Cross Roads

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Chapter Eighteen: CJ-7s

I feel like a zombie as I walk into the kitchen at six the next morning. I don’t know why I’m up, just that I couldn’t sleep any longer no matter how tired I still feel, and that Brandon is up and moving about downstairs. So I force my sleep-deprived body up and out of bed, stumbling into the kitchen where I am met by a steaming cup of coffee.

Mmm,” I say, accepting the mug and inhaling the deliciousness that is bitter caffeine. “Thanks.”

Brandon just nods.

If I feel like a zombie, then Brandon is most definitely dying. And here I thought I was the worst person to deal with in the morning. My boss-slash-brother-slash-housemate is even worse than I am. I’d say he looks like death warmed over, but that’s how I look. Therefore he has to look ten times worse, hence why he carries the appearance of being on his deathbed as opposed to past it.

“You look like crap,” I deadpan, swallowing a burning mouthful.

He glares at me but that is as far as he is capable this early in the morning. He collapses at the table, taking a drink and then continuing to stare blankly at the wall. It’s a little strange, even for me. Silence is not something I’m comfortable, and even if I wind up just talking to myself that is better than nothing at all.

“So, Raisin-Bran, what’s on the agenda for today?” I ask him, climbing onto the counter and parking my rear there, right next to the coffee pot – it is, surprisingly, the only thing in this house that appears to be from this century; new. That’s probably because coffee is an important part of Brandon’s day.

“Raisin-Bran?” he asks me.

“Yep,” I answer. “I have breakfast on my mind. So what are you going to do?”

“Work.”

“That’s boring.”

“Exhausting,” he says.

I nod. “True. Sorry. Thanks for giving me two days off this week. How did you manage that?”

“I didn’t give myself any days off,” he moans, drawing a hand harshly down his face. It pulls at his skin, making him look worse than he had when I entered the kitchen. The poor guy definitely needs a break.

“Again?” I ask.

“How can I? Nigel won’t let you run your own shifts anymore, and the only other manager I even remotely trust keeps getting sent to other stores. They’re deliberately making it so that I can’t take a day off and then they’re yelling at me for working seventy hours a week.” He moans again and slams his head down onto the table. “My life sucks.”

I have nothing encouraging to say to that. So I do the next best thing. Getting down from the counter, I walk up next to him and pat his shoulder. “There, there,” I tell him, trying to sound serious – because this is a serious matter – but feeling like laughing because I sound so stupid.

“Shut up,” he grumbles.

“Do you want me to come in and count out for you?” I offer.

“No. Nigel’s coming by anyways. Our new maintenance guy is starting today and he has taken it upon himself to make sure the new hire is properly trained. Told me that I do a horrible job of it. Whatever.” Brandon sounds very, very upset about that, going so far as to fold his arms and glare down at the floor, burning a hole into one of the knots. “Anyways, enough about my crap day. What’re you doing?”

I shrug, dropping into the nearby chair. “Noah’s stopping by today. He’s going to help me start fixing up your place. Do you have any preferences for where we start?”

“How about that dead tree?” he suggests with a hopeful smile. “Between your two jeeps I’m sure that you can get that thing out of the ground. The roots have to be rotten through by now. It’s been dead for over five years.”

Yesterday, when I’d introduced Noah to Brandon and my sister, after the initial awkwardness that follows me around like a sad case of body odor, the two boys had hit it off right away. Where Noah had probably just been planning to stay and make sure I got inside without anymore mishaps, he’d stayed for dessert and then well into the night. It wasn’t until nearing midnight that I’d driven him and Benji back home. And before that he and Brandon had been talking dude-ish things, from cars to the required fix-ups on the crap-shack to the hockey playoffs that were still going on even this late into spring.

My sister had even taken a liking to Dog-Tags, dragging me aside to tell me that she approved and just how adorable he was. The approval was pointless, considering the guy and I were only just getting towards being friends. The adorable part I already knew. Those dimples are to die for. They are swoon worthy.

Anabelle was disappointed to realize that her man was dimple-less.

Oh well. She can’t get all the luck in the family.

“Well then, consider it gone by the time you get home. Anything else?”

He thinks it over before saying, “Don’t touch the garage just yet. I want to be there when it gets torn down.”

“Why? Interested in wrecking things?” I tease, finishing my cup of coffee. I see that Brandon has finished his as well and, picking it up, I refill both.

“No. I just want to make sure you don’t get over excited and get hurt,” he replies with a pointed look, accepting the offered cup. “That and we’re going to need to borrow a dumpster to throw out the shingles and nails and stuff. It can’t just go to the curb like the rest of our trash and we can’t burn them like the tree.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” I say with a pathetic salute, somehow managing to poke myself in my own eye. “Ow,” I whine, holding onto my throbbing and tearing eye. “It hurts!”

Brandon rolls his eyes, obviously uncaring about my pain.

“Don’t you care?” I cry, still clutching onto my eye.

He sighs and leans forward, pulling my palm away to inspect my eye. “You’re fine,” he tells me in a tone that lets me know he thinks I’m being a baby. “It’ll get better before you get married.”

This time I pout. “That means nothing! I’m never getting married!”

“. . . Don’t tell me you’re one of those girls.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He shakes his head and gets up. “Nothing. Never mind. You hungry? I think I have some cereal.”

“Raisin-Bran,” I call.

“No. I hate Raisin Bran.” He obviously does not understand that I have chosen a new nickname for him and that is what I was calling, not asking if he had a specific kind of cereal. It must be the hour because Brandon is usually much faster on the uptake for my crazy train of thought.

I choose to forgo the matter, instead taking the box of Honey Nut Cheerios Brandon has pulled from one of the upper cupboards that I have no hope of reaching without a ladder. I pour myself a bowl as he gets his own and then we sit back down at the table, eating in silence. A little bit before six thirty, Brandon goes upstairs and gets ready, leaving at a quarter to as I promise to try and make sure he still has a house to come back to when he gets out at five.


Noah shows up at eleven with Benji in the backseat of his jeep. We chat for a little bit, and then get started on the dead tree that is an attention grabbing eyesore in the yard. It’s kind of like a pimple. A really big, really red pimple in the center of your face. Which is kind of a good thing because it takes attention away from the rest of the crap-shack. But with the tree gone there will be nothing in the way of seeing the dilapidated garage and the house with the strange garden growing from the gutters.

The tree takes a little bit to get rid of. At first Noah wants to cut it down so we’ll just have to worry about tearing out the stump. He came prepared with a chainsaw and while Benji and I stood safely to the side, he cut a groove into the trunk of the tree. Within a couple minutes the top of the tree was lying on the ground, and now all that is left is to pull the stump out of the ground.

“So, whose jeep do you want to use?” he asks me, setting aside the chainsaw.

“Mine. In case something goes wrong. I don’t want to ruin yours seeing as you’re already helping me for nothing,” I tell him. “Thanks, by the way. I’m not sure if I told you that yet. So thanks. It means a lot. Brandon doesn’t have any time to do anything really. Barely even enough to sleep. And I’m kind of limited in what I can do. Being short sucks, by the way, just in case you were wondering about what it’s like all the way down here.”

He laughs, following me as I walk over to my car. “And in case you were wondering what it’s like all the way up here, it sucks being tall, too. Sometimes doorways are shorter than they appear to be.”

“Aww, poor you,” I mock, patting his arm lightly, surprised by the rock-solid muscle that is just so nicely flexing beneath the material of his T-shirt. For a moment I am jealous of the majesty that is his bicep – I want guns like that! – and then I am staring at just how lovely a flexing arm looks on the guy. “Dude, you work out!”

“Yeah,” he says, getting a little blush to his cheeks.

Even more adorable.

“I’m jealous,” I continue, choosing to share my first thought instead of the reason as to why I feel a little drool coming out of the corner of my mouth. “Imagine me in biceps like that!”

Noah laughs and I don’t know how to take it. Is he mocking me or thinking that my reaction is funny?

“I don’t think they’d be all that proportionate,” he tells me.

I am not deterred, flexing my own arm and pouting at my pathetic excuse for a bump. “Maybe like Popeye, huh?”

“Minus the pipe, yeah,” he agrees as we reach my jeep. “Do you have a chain we can use?”

I grin, climbing inside and to the back, fumbling around in the trunk – six inch of space between the backseat and the end of the body for my jeep – before returning to the front. “TAA-DAA!” I declare, holding up one end of the chain, the rest still trailing behind me. “One thing I learned from my dad is to be prepared . . . and if there was something in the basement I thought would make my jeep look cooler then to take it. I also have a very rusty tire-iron, several clamps that were just ridiculously heavy and I wanted, and a drink carrier full of nuts and bolts I have collected. Is this gonna work?” I ask him, pulling the entire chain to me where it piles quite heavily in my lap.

“Oh yeah. Definitely,” he says. “Pull on up and we’ll hook you up.”

“‘kay,” I agree, turning over the engine. I wait until Dog-Tags steps back before driving across the yard. With my shifter in NEUTRAL I climb out, watching off to the side as Noah wraps the chain a couple times around the stump and then attaches the ends to the hooks on my front fender. “Ready?” I ask.

He gives me a thumbs-up.

I get back up behind the wheel, check to make sure Noah and Benji are in the clear, and then I back up, foot lowering the gas pedal to the floor. I get about five feet before the chain goes taut and I am slammed to a stop. My heads whips back and forth, a crick in my neck forming immediately after. Whiplash is no joking matter.

When I look back to the stump I am shocked – and more than only slightly angered – that it hasn’t even budged an inch.

“Seriously?” I yell at it.

I pull forward until I’m practically sitting on the stump, and then slam backwards. Once again I get a serious case of whiplash, but the stump remains stationary. I go again and again and again, and by the fifth time there is a light creaking sound as the roots start to give.

This is getting ridiculous.

I throw open my door, and standing on the edge of the body and stare over the roof to where Noah is waiting. “Can you get in? I think I need a little more weight. This is taking way too long for such a dead tree.”

He nods, putting Benji in the house to ensure his safety, and then he is climbing into the passenger seat. He buckles himself in, just like I am doing, and we repeat the process of pulling forward and backing up at an insanely high speed. Both of us get whiplash, I feel a headache starting to form, and the stump is still putting up an other-worldly fight against its impending removal.

I think back to a few years ago when my dad and I – when we were still of speaking terms and not one breath away from arguing any second – rebuilt the jeep. A whole new frame had been purchased, galvanized and shipped cross-country. And it’s a good thing we’d done that, too, because if we hadn’t my jeep would be getting torn apart by this damn stump.

I dub this thing the Stump From Hell then and there.

Around the twentieth time the stump finally jumps free, sending Noah and I jolting backwards at the sudden loss of tension.

“About freaking time!” I yell, throwing my fist up at the stump lying several feet ahead of me.

Dog-Tags and I climb out, unhooking the chain from my jeep.

“C’mon. I’ve gotta take a drive before the engine decides she hates me, burns out, and dies forever,” I tell him, nodding back to my car. He understands what I mean without me actually explaining it – the perks of being a fellow jeep owner – and we climb back in. I spin out of the yard and onto the dirt driveway, zipping out to the road. “Benji’ll be okay for a little bit by himself, right?”

Noah nods. “Yeah. Contrary to the times that he knocks you over, he’s actually a very well-trained dog. He’ll probably just lay down by the door until we get back.”

“I never said he wasn’t well-trained,” I reply, shifting up to fourth gear as we accelerate past forty miles per hour.

“He just gets very excited when he sees you. It’s weird. You’re the only one. Normally he just ignores new people, but you he just took off after.”

I think about it, cocking my head to the side. “You know, it’s probably because I always carry an underlying smell of burgers on me.” I glance to the side, seeing Noah looking at me with an expression that just begs for an explanation. “I work at McDonald’s. The smell of grease and burgers and fries has been, like, absorbed into my skin. It’s one of the perks of working in fast food.”

“I never would have guessed. Sucks I’m guessing?”

I nod, slowing down and taking a turn. “Oh yeah. It’s not so bad for crew, but I’m a manager and more stuff gets thrown at me because of it. And our supervisor hates me on the basis that I have boobs and a uterus. He likes to make my life Hell, but I have a way of giving it right back to him with my mere presence. It’s quite strange, actually. He goes out of his way to throw crap at Brandon and me, but when he comes he gives himself a headache because he always picks the shifts that I’m working. I don’t understand it. He wants me to quit, but I refuse on the basis that Brandon needs me to work. That and I won’t leave until they fire me so I can collect unemployment. Or until I find myself a better job. But enough about me. What are you doing in the Air Force? Flying planes?”

“I’m actually going out to Texas in a couple weeks for Pararescue. I got into the candidate program a few months back, but . . . something came up at and I had to postpone it.”

I mull that over. “Pararescue? What’s that?”

“It’s Special Forces. Only the best of the best get in, and even then a lot of guys wash out because it’s so physically demanding. I don’t even know if I’ll make it all the way through. It’s months long training.”

I look over to him, letting my eyes roam up and down his very fit frame. “I’m sure you’ll do great.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of it. I knew guys who trained for months before trying out and they didn’t even finish.”

“I still think you’ll make it.”

“Oh yeah? Why?”

I shrug as we pull back into Brandon’s driveway. “Call it a gut instinct.”

“I hope you’re right.”

Shutting off the engine I unbuckle my seatbelt and turn to face him. “Trust me. I know I am. I’m psychic. I have read your future and you become an amazing parachute.”

My attempt at lightening the mood works as Noah cracks a smile, following me out of my jeep and up to the porch. “It’s Pararescue Jumper. PJ for short. And thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“no problem. So what do you think about lunch? Then we can figure out what to do with that dumb tree.”

“I’ll never turn down free food.”

I grin broadly, throwing open the door. “There’s the spirit!” And no sooner do the words leave my mouth that Benji flies out the door and knocks me over, straight into Noah’s chest. We topple down, Noah on the bottom with me sandwiched between him and the Mastiff. It’s a fairly tight fit and I find it kind of difficult to breathe as Benji goes about licking my face clean of any oils that may have surfaced. “BENJI! I CAN’T BREATHE!”

From beneath me Noah gasps, “Benji . . . down!”

The dog listens, jumping to the side.

I sit upright, gasping for air. Behind me Noah does the same.

“Your dog’s freakin’ heavy,” I rasp.

“Sorry. He likes you.”

“I think a little too much.”

“Yeah,” he agrees with a nod, getting to his feet and pulling me up after him. “I’ll stop bringing him by when we work on your house.”

I think that over. For some reason I would miss the gigantic dog if he were left behind. “Nah. That’s okay. I’m getting used to being smashes into the dirt. A couple more times and I’ll be a pro.”

“You sure?” he asks, needing the clarification.

“Yep. So, what you in the mood for? We have ham.”

He stares at me. “Was that it?”

“Yep.”

Noah smiles.

Dimples, hello there. Where have you been all my life?

“Ham sounds great.”

“Good because that’s all we have,” I joke, leading the way into the kitchen. Together we prepare sandwiches, feeding Benji some leftovers from dinner a couple nights ago – it looked like stew but I’m not entirely sure.

After lunch and the cleanup, we return outside. Noah cuts the fallen tree into sections which I pile off to the side beneath a living tree. Benji helps by lumbering beside me and occasionally getting in my way. More than once I consider straddling him and seeing if he could be a good pony, but I think about what Dog-Tags would say, so I refrain from abusing his poor puppy. When the tree is properly hidden we start in on the stump, splitting that apart and tossing it with the rest.

Next comes the porch, which Noah climbs beneath to check out the condition of the existing supports. He also finds various dead birds, one which he happens to find with his palm – and what sounds eerily like a scream. When he scrambles back out into the open he declares that the porch should be torn apart and that something else needs to be used for supports aside from the cracking cinderblocks.

We save that for after talking to Brandon about it, instead carefully searching through the garage for a lawn mower.

The one we find is old. It is also a push-mower, which absolutely sucks because Brandon has a descent sized yard.

“I’ll mow you weed-whack?” Noah suggests hesitantly.

That does not seem fair. “We split it?” I offer.

He holds out his hand. “Deal. Ladies first?” he grins cheekily.

I frown. “Oh hardy-har-har. Fine.”

And so that is how we pass the rest of the time. Brandon pulls in close to six with Noah just finishing the yard and me attempting to further mutilate the weed-whacker that has decided to not only die on me but to also get a leak and soak my back in gasoline.

“Looks better,” he says after surveying the little that we have done. “Thanks,” Brandon says to Dog-Tags.

“No problem. It was fun today,” Noah says.

I throw aside the weed-whacker, figuring it isn’t worth it anymore. The next time I have to go after the grass the lawn mower can’t touch I’ll just get Anabelle to borrow my parents’. “Liar. It was torture. We both got whiplash, but the dead tree is finally deader. Oh, and how does the sunburn look on us?” I ask Brandon, sidling up beside Noah.

We are both looking significantly pinkish right now.

“You’ll be tan by tomorrow,” Brandon answers with a wave. “I brought dinner if you guys are interested.”

I pull a face. “McDonald’s?” I whine, not interested in seeing a burger or even smelling one.

“No,” he tells me, pulling out a bag that definitely isn’t McDonald’s. “Arby’s.”

“Ooh! So much better.”

Brandon turns to Noah. “I got enough for you if you want to stay for dinner. Just the regular roast beef sandwiches and curly fries. I don’t know if you like that, but . . .”

Noah nods. “Sounds good. Thanks.”

“No problem. The least I could do for all your help.”

I glance between the two, waiting to see if their moment is over or if they’re going to continue. They don’t, so I make sure that it is over for good. “Well, now that you guys are finished with your little bro-mantic moment, let’s eat. I’m starving. And those curly fries are calling to me.” I push through them to the door, leading the way inside.

The rest of the night passes pleasantly. We eat, discuss some more that needs to get done on the house – Brandon agrees to tearing up the porch and we make plans for the next week to start – have coffee and some cookies that were hidden at the back of the cupboard where I had no hope of seeing.

Around eight-thirty Noah says it’s time he got home. I follow him out to his jeep.

“Thanks again for all your help today,” I say, patting Benji and then scratching around his neck. “I did have fun, no matter how much complaining I did.”

“I did, too,” he agrees. “So . . . I’ll call you later?”

I jump, realizing that we haven’t even traded numbers yet. “Yeah! I mean, you’ll have to call the landline ‘cause my cell phone . . . well, I don’t have one right now. But yeah.” I give him Brandon’s landline number, which he puts into his contacts. And then, before I can give the poor guy a chance to dodge, I throw my arms around his waist and say, “Thanks again, Noah. You’re an awesome dude.”

He laughs this time instead of getting freaked out by me lack of boundaries. His arms fold over my shoulders, reminding me again of our differences in height – I’m pretty sure he could’ve put his arms on my head and been much more comfortable. “No problem. And thanks. You’re a pretty awesome chick, Rebel.”

I smile at the nickname I haven’t heard in a little while. I pull back, lowering my arms, but don’t step away. “I’ll see you later. Maybe we can go out for ice cream or something? I still owe you.”

“Sounds like a plan,” he agrees. “You free Saturday?”

“After seven, yeah.”

“Want to meet up at Dairy Queen?”

“Sure. The one by the movie theatre, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, I’ll meet you there. And I’m buying. I’m serious. I owe you. Not only did you put that stupid prick in his place, but you also gave me a ride and ice cream and a bag of peas. I really owe you.”

Noah smiles and nods. “Okay. Whatever you say, Spencer.” He turns to Benji and whistles. The dog obeys instantly, jumping up and squeezing into the back where he lies down and barks once. “See you later, Spencer.”

“Later.”

With one last smile he climbs up in the driver’s seat. His jeep roars to life and then he’s backing down the driveway. I stand there by the porch, watching as he goes. He beeps once and I wave and then he’s gone. I wait a moment longer before going inside, finding Brandon sitting on his orange couch and watching some movie.

Despicable Me.

I smile and flop down beside him. “I love this movie!”

“I know,” he says. “So . . . you and Noah . . . ?”

I roll my eyes. “We’re just friends.”

“‘kay.”

And that is all that is said on the matter. We spend the rest of the night watching the movie, and then we go to bed – well, Brandon goes to bed while I take a shower and then go to bed. All in all, today has actually been one of the best days in a really long time. Even with the whiplash and the sunburn and the basting in gasoline. And I’m really looking forward to going for ice cream on Saturday.
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