I dump the bag next to the other trash bins and start to jog towards the library. It's a cold night and I forgot my jacket inside, so I'm half jogging for warmth and half jogging because it feels good. I haven't ran, really ran, since our last track meet in October...you're supposed to train in the winter and stuff, but I see no need. It isn't like I eat a lot and speed just comes naturally to me.
I curse and slow down. “Yeah?”
Owen and Cheryl catch up to me. Surprisingly, Owen's gang isn't with him...but that makes me more nervous than if they were all there wearing brass knuckles. They could be anywhere.
“We need you to do us a favor,” Cheryl says it with a sneer, looking me up and down disapprovingly.
Why the hell should I do you a favor? What have you ever done for me? “Yeah?”
Owen hands me a small plastic card. I look down at it. What I recognize as my school picture stares up at me, next to a bunch of information about my height and weight and age...22.
“Is this...a fake ID?”
They nod. “We need drinks for the party tonight, but all the liquor stores know who we are and they know that we're not twenty one.” Owen explains.
“So...you made me a fake ID.”
They nod again.
“I'm not going to buy alcohol for you.” I hand the card back, glad that for once, I can say what I mean. “I'm doing something.”
“But you could pass as someone older!” Owen catches my shoulder as I start to turn away. “And it'll only take ten minutes, come on, dude.”
I shake my head. “Sorry.”
He glances at Cheryl and she steps forward with a stupid looking pout. “Please, Dash? We won't tell anyone...we won't even tell them you were at that fight on Wednesday...”
Oh, so that's it. Blackmail. I mentally punch myself for ever going to that fight in the first place.
“Fine.” I grab the card.
“Great, thanks.” Owen grins his you-can't-be-mad-at-me grin. “Here's some money and the list of what we need.”
I glare at the both of them and stalk away, no longer in the mood for running. I pass the library on my way and I look at it wistfully, wishing, as I often did as a kid, that I could just live there all the time.
The liquor store isn't far from my neighborhood...prime location, some might say, with all our drunks. It's a crummy little store with a blue roof that smells like beer even from the outside. Still, I can't risk calling Owen's bluff...if someone found out I was at the fight, I'd get arrested and the last thing Wood needs is to spend extra cash on bail. Besides, they might connect me with the animal that went missing and then it would be curtains for Tanya too. Buying booze, even with a fake ID, is safer.
My heart is beating unnaturally fast as I gather the different drinks from the list. The cashier, a fat ugly man who looks like he hasn't shaved in weeks, keeps eying me suspiciously and though I'm trying my best to appear casual, it's hard to do while every nerve in my body is buzzing.
Finally, I have everything and I walk up to the counter.
I shrug and pull it out of my back pocket, willing my hands not to shake as I hand it to him.
He studies me, then the card, then me, then the card again.
“Okay, that'll be sixty five even.” He hands it back to me and rings up the price.
I pay him and smile as I take the bag. “Thank you.”
He nods and grunts something.
As I push open the door, it's all I can do not to faint in relief. I walk quickly back towards where I left Owen and Cheryl – I'd run, but I'd be afraid of breaking the bottles. Finally, I catch sight of them making out in a corner. I clear my throat.
Owen stands up quickly. “Thanks, Dash. See? That wasn't so hard.”
“Yeah, you could do it again sometime.” Cheryl peers in the bag, making sure everything is there.
I was afraid they'd try to do something like this...trap me with blackmail and force me to do their dirty work for them. I'm all prepared to make a long speech about not being a doormat anymore, but Owen shakes his head.
“You don't need to do it again, Dash, not if you don't want to.”
That's Owen's trick. He makes himself likeable and you find yourself wanting to do things for him and soon enough, you can't think for yourself and you follow him around with a bunch of other goons, laughing at his jokes.
It almost works on me.
But I manage to smile and wave as I walk away, snapping the ID in half in my pocket. I sort of regret it as soon as I do – now I won’t be able to sneak into a bar with Wood – but I shake my head and tell myself not to be stupid.
Besides, I think, jogging towards the library again. That was a terrible picture of me.
I don't really find anything at the library. I had almost convinced myself that another look at that mysterious book would explain everything, but it's still just as confusing. I can't make out what's under the scribbles of marker and though I find a picture of the bird Rock and I saw earlier, the top of the page is ripped, obscuring its name.
In fact, there's only one species I can find a name for in the entire book. It's a little yellow thing, almost like a cross between a mouse and a rabbit, with a lightning-shaped tail. The name looks Japanese again, and I forget about it soon, as I've had no contact with that particular creature.
After admitting to myself that I won't find anything useful in the book, I head home, running most of the way. I want to get there before Wood, or at least before he starts doing anything.
I take the stairs two at a time and stop right outside the door. I don't hear any conversation, but I don't hear any...other noises either. Maybe they're not here yet. As a precaution, I knock.
The reply is immediate, so I probably didn't interrupt anything. I turn the knob and step inside, carefully closing the door behind me.
They're sitting on the couch, still in their jackets – they must have gotten here moments before I did. She has a blanket over her legs and Wood has an arm around her shoulders, trying to warm her up. She's nice looking...kind of a pointy nose, but a nice face.
“Dan, this is Amelia. Amelia, this is my nephew, Dan.”
Her teeth are chattering, but she smiles at me. I smile back, liking her already.
“Nice to meet you,” I wave and start towards my room, but not before lifting an eyebrow and winking at Wood.
He rolls his eyes and makes a face.
I open my door and have to stick out my leg to keep Tanya from running out into the hall. “Hey, hey, hey, not yet. We have company today.” I nudge her away with my foot and close the door. “Later.”
She whines softly and gives me the most pathetic look I've ever seen.
“Tanya...” I bend down and risk touching her head. “Later, I promise.”
She sighs and nips at my hand. She gets me too, which seems to make her feel better.
I make a face at her as I open my closet and get my guitar. It used to be Wood's a long time ago and since he had never actually learned how to play it, he gave it to me when I was eleven. I taught myself how to play and I can never resist a chance to show off around strangers. I tighten the tuning pegs and take the pick from the strings, hoping Amelia will be able to hear me.
When it's properly tuned, I start to play. It's one of the first songs I ever learned to play on guitar, one of my dad's favorite songs. In fact, thinking back on it now, I think this was the song we all danced to in that big room, years ago.
From the living room, I hear Amelia say, “Is that your nephew? He's really good!”
Wood mutters something too quietly for me to make out. Probably complaining about me.
“I know that song...I can't remember the title, but...” Suddenly, she starts to sing.
She has a beautiful voice, and I concentrate on matching her perfectly, getting so caught up in the music that I almost don't notice when she stops.
“I'm sorry...are you okay?”
My hand stops moving and I quiet the strings with my palm, realizing what must have happened. It was my dad's favorite song, after all, and sometimes it even makes me cry. Wood must have gotten upset too...but chicks were supposed to dig vulnerability...maybe it would work to his advantage.
I switch songs and start playing a soft romantic ballad instead. I've only learned it recently and I have to focus on each note to get it right, so I don't hear anything else from the living room.
When I'm done (which is a while later, it's a long ballad), I let the last chord reverberate for a minute before putting the guitar down. I start to stand up – and almost fall over.
Tanya is curled up on my feet, purring softly.
I smile and bend down, scratching her behind the ear.
She growls quietly in her sleep, and I quickly pull my hand away.
She purrs louder.
I open the door to the apartment quietly and look around. Tanya pokes her head through my legs and sniffs the air, then trots in with an air of confidence. I take this to mean they're asleep, or at least not paying attention to the rest of the world.
I reach down to undo the new leash from around her neck and manage to scratch her behind the ear without getting bitten. She gives me a scathing look, though, and I back up a couple of steps.
She was good outside. We didn't walk all the way to the park – it was way too cold for that – but she had fun chasing a few stray snowflakes and melting patches of ice with her paw.
It was fun to watch her, but now I'm freezing and I make myself a cup of hot chocolate. As I take it out of the microwave, almost scalding my fingers, my stomach growls and I remember how hungry I am. I haven't eaten anything all day, except for the movie popcorn and I open the fridge, hoping to find something actually edible.
There's a half-eaten slice of pizza (who knows how old it is), a bag of meatballs...oh! And in one of the drawers, there's a microwave burrito. Jackpot! I pop it in and set the time, sipping my hot chocolate and burning my tongue.
All of a sudden, a door creaks.
I whirl around, heart racing. There's only two doors in this apartment, and that wasn't from my room, so it has to be –
Wood smiles sleepily. “Hey.”
I cast an anxious glance toward where Tanya was, just a second ago, sniffing at the couch. She's gone. The color drains from my face.
Then, I force myself to act normal and smile back at Wood. “Hey. How is it?”
He walks over to the small kitchen window and rests his elbows on the counter, staring at the sky. “Awesome. Better than I ever could have imagined...”
My burrito beeps and I take it out, sliding it onto a plate. “So...I assume she's not cold anymore?”
He shakes his head and lets out a little happy sigh.
He's distracted, so I look around for Tanya. It's so dark, I can barely see anything, but I catch sight of her slinking down the hallway to my room and it's all I can do not to collapse in relief.
“Well...” Wood straightens up. “I'd better get back before she misses me.”
I gather up my plate and my cup. “Me too.”Luckily, he's too in love to realize what I just said.