Cross Roads

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Chapter Nineteen: Approval

Saturday couldn’t come fast enough. Mostly because Nigel was at the store the entire week under the guise of training the new maintenance guy – really he was just there to loom over my shoulder and attempt at correcting my grammar; apparently I am not supposed to ask ‘And will that be all?’ because that kind of question starts with ‘And’ and sentences aren’t supposed to start with ‘And’ and it makes me sound stupid and did I even graduate high school?

Yeah. That little bit of verbal spew-age did not go over well.

Two week notice has been given and filed. A complaint – given by multiple customers who love me because I will occasionally give them free things on the basis that they are old and nearing death so should be given some perks at the end of their time – follows that, and right now Nigel is under review. I’m hoping suspension will soon follow because that guy is an ass who needs to be taken down a few dozen pegs.

Brandon is trailing after me, too. It would seem that after Nigel called me stupid in front of a full lobby and then yelled at me to take my break even though I’d just arrived for the beginning of my shift twenty minutes before, not only did he try and vent to Brandon about my ineptitude, but he also said some very nasty things about me – or rather what he would like to do with me, which ended with Brand-O punching the guy in the jaw.

Nigel, the little pussy, called the cops who then came to arrest my brother-slash-most awesomest dude in the world, only to be met with numerous testimonies implicating Nigel as the culprit. I’m not entirely sure what happened, but instead of arresting Brandon they then started taking statements from the rest of the crew about our supervisor verbally harassing them – and me and Brandon – for months.

So not only is that particular McDonald’s losing me and Brandon, but everyone who works regularly on day-shift – Cheese and several others – and some of the high schoolers who have been there for a while have also put in their two weeks. So now the owner is going to be scrambling to fill our places – or in Brandon’s case try to bribe him to stay – before the two weeks is up.

And to think, this all happened just this morning! It’s strange how things work out.

On a sadder note, I now have to go in search of a new job before I am no longer employed. Raisin-Bran, too, and he’s already starting to pull his hair out because he doesn’t have time in between running the store and answering questions from the office about the Incident as well as speaking to the police. It sucks for him, but I have a gut feeling that everything will turn out.

Fingers crossed.

So now it’s nearing eight and I’m just pulling up outside the Dairy Queen that Dog-Tags and I decided to meet at. His jeep’s already there so I take the parking spot next to it, sliding down to join him where he has been waiting sitting atop the hood.

“Hey,” I say, feeling a little breathless. It’s not because this boy is damn fine – although that might be one of the reasons. It’s because I have been running around for the entire day, got out of work late, and then had to rush home to shower and change and then speed here. I’ve been a busy little bee and I am more than ready to just sit down and not have to worry about anything aside from having fun for a little while. “Sorry I’m late. I would’ve called you, but I that would’ve taken time and then I would’ve been even later, so . . . yeah. Sorry.”

Noah just smiles with that gorgeous dimple of his, climbing down to stand in front of me. “No problem. I figured there was a reason.” He leans in and whispers, “Brandon texted me. He said you’d be running late.”

“Ah,” I answer, nodding my head. “He’s just the sweetest that way.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

I laugh and grab his arm, pulling him inside. “C’mon. Time for ice cream!”

We end up both getting Oreo Blizzards, taking them to-go because the lobby is packed on such a nice Saturday night. Sitting in the parking lot we eat the ice cream that I have gifted us with, talking about unimportant things like why the sky is blue or that new-ish Disney movie that everyone and their uncle is obsessed with – ‘Let it go, let it go!’ By the time we finish our ice cream I realize that I’m still hungry after having not been able to eat all day, going back inside and getting some chicken strips and a drink. When I offer to get Noah something he very politely declines saying that he’d just come back from dinner with his sisters.

“Oh yeah,” I say, taking a long sip of Sprite. “You mentioned that, didn’t you?” I can’t really remember, but it sounds familiar. And it also makes sense – take that, Grammar-Nazi-Nigel!

He shrugs. “I’m not sure. Probably.”

“How many sisters do you have again?”

“Three. They’re all in high school.”

I nod, feeling really bad for the guy. I know, first hand, how horrible girls can be. Especially when they’re in their high school years and thinking they’re the coolest thing to drive the street because they have a permit. Stupid kids. Anabelle was just as bad, although she saved the ‘tude for when our parents weren’t home. Lucky me. And everyone wondered why I was such an impossible child growing up, what with the wonderful role-models I had surrounding me.

“That would explain how you knew chocolate is a girl’s best friend!” I gasp, munching on my chicken strips. “Do you just have sisters or do you have brothers, too?”

He shakes his head. “Nope. No brothers. Just me. Me and three girls. Yay. Lucky me,” he deadpans. “And you . . . you just have Anabelle, right?”

“Technically yes, but Brandon’s for all intents and purposes my brother, too. I’ve known him for years. He used to be my tutor when I was a freshman and then we worked together at McDonald’s so we saw each other all the time. And instead of getting irritated with my sparkling personality he chose to take part in it, which worked out splendidly for me.”

“Is that why you moved in with him?”

I shrug while staring down at my dinner.

“Sorry. That was nosy. Forget I asked,” Noah says quickly.

“No, it’s fine. Just a little touchy. I . . . um . . . I actually got kicked out of my parents’ house this week. The day before Memorial Day.”

Noah looks stricken, like he’s just asked the most insensitive thing in the world and now wishes he could climb into a deep dark hole, never to be seen by the rest of the world ever again.

“My parents and my grandma got into an argument with me about how I’m going nowhere. It’s the same crap I’ve been getting for years, but I just couldn’t take it anymore. My dad gave me an ultimatum; said that if I wanted to stay living under his roof then I had to live by his rules which consisted of working at my mom’s law firm as some low-paying errand boy . . . girl? And that I was going back to school even though I don’t want to. It was a big blowup. Greatly entertained the rest of my family. Anyways, Brandon has that house and he’s living by himself so he offered for me to move in. It’s better than getting a cheap apartment where the walls and ceiling are decorated in mildew and various questionable substances or whatever. But yeah. Woe is me and all that jazz.”

Dog-Tags is silent for a moment, simply staring down at the hands that are in his lap. “I’m sorry, Spencer. I didn’t mean to bring something like that up. Gosh, I feel so insensitive. I feel like a jerk.” He drags both hands through his hair.

I’m not bothered by it. There’s no judgment coming from him; nothing that makes me feel inferior or less than. For the first time in a long while I actually feel like I’m on equal ground with someone. It’s strange and exciting and something that I never realized until now that I’d never had before. “I’m fine with it. The ‘rents were getting a little more than stifling as of late. Constantly scrutinizing me. I felt like I couldn’t even brush my hair right anymore, you know?”

“Yeah,” he agrees. “Not the same way as you, but . . . yeah.”

I tilt my head to the side, waiting. “Can I ask your story?”

He shrugs, tossing a pebble across the parking lot. “My sister,” he says after a lengthy pause. “She’s almost nineteen, going to be graduating high school in a couple of weeks. Unfortunately I’m leaving the day of. She’s . . . she’s not too happy about that. Out of the others we’re the closest. Always have been. Anyways, after I enlisted . . . I haven’t been home much with training and deployments; traveling to different bases. She thinks I’m ignoring her. We haven’t really spoken aside from arguing in almost a year. Everything I say she’s got to take to mean something different. I can never win with her.”

I know exactly how that feels. “It sucks.”

“Oh yeah.” Noah clears his throat, rubbing his hands against his thighs. “You wanna see a movie?”

I think about it, then nod. “What’s good?”

“I have no idea. I’m just not ready to say goodbye yet,” he tells me with that lopsided grin of his and that dimple that could win over the hearts of every woman in America – possibly even the world.

I smile so big my cheeks actually hurt.

“Hey!” he exclaims. “You have dimples!”

I am shocked. “No way! Seriously?” I go to touch my cheeks, but since I’m no longer smiling so widely I feel nothing aside from smooth cheeks and the occasional bump that will soon be a zit. Ah, the joys of working with grease all day. No matter how many times I wash my face my skin will always be coated in oil by the time I return home after my shift. “I still like yours better.”

Noah blushes, getting a little embarrassed.

I decide to make him even more so because it’s such an adorable look on him. “You’ve probably caught me staring at them. They make you look freakin’ gorgeous, by the way. Are you single?” Okay, that last question literally just spewed from my mouth without any thought – conscious or no. Sure I’d been wondering it, but never did I think I would come right out and ask it.

“Uh . . . yeah,” he says curiously. “Are you?”

I give him a look. “What do you think? You think any guy is going to be able to put up with me?” I think that over. “On second thought, don’t answer that. The answer is no. The last boyfriend I had was in seventh grade and that lasted barely a day.”

“Oh? Why?”

“He stole my Oreos at lunch. I could not move past it.”

Noah smiles again. “You and your Oreos.”

“I’m addicted,” I agree. “So, movie?” I nod behind us to where the movie theatre is. “You wanna go and see what’s playing and then decide from there?”

“Yep.” He gets up and offers me a hand, pulling me to my feet with a bounce. “Let’s just walk over. It’s not that far.”

“Okay.”

After I throw out my trash we walk to the theatre, standing before the ticket booth as we decide what to see. It’s a unanimous vote for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Dog-Tags pays for the tickets and I spring for drink and popcorn. We go inside and pick our seats near the back, thankful that the movie’s been out for a little while and the theatre isn’t as packed as it could be.

It’s nearing eleven when we leave the movie theatre.

“I’m so tired!” I moan, dragging my feet as we start the long trek across the parking lots.

Noah, the gentleman that he is, offers to give me a piggy-back ride.

I accept with gusto, practically hopping onto his back and draping myself there. With his arms beneath my knees and the bucket of refilled popcorn against his chest, we set off.

“The movie was awesome. Don’t you think?” I ask, stuffing a handful of popcorn into my mouth before offering him some. Noah opens his mouth and I pop some in. “Hmm?” I push, munching away.

“It was good. Action-y,” he says.

“Captain America is gorgeous. Did you see his muscles? They are to die for,” I continue.

“Hey! What about me?” he teases, turning his head to glance back at me with a betrayed look.

I snort. “Of course you’re gorgeous. I’ve already told you. Especially with your dimple. But Captain America . . .” I sigh just thinking about that man in his superhero suit. It was much better than the one he wore in Avengers which looked a little too much like a show-girl’s outfit if I were to be honest – which I always am . . . usually. “If only he was real.”

“You know, I feel replaced,” Noah mumbles.

I pat his head. “Don’t worry. Captain America is my Army love. You’re my Air Force obsession,” I joke back, laughing.

“Obsession?” he exclaims, drawing the attention of a group of teens – who are definitely out past curfew is the amount of acne is anything to go by – who stare at us as we – he – walk past. I barely resist the urge to give them a salute, but decide to be the, figuratively, bigger person and refrain from teaching bad habits.

“Of course. Why else do you think I keep popping up wherever you are?”

“So you’re like my own personal stalker.”

“Ye—Hey!”

He laughs and then indicates for more popcorn, which I feed him by shoving a large handful into his face. Bits and kernels fall onto the pavement, but Noah catches a good bit, chipmunk cheeks munching on the salty deliciousness. “Thanks,” he says around a mouthful.

“Manners, Good Sir,” I gasp.

“I ‘o ‘ave ‘anners,” he continues, half-chewed pieces of popcorn falling from his mouth.

I laugh and shove his face so I don’t have to see.

When we reach our jeeps I reluctantly slide down from his back, standing before him as the easy conversation suddenly dies. We shuffle our feet, his hands in his pockets while mine grip onto the popcorn. Neither of us knows what to say apparently. It should be awkward, but in reality it just becomes giggle worthy, which is what I do.

“I had fun tonight,” I say after the giggle-fit subsides.

He smiles and the dimple greets me. “Me too. We should do this again.”

“Definitely,” I agree. “So I’ll see you next week, right?”

He nods. “Tearing up the porch on Monday.”

“That’ll be fun. Brandon’s managed to get Monday off so he’ll be there to help. I’m opening so I’ll be by around one-ish. Are you gonna be bringing more dangerous tools or what?” I ask, thinking of the chainsaw that I had so badly wanted to use but found was far too big for me to even lift. I wonder if they had kid-sized tools? Maybe for the midgets of the world.

“Probably a couple of things. No chainsaw, though,” he says, knowing exactly what I am thinking about.

I feel myself literally deflate in disappointment. “Oh. Fine.”

“It’ll be fun. Promise,” he says while bumping his shoulder into mine.

I grin. “Well I’ll see you on Monday, then.”

“Yes you will,” he answers.

I stare at him, chewing my lip as I consider whether or not I should go in for the hug that normally I would give no matter what. For some reason, in this moment, I don’t know if I’d be pushing boundaries or anything by doing such a thing.

Noah makes the decision for me when he opens his arms.

I push against his chest barely a half-second after.

“See ya, Spencer,” he tells me.

“See ya.”

We pull apart, wave, climb into our respective jeeps and then drive off. And on my drive home I can’t help but think that, if life were going my way, this would have been the ideal date for the guy I wanted to marry.


I am outside that blisteringly hot Monday, dressed in shorts and a plaid button-up that I am unsure where I got it from but know is mine due to the mustard stain that is decorating the few white spaces on the shirt. White is not my color. Especially when I am eating. It doesn’t matter how careful I am or even if I’m wearing a bib. Somehow I end up staining the white portion – no matter how small.

But anyways, I am outside dragging pieces of the torn up porch that Brandon and Noah are tossing to me. I have been doing this since I came back from work a little after one-thirty, and it’s now rolling on four. I am hot and sweaty and tired; not in the best mood to be dealing with the person that has chosen this exact time to roll down the driveway in their pickup.

“Who’s that?” Brandon asks, setting aside a floor-board before dusting off his hands. He makes to cross the yard to where pickup has parked behind mine and Noah’s jeeps.

I stop him with a wave of my hand. “I got it,” I tell him, dreading the following few minutes where awkward conversation will be made and possibly more yelling until I feel like punching something. “It’s my dad.”

Brandon comes up beside me, a gloved hand on my arm. “Do you want me to talk to him? Tell him to leave?” he asks me, bending his neck so we are closer to eye level and I can see the concern. “Just say the word and I will. You don’t have to talk to him if you don’t want to.”

I sigh, wanting to say yes but knowing this conversation is going to happen eventually. Might as well get it over with. “No. That’s okay.”

He isn’t deterred. “Do you want me to come with you?”

I smile at that. “You know, I wish you’d always been my brother,” I tell him honestly. “But I’ll be fine. We’re probably just going to yell at each other or something. Nothing new. If it gets out of hand, yeah, I would appreciate the save.”

He nods to me, stepping back. He glares in the direction of my dad’s pickup, folding his arms and waiting.

Making my way down the driveway, I am never more grateful than I am now to be wearing gloves. Sure they’re dirty and scratchy, but they are covering up just how sweaty my palms have become since spying that familiar car pulling in. The last thing I need is for my dad to see me as nervous – or, heaven forbid, scared – to have to talk to him. And I have a reason to be. The last time we spoke he kicked me out of my own house; didn’t even bother to stop me or convince me to come back since then.

Somewhere deep, deep, deep down it hurts.

But I will never admit that aloud.

“Dad,” I say by way of greeting when the old man climbs out to face me.

He lets out a long, drawn out breath, hands in the pockets of his jeans. I can tell he’s just gotten out of work, so why he is spending his precious free time with me?

“Spencer,” he answers, sounding very, very tired. Good. Serves him right for kicking me out and agreeing with his witch of a mother. “How’re you?”

I glance behind me to where Brandon has returned to helping Dog-Tags tear up the porch. Both are working at a slower pace than before, obviously distracted as they make not so subtle looks in my direction. “Busy,” I finally say. “Brandon’s house is a fixer upper, so as you can see, we’ve got our work cut out for us.” I spin back to face my dad, hooking my thumbs in the belt-loops of my shorts. “What’re you doing here?”

“I came to check up on you,” he answers. “I wanted to see how you were doing.”

“Well, as you can see I’ve figured it out. You don’t need to worry about me anymore. I’m not your problem, so just be grateful for that.”

“Spencer,” he sighs.

“What? What do you want from me? Huh?”

“I want you to come home,” he blurts out, scratching at his beard.

Now that throws me for a loop.

“I want you to come home, Spencer. You’ve made your point. You can make your own decisions. I see that.”

Maybe Anabelle is right. Maybe my dad has changed his mind in the week I’ve been gone.

“So come home and we can talk about things,” he continues, pausing long enough to work out what he wants to say next. “Your sister told me about you quitting McDonald’s.”

Good ol’ Anabelle. Blurting things out where she just shouldn’t.

“So?” I push, getting defensive all over again.

“So . . . you can still get that job at your mother’s firm. And while you work there you can finally figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life; what you want to major in when you go back to college.”

Ah, there it is. Hello, Mister Control Freak. How dare I doubt you, even for a second?

“No,” I snap. “I’m not going back to school.”

“You think you can survive working these dead end jobs? You think you’re going anywhere without a degree? Spencer, when are you going to come back to the real world?”

“And when are you going to get your head out of your ass and just listen to me!”

“Spencer!”

See? I told you it would just end in us arguing and yelling at each other.

“WHAT? What do you want from me?” Okay, my screamed question sounded a little more ragged than I had intended. “I’m not cut out for school, alright?”

“How do you know? You barely even gave it a chance! Those last few weeks of classes you barely even attended. They wanted to fail you, Spencer. The Dean told me all about it.”

Ah, the Dean. My dad’s best friend – well, one of them; his other is the guy that he owns a construction company with and the two of them argue like an old married couple. The man that I could never stand and who had a son my age that was even more of a douche than Alvin or Adrian.

“So? I’m not cut out for school. I’m never going back. Deal with it.”

“Stop throwing your life away!” my dad hisses at me. “I’m not going to let my daughter waste everything I ever gave her just so she can be lazy about her education.”

“Is that what you think? That I’m lazy? That I’m a waste of space?” I demand to know, arms shaking in rage. “You don’t know anything about me! All you ever cared about was the money. You wanted to be able to buy us things, but you never realized that all we – I – really wanted from you was your time.”

Wow. That was a lot more honest than I had wanted to be.

“Your sister never complained,” he retorts evenly.

I snort. “Well I’m sorry I could never be more like Anabelle. But we can’t all be perfect. There’s gotta be the screw-ups in the world to make the perfect ones look good. Too bad you just had to get the best of both worlds, huh?” I answer bitingly.

“That’s not what I said, Spencer.”

“It’s what you’ve been meaning to say for years!” I yell. I pause, taking a deep breath to calm myself down. I am getting too worked up for this. “I know, Dad. I get it. I’m not like Anabelle. I’ve never been like Anabelle. I’m not smart like her, nice like her, motivated like her. But that’s because I’m not her. I never have been her and I never will be. When are you going to accept that? All you have ever done is tried to change me. You took me to doctors because you just couldn’t accept that I was just stupid. You hired tutors to make sure I didn’t get put into the special classes. You forced me to plays sports so maybe, just maybe I wouldn’t stay as chubby as I was. Hey, guess what? That one worked. I have taken up running. I’m thin now. Are you proud of me yet?”

“Spencer,” he sighs, massaging his forehead as though he has a headache. Good. He deserves one.

“You’ve let Grandma bully me for years,” I keep going, unable to bite my tongue and keep everything that I’ve held bottled up corked. “But you wanna know what the kicker was? Do you really want to know why I won’t go back to school?”

“YES!”

“Doctor Wayne’s son,” I say.

“What about Ray?”

“I’d told you for months after I finally lost all that weight that made you so embarrassed to be seen with me; for months that Ray was making me uncomfortable. I told you he kept giving me these creepy looks and that he’d follow me around whenever you had the Waynes over for dinner. But you never listened. So guess what? He finally cornered me at school and he tried to kiss me. Yeah, I know, it’s just a kiss. So what? Well, you wanna know what he did when I told him no? He hit me. He hit me and then he kissed me for real and then he told me he’d see me in class the next day.

“I tried to tell you what happened, but you were busy. Anabelle wanted to talk to you about internships. You made time for her, but the second that I want to talk to you it’s not a good time. It’s NEVER a good time for me. So how about now? Are you willing to listen to me now? Do you care now? Or am I too much of a screw up to get the time of day? Is that it?”

My dad says nothing. He just stares at me, eyes wide, jaw slack, skin pale. He looks like he’s seen a ghost.

“I’m not going back to school where it can happen again. You can get mad all you want; say whatever you want to me, but I won’t change my mind.”

“Spencer . . .”

“Does that answer all the questions and arguments we’ve had over the years? Does it finally explain why I would rather be seen as stupid than to get some stupid degree that I probably won’t use? Will you finally stop trying to coerce me into doing what you want? Am I finally good enough?”

“Spencer.”

“No? I’m not? Don’t worry. I’ve had twenty years of experience in that department.” I snort again, sniffing back boogers and blinking around suddenly blurry eyes – maybe I have allergies. “I can’t believe I ever thought I could be. I’m Spencer, as you keep reminding me. Not Anabelle, who is your darling baby girl. I’m just the accident, remember?”

My dad’s face blanks again.

“Funny thing about being the one people only see when things go wrong; they don’t take notice of you even if you’re fat and right there,” I hiss. “Yeah, I heard you and mom and Aunt Jeanine and Uncle Tommy and Grandma talking. I was getting a pudding cup because I was fat and hungry. Anabelle was planned, I was an accident. You hadn’t wanted another kid until Belle was at least in second grade.”

“We never said we didn’t want you, Spencer,” he says quietly.

“You never told me that you did!” I scream. “How does forcing me to do things I don’t want to do sound like wanting me? It seemed more like you wanted me out of the way. And then you kicked me out!” I run my arm beneath my nose. “You kicked me out, Dad. You kicked me out, just because I wouldn’t agree with you. And now I’m here.” I wave my arms around me, trying to force a smile but knowing that it has failed spectacularly – kinda like me through my whole life. “I’m here and things are finally looking better. I don’t have to constantly wonder if my mere presence is going to set someone off on a lecture about how stupid I am or how pointless I am. I’m finally happy, and then you have to come back. You have to make me feel like shit all over again.”

“How was I ever supposed to know you felt this way? You’ve always been so aloof, Spencer. Like nothing could ever faze you or bother you. How was I to know?”

I shrug, understanding his point. I’d always been the kid who joked and laughed at everything, even the sad stuff. That’s how I’d always been.

Things just got worse as the years crept by.

“You make a fair point, Mister. How could you have ever known if you were always kicking me aside?”

“Spencer—”

A hand appears on my shoulder, making me jump in surprise until I see how it is. Brandon. My big brother coming to save the day.

“You need to leave, sir,” he says firmly and without any of the hesitation that had been present when the two had first met all those weeks ago.

My dad says nothing, too shocked by the turn of events.

“You’ve done your damage, so now I think you should leave.” To me he whispers, “Go inside. Take Noah and the dog with you.”

The fact that I don’t argue says how much this whole afternoon has affected me. I spin to do just that, listening as Brandon lays into my dad, one of the very few people who has ever stood up for me in my whole life. Anabelle has done it a few times, but mostly it’s just been me. On my own. While the rest of the world is out to get me.

“It’s not my place to tell you how to parent, sir,” Bandon is saying. “But I know what bad parents are like, and you’re getting pretty close to fall into that category. You love your daughter, I can see that, but the way you’re going about things? How do you think it’s going to turn out? Do you even know your daughter? Do you? Because if you did you would know that telling her – forcing her to do something is going to get you the exact opposite of what you want. Sure, she might not be a genius, but she’s not an idiot—”

The rest of the lecture trickles off as I get too far away, joining Noah on the plywood that will serve as the porch until we can finish it. He holds the front door open for me, and then follows me inside, shutting it firmly behind him. He nudges me into the living room and onto the orange couch, sinking down beside me.

“You okay?” he asks.

“No,” I grumble, hating the snot that is dripping from my nose. I wipe at it with my hand, remembering the gloves which I wrench off and throw angrily across the room. “He hates me.”

Noah shakes his head. “He doesn’t.”

I glare at him preparing to yell and scream and tell him to get out and never come back because if he can side with my old man then he isn’t someone I want to hang out with. Ever.

“He doesn’t. He just doesn’t know how to express himself. Look, can I just talk? For one minute. After that you can yell and do whatever it is that you want to do.”

I huff. That is all the acknowledgment I will give.

“He loves you. You’re his daughter, which is why he’s pushing you so hard to be better. He’s going about it the completely wrong way, but he does. I know I don’t know him, and I’m only just starting to get to know you, but in my opinion he’s looking out for you in the only way he knows how, which is to make sure you aren’t ever hurting for money in your life; that you get a good job with decent pay and aren’t stuck selling French fries for the rest of your life. You can tell me if I’m just being stupid, but for the record? I know you’re far from dumb and you know you don't want to work at McDonald's for the rest of your life. You’re brave and smart and you know who you are. You don’t let anyone walk over you; you stick up for yourself, which I know you must be used to. You’re sarcastic and hilarious and someone anybody would love to hang out with. And you’re beautiful, Rebel.” Noah blushes at the end, looking away.

“. . . Thanks,” I manage to say.

“He’ll either come around or not, and I know you’ll get past it. You’re too stubborn not to.”

I laugh, still feeling a little hollow inside, but better than just a moment before. “Wow. Thanks. Way to cheer a girl up.”

“I figured that to you stubborn would be a compliment.”

Thinking it over, I’ll have to agree with him. “True. Sorry that you had to hear all that.”

Dog-Tags shakes his head, but before he can say anything the front door swings open and Brandon appears, leaning casually against the wall.

“Well, your dad’s gone. He . . . umm . . . he wanted me to tell you that he’s sorry.”

“Oh,” is all I can say. I don’t know if I believe him, or if my dad is being honest or . . . I just don’t know. I will admit that it would be nice, though.

“You okay?” Brandon asks me.

I shrug. “Honestly? Not really. Half the stuff I said I never wanted to.”

“He needed to hear it,” Noah supplies, sinking back against the couch while tossing a casual arm over the back – right behind me. I lean into his side. “Maybe now things can get better.”

“Maybe,” I mutter, the only thing I’m willing to agree with.

“So, you want to call it a day or come back out?” Brandon wonders, knowing that a distraction is a good idea, but also knowing that I am exhausted.

“I’ll be out,” I say, not ready to kick back and nap. “Need to keep my mind on something else.”

Brandon nods and leaves it at that. Noah I can tell wants to say more but decides to let my older brother take the lead, trailing along behind him as they return outside. After a moment, rubbing at my eyes and clearing up my nose, I join them, soon finding myself to be laughing as Brandon screams over finding the bird carcasses beneath his porch.

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