Miss Me Not (Page 10)

Dean looked at me with an expression that was hard for me to discern. "You have an amazing laugh," he said softly.

"You should really stop taking drugs. They're seriously screwing with your brain cells," I retorted, unsure how to accept his compliment.

"You know, it's okay to accept a compliment every once in awhile," he chided. "Anyway, so why does your mom go to church so much?"

"I don't know. She always has. When my parents were still together they'd both go. I spent the majority of the evenings when I was little in some form of daycare. I put my foot down when I hit junior high. I flat-out refused to step foot in the church again. I'm pretty sure they were relieved. I guess you could say not being as devoted as the other members was a thorn in their side."

"That's whack. Any church that requires their members to attend every night borders on crazy."

"Truth," I said, sitting on the floor beside him. He grinned at me before turning back to his book so he could work on some sample problems. Following suit, I opened my own math book. It'd been years since I'd actually done any homework. It didn't count in the grading module the school district had adopted, so I took that as my excuse to bow out. Teachers still assigned homework to help prepare students for the summative testing, but they couldn't force the issue. They pretty much relied on the parents to police the homework. Needless to say, Donna didn't police anything I did.

Dean and I worked in compatible silence until the pizza arrived.

I grabbed a twenty from the kitchen drawer and headed for the front door. Dean was already there handing over his own twenty.

"Hey, Chuck," I said, taking the pizza from the delivery guy.

"Hey, Madison, see you in a couple days."

"Count on it," I said, closing the door. "You don't have to pay for the pizza. It's on Donna," I said, trying to hand him the twenty that was clutched in my hand.

"Nah, it's good. I didn't realize that I was eating your dinner though."

"That's why I ordered a large. I'm a two-slice kind of person," I said, setting the pizza on the coffee table. "I'm going to go get us a couple sodas. Is Coke okay?"

"Sure," he said, sitting back down on the floor.

A few minutes later, I joined him with a couple of plates, napkins and the sodas. Dean asked me inane questions while we ate. I answered all of them, smiling slightly at the ridiculousness at some of them. I couldn't remember a time I'd been as content as I was at that moment. If I didn't know better, I would say I was happy. But that was impossible. Happiness wasn't in my DNA makeup. Was it?

We studied for a couple more hours after I cleaned up the remains of our dinner. I was slowly getting used to having him around and found myself wishing that time would slow down.

"I guess I better head home," Dean finally said, stretching the kinks out from sitting on the floor so long.

"Right," I said, trying to push my reluctance back so he wouldn't see it.

"Lunch tomorrow?" he asked, slinging his backpack over his shoulder.

"I don't know. Are you going to stand me up again?" I asked.

"No, ma'am," he said, giving me a mock salute.

"Fine, I guess."

He laughed at my indifferent answer. "See you tomorrow, Mads."

"Night," I said, closing the door behind him. The silence of the house enveloped me as I leaned back against the door. I fought the sudden prickling of tears. Being alone sucked.

Chapter Ten

The next few weeks traipsed along without incident. Dean actually showed up for lunch every day, and I tried my best to appear normal. Our tentative friendship was changing into something more. I tried to hold on to the "friend" façade, but Dean kept changing the game up every time I turned around. He somehow got me like no other person had before. Every once in awhile he'd slip in a probing question, digging just a little deeper. His slower approach left me opening up more than I normally would have. His presence began to ebb away some of the darkness in my life, allowing a ray of light to dance on the outskirts. The only thing that marred my new friendship with Dean was my slowly unraveling friendship with James. Our lunches together had become few and far between, and I couldn't help feeling guilty.

"So, tonight I'm going to show you my own version of family fun night," Dean announced. His words hung between us as we gathered up the remains of our lunch.

"What is that supposed to mean?" I asked, instantly apprehensive. His constant little pushes were breaking every rule I'd set as he continually redefined what our friendship was.

"That's for me to know and you to find out," he said, heading off toward the science building. I waited several minutes and then trailed behind him. As a rule, I wouldn't let him walk me to class. I told him it was to cut back on the gossip. I was trying to keep his reputation in tact as much as I could. He was confident that I was overdramatizing the reaction of his friends if they knew we hung out together. He was so naive. My past would tarnish anyone's reputation. Even one as strong as his.

I was almost to class that day when I saw James ahead of me. I picked up my pace so I could talk to him.

"Hey," I said, breathing a little heavily as I finally caught up to him.

"Hey, how's the studying?" he said, calling me out on the lame excuses I'd given a couple weeks ago.

"Not bad. My tutor turned out to be halfway decent," I answered, coming clean, sort of. "We've been doing a lot of studying in the afternoons too."

"Wow, you're taking your classes pretty seriously lately," he said, eyeing me skeptically.

"I figure if I'm going to do this whole living thing, I needed to fix a few things," I said quietly. Squeaking by had been fine when I thought it wouldn't matter. Knowing that I was sticking around had changed my outlook. Well, that and Dean's influence.

"That's great, Madison," he said, sounding anything but sincere.

I knew I was letting him down, and in a weird way I felt bad. My changing was irrevocably changing our superficial friendship forever. Our combined darkness had given us a common bond. What would happen if I continued to change?

"Why don't you join us for lunch on Monday?" I said as sudden inspiration struck. "Dean found this cool tree on the edge of the campus. No one ever goes out there, so it's a great place."

"Dean Jackson is your tutor? All-American-I-Can-Do-No-Wrong Dean Jackson?"

"The one and only," I answered, shooting him a small new-to-me smile.

His eyes widened slightly at my smile, but he didn't comment. "Sure, maybe," he said as the first bell rang. "I better go so I'm not late to class," he said, shuffling off down the hall.

I watched his retreating back with a serious knot in the pit of my stomach. I knew he wouldn't meet me for lunch. It was an unwritten rule that our friendship wasn't designed to be shared.

I was still bogged down with guilt over James when I met Dean after school by his jeep.

"How was your afternoon?" he asked as I threw my backpack into the backseat.

"Nauseating. PerryPervert called me up to go over my English essay. I had the pleasure of watching him jiggle his junk the whole time I stood there. It was like a train wreck. I didn't want to look, but I couldn't seem to help myself. I'm pretty sure I threw up a little."

"What a dick," he said, putting the vehicle in reverse.

"I think that's the problem. Maybe he doesn't have one and he keeps checking to see if something magically appears."

Dean snorted.

"So, what are we doing tonight?" I asked, letting some of my insecurities show.

"You'll see," he said in his mysterious cloak-and-dagger voice.

"Really?" I asked sarcastically. The idea of a plan I had no knowledge of was enough to fill me with apprehension up to my neck. I was already pretty sure that I wasn't going to like his plan. Especially since he'd thrown the words family around all willy-nilly. My fears were verified when five minutes later he pulled into a long curved driveway in front of a huge sprawling yellow ranch house. Everything about the house in front of me was inviting. The exterior of the bright sunny yellow house was adorned in multiple potted plants that carried an array of different kinds of flowers. Multiple well-trimmed trees broke up the long expansion of St. Augustine grass that filled the space between the house and the curved driveway. The large trees provided shaded areas that were occupied by tastefully arranged sitting areas for those who would like to watch the world go by. If I had stumbled on the house in the forest, I would have labeled it as enchanting. Even being smack-dab in a community full of other houses, it stood out, practically screaming hominess. I'd seen enough TV to know that in the suburbs this house would be classified as a dream home with outstanding curb appeal. Everything about it screamed hard work, love and something else I couldn't quite put my finger on. One thing was abundantly clear. I did not belong here.

"My house," Dean said, stating the obvious.

"I see that. I'm not going in there," I said, shaking my head to emphasize my point. There was no way I was going in there to be paraded around to his family.

"Come on, Mads, it'll be fine. My parents are dying to meet you," he persuaded.

"You've told your parents about me?" I screeched in an unnaturally high voice.

"Mads, they figured something was going on since I've been MIA almost every afternoon for the last two weeks."

"Well, sure, but don't they just assume you're hanging with friends or something?"

He laughed. "My parents never assume anything. It used to drive my older sister Trish nuts."

"You have an older sister?" I asked, momentarily distracted.

"Yeah, she's a junior up at FSU, majoring in art therapy. You'll get to meet her next week when she comes down for Thanksgiving."

I was already shaking my head negatively. "No. I'm not meeting anyone in your family," I said, folding my arms stubbornly across my chest. My multilayer of black bracelets clinked together.

"Come on, Mads, don't be a baby. They're going to love you."

I snorted, looking down at my appearance. My attire of black on black had suited me well the last four years, but at the moment, seemed plain and downright ugly. Not to mention my pale skin coupled with the written tattoos on my wrists. I was a parent's worst nightmare. I definitely wasn't the type of girl guys brought home to meet mommy and daddy.

"You can do this," he said seriously, sensing my inner turmoil. "Unless of course, you're chicken."

"I hate you," I muttered, climbing out of the front seat. I'd do this, and when his parents hated me on sight, I'd have the satisfaction of being right. But the question was would it be a victory I really wanted?

Dean walked around, joining me at the front of the jeep. "Piece of cake," he said, lacing his fingers through mine. I didn't flinch from the contact. Over the last two weeks, Dean had slowly chipped away at my defenses. "You can stop looking like you're about to step foot in a serial killer's house," he teased, tugging me toward the front door.

"I'd prefer that," I answered as he turned the knob and pushed the door open.

Several things hit me at once as I stepped into his large sprawling house. First, the room we entered was huge. It ran the length of the front of the house, forming a perfect square. A large kitchen separated by long high-top counters sectioned it off from the living room and dining room which was visible from where we stood. Obviously, the builder had gone for an open floor plan. The delicious smell of spiced pumpkin permeated the interior of the house, and I couldn't help sniffing it appreciatively. The smell was warm and welcoming as it enveloped your senses. The only thing my house had ever smelled like was the cleaning solutions June used when she cleaned our house each week. It was the decor in Dean's house that drew me in the most. The walls were painted a warm taupe and adorned with numerous family pictures that were tastefully hung in rich wooden frames. Seeing them made me want to peruse each frame, dying to see actual family pictures.

That idea was put on hold when two little girls came tearing through the kitchen and tackled Dean around the legs, screeching his name at decibels I was pretty sure dogs five miles away could hear.

"Hey, Thing 1 and Thing 2," Dean said, ruffling their hair. "Have you two been driving Mom nuts today?" he chastised as a slightly flustered looking woman bustled out of the kitchen.

"Ashley and Dora, get in your playroom and clean it now," she said, putting her hands on her hips.

"But Dean's home, and he bought a fend," one of them said with a cute lisp as she dropped her R's. I had next to no experience with kids, but I had to admit, Dean's sisters were pretty cute. Their hair was made up of platinum corkscrew curls that bounced every time they moved. Rounded cheeks and rosy lips gave them the appearance of cherubs you'd find in some Greek painting.

"I see that. Room, now," she said, pointing beyond the kitchen.

"Hi, I'm Dean's mom, Sarah," she said, holding her hand for me to shake after the identical twins had torn away through the kitchen.

"Madison," I said, holding out my hand, taking the plunge into actual contact. I waited with bated breath for her to judge me when she took in my tattooed wrist.

"The writing on your tattoo is lovely," she said, surprising me as she flipped my hand over to study it more closely.

"Thanks, it's called Elegance," I said self-consciously.

"What does 'forget' mean?" she asked, finally releasing my hand that had grown clammy.

"Um, it goes with this," I said, flipping my other wrist over to reveal the word "Me."

"Oh, I see. Sometimes the past can be quite trying. I'm sure all of us would like to be forgotten at times," she said uncannily.

I waited for her next comment. Surely, now would be the time she'd tell me in no uncertain terms about how great her son is and how he needs to stay focused so he can continue on to bigger and better things. I waited for her to tell me I didn't belong in this house filled with its large comfortable furnishings, family pictures and welcoming pumpkin spice smell. She'd be right.

"I baked some chocolate chip cookies and pumpkin bars if you two want to have a snack before dinner," she said, shocking me as she smiled warmly.

"Heck yeah," Dean said, grasping my hand once again as he dragged me to the kitchen.