Storm Page 8

Becca shook her head quickly. ’’I just I meant you weren\ here this morning.’’

’’It was a rough night.’’ He shrugged and picked up another fry. ’’Michael let me sleep it off.’’ He looked down at the table, apparently noticing for the first time that he was the only one eating. ’’You guys are already done? I barely made it through the line.’’

Quinn took a swig of her water.

Becca glanced away. ’’We didn\ feel like braving it.’’

’’Here.’’ He held out his apple. ’’I can\ eat while you\ e just watching me.’’

Quinn snorted. ’’The symbolism here might just kill me.’’

Chris grinned, withdrew his arm, and took a bite. ’’I\ll eat it then.’’ He pushed the fries off his tray and into the space between them. ’’You eat the fries.’’

Quinn gave him wide eyes. ’’But ... whatever will you eat?’’

A pear, two pieces of pizza, a cup of applesauce, and a Styrofoam bowl of macaroni and cheese still sat in front of him. He shrugged. ’’I\ll make do.’’

Quinn took one, almost hesitantly. ’’Seriously. What are you doing here?’’

’’I came to apologize for my kon***head brother.’’ He took another bite of his apple, his eyes intent on Becca. ’’And to thank Becky for last night.’’

’’Becca,’’ she snapped.

He smiled. ’’I know.’’

Oh.

Oh.

Becca blushed and hated herself for it.

Then she realized Quinn was staring at her, a kind of shocked dismay on her face.

Crap.

’’Quinn, look, it\s not like you think ’’

’’Don\ worry. I get it.’’ Quinn was standing, slinging her backpack over her shoulder.

’’Wait Quinn ’’

But her friend was already shoving past other students, making her way toward the common area.

Becca sighed. ’’Great.’’

’’We\ e not gonna cry about it,’’ said one of the physics kids.

’’Shut up,’’ she snapped.

Chris took another bite of his apple and set it on his tray. ’’Now she seemed nice.’’

Becca glared at him, irritated. Had he meant the double entendre about last night? God, for ten seconds, she\d entertained the thought that he was going to sit down and be a nice guy.

’’So which one?’’ she said.

He frowned. ’’I\m sorry?’’

’’Which brother? I\m having a hard time differentiating on the kon***head scale.’’

’’Oh.’’ He looked startled. ’’Ah, Michael. But, all of them, I guess.’’

So Michael was a big brother. She should have seen that coming. ’’Great. Apology accepted. You\ e welcome.’’ She started to rise.

’’You\ e mad at me? Hey wait a minute.’’

She waited.

’’Look, I wasn\ trying to mess with your friend.’’ Chris looked away for a moment. ’’I wondered if you were doing anything after school. Gabriel\s got a soccer match, if you want to come watch ’’

’’Are you kidding?’’ She could barely hear over the heartbeat in her ears. Gabriel must have figured out who she was, must have told Chris. If he hadn\ known already.

’’Ah ... no.’’ He scratched his head, pushing hair out of his eyes. ’’I\m actually pretty serious ’’

’’Look. Chris.’’ She dropped onto the bench again and gripped the edge of the table. ’’I\m not going to sleep with you,’’ she whispered fiercely, feeling her cheeks flush. ’’I\m not going to mess around with you under the bleachers. I don\ give hand jobs in the men\s room, or ’’

’’Wow. You like to get all this out of the way up front, huh?’’

’’Whatever you\ e playing, someone else has tried it, okay?’’ she said. ’’I wish you all would just stop screwing with me and leave me alone.’’

The table was dead silent for a moment.

Then he stood up. ’’Sure.’’ He paused. ’’You can have the lunch.’’

She didn\ look at him.

He hoisted his bag onto his shoulder, then tossed some paper onto the table in front of her. ’’I\ll see you around, Becca.’’

When he was gone, she looked up. An envelope sat on the tray, the corner stuck in the greasy cheese of the pizza.

She picked it up and opened it. Three twenties.

You\ e probably thinking I owe you my life.

No. Just sixty bucks.

Becca stared at the money, feeling the crispness of the bills under her fingertips. She had no idea what it meant.

The physics kids stood up, taking their notebooks with them. ’’At least he didn\ leave it on the dresser,’’ one said.

Becca flinched, but they were gone, swallowed by the swarm of students. Typical. She was used to drive-by one-liners.

She reached out to seize her water bottle then gasped and dropped it.

It was freezing. She could hear bits of ice swish inside the plastic. Cold crystals clung to her fingers before melting.

She stared at the bottle, now sweating on the table, droplets of water collecting below it.

Then she swiped her hand on her jeans and turned to lose herself in the crowd.

CHAPTER 7

Work sucked. But at least tonight she got to work the floor. You were supposed to be eighteen, but when people called in sick, Becca got a reprieve from cleaning kennels and scrubbing the pet baths, and instead put on a service smock and a name tag.

Working sales paid a full two dollars more per hour. Not like she needed the money this week, with Chris\s sixty bucks securely stashed in the employee lockers.

She didn\ want to keep it, but she sure as hell didn\ want to have another conversation with him. Maybe she could just never spend it. She\d stick it in the domestic violence jar at the front of the store, or the homemade can for that kid with leukemia.

Then again, gas wasn\ cheap. Or maybe she could replace her cell phone. Or save it for a Homecoming dress.

Homecoming. OMG, Bex. You\ e hilarious.

Becca stacked cans of cat food on the shelf, a practiced motion she could do blindfolded. A couple rows over, some guys were jostling each other in the dog food aisle, and Becca sighed. She\d been listening to their bullshitting for ten minutes, and she\d bet her paycheck they were counting on a five-finger discount.

Pets Plus wasn\ exactly well patrolled. It was a PetSmart wannabe, without the big-box budget or the floor space. The only other person working the floor was Jerry, the night manager, and he\d stepped out for a smoke.

When she heard at least a dozen cans rattle onto the tile, followed by a too-loud curse from one of the guys, she set the cat food aside and went to clean up the mess.

She fixed her expression into polite sternness. More cans hit the floor before she reached the aisle. What were they doing, sweeping them off the shelf?

’’Excuse me,’’ she said as she rounded the corner. ’’Maybe I could help you ’’

She stopped short. At least fifteen cans of dog food lay scattered on the linoleum. A few were still rolling, and some bounced off her sneakers to careen into the main aisle. But above it all stood Seth. And Tyler.

She almost couldn\ breathe.

They looked just as sharp and frightening in the fluorescent store lighting as in the darkness of the parking lot. Tyler\s face carried more shadows, his eyes almost electric. They both wore wolfish smiles, and she\d been right Seth was clearly shoving a can into the black backpack that hung from his arm.

’’Hey,’’ he said, dragging the word into three syllables, a mockery of a catcall. ’’It\s Chris\s bodyguard.’’

Tyler had a can of dog food in his hand, and he tossed it into the air and caught it like a baseball, thoughtfully, as if he\d pitch it at her next. ’’You following us now?’’

Following them? Couldn\ he see the stupid smock and name tag?

She shook her head. ’’No. Let me just get ’’

Tyler grabbed her arm. She hadn\ even seen him move. ’’Maybe we didn\ get our point across last night.’’

’’Get your hands off me.’’ She tried to jerk her wrist out of his grip, but he held fast. She fought him.

Tyler\s free hand drew back with the can, as if ready to let fly at her face.

But Seth caught his arm. ’’Dude. Not here.’’

She stumbled over her words. She couldn\ even get it together to yell for help. Someone was whispering, ’’Holy crap,’’ over and over again. It took a second to realize it was her.

’’Yeah,’’ said Tyler, jerking his arm free, the can still in his fist. ’’Try that kung fu shit again, and see what I do to you.’’

’’The manager will be right back,’’ she babbled. ’’He\s ... yeah. Take the dog food whatever you want I\m not going to kung fu to ah ’’

Tyler pulled her closer. ’’What\s yours?’’

He still hadn\ let go of the can, and she felt certain that he was going to slug her in the face with it. It took her a moment to respond, and even then, she had no idea what he was talking about. ’’What\s ... mine?’’

He leaned in and inhaled, as if smelling the air around her. ’’Look, you want to play stupid in here, fine. Maybe we can send you home to Chris with a little message.’’

How frigging long did it take Jerry to smoke a cigarette? ’’I don\ live with Chris I mean, I barely know the guy ’’

’’Save it.’’ He gave her a little shake. ’’That little stunt they pulled last night? The deal is done. Get it? Done.’’

He was staring down at her as though his words should have made an impact. She shook her head. ’’I don\ know what that means.’’

He shoved her up against the shelving, until metal dug into her shoulder and scraped her through the shirt. ’’If they pull this shit again, we\ e going to take care of it ourselves. Get it?’’

She tried to squirm away from him, feeling her throat tighten.

His grip tightened, and her arm started to ache. No, it started to burn. She squealed, but that only made it worse.

He leaned in. ’’Get it?’’

His hand felt hot through her sleeve, like a branding iron. She could swear her arm was on fire. Tears were in her eyes and she didn\ care now. ’’But I don\ ’’

A dog growled to her left. A dark, menacing growl, the kind that prefaced an attack. She and Tyler both snapped their heads to the side.

Pets were allowed in the store, of course. Nice ones. But a massive German shepherd stood there, his lips pulled back, his black ears flat, a low round of bass rolling from his throat. His tail wagged slowly, a sure sign of aggression. A red leash hung from his collar, but there was no human attached to the other end of it.

Her head snapped back to Tyler. Her mind couldn\ decide which to fear more.

’’Get.’’ Tyler lashed a foot out at the dog. ’’Go on, get.’’

The dog dropped a few inches and did that sharp snapping growl. Tyler lifted the can again, this time aiming for the dog.

’’Casper.’’ A male voice spoke from behind the guys. ’’Hierr. Fuss.’’

Either that wasn\ English, or her mental faculties had completely abandoned her.

The animal sprang over the spilled cans of dog food, dashed between the two guys who had her, and snapped to attention beside a man at the end of the aisle.

No, not a man, a teenager. Defined features, sandy blond hair with a streak of white, and small, odd tattoos the new kid from World History.

Could her night get any more surreal?

Tyler and his friend were staring at him, too, sizing him up, their expressions locked in that panic between fight and flight. Tyler\s fingers loosened on her arm. The burning stopped.

’’Oh, good,’’ said New Kid, his tone flat and ironic. ’’Here\s the dog food.’’

’’Get lost,’’ said Tyler.

Becca forced her tongue to work. ’’Call the cops.’’


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