Chapter 18- A Twist in the Pretzel
“The way you love, dear, the fate of the world you leave behind, a way to the future, making a moment built to last. You want to love, well, here’s your chance.”
-Katie Herzig, Way to the Future
I yawned and glanced at my watch for the millionth time.
“Almost free,” Brit called. She was sweeping the lounge area and made a disgusted face when she lifted the couch cushions. “You’ve been checking the clock every two seconds. Making me antsy.”
“Got plans,” I explained shortly. Grimm was dead in the afternoons, especially on Monday’s when students were recovering from their weekend hangovers.
‘Plan’ was a stretch, admittedly. I had intentions. Intentions to pick up Sophia from her shift at the library and take her to our spot under the stars. I just had to make sure to get there before her shift ended. Walking Sophia had become our unacknowledged ritual, and I wasn’t planning on mixing things up.
My mood darkened when I recalled the reason I had to walk her home in the first place. I was fine with living with the threat of Carter’s retribution hanging over my head.
What I couldn’t live with was the fear that there was a scythe looming over Sophia’s head too.
I exhaled and grabbed a rag, wringing it harder than necessary and wiping down the counters.
Three more minutes till freedom.
Doug stuck his head around the corner and grinned at Brit and I. “Nice job, guys. Landon, nice job with that frat boy’s party. His parents shelled out big bucks and the kid had a good time.”
I wasn’t a fan of Gabe or his parents, but I certainly didn’t mind the tips. “No problem, Doug.”
He vanished, and I nearly whooped with joy to find my three minutes were up. I headed to the computer and clocked myself out in record time. Brit waved as I slipped through the front doors.
It was dusk, and I had to navigate the waves of students going to the cafeteria. Getting a few dirty looks was the least of my concerns, and I made it to the library in under ten minutes.
Opening the glass door, I entered the air conditioned library. Had Sophia left already? It would be borderline stalkerish if I chased her down the street.
My budding worry eased when I saw a familiar figure standing on a ladder and balancing three books in one hand. I started to smile until a dude with electrocuted hair and a beach bum tee appeared behind her and put his hand on the back of her knee.
A foreign feeling ripped through my chest. I’d dealt with it a few weeks ago, and it wasn’t any more pleasant the second time around.
Before I knew what I was doing, I was striding past the checkout desk and into the aisle.
I grabbed the dude’s wrist and threw it aside. “Hands off, buddy.”
Beach bum blinked at me. “You alright, bruh?”
I’d forgotten Sophia’s presence until she smacked the top of my head with her book stack. “Ow!” I complained, tilting my head back to glare at her.
She was frowning. “Landon, what the hell?”
I pointed at Beach Bum. “He had his hand on the back of your knee!”
“So?” I repeated, frustrated. How could I explain to her that another guy’s hands on her brought out an urge to break things without sounding like a caveman?
“Um…I was steadying her, ’cause the back of the knee is a centering location for your emotional and physical equilibrium. Wasn’t putting the moves on your girl, man. Swear it,” Beach Bum explained sagely.
I eyed him warily. “How much pot did you do this morning?”
Sophia stomped down the stairs and scowled. It was amazing how much annoyance could emanate from a girl who barely reached my shoulder. She stuck the books on a ladder rung and pointed at Beach Bum.
“Landon, this is Riker. My boss.” Aw, crap.
“Now Sophocles, you know how I feel about that word. I’m not your boss. I’m your guide. Your mentor. Your-” Sophia shut him up with a scowl before pointing at me.
“Riker, this is Landon. My boyfriend.”
I froze. Sophia paused and her cheeks flushed.
Beach Bum-or Riker, whatever the hell-stuck his tanned hand in my direction. I shook it absently, too distracted by Sophia’s introduction to remember that I wanted to punch him in the throat.
“Great to meet you, heard a lot about the mysterious Landon. This one loves talking about you. ‘Oh, Landon said this’ or ‘Landon thinks that’. Thought she was either hanging with a dude named Landon or she had an imaginary friend I couldn’t hear.”
A huge grin spread across my face. Sophia slapped her palm to her forehead and closed her eyes. “Why me?” she muttered, stalking off to the checkout desk.
“So she talks about me a lot, huh?” I asked, trying for casual and failing miserably.
“Riker!” Sophia called. Riker raised a finger to his lips and pointed to the right, where a few students were glaring daggers at Sophia from their table.
She grimaced and made her way back to us. “Alright, I’ve got my wallet and phone. I clocked out already, so just leave those for me and I’ll get to them tomorrow.” She inclined her head towards the stack of books balancing on the ladder.
Riker clapped her on the shoulder cheerfully. “She spoils me so. I do know how to do some things by myself,
Sophocles. Shelving books won’t be too much for me, promise.”
At my glacial glare, Riker quickly retracted his hand from Sophia’s shoulder. “See you tomorrow then,” he said, bowing with a sweep.
Sophia shook her head with affectionate amusement. “Good night, Riker.”
Beach Bum wandered off and Sophia pivoted, stomping towards the exit. My brow furrowed. Now what?
I caught up with her as she passed the freaky library statue. Catching her elbow, I pulled her to a stop. “What’s wrong?”
She searched my face. “You really don’t know?”
“No. What am I supposed to know?”
Sophia sighed pinched the bridge of her nose. “You embarrassed me in there. You can’t just scare every guy who comes within a mile of me. Especially if it’s the guy who signs my paycheck. Riker is cool and…odd, but he’s still my manager.”
Running a hand through my hair, I tried to find words to help her understand. To help me understand. But I was drawing a blank.
“I told you I’m new to this. It’s inevitable that I’ll screw up. The girls I hung out with before…I didn’t care what or who they did. This jealousy thing is a bitch.”
Sophia pursed her lips, and I could’ve sworn she was fighting back a smile. Trying to figure out her thought process would likely drive me off the wall, so I just waited for her to speak. A couple of students passed us, and I put my hand on the small of her back to get her moving down the sidewalk again.
“Is it bad that a part of me is really happy you get jealous?” Sophia asked.
I stuffed my hands into the pockets of my jacket.
“Probably. If I had to guess, I’d say you’re a budding
She shoved my arm while I laughed. “You’re an ass.”
“According to you, I’m also your boyfriend.”
Sophia exhaled, crossing her arms over her chest
defensively. “I was really hoping you forgot about that.”
“I can see how you’d think it was a possibility. You really nailed me with those books.”
She shot me a look that threatened bodily mutilation if I didn’t stop with the wisecracks. The wind ruffled her hair around her face, curtaining her expression from me.
Unacceptable. I tugged off my beanie and slid it onto her head before she knew what was what. After some readjusting, her hair was tucked to the side, and I could see those expressive hazel eyes again.
Damn. She’d turned me into a cheesy 70’s paperback.
And the worst part was I did not give a single solitary fuck. “Thanks,” Sophia murmured, pulling at the beanie.
“And I’m sorry if calling you my boyfriend made you
uncomfortable. It just slipped out, I guess.”
Music drifted through the air as we walked. How did I feel about Sophia calling me her boyfriend? The answer was blindingly obvious.
“Only thing that made me uncomfortable was Beach Bum’s hairy legs.”
Sophia giggled. “He does have hairy legs, doesn’t he? I told him to reconsider board shorts, but he’s stubborn for a free spirit.”
We were about to walk into the night crowd at the
Sound, so I took Sophia’s hand and pulled her into the safety of the Arts building. She arched her brow. “You’ve got a real thing with walls, don’t you?”
My downright sinful smile had her turning red for the second time that night.
“Look, I know you said you’d give me a learning curve with this relationship thing. But you’re going to have to be a really generous grader, okay? Because I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. The only thing I know is that I want to
not know what I’m doing with you.”
“I’m not grading you, Landon. I don’t really know what I’m doing either. My dating record is pitiful, since most normal teenage guys didn’t want to be saddled with a girl who had to cancel dates because her sister had a particularly rough round of chemo, or who perpetually smelled like antiseptic and linen sheets.”
She wrapped her arms around me, and I pulled her close. “What I’m saying is, I’m learning too. And I’m really glad it’s with you.”
Pressing my lips to her forehead, I inhaled her unique scent, like cinnamon and coffee. No antiseptic or linen sheets could mask that. Those dumb-asses she’d dated weren’t worth a hair on her head if they couldn’t figure that out.
“We should go,” Sophia said, moving back. Not pleased with the distance, I took her hand, tangling her fingers with mine.
“So, you’re my girlfriend, huh?” I mused thoughtfully as we returned to the beaten path.
Sophia eyeballed me. “Appears so.”
“Can I call you ‘bae’? How about boo-boo?”
“Call me either of those and you’ll be walking around without your boo-boos, if you catch my drift.”
I laughed. Only she could threaten my manhood so charmingly.
Swinging our hands in the air, it occurred to me that I was part of a couple.
A memory flashed across my mind, clear as day.
Jesse stared wistfully at the couple sitting across from our bench, sharing a carton of ice cream and talking. “Are you really telling me you don’t want to have that?”
I was high as a kite but trying to hide it from Jesse. I doubted he was fooled, though. “Ugh, gross. Why would I want to share my ice cream? And I bet if we got cookies and cream, she’d steal all the cookies. All girls are cookie monsters.” Cackling, I teetered sideways on the seat.
Jesse sighed. “You sound like an eight-year-old.”
“Your face sounds like eight-year mold.”
“I want that kind of relationship someday.”
Slinging my arm across Jesse’s shoulders, I pointed at the couple he was so interested in. “See that chick? She probably had him buy the ice cream because she was in the mood and it’s easy to fleece guys who can’t see past your tits. Now him? Ten bucks says he only bought the ice cream because he expected a little something in return.”
Jesse shoved me off and scowled, his mother’s poorly executed haircut making him look like a sullen labradoodle. “Why can’t you ever see the positive side of things? The beauty? You turn every stone, look around every corneranything to satisfy whatever twisted view of the world you hold on to.”
I laughed, a sound edging disturbingly close to hysteria. “When will you get it? I don’t have to turn any damn stones-all the ugliness is right there, waiting for you to see it.”
“Landon.” Sophia poked my arm. “Seriously? If our project bores you to distraction, our presentation is doomed.” Shaking my head to rid it of the vestiges of my unpleasant thoughts, I let go of Sophia’s hand only to wrap it around her shoulders. She stumbled as I pulled her closer and fit her in the crook of my arm.
Sophia threw her arm around my waist to keep her balance. “Sheesh, give a girl some warning next time,” she joked weakly, but I noticed she didn’t try to pull away.
We were almost past the Sound, and I was about to tell Sophia that I was kidnapping her when a pair of figures jumped into our path.
My arm tightened reflexively around her, but it was only Maddie and another girl. First thing I noticed was that they were holding hands.
Huh. Did not call that one.
“Maddie! Hi!” Sophia greeted, voice laced with surprise.
“Hey guys!” Maddie tugged the girl beside her
forward. “This is Erica. We’re dating.”
I arched my brow. Something about the way she’d said that, hasty and slightly defensive, didn’t sound right.
Erica stepped forward and extended her hand to Sophia. “I’m Erica Yang. Good to meet you at long last.”
“You too! I’m sorry if I seem a little thrown, I just didn’t know Maddie was seeing anyone,” Sophia apologized, sending a meaningful glance towards her guarded friend.
“Yeah, we met in music club. Erica’s crazy guitar riffs were irresistible,” Maddie joked.
I finally interjected. “Ladies, hate to interrupt, but if there’s nothing else, we really need to be on our way.”
Sophia sent me a confused look. “Yeah, I guess so.” Maddie’s expression immediately morphed to one of pleading. “No, I need you to come with me. Jesse and Raven are at the Sound right now and I want to introduce them to Erica.”
I glanced at Erica. She was tall and willowy, with long brown hair and almond-shaped green eyes. Didn’t see why Maddie needed any moral support there.
“We don’t have to do it now if you’re not ready,”
Erica said, stuffing her hands into the pockets of her shorts.
“No, no, I’m ready!” Maddie corrected quickly, touching Erica’s shoulder. “It’s not that big of a deal, I’m just not the best with people.”
Erica arched a pierced brow. “Babe, you’re the most social person I know. Granted, I avoid most perky females.”
Sophia glanced at me and bit her lip, conflicted. I sighed and decided to spare her the agony of trying to choose. “Fine. We’ll come. But only for ten minutes.”
Sophia beamed, and Maddie clapped her hands excitedly. “Awesome! C’mon, let’s go.”
Unwilling to waste a second with Sophia, I tugged her back under my arm. “Thanks,” she whispered, resting her head briefly on my shoulder.
I maneuvered us around the crowd, keeping Maddie and Erica in my sights. “No problem honey bunches, but I think we can both agree that my one friend is a lot less of a pain in the ass.
“Honey bunches? What are we, 80? And hey! My
friends aren’t high maintenance.”
I gave her a ‘get-real’ look. “Babe.”
She scowled. “You’re lucky you have a nice face.”
Grinning like a jackal, I was vaguely annoyed when we reached the table seating Jesse and Gothica. Maddie and Erica hovered next to the table, obviously waiting on us. I wondered what was up with this situation. Why was Sophia so vital for this?
Raven was frowning at Jesse, who was sipping a chocolate shake contentedly. He waved cheerfully at us. “Hey guys!”
Barely sparing a glance, Raven proceeded to cross her arms over her chest. “I cannot believe you, Jesse Arthur Kendall.”
Jesse merely sipped his shake and rolled his eyes. “Rae-bae.”
She pointed her finger at his nose. “Don’t you dare.” Pulling out Sophia’s chair and ignoring the satisfied smirk on Jesse’s face, I sat at the table and glanced at Maddie and her amorous companion. “Planning on copping a squat any time soon?”
Maddie reddened and sat, pulling Erica down into the chair beside her. Around us, music pulsed and people mingled, the smell of sweat and fruit juice heavy in the air. My leather wristbands suddenly became fascinating. I tugged them raw, scratching my nails along the metal clasps and edges. I grinded my jaw, pushing against the part of me that wanted to leave this table, leave the girl at my side, and go find myself a drink and good party.
Just like I had for three years. Like I had when I began to scrape rock bottom.
Naomi grabbed my hands, dragging me through the door and behind the building. I wasn’t putting up much of a fight. Frankly, I barely knew I was going anywhere. Definitely hit my sobriety limit four drinks ago.
“Finally,” she breathed. Under the shadow of the awning, she grabbed my coat and pulled me to her.
I hardly registered the wet, needy kiss. Instinctually, I placed my hands on her hips. My fingers crawled down her leg and started to tug her short, tight skirt upwards. Alcohol was one escape. Naomi was offering another.
We were both drunk, and there was nothing elegant about the way I pinned her against the wall, hands roaming and lips searching.
I broke away and she took the chance to pull my jacket off and toss it to the side. “Your boyfriend might find us,” I taunted. “Might find out you’ve been stepping out on him.”
Naomi didn’t hesitate. “He won’t. He’s passed out behind the couch.”
I smirked. Cupping her face between my hands, I tilted it up and gazed down at her smeared eyeliner, faded lipstick, and bloodshot brown eyes. Her body trembled, and the smell of alcohol clung to her clothes.
“We’re fucked-up, you and me,” I murmured, tone hard. “We’re going down fast, and it’s going to be ugly.”
Naomi tinkled a laugh and wrenched away from my hold. She gripped the edge of her top and yanked it up and to the side.
She smiled, a smile of reckless abandon and blind self-destruction. “Why do you think I chose you?”
My shirt joined hers on the pavement. “Why?”
Naomi’s fingers traced my shoulders and pulled me down to her.
“Because misery loves company, baby.”
“Landon? Hello?” Sophia’s voice yanked me back to reality, to the cold night air, bad music, and the smell of stale fries. What was up with my sickening trips down memory lane tonight?
Across from us, Raven was shaking Erica’s hand and chatting with the couple. Damn. I missed the ‘momentous’ meet-and-greet.
“Are you okay?” Sophia’s hand rested on my arm, and I focused on the pressure to ground me to reality. Exhaling, I turned and gazed into warm, concerned eyes. Eyes I’d told my secrets too. Eyes who accepted me for my flaws. Eyes that remained guarded, no matter how much I tried to break through their walls.
“I’m good. Just got a little distracted. Anything interesting go down?” I inquired.
Sophia shoved a handful of hair from her cheek and pointed in Raven’s direction. “They’ve been arguing nonstop. Well, more like Raven badgers Jesse and he just calls her cute. Maddie introduced Erica, who seems highly amused by all this, and I ordered myself a chocolate shake and pineapple fruit juice with for you.”
My brows furrowed with surprise. “How’d you know that’s what I drink?”
She shrugged. “You order it every time you come to the Sound.”
Something foreign and oddly pleasant spread through my chest, and I had to fight the urge to pull her from her seat, flip off the table at large, and spirit her away.
Sophia pursed her lips. “If you’re going for a serial killer expression, I’d say that’s a winner.”
“I’ll file that away for the future.”
Raven threw an object into the middle of the table, her shrill voice penetrating our bubble. “Who brings a chemistry book to a date with their girlfriend?” she hollered. Turning to Erica, she gestured at a puzzled Jesse. “Am I crazy? Would you be cool with Maddie studying on your date?”
Erica sipped her drink calmly, assessing Raven.
“Probably not. But I think it’s different in this case.”
“Oh yeah? How do you figure?” Raven huffed, smacking Jesse’s searching hand away.
Erica yawned, an action that clearly annoyed Raven.
“Seeing as the Chemistry midterm is in less than a week, him choosing to spend time with you instead of holing up in his room and studying means you mean a lot to him. Me and Kendall have lab together, and let me tell you, if he decided to be here rather than buried in the abyss of the library, it means you mean a lot to him. So maybe take it down a notch.”
Raven stared at Erica, mouth open. Maddie was floored, and I was personally over the moon. I placed my hands flat on the table and grinned. “Where have you been all my life?” I asked gleefully. Sophia smacked my shoulder.
Erica sipped her drink and winded her fingers through Maddie’s.
Jesse cleared his throat. “Um, I don’t know about ‘holing up’, but she’s got a point.”
Raven’s struggle between pride and Jesse’s puppy face dominated the table for a minute. With a deep sigh, her shoulders relaxed, and her hands unclenched. “Alright, alright, I concede. I swear, I don’t know what I was thinking when I fell for a total nerd.”
Jesse brightened, and tentatively wrapped his arm around Raven, as one would with a potentially poisonous viper.
Everyone lapsed into casual conversation. Our drinks arrived, and Sophia bent her straw mercilessly as she spoke. Huh. I wondered what was eating at her.
Jesse’s gaze caught mine, and I saw his worry over my earlier distraction. He was a good friend. Always had been, and if I didn’t screw it up, always would be.
I tried flashing him a thumbs up, but he remained unconvinced. Gently moving away from Raven, he stood and gestured for me to do the same. “Landon and I are going to go cover our tab.”
Aw, crap. Reluctantly, I pushed up my seat and followed him through the crowd.
He finally stopped about twenty feet behind the juice bar. He rocked back on his heels and regarded me gravely. “So?”
I shoved my hands into my coat pockets. “So what?”
“Cut the bullshit, Lan. What’s going on with you? You spaced out for a full five minutes at the table. Your nightmares are more frequent. You’re working crazy hours at the bar.”
“You been keeping a list or something?” I snapped, defensive. Everything he said was true. The only time my nightmares subsided was when I was beside Sophia.
“I know you. Don’t try to hide things from me, man.”
Sometimes having a best friend that was good at their job was a pain in the ass. I arched my head back, taking in the inky night sky. “I don’t know, okay? Since I’ve met Sophia, all I can think about is the stuff I’ve done. All I can do is replay everything I’ve done; every reason I don’t deserve her.”
With a short, humorless chuckle, I ran my hand through my hair. “I’m ruined, and she’s too good for me.”
I waited, but there was no response from Jesse, so I glanced in his direction.
He promptly punched me in the chest. It didn’t hurt, it barely even stung, but I rubbed it reflexively. “What the hell?”
“I’m trying not to punch you again, which is saying something,” he hissed through gritted teeth. “I swear to God, Landon, your biggest demon is your own mind. So you have a past. Who cares? Sophia doesn’t. You’re not ruined. You might be scarred, sure. But your scars have stories, and each story is something you’ve survived. Something you overcame and conquered. Even if it was just yourself.
You’ve made it this far, and that’s something to be proud of, not hide. What can I say to prove that you landing Sophia wasn’t some kind of cosmic screw-up?”
I crooked a smile at his ardor. “Aw, you’re like my knight in shining sweater vests.”
Raising my hands in a symbol for peace, I suppressed my grin. “I surrender, alright? Let your hackles down.”
Jesse eyed me. “You’re a bastard.”
With an exasperated sigh, Jesse started walking to the juice bar. “Might as well actually settle our tab.”
I followed, dodging a frisky couple by the bathrooms. “You and the vampire queen doing okay? I have to admit, I got a little turned on when Erica knocked the balls off her.”
“Erica’s cool, she’ll have Maddie’s back,” Jesse said, ignoring my digs. “And if you keep pissing Raven off, I can guarantee she’ll leave a raccoon on the toilet for you to find.” I shook my head as Jesse reached the bar and pulled his wallet out. “Of all the girls, you pick one with zero in common with you.”
Jesse shrugged and slapped his credit card on the counter. “I can’t explain it, okay? She’s tough and blunt, and sometimes I feel like she thinks I’m just temporary. But you haven’t seen her when she’s laughing, or when she’s relaxed. She talks about the lights in Italy and the why she wants to be a speech language pathologist. She talks in her sleep and one time she karate chopped me in the throat when I woke her up.”
I clapped him on the back. “I’m happy for you, dude. Just be careful. You hand your heart to everyone, and some people don’t deserve it.”
Jesse signed the receipt and tucked his wallet away.
“Little too late for that,” he admitted.
Jesse smiled sheepishly and glanced towards the table.
“Because I’m already in love with her.”