Cross Roads

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Chapter Twelve: Epical

Beady eyes stare at me. They are unblinking and unwavering. A little unnerving, too, if I was an honest fellow.

I stare back, refusing to lose in this crucial contest of wills. There is no way that I am going to blink first. None whatsoever. I simply refuse. And while there aren’t many things I am certain of in this world – the economy, the government, the idea of there being any intelligent life in this universe, the necessity of a razor so girls can have smooth-ish underarms – the one thing that I am is my sheer stubbornness. It is one of my few endearing qualities, sitting right up there with my go-to sarcasm that has confused, annoyed, pissed off and stumped many.

Hinges squeak and groan, nearly stealing my attention from the situation at hand. “Spencer,” my sister calls, worried and hesitant as she locks the front door behind me.

I don’t tear my eyes away, choosing to ignore her for something drastically more important. I have to focus on not blinking because my eyes are starting to water and itch. My eyes squint, a knee-jerk reaction that almost results in a blink and my loss, but I am able to catch myself before the fatal action. I force them to open wider, gazing deep into the soul of those beady little eyes that are so very blank, and yet seem to be screaming I’m-gonna-win to my face.

What are you doing?” she asks.

My lip curls back in a silent snarl. “What does it look like?” I snap. Too much attention diverted from the task and I know I will lose, which just can’t happen. I have put too much effort into this and I will not be defeated now.

“It looks like you’re having a staring contest,” she monotones, uninterested and unimpressed. Well, no one said she had to watch. She could start walking for all I care. My entire focus is on winning and right now she is getting too close for comfort, crossing into my peripheral vision and almost getting me to turn my head.

“And Bingo was his name-oh,” I tell her, lifting my hands to block my side-view. Ahh. Crisis averted. Now all I need to do is get those eyes to blink.

“With a dog,” she adds, skeptical and simply not understanding the complexities of life.

There is a pause.

A speck of dirt falls into my eye.

I squint, barely keeping myself from the side of erring.

“Why are you having a staring contest with a dog? And a dog you hate at that.”

“It’s supposed to show who is boss. I plan on winning so me and Mister Fluff won’t have any more problems.” Now that I say it out loud it does sound a little crazy; bordering on insane, which shouldn’t be all that surprising for anyone who knows me. “Now be quiet so I can concentrate.” I wave my hand at her, and that is what ends the test because the nasty and poofy poodle before me decides that my hand is more interesting than staring deep into my soul. The dog jumps at my hand with a high-pitched yip. I am scrambling away with a very dignified and manly scream that has my sister laughing from above. “That is not funny,” I grumble, folding my arms and glaring up at her. “I almost had him.”

“Sure you did, little sis,” she teases, clapping the poodle to her who happily obliges, wanting its head to be scratched.

“You know I hate it when you call me that. It sounds so degrading.” I roll over and get to my feet, brushing off grass and leaves and the occasional twig from my clothes.

“I don’t see how since it’s what you are,” she answers, crossing the lawn and going to the sidewalk, that dumb poodle following along obediently beside her. “Now are you coming or what?”

I mumble under my breath, things that I don’t even understand, sulking behind the happy duo. Honestly, I don’t understand what this poodle’s deal with me is. It’s not like all dogs hate me – Benji sure doesn’t – but this one especially dislikes me. It could be my sparkling personality or my vibrancy for life that clashes so horrendously with the poodle’s need for chewing on and barking at anything that moves aside from Anabelle and its owners.

Whatever.

It’s not like I care, anyways.

“Spencer, you do know you don’t have to walk back there by yourself, right?” my sister calls sometime later, looking over her shoulder. “I’ll make sure Fluffy doesn’t bite you . . . unlike last time.”

“Which reminds me!” I call from my safe distance ten feet behind, “Why did I agree to come with you again? That dog hates me. It wants to use me as a chew toy. I know I didn’t forget considering I still have the scar to prove just how much it hates me.” I glance behind me to my jean-covered butt, thinking of the twin teeth marks I still have on my left cheek. Never again will I bend over in front of that dog. That’s for sure. I don’t need a matching scar on my right butt cheek, too.

“Remember who’s waiting for you at home?” she responds easily, pausing so that I have to catch up to them.

I groan, throwing my head up to glare at the clear blue sky. “Ugh,” I groan. “It’s been almost a week. You’d think that they’d let it go by now. I haven’t brought it up once, so why can’t they just forget like everything else? Here’s a thought, why don’t you tell them you think you might be pregnant. That would get them off my back.”

“Why would I do that? It’s not even close to being true. Mom knows that.”

I stare at her. “So you guys talk about your non-existent sex life?”

She blushes, avoiding eye contact.

“That’s actually a little gross. I don’t like thinking that those two old farts had sex. It’s just unnatural.” I shudder at just the mention of such a thing.

“How do you think we came about?” she asks me with a raised, perfectly thinned eyebrow.

“The stork. Duh. No way was I conceived by conventional means. That’s just disgusting. And neither were you. We were both dropped off by the stork, just like Dumbo. I find it easier to think that way than to acknowledge that Father Time and Mother Angst could possibly have procreated.”

Anabelle stares at me, a look that I am very familiar with from all kinds of people.

“What?”

“You have a way of making an awkward conversation even more awkward. Did you know that?” she tells me.

I nod slowly. “Yes, yes I did know that. Is there a problem?”

She shakes her head and laughs. “They’re just worried about you, you know. You’re hardly ever around anymore, and you’re too smart to never go back to school. They just don’t want you to throw your life away.”

I groan, throwing my head back just in time to catch a bug in my eye. “Ow!” It takes a minute, but eventually I dig it out, crushing the stupid thing beneath my boot. Teach that insect to make a home in my eyeball. “What were we talking about again?” I ask once we are moving again. “Oh yeah! So now you’re on their side? You should be on my side, especially after all the horror I went through for you. And as for me being too smart for school . . . did you not see my report cards? I was just barely average. Not all of us can be the Salamander of our class!”

“The Salamander? What-?”

I wait for her to catch on.

“You mean the Salutatorian?”

I wave my hand. “That’s what I just said. Now pay attention.”

She sighs, taking a left out of the development. “You should really consider being home when they are. They only want to talk, considering the last time they tried you weren’t anywhere near serious.”

“And they weren’t anywhere near understanding.”

“How could they be if you wouldn’t explain to them.”

“I told them all the necessary facts. They just kept yelling at me and calling me stupid—yes, they were calling me stupid, Anabelle. Some of us have never been on our parents’ good sides, unlike you, so I wouldn’t expect you to understand the hardships that people like us must face. But do you really think I would want to stick around after a talk like that? And then they had the audacity to accuse me of asking for money. Never once did the words ‘Can you bail me out?’ come from my mouth.”

“Spencer, you know that would’ve helped if you wanted them to,” she tells me quietly.

I snort. “No, they wouldn’t have. I’m not you, Belle. I’m lucky they let me keep my room in the house. As far as they’re concerned I don’t contribute to the family . . . at least, I don’t contribute anything good. Whatever. Now can we please drop this? I’m getting sick of arguing.”

She feigns a gasp, staring at me in shock. “No way! Spencer Tierney Goode has just admitted to not wanting to argue. The world must be coming to an end!”

I glare over at her. “Ha-ha. Very funny. Have you been hanging out with Brandon a bit too much?”

She blushes and I know exactly what our next topic of discussion will be about.

“How are you two lovebirds doing?” I tease, nudging her shoulder with my own.

She blushes again, looking everywhere but at me. “We’re good.”

“Going out again?”

“Yeah.”

“What is this? Date number five?”

“. . . Six, actually.”

“Since when?”

“Since yesterday. We met up for coffee after he got out of work.”

“And you’re counting that as a date?” Okay, I know that my experience in dating is pretty limited – trying sitting next to each other during lunch, and then splitting your lunches – but going out for coffee doesn’t seem to be a real date.

“The two of you have crazy work schedules. We go out when we can. And he was exhausted. Does he ever get a day off?”

I shake my head. “Not usually. He tries, every once in a while, but someone almost always calls off so he has to come in. Or something breaks and he needs to come in to try and fix it. It sucks being a GM, doesn’t it? I would never want his job. It doesn’t even pay him well.”

“Yeah, I keep telling him to get another job but he won’t.”

“If he tries looking for another job and our supervisor finds out, then he’ll get fired. They’ll find some way to fire him, and he can’t afford for that.” I shove my hands into my pockets, thinking on just how much Brandon’s life sucks. I wonder if my sister even knows just how much. “I try to help out where I can, but our supervisor hates my guts. I used to run day shifts when Brandon managed to get a day off, but now I’m not allowed because of a tiny incident where our toaster blew up and I got slammed up front, by myself. The guy doesn’t let me do anything. I’m surprised he hasn’t demoted me yet, or banned me from closing.”

She gives me a look. “You should quit, too. McDonald’s isn’t worth it.”

I return her look with one of my own. “I’m not there just to ask people if they want French fries with their burger.”

She doesn’t catch on the way I was hoping she would.

“I stick around for your boyfriend, Belle,” I explain, sidestepping a pile of poo that another dog-walker conveniently left behind for those who don’t pay attention, therefore teaching them to always be hyper-aware of their surroundings. “As soon as he’s gone, I’m gone. I’ve only stayed this long because he needs someone to help him out.”

“Aw, that is so sweet,” she gushes, hugging me tightly and squishing my cheek into hers.

I push her off. “No it’s not. I have ulterior motives; ones that I do not trust in confiding to you.” Ignore that I have yet to come up with ulterior motives, but that is beside point. I will keep that nugget of information to my happy self.

Mmm-Hmm,” she says with a grin. “Sure.” I can tell she does not believe me. That is fine. She can think what she wishes as long as she keeps those thoughts to herself. “Whatever you say, Spencer.”

I resist the urge to tell her that I do say so. We walk on in silence, crossing through a neighborhood that I am unfamiliar with. On this fie Wednesday morning there are several kids running through the front yards, playing a not-so intimidating game of Tag. Puh-lease. They’re hardly running. More like toddling. This is nowhere near a real game of Tag, where tackling is allowed and hair-pulling is an acceptable practi—

I laugh, watching as a barely upright maybe-three year old grabs onto what can only be his slightly older sister’s braid, pulling her to an untimely stop and thus making her it.

The parents that are lounging in the shade of a nearby porch do not feel the same as I do, jumping to their feet and screaming. One goes so far as to march down the steps, across the lawn, and smack the little guy on the rear end. To his credit the toddler doesn’t scream or cry – that very weighted diaper giving him a bee-butt could have something to do with the lack of a reaction – and just lets go of his sister’s hair so she can fly into the safety of her dad’s arms.

I snort because, seriously, girls are such babies.

“Remember when we were that little?” Anabelle asks me as we walk by on the opposite side of the street.

I nod. “Definitely. I was the one pulling your hair, though.” I tap my chin. “Maybe that’s why Grandma hates me so much. I tormented her poor, innocent Anabelle.”

My sister shoves me with a glare. “You were a nasty little kid. Always getting into trouble. I remember when you climbed up onto the counter and ate all the Oreos in the cookie jar. No one knew and you left nothing behind. They all blamed me because there was no way a toddler could climb up there on their own.”

Now I am grinning. “Yeah, and then I came into the kitchen right when you are being sent to the corner.”

“And you were holding the last of the Oreos.”

“And from that day forward our parents knew I was going to amount to great things. Illegal things, yes, but great none-the-less.”

She gives me a look.

“What? You have to admit it was pure genius what I did to Adrian’s car.”

“Or pure stupidity,” she says, offhand.

This time I shove her. “Fine. We’ll compromise. I was an epic Geni-Ass.”

“Now that you’ve mentioned it,” she says in a way that gives me the feeling that she was just waiting for me to bring up this topic so she could get an answer, “how did your little chat with him go? Mom said you were going to tell him about blowing up his car, and then you never mentioned it. I’m going to say that he’s not pressing charges since you’re not in jail—”

“Wow,” I deadpan. “It looks like we have an Americanized Sherlock Holmes in our midst. How did you come to that conclusion? And so fast, too? I mean, it’s been almost a week since the incident.”

My sister is not impressed with my sarcasm. The look I receive is one I am very familiar with. I call it the Spencer Look, named after yours truly.

“Continue,” I say with a nod, acting as though we are having just an average conversation and nothing about vandalism or jail or indentured servitude . . .

“As I was saying,” she starts again. “What happened after you spilled the beans?”

I shrug. “Absolutely nothing.”

Anabelle does not believe me. “Nothing?” she repeats.

“Nothing.”

“What do you mean by nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

I nod. “Nothing.”

“Wait, nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing-nothing?”

“Nothing.”

She groans and lifts a hand to her head in pain. “I am so confused.”

I pat her shoulder in sympathy. “That’s okay, Belle. I knew it was only a matter of time before you admitted—”

“What?”

I blink. “What?”

“I asked you what.”

“What?”

“Wait, what?”

“No, I asked you what.”

“You asked me what?”

“Yes.”

She groans again. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

I grin, resembling the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland quite well, even if I am the only one to think so. “Oh yeah. And Adrian didn’t do anything. In fact, the guy claims he already knew it was me the second his car blew up in his face. He said he’s not pressing charges because he counts himself lucky that ruining his car was the only thing I did. He thought I would start rumors about his sexuality or something like that, which I did think about and almost did, but then work got in the way so I had to leave it at the car, so in all actuality he was very lucky or else he would have been as shunned as you thought you’d be after he dumped you.” I look skywards, contemplating the chaos that equates to the thoughts in my head. “I had some pretty good ideas, too. I’ll have to write them down for future reference. Especially if he starts trying to get back together with you.”

She scoffs at the idea. “As if that would ever happen.”

“He did mention that he was sorry for dumping you the way he did. He said he got scared. He also asked me to help win you back, to which I told him things were serious with you and Brandon.” I glance sideways at her, taking in the wide eyes and the blush and wondering what they could all mean on a normal girl. “And they are, right?”

Belle shrugs noncommittally. “I don’t know. I like him.”

“And he likes you. Oh, and you lied to me. Why didn’t you tell me you guys dated for most of high school?”

She is stunned into silence, spluttering out what I guess is to be the question of how I found out.

I tsk my tongue and shake my head. “Anabelle, Anabelle, Anabelle. You seem to forget that Brandon is my best friend. I will find out whatever I want to know from him. I asked him why you guys broke up and his story did not match up to yours. It was a simple process of elimination to figure out who was lying. Now the only question is why?” I wait a moment, building up suspense, and then exclaim, “BOOM! In your face, Sherlock! How’s that for being Doctor Watson?”

My sister does not follow my erratic train of thought. It is no surprise. Few ever have – in fact, now that I think about it, no one ever has.

Hmm.

Interesting realization.

“Spencer, I really don’t want to talk about it.”

“Fine. I’ll just ask your boyfriend.”

Her skin pales and she begins begging me not to when the unthinkable happens.

Mister Fluff, caught in a fleeting moment of doggy instinct, sees a mail-truck pass us by. He growls, lunges, finds his leash to be aged and lunges again, snapping the clasp clear from the rest of it. Mister Fluff races down the street, chasing the mail-truck and barking happily at his freedom. Anabelle and I are stunned for a moment, staring after the disappearing poodle.

“FLUFFY!” my sister screams, tossing the leash aside and breaking out into a run.

I stay rooted to my spot on the sidewalk, trying to determine if I want to spend the remainder of my morning chasing after a dog I hate, or if my interests would be better suited to going back to my car and waiting.

“SPENCER! HELP ME!” my sister growls as she turns the corner.

I sigh. The decision has been made. This is going to either suck, or be the most exercise I get this week.

I sprint after my sister, surprised when I catch up to her easily. I am even more surprised when I run past her, my shorter legs pumping into – I would say over-drive, but I find that I haven’t even begun to feel slightly winded – drive as I go after the stupid dog that I hate and would love nothing more than to watch as it gets hit by a car.

Okay, maybe that was a tad mean, but you get the idea. The dog hates me, bit me on my own bu-tooty. The feeling is mutual, even if I have the maturity not to return the rear end bite – I am simply waiting for the opportunity to pin the dog and sit on it. Perhaps a little crop-dusting would be in order . . . if I ever succeeded in pining that poodle to the ground.

“Fluffy, come back!” I hear Anabelle call from way behind.

Wow, and here I thought my older sister was in shape. Guess I was wrong.

I skid around the corner, cutting through a group of teens who are cutting school. The yell and scream at me, throwing out a few choice words that I know are being used in the wrong context. I want nothing more than to turn around and school them in the proper usage of the words they hear on TV – and I know are repeating because they think they’re so cool – but Mister Fluff is slightly more important.

Only slightly.

If we lose the poodle then I will be giving a sad farewell to the Iced Cap my sister had promised to get me after we were done walking the overly-fluffed abomination of a dog.

That is the only reason why I fling myself into the street, sending two cars into hasty stops – glad to see your brakes work – and slamming their fists onto the horns. I wave graciously, and one driver rolls down his window to call me a dumb blonde.

As if I’ve never heard that before.

“Ooh! Way to be creative!” I can’t help but scream back.

I run down the sidewalk, turn another corner, and come upon a school that I did not know existed. The parking lot is full, class is in session. Likewise the playground to the back is also packed, parents gathered on benches as their children run and scream down slides and across the monkey bars on the swings. And past all that, loping through the soccer field, is Mister Fluff.

“MISTER FLUFF!” I squawk, drawing the attention of everyone who is on the playground. A couple parents are fearful as they see me come closer, calling for their children because my tiny self could be seen as a threat. I roll my eyes and then fling myself at the chain-link fence. I perform an impressive feat – I’m not even sure how I do it – that ends with me flipping over the top and somehow winding up on my feet.

I stand there for a moment, simply basking in my ninja-skills.

“Is that your doggy?” a kid asks from a couple feet away.

I look up and blink, pulling myself into the retrieval mission that has been handed to me. “Nope,” I say. “Thank God.” I start running again, away from the confused child and the equally shocked parents. “Mister Fluff!”

The poodle stops in the center of the field, barking and wagging his tail until he sees me bearing down on him. His entire demeanor changes, bending low to the ground and growling.

Have I mentioned how much I hate this dog?

Mister Fluff bounces across the field, heading towards a busy road that is packed with cars. He does not seem to care, instead choosing death and suicide by front-bumper over being rescued by yours truly.

I kick up the pace, pumping my arms and legs until I think I just might hit myself if I’m not coordinated enough. Never before have I covered the length of the soccer field as fast as in this moment – high school was not a fun time for chunky me. Just as Mister Fluff jumps the fence and crosses into the road, I am there, grabbing his collar and flinging him back to safety. A car flies past, the driver laying into her horn.

“Sorry! Just trying to save a life!” I scream after her, resisting the urge to show my sidewalk rage with a fist and a finger. I spin on the poodle who is sitting behind me, panting and looking as happy as can be.

It does not help that Anabelle is suddenly there, hugging him and gushing about how sad she would be if he’d been hit.

Me, I could care less.

“You’re welcome,” I grumble, collapsing into the grass a good few feet away. Mister Fluff growls at me and I faux-lunge at him. He backs up into my sister’s waiting arms, whining until she starts petting him. I swear he smiles at me then. “You are a vile creature, Mister Fluff.”

He barks once, wagging his tail.

Anabelle turns to me. “I never knew you were a runner,” she says.

“That’s because I’m not. Now get moving. You owe me an Iced Cap. Size large.”

“Since when?” she demands, tying the leash around his collar, all the better to walk with the escapist.

“Since I just saved this ugly thing from becoming road kill.” I know she can’t argue with that. I will be getting my drink.

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