Cross Roads

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Chapter Twenty: Birthday

“Do you think he’ll like it?”

I roll my eyes, getting sick of the repetitive question. It’s like my sister is a broken record. Do you think he’ll like it, do you think he’ll like it, do you think he’ll like it? Over and over and over again. It’s annoying, especially since Anabelle is questioning my awesome judgment . . . okay, maybe that’s a little bit of a stretch considering the past two months – exploding a car and then getting blackmailed and later punched for my troubles – but if there’s one thing I do know that is Brandon’s likes and dislikes.

An AC/DC shirt is definitely one of his likes.

So is the pound and a half of Eight o’clock coffee.

And the box of Toaster Strudel – in varying flavors.

Let’s not forget the fact that my sister is going to be making him dinner and a birthday cake, which I know will be to die for. Originally she had planned to take him out to dinner, but I had nixed that idea. Brandon wasn’t one to eat out. He was a frugal man at best – and that’s saying it nicely – so he would be getting the cheapest thing on the menu which in turn would be the nastiest. It would ruin the birthday mood. Plus he just didn’t like eating out in general. Too much time spent in his own restaurant had a way of ruining the experience.

“Yes, Belle. He will love it,” I tell her for . . . I’m not even sure what number we’re up to. Early hundreds, I think.

She huffs out a breath but continues to follow me throughout Target. “Well, what are you getting him?”

I laugh. “I’ve had his present for months!” I exclaim. “It’s an old-timey movie collection. You guys should watch one or two after your dinner. He’d love it. There’s Charlie Chaplin and Danny Kaye. He loves those old movies,” I tell her, picking up a bag of M&Ms and tossing it into our cart.

“Does he like candy, too?”

I give her a look that is quickly followed by a snort. “No. Those are for me. You wanna get him something go for the Musketeers. He likes the nugget in them. Seriously, Belle. You dated him for three years! You should know these things by now! How can you call yourself his girlfriend if you keep asking the little sister for advice?”

My sister is not pleased. “I know this stuff. Really, I do,” she quickly adds when I open my mouth to whine. “I just . . . we hadn’t seen each other in years before you set us up on that blind date – thank you for that, by the way. I just don’t know if his likes have changed, you know? And I want to make his birthday perfect and . . . HELP!” She yells the last part, drawing the attention of several other shoppers.

This is a first for my sister. Usually I am the one with all the dramatics. Usually I am the embarrassing, attention grabber. It’s nice to know that I am finally rubbing off on her.

“FEAR NOT!” I reply, fist in the air and my chest puffed out. “WE ARE GOODES, MY DEAR LADY! AND GOODES ARE ALWAYS TRIUMPHANT!”

Now we really do have an audience. One tiny little child is even giggling as her mother power-walks away from our vicinity.

And then, in true un-Anabelle-like fashion, my sister slings her arm over my shoulders, her own fist in the air, and replies with just as much gusto, “YOU ARE RIGHT, GOODE, SIR! WE SHALL PREVAIL!”

Fighting back the urge to laugh, I loop my arm around Belle’s waist and we march away from the scene of the crime – incidentally in the wake of that fleeing mother. Stalkers we are, but only accidentally. We walk like this all the way to the check-out. I’m pretty sure that the majority of the store’s occupants think we are lesbian – ah the perks of looking nothing alike save for our noses – and give us a wide birth. As if it’s contagious. HA.

We check-out and take our purchases to my sister’s car, piling into the blistering heat. I gag, Anabelle lifts hers arms like she is sweating – she actually glitters. Once her car is turned on we roll down our windows, speeding through the parking lot in the hopes of circulating cooler air.

It works until we have to stop. Then the heat becomes just as oppressive.

“Alright, so make sure you give Brandon my gift before yours,” I say to Anabelle as we’re driving down the thruway, having to yell to be heard above the wind.

“Why? Don’t you want to wait until you can be there?”

I shake my head. “Nah. He’ll want to watch them. I’ll see him tomorrow anyways, so he can thank me then.” I choose to keep to myself that I also got Brandon a card – hilarious – which is what I really want to see him open. It is pure epic-ness. I could care less about the movie collection. It lost its lustrous appeal months ago when it got dropped off in the mail and I realized I still had so long to wait just to give it to the guy. No, the card is what I look forward to.

“Are you okay about closing?” she asks next.

I shrug. “It’s going to be one of my last times. I haven’t done it in a while, so I guess so. Just as long as there are no mishaps.” I absolutely hate closing, but this is for Brandon. If I hadn’t then the guy would be forced to on his birthday. I just couldn’t do that to him. Especially after everything he’s done for me. “Just remember to save me some dinner.”

“Sure,” she answers. And then she flips on the radio and we spend the rest of the drive jamming out to music.

When we get back to Brandon’s I gather up our bags and start for the front door, stepping cautiously because the porch is only half-way completed. The supports have been set in concrete and we’ve almost finished putting in the base-frame. The day after tomorrow Noah and I have plans to finish and then start nailing down the floor-boards. So far it looks a hundred times better than the previous porch – with its sagging floor and leaning roof posts. I am actually quite pleased with it.

“Spencer!”

I spin around at the tip of the plywood. “What?”

She is standing at the trunk of her car, waving me back. “I have something for you!”

This gets me excited as I jump back to the ground and bounce over to her. “Really? But my birthday’s not until September! You got me a present? It better be something that I like. You know I hate it when people get me things I don’t like. Remember when Aunt Jeanine got me those pants? They were from the kid’s section. Granted, I did kinda fit them, but there was way too much squeezing involved. I felt like my hips were going to suffocate. Is that even possible? But then, to be fair, they did make my butt look good. I was even told so . . . but that was by one of our elderly customers and I’m pretty sure he brings a flask of whiskey inside to spice up his morning coffee—”

Anabelle cuts me off by shoving a very familiar case that I haven’t seen in a really long time. At least a year, maybe longer.

“Where did you get this?” I ask her, dropping the bags to clutch at what she has given me.

“I found it in the basement. Mom and I were spring cleaning over the weekend. I kept forgetting to bring it and mention it. So here you go!” she says excitedly, clapping her hands. “You still remember how to play, right?”

I am actually more than slightly offended. “Of course!” I snap, setting the case across her trunk and opening it.

Inside is my guitar. There is nothing overly special about it, aside from the fact that it is mine and I thought it had gotten lost. I’d bought it when I was fourteen since my parents refused to buy it for me, saying that I would want to quit – which I kind of can’t argue with, but to be fair, all the other times I quit were things they forced me into: soccer, gymnastics, clarinet, ballet. So I’d purchased it myself after months of odd jobs and saving allowances. And then I’d taught myself to play. I wasn’t good or anything. I couldn’t really play notes. I taught myself how to play by ear, and it has worked out well for me.

This was my own personal escape before I took up running.

“Well now you can keep playing!” Anabelle tells me, grabbing up our bags and carrying on into the house. “You always were really good. I wish you’d let Mom and Dad hear you . . .”

It is the completely wrong thing to say, especially after the giant blowup with Father Time that occurred only four days ago. She knows about it; heard about it from me and Brandon and our dad. She knows things didn’t end the way she had probably hoped, so why would she bring it up? “They don’t care, so let’s move on from that, shall we?” I ask her a little nippier than I had wanted. But she hit a nerve, so that’s her own doing. “What time is it?”

“Almost eleven thirty.”

I set my guitar off to the side before clapping my hands loudly together. “Good. That means I have a little over three hours to decorate before I have to get to work.”

My sister looks very, very, very worried. “Decorate?”

“YES! I raided Dollar Tree the other day. We have balloons and streamers and balloons and confetti and balloons and a banner and balloons . . . I mentioned balloons, right?”

Anabelle nods. Her mouth has fallen open. She seems speechless. And overwhelmed.

“What?” I wonder after a lengthy silence. “Do you think we need more balloons? I can go back to dollar tree. I’m pretty sure they got a shipment today. If not I’ll go to another store.” I make to do just that.

“NO!” Anabelle cries, holding her hands out to stop me. “You have enough balloons. I’m just . . . surprised.”

I tilt my head to the side. “About what?”

“You’re going all out for him,” she answers simply. “Do you have a surprise party planned? Are we going to be swamped by people tonight?”

“No. Aside from you and me Brandon’s close friends are limited. Mainly to me. He kinda fell out of touch with a lot of them because he was always at work; never had time to go out or do anything. I think he talks to his fellow nerd from high school – the salamander to his valium—” at this my sister rolls her eyes and shakes her head “—but only once in a while. I’d say they play some online game together, but Brand-O doesn’t have internet. At least, not that he’s told me. If he does and he’s keeping it secret then I’m going to be very upset.”

“Okay, okay, okay,” Belle breathes, waving her hands. “That’s a little more than I thought I would get. How do you know all of this?”

I shrug. “Easy. I see the guy every day of the freakin’ week. We learn things about each other.”

“Okay. So, decorations? Where should we start?”

From then until the time that I have to get ready for work we decorate the crap out of Brandon’s place. I blow up all the balloons in the twenty packages I have bought – I guess I am full of hot air – and there are so many that after the garlands I create I have way too many extra so I throw a dozen in the bathtub and then the rest into Brandon’s room for an extra surprise. The streamers go up, the confetti gets set into bowls. We hang the banner in the front entry, clean up our mess a little bit, and then Anabelle starts cooking their dinner while I go to get changed.

When I arrive at work things are slow, which is a good thing. Brandon doesn’t look seconds away from pulling out his hair, and it’s about time for that, too. The rest of his shift goes by smoothly, and when he leaves at five it looks like tonight might just turn out to be a good night.

I am very, very wrong on that front.

Sometimes I regret opening my big mouth – granted, I didn’t even speak, but it really is the thought that counts.

Other times I wish Life didn’t have it out to get me.

But it does, so I shouldn’t be too surprised when my grill closer decides that he does not need to listen to me when I tell him to spit out the bubblegum that he is currently chomping – mouth wide open and smacking sounds galore. First off, it’s rude. Second off, it’s disgusting. Third off, it’s against McDonald’s rules and regulations – and I’m pretty sure the same can be said for ANY restaurant. And last but not least, I told him to spit it out and he blatantly refused.

A customer even complained to me about it, which really pushed me towards getting the kid to spit it out.

Still, no dice. He pretended that he couldn’t even hear me.

So I approached the dumb dude. I told him, once more, to spit out his gum. And you wanna know what he did? He said that he heard me the first time and he is not spitting his gum out; that I can’t make him do anything about it. Now, we should all know how I responded to that.

I told him that I was his boss right then, no a friend that he could talk to however he wanted.

He laughed some more, the freakishly tall giant of a stupid, stupid-head.

The kid got a write up, which he absolutely refused to sign – even went so far as to laugh in my face – and then sent home for his troubles. Thus I was left with no grill closer and the beginnings of a headache because, no matter how much I enjoy confrontations, screaming like that I do not.

I refused to call Brandon for help, wanting him to enjoy his birthday.

Besides, the other crew people were very supportive. Some offered to stay late, but what I needed was someone to help me close. Only one was legally allowed to work past ten, and she has an internship starting early in the morning, so I couldn’t ask her to stay to close. She did, however, offer to stay until I closed lobby at eleven. Technically no one is supposed to be left in the store alone, but what Brandon and the other higher-ups don’t know won’t hurt ‘em.

“Thanks so much for staying. I’m sorry about this,” I tell her after ten and the rest of the crew has left. We have switched places since she isn’t quite as proficient in grill as I am, and I want to get as much cleaned as I can so I’m not stuck here for hours. “At eleven you can just leave and I’ll clock you out whenever I finish counting out and cleaning.”

She nods, sweeping through lobby. “No problem. A little extra cash never hurt anybody.”

“That is true,” I agree, squeegee-ing off the flat grill and then dousing it with the grill cleaner. I am just finishing it, placing down the teflons, when a customer walks through the front doors. “Well, look-ee who it is. Whatcha doing here, Adrian? Your personal chef unable to create the yummy goodness of a Big Mac?” I call, wiping down the grill and coming up to the front. “You’re by yourself. That’s a first. Usually you have your brother or somebody else of your elitist clique tagging along.”

Adrian Knightly grins, shaking his head. It’s a little weird, but not in a bad way. Since finding out that he knew I vandalized his car and that he was going to let me walk away from it I had begun to think that maybe I was wrong about the guy. No, I wasn’t going to change all my assumptions, but maybe he wasn’t as douche-y as I’d thought.

“I was just in the neighborhood. Saw your jeep and figured I should stop in to say hello.”

I lift an eyebrow. “Really?”

“No,” he says easily. “My girlfriend—”

“A girl you’ve slept with twice does not count as a girlfriend,” I interrupt, ignoring the open-mouthed staring of my crew person.

“Three times, actually,” he corrects, seeming rather proud of himself.

I roll my eyes. “Sure. Whatever. Still doesn’t make her your girlfriend.”

“While that might be true . . . it doesn’t matter anymore. She broke up with me tonight. Dropped me off about a mile away. I had to walk here.”

“Poor you. Do your sensitive heels hurt?”

“A little,” he allows.

“What happened? She catch you cheating on her? You do that a lot.”

“Actually . . . I’m not sure why she left me stranded. I think she was just using me or . . . or something.”

Now that is shocking. “Really? Wow. I have got to meet this girl. I think we would have a wonderful friendship. So, how does it feel to be the one kicked to the curb instead of the one driving off? It’s not fun, is it? It actually makes you feel horrible to know that the other person didn’t even care about you enough to give as explanation.”

He winces. “Okay. I deserved that.”

“You’re right, you did.”

Adrian opens his mouth to respond, but a squeak to the side draws both our attentions. “Hello,” he says to the girl who looks seconds away from passing out. Or losing her dinner.

“Mina,” I say, waving a hand in front of her face. “You okay?”

“You . . . y-you’re . . . you’re Adrian Knightly,” she squeals, pointing a quivering hand.

He nods. “Yeah. Hi, Mina,” he greets, uncharacteristically sweet and kind.

“H-hi,” she stammers. And then her gaze swings to me. “You know Adrian Knightly?”

“Yeah. We have a . . . mutual acquaintance,” I explain, choosing to omit the fact that he had dated my sister once upon a time. No use bringing it up when I’m sure Belle would love for nothing more than to forget her year of misjudgment. I glance over at the clock, seeing that it is now two minutes after eleven. “Mina, you can go now.”

She perks up at that, hurrying to gather her things from the back and then following me to the door. I let her out, watching to make sure she gets to her car and has driven away before I lock things up. “I’m closing lobby,” I tell Adrian when I come back.

He gives me a look. “You’re here by yourself?”

“Yeah. There was an issue with my other closer and . . . while it’s not exactly legal, it’s better than closing early and getting lectures and whatnot from the owner. So, did you want to order something?”

Adrian shakes his head. “Nah.” He scratches the back of his head, looking strangely nervous. “Did you want me to stay? So you’re not alone?”

“Is this you trying to get a ride home? You do know you have a personal driver, too, right? Give him a call,” I say, taking an order through drive-thru. The next few minutes are spent dealing with the customer and making the food, and then I’m back to talking to Adrian. “I’m not giving you free food, either.”

“I wasn’t asking for that. I’m offering as a friend.”

“We’re not friends,” I deadpan, gathering up trays.

“While that is true, I would like to change that.”

Now that gives me a start. “What? Why?”

“Honestly? I have no idea. When Anabelle and I dated I thought you were just the annoying little sister, but now . . . I don’t know. You’re different, Spencer.”

“Wow. Is that supposed to be a compliment?” I take another order. “Is this how you get all your hook-ups?”

He grins. “No. I’m actually a lot smoother. Right now I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“Hmm. Interesting.”

So, I’m going to stay until you’re ready to leave. You shouldn’t be here alone. Anything could happen.”

I want for nothing more than to decline the offer that isn’t being given like an offer. But then I think back to the threat I was given by the ex-con with the butter knife. “Fine. But you listen to me. And I may or may not give you a ride home.”

“That’s fine,” he tells me with a smile. And then he grabs up the broom that Mina had left leaning against the counter.

“What are you doing?”

“Sweeping. What does it look like?”

“You know how to sweep?” I ask, about to have a heart attack because SERIOUSLY? Adrian Knightly knows what a broom is? He knows how to sweep?

He laughs. “Yeah. I have a general idea.”

“But why?”

“I’m helping.”

“Again. Why?”

“I may be a douche, but I’m not that much of one that I’ll sit here and watch as you do everything yourself. Now, you take care of what you need to do over there and I’ll take care of here.”

“You gonna mop, too?”

His eyes go wide, but only for a moment. “Sure.”

I shake my head, thoroughly confused but unwilling to keep questioning. I’m already freakishly behind. Even with his help I won’t be getting out until after one in the morning.

The next hour goes by fast, and then I am pulling drawers. I put them and the report print-outs in the safe before going about finishing grill closing. I clean the clam grills, and get a box ready to pour out the grease, but when I go to do that I realize that it is way too full and I am way too small for be lifting the grease-traps.

“Adrian!” I call, trying to sound sweet.

He leans his head around from where he is just finishing mopping lobby. “Yes?” he asks warily.

“You got muscles. I need you to dump this for me.”

Although he looks very, very reluctant he does come over. Adrian stares at what I want him to do, and for a moment I think he is going to refuse. Then he grumbles, “Fine. How?”

I show him where to grab and what to do, and within a minute the grease traps are empty and being sprayed out in the foot-sink. The rest of the grill stuff goes by smoothly, with Adrian helping me to sweep and mop, and by one o’clock I am just about done with the computer portion of my manager close. Adrian is sitting on the cooler, staring up at the pickled ceiling while I count my drawers.

“Do you like being a manager?” he asks me out of the blue.

I tilt back in my chair and stick my tongue out. “BLAH. What kind of question is that?”

Adrian laughs. “I guess the answer is no.”

“Got that right. The pay’s better than regular crew and I get free food within reason, but that’s where the slight perks end. It actually sucks. I can’t wait to get out of here.”

“Are you quitting?”

I nod. “One more week and I’m gone.”

“Where you going?”

“No idea. I have a couple interviews lined up, so we’ll see if I get offered a job.”

We lapse back into silence as I count the deposit, fill out the appropriate bank slip, and tape the bag shut. I do the cash sheet, fax it to the office, and then the black book, and then we’re all set to go.

“You want me to drive you?” I ask Adrian as I do a quick walk through the make sure nothing has been forgotten.

He shakes his head. “That’s okay. You’re probably tired. I’ve got a ride coming now,” he answers.

“Okay.” I let us out and we wait at my jeep for his driver to come. “Thank for the help,” I say when the SUV pulls up.

“No problem. It was fun.”

My eyes go wide. “Dude, you might want to get checked out by a doctor. I don’t think you’re feeling very well.”

He smiles, shakes his head, says, “See you later, Spencer,” and then he’s getting into the SUV. Not even a minute later and I’m pulling out behind them, driving back to Brandon’s. It is after two when I finally step through the door. Way past my bed time and I am dog tired.

“Spence?”

I jump where I am kicking off my shoes, peering into the living room to see Brandon squinting at me from the couch.

“Did you fall asleep?” I ask dumbly because it is obvious that he has.

“Must’ve,” he answers, sitting up and rubbing his hands down his face. “I was waiting for you. Wanted to make sure you got in okay.” He looks over to the TV. “You’re late. What happened?”

I shake my head, walking over and ruffling his hair. “I’ll tell you tomorrow. It’s fine. No big problems. How was your birthday?”

“Good,” he says. “Surprised by what you did with the place. Belle said you wanted to go all-out, and you sure did. Nice touch, the balloons in the bathroom.”

“I thought it spiced things up,” I agree. “Did you like my gift?”

Brandon stands up with a yawn, stretching. He grins down at me, a lazy, tired smile that makes him look years younger than twenty-four. “Yeah. Your sister was actually scared that I would like your present more than I liked hers.”

“She wanted to make your birthday special. She was freaking out on my when we went to Target this morning. If I hadn’t been there she probably would have bought out the store just to make sure she got you something that you would love.” It’s a little exaggerated, but the truth nonetheless. “Happy late Birthday, Brand-O,” I say, hugging him tightly.

“Thanks, Spence,” he replies, hugging me back. And then he yawns again.

“Go to bed, Mister,” I order him with a smile. “You’ve got work tomorrow. So do I. We both need our beauty sleep.”

It’s a testament to how tired he is that he obeys without a word. We both go upstairs, say our goodnights, and then he’s collapsing on his bed, ignorant of the balloons bouncing across his floor. Oh well. He’ll see them tomorrow.

I shower quickly, and then I crawl into my own bed. I fall asleep not long after, the last thought being of how weird Adrian had been and if the guy was, maybe, just a little bit bipolar – or maybe the dude had multiple personalities. Either way he was weird and relatively human for a change.

And it was a good change, too.

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