We stay in the park for another couple of hours. Tanya gets bored with the birds and mice after a while and so we take turns throwing sticks for her (she still doesn’t like to fetch, but she has fun igniting them in midair). Meanwhile, we talk. They catch me up a little bit more on stuff I’ve missed and I tell them about juvie, trying to keep to the happy stuff, but there’s not much of that.
When it starts getting dark-ish, I hug Tanya goodbye and she walks us to the entrance, wagging her tails as we leave.
“She seems pretty happy there.” I comment, taking Melissa’s hand.
They both exchange glances. “She’s a lot happier now that you’re back,” Melissa snuggles into my shoulder. “We all are.”
I try to suppress my self-satisfied grin.
When we get to Melissa’s house, I walk her up to her door. She pecks me on the cheek and opens the door. “Come in for just a minute, okay? I’m gonna go get your present.”
I step over the threshold and stand awkwardly in the doorway for a few minutes. It’s one of those too-clean houses where you almost don’t want to step on the floor in case you get it dirty. Also, I’m not sure if her family knows we’re dating.
She comes back downstairs with a box and a huge I got you something perfect smile. “Okay, so I wanted to get you something nice, but I also wanted to get you something you could actually use, so – ” She breaks off excitedly and hands me the box.
I rip off the wrapping paper slowly, savoring the suspense. Inside is a shoe box and inside the shoe box is a pair of ultra-expensive, brand-new, top-of-the-line sneakers.
I lift one out, speechless.
“Do you like them?” She asks anxiously. “The guy at the store said they were the best running shoes they had – ”
I sweep her into my arms and twirl her around. “I love them! You are the best girlfriend ever!”
She giggles, feet still not touching the ground. “I’m really glad you like them.”
“Me too,” I kiss her on the cheek and put her down. “This puts that little stuffed egg I got you to shame.”
“Of course not, I love that!” She tousles my hair. “Now go on, Rock’s waiting.”
I glance at him, then whisper in her ear. “Did you ever get him anything this nice?”
“No,” She whispers back. “You’re special.” She winks and closes the door.
I walk back to Rock, trying not to swagger.
He’s trying not to look jealous. “What’d she get you?”
I open the box again and show him the running shoes. They’re red and sleek and cool-looking, with a big “B” on the sides and soles that practically look like space-age technology.
“Awesome.” He says it a little flatly, but seems to realize it and smiles.
We start walking towards his house and I feel a little pang of guilt. “Hey…I’m sorry we were so in your face when you found out we were dating. We were jerks.”
He waves a hand. “Nah, you were justified. I was a real asshole and you guys were mad and I totally get that.”
I feel better. “Still, sorry that we kind of rub it in a lot…”
He raises an eyebrow. “Dash, I did the same thing to you. It’s really all right! I’m over it by now anyway.”
“Okay,” I feel much better.
He stops, fishes in his pocket, and pulls out his phone, which is vibrating loudly. “Hello? Oh, hey, Wood.” He glances at me. “Yeah, I’m with him. Why, is he in trouble?”
I stick out my tongue at him.
“You’re gonna lock him in the basement for a month?” He makes a face back. “Good,” A pause. “Yeah, I will. You too. No prob.” He hangs up.
“Am I actually in trouble?” I doubt I am, but still.
“Nah, he was just wondering where you were. He just got home and he wants you back pretty soon.”
“Okay. Want me to walk you the rest of the way, or – ”
He shakes his head. “No, it’s okay. Have fun.”
“You too.” I turn around and start walking the other direction. As soon as he’s out of sight, I take a knee and start taking off my shoes so I can wear the new ones. I slip my foot into the left one and smile. They’re just my size. They’re also super comfy and really lightweight – I could run forever in these things.
I tie the laces and stand up, bouncing on my toes. Then I break into a run, my other shoes bouncing inside the box.
These sneakers are amazing.
I mean, I haven’t done much running lately except indoors against Jared, but I remember how my old shoes felt on pavement. And they’d always slide around on the gym floor, making me lose my lead. The running shoes though, they grip the sidewalk like nobody’s business. I can turn and stop on a dime. Man, I wish I had these against Jared. I definitely would have won.
I reach my apartment in record time, completely out of breath. I don’t know if I’ve ever run that fast before.
I turn, hunched over and breathing hard.
Owen and Cheryl are standing behind me, with the cat in between them. They’re all eyeing me cautiously, as if I might explode, but Owen still has his signature smile.
He sticks out a hand. “No hard feelings?”
I shake my head, trying not to hyperventilate in anger. “No…no…hard feelings.”
He breaks into a grin. “Great. Wanna come to the fight with us? You know, kind of an apology gift from us.”
I stare at him for a minute in disbelief.
Then I straighten up, my breath pretty much back to normal. “That’s okay. We could have our own fight right here.”
I step forward, too fast for either of them to do anything, but Cheryl winces and Owen tries to get into a pathetic fighting stance.
I kick the cat.
Not hard enough to hurt it or anything, I’d never be that mean. I just hook my foot under its stomach and send it flying a couple of feet. It lets out a very…well…a very fake sounding “meow” as it lands and turns to hiss at me before running away.
Cheryl curses and runs after it and Owen glares at me before running after her.
I chuckle a little as I watch them go. I’m probably in a lot of trouble now that Owen’s my enemy…
But at least I showed that stupid cat who’s boss.
You’re crazy, Dash.
But you’re the boss.
I take the stairs two at a time and I’m even more out of breath by the time I get to the apartment. I shift the shoebox under my arm and open the door.
It’s messy again. Wood’s open duffel bag is on the floor and most of his clothes are draped over the back of the couch or just tossed on the cushions. The kitchen is in total chaos and there’s a smell of something cooking, but I’m not sure what. There’s also another suitcase by Wood’s door, which is half closed and has whispering noises emanating from within.
“Hello?” I call.
The door opens and Wood comes out of his room, grinning at me. Before I can say anything, he swoops me into a huge hug and lifts me off my feet, shaking me back and forth like he used to do when I was little. I try to hug him back, but he’s got both my arms pinned down and so I just laugh.
Finally, he puts me down. “How you doing, kiddo?”
Another nickname from when I was little. It’s cute, I just hope it doesn’t keep up forever. “Great! It’s so great to be back here, you have no idea.”
“Actually, I do,” He gestures at the duffel bag. “I haven’t been home in a while either.”
I glance behind him. “I guess we won’t be able to call it the bachelor pad anymore.”
Amelia steps forward and puts an arm around Wood’s waist. “You don’t mind, do you? I’ve been staying here a lot during your trial and stuff and we just thought it might be easier if I stayed here for good…”
I pretend to consider. “Will you still let us eat corn dogs on Christmas?”
She looks at Wood with raised eyebrows. He smiles and kisses her. Then she smiles too and turns back to me. “Of course.”
I rub my chin with fake apprehension. “Well…”
Wood falls to his knees. “Oh pleasepleasepleeeeeease? I promise I’ll be really responsible, I’ll take her for walks and clean up her messes and she’ll be very good…”
Amelia sticks out her lower lip and nods.
I throw up my hand. “Fine! But if you don’t take care of her, she’s going back to the pound!”
“Yes!” Wood jumps to his feet and kisses her again.
I chuckle. It’s kinda nice to watch them, in a way. I’ve never really seen them kiss before today and…it makes me happy to see them happy, if that makes sense. I wonder if that’s how Rock feels sometimes.
Wood finally pulls away. “Hey, new kicks!”
I roll my eyes. “Just say shoes, Wood.”
“Hey, new shoes!”
“Much better,” I twist my foot, admiring them again. “They’re Melissa’s Christmas present.”
Wood lets out a low whistle. “Looks like the tables have turned.”
Oh wow, he doesn’t know we’re dating. “Uh…yeah.” Oh well, he’ll figure it out eventually.
I go to my room and toss the shoebox on my bed. Then I pull my guitar out of the closet and walk back into the living room, flopping down on the couch.
Wood lets out a fake groan. “Not this again!”
“You said you missed it.” I point out, twisting the pegs.
“I was in a momentary state of delusion!” He’s in a good mood.
I strum a chord, making it sound bad on purpose. Then I start playing one of Wood’s least favorite songs as badly as I can. Amelia joins in with the lyrics, off-key and out of time. Wood jams his hands over his ears and drops to his knees, writhing on the floor. After a little bit, Amelia starts making up new words, about how Wood smells bad and how dumb he is. Eventually, despite his act, even he can’t stop himself from laughing.
It’s good to be home.
We have a real party that night, the first party I can remember in that apartment. It’s supposed to be a surprise party for me – which is weird, because I’m the first one there. Still, I wasn’t expecting it, so I guess it qualifies.
Rock and Melissa arrive together, both with huge grins and plates of snacks. Rock, of course, brought the vegetable platter.
“Really?” I raise an eyebrow at him as I take it to the kitchen.
“What? It’s healthy!”
I take off the lid and survey the contents. “Ew, celery. I hate celery.”
Melissa picks up a stalk. “Plus, they’re so little. Like babies.”
Rock rolls his eyes. “Though why I want you guys to be healthy, I don’t know.”
Other people show up, mostly Amelia and Wood’s friends from work (who knew Wood had friends?) and some others who were somehow involved with my trial. Melissa says she almost invited Gina, but figured there’d probably be too much drama involved.
There’s only about fifteen people total, but still, the apartment is packed. I’d like to retreat to my room with Rock and Melissa, but the party is for me and people keep coming up to me and telling me how they were rooting for me all along and how I inspired them and how they hope I can get Tanya back soon. A couple of them even launch into long anecdotes which don’t really apply to me and it’s during one of these that I glance at Amelia desperately.
She smiles and taps her fork against her glass. Everyone quiets down and Wood stands up next to her. “Thanks for coming, everybody. I’m not one for speeches, but…It means a lot to me to have my nephew back – ” There are some murmurs of agreement. “And that all you guys were supporting him. He did a very brave thing and let’s hope his efforts will not go unrewarded.” He lifts his beer bottle. “Dash.”
Everyone raises their glasses too, repeating my name and Melissa kisses me on the cheek.I think I blush, but I’m too happy to care.