Cross Roads

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Chapter Seven: Park

It is late.

And I am still pissed.

So pissed, in fact, that I am actually considering sleeping in my jeep tonight so I won’t have to deal with my parents, who will surely be waiting up for me for the sole opportunity of lecturing me until my ears bleed. As if I’m still some teenager who would be sneaking off to do illegal things for the fun of it.

. . . Okay, there is a point to be made there.

Maybe.

Whatever.

Still, the point is that I am twenty years old – soon to be twenty-one in six months – and they still treat me like a little kid. Forget the fact that I am little, but I do not need them looking down on me every second.

GAH! They still do that too. Curse you, short genes! Why did you have to pick on me? Why?

Life sucks.

I realize this, not for the first time, as I stomp through the empty park in the dead of night.

I also realize that I am an idiot.

That is the only explanation.

No sane girl would ever walk through an abandoned park so late at night. There are rapists and psychopaths and just plain creepers that could be hiding in bushes waiting for the unsuspecting moron to come traipsing through. I have probably just handed myself over for all kinds of torture and certain death.

My life sucks, I amend my earlier conclusion.

“Hey, hey, hey! Get back here!”

I jump, startled. No way was I expecting my would-be kidnapper to scream after me. No siree. Sneak up on me, yes. Come out of nowhere and throw a disgusting, overused bag over my head, yes. Announce his arrival, definitely not.

I do what only a partly sane person would do and prepare to flee the scene as fast as my vertically challenged legs will carry me, digging my toes into the grass to get ready to run across dew . . .

—Scratch that. I am most definitely screwed. I might as well just sit down and admit defeat, hold my hands out and say “Take me now”. There is no possible way I am going to get out of here so what’s the point in even trying?

A giant – and I mean giant – ball of fur comes flying at me from dead ahead. My eyes grow wide. I have instantly changed my mind from flopping onto my bum, and I make to spin on my heel. I don’t get anywhere, really, as I wipe out in the grass.

Literally.

I wipe flat out. Flat. On. My. Face. Full on belly-flop in the most excruciatingly painful way possible.

The wind is knocked out of me and before I can get a chance to regain it there comes an almighty bark from my would-be crusher. I jump again and my heart nearly leaps straight out of my chest.

Who knew that such a young and active girl could die from a heart attack? I sure didn’t, and it’s happening to me right now.

The dog barks again and I try to get to my feet, but the grass is so dewy that I can’t gain a grip. Go figure. I wipe out again and admit defeat. Again. Do you hear that, God? I quit! Strike me down now! There’s no point in living anymore. My life is going nowhere. Put me out of my misery already. Please! I’m begging on my gut—

“Oh my gosh, are you okay?”

—I know that voice . . .

I lift my head so fast that my hair flies. “Dog-Tags?” I gasp, still trying to get air back into my lungs.

The man in question stumbles where he is bending over and reaching to help, slipping and falling on his butt right next to me. He lets out a groan as he hits, sitting there for a moment and blinking as though he can’t believe he just toppled over. And then he starts laughing. “We have got to stop meeting like this, Rebel,” he says with a smile, scratching his massive dog behind the ears.

You’re telling me,” I moan while struggling to my hands and knees. “Your dog keeps attacking me. I’m starting to think that you have it trained to my scent or something. Like those hunting dogs. It wants to eat me. I know it does.” I look over and see the animal in question panting and drooling as it stares hungrily at me. “See! As soon as your back is turned it’s going to bite my head off.”

Dog-Tags simply laughs. “Seriously? You think this big guy is a man-eater? Look at his face,” he teases, ruffling the dog behind its ears and sending slobber flying. “He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He simply likes you.”

I pout, sit up and cross my arms, and shake my head. “No, he wants to eat me.”

“Benji, say you’re sorry,” he tells the dog quietly.

Said dog does just that, inching forward with its ears pressed back and whimpering. It looks over at me with the saddest eyes I have ever seen that I finally understand the meaning of ‘puppy-eyes’. I can’t stay mad, cracking a smile.

“He won’t bite,” Dog-Tags explains. “You can pet him if you want. I’m pretty sure he would like that. It would let him know he’s forgiven. Wouldn’t it, Benji?”

The dog whimpers again, nudging at my hand with a massive nose.

Up close this dog is even bigger than I thought . . . I wonder if it could give me piggy-back rides?

I hesitate at first, not interested in getting my fingers bitten off. It’s not until the dog licks my face that I start petting it behind the ears. The dog leans against me and thumps a foot, and we are both nearly knocked back to the ground. I flail and somehow Dog-Tags gets a hold of my sleeve and pulls me back.

“Careful. He probably outweighs you by like ninety pounds,” he jokes.

Mmhmm,” I say, not paying attention but still petting the dog behind the ears. Now that I’ve gotten over just how big it is I can honestly say it’s a cute dog. “You said his name is Benji?” I ask, laughing as it lies down and turns onto its stomach, waiting to be scratched.

“Yep.”

“And you’re sure he’s not a man-eater?”

“Positive. He’s strictly on an IAMS diet. No human organs whatsoever.”

I raise an eyebrow but continue petting the guy’s dog. Growing up I had always wanted a dog. I never got one because my parents figured that they would end up taking care of the pet a week after the novelty of having an animal passed. I told them they were wrong, but . . . it’s hard to prove it when I stayed pet-less for my entire life. Except for my goldfish. Fiona was her name, and she lasted an entire three days after I brought her home from the fair before she killed herself by getting stuck beneath a shipwreck figurine.

Dumb goldfishes.

Soooo,” Dog-Tags begins, drawing out the word.

Soooo,” I repeat, patting the dog twice on the belly. I spin on my butt, cross my legs and stare up at the strange-who-isn’t-really-a-stranger-but-I-still-don’t-know-his-first-name-guy. “I think you’re stalking me.”

He does not appear fazed or insulted by my remark. Instead, he laughs. “Really, ‘cause I was thinking that you were stalking me.”

“Your dog keeps knocking me over,” I retort.

“That’s only because he wants to make a friend. Maybe you should stop letting my dog knock you over?” he suggests.

“That’s impossible. Like you said, he probably outweighs me by like a hundred pounds.”

He shakes his head. “No, I specifically said ninety.”

“And I said like a hundred; not exactly, but around there.”

“You can’t quote me by not giving exactly what I say,” he answers. “What do they teach you in school these days?”

“It’s called paraphrasing. What did they teach you in school? And how old do you think I am?”

He looks me over – not in that creepy, I’m-picturing-you-in-a-wet-shirt kind of way – and says, “Judging by your size . . . seventeen?”

I gawk at him, mouth wide and begging bugs to fly down my throat and choke me. “Excuse me?” I screech. “That is the most insulting thing anyone has ever said to me. I am not seventeen?”

He still smiles. “Okay, how about eighteen?”

I get the feeling that he is just pulling my leg now. “No.”

Really?” he teases with a gasp.

“You know what, how about I guess how old you are? Hmm? Sound fair?”

“Go ahead, Rebel,” he tells me with a wave of his hand. “Be my guest.”

Now it is my turn to give him a once-over, starting with his boots. They are dark and worn and barely laced up, as though he simply pulled them on before walking out the door – I must give him credit, however, for his superior choice in footwear; boots all the way. Next are his faded and slightly fraying jeans that would, on anyone else, look sloppy and unkempt, but somehow seem very sexy – no, I did not just think that. Next is the long-sleeved T-shirt that reads YOUR VILLAGE CALLED, THEY WANT THEIR IDIOT BACK.

“I like your shirt,” I say, cracking a smile because, hey, it’s actually funny.

“Thanks.”

And then things come back, full line, as I go back up to his face. My, oh my, is this boy fine. I never did take myself for a girl who was into facial hair, but there is just something about a guy that can pull off three-day-old stubble and still look a skyscraper-leap above scummy.

“Twenty-five,” I settle on.

This time he looks appalled. “I am not that old,” he hisses.

“Okay, okay!” I cry while throwing up my hands. “Don’t bite my head off. It was just a mediocre guess. Sheesh. You’d think I had just offended you.” I pause a moment and tap my chin. “Twenty-four.”

He blinks.

“Okay. I’ll take that as a no.” I give up on guessing. “How old are you, Mister Stalker.”

“I am not a stalker,” he laughs, stretching his arms over his head until we both hear an audible crack from his spine. “I’m twenty-one.”

I nod my head as if I knew it all along. “Sounds reasonable, Dog-Tags.”

“And you are?”

“Has no one ever told you never to ask a woman her age?”

“I’m pretty sure that only applies for when they’ve hit their forties,” he returns easily.

“Touché,” I say. “I’m twenty, if you must know.”

He nods. “I actually do need to know. The next time we run into each other I can’t keep thinking you’re some high-schooler who thinks she’s cool because she is sneaking out and running through random neighborhoods past curfew.” He leans back on his hands, looking as though he is getting ready to sit in the dew for a while longer. “So what’s your excuse this time? Or is it Oreos again?”

I huff and fold my arms. “I will have you know that Oreos are a major part of my daily diet.”

“Coffee, too?”

“Yes.”

“I can tell.”

I narrow my eyes at him. “Is that supposed to offend me?”

“Nope. It was simply a friendly observation.”

I grin. “Actually, this time it’s because my favorite Pop-Tart flavor was sold out at the store and I was sorely upset. I decided a walk through the park would be an appropriate way for me to work out my frustrations, and if some stalker happened to try and abduct me I could vent on him too,” I explain sweetly, waiting for the inevitable eye-roll that comes with me opening my mouth.

But then he does something that I am not used to other people doing when I give my sarcastic retorts.

He laughs.

Most of the time I get strange looks. Sometimes people actually believe my reasoning, no matter how far-fetched it sounds. My parents merely lecture me on my attitude.

To find someone who actually gets my sense of humor, it’s refreshing to say the least.

“You must love your Pop-Tarts,” he finally says after a good minute.

I nod enthusiastically. “Almost as much as Oreos and coffee. Have you ever tried the two together? Dip an Oreo in coffee and it’s just heaven.”

“No, I can’t say that I have, Rebel,” he tells me. “I’ll make a point of trying it sometime.”

“Good. I keep telling the company that they should make coffee flavored Oreos but they never listen. I think it would be delicious. I doubt I’m the only one, but they’re probably just upset that they didn’t think of it first. They’re just jealous of all the ideas that are bouncing around in my head.”

He agrees with a serious nod. “You’re quite right.”

“So what’s your excuse for stalking me, Dog-Tags?”

“Insomnia,” he says with a shrug.

“Really?” I never did take him to be the hard-of-sleeping type. Sure, it would explain why he was out at such un-Godly hours of the morning. Still. I never thought of him as an insomniac. Goes to show how good I am at reading people.

“Yeah. Benji just can’t sleep at night. I don’t know why. It’s like he’s nocturnal or something,” he explains with a knowing smirk.

This time I smile. Neither of us wants to share our deep, dark secrets. Good. I believe this could be the start of a beautiful friendship. “Is that so?”

He sighs dramatically. “Yes. He keeps me up most nights, too. He’s lucky I am so nice to stay up with him, keeping him company. If it weren’t for me he never would have scared you up that lamppost . . . how many weeks ago was that?”

Honestly, I have no clue. I know it happened on a Wednesday. “Maybe three?” I suggest.

He nods and agrees. “Sounds about right.” A small shiver runs down his spine, shaking him from head to toe. He laughs it off, running a hand through his dark hair. “Been back a month and still not used to the cold.”

A normal person, after hearing something like that, would be all sympathetic. A normal person would also be nosy, wanting to know about his life in the military and what he was doing overseas. A normal person would not say what spewed out of my mouth before my nonexistent filter could turn itself on.

“You think this is cold? You’re lucky you missed out on the winter we just had,” I say, petting his dog once more.

“I heard about it,” he answers, not sounding at all offended by my atypical response. “At least you got a white Christmas. That’s always nice to have, isn’t it?”

“Yes it is. This winter was awesome, all the snow. The only downside to it was having to clean off my car every morning, and driving with a frozen windshield. It can get a little difficult to avoid traffic when your visibility is zilch.” I sigh, thinking back on the number of times I had horns blared at me.

My phone vibrates in my pocket, and when I pull it out to check I see that it is going on one in the morning. And I have to work at seven tomorrow – actually, today. “Well, you’re probably going to want to get home if you think this is too cold for you.”

Dog-Tags nods and gets to his feet, dusting grass and leaves and muck from his jeans. He offers me a hand and I take it. “I’ll walk you . . . wherever you’re going.”

“My car is just outside,” I tell him, not needing an escort. I am a confident and independent woman who does not need a man to protect her. “I’ll be fine.”

“Still, I would feel better if I knew no stalkers jumped you on your way there.”

I grin but allow for him and his dog to follow me. “You know, I’m pretty sure there’s a law against dogs being out in public without a leash.”

He shrugs, unperturbed. “There is, but who else is out? Besides, Benji’s a good boy. See?” he nods down to the dog who is walking patiently on my other side, fur brushing against my leg because he is so close. “The only thing we need to worry about is if a girl comes running over. He’ll want to say hello and I can’t prevent him from being so friendly.”

“Ha-ha-ha,” I mutter. “He’s not so bad once you get over the fact that he sat on me.”

“No, he’s not.”

We finish walking through the park, coming out in the parking lot where my jeep is the only vehicle in sight.

“Well, there it is. Thanks for walking me. I’m pretty sure I’m safe enough to finish the trek on my own.” I start towards my car, getting only a step away before Dog-Tags opens his mouth and sends me to a screeching halt.

“You drive a jeep?”

I spin around and raise an eyebrow, concerned. I nod. “Yep . . . why?” Is it just me or does Dog-Tags sound a little too eager to be discussing vehicles right now? Maybe I misjudged him and instead of trying to kidnap me he wants to carjack me. I’ll admit, my mode of transportation is a beast. Anyone would be lucky to have it.

But this jeep is mine.

Mine I tell you! MINE!

“What year is it?”

“It’s an ’85. CJ-7.”

The smile I get is so joyful and adorable that I reconsider my earlier thought. No way is a guy as cute as this a car thief. Nope. It would just go against all the laws of nature. Besides, he’s a military dude. They would never leave a poor girl like me alone and car-less at this time of night . . . er, morning.

“Seriously? I have the same jeep.”

Now that perks me up. Never before have I met another jeep enthusiast like myself. “No way!” I am also excited to know that he definitely, beyond any shadow of doubt, is not going to be attempting to take my jeep from me. That puts me in a happy mood, to say the very least.

“Well, mine’s an ’86, but it’s still a CJ-7.”

“That is so cool. We’ll have to compare sometime. . . . Although, I’m pretty sure mine is better.” I purse my lips and tilt my head to the side, daring him to make his own argument.

He sees my dare and raises me a challenge. “I bet yours isn’t a stick shift.”

I scurry over to my car and swing wide the driver’s door. “Think again, Dog-Tags.”

He peers in, whistling at the shifter before wrinkling his nose at the carpets. “I guarantee you that my carpets are cleaner.”

I wave a hand. “Whatever. I’m working on getting new ones. A whole redo will cost me a couple hundred and I’m just a little hesitant to fork over that kind of cash when these carpets are still usable. Sure, I could vacuum up those dead leaves, but this is my security system. If I made this thing look so awesome inside and out I doubt it would be safe while I am working.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

I smile, glinting and knowing and just downright evil. Dog-Tags appears to be a little put off. “Just you wait. When I peel out of here you’re going to wish this jeep was yours.”

“Is that so?”

I nod once, firmly. “Thanks for walking me over. I’ll see you around Mister Stalker!”

“I’m not a stalker, Rebel!”

“We shall see, Dog-Tags. We shall see.” I climb up behind the wheel and crank the engine. It growls, loud and beautiful and the look on his face tells me what I already knew.

He is envious.

I wave as I drive off. He waves back. I watch in my rearview mirror as he walks back into the park, his dog trotting easily beside him, a strange but companionable pair.

I can’t help but hope that I run into him again.

The drive home is long and quiet, nothing good to listen on the radio. It’s a quarter to two when I pull into the driveway. My parents should be asleep. Anabelle will be back from her date. I wonder how things went for her and Brandon; if she’ll be awake because she wants to scream at me for the horrible setup. That thought is almost enough to convince me to sleep in my jeep.

Almost.

In the end I decide that I am balls’y enough to go inside, up the stairs, and head towards my room.

I nearly scream when I turn on my bedroom light and find my sister sitting on my bed, waiting for me.

What is wrong with you?” I hiss, trying to prevent myself from having a second heart attack in one night.

“Where have you been?” she retorts.

“Out. Just like you. Which reminds me. How did your date go?”

My sister blushes and I know she won’t be blaming me for all her misfortunes any time soon. “It was nice. We . . . we’re going out again next week.”

I am stunned. “Really?”

She nods.

“So all your whining and moaning about having to go out with a college drop-out who works at McDonald’s was for nothing?”

She sighs. “Spencer, that . . . that’s not why I was so against going out with him. It’s just . . . we . . . we have a history.”

“Yeah, I figured that out. What happened? He crush on you from afar and you turn him down? Or was it the other way around? You know, I never even knew the two of you knew each other. He never came up in conversation.” And it’s funny how true that is. I’ve known Brandon since I was fourteen. He’s been my best friend since I was seventeen. Never once did I bring him up at home . . . so maybe it’s my fault that I never knew about this supposed history.

“No, no. We actually dated for a little bit in high school.”

Now this, this surprises me.

“No you didn’t. I would have known.”

“It wasn’t anything big. He asked me out, I said yes. We went on a couple of double dates and then . . . I was stupid. He was a nerd in school, Spencer.”

Yeah, I know that. Which is why he was my tutor.

I don’t say that, though. I just nod my head.

“When I got picked for the cheerleading team in junior year they told me it would hurt my image to be seen around school with him. So I stood him up. We haven’t spoken since.” Just by watching her I get the distinct feeling that this is not at all how things went down. Or, at least not entirely true. There is a story, a mystery, behind Brandon and Belle’s past relationship-slash-breakup, and I am determined to figure it out. One day. “I didn’t even know that he was your tutor. He didn’t tell me until tonight, which is how I found out you knew him. Why didn’t you want us to know you were being tutored?”

I shrug. “I don’t know. I just didn’t. But enough about me! Your date was a success? You two decided to be adults and get over the issues that plagued you in high school? I am so proud of you, Belle, growing up like that. It must make you feel so accomplished.” I cross to my dresser, getting changed into my pajamas without a care for the audience that I have. “Although I am quite cross with you for standing up my big brother. But that would explain why he nearly died when I asked him to take you out.”

“WHAT?” my sister screeches.

“Pipe down. We don’t want to wake up Darth Vader and the Sith Lord, now do we?”

She blinks at me, confused. “What?”

“Never mind,” I say with a wave, hopping onto my bed and nearly sending her bouncing off to the floor. “I’m tired. Get out so I can sleep.”

She sighs but stands. “Spencer, I just wanted to say thanks for what you did for me. With Adrian and with Brandon.”

“Whatever. I am expecting top of the line birthday and Christmas presents this year. DO NOT disappoint me or else you will understand just why Grandma hates me so much.”

“She doesn’t hate—”

One look silences the end of that sentence.

“Okay, fine, maybe she does, but that’s because you’re too crazy for her to handle.”

“That woman is crazy. She should be used to it by now after living with herself for over sixty years.”

My sister gives me a look and I know she is not amused. “All I was trying to do was say thank you.”

“Yep. I know. And you did. And you are very welcome. Now get out so that I may sleep. Some of us do not get Saturdays off like the normal folk.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she says, walking out of my room.

As soon as she shuts the door I call, “THANK YOU!” loud enough that I am sure I just woke up the entire neighborhood. Oh well. All’s fair in love and war.

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