I walk them home. They live pretty close to each other, only a neighborhood apart and only about five blocks from me. It's funny how such a short distance separates the normal part of town from my sketchy neighborhood.
At Melissa's house, I walk her up to the door.
“Is he looking?” I whisper.
She peeks over my shoulder. “No. Wait...wait....now!”
I wrap my arms around her waist and kiss her hard, holding it for a good thirty seconds.
When we finally break apart, she smiles up at me, breathless. “We're so mean.”
I kiss her on the cheek. “He kinda deserves it.”
She giggles and opens her door. “Bye you. See you tomorrow. Your Christmas present isn't quite ready yet, but you'll get it.”
“You've already – ”
“Don't say it!” She darts inside and slams the door.
I grin at the house for a few seconds, then walk down the driveway towards Rock, who's looking a little upset. Good.
“Um...” His neck is red from all the incessant finger-drumming. “When did...you guys...start...I don't know...going out?”
“Just a couple of days ago,” I try to keep the spring out of my step as we head towards his house.
“Oh,” He sounds relieved. “So...not before.”
“We wouldn't have done that to you, Rock,” I look down. “At least she wouldn't have. She didn't like me until, like, yesterday.” I start walking a little slower, worrying. “In fact, I'm not even sure if she likes me or is just using me to get back at you.”
He shakes his head. “She wouldn't do that. She doesn't kiss people she doesn't like.”
We're both silent for a while, staring at the street.
He smiles. “She likes foot rubs.”
I smile back. “Thanks.”
Now I know he's okay with it.
“So, what happened with Gina?” I try to make it sound casual.
He shrugs. “She was more upset than angry. Said she'd need time to think about it.”
“Maybe you could make up with her. Tell her hair is like a waterfall or something.”
He chuckles ruefully. “I don't...really...know anymore. About her. I don't know why. Maybe I should be alone for a while...I deserve it.”
I make sure he's not looking when I nod.
We move on to other topics then, like his math teacher and Wood's new girlfriend.
He shakes his head as I tell him about Amelia. “That's weird. How could anyone that cool go out with Wood?”
I laugh. “Why would anyone go out with Wood? His name alone is weird enough to scare anyone off.”
“Eh, Woodrow's not that weird.”
I punch him on the shoulder. “Says the guy named after a mineral.”
“Actually, rocks and minerals are completely diff – ”
I punch him again.
When we get to his house, I offer to kiss him goodbye too, but he respectfully declines. “See if you can get your hands on that book, though. I wanna take a look at it.”
I promise to try and start for home, slipping dog biscuits into my backpack when I don't think anyone's looking.
As I pass the liquor store, I pause, noticing something for the first time. It looks remarkably like the broken down building in the woods, except for the blue roof. It says “BEERMART” on the front, but the “mart” is in a slightly different font, just like the letters on the other building.
“Huh.” Maybe it doesn't mean anything. After all, I've been inside and there's nothing but alcohol. It could just be coincidence.
I still feel bad about being a jerk to Wood this morning, so I walk to the library instead. Tanya starts to get hot and restless in the backpack and I try to murmur words of reassurance without looking crazy.
There's a different, unfamiliar librarian there today who doesn't even notice when I come in. That should make this a little easier then. I slip to the back bookshelf.
My heart starts to pound a little faster as I take the book off the shelf. I'm not a bad kid by nature. In fact, besides keeping Tanya, I've never really done anything bad willingly. So of course I'm nervous about stealing this book,
I check the spine. No number or cataloging tag of any kind. No ISBN number in the back either. No one will miss it, I'm sure. I tuck it under my vest and put my hands in my pockets to keep it in place. Then I slowly make my way back out the door, looking at the different posters and pretending to be interested in the bulletin boards.
Before I know it, I'm out on the street. I let out a sigh of relief, adjust the book under my vest and start towards home again.
I don't even slow down. “Cheryl.”
She catches up to me, the cat on her heels. “Whatcha got under your shirt?”
“Why should you care?” Tanya's moving around and the guilt is showing on my face, I know it is...
“Just wondering...” She picks up the cat and pouts. “You know, I don't think Owen likes it when you're mean to me.”
You think? That's news to me. “Okay.”
Seeing that talking isn't going to work, she shrugs. “Well, just try to stay out of trouble. That's hard for you, isn't it?”
I roll my eyes.
“Well...” She turns away. “At least Gina got her dog back, right?”
Does she know? She can't know. Oh god, she knows. No she doesn't. But if she does...
Anxiousness and fear burn my face and I run the rest of the way home.
It's early evening and Wood is gone by the time I get home. I practically collapse on my bed, relieved just to make it home. Tanya scratches her way out of the bag and sniffs the book for a few seconds before losing interest and padding over to her food bowl.
I roll onto my back, breathing hard. “We have way too many close calls, you know that, right?”
She flicks an ear and keeps eating.
“Maybe we need a better system.”
She finishes, sits down and starts licking her paw.
She pauses briefly to glare at my backpack.
“Well, if I don't bring you out you in that, it's obvious that you're not a dog. And it's too cold to just bring you out at night.”
She meets my gaze and cocks her head.
I sigh. “I don't know either. Let's just be careful, all right?”
She nods and wags her tails, rubbing her head against my hand.
Suddenly, there's a loud knock on the front door and Tanya darts under the bed. I go to answer it, my heart speeding up again just as it had slowed down.
I open the door to see our landlord standing in the hall and my first paranoid thought is that someone heard Tanya barking and complained. But he doesn't look angry or annoyed. He's pretty friendly most of the time, he just can't stand obnoxious tenants.
“Hey, Dan.” He remembers my name even though I don't remember his. “Just letting everyone know that the heat broke. It'll be fixed by tomorrow, but you might want some extra blankets tonight.”
I nod. “Thanks.”
He walks away with a little wave and I close the door, letting out my breath.
For the rest of the evening, while it's still warm enough to function, I do some of my homework, teach myself a new song on guitar, and make myself a pitiful dinner. But by the time I eat it, I'm shivering so hard, I can barely get the fork to my mouth.
I give up and run to my bed, burying myself in my covers. It helps a little, but my blankets are cold too and I'm still shaking.
Tanya pokes her nose in and then worms her way into my cocoon. As usual, she's radiating heat and she curls up right next to me, purring softly. Soon, it's warm and stuffy and soft and I fall asleep with my arm around her.
I have a dream about being trapped in a fire, with a steel beam pinning me down, and no matter how hard I try, I can't get it off.
I wake up to see Tanya sitting on my chest.
I sigh and rub the top of her head before falling asleep again.
The next week passes...oddly. The time I spend with Rock and Melissa at the park rushes by and the moments spent walking home and worrying about Tanya seem to last forever. My days are half laughter and half paranoia.
Rock seems to think Tanya needs to get stronger and so he takes her into the long grass at the park, fighting the weird birds and purple mice. She's gotten used to him by now, and though she still doesn't like him, she tolerates him. She's gotten bigger too.
When they go off on their own, it leaves Melissa and I alone, which is perfect. I still worry a little that I'm getting love on the rebound, but she argues the opposite view very persuasively. I fall more and more in love with her every day.
Wood and I grow a little distant, but that's mostly because he's never around. Work and Amelia take up almost all of his time and when he is home, he's asleep or I'm too paranoid to come out of my room.
I barely see Owen and Cheryl at all, which worries me. Maybe it's just because I'm with Rock and Melissa so much and they don't like stalking prey in front of its friends. Or maybe they got arrested. But it seems more likely that they're up to something.
“Hey.” Melissa leans in and kisses my cheek, making me jump. “Stop worrying so much. School isn't til tomorrow, you still have one day of freedom.”
I grin and pull her close. “I'm sorry. Can I make it up to you?”
“Mm...” She smiles, lips a breath away from mine. “You can try...”
I kiss her hard, running my fingers through her hair and catching her lip gently with my teeth. “You're so frickin' hot...” I whisper, pulling back an inch.
“You too.” She barely finishes before kissing me again.
We're interrupted by a yap and a furry head pushing Melissa's arm. We smile and break away.
Tanya wags her tails at us and runs back to Rock. She's his alarm – he always sends her ahead to make sure he doesn't catch us. Thoughtful of him.
“We saw a new one today.” He strides towards us, flipping through the book. I generally keep it in the second pocket of my backpack and it's yet another thing I stress out about. “It was another bird, but it looked different... different shaped body. It was a lot meaner too.”
“Is she okay?” Melissa plays with the little tuft of hair on Tanya's head.
“Yeah. We didn't beat the bird, but we came close.” Tanya hasn't fainted since the day we found that little building. Rock's a lot better at knowing animals' limits than I am. “Ah, here it is!” He sits down and squints at the page.
Tanya curls up in my lap, head resting on Melissa's hand, which in turn is resting on my thigh. We smile at each other and glance over at Rock. He's completely absorbed.
We lean closer.
“It's late.” She whispers, tightening her grip on my thigh.
“Not that late.” I slip my hand to the back of her neck.
Our lips barely touch before Rock stands up. “It's late.”
We sigh in unison and get up.
Tanya's tired and easily maneuverable, so for once, it's easy to get her into the backpack. It's starting to snow, but the park is so oddly warm that the snow melts before it hits the ground.
“Any chance we could do this again during the week?” I ask hopefully.
Rock shrugs. “I've got to help out at the shelter, my parents have been yelling at me all week. You guys can go without me, though.”
Melissa shakes her head. “No way. Tanya will feel left out.”
He smiles. He's getting better with the whole situation and can handle jokes like that now. “Thanks.”
“Hey, did you ever talk to Gina?” We start walking towards the street and I want to make sure we're not talking about anything even remotely related to Nonextants.
He shrugs again. “A little bit. I think she understands...or forgives me or is just really nice...but I think she wants to just be friends now.”
“Do you want to be more than friends?” Melissa has a right to be curious. She does want him with Gina though, if only to get him off our backs.
“I guess so. I'm not really sure.”
She sighs. “Well, what was your...relationship like?”
We reach the street and I see Cheryl's cat sitting right on the curb, staring at us as we come out. I look around, but Cheryl isn't around and neither is Owen. The cat is there of its own accord, observing us shrewdly. Almost like...it's spying on us.
I shake my head. Do you ever listen to yourself? You're a whackjob. Stop obsessing over everything.
Still, it was looking at us so interestedly, even as we walked away from it...
Dash. It's a cat. Cats are weird. Get over it.
“Hey.” I interrupt their conversation, which I had tuned out. “I'm gonna go home now, okay? I don't want to get up late for school tomorrow.”
Melissa squeezes my hand. “We're still walking in the same direction for a little bit, remember?”
“Oh. Yeah.” My heart is beating unevenly and my voice sounds funny in my ears. I wonder if I'm sick or just stressed. Maybe both.
They continue their conversation, trying to make me a part of it, but for the most part, leaving me alone. I glance up and down the street, freezing at Tanya's every move and failing miserably at trying to look innocent. I'm fine as long as we're in the park, but the moment we come out, everything looks like it wants to expose me and Tanya.
I look up. We're standing right in front of my building. “Oh. Sorry.”
Rock punches me on the shoulder. “Hey, before you go in, can I borrow the book tonight? I found a magnifying glass and I wanna take a closer look.”
I turn around so he can get it out of the backpack. “Sure, Dexter.” Dexter's his middle name, and what we call him when he's being a nerd.
He fishes it out, tucks it carefully under his shirt and zips up the backpack pocket again. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” It's actually kind of a relief to get rid of at least one incriminating material. Then again, now I have to worry about Rock getting arrested.
Melissa takes my hand in hers and brushes some of my hair back from my forehead. Rock takes his cue and starts walking.
I smile, but it's quick and fake.
“Stop worrying so much,” She wraps my arms around her. “Everything's going to be okay.”
She kisses me. “Promise.”I hope she's right.