed, but now the S was way brighter than the other letters.

We were drenched from our hike, July in Virginia was hot enough to turn the asphalt soft. As we entered, twangy country western music drifted over our heads. The frigid air on my sweaty shirt made me shiver as Lia wiped her forehead and looked around wildly. I knew she was up to something, and I was just trying to hold onto the ten bucks I had left in my wallet considering Dad would probably never give me an allowance again once he found out about me staying out all night with you-know-who.

She turned to me with a smile. “Okay, I have a game.”

I wiped my brow. “A game?”

She bit her lip and nodded, then spun off and went for a cart. She brushed her hair back. “It’s called, The Ingredients Scavenger Hunt.”

“The ingredients what? Wait, what?”

She steered it for the produce section, which looked more to me like the wilted leaves section. I guess once you announced you were going out of business, fresh produce was the least of your worries.

The cart squeaked along, its front wheels wobbling every direction but forward. I looked around. “Lia?”

She examined a head of lettuce and frowned. “Huh?”

“What in the world are you talking about?”

She kicked off and rode the bottom rung of the cart, gripping the handle and leaning forward to face me. “Okay, so I’ll give you a list of ingredients, and you have to go find the item in question.”

The item in question. She was the item in question. My friends thought she was weird. My dad thought she was trouble. I thought Crayola should do a study on her eyes.

I took a breath and she knew she had me. She hopped down and planted her palm on her hip, tapped her cheek in thought. “Hmm …”

The country music dragged for a few beats overhead. Lia stomped her foot. “Okay, got it. Are you ready for your clues?”

“Well, I …”

She rolled her eyes. “The ingredients. Try to keep up here.”

A blank stare on my end.

“Are you ready?”

Still blank.

Her hair was frizzy, her face still flushed from the heat outside. She was barefoot, a vision of summer inside the chilly grocery store. “This one is super easy, okay? Your ingredients are … high fructose corn syrup. Salt. Tomatoes, and, well this should give it away, vinegar.”

An old lady inched up behind us. Lia looked back, saw her, then pushed off and rode the cart like a scooter. I only stood in front of the lettuce, thinking about vinegar. The old lady stared me down like it was my job to explain Lia to the world.

Lia called back to me. “Matthew, you only have four minutes.”

“Wait. It’s timed?”

“Better get going, sonny” the old lady said with a crooked smile. “She won’t wait forever.”

I set off down the aisles, scrambling to recall the ingredients, or clues as they were, still trying to make sense of what I was doing. I rounded the corner and drifted past the steaks and chicken and all the unfortunate fish one-eyeing me from the glass display case, then plowed down the next three aisles without much thought.

Pickles, relish, olives, and mayonnaise. Then my feet stopped. Because duh. Ketchup.

I snagged a bottle of Heinz, flipped it over for the ingredients. Pumped my fist and yelled out, “Yes.”

The guy stocking the shelves looked over his shoulder, watching me. Great. Now I was talking to ketchup. Time to go. I took off down the aisle, grinning like a lunatic as I found Lia in the cereal aisle. I slowed my steps, trying not to look so eager about finding ketchup. But when she saw me and her face exploded into joy I couldn’t help cheesing.

“You found it.”

She shouted loud enough to be heard in the parking lot. I nodded sheepishly and she pointed to the cart where she had a flea collar, kitty litter, cat food, and some sort of Flea-Rid shampoo. I set it in place and she smiled. “Okay, that was your warm up round. Are you ready for more?”

I nodded to the stuff in her cart. “Hey what’s all this?”

She swatted my hand back. “The clues are … blueberry puree. Potassium sorbate. Modified corn starch …”

“What? How do you know this stuff?”

She shrugged, bent down to pick something off her foot. “Okay fine, I’ll make it super easy. Cultured nonfat milk.”

My face must have been as blank as my thoughts. Lia sighed. “Matthew, come on, that’s a dead giveaway.”

“Well, uh,” I said turning. “I guess I’ll just head over to the potassium sorbate section.”

She pushed the cart down the aisle. “Good luck.”

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