Crossroads: Book 1

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Chapter 73

Elena


“These pies turned out perfect.” Carol acclaims as she sets the last one on the table. She opens the slider and yells, “Boys, if you’re hungry for pie, come get it!”

I watch as Paul and Mike set down their axes, wipe the sweat off their foreheads, climb back into their shirts, and come walking up.

“Elena, dear, in that cupboard over there, could you get some plates out? Rachel, would you like to get some glasses from that cupboard and get the milk from the fridge?” Carol directs as she cuts the pies.

Rachel and I do as we’re asked; Mike and Paul walk through the slider. “Mmm, somethin’ smells amazing.” Mike sniffs the air taking in the aroma from the pies.

“Oh yeah, Mrs. Gilbert, you ladies outdid yourselves,” Paul agrees. He’s probably trying to make up for wearing his hat inside. I stifle a giggle at the memory.

“Why, thank you, Paul. But please, call me Carol,” she smiles warmly at Paul.

With the plates, forks, glasses, milk, and pies all set on the round oak table, we each take a seat. Mike sits next to me; Carol is on my other side with Paul and Rachel sitting across from us.

Carol dishes out slices; Mike and I choose the apple pie. Paul, Rachel, and Carol pick strawberry rhubarb.

As soon as we each have a piece of the pie, everyone begins to dig in. The slice was good, with just the right amount of cinnamon.

“Very good, ladies.” Mike gives appreciation as he wipes his mouth with a napkin.

“Yeah, this strawberry rhubarb is excellent,” Paul follows.

“Rachel had a big hand with that one,” Carol shares proudly to the group.

Paul looks over to Rachel. “Baby, it’s very delicious,” he praises her, thinking she did more than what she really did.

Quickly, Rachel pushes away the appreciation with a confession. “I didn’t do much, just cut up the rhubarb.”

“Well, you cut that rhubarb very well, sweetie,” Paul says as he leans in to kiss Rachel on the cheek, leaving Rachel beaming.

They are way too cute together. I’m so glad they met. Mike reaches for my thigh, causing me to look at him. He squeezes it softly and gives me a wink as I take my last bite.

“Well, we should get going,” Mike announces.

This time, I put a hand on Mike’s thigh, causing him to look at me. There’s a twinkle in his eye, and I realize that this is the first time I ever touched his leg. I smile up at him – it feels natural. “You do know that we aren’t leaving until we help clean up, right?”

He smiles at me. “Of course.” Like he planned on helping all along.

Rachel, Paul, Mike, Carol, and I work together to get the kitchen spotless. There wasn’t a lot to do, but I would have felt guilty if we all just up and left without helping her clean up the mess that we all made.

As we all head for the door, I hear Carol tell Rachel that she’d love to see her again sometime and that she should come back and visit her whenever she’s back in Georgia. Paul gives Carol a hug good-bye and steps outside before putting his baseball cap back on.

Mike hugs his mother, and I hear Carol say that she loves him, he just says, “You too.” My paper heart rips a little for Carol.

When her attention falls on me, she says, “It was wonderful to see you again, my dear.” Before I know it, I’m in a warm embrace once more.

“It was great to see you again too. Thank you so much for everything,” I smile.

Carol winks. “Of course, dear. Y’all be careful going back now,” she shouts from her front door as Mike, and I climb into the truck. Rachel climbs up behind Paul on his bike. We drive away with her waving to us as the distance spreads.

“So, what happened in the kitchen,” Mike questions in the silence.

I shrug my shoulder. “We just talked about Rachel visiting, baking, and...” I give Mike a side grin. “You.”

His brow shoots up. “I knew it, what did y’all say about me.”

“I’m sorry, but my lips are sealed.” I know I’m being a bit unfair, but from what I understand about him so far, Mike is the type of person who needs to be left on his toes occasionally.

I’m in control.

“Oh babe, don’t play me like that.” Mike reaches over and squeezes my knee over and over, causing me to squirm and squeal. I didn’t even realize I was ticklish there. “Tell me,” he warns with a playful grin, never taking his eyes off the road.

“Alright, alright!” I screech. He stops tickling me and waits for me to splurge the information I received from his mother.

I smile at him. “She told me how good of a heart you have, which I already knew.”

Mike rolls his eyes. “You are so lying.” He chuckles and puts the truck in park outside of his house. It was then that I realize that Paul and Rachel aren’t behind us anymore.

“She did!” I laugh and take out my phone. There’s a text from Rachel saying that she and Paul decided to get some ice cream and that she’ll be back a little later. I am so happy for her. She hasn’t had great luck with guys. The last boyfriend she had treated her like dirt; I don’t know if she and Paul are exclusively an item right now, but at least she’s having fun with a good guy.

Hopping out of the truck, Mike starts to lead me to my house. I stop in my tracks. “Wait,” I say. “We always go to my house. I have yet to see your place.” I start backing up to his front door.

“For good reason. My place is a pigsty,” he says, putting his hands in his pockets.

“Come on, please? I won’t judge.” I continue walking backward a bit faster with a slow daring smile. He sees it as a threat, so his hands fly out of his pockets as he leaps for me, inches from his front door.

“No, let’s not. How about another day,” Mike tries to reason. “There’s no parental supervision over here.”

Did he really just say that? “There’s no parental supervision more than half time you’re over at my place,” I argue. “Besides, what would that matter?” I smirk.

His head falls back, and he groans, “Okay, fine. Just wait here a sec.” Mike goes up to the front door and slides a key in. The door unlocks, and he strides inside. He tries to close the door, but it bounces off the hinge. I’m able to sneak a peek through the crack. There’s a little table near the door; he takes some papers and shoves them in the drawer, then removes his pistol from the waistband of his pants and places it in a large decorative bowl.

Is it that he doesn’t want me to see any clutter or is there something he’s ashamed of me seeing?

I hear some more shuffling inside before his hand curls out onto the door. “Alright, come on in.” He widens the entrance for me.

“Thank you.” I beam up at him, reach on my tiptoes, and kiss him on the cheek. With my first step inside, I take note that his form of pigsty is not the same as mine. My pigsty is clutter and just...messy. His is...possible dust? I’m not sure. His place is spotless. I glide a finger on the counter and look at it, nothing.

There are shiny dark wood floors from walking into the front door; they don’t seem to creak. There’s a little table that he stuffed some paper into on my left, then a small hall that leads to a bedroom. I can see the foot of his bed-white sheets. There’s a dark bathroom adjacent to the bedroom. I turn to my right and see the counter that I just touched, which hides some of the kitchen. I walk around the marble counter and see a small glass table with two grey wooden chairs and updated steel appliances. There’s only one large window above the sink facing the road.

I don’t even want to think about what he does at the age of eighteen to be able to afford all of this nice stuff.

When I turn around, I see the family room with a very large bookcase that stretches out against the whole wall; it’s filled with books. He has a nice black leather couch with matching sofa chairs and a glass coffee table with coasters. There’s a television set against the wall near a photo hanging up. No, a painting.

I walk closer to it; the image is near breathtaking. It’s of a dark forest. There’s a black river with ripples of light leading to a foggy lit moon high in the sky. The images are brighter as they near the moon. I feel myself physically being drawn into the object towards the black water. Off one of the banks, a small swan is trying to escape the dark waters for the light.

“Those that look for the light never walk in darkness. For what is darkness but merely the absence of light. If one is to see the light and find it, darkness shall seize to exist,” Mike whispers into my ear, wrapping me up in his arms from behind.

I let out a breath. The swan wants out of the darkness and into the light; the closer the objects get to the moon, the darkness around them fades. This painting feels like a metaphor. “Where did you find this?” I ask.

“It’s mine.”

I turn around in his arms; this man has so many layers. He’s a biker who paints and has a gazillion books. There is definitely a deeper side to him that I need to learn about.

A smile twitches my lips. “You painted that.”

He nods his head. “Do you want anything to drink?” he asks as he turns for the kitchen.

I take this opportunity to walk towards the bookcase. “No, I’m okay. Thank you.”

So many books. The first one that catches my eye is Lord of the Flies. That explains why he hardly ever brought that book to class. He probably knows it by heart.

I skim over the rest. The Catcher and the Rye, Catch 22, The Bible, The Laws of Human Nature, Prisoners of Our Thoughts...

Mike clears his throat from behind me. I turn to face him. “Yeah, I read a lot,” he admits taking a drink from a beer bottle.

I need to talk to him about this underage drinking thing...

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” I tell him. “Thank you for letting me come over. I feel like I understand you a bit more now.” I take a seat on the couch, and he sits next to me.

“Oh yeah? How do you figure?” he asks.

I clear my throat. “For starters, if I never insisted on coming over, I wouldn’t have realized how much of a neat freak you are,” I tease. “That you have mad painting skills, and that you love books.” I give him a warm smile.

He laughs. I love that sound. “Fair enough.” He takes another drink. I glance at his painting again, then look back at him. His mother’s words echo in my mind: Mike has gone through something so dark that I’m afraid it consumed him. I’m afraid he’s blocked out the light for good.

What darkness has him consumed? Should he really be drinking? For being underage, he sure does drink a lot. I recall the time he was drunk and tapped on my window. I saw those scars...

With a hand, I place it on his thigh; when our eyes meet, my mouth opens. “Your mom did say something that resonates with me.”

He smiles at me. “I’m sure she did. What’s that?”

“She said that there’s a darkness that consumes you. What does she mean by that?” I ask carefully as if I’m pulling the question out of a thick thorn bush.

He places the beer bottle on the coaster in front of him. “Now that, I do believe she said.” He leans back on the couch and sighs. From his body language, I can tell he doesn’t want to talk about it.

“Please tell me. I want to help you; I can’t help you unless you let me in.” Please let me in.

Mike gives me a look, and I know the thorn bush pricked me, so I remove my hand. “Why did my mom have to open her mouth,” he sighs as he drags his hands through his hair.

“Because she loves you, she worries about you.” I defend Carol.

His tone is flat as he stands up. “You should go.”

I can’t go. I will not let this go. He needs to open up to someone about it, and if it’s not me, I’m not sure if he’ll ever open up to anyone. He needs to know that he can lean on me. I have leaned on him with my fair share; he’s been my knight in leather armor more times than I can count. Even knights need saving from time to time.

“Michael, please tell me. Please tell me what has you so guarded, what darkness do you have? Let me be here for you.” I reach for his hands to hold them. This is the breaking point. If I can break through this wall, maybe -just maybe- I can understand him better and get to know him on a deeper level.

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