I wait a couple of minutes until the about-to-cry feeling goes away and I hear Rock slam the door. Then I call to Tanya, who pokes her head out from under my blankets.
“We're going to go to that park again, okay?”
She jumps to the floor and wags her tails.
“And I've got an idea, so I won't have to smuggle you under my coat.” I dig around in a pile of stuff next to my dresser and pull out my green backpack. I used it back in grade school and it's too small and dorky looking now, but it's just the right size for Tanya. “Here. You can ride in this.”
She looks at it doubtfully.
“I promise I won't run or jostle you too much...”
She still doesn't look convinced.
“Here,” I throw a couple of dog biscuits in the bag. “And I'll give you some roast beef when we get home.”
She rolls her eyes at me, as if she knows that there isn't any roast beef in the house, but crawls into the bag anyway.
I pick it up and carefully fit my arms through the straps. After a minute of shifting and wiggling, we both find a comfortable position and I walk slowly down the stairs and out into the streets.
“So why do you like Melissa so much?” I murmur quietly. “Is it because she's a girl and the people who abused you were men, or something like that?”
“Who are you talking to?”
I jump a little and turned around. Owen grins at me, holding Cheryl's hand and one of his gang members lurking about twenty feet away.
Cheryl glares, apparently not over the whole fake ID thing. “What's that?”
I feel a cold nose on my cheek as Tanya pokes her head over my shoulder. I curse at her under my breath. “Just...a stray dog I found. I'm going to go give it back to its owner right now.”
Owen nods. “Kind of a weird looking dog...”
“It's a mutt.” I take a step back.
“Looks kind of familiar...” Cheryl takes a step forward.
“Probably because it's been sniffing around here for the last two weeks.” I push Tanya's head back into the backpack and debate making a run for it. I decide not to, though, because Owen's bodyguard would catch me sooner or later.
“Hey, Dash, can we come with you when you return that?”
Owen says it casually, and I can't be sure if he suspects anything, but my heart is beating crazy loud anyway. “I uh...” I think fast. “Yeah, you can. Gina's house isn't far.”
Gina's dad is the chief of police and has met Owen and Cheryl on several occasions. It wouldn't be good for them to cross his line of vision, let alone visit his house.
Owen's smile doesn't slip a notch. “Well, maybe not then. But there's a fight tonight, 6:30. Gonna be there?”
The word “fight” makes Tanya whimper and I shove my elbow into the bag to quiet her. “I...thought the gym was...”
He shakes his head. “Nah, they got it up and running again. Can you make it?”
“I'll see,” I promise, backing up a few steps. When it's obvious they're not going to follow me, I turn and jog slowly towards Gina's house. I do have to go there and anyway, the park is nearby. Rock must have been looking for her house when he found it.
“Okay, stay in the bag now,” I whisper as I ring the doorbell. “Don't even stick your paw out.”
I ignore an angry swipe across my back as Gina opens the door. She's wearing a pair of pajama pants and a low cut tank top and immediately, I realize what Rock saw in her. Wow.
“Oh...hi, Dash.” She sounds a little confused. I don't blame her, I've never come to her house before.
“Hi, Gina,” I give her a little smile, trying to keep my eyes on her face. “I know this is a little weird, but I figured it would be better to tell you here...”
She shivers in the cold air. “Tell me what?”
“Um...” Suddenly, this is awkward. “It's...about Rock.”
She glances over her shoulder and steps outside, closing the door behind her. “What about him?”
Damn, this is gonna be hard... “Well...he asked you out at the end of school last year, right?”
“Roughly, yeah. Why?”
I almost don't say anything. But she's a nice girl and she deserves the truth. “Well...he's been going out with Melissa since last January.”
“Missy?” She screws up her face, confused, but slowly, realization dawns. “He's been...cheating on me?”
“I don't blame if you if you don't believe me!” I add hurriedly. “He can be a great guy. But Melissa just found out today and I thought you deserved to know too. Talk to him about it...maybe he'll give you a better story than he gave me.” A note of bitterness creeps into my voice before I can stop it.
She stares into the distance above my head. “He went out with both of us...for six months?”
“Like I said, I don't blame you if you don't believe me.”
She shakes her head. “You don't lie. You're a good guy, Dash.”
“Thanks,” I take a step away from the door. “And you're a good girl...I'm sorry.”
She sighs and opens the door again.
I allow myself one last glance at her skimpy shirt, then stride quickly away towards the park. I climb under the barrier and let Tanya out of the backpack as soon as I'm positive no one can see us.
While she rolls in the grass, I lean against one of the trees, enjoying the strangely warm air and thinking about whether to forgive Rock or not. He was a scumbag, true, but he’s also my buddy. It was a stupid thing to do, but he probably regrets it right about now. I resolve to stay angry at him for another week before letting him off the hook.
My thoughts drift elsewhere...where and when I'll be able to do my Christmas shopping, what Gina and Rock did, a poem for Melissa, Wood's girlfriend, how to write my essay that I haven't started...
Tanya pads over to me, carrying a stick in her mouth and wagging her tails.
“Fetch? You play fetch?” I tug the stick out of her mouth. “Cool.” I throw it as hard as I can.
She glares at me and runs off, bringing it back with the same dirty look on her face. She sets it down in front of me and wags her tails again.
I pick it up and throw it more gently this time, so it only lands a couple of yards away.
She glowers at me again and retrieves it, placing it right in my hand with a bark. When I raise my hand to throw it, she flattens her ears and growls. I lower it again and she wags her tails.
“Is this...for me?”
She nods and yips, pushing her head into my hand and letting me scratch her ears.
She draws back and licks her paw modestly. Think nothing of it, peasant.
“...some traits, like extra toes or dwarfism, are just glitches in the genetic code and do not get passed down to offspring. Any questions?”
There aren't any. My Biology class is trying hard to stay awake.
Then, Melissa raises her hand. “What are Nonextants, then?”
My heart skips a beat, but I manage to force myself not to look at her.
“What do you mean?” Mrs. Blaine's voice has a warning tone in it, cautioning Melissa not to press the subject.
Melissa does anyway. “Well, are they mutants that eventually evolved into different species or are they man-made or what?”
The teacher glances at me, but I shrug to indicate that it's not a big deal.
She sighs. “Nonextants were a small group of diverse species, bred especially for battling. They evolve unnaturally quickly, though only to one or two other different forms. Sometimes that evolution can be sparked by sudden changes in environment or, in rare cases, a certain type of mineral. Are there any other questions?”
Melissa persists. “But where did they come from?”
“I'm not sure,” Mrs. Blaine turns around to write the homework on the board. “No one really is.”
“How did – ”
“Melissa, they are practically extinct, may I please move on!”
Melissa and I exchange looks.
Hers says : I tried.
I smile. Thanks.
Eventually, the bell rings and we meet outside the classroom. “You think I raised suspicion?” She asks, hoisting her backpack over one shoulder.
“It's weird how everyone thinks they're almost extinct, even though they're so close.”
I shrug. “It's kind of like drugs, right? You know they exist, but unless you're mixed up with the stoners, you don't know how common they are.”
She thinks a second and nods. “Good analogy.”
We walk to the cafeteria in silence, deciding against sitting outside as it's bitter cold and windy, and take seats at an abandoned table in the corner.
“He has detention again,” Melissa mutters before I can even ask the question. “He's still serving the ones from Friday. You know what he kept getting detention for?”
I shake my head and check my backpack for a lunch I know isn’t there.
“Making out with Gina,” She twists the cap off her bottle angrily. “Apparently, it was 'graphic and completely inappropriate' and he wouldn't stop doing it.” She stares off into the distance. “And he never even hugged me in the hallway...”
I straighten and lean in to put an arm around her shoulders.
She squeezes the bottle suddenly and I jerk back just in time to avoid the water that splashes out of the top onto the floor behind us. We look at each other and laugh, the tension gone.
“Hey, do you wanna meet up later?” I ask. “I could show you the park I told you about.”
“Sure! Sounds fun.”
“Guys, wait, I have – ” Then, there's a thud and I turn to see Rock on his back, rubbing his head where it hit the floor.
“Caution, wet floor.” I turn around again without meeting his gaze.Melissa has the tiniest hint of a smile on her face as she sips from her half-empty water bottle.