Cross Roads

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Chapter Eight: Shack

Crap-shack.

That is my first impression of this desolate structure nestled as far from the in-need-of-major-repairs road as it can possibly get.

The driveway is a mixture of dirt and gravel and weeds. I don't know where to turn at first until I see the tire treads marking a worn path from the pot-holed road.

The grass is too high, going too long without being cut even this early in May.

There's a dead tree standing by its lonesome, creepy and much more festive if it were actually close to Halloween. It looks forebodingly close to falling over and crushing me as I lug past.

All in all, my first impression of Brandon's house is not a good one. I'm waiting for him to call me, laughing and saying how blonde I am for believing this is his address. My hand is holding my phone, ready to get the phone call. Seriously, though, this can't be his house.

My phone doesn't go off, though.

I am forced to drive along, dirt flying beneath my tires. Maybe I should have put my jeep into four-wheel before I turned in. I had considered it, but I figured, if this is Brandon's place, it can't possibly be as bad as it looks. I was so very wrong. This is close enough to off-road as one can get this close to downtown.

I creep up to the detached garage that is more a lean-to than a garage. I may not be an expert about construction, but my dad has taught me a thing or two and I'm pretty sure walls should not be tilting at a forty-five degree angle. Just saying. I think that's a little unsafe; structurally un-sound; a reason for a building inspector to condemn this lot.

My eyes stray to the left and my foot slips off the clutch. My jeep stalls, wrenching to a stand-still. I jerk under my seatbelt, whip-lash setting in as my eyes grow bug-wide.

No, I really have the wrong address.

The front door opens. I am waiting for some ornery old man to come hobbling out with a cane on his elbow and a shotgun to his shoulder screaming for me to get off his property.

—Ignore the fact that Brandon's pickup is parked just up ahead of me. I am.

In the end Brandon stumbles out, leaning against one of the rotting support posts on his porch. He looks half asleep, standing there in his pajamas and with a severe case of bed-head.

I stare, unable to comprehend just what I have signed up for. How the heck am I supposed to clean up this crap-shack? No, seriously – really, really serious here – how am I supposed to get this looking even remotely live-able? I may be a miracle worker, but this is beyond help!

If I thought the box-of-doom known as a garage was bad, the place where my boss eats and sleeps and poops is worse. The roof, even at first glance, is in desperate need of a replacement. There should not be more shingles on the ground than on the roof. There should not be various weeds – and is that a tree? – growing from the gutter. The siding is chipped, warped in places, falling in others, and mostly just missing. One window is a puzzle that's held together by duct tape. The rest are so old that the plastic between the two panes is bubbled and cracked; foggy. The porch is even sagging at the middle.

This place is a death trap!

I keep staring because I have to wake up eventually and find myself at the hands of a paramedic after falling asleep behind the wheel. No joke – when have I ever been known to make light of such critical situations?

This is ridiculous.

"A deal is a deal!" Brandon calls when I don't move. His chest heaves, up and then down, and he turns to goes back inside. The door creaks and groans behind him.

I'm pretty sure the entire house shudders.

"Nope. Ain't gonna happen. Never in a million years. He can't make me. No one can make me. I am my own person, capable of making my own decisions on my life. No one shall be harvesting my organs tonight. Nuh-uh. I refuse to set foot in there," I tell myself, reaching for my keys to restart my jeep and floor it out of there.

But I never back out on a deal.

I scream and bang my fists onto my wheel. I deliberately avoid setting off my horn, knowing that the gay squeak it emits will do nothing to vent my emotions – who woulda thunk that such a beast of a machine could make the most pathetic sounds? I grab my keys, get out of the safety of my trusty vehicle, and venture up to the front porch.

Up close does absolutely no wonders for this place. It makes me very worried for my life. Very, very, very worried. I literally have to force myself to step up to the front door. I am hesitant to even touch said piece of wood and screen.

Brandon does it for me.

He is holding two mugs of heavenly smelling coffee.

All my reservations have vanished! Coffee takes precedence over everything, even thoughts of preserving my life. At least this way I will go out happy, with coffee in my hand and in my stomach.

"Gimme," I say, taking the mug he is only just beginning to offer me.

"You're welcome," he grumbles, obviously not a morning person – not that it's something new to me. He is downright grouchy about thirty-five minutes after he wakes up. Judging by his appearance and that he is still walking like a zombie, I would bet my entire wallet – all twenty-one cents – that I woke him up with my jeep.

I take a gulp and sigh at the ingestion of caffeine. That hits the spot. "You live in a crap-shack."

His eye twitches, but it is still too early for him to respond further.

"Why do you live here? I know we work at McDonald's but you can seriously afford better than this, right?"

"Buying it off my parents. No one else wanted it."

"For good reason."

He shrugs, leading the way inside. "C'mon, Spence. I'll give you a tour."

My hesitancy returns as I grip tighter to my mug. "Umm," I start, "are you sure this is safe? This structure of yours looks far from sound and I don't know how it will respond to a second person walking inside. I mean, I would hate to make you homeless and everything. That would suck."

"It's not going to fall over, Spence," he answers. "It needs some repairs—"

I give him a look, challenging him to rethink that last lie and to come up with a better one.

"Okay, fine, it needs a lot of repairs, but it's not going to fall over. It looks worse than it is."

I point outside to what might be a garage, if it didn't look like a failed attempt at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. "What about that? Would you say that looks worse than it is? Because let me tell you, Brand-O, that thing looks like a death trap to me."

He sighs. "Okay, the garage does need to be torn down and rebuilt. My grandpa wasn't in his best mind-set when he tried to build it. If I had time I would have knocked it over months ago, but seeing as how I don't . . . it'll fall eventually." He waves me inside, once again holding the screen door open for me. "C'mon, Spencer. If you're going to tidy the place up then I'll need to give you a tour."

"Actually, you don't need to," I answer, but nevertheless crossing to surfaces unknown. I tap my big toe on the worn and water-damaged wood floor, checking to see if it will hold my weight beside Brandon's. When I don't hear any ominous creaking I slowly put more and more weight on that first foot.

And then Brandon just grabs my hoodie and yanks me completely inside.

"That wasn't nice!" I screech, nearly spilling my coffee as I try to maintain my balance. "How am I supposed to know how stable the flooring is? Hmm? I could have fallen through, broken my ankle. And then where would your star employee be? Certainly not at work, and definitely not cleaning up this place."

He waves his hand, already turning and walking away from me. "Here we have the living room. Don't touch the TV. It has a tendency to spark and I'm pretty sure it might blow up," he says, pointing to the first door on his left as he moves down the hallway.

"Wait, you're serious? Please tell me you're just joking. Brandon! BRANDON!" I yell, sprinting off after him.

"This is the kitchen. The fridge works off and on so try not to open it for very long if you happen to want lunch. Oh, and be careful with the sink. The faucet's a little loose and it might fly off if you aren't careful. I don't want my ceiling to get showered."

I glare at him. "You better be pulling my leg, Mister Hawke, because if you aren't then this is insane. You should not be living in a place like this."

He acts like he hasn't heard me. "That door right there," he points back out into the hall, "is the bathroom. It mostly works, so you shouldn't have any troubles. And now upstairs." He trudges back down the hall, and up the creaking – I think they're moving – stairs and to the second floor. "Bedroom, Bedroom, closet, storage room, bathroom," he says so quickly that I know I'll be opening each closed door simply to snoop. "Any questions?"

I raise my hand enthusiastically, straining on my tippy-toes to ensure that he can see me.

Brandon rolls his eyes. "Yes?" he sighs.

"Are you absolutely, positively, without a doubt, sure that I have to clean this crap-shack?"

He glares at me.

I have enough sense to look a little sheepish.

"A deal's a deal, Spence."

I sigh and stare dejectedly down at the floor. "Yeah. I know. I know."

"Nothing's broken, Spence. I just need to find the time to actually do something about my house. The sink's fine, the TV's fine even though I don't get more than five or six channels," he says sadly, dragging a hand down his face. He looks suddenly more tired than he had a moment ago, yawning even as he goes to finish his coffee. "I've gotta get to the store. You gonna be good?"

I nod. "If I'm not you just might hear my scream as you hand out food at drive-thru," I joke.

He gives me a half-smile. He goes to a door, I'm guessing to his room.

"Quick question, though!" I call.

He stops and faces me. "What?"

"Is there anything that I should not touch? Aside from the Leaning Garage?"

He smiles again and shakes his head. "Nope. Just that. And seriously, don't go near it. It is a safety hazard. That thing's going to fall down any minute and I don't need to find you stuck inside."

"Sir, yes sir," I salute. I go back down the stairs, inspecting each room to see just how bad they really are because Brandon's quick tour did not give me a chance to see anything. Either he's really embarrassed or he's really gonna be late to work. I glance down at my phone. The time says six-forty-three. Yep, he just might be late, but that's understandable. He'd been at McDonald's until nearing eight last night because the closing manager decided to not show up.

The kitchen doesn't look as bad as I had originally feared. All the appliances are at least a decade old, but they don't appear to be broken or falling apart. The wood floor is damaged, in need of a redo, but none of the boards are popping up or cracked. The cupboards are chipped, the paint cracking. The wallpaper, definitely not from this century, is also faded and peeling. All in all the damage is mostly cosmetic, and if I had more time I could definitely turn this place around.

I peer into the bathroom, finding the tile to be probably the newest. From the pile of tools and packaged tile in the corner I guess that Brandon has been working on the bathroom in his spare time, getting the floor laid out but little else. Once again everything is superficial, a little Windex and dusting involved, but not much else.

Brandon comes down the stairs, asks me if I need anything, and when I say no he is jogging out the door. A moment later and his truck is backing down the driveway, leaving me on my own in this massive crap-shack.

The living room is mismatched, outside furniture mixed with actually living room furniture. He has a worn couch, a wicker patio bench, an old box TV and a couple of lamps. It's sparsely furnished, odd looking, but homey enough. Once again, the only thing that needs done is the floor, and definitely the wallpaper.

IT MUST GO!

Unfortunately I must wait until Brandon returns late tonight before I can broach the subject with him.

The upstairs I decide to leave for later, going back to my jeep to gather my vast array of cleaning supplies. And then I get to work, sweeping and mopping the floors, upset when my efforts are futile in making them look nice and new – Brandon definitely needs to re-sand them in order to get rid of the water-damage marks. I dust every nook and cranny, clean the windows even though it does nothing to mask the need for replacement panes. I even do the dishes that Brandon has left in his sink, washing and drying them, and then snooping so that I can put them away. It is then that I decide to go through his cupboards, tossing everything that has passed the expiration date.

By the time I finish with the ground floor it is after twelve. I stop for my lunch break, somehow making a sandwich of ham and mustard from what is left in his fridge.

I make a mental note to do a little grocery shopping before I leave, knowing that this is the least I can do after he took my sister out on a date . . . which reminds me, I still have yet to grill him on the history between the two. I got a little from Anabelle, but I have this feeling that she is either lying or withholding the truth from me – probably both. And since I do not enjoy being left in the dark I know it's only a matter of time before I start interrogating the both of them.

After lunch I tackle the upstairs, forgoing Brandon's bedroom because that would just be awkward – ignore the fact that that's just up my alley.

I organize the room that he is using for storage, stacking the boxes until I have created an itty-bitty little path from the door.

I sweep the other three rooms, re-do the closet that he keeps sheets and towels and other linens inside. I wash the floor and the windows. I replace broken light bulbs. I even chance crawling out to the porch roof and pulling weeds and that strange looking tree from his gutter. At one point I nearly die, slipping on a broken shingle that nearly sends me sliding to my utter doom ten feet below.

By the time I finish it is after five. Brandon should be back by now. I go to my phone, finding a text that tells me he's going to be late; that he's not sure when he'll be fortunate enough to leave. I feel bad for the guy. I hate McDonald's even though I don't work nearly as much as he does. I can only guess what his feelings are for the place.

Since I have time to kill I drive to the nearest Tops, picking up a couple things for Brandon to make up for what I ended up throwing out. Once again, it's the least I can do for what he did for Anabelle, and me by default considering I was the one to come up with the crazy – and yet oh so perfect – idea.

When I get back I stand outside for a minute, looking around at the yard and making a list of what needs to be done there. Lawn needs mowed, that dead tree needs to be axed, Leaning Garage needs to be toppled, and that's only just the beginning. I refuse to look at the exterior of the house, knowing that if I do I'll be hesitant to walk inside again.

Keeping my eyes to the ground I scurry back in, going straight to the kitchen. I put the things away where I can guess they would go, and then, with nothing really left to do, I go to the living room to wait for Brandon to finally make an appearance. I sprawl out on his oddly colored couch – I did not know one could buy a disgusting orange-ish brown couch these days – and am pleasantly surprised to find that it is freakishly comfy. I scroll through his five-and-a-half channels, settling on a playing of The Court Jester that has only just come one.

Brandon returns during the fourth commercial, shuffling through the door. I don't get up, too comfortable to even think of moving after the exhausting day I'd just had.

"Glad to see you making yourself at home," Brandon says when he peaks in. He looks tired, drained even, but he is smirking. "Looks nice so far. Smells better. Did you clean the floors with Pine Sol?"

"Yep," I say. "Spent almost two hours mopping the hallway before I realized that it wasn't going to get any better. You might want to think about re-doing them. Nobody will ever buy this place with the wood looking like this, all dingy and gray," I tell him without once shifting on his couch.

"I'll put that on my to-do list . . . along with a hundred other things. Would you mind coming into work an hour early tomorrow? My opener called off before I left and no one else will take it, so I'm going to have to come in. We're still going to be short people, though." He draws a hand down his face, the action doing nothing to wipe away the tiredness that is getting more and more apparent.

"You need a vacation," I reply with a frown as I try to think back to the last time he actual took an extra day off.

He laughs humorlessly. "I would love to, Spencer, but so far I've been denied; something about not having an Assistant Manager to take over while I'm gone."

"That's still not fair. And yes, I'll come in early. Anything for you, Brand-O."

He frowns. "Is that going to become a regular thing with you?"

"I don't know. Maybe," I say with a shrug. "You don't like it?"

"That's a trick question. I know it is," he says while pointing an accusatory finger in my direction. "Anyways, have you had dinner yet?"

"Nope."

"You want to stay?"

"You betcha."

Brandon rolls his eyes. "I'll figure something out, then. After I take a shower." He turns to go up the stairs, footsteps loud and trudging. Poor guy.

"Good!" I call to him. "You stink like fries!"

"I wonder why!" he calls back.

The house is quiet for the next ten minutes, the only sound being the lowered TV and water in the pipes as Brandon showers. I stay in my seat, just watching the movie. I listen as Brandon walks back down, and goes to the kitchen. He rummages through his fridge.

"How does leftover spaghetti sound?" he asks me.

"Sure!"

Two minutes later and he comes back with two steaming bowls. He hands one to me, sets the other on his garage-sale end table, leaves, and then returns with two glasses of water. With a sigh he drops down by my feet.

"The Court Jester?" he asks after taking a forkful of spaghetti.

"It's a good movie," I defend myself, even though I know I don't have to. Brandon was always the one interested in old movies. In fact, he was the one to introduce me to this particular one. It was his favorite, after all.

"I know," he agrees.

We eat in silence, watching the movie. When it finishes I wordless gather up our dishes, taking them to the sink where I wash them, but leave the on the counter to dry. There's no point in me busting my neck trying to figure out where they go when Brandon can do it much easier later. I go back to the living room, finding him to be stretched out, arms behind his head and legs hanging across the floor.

"You look gigantic sitting like that," I tell him, flopping down and throwing my feet up onto the back of the couch.

"Not all of us can be as vertically challenged as you," he returns easily, not even bothering to open his eyes from where they are closed. "And sure, put your feet up on my furniture."

"It's not like you're going to be concerned about keeping it nice," I retort.

"Touché."

I roll my eyes. "Tell me again why you live in this crap-shack?"

"I bought it from my dad a couple years ago."

"Which brings me to my next question. Why?"

"No one else would buy it."

"But you, thinking with your McDonald's salary, could possibly hope to turn this into a live-able structure?"

This time he does open his eyes, regarding me with a look that I am not entirely familiar with, but understand instantly all the same. "You're too nice to him, you know," I say, poking his shoulder with my big toe. "Especially after what he did."

"He's my dad. What am I supposed to do?"

"Tell him to deal with his own life and to not ruin yours?" I offer.

"Not all of us have the same mentality as you, Spencer," he sighs.

I nod in agreement. "That is true. Not everyone can be as hardcore as I am."

He smiles, but it's still tired and barely reaches his eyes. "It doesn't matter anyways. What's done is done. I've paid it off for the most part, now I can focus a little on getting this repaired."

"It's going to take you your entire life to fix this place up with the hours you work."

He groans, moving his hands to push into his eye sockets. "I know," he groans. "Gah, this sucks."

"I agree."

"You know, I thought, when I initially bought this place, that it wouldn't be so bad, doing repairs between shifts. But now . . . I hate McDonald's so much. I've had this place for two years and it still looks as bad as when I first moved in. I've gotten complaints from neighbors about what an eyesore my house is."

"Seriously? What neighbors? The closest house is half a mile away." And that is the truth. Just like that lonely dead tree in his front yard, his house is just as lonely and just as dead.

"Exactly what I said," he says with a laugh.

"I could help you," I offer out of the blue, the words spewing from my mouth before I even know they're there.

He gives me a startled look. "What?"

"I could help you, you know, fix it up. I know it would take time and effort—"

"And money," he interrupts.

"Yes, lots and lots of money. But I've got savings. It'll be like an investment for me. My parents want me to learn about being more responsible, and what better way that helping to fix up a house to sell? I help you on my days off, and when we get this thing looking pristine, I get part of what you make when it sells. It's a win-win!" Never before have I considered this, but the more I talk about it the more I start liking the idea. Finally, something to put my creatively over-active mind to use. And for the good, too. Grandma would be so proud of me – if that were even possible with that cantankerous old woman.

Oooh. Big words there, Spencer. Big words.

"I can't ask you to do that," he says.

"The good thing is that you don't have to. I'm offering. It'll be fun. You and me, working on a project. Even Anabelle could help. Speaking of my sister . . . how did your date go?"

"Fine. We're going out again this Friday. Why so curious?"

"No reason. I just like to know things. Besides, the two of you was my idea . . . which reminds me . . . why did you never mention that you two used to date?"

He pales, his face going shockingly blank. "It . . . It was . . . It was a long time ago, Spencer."

"But you two acted all cute and awkward when you left last week. My sister said you only went out a couple of times before she stopped talking to you."

He starts again, turning his head to face me fully. "What? She said that?"

"Yep. Judging by your response I take it that it's a lie."

"Kinda . . . I mean . . . I don't know." He sighs and drags a hand through his hair. "We went out a lot more than a couple of times. Try all of high school."

This time I am shocked. Anabelle never once mentioned having a boyfriend in high school. In fact, she didn't start dating until senior year, and that was only two guys. She didn't really go boy crazy until college, and even then there wasn't anything too serious. So why wouldn't she tell me she dated the most awesomest guy in the world, for not simply one year, but practically three?

And why would she lie to me about it?

"What? NO WAY!" I screech.

"Spencer!" he hisses back, cradling the ear closest to me. "Right here."

"Sorry," I apologize, not meaning it. "But really? Three years? How come I never knew about this? Why didn't you say anything? Why didn't she say anything? Why would she lie to me?"

"I don't know. But our breakup was mutual. Things weren't working out, we talked, and that was it."

I narrow my eyes at him. "You, Brandon Timothy Hawke, are lying to me."

He is silent, staring at me with an open mouth.

I glare back, crossing my arms even from where I am sprawled, looking as nonthreatening as a person of my stature can look.

"How do you know my middle name?" he asks at long last.

I wave my hand. "Never you mind that. I am more upset about you lying."

"Look, Spence, it happened how many years ago? We broke up. We're going out again. That's the end."

"No, it's not. But I will let it go."

"Good."

We turn back to the TV, listening to the news as it drones on and on about how the world is falling apart. It's nothing new, but Brandon doesn't change the channel. I don't feel like opening my mouth to ask him to put something else on, sinking further down on the couch.

It is rather cozy, warm and soft and melding in all the right places.

I yawn. My eyes droop closed, the activities of the day finally hitting me.

This couch is even better than my own bed . . .

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