Cross Roads

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Chapter Sixteen: Sappiest

“Alright, explain this to me again . . .”

Brandon rolls his eyes and looks up at me. He is sitting in the office counting the change that was left in the safe from last night’s closing. It is under by about ten dollars. This is not the first time the safe has been short, but it is possible to be the last for this particular closing manager. Third time’s the charm and all that snazzy jazz.

“You’re telling me that you were the one to break up with my sister. You were the one who called it quits even though it’s quite obvious that you’re head over heels in love with her.”

He coughs, face turning bright red. “Head over heels?” he questions.

“Yes.” I wave my hand, catching sight of a recently cracked nail. I put it to my teeth and start tearing at it in the hopes of making it less jagged and less likely to break off in someone’s food. “I can see it. You’re positively smitten. It’s actually kind of adorable in a sickening way,” I tease. “And, following along on that thought, can I please be in grill today?”

With a sigh Brandon pushes aside the change bin and pulls a write-up slip from the pile that he keeps at the ready in a corner of the desk. “Why? Don’t you want to be bossing people around up front? I thought you thoroughly enjoyed yourself there.”

“Not today. Remember that slightly new-ish kid?”

“Which one?” he asks absently, filling out the appropriate lines on the form.

“The really big one.”

“A lot of our new people are really big.”

“Yeah. You need to stop hiring recent paroles. They don’t have the best team-player attitude. Last time I closed, one of the dudes said he’d shank me if I made him remake another Filet. Remember?”

“How could I forget? You had to have noticed that I haven’t put you on closing shifts since, right?”

I nod. “Yes, I have. Thank you, by the way. He really creeped me out. And I’m pretty sure he was serious.” Just thinking about the burly white dude that wishes he grew up in Thug-Town but is actually from a quaint little suburb, it makes a chill run down my spine. He’d been my grill closer that night, and after a remark like that I told him to leave. It hadn’t been my smartest moment, seeing as how I had no one to take his place, but I dealt with closing by myself. I hadn’t gotten out of work until close to three when I should’ve been gone no later than one, but these things happen – and some lucky kid got some hours added to their time card for my troubles.

“Did you ever stop to think that maybe you shouldn’t have given one of your snappy little remarks?” Brandon asks me, standing up and faxing the write-up over to the office.

Never will I admit it aloud, but Brandon does have a point. “I didn’t give a snappy retort,” I grumble.

The look he gives me, his answer to that is obvious. “If I recall correctly, you told him that the little butter-knife he thinks he secretly keeps in his boot would need some serious sharpening and upgrades before it could ever hope to make a scab.”

I frown, hating that he has quoted my report of the incident practically word-for-word. “I got defensive. Sorry.”

“Yeah, but maybe you shouldn’t be poking a guy as scary and hot-headed as him. He could’ve hurt you, Spencer.”

“And maybe you shouldn’t be hiring just anyone that applies here,” I reply.

“Touché, but I hire whoever I can get. People aren’t lining up for a chance to work here,” he mentions, pushing me out of his way so that he can exit the office. “And what were you saying about Zeke? Is he still being a horrible flirt?”

I glare at him, hating that he knows the awkwardness that is going on and apparently enjoying every minute of my being uncomfortable. It’s almost as though he sees this as payback for all the embarrassing things I did to him . . . Nope, that can’t be it. Impulsive, that I may be, but embarrassing? Perish the thought! I am the sweetest and most charming individual one will ever meet. It’s not my fault that others can’t handle the absurdity that is my daily thought-processes.

“Yes. It’s making working up front with him extremely difficult. Yesterday he decided that, instead of simply asking me for pennies and handing me a one, he would whisper it in my ear and shove the money into my shirt pocket.” Yes, the pocket that is currently lying across my left boob. The kid’s lucky he didn’t go for a little groping or he would have been fired, arrested, and kicked angrily in his little dangling gonads – crisis averted.

Brandon stares at me with wide-eyes. “What?”

“Yep. So please, can I be in grill? I promise not to start a food-fight with Cheese. We will be model employees. I swear I’ll do all the dinner dishes for the rest of the week.”

He nods without any hesitation. “Yeah, yeah. Sure. So long as you’re doing the dishes. You know, I might actually enjoy having you around if you keep making deals like that.”

I stick my tongue out at him, but bounce over to the cooler in grill, hoping up beside Cheese and promptly poking him in one of his many tattoos. “I told you it’d work,” I declare to the grill opener, grinning widely.

He laughs and throws a burly arm over my shoulders. “The Dynamic Duo is back in grill!” he crows, high-fiving me. “We be the dream-team back here.”

“Just make sure you aren’t holding too much during lunch,” Brandon all but begs, going up front as our four eleven o’clock crew people show up. Zeke is one of them, instantly getting taken aside by the boss-man, hopefully to be scolded for his inappropriate behavior from yesterday.

Good. Because his little crush on me – while I completely do not understand it – is bordering on creepy. He’s a high school dropout, and while that isn’t what’s bothering me, the fact that he’s only seventeen and I’m nearing twenty-one does. Three years and some odd months is a huge age difference to me, and though our maturity level is subpar, I think it’s weird and I particularly do not like it.

If it persists and I can’t get the kid fired, then I will be making a request – more like an order – with Brandon to ensure that we never work the same shifts again.

Ever.


When I get out at six and arrive at Brandon’s, I am not entirely surprised to find my sister’s itty-bitty little car parked in the driveway. I am surprised, though, when I step inside and smell what is to be dinner . . . unless the two incognito lovebirds have eaten it all without me. If that is the case, then I will be very upset and not give them another second of alone time. No siree. See if they have dinner without me again.

I smile just at the thought of causing mayhem, but soon learn that they haven’t eaten without me. In fact, the two are just now starting to heat the leftovers of whatever party Anabelle was stuck catering today.

As I walk into the kitchen I see Brandon at the stove, stirring something in a pot, while my sister is putting the finishing touches on what I sincerely hope will be garlic bread. One has not lived until they taste Belle’s made-from-scratch garlic bread. It is practically to die for it is so good. She could put Olive Garden out of business with her kind of garlic bread if she so chose.

But Anabelle would never do something quite so devious, the poor, innocent and naïve girl that she is.

“What’s for dinner?” I ask.

“Fettuccine Alfredo, baked chicken and garlic bread,” my sister responds in a timely manner, picking up the baking sheet of garlic bread and joining Brandon at the stove. With her hip she pushes him to the side, laughing when he pouts and makes a sound of surprise. “It’ll be ready in about twenty minutes if you wanted to shower.”

“Are you telling me I stink?”

“No,” she says as her arms wrap around Brandon from behind, leaning her cheek against his spine while grinning at me.

I see how it is. “Or you want some more alone time with your boy-toy,” I tease.

Brandon turns his head to glare. “I am not a boy-toy,” he grumbles pointedly.

My sister pats him consolingly on the back. “Of course not,” she agrees calmly, “you’re just irresistible arm candy.”

He pouts again. “I feel so objectified.” Brandon shakes his head and turns off the burner. “And Spencer, you do stink. You smell like Mac Sauce and ketchup and pickles and onion juice. Why is that?” he questions me with a serious look that tells me it’s a rhetorical question because he knows why I smell the way I do.

I pretend to be innocent, shrugging my shoulders exaggeratedly. “I don’t know. Maybe because I was in grill all day?”

No, it’s because you and Colby went and had a food fight even though you both promised not to.” He is talking to me like I am some wayward child, which I am not!

I am a wayward and immature adult – and almost of legal drinking age, might I add!

“Colby?” I wonder. “Who’s Colby? I don’t know any Colby. And the only one I had a food fight with was Cheese. And, to be completely honest and fair, he started it. Is it my fault the guy decided it would be hilarious and great fun to shoot me in the face with Mac Sauce? No! Of course not! I had to retaliate! He could not go on believing that he could start wars but not see them through to the finish. An example had to be made!”

“So you went and dumped pickle juice on his head,” Brandon deadpanned.

“Well, where else was I supposed to put it?”

“I don’t know,” he jokes without the humor, “down the drain?”

I wave my hand. “It was better suited as a wash for Cheese’s hair. He got me back, though. Threw onions in my face.”

“And you smeared ketchup all over his shirt.”

“Now that, that was an accident,” I state, pointing a finger. Really it was. I’d picked up the ketchup gun when he sprayed me in onions and onion juice, and in my shock I had spun while pushing on the trigger. I just happen to have incredible aim even when surprised, and covered Cheese in a healthy dosing of ketchup. “And I will have you know, Brand-O, that we did an exceptional job during lunch rush. We were only holding that one time, and that wasn’t even our fault! The fryer-kid needs to learn to check the cabinets instead of waiting for us to tell him when we’re low. He doesn’t listen anyways. Did you know he’s been listening to music?”

“Yes. I’ve talked with him before. Next time will be a write-up.”

“Why don’t you just take his iPod?”

Brandon and I cease our arguing to look at my sister with wide, horrified eyes.

“What?” she asks, glancing between us nervously.

“We can’t just take it,” I tell her.

“He could file physical assault and get me fired,” Brandon explains much gentler than I ever would.

See, I knew he loves her.

“What? Why?”

“Because people these days are sneaky little ba—” I stop saying what I want to say when Brandon gives me a look. He does not like my use of the B-A word, mostly because, by definition, he is one. “Turds,” I amend, getting an approving nod from my new land-lord and housemate. “People are sneaky and lazy little turds that will do anything to get some cash or a little bit of revenge. He takes the kid’s iPod, the kid could either file a complaint or harassment and while Brandon would probably be cleared, his reputation would be ruined. We can’t take anything unless it is handed over, and most of the time it’s not.”

“Sending them home doesn’t always work either, because most of the time we need them,” Brandon adds.

Anabelle shakes her head. “You both need better jobs.”

“Would love to if it were possible, Sweetheart,” Brandon says with a peck to my sister’s cheek.

Belle’s eyebrows rise in shock and her cheeks turn red at the endearment. She looks so flustered that it would be comical. In fact, it is comical, and I want nothing more than to laugh. But now is not a laughing moment, so I very politely excuse myself and trail upstairs so as to laugh alone.

See? I can also be very mature when the time calls for it.

I take a quick shower, paying special care to my face and hair to ensure that I am completely cleared of all Mac sauce and pickle juice and onion cubes. Fifteen minutes later and I’m coming back downstairs, dressed in sweats and a T-shirt that was a hand-me-down from Wolf back when it was still socially acceptable to wear my slightly older, boy cousin’s clothes. It has the TMNTs on it and a peculiar hole in my right arm-pit, but all in all, the ensemble is fairly comfortable, so I do not care.

My sister does, because the second I return to the kitchen and she sees me, she starts laughing.

“What?” I demand defensively.

“You look like a little kid,” she tells me.

I am okay with that. “Oh. I thought my fly was undone.”

That sobers her up immediately as she looks down to my sweats. “You don’t have a fly.”

Now, this time I am the one grinning like the Cheshire cat. “Exactly.” I walk further into the kitchen, smelling the Alfredo that has been reheated on the stove. It looks delicious and smells delicious and I can’t wait to eat it. “How much longer? I’m starving.”

“When aren’t you hungry?” Brandon retorts with a laugh and a smile. He shimmies past me with plates and silverware, setting the small circular table that is pressed up against the sidewall. Three chairs are available, three places to be set. Anabelle already has a small salad sitting on the table, diced carrots and peppers and tomatoes along with shredded cheddar cheese on top.

Now, normally I’m not a veggie-slash-salad person, but when my sister cooks – or whatever the word is for making salads – I make an exception.

“My question still stands,” I reply. “What’s to drink?”

“Lemonade in the fridge,” Brandon says.

“Cool.” I pull the pitcher out and fill the glasses that have, by now, been placed on the table. I return the lemonade to the fridge just as my sister pulls the baked chicken and garlic bread from the oven.

The smell . . . is simply . . . overwhelming.

My mouth starts to drool and my stomach rumbles loud enough for Brandon and Belle to hear.

“I guess you are hungry,” Anabelle jokes, setting the sheets on the stove to cool while turning off the oven. “Well, dinner’s ready. Time to eat.” She takes off the oven mitts and pulls out a chair. I sit across from her and Brandon is left with the chair between us. “Now, the salad already has dressing, Italian vinaigrette, so you probably won’t want to add any others to it.”

“Okay,” I say, forking up a decent sized helping before handing the bowl to Brandon.

Ever the devoted boyfriend and lovesick fool, he dishes up Anabelle first and then himself before putting the bowl on the counter and out of the way.

Eating salad is a silent affair, spent with my two older siblings – ha, makes me laugh every time – making goo-goo eyes at each other and thinking they’re being secretive, while I watch like a pleased and vigilant chaperone. Not for the first time I realize what an awesome matchmaker I would be . . . along with how on earth these two ever decided that breaking up would be a good idea?

“So,” I begin, desperate for an answer to my weighted and pertinent question. “Brandon, why did you break up with Anabelle those long years ago?” I do not wait to see their reactions, instead standing up and getting some Alfredo and chicken and three sticks of garlic bread – no, I am not a pig, just hungry and in the know about what a good cook my sister is when her mind is put to task. “Hmm?” I push, sitting back down.

They look like deer caught in headlights.

“You told her?” Belle whispers.

“You didn’t?” Brandon wonders back.

“No. She never even knew that we dated.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“So why should I tell her the reason we broke up?”

He shrugs. “I thought sisters told each other everything.”

“No. Not stuff like this.”

“Like what?”

I don’t even know why you broke up with me.”

Queue the awkward silence that usually comes after one of my more inane comments . . . or a very deliberate fart that I have been holding and perfecting for the better part of a day. Take your pick. Whichever you think to be more appropriate for the stall that has so abruptly taken over this tiny dinner table.

“Ooh. Things just got good,” I whisper, not one for a too lengthy quiet – or to be left out of a conversation.

They both glare at me, a unified front in the face of such a hurdle.

“I told you—” Brandon starts.

“Yeah, that you weren’t good enough for me,” Anabelle interrupts, a snap to her voice. She is starting to look pissed and I know things are about to get even better and more entertaining. “Which is absolute bull. Three years, Brandon. Three years together and suddenly you think I’m too good for you? Right after you got accepted into Harvard. On a full ride. Forgive me if I don’t believe you.”

I am beginning to think that this is their first fight since getting back together. We shall see how they fare when things are no long hunky-dori and rainbows and glistening pots of gold.

Brandon’s staring down at his plate as he murmurs, “I still think you’re too good for me.”

“Why?” she pushes. “Why? I let it go back then because I was younger and naïve and I could tell we were drifting apart. But not now because I really like you. Really, really like you. And I need to know why.”

This is not exactly how I thought things would go. I figured there was a story, and a good one, but not this rollercoaster of emotion and angst. I am starting to regret ever pushing or bringing it up, but what’s done is done. At least now the mystery will finally be solved.

Thanks to the meddling Spencer and her invisible dog.

Get the reference? Huh? Huh?

Never mind. Perhaps before your time.

“Anabelle,” Brandon says, reaching for her hand only to have her pull away. “Look. I might have gotten into Harvard, things might not have looked quite so bad, but . . . there’re things about me that I never wanted you to know and after three years . . . I knew it was only a matter of time. I just . . . I didn’t want to lose you.” He sounds so pathetic and dejected that I want to hug the guy.

“So you broke up with me instead.”

He shrugs. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“But why?”

I can’t take it any longer. Brandon will probably hate me for spilling the beans, but once spilled they can never be un-spilled.

“Just tell her about your dad, Brand-O,” I say.

He stares at me, suddenly dropping white in the face. Anabelle is looking at me too, at first surprised and then a little angry that I seem to know something before her.

“Okay. I will. Brandon’s dad is a no good drunk and I guess he didn’t want you to find out.”

The look I get from my boss could be seen as murderous. “You swore you would never tell anyone!”

“Well, you weren’t going to tell her, and she deserves to know. Now explain or else I’ll do it for you.”

We glare at each other for a moment longer, and then Anabelle ends it by clearing her throat.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asks softly, no longer angry or upset, just sad and concerned.

Brandon shrugs again. “I didn’t want anyone to know. Especially you.”

“I wouldn’t have cared.”

“But I cared,” he stresses, poking at the remains of his salad. “I cared and . . . I don’t know. You started talking about telling your parents about us and I figured it was only a matter of time before you wanted to meet mine and . . . I panicked. I never had the parents that you two had.”

“I’d say you’re lucky, but you and I both know I’d just be pulling words from my arse,” I say with a half-smile as I try to ease the tension that I have caused.

“True,” Brandon allows, and then falls silent.

Anabelle waits patiently, rubbing a hand on his shoulder. “Tell me,” she says softly. “I want to know. All you have to do is tell me and I’ll drop it.”

He takes a deep breath, dragging a hand shakily through his hair. “My parents got drunk at a high school party and, nine months later, they had me. From what I’ve been told my mom wanted to get an abortion but her mom wouldn’t let her. They were going to put me up for adoption but at the last minute my parents wanted to make it work. They never got married and by the time I was four my mom had moved out and, last I heard, she was married to some doctor and they’re living with their two-point-five kids, and a Golden Retriever in some swanky house on the rich side of town. I’ve seen her a total of seven times since she left. As for my dad . . . when my mom left he became depressed. He started drinking, couldn’t hold down a job. CPS took me a couple times in elementary school because of it.”

My sister jumps upon hearing this. She opens her mouth as though to say something, but can’t find the words to make anything better. In the end she just closes it.

“I never wanted you to meet him. Most of the time I wished I never even knew him.”

“He is a rather grouchy man,” I offer.

Belle turns to me. “When did you meet him? And how do you know all this?”

I point to myself. “Me, little sister. Me nosy. Me pushy. Me learn things.”

She is not pleased with my poor grammar, and I can just picture my English teacher rolling over in his grave . . . if he were dead, over course.

“Spencer here was the one on counter when my dad decided to pay me a visit at work,” Brandon explains. “I was closing and she was my grill closer at the time. My dad came in, drunk out of his mind, asking for me and stuff.”

“He was wasted. I’m surprised he could even string two words together.” I tap my fork against my plate, thoughtful. The man, Mister Hawke, had been stumbling over his own feet and nearly drowning me in his breath. How he even got to the store I will never know.

“Practice,” is all Brandon will say on that particular matter. “We’d closed early so I could take him home. Afterwards my dad told me he wanted to get clean, and I actually believed him. That had been the first time for him to be admitting to having a problem so . . . I’d dropped out of school to try and help him. He went to a couple AA meetings and we even considered rehab, but then he relapsed and got arrested. The judge ordered rehab, which all of my dad’s life savings went into the treatment and posting his bail. Which is why I’m stuck with this crap-shack as Spencer has so eloquently put it. He couldn’t afford to pay for it and it wouldn’t sell so I’m buying it for thirty-thousand.”

“That’s gotta be too much,” my sister says speculatively.

“With the acreage, not really.”

“So . . . how’s he doing?” she asks after a minute.

“Honestly, I don’t know. The last time I spoke to him was when he got drunk and called me to scream about how I ruined his life. That was about a year ago and I hope I never have to see the man again.”

Anabelle sighs, getting up and wrapping her arms around Brandon’s shoulders. She kisses his cheek, leaning their heads together as she murmurs, “I’m glad you told me.”

“Me too,” he answers, looping an arm over her waist before drawing her to sit on his knee.

“Me three,” I declare, deliberately ruining any chance of them having a moment. The two of them are just too cute together, it sickens me. Literally. One, because she is my sister. Two, because he is my brother. Three, because I am still starving even after finishing what is on my plate. “So, what’s for dessert?”

My sister and Brandon share a look, and then together they erupt into laughter.

“Okay. Fine. No dessert then?” I wonder, going along with it because anything is better than the depression that followed along with Brandon’s saddening childhood.

“There’s a chocolate cake,” my sister admits.

I am positively beaming as I go to rush to the fridge where the cake just has to be.

“But not until the rest of us have finished eating,” she continues, deflating my perfectly happy mood.

I glare and grumble, “Fine. You two lovebirds have your romantic dinner for two. Call me when I can have sugar. I’ll be outside avoiding certain death.” Without further ado I march outside, plopping myself onto the dilapidated porch and staring over to the dead tree. “That will be the first thing to go,” I decide to myself, thinking of what I will do on my day off tomorrow.

I have been sitting outside for no longer than five minutes when a very large dog comes trotting into view, a very familiar human walking calmly beside it. Grinning, I get up and practically sprint to the street.

And so, for the first time since I have met this unlikely duo, I surprise them. “Heya, Dog-Tags.”
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