Cross Roads

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Chapter Ten: End

Another party, another night of torture.

I am dressed my best this time around, my sister having been home as I was getting ready. Instead of simply throwing on one of the dresses to the back of her closet she had actually made me shower. She had actually made me sit down in front of her mirror as she reminisced in those days of old where she actually thought she could be a make-up artist and cosmetologist all at the tender age of seven. Now at twenty-three she is infinitely better . . . except when I am the one getting my hair and make-up done instead of her American Girl doll. She’d blow-dried my hair into a lengthy afro, straightened it, curled it; repeated the process before settling on a loose half-pony-tail that was only held together by a couple of pins.

Someone obviously did not pay attention to the fact that my hair was so thick it was uncharted territory.

Then she had done my make-up, putting on much more than I had ever considered doing to myself. Not even when I was in middle school and all the other girls my age thought that since we were now teenagers that meant we should look like whores from strip-clubs – or the simply didn’t know a thing about putting on eyeliner. Whatever the case may be, I did not look like my naturally glowering self. Instead I looked presentable, and that was definitely a no-no when hanging out with Alvin.

“There. Now he’ll be an idiot to leave you high and dry for his usual flavors of the day,” my sister had said as she’d moved back to admire her handiwork.

I had thought we were finished and I could go back to snagging the first thing in the back of her closest that I found.

Wrong.

She forced me – read ‘blackmailed me with the promise of truffles’ – into wearing a thin and loose blouse, and then a tight and high-waisted skirt. The color scheme she chose made me look like a walking and talking bruise, and when I told her so she told me to shut up; that I finally looked like a lady.

My response was to look pointedly at my flat chest. “Sure,” I’d agreed.

Anabelle tried to get me into jewelry, but there was only so far she could push before I snapped. Sans jewelry and the fancy pumps she brandished, I went out to Alvin’s car in my dressiest boots – they actually had a heel, okay? – and climbed wordlessly into the passenger seat.

He’d been staring and speechless.

I’d been too busy focusing on pulling the skirt down as far as it would go, finding that a third of my thigh was all it was willing to cover. Two minutes passed before I realized we hadn’t moved, and that’s when I barked for him to quit looking at me and just drive already.

And now here I am, standing by myself and wishing Anabelle got serious acne by the time I went home.

Seriously, she just had to make me feel and look so much more uncomfortable than I would’ve if I’d come in my aged jeans from middle school.

The only plus was that no one was staring at me like I didn’t belong.

The downside to said plus is that all the men – age did not matter, relationship status did not matter – were eying me in a way that had me very self-conscious.

Yes. I agree. Hilarious. Me feeling self-conscious. But in my defense there is only so much ogling that one can take before it gets creepy. And since I’m not used to people staring at me in that way – maybe I should start swinging from that fancy chandelier in the middle of the room, doing my best to belt out that Sia song and thus ruining it for everyone; insanity is my forte – the ogling got old the very same second that it started.

To be perfectly honest I’m not entirely sure why I was getting stared at. The only possibility I could come up with was that the clothes Anabelle forced upon me were not to be worn by the Spencers of the world. Perhaps we were simply created to wear just jeans and boots, not fancy, dressy things.

Yep, that’s the only viable conclusion to be had.

And to make matters a thousand times worse Alvin was nowhere to be seen. A quick glance outside revealed him to be driving away, his unmistakable car revving down the street.

I’d been ditched, again. That. Turd.

“So my brother left you behind again.”

Of course my crappy night would not be complete without a conversation with Adrian. What was I thinking? Things could definitely get much worse than they were just a moment ago. Too late to knock on wood and rectify the jinxing of my own traitorous thoughts.

“I’m so glad you have eyes and a brain to go with it. Well done, Sherlock,” I snap, grabbing a glass of champagne from a passing waiter. I take a sniff, hesitant to break the law – ignore the fact that I have already broken several in the past month – but knowing that I need something to get through the rest of the night.

“Aren’t you a little underage for that?” Adrian teases as he goes and takes it from me.

“Hey!” I cry, trying to get it back. Unfortunately, he is also taller than me, just like every other person in this horrible world, and all he has to do is hold it up by his neck and that’s it. Game over. “Why do you care? You’ve been drinking since you were, what, twelve was it?”

He frowns. “How would you know that?”

“You talk a lot when you’re drunk,” I admit, and it is true. “Couldn’t hold your liquor as a preteen, and you can’t hold it even now.” He got sappy and emotional, and then he shared things that he assumed would be sworn to secrecy. When drunk Adrian became very trusting . . . not that I had ever witnessed any of this instances. Anabelle, even though she thought she was falling for the bastard, liked to vent each time he passed out after a night of partying. I just so happened to be the first available ear. “Whatever,” I say with a wave. “I’m out of here. Tell your brother he sure knows how to keep a girl coming back for more.” I snort and go to the front door, intent on collecting my backpack where my flat boots are so I can start this long walk home.

That is when I see said backpack, sitting on the floor of Alvin’s car, chilling in the dark or, and this is more likely, being stepped on and tossed out the window by whatever girl he was fleeing with.

I want to punch something. Either of the Knightlys will do.

Adrian is the only one stupid enough to stick around me.

“Do you want me to drive you home?” he asks, leaning casually against the wall.

“Uh, no,” I tell him in disgust. I would rather walk home in the rain than accept a ride from him.

He sighs. “C’mon, Spencer. It’s just a ride. It won’t kill you.”

“That is true, but it might kill you. Remember how much I hated you back when you were dating my sister? Well, bring out of smart phone and go to the calculator app. Multiply that by a thousand and you might just be able to comprehend a fraction of how much I hate you now after what you did. So my refusing your offer of a ride isn’t entirely for my own sanity, but mostly because I hate you so much I might kill you. And in the most inhumane way possible. I’ve got enough problems following me around. I don’t need to add homicide to the mix.”

I leave him spluttering in the foyer, pushing past arriving guests and walking the gait of a woman on a mission down the gravel drive.

The hours pass and soon I’m in a neighborhood that I recognize all too well. I find myself hoping Dog-Tags is out and about like usual. Benji, too. I need a pick-me-up from the disaster tonight became. Normally I would call Brandon but I know he’s at work. Anabelle is also likewise engaged, friends from college having gone out to dinner and then on to a completely adult-like sleepover at one of the girls’ apartments. The two of them are my only hope of salvaging what is left of my last night off in four days.

Once again I end up jinxing things.

Alvin’s Spyder comes racing down the road, blinds me with the brights, and then swerves up onto the sidewalk. I am nearly hit in his hasty display of driving. I am effectively cut-off from my current path.

“What do you think you’re doing?” we scream simultaneously, me staring at how close his car is to my foot, and him clambering out of his car.

“You could’ve hit me!” I add.

“You should still be back at my house!” he answers. “We had a deal, unless you’ve forgotten.”

“You keep leaving! What am I supposed to do? Stick around for whenever you decide to grace me with your presence? Newsflash, Alvin, but I am not the waiting type. I went, I was seen by your mother who has yet to develop laser vision contrary to what she seems to think.”

“What?”

“You leave, I leave. It’s as simple as that. Now either you’re going to give me a ride or you’re going to get out of my way. I’m going home.” I cross my arms and stare him down, daring him to challenge me in this moment. When he says and does nothing I make to go around his car, setting myself to the still long walk I have to make.

What happens next is something as unexpected as Adrian saying he was sorry for dumping my sister.

Alvin grabs my wrist as I pass, fingers squeezing tight enough that I know there will be a nice little bruise in the shape of his hand come morning. “Don’t walk away from me when I’m talking to you,” he snarls, pulling me to his chest. He towers over me, intimidating, and I have to force myself not to widen my eyes in surprise.

“Let go of me,” I hiss firmly, instead narrowing my eyes into a glare. “Right. Now.”

“You don’t tell me what to do, Spencer Tierney Goode. I own you. Remember that.”

And that is probably the last thing anyone should ever say to me. Right next to calling me a c—t because one does not get their way – yes, I’m talking about you, obese customer woman who now has a restraining order.

I hit him in response, my fist making satisfying contact with his jaw. I hear the crack my knuckles make against him and I feel proud at the shocked look he now wears. Alvin stumbles back, letting go of my wrist on his way into the side of his car.

“Don’t touch me!” I yell. “The deal’s off, Alvin. Tell your brother. See if I care. I’ll be telling him tomorrow anyways, so it doesn’t matter. I’m done with this. You can find someone else to irritate your mother with. I’m done.” I turn and start to walk around his car once more.

I get a step before something slams into me with the force of a train. The side of my face, up by my cheekbone, takes the brunt of the hit and I stumble back, falling half in someone’s lawn and half on the sidewalk. My vision shoots dark. I see stars. I am too stunned by what has just happened to notice the spreading heat. All I can think is one thing. On repeat.

Alvin just hit me.

Alvin just hit me.

ALVIN just HIT ME!

Scrambling where I have fallen, I try to get up without giving him a show of the polka-dot underwear that I’m sporting underneath the skirt. I don’t get far before I hear the most menacing sound that I have ever heard in my life. It’s worse than Nigel as he screams about what a screw-up I am. It’s worse than my dad reminding me what a screw-up I am. It’s a level above my grandmother predicting how I’ll screw my life up.

It’s the low and snarling growl of quite possibly the biggest dog I have ever been run over in my life.

Benji comes streaking across the grass, lunging at Alvin who is spinning away with a scream that must have sounded eerily close to the one I gave my first time meeting this dog. He doesn’t get far. Benji pounces and Alvin goes down, a drooling, snapping giant with teeth hovering close to his face.

I can’t help it.

I laugh.

“Benji! Down!” I hear Dog-Tags call. I glance back to see him running over, his feet clad only in socks.

The Mastiff obeys after one final growl, backing off and hovering next to me.

Alvin gets up, fuming and dusting off his expensive dress shirt. “What the hell is your problem? Wait till you hear from my lawyer. That dog will be put down. Do you hear me?”

“Shut up, Alvin!” I snap, reaching out and grabbing onto my savior’s collar. There is no way I will allow for Alvin to hurt Benji in anyway.

“I wasn’t talking to you, Spencer,” he growls back, taking one solitary step towards me.

I flinch involuntarily, hand going up to my suddenly aching cheek.

Dog-Tags moves in as Benji shifts and growls. “Get out of here,” he says firmly.

Alvin obviously does not like being told what to do and takes a swing. It never hits. Instead Dog-Tags ducks, does an impressive bit of maneuvering, and then has Alvin on his knees with an arm twisted behind his back. The Knightly prat’s face is turning red and I can tell it hurts. Good. Serves him right for hitting me.

“I won’t say it again,” Dog-Tags hisses lowly, tone chilling and deadly and final. “Get out of here. You never hit a woman. Never. If I see it happen again, I don’t care who you are, I will call the cops. Do you understand?”

Alvin gives a shaky nod.

“Good.” Dog-Tags lets go. “Now get out of here.”

Alvin lunges for the interior of his car.

“Wait!” I cry, thinking back to my backpack which is currently playing silent and completely innocent hostage somewhere inside. “My bag!”

Dog-Tags looks at me for a moment, probably questioning my sanity. I’ve just been attacked by a strange and angry dude, and the first thing out of my mouth, aside from a laugh, is worry over a silly bag. Well, what he doesn’t know is that bag holds my favorite boots of all time. I want them and I need them and I will get them one way or another.

In the end Dog-Tags sighs, pulls Alvin out of the way, and searches around inside. It takes a minute, but he finally emerges victorious, brandishing my backpack with an “Is this it?”.

I nod.

“Okay. Now get out of here. I still want to call the cops.”

Alvin doesn’t need to be reminded. He gets into his car, backs up and squeals away, hopefully never to be seen again.

I follow him down, staring at where his taillights have disappeared around the corner. I don’t blink and I don’t look away. I just want to make sure he doesn’t come back thinking I’ll be alone and he can finish the job – whatever that could mean. The incident has definitely shaken me up, but I won’t tell anyone that. Nope. It would ruin my rough and tough exterior if I did that.

Spooked because of one little fight.

Not going to do any wonders for my street cred.

“Spencer? You okay?”

I finally blink, turn, and find Dog-Tags slowly kneeling down in front of me. He looks concerned and just a tiny bit hesitant. In fact, his very mannerisms remind me of a time I found a poor baby squirrel hopping around by itself in my backyard. I’d been cautious in my approach, staying low to the ground and talking equally as quiet so as not to startle the thing. In the end the squirrel bounced away before I could get too close, but the memory is strikingly close to how Dog-Tags is dealing with me.

“Yeah,” I say, nodding and then wincing when my head hurts.

“Let me see,” he murmurs, deliberately moving his hand to cup my chin, tilting my head to the side so he can take a peek at what just might be the best bruise of my life. “He got you good.”

“Feels like it, too,” I grumble back. “Um . . . thanks for the save.”

“No problem,” he answers, flashing a grin and dimples.

If I hadn’t already been sitting down there is a good chance I might have swooned right then and there.

Yes, I am joking, but dang. This man is adorable.

“You feeling okay to stand up?”

“Definitely. I think I’ve got grass up my skirt anyways,” I blurt without thinking. I make to get up on my own, but then Dog-Tags is there, hands on my forearms and pulling me easily to my feet. I also notice that his help prevented me from flashing what I know now is an obvious wedge-y. “Thanks again.” My backpack is at my feet, being guarded by Benji. I reach down and grab it, checking inside to make sure Alvin hadn’t decided to be a klepto as well as a perv.

Everything was as it should be.

“Well, this has been immensely awkward. I’m going to continue on my merry way, doing a wonderful impersonation of a walk of shame,” I say, hoping to diffuse what I know is going to turn into total embarrassment over needing someone else to save my sorry ass. “Thanks. Again, again.”

I start down the sidewalk, my cheeks flaming up. For a girl who claims to be capable of taking care of herself I did a bang-up job of it just now. Needed a dog and a dude to do it for me. I am not a damsel in distress. I AM quite capable of watching my own back.

Contrary to five minutes ago.

“Hey! Spencer!”

I freeze. Oh no. Please don’t have him say that my skirt is as wedged up my butt-crack as my under-roos. That would literally just kill me.

“Do . . . do you . . . Do you want a ride?” Dog-Tags stammers.

I whirl around so fast that I twist my feet up. For the second time that night I fall into someone’s lawn. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I don’t wear anything with a heel that exceeds the thickness of my pinky finger.

“Wow. What a klutz,” I mumble.

A hand appears in my vision and I resign myself to accepting the help. My ego has already taken a bombing. There is nothing left so why bother with petty pride? I’ll just end up making myself even more stupid than I already do.

“Thanks.”

“Once again, no problem,” Dog-Tags says easily. “So . . . ride?”

I sigh and shake my head. “Thanks, Dog-Ta—”

“Noah,” he says, cutting me off.

I falter. “What?”

He smiles again and I have to force myself to stay focused on what he is saying. “My name. It’s Noah.” He scratches the back of his neck, a blush creeping up his neck. “I figured, you know, since I overheard your name . . .”

For the first time I realize he hasn’t been calling me Rebel. “Oh,” I finally say, lame and pathetic but also the only thing that I can come up with. “Oh! How much of that argument did you hear?”

Dog-Tags . . . –er, Noah, ducks his head. “A bit. I would’ve come out sooner, but I didn’t want to overstep anything. I figured it was just a simple disagreement. When I realized it wasn’t . . . I couldn’t find my shoes.”

My eyes drop to his feet, toes wriggling in the dewy grass. “I take it you never did find them?” I tease.

“No, I did. But then he hit you so it didn’t seem all that pertinent anymore. Sorry I didn’t show up sooner.”

I shake my head. “No. I’m just glad you showed up at all. He’s never done that before. I . . . I don’t really know what happened, to be honest. But you saved me a lot of trouble, I guess. Alvin’s an ass and because of you I won’t have to put up with him for any longer. I don’t understand how the guy ever managed to pick up girlfriends.”

“You . . . you weren’t dating?”

I can see the confusion. It is something I am used to.

“Nope. We had a deal.”

“Yeah. I heard it mentioned.”

“We had a deal where I would be his plus one to piss off his mother. But now the deal’s off, thank God. I hated every second I had to spend with that spoiled brat.” I take a deep breath and smile, ignoring the pull it makes on my cheek. “Freedom. It smells so sweet.”

Noah doesn’t completely follow me but he nods anyways. “If you want I’ll drive you home. You shouldn’t have to walk.”

“No. It’s late. You don’t want to be out driving now. I’ve already ruined your night enough. Thanks, though,” I say automatically, used to declining offers of help because, more times than not, they always entail something else. It doesn’t matter that I know it’s not the case with Dog-Tags . . . –er, Noah. Gosh, this is going to be so hard remembering his actual name.

“It wouldn’t be a problem. Insomnia, remember?”

I glance down to Benji who is practically passed out in the sidewalk at our feet. His claim, while the first time sounded thoroughly ridiculous, holds no more merit now. I consider him being the one with insomnia – if that is even his reason for always being awake at night. Maybe he’s used to working graveyard shifts or something.

Mmhmm,” I deadpan.

“I was going to head out anyways,” he adds. “My mother wanted me to pick up some things from the grocery store.”

“So you figured you’d go in the middle of the night?”

“Tops is open twenty-four hours,” he returns easily.

I look at him, trying to judge him.

“It’s just a ride, Spencer,” he offers quietly.

“Okay,” I give in. “But if you turn out to be some nasty, perverted psycho, then let me tell you I have a mean right hook,” I explain sternly, resisting the urge to poke him in the chest. If this were Brandon I would have done it a while ago. If this were Brandon I wouldn’t be wary of an offered ride home.

This is Dog-Tags, I reason in my head.

He smiles, nodding his head to the next house where I see a vaguely familiar jeep parked in the driveway. We set off walking. “I know. I saw. Could use a little work, but it was pretty impressive.”

“Could use a little work?” I gasp. “What do you mean?”

“Less of a wind-up next time. You’re small. You want to hit fast and quick, catch them off guard before they can catch you. Go for the nose. Knuckles to cartilage and he won’t be able to see straight for a while.”

“Okay,” I say, actually taking his suggestion to heart. He is in the military. They get trained to fight for a living.

We reach his jeep and after Benji bounds into the back – I find that he has removed the back seat and now it’s a slightly more open space for his dog to sprawl out – Noah gives me a leg up, once again saving me from flashing the world my still present wedge-y. After he grabs his boots from inside his house, locks the door, gets in and revs the engine – not as monstrous as mine – he sets off, driving out of the development. He says nothing as he drives, and I don’t care, too busy petting Benji who has decided my shoulder is a good place to put his massive head.

It’s not until he makes a turn that I am unfamiliar with that I ask. “Where we going?”

“Tops. Sorry. I wanted to stop there before I forget,” he explains, sheepish. “Sorry, I should’ve told you. I can drop you off instead if you want.”

“No, it’s okay. I was just wondering. Do what you want. You’re the one giving me a ride.” I go back to petting Benji and we’re silent.

Several minutes later and he is parking at the practically vacant Tops. Aside from his jeep there are four other cars in the lot. I’m guessing that at least two of them are the employees who are stuck here until morning.

“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” Noah says, casting a sideways glance at me. “Unless you wanted to come in? Your choice.”

I think about it. I nod. “Sure. Why not. Better than waiting in the dark.” I unclick my seatbelt and slide out the door, stumbling once more, this time from a loose stone that I conveniently find. I nearly fall, but then Noah is there, catching me with a gentle hand on my elbow. “Thanks.”

“You good?” he asks.

“Yep. Never wearing heels again, though.”

He laughs. “Sounds like a good plan.” He turns to the jeep. “Watch the car, Benji. Don’t let anyone break in.”

The dog gives one quick, short bark – the affirmative – and then lies down in his makeshift bed.

“Let’s go.”

We walk side by side into the grocery store, the place dead and ominously quiet. My heels click against the tile while his boots have a softer thudding. Aside from the occasional squeak of air-conditioning that is the only sound available as we walk up and down the aisles. Noah has a basket in one hand, the other picking up things as we go. I follow along next to him, arms folded in an effort to ward off the sudden chill. Things only get colder when we go down the frozen foods aisle.

And it is as he picks up a carton of eggs and milk that I catch sight of myself in the mirror overhead. The bruise that I knew would be forming is already visible, purple and growing darker. It stretches from my cheek up my eye, a little puffy, but I know it will only get worse. I can’t help it as I reach up and poke at it. I wince, the skin warm beneath my fingers. If this is what a black eye is then I can definitely do without.

More importantly, how am I going to explain this to my parents?

Reality hits me then.

Not only are my parents going to see this and flip, they’re also going to find out that I destroyed a millionaire’s million dollar car. I thought I was screwed before, but right now . . . I think I would prefer going to jail than having to explain to my parents what I did and why.

It’s just going to be a struggle getting in a word here and there after I tell them I am a vandal.

“Spencer?”

I look up to find Noah kneeling down at my eye level. I frown, confused, and then realize I’m sitting down on the side of the coolers, creamer cartons at my back.

“I’m fine,” I say.

He doesn’t believe me. I can see that clear as day – or, as clear as the black eye on my otherwise pale face.

“Sure.” We carry on, him grabbing three cartons of ice cream – two chocolate and one vanilla – a bag of frozen peas, and then we backtrack to get a box of plastic spoons. We go through the self checkout, no one is there so we could have just walked straight through and not paid, but Noah is apparently a model citizen. “So,” he asks when we get back to his jeep, “where to?”

I don’t want to go home. I’m not ready to explain anything to my parents knowing that they will be up on this special Friday night, having friends over for dinner; friends who like to stay past when I feel they are welcome. No, I don’t want to see them and possibly cause a scene in front of their friends which would eventually get out about what an insane screw up Spencer Goode is. No, the longer I can stay out the better.

“Would you mind dropping me off at the park? I can walk home from there.”

He simply nods and drives.

When we arrive at the park I expect to tell him thank you, promise to pay him for gas, and then for him to drive off. What I don’t expect is for him to get out, shift his set forward and call Benji to jump down, too.

“What’re you doing?” I ask through the jeep.

“Keeping you company,” he answers easily, withdrawing one of the grocery bags from his meager pile. “I can tell you don’t want to go home yet.”

We shut our doors and walk silently into the park, Benji running around happily. We find a picnic table and sit, my backpack and his bag between us. As we sit I remember the change of boots I have harbored in my bag, quickly trading my heels for comfort and regretting my choice not to switch sooner.

“Here,” Noah says suddenly.

I blink and there is chocolate ice cream in front of me, a plastic spoon already sticking up from the carton. “What . . . ?”

“You needed a pick me up. What’s better than chocolate?” he jokes, taking a bite of his own before whistling for Benji. The Mastiff bounds over, barks as he sees the vanilla ice cream that is offered to him, lays down and eagerly lays into the carton. “Put this on your eye. It’ll help with the swelling.” He holds out the bag of peas.

I do just that, hissing at the chill. “I take it this has happened to you before?”

He grins. “A couple times. Mostly during Basic.”

I nod, having a guess for what he means. “Do you like being in the military?”

He shrugs. “I never was cut out for a desk job,” is all he says on the matter, returning to his ice cream.

Time passes and we just sit there, eating ice cream and not saying anything. It’s nice, being left alone without actually being alone. There’s no pressure to share when I really don’t want to, but I’m not stuck in my own thoughts, the moment of the hit replaying over and over again. It’s just quiet and calm and easy, sitting here with Noah and Benji.

The calm before the storm that will be my parents when I do finally work up the nerve to go home.

I never thought I’d see the day where I was actually scared to do something.

The sky begins to lighten and I know we’ve been out here all night. Benji is snoring in the grass, our empty ice cream cartons have been thrown out, the bag of peas lie defrosted and mushy by my elbow.

“You ready yet?” Noah finally asks, words nothing more than a whisper.

I sigh, knowing that I should get things over with now before I put too much thought into it and work myself into a nervous wreck . . . Ooh, too late for that. “Nope. Let’s go.”
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