Chapter 26

I wake up early the next morning and since I’m not too tired and it’s stopped raining, I decide to go to school. I’m actually really excited about it…after the time I’ve had, even conjugating verbs will be fun. Besides, I can surprise Melissa and Rock.

It’s not that freezing outside, so I walk…mostly so I won’t have to ride on the bus with Owen. Maybe it’ll be easier to avoid him now that he hates me too.

Even though it is above freezing, I’m still shivering by the time I get to school. This hat and these gloves really do nothing against the cold…my ears and fingertips are almost completely numb.

The first couple of periods are pretty okay – my English teacher keeps shooting me dirty looks, but my history teacher smiles and congratulates me. The kids are divided about the same, but I’m amazed at how many people were and are on my side. I get a lot of high-fives and questions about Tanya (which I don’t answer) and admiring looks.

It isn’t until after third period that I see Melissa. Her back is to me, which is perfect… I want to surprise her. I sneak up behind her, slide my arms around her waist and whisper, “Miss me?”

She shrieks and spins around. When she sees that it’s me, her face breaks into a grin and she hugs me so hard, I can barely breathe. “I missed you so much, Dash…”

I rub her back and kiss the top of her head. “I missed you too, Mel.”

She tilts her head back and I kiss her in the most passionate, “graphic” and probably detention-worthy way I know how. She kisses me back just as hard, sighing happily and sliding her hands into my back pockets. Her lips are soft and there’s a small electric shock working its way up and down my spine…we don’t even slow down when the bell rings.

Best kiss of my life.

“So, what did I miss?”

We’re in lunch, sitting inside, but far enough away from everyone else to have some privacy. And this time, it’s me sitting with my arm around Melissa’s waist and it feels good.

“Not much,” Rock opens his lunch. “Um…we learned about exponential functions in math…”

“Besides that, Dexter,” I pretend to steal his pudding cup and laugh when he smacks the side of my head. “I mean exciting stuff! Scandals! Like if that one guy got his hair cut yet.”

“Nothing that exciting,” Melissa crosses her legs and moves closer. “Your track coach was pretty worried, though. He talked to us a couple of times, asking if you got hurt.”

“Aw, that was nice of him.” I make another attempt at Rock’s pudding, getting it this time.

He laughs. “Take it. You deserve it.”

I peel back the top and lick the wrapper. “So anything happen with you and Gina?”

He shakes his head and shrugs. “It’s all right though. I think she’s okay.”

Melissa leans in closer and whispers, “He flirts with all the girls now. But I think most of them heard what happened with me and Gina and they don’t really talk to him.”

I suppress a grin. I’ve seen Rock when he gets flirty and it is nothing short of pathetic. Still, I hope someone will have pity on him eventually…it gets a little sad after a while.

“Did you go to see Tanya?” He asks, handing me his spoon.

“Yeah,” I take it. “She’s…different. Like she went from being a puppy to a dog. More…mature, kind of. But she’s still the same in a lot of ways, so I can still tell it’s her, you know?” They nod. “I was going to go back there later today…you guys want to come? It could be a little return party.”

Melissa hugs me as hard as she can as her answer.

Rock grins. “That sounds great. I might be a little late though. Shelter stuff.”

Melissa lets go of me. “What happened?”

He rolls his eyes. “Someone dropped off a tank of fish. Seriously – twenty five goldfish out of nowhere with no explanation. No note, no nothing.”

“Weird,” I take a bite of pudding. “Are they nice goldfish at least? Could you sell them for like a dollar each or something?”

“No, they’re totally useless and ugly. Occasionally, one will go to the top of the tank and make a little splash, but that’s it. Nothing happens.”

Melissa giggles. “Maybe they’ll get better…? Like, as they get older or something?”

Rock shrugs. “Maybe. Anyway, I gotta help put them into different tanks this afternoon, so…meet you there around three?”

His eyelid twitches ever so slightly and I get it. He’s just giving us an hour to ourselves (plus an hour he won’t have to watch us make out). I glance at Melissa, but she hasn’t noticed. Perfect. This is why he’s my best friend. I wink back. “Sounds good.”

Melissa snuggles up to me and sighs happily. “I’m so glad you’re back.”

I smile and stroke her hair gently. “Me too.”

“Happier than she’s been in weeks,” Rock murmurs, so only I can hear.

After a second, he adds, “I’m glad you’re back too.”

“I think maybe I’ll take one of those fish Rock was talking about. At least to take one off his hands, you know?”

I raise an eyebrow. “Really?”

Melissa puts her hands on her hips. “Hey, I like fish, remember?”

It’s true. Ever since she was little, she’s had a huge aquarium in her room filled with all sorts of brightly colored fish. They’re the only pets her parents aren’t allergic to and I think she likes them better than anything else anyway.

“Yeah, I know…” I lace my fingers with hers. “But he said they were really ugly and I thought you liked pretty ones.”

“It’ll be my pity fish,” She starts running the nail of her index finger over the palm of my hand, sending chills up my arm. “And maybe it’ll get prettier as it gets older or something.”

“You did.” I kiss her cheek.

“You’re sweet.” She squeezes my hand.

We’re walking slowly, even though the park is pretty far away from the school. I think we just want to be able to lean against each other for as long as we can, even if it takes the whole hour Rock’s given us.

“How was Rock while I was gone?” That sounds weird to me, like I was only away on vacation or out of the room for a long time. Still, it’s better than saying “incarcerated” or something.

She shrugs. “About the same. Quiet. Flirty, like I said.”

I put an arm around her shoulders. “And you?”

She looks down. “I was…upset. You…I just got you and losing you so quickly like that…while everyone else talked behind your back…” She lets out a long, shuddery sigh. “It was bad.”

“Shh…” I pull her closer and kiss her forehead. “It’s okay now.”

She stops and hugs me hard, face buried in my chest. “I love you…” She whispers, voice muffled by my vest. “You’ve been so good to me…”

I hug her back. “I love you too, Melissa…”

We walk in silence the rest of the way, arms around each other. I’ve gotten a lot more optimistic since the trial, but a little piece of my paranoid side still remains and I wonder if she’s telling the truth. Maybe she just said she loves me because I said it first. Maybe I was just the first available guy who liked her besides Rock. Maybe she still likes Rock…

Dash, this is Melissa we’re talking about. She’s not the kind who uses people. And anyway, she loved you while you were in prison. She was loyal and she missed you so much…how could you doubt her?

I smile and tighten my grip on her.

When we get to the park, I can see Tanya sitting and waiting for us. She’s out of view of the road, but you can just barely see her if you’re standing at the entrance.

“Have you guys come here before?” I lift up the chain to let Melissa through.

She’s seen Tanya too. “No…at least, not right after school. I don’t know why she’d be waiting for us.”

As soon as we’re past the trees, out of sight, she pads up to us and rubs her head against my leg, purring.

I smile and rub her ears. “You miss me?” She purrs louder. “Yeah, I can tell. You came up to me instead of Melissa.”

Melissa sticks her tongue out at me. “Well, she was with me all the time before.”

Tanya tilts back her head and I kneel down to scratch her chin. “Does she like Rock any better?”

Melissa laughs. “She hates him. Maybe it was just seeing him with me instead of you, but she’s bitten him a couple of times and usually growls if he gets too close.”

Speaking of Rock, I wonder how much of that hour has passed. I’d better make the most of it. “Hey…” I stand up again and pull her close. “You know, Valentine’s Day is coming up…”

She wraps her arms around my neck. “I haven’t even given you your Christmas present yet!”

I rest my hands on her hips. “You’re all I want.”


“Shh,” I kiss her gently, lips barely brushing hers. “Just being alone with you like this is great.”

“Just you and me…” She kisses me again and I can feel her smiling. “I know it’s my destiny…”

I chuckle, recognizing the words from a poem I wrote her. “A heart so true…our courage will pull us through.”

She kisses her way up to my ear and breathes, “You teach me and I’ll teach you…”

I can’t resist anymore. I kiss her hard, sliding my hand up to the back of her neck and running my fingers through her hair. She shivers a little and presses closer, tilting her head to make the kiss even deeper. Her eyes are closed, but I keep mine open, gazing at her and not quite believing someone this beautiful would ever want anything to do with me.

After a little bit, Tanya butts her head against my leg, whimpering and we laugh and break apart. I kneel down again. “You’re right…we came here to see you.”

She rolls her eyes and jerks her head towards the entrance. That’s not what I meant, moron, look.

I look up and see Rock standing awkwardly at the entrance, pretending to be extremely interested in something in the opposite direction.

Melissa sees him too. “We’re done, Rock. Sorry.”

He turns around and grins. “It’s okay,” He jogs over. “Finally got all the fish organized…sorry it didn’t take as long as I thought.”

Melissa punches him gently. “Don’t apologize!”

I wink at him and mouth It’s okay.

Tanya has backed up a couple of steps and is now growling at him softly, the hair on her back standing up and her teeth showing. When he looks at her, the growl gets louder.

I kneel down next to her again. “Hey…it’s okay. Rock’s not a threat. He’s been a really good friend to me and he’s been pretty good to you too…tolerate him? For me?”

She glances at me and stops growling.

“That’s better.”

She blinks warmly and takes a couple of tentative steps towards Rock, letting him touch the top of her head for a second before pulling back again.

“Wow,” He looks from her to me. “That’s…amazing. Especially since she hasn’t seen you in so long…”

I shrug, proud, but trying to hide it. “It’s not me, you know that. It’s her. She’s smart.” Tanya stands a little straighter and purrs.

“Yeah…” He looks at her for a minute then claps his hands suddenly. “You wanna go find some birds?”

She yips happily and runs after him into the long grass.

I lace my fingers with Melissa’s and start to follow them. “You know how I know she’s so smart?”

“Um…” She counts off on her fingers. “Because she can understand every word that comes out of your mouth? Because she won’t run away? Because she can learn commands in an hour?”

“Besides that.”


I kiss her on the cheek. “She likes you best.”
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