Storm Page 9

Tyler jerked her close and shook her hard. ’’Shut your mouth, you little ’’

Then he screamed and she was free.

The dog was attached to his arm, snarling. She could see blood. Tyler scrabbled back, flailing into the shelves of dry dog chow, but the dog didn\ let go. ’’Get him off me! Get him off! Get him ’’

’’Platz,’’ said the new guy. He stepped into the aisle. ’’Casper, platz.’’

The dog released Tyler and returned to New Kid\s side, dropping to the floor beside him. There was blood on his muzzle, but his tongue lolled out, as if it was all in a day\s work.

Tyler clutched his forearm, glaring at New Kid as if he\d done more than just stand there. Blood stained his fingers and appeared in an artful splash across the front of his shirt. ’’I\m going to kill that dog. I swear. I\m going to rip his goddamn head off ’’

’’Really?’’ New Kid leaned back against the shelving and hooked his thumbs in his pockets. ’’Go ahead. Try it.’’

The dog shut his mouth and growled.

Seth grabbed Tyler by the shoulder. ’’Come on. Just come on. Let\s get the hell out of here.’’

Tyler let himself be dragged for a moment. Then he turned back and looked at her. ’’You tell Chris. You hear me? You tell him.’’

She wanted to tell Tyler to go to hell. But he was leaving, and she wanted that more. So she jerked her head up and down. ’’I\ll tell him.’’

The door chimes rang at the front of the store, and she heard Jerry\s voice as they shoved past him on his way in. ’’In a rush, aren\ you, boys?’’

A moment later, she heard her boss messing with the register.

She stared at New Kid, still leaning against the shelving, dressed exactly as he\d been that morning. The white streak hung over one eye, leaving the other to watch her.

She wiped sweaty palms on her jeans. Her arm felt stiff and sore where Tyler had grabbed her.

The dog pushed up and padded over to sniff her hand, then pressed his massive body against her legs. His tongue hung out the side of his mouth, his ears were cocked sideways, his demeanor as nonthreatening as the old Labrador that slept under Jerry\s desk in the back room. She reached down absently to pet him, letting his wiry fur pull through her fingers.

’’You\ e not afraid of him?’’ said New Kid.

’’He took me by surprise before. I\m not afraid of dogs.’’ She cleared her throat and glanced up at him. ’’You know, if an animal gets threatening, I\m supposed to make you leave the store.’’

’’Yeah? What\s your policy when people get threatening?’’

Heat sat on her cheeks. She\d meant that as a joke. She ducked to start picking up the cans on the floor, setting them haphazardly on the shelves.

The dog was sniffing at her hair. She reached up a hand and rubbed him behind his ear, and he started doing that rawr-rawr-rawr the big dogs always did when you found their good spot.

Sure enough, in a moment he was on the floor, on his back, begging to have his belly rubbed.

’’You\ e ruining his tough guy image,’’ said New Kid.

It made her smile. She obliged the dog, giving his chest a good scratch. ’’Seriously, you should keep him on a leash. They\ e tough on dog laws around here.’’

’’He is on a leash.’’

She gave him a wry look. ’’Then someone should be holding it.’’

He smiled, but it was brief, and his gaze was a little too intent. ’’Did they hurt you?’’

Becca looked back at the dog. ’’Nah. They\ e just stupid punks.’’

’’Who\s Chris?’’

She shrugged. ’’Guy from school. I don\ really know him, but they ... ah ... saw me with him, and they think we\ e friends or something.’’ She gave the dog a final pat and resumed picking up the cans.

New Kid dropped to a knee and started to help her. His arm brushed hers.

She told her cheeks to knock off the frigging blushing already. He\d made that comment to Tommy in class he\d been kidding, right? Or was he g*y? She couldn\ get a read.

’’You don\ have to help,’’ she began, but the dog picked up a can and set it on the shelf, then pushed it with his nose.

She stared. ’’What kind of dog is this?’’

’’A German shepherd.’’ New Kid grabbed a few more cans. The dog grabbed another. ’’My uncle was a K-9 cop. Casper used to be a police dog.’’

’’Used to be?’’

There was a little flinching around his eyes. She\d said it before registering the importance of words like was and used to be, and now she wished she hadn\ said anything at all. ’’God that was stupid. I\m sorry ’’

’’Don\ be. It\s okay.’’ He gave a little shrug, but he wasn\ looking at her now. ’’My uncle died in a car wreck.’’

’’So you got to keep his dog?’’

’’Sort of.’’ His eyes were focused on the shelf, and his hands moved more slowly. ’’Casper was in the car with him.’’ He paused, straightening the cans he\d just placed. ’’Me and my dad, too.’’

She studied his profile, the studs and rings along the outside of his ear, the markings on his neck. He didn\ look like any teenager she knew, but was some hybrid of Goth and punk and new age. He rubbed at a can where the ruckus had torn a bit of the paper, and the light caught the stones on his twine bracelets.

’’My mom thought it\d be a good idea for her and me to move back here,’’ he said. ’’Stay with her folks for a while.’’

That had to mean his father had been killed, too. She started to say, ’’I\m sorry,’’ but she\d just said that, and he\d brushed it off. It felt odd, kneeling here in the aisle talking about death with some guy whose name she didn\ even know. She wanted to ask, but now, after such an intimate exchange, asking his name felt rude, like they were well past the basics. She fumbled to grab another can, but there weren\ many left.

He reached for one as well, but Casper ducked under his arm and started licking his face. New Kid smiled and lightly pushed him away, scratching the scruff of his neck. ’’Bravy, Casper. Bravy.’’

’’Your dog speaks another language? Does he do your Calculus homework, too?’’

’’German. Just the commands.’’ He placed the last can and straightened, looking slightly self-conscious for the first time. ’’Lots of police dogs do.’’

She scratched the dog on the top of his head again. ’’Well, I think he\s pretty cool.’’

New Kid moved toward the end of the aisle and grabbed one of the forty-pound bags of dry dog food, and she took a moment to appreciate what that did for the muscles in his upper arms.

He gave her a shadow of a smile, and she realized she was staring. She jerked her eyes away, but he said, ’’I\ve never used him to meet girls, but this whole rescuing thing could work out for me.’’

Check. Not g*y. ’’Well, I\m not sure the cheerleaders would go for someone whose dog weighed more than they do.’’

He reached up a hand and pushed his hair off his face. ’’Who would, you think?’’

’’Softball team,’’ she said without missing a beat. ’’Those chicks are tough.’’

He grinned. ’’Thanks for the tip.’’ He started to turn for the front of the store, then stopped. ’’You play softball?’’

’’Nope.’’ Now she knew she was blushing. ’’Those bags are heavy. You should take that up front.’’

’’Good call.’’ He turned for the end of the aisle and Casper bounded up to walk beside him. She opened her mouth to stop him, to say something witty, to make conversation with someone who didn\ expect her to do him a favor in the dark later.

Right. It\s his first day. That\ll last about five minutes.

Then New Kid stopped. He gave her a smile over his shoulder before looking at the dog. ’’Casper, she said someone has to hold your leash.’’

The dog barked.

Then he dipped his head, picked up the end of the leash in his mouth, and trotted after his master.

Her shift ended at nine-thirty. Becca made it to Chris\s house before ten. Fury got her there, but fear trapped her in the car once she made it to the driveway.

She stared at the front porch for a long minute. If she sat here much longer, someone was sure to notice. She wondered if she should just pull out of the driveway and go home.

But she was supposed to work this weekend. What if Tyler and his friend came back?

She\d been lucky New Kid showed up with his police dog. Maybe she could ask to borrow Casper and just forget Chris Merrick existed.

Excuse me. Yeah, I don\ know your name, but can I borrow your dog? I work three shifts per week. I\ll give him a cut of my pay. Bonuses paid in rawhide.

Right.

The air sat thick and heavy with humidity when she climbed the porch steps to knock. Another storm was coming.

She remembered Gabriel\s comment the night before, about girls not being an oddity around here. She wondered if she\d come across like that, knocking on their door at ten o\clock at night, like some desperate chick mooning after them all, especially after Chris had asked her what? Out? What had happened at lunch?

The door swung wide. Michael stood in the light of the foyer. Same ponytail, same careless appearance. His jeans looked a little nicer, and he was wearing shoes tonight, but he still needed a shave. A cordless phone was held to his ear.

He wasn\ a big guy, but he sure wasn\ little. She remembered how he\d tried to grab her, and she took a step back. ’’I ah is Chris ’’

He held up a finger, pointed to the phone, then took a step back and waved her inside.

She stepped across the threshold, trying to keep her shoulders square. She slid a hand into her jeans pocket and threaded her fingers through her keys again.

’’No,’’ he said, and it took her a second to realize he was speaking into the phone, not to her. ’’You can buy it by the bag, but a sack of mulch will only cover about four square feet ... mm-hmm ...’’

He headed for the kitchen, leaving her standing there by the door. She had no idea whether he expected her to follow.

When he reached the doorway, he glanced back and gave her an exasperated look. He put a hand over the bottom of the receiver and whispered, ’’You want to come sit down or what?’’

She scurried after him, but he was already speaking into the phone again. ’’You\ e welcome to have your husband call me, but I feel fairly certain you\ll need more than ten bags to go around your house.’’ Becca could hear the sigh behind his voice.

He pulled out a chair for her without looking, and she perched on the edge. A laptop sat open on the kitchen table, next to a bottle of water and a three-inch white binder bursting with worn pages. A regular spiral notebook lay beside it, the page covered with chicken scratch.

’’Yes, the bushes will take up some of the square footage but still, I\m thinking truckloads, not bags. Would you like me to come out and ’’

He sat across from her, put an elbow on the table, and pinched the bridge of his nose. ’’No, I fully understand. Have him call me. I\ll come out and give an estimate ... okay, then. Okay. Yes. Okay.’’

He pushed the button on the phone and set it on the table. Both hands came up to rub his eyes. ’’People give me a headache. Everybody wants to nickel-and-dime. Ten bags of mulch for, like, four thousand square feet. Jesus.’’ His hands dropped and he looked at her. ’’You know that\s crazy, right?’’

How the hell would she know? Mom was lucky she could work the mower. Becca thought of the meticulous landscaping out front. ’’You ... ah ... you work for a landscaping company?’’

’’I am a landscaping company.’’ He uncapped the water and took a swig. ’’You here for Chris?’’

He didn\ seem to be making any threatening moves, but she kept on the edge of the chair. ’’If I say yes, are you going to try to kill me?’’


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