Ascent

Jenna doesn't make it a habit to go around saving people, especially when she has errands to run. But when Brendon, the quiet, nervous man in front of her is being stalked by a woman way too old to be wearing a shirt with that much skin showing, she makes an exception. Thus begins the start of their romance. With the help of Eric, Jenna's entirely too sarcastic best friend, the couple embarks on a journey to discover just how deep their relationship can go. Along the way the two must face fears, loss, and their new found feelings of love. The question is: Can they leave behind what's holding them back and start a life together? Or will Jenna's past tear them apart?

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6. Hopefully soccer tires them out

I lead the boys to the parking lot, giving Eric a light shove to his car. He gives my date a glare, but goes anyway.

I follow Brendon to his car, a beautiful navy blue Mustang. It looks vintage, and I ogle it for a moment before I'm brought back to reality by its owner's curious stare. 

"I thought you didn't know anything about cars," I say, confused as to why he has such a vehicle. It's obviously been restored.

"I don't," he answers. "Why?"

"You have an amazing car right there. That's a 65' Mustang. Are you aware of that? If you don't have any knowledge about it, how did you get it?"

He smiles, appearing to think back.

"My dad likes to restore cars in his free time. It's odd to see him hand sanitize every five minutes but be alright with getting covered in car grease. He gave this to me when I graduated from college. How do you know what it is? You said you need someone else to replace something your car because you don't know anything about them."

"My dad also loved old cars. The attic is filled with all of these awesome books on vintage cars and restorations. We used to look at them together when I was little. I thought they were pretty. But with your other question, knowing about models of vehicles is not the same as knowing how to fix them."

"Fair enough," he concedes, holding open the passenger door for me.

How chivalrous. My parents would be proud of him. They always said to never date a guy that doesn't open doors for you. I think that rule is a little silly. Then again, considering the ones who didn't (all of them) turned out to be jerks, maybe I should start following it.

I thank him, sliding into the seat. The interior of the car is just as beautiful as the outside, black leather lining the seats. I want this Mustang so much. 

Don't drool, Jenna. It's only a car. A beautiful, mesmerizing, dream car.

Brendon closes the door, walking around to the other side.

"So," I say when he slips into the spot next to me, "do you mind telling me what went on in there?"

"Nothing," he replies, looking sheepish. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Brendon, come on. I'm not stupid. Were you jealous again? Because I told you, it really isn't like that."

He sighs, abashed.

"You're right, I'm sorry. It's not that I'm jealous, I just let myself get carried away. I didn't like the way he was acting. Is he always that . . .?”

"Aggressive?" I supply.

"I was going to say predatory, but sure."

"No," I answer, laughing. "He's not usually like that. Like I told you the day we had a phone conversation, he's just protective of me. He thinks the world is out to get me. It's nice of him to worry, but it gets a little stressful sometimes. Don't you start doing it too. You were pretty predatory yourself in there."

He ducks his head, looking ashamed.

"I am sorry. I let it get to me. It won't happen again, don't worry."

"It's okay, I understand."

He clears his throat, attempting to move on the conversation. He peers at my legs, looking for something. 

"What?" I ask, suddenly self-conscious.

Is my outfit not as perfect as I thought?

"You're not wearing any shin pads," he points out, frowning. "You might get hurt if you don't wear them. Especially since you're not very experienced."

"Oh. Well I didn't have any. I don't keep that kind of stuff around."

"It's alright," he reassures. "I figured that might be the case. I brought some extra things."

"You just have spare sports protection?"

"Yep. I was a Boy Scout when I was younger. You know, always be ready for any situation."

He twists his body so he can reach the back seat, rummaging through a duffel bag of stuff. Wow, he really is ready.

Speaking of being prepared, I have a thought.

I want to see if he actually does have a first aid kit in the car. I try and pop open the glove compartment as quietly as possible, wincing slightly as it makes a click. It should be in here. I kind of feel like I'm snooping, but the sight of the red and white box makes me not care. Laughter starts to bubble from my lips before I can stop it. 

Brendon glances back, curious as to my why I'm giggling like a maniac. When he sees what I'm looking at, a smile graces his lips. Good, he's not upset I was looking through his things. Sometimes having too strong a sense of curiosity gets me in trouble.

"I told you it was in here," the man says like it's a matter-of-fact, but there's still a hint of laughter in his tone.

"I know. It's just funny to see it."

"One of these days you'll need it and I'll be the one laughing," he teases.

He finally extracts the shin pads, placing them on my lap. I slide them on and adjust them underneath my knee socks. 

He starts the car, and I have to resist the urge to lay my ear against the dashboard to hear the purr of the engine as it comes to life.

"So, did you get revenge on your coworker?" I ask, thinking back to yesterday.

He glances at me before returning his eyes to the road, smiling.

"Yes. Not only did I mess up his hair, I also splashed him with a cup of my other coworker's juice. I had to get her more, but she didn't mind. Jared deserved it."

"I don't know about that. You're the one who flicked a paper football at him first."

He smiles, reaching across the seat to grab my hand.

"Why are you holding my hand?" I ask. "That's dangerous. You should keep both of them on the steering wheel."

"Isn't this supposed to be romantic? You know, there are all those things girls like on the Internet. I thought one of them was holding hands while driving. Besides, I can steer with one hand."

It's sweet, although still unsafe. But I'm going to tease him for what he just said.

"Do you regularly look up romance tips on the Internet?"

"No, of course not,” he answers, smirking. “That would be silly. I just ask other people to look them up so they're not in my browser history."

I laugh, and he squeezes my hand.

"Okay, fine,” I concede. “But if we crash and die because you don't have two hands on the wheel, I'm following you around for eternity in the afterlife so I can say I told you so."

He chuckles, giving me a warm look as he pulls up to the stoplight.

"If it really comes to it, I guess I can handle that. I'd deserve it."

We drive the rest of the way to the school, bantering back and forth.

It's so fun to talk to him.

When we pull up, we see Eric is already there. He's leaning against his not nearly as beautiful, but probably more reliable, SUV. We go on a lot of camping trips in the summer in that car.

"Took you guys long enough," he snaps.

"Don't get all riled up, you baby," I answer, getting out of the car.

Brendon whines, I'm sure unhappy I didn't let him open my door for me. He'll get over it.

I uncap my water bottle, taking a drink to get ready.

"Okay," I announce. "Where are we going?"

The guys are back to glaring at each other again, so I elbow Brendon and simultaneously give Eric a stern look.

"It's just through that gate," my date says, tilting his head in the direction of the field.

"Are you sure we can use this? Doesn't the school own it?"

"It's fine. I come here sometimes. The students use this field, but it's not technically owned by them. The city lets them use it. Fortunately, I don't see why someone would be using it right now. It's the weekend and not the season for intramural sports here."

He proven right as we stroll along the empty bleachers set up around the field, stopping about midway to set our things down. I make sure to stand in between the two men accompanying me. Idiots.

"Look at the size of this field," I breathe. "Imagine how cool it is with an audience in the stands. The noise must be incredible. Hey, guys. Let's pretend we have people watching. We can make up sounds."

"Oh, you mean like the sound of grocery guy's ultimate destruction?" Eric asks, a snide smile on his face.

"Eric!" I scold, smacking his arm. "Be nice."

"I don't mind," Brendon says, his own condescending smile in place. "I think the game will speak for itself."

I whip around to face him.

"What about not letting this happen again?" I hiss, narrowing my eyes at him.

He blatantly ignores me, heading to his duffel bag of stuff to extract a soccer ball and some gloves.

I can already tell this is going to be a long day.

"Let's get started then," I say, sighing. "How do you want to do this? Should we take turns?"

"No," Brendon replies. "You can both be in the game at the same time. One of you can guard the goal while the other plays me."

"That seems unfair to you,” I reply, concerned. “You can't play two people all alone."

His eyes soften as he gazes at me.

"It'll be okay. Don't worry about me. I'll be fine."

"You just sealed your fate then, dude," Eric interjects, absolutely ruining our moment. 

I'm still questioning how this even happened. I just wanted a nice, normal date with the man in front of me. Ugh.

"We'll see," he responds, attitude changing again as he turns away from me.

I sigh again, accepting I don't have control over this anymore. I'll just let whatever happens, happen.

"Okay, fine. We'll both play, if you're so sure."

We head to the center of the field, Eric and I forming a group.

Brendon stands in front of us, a look of fiery determination crossing his face. The ball under his foot looks at home there, like it knows the person about it use it holds a certain level of skill.

I don't think he's ever looked so attractive. Well, in certain ways he has. But this Brendon is not the quiet, shy man wrapped up in a sweater. He's much more intense, eyes smoldering. I don't know what it is, but I have to consciously breathe when I take in the sight of him.

Something about the way he's standing, the way his demeanor slips into smooth confidence, makes me think the match may be unfair to us.

"Jenna, do you want to be the goalie?" he asks, eyes landing on me.

"Sure," I answer, not in actuality at all sure of anything about this game anymore.

 I'm a little concerned to be playing him one on one though, so I'll gladly let my friend do it while I guard the net.

I strap on the gloves after he tosses them me, jogging back to stand in front of the goal.

Eric and Brendon face off. 

Eric's taller, more muscular, the perfect picture of athleticism.

However, Brendon doesn't fall short in looking fierce. His lithe form shifts restlessly, muscles flexing and relaxing as he judges his opponent.

Eric moves first, attempting to sweep the ball out from under the dark-haired man. He simply sidesteps, weaving the ball between his feet. His footwork is absolutely incredible.

Eric tries again, this time aiming to cut off the other man's escape route. He isn't fazed. He feints to the right, deflecting the ball on the side of his foot instead when Eric moves that way, and it goes sailing through the blonde's legs. 

Then Brendon slips past him, and he heads towards me. I regret the decision to be the goalie now.

Okay, calm down. You can do this. Just catch the ball. You're the only one who gets to use your hands. It should be easy.

There's a playful glint in Brendon's eyes as he sees me, not quite as blazing as before.

I tense up as he gets close. Left, right? Down the middle? Where's he going? 

He snaps the ball to my left. I leap to snatch it as it flies through the air. My hands grab at it, but it's too high for me to catch. I can feel the air being displaced as it whizzes past.

Brendon lets out a satisfied crow at his goal. He puts his hand to his ear, as if he's listening.

"What's that?" he asks. "I'm not hearing anything. Whatever happened to the sound of my ultimate destruction?"

"Shut up, grocery guy," Eric growls. "It's one goal. Don't get cocky."

The grin on the other man's face is wide. He settles back into position as I ready myself to throw the ball out.

Eric's the first to snag it with his feet when it hits the ground, but that doesn't mean he's in the clear. Brendon's there every time Eric tries to get around him. Finally, he kicks it out from under my friend. 

He maneuvers it to the end of the field like it takes no effort, dodging his opposition behind him, and I'm faced once again with the job of protecting the net.

The ball is propelled directly above me, something I wasn't expecting. I manage to reach up, but I only knock it up and backwards as it bounces against my hand. It almost kind of hurt.

Eric yells something at me, but I wave him off.

"Don't judge my goalie abilities when you can't stop him on the field," I say, irritated.

"You're not out here. It's harder than you think," he barks back.

"Are you two saying something?" Brendon asks, voice much too innocent.

"Just how we let you have those shots out of pity," Eric snaps.

The other man laughs, but the fire burns once again in his eyes. 

"I'm sure," he replies. "Don't worry about me though. You try your hardest from now on. I can handle the loss."

I want to smack Eric when he manages to cross the field with the ball, only to lose it as soon as he gets to the goal. I can't do all the work! I'm obviously not doing the best job.

Still, I have been analyzing Brendon's footwork. Sometimes when he fakes the ball in one direction, there's a subtle shift of his feet to the way he's going. It's hard to catch, and it's not always there. Either way, it could be a weakness.

He practically dances around Eric's attempts to stop him, racing ahead of the blonde.

This is my moment. I can stop this ball. For my pride.

Brendon steps to the left, but since I'm studying his feet I notice his slight shift to the right. I'm glad he chose to expose himself now. The ball comes in fast and low, and I lunge to meet it in the corner. However, I overestimate my momentum so the blur of black and white only skims my fingers.

I'm upset. My pride is much more than wounded. I groan, burying my face in the grass.

"Jenna?" Brendon asks, worry in his voice. "Are you okay?"

"No," I reply, sullen.

"No?" he responds, concern turning to panic.

I groan again and roll over, only to have my face almost connect with his leg. He's kneeling in front of me, Eric peering nervously over his shoulder. They probably think I broke my wrist. No, only my dignity.

"I was just so close," I complain. "Within centimeters, Brendon. Centimeters."

His bright smile lights up his face as he laughs.

"You were close," he agrees, sounding proud. "I almost didn't make that one."

He returns to a standing position, offering a hand to help pull me up.

Eric interrupts us.

"Hey, you. Get on the stupid field. I'm taking over this post. I think I can do a better job."

"Pssh," I scoff, rolling my eyes at him and his refusal to call me by name. "It's not as easy as it looks, but okay."

I give him the gloves, turning to face Brendon. This might be scarier than being the goalie. At least then we had space between us. But he's smiling, and that makes me feel less nervous.

I'm actually the first to take the ball from the place it sits, attempting to weave across the field with it. I make it pretty far, I even kick it towards the goal, but Brendon catches it in the air with his chest. I lose the control when he streaks by me, joyous laughter escaping his mouth. It's nice to see him look so free. It's not so nice that his freedom comes at the price of my loss. 

Eric isn't any better than me as a goalie. I dare to say he's even worse.

I face Brendon again, hoping to stop his goal count at four.

I chase him down the field, but he has no restriction with his direction. He can reverse from a full sprint, dodging back to avoid my feet. He snaps the ball outward as I move in, slipping around me to regain control of it.

His next goal comes when it crashes into the net in the upper right corner. This is so embarrassing.

"Oh, wait," Brendon says, smirking. "I think I hear something now. Yeah, that would be the cheering. Because I'm pretty sure the only destruction here would be yours. That is, unless you've been letting me have these goals. You guys should stop doing that. It doesn't seem to be working out for you."

Although he's trash talking us, his tone is still light and playful. He's having fun. At least one of us is.

Okay, I take that back. It's kind of fun. It would just be better if we could win. Or score at all.

Eric opens his mouth to reply with a snarky comment, but seems to be lost for words. A rare occurrence indeed.

"Why don't both of you play the field at once?" Brendon suggests. "Sure, the goal will be left undefended, but you'll have twice the chance of stopping me."

It turns out we need about five times the chance of stopping him. Even with two of us, he evades our every move. It takes considerably more effort, I can tell by the strain in his breathing, but we may as well not even be there in the end. The ball makes a nest in our poor net, the ropes appearing to droop in disappointment. I relate to you, soccer net. I really do.

"You know what?" Eric complains. "I'm out.  I give up, dude. You win."

He stumbles over to where his water bottle is, taking a swig from it.

I lean over to place my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath. I'm either really out of shape or that game was too hard. I'm going to pretend it has nothing to do with the first one.

Brendon comes to stand next to me, patting my back.

"I thought you said you'd go easy on me," I whine, panting. "I think you need to look up the term, if this is what your idea of it is."

"I did say that. But that was before I was playing both you and Eric."

"I somehow doubt even if it was just me you'd change."

"Going easy on you doesn't necessarily mean I'd let you win."

"You could at least let me score," I reply, sulking now that I can breathe again.

His grin stretches across his face.

"I didn't think you were the kind of person who would be satisfied with scoring if you didn't earn it, Jenna."

"Yeah, well I wasn't. But that was six goals ago. Now I am."

He laughs, a twinkle in his eyes.

"Then why don't you give it another try?" he asks, posture relaxed as he nudges the soccer ball on the ground to me.

I roll it under my foot, preparing myself. I know Brendon's going to let me score, but I still want to feel I did something.

He's just standing there with his hand on his hip. He'll ruin my victorious feeling.

"At least make it look like you're trying," I groan.

"Okay, okay," he replies, smiling as he gets into position.

"Any tips to get better?" I ask, hoping I can increase my sense of winning if I improve.

"Yes. You're too stiff when you try to move the ball around. It's all about confidence. If you panic when you get it, you tense. Then it's easy for you to lose control."

I close my eyes and take in a deep breath, trying to relax. Okay, Jenna. Think confidence. Walking down the street in a new outfit. Winning in a hockey match against Eric. No, wait. The time your clients love your designs. The exact moment you present it to them, their eyes lighting up as they see just what they envisioned brought to life. That's it.

I open my eyes, setting off down the field with the ball. Brendon takes a moment to respond, and I'm already halfway there by the time he catches up. He makes a convincing show of attempting to steal the ball. But the surprise on his face is genuine when I backpedal, a task made easier by my relaxed posture. I knock the ball through his legs with the inside of my foot. See, Brendon, you're not the only one who can learn things. I just need a little time to adapt, that's all.

He runs with me to the end of the field, a bubbly grin on his face.

I feel my own joy rush through my heart as I slam the ball into the goal with a kick, letting out a victory cry when the net jolts back.

Brendon gives me an enthusiastic high five. 

Alright, fine. I can see why he likes soccer so much. It is pretty fun if you're not losing.

"How did you do that?" I hear Eric ask me, disbelief on his face when I turn to him.

He hands me my water bottle, which I take gladly. 

"Thanks. I'm just a fast learner, that's all," I reply, sneaking Brendon a conspiratorial glance.

Eric's eyes narrow as he looks between us.

"I suspect foul play," he says.

"I don't know what you're talking about. Just two people having fun with a soccer ball. Right, pretty boy?"

"Right," he answers, voice a bit too bright.

He's trying not to laugh.

"You two are hopeless," Eric grumbles, walking back to the bleachers to lay down on them like he's dying.

He's so melodramatic.

"That was a good shot," Brendon compliments, bringing back my attention.

"Please. Now you're just flattering me."

"No, really. I mean it. That was executed very well. I'm impressed."

A surge of pride goes through my heart, and I beam at him.

"Seriously?"

"Yes. Great job."

"Would it have gotten past you?" I ask, peeking up at him.

"Probably not," he answers, laughing.

When he sees my pout he pulls me to him for a hug. I don't mind that we're both sweaty. I fit comfortably against the hollow of his neck.

"You have to realize I've been playing my whole life, Jenna. I even got recruitment requests from talent scouts. Don't get discouraged by that."

"Why didn't you do it professionally?"

I'm curious. He hasn't spoken about this before. I hope I'm not asking anything too personal.

He moves away to take a drink from his own water bottle.

"I don't know," he answers, shrugging. "I guess after my mom died I just didn't want to be away from the rest of my family. All the teams that wanted me were either international or pretty far away."

Yep, too personal. Great. 

My eyes drop down to watch my fingers as I fiddle with them. 

I want to ask him something else, but it seems like all I do is make him talk about depressing things. I've never been good at restraining myself. Or regulating anything I say at all.

"Jenna, what's wrong?" Brendon asks, walking back over to me.

"Nothing."

"I may be bad at telling lies, but I can at least spot one. Is there something you want to say?"

I bite my lip, fighting myself. Stupid curiosity. Go hide in the dark corners of my mind. Get eaten by the monster that snacks on all the important things I need to remember. Like math formulas, grocery lists, and that one time I forgot I ripped my pants so I wore them out and had to tie my sweatshirt around my waist to hide the tear. Where are you when I really need you, evil creature?

Brendon's still giving me a probing look, so I know he won't drop it.

"Do you regret it?" I ask, reluctant to finally say it out loud.

I hate that I've asked it already.

His eyes are gentle when he peers down at me.

"That's what you were worried about saying?"

I nod, scanning his expression for any sadness. Besides adopting more amusement at my concern, it doesn't change when he speaks.

"I think those first few years after high school I did, but then I got over it and really remembered why I originally stayed. I'm happy I made the choice to be with my family. Some of my fondest memories with them couldn't have happened if I'd left. Then I found my job, which I love just as much as I would playing soccer professionally. It puts words and sports together, both my passions. So, no. I don't regret it at all."

I breathe a sigh of relief, glad to hear he's not upset.

"That's good then," I reply, eloquent as always.

He intertwines our fingers, and I forget whatever else I was going to say. I change my mind. This is the best date ever.

"Hey, Jay Bay. Can you do me a favor?"

Scratch that, it was the best date ever. Eric's interrupting us. Again.

"What?" I snap.

"I just need some water,” he answers, looking hurt. “I’m out.”

"Then go get more."

"I can't. My leg is shaky. I think the grocery guy kicked me in the shin, because it hurts."

I glance down at his legs, suddenly feeling bad for being irritated with him. He's favoring the left one. He didn't get the extra protection I did. Poor guy.

"I'm sorry,” I respond softly. “Sure, I'll get you some more water."

"I'm sorry too," Brendon says, looking concerned for the man. "I don't remember doing that, but it must have happened in the heat of the game."

"I know you didn't mean to," Eric dismisses, handing me his water bottle.

He's being suspiciously nice all of a sudden.

I brush it off. Maybe he's finally getting over their fight now that they've both tired themselves out. Like dogs do. That'd be a nice change

"I'll be right back," I promise, leaving them as I head towards the school.

I saw some water fountains outside.

The day has started to warm the area, and I take a moment to bask in the rays. It's a beautiful day. I'm glad we did it early enough it wasn't too hot.

The tiny fountain takes much too long to fill Eric's huge water bottle. I'm wondering how he even managed to drink so much liquid. He was obviously more tired than I thought. Or I guess it could have been low since he wasn’t planning on playing today.

I get it to a reasonable level after what seems like an eternity, screwing on the cap as I make my way back to the guys.

I'm expecting them to be giving each other that weird hug men have. Either that, or I really will need that first aid kit in Brendon's car because someone will be bleeding.

To my surprise, neither of those things are happening.

Eric's whispering something to Brendon in his ear, like it's a secret.

The latter has gone pale. Why does he look so frightened?

It clicks. Eric just used his water bottle as an excuse to make me leave so he could threaten Brendon. How could I not have seen that? I should be used to his behavior by now.

"Oh, hello," Eric greets as he sees me. "Thanks for doing that. You're the best."

"Don't pretend with me," I snap. "Your leg wasn't hurt at all, was it?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," he replies, nonchalant.

He doesn't shy away from my harsh glare, accepting without fear that I know what he was doing.

"Come here,” I bark. “Let me see if I can do anything about it. Maybe with my foot. I'm sure it would hurt then."

"I'm sorry, I think I hear my phone ringing. I better go get that."

He slips around me before I can assault him, heading towards his stuff again without even a pretend limp. I swear, one of these days I'm going to kill that man.

I sigh, turning to my petrified date.

"He doesn't have an overprotective brother that just got out of prison."

"He doesn't?" he asks, looking relieved.

"No. He only has sisters, and they're both pretty harmless. Well, as harmless as anyone in that family is. What else did he tell you?"

"That I better not take you away from him because I'm just the boyfriend. I mean, um, I'm not at liberty to say. Nothing important."

I sigh again at Eric's impulsive and protective nature.

"I'm sorry," I say. "Sometimes he's a little too much to handle."

Color is beginning to return to his face, and he smiles.

"Hey, it's okay. He only does it because he cares about you, I can tell. It makes me happy for you, actually. I'm glad someone's looking out for you."

"Do I look like I don't know how to look after myself? I seem to remember a certain someone needing to be looked out for."

"That's not what I meant. I don't think-"

"It's okay, Brendon. I'm joking. Mostly. Did you pass whatever this stupid test was?"

"I don't quite know. My kneecaps are still intact, so I suppose I succeeded in proving myself."

"Your kneecaps?" 

What on Earth was Eric threatening him with? I hope he's not too terrified to be with me now.

"You didn't hear that from me. Really, it's fine. I'm not that scared. But just in case, pretend we're discussing something else. Like kittens. Or tiny puppies. Anything nice and friendly." 

"Whatcha guys talkin' about?" Eric asks, appearing out of nowhere.

He claps a hand on Brendon's shoulder, a little too firmly, but his tone is bright.

I see the poor guy try to repress a surprised shudder.

"Tiny puppies," I answer, smiling at the previously mentioned examples. "I like the ones that talk to each other in little yips."

Brendon slips away from Eric, sliding into place next to me. He wraps a hand around mine, a defiant look in his eyes as he speaks.

"I like the ones that fall asleep on staircases and chairs. They're sweet."

Eric eyes our connection briefly. When Brendon doesn't stop holding my hand, quite purposely I'm sure, the blonde smiles. He's impressed.

We spend the next hour actually getting instruction on how to play from Brendon instead of him just kicking our butts. I'm pleased with my progress by the end, and I think so is he. Eric on the other hand, not so much. He gives up halfway through, proclaiming the game is stupid. He stays to watch us play though, calling out occasional insults to keep himself entertained. I can feel a warm glow from the happy atmosphere, and I can't stop smiling. My face even hurts a little.

We stop after the sun starts to beat down on us.

"I think that's enough for now," Brendon says. "Do you want to go get lunch? Eric can come too, my treat."

"Free food, yes!" Eric whoops. "Maybe you're not so bad after all, grocery guy."

Before I can reply, Brendon's phone rings.

"Oh, sorry," he says, looking at the contact. "I need to take this."

Eric discusses all the places he wants to go for lunch while Brendon stands off to the side. He holds one hand against his ear to hear better.

I tune my friend out when I tire of listening to him debate with himself over whether chicken drumsticks or chicken breast tastes better.

Brendon's voice filters through my hearing. I don't want to eavesdrop, but he's so close. Aside from covering my ears and looking weird, I don't see what I can do to stop listening.

"How did you manage to do that?" he asks. "Have you tried the bedroom? Under the sheets? Sweetheart, I'm sort of busy, can this wait? Yeah. Yeah. I know. Okay, I get it, you need me. I'll come straight home."

Who is he talking to? Sweetheart? It's kind of unusual to call your friend a pet name like that. 

No it's not. Come on, Jenna. Eric calls you things all the time. 

But what on earth are they talking about? I don't discuss my sheets with my friends. The thought that he's talking to another woman crosses my mind, but I push it away. I'm overthinking this. I need to stop living in the past. Just because I've been cheated on before doesn't mean it'll happen again.

Why am I worrying, anyway? Brendon's with me, and he seems happy about it. 

He sighs, hanging up.

I make sure I pay extra attention to Eric's rambling so I don't look like I was trying to hear him. I feel awful even though I've done nothing wrong.

"I'm sorry, guys," Brendon says, looking sheepish. "I'm afraid I have to cancel our lunch plans. My friend is having an emergency and I need to go lend them a hand."

Eric lets out a disappointed groan, and I stop myself from frowning.

"Are they okay?" I ask.

"Yeah, they're fine. They just need me to help them with something. Honestly, I'm so sorry."

"It's okay," I dismiss. "If you've got to go, you do. I obviously understand taking care of your friends."

Eric ruffles my hair at the comment, before walking back to gather his things.

"Let me make it up to you," Brendon offers, reaching out to hold my hand. "I feel horrible."

"It's fine, really. It's not a big deal."

"Please, just let me. How about we go out for the day? Just us this time, don't worry. My boss has been breathing down my neck to get the other article done for the most recent baseball game, but that should only take a few days."

"You mean you actually do work?" I ask, faking a gasp. "You don't just bother your coworkers?"

"Ha ha. Very funny. You're so mean to me."

"You know you don't mind."

I reach up to pinch his cheek. He pulls away, but he's smiling. 

"Alright, alright. That's enough teasing. So does that sound okay? We can walk around that outdoor mall downtown. Then we'll actually eat lunch together, I mean it this time. No distractions."

I like how earnest he is in trying to make it up to me, his gaze soft and apologetic.

"That sounds great," I chirp.

The idea seems sweet, and I can't say I wouldn't rather be alone with him for lunch instead.

 "Okay. I'll call you and we can arrange it," he says, relieved. "Thank you for being so understanding. Do you need a ride back? Because while I really do need to go, I don't want to leave you stranded."

"I got it," Eric says, appearing next to me. "I'll drive her."

"Alright. Thanks. I'm sorry, once again."

"It's fine, dude."

Brendon glances at Eric, hesitant about something. But then he leans forward anyway to peck me on the cheek.

I'm thinking I might rather walk all the way back than be kissed on the cheek again. Go away, Eric. He's only not doing it because of you.

"Okay, I've got to go. Goodbye, Eric. It was nice to meet you. I'll see you soon, Jenna?"

"Yep. Bye."

He waves one last time before jogging to his beautiful dream ride.

"Do you want to get something to eat and then see that movie?" Eric asks, looping an arm across my shoulders.

"Alright," I concede, disappointed as we walk to the SUV.

"Don't sound so sullen. You'll see him soon enough. You can't keep lovebirds like you two apart."

"You're ridiculous."

I climb into his car, strapping myself in. Eric slides into his seat, starting to drive in the direction of the mall we see movies at.

"He passed by the way," he says, checking his rearview mirror. "I approve."

He's an idiot.

"Oh, thank you so much," I respond, sarcastic. "Eric, I'm lucky he's not scared to death of dating me now. He was terrified."

"Good. Then he won't try anything sketchy with you. Fear is healthy. Besides, he got a little courageous at the end there."

We pull up to the restaurant we want.

I groan at him, and he reaches over to ruffle my hair.

I guess I shouldn't be mad. Since my dad isn't here to do this anymore, I don't have anyone else's opinion. Although I personally think I'm quite capable of evaluating my relationships myself, it's still a sweet gesture. Eric knows I'm only slightly frustrated.

"You're welcome, Jen Bug," he says, smirking as we head to the food line.

"Your list of nicknames never ceases, does it?"

"Nope. Now go order before I start making more."

"You're impossible."

"I know. But seriously. I have a good impression of the grocery guy. He's not a loser as far as I can tell. You should let me screen your boyfriends more often."

I am interrupted in my snarky reply by being called next in line. I pick what I want, sliding into a booth with Eric after he does the same.

"I didn't let you do anything," I retort to his earlier comment.

"You didn't actually do any protesting."

"Because I didn't know about it."

"It doesn't matter," he says, waving me off. "You know what does though?"

"No, Eric, I don't. I'm sure you'll tell me."

He glares at me, and I match it with my own.

He sighs, like I'm unbearable to talk to, but continues to speak anyway.

"Well, it's obviously important that he's proficient at one thing. Is he a good kisser?"

"I can't believe you just asked me that. Are you a girl now?"

"Shut up. You won't tell anyone else, I'm sure, and I'm the closest thing you have to a squealing Sally or whatever. So, is he?"

It's awkward to admit this. It's not like we've been avoiding it, it's just that circumstances haven't worked out in our favor.

"We haven't, um, actually kissed. Not the way you're talking at least."

"Excuse me?"

"We've only had two dates now," I defend. "That's not many. You don't have to kiss on the first few dates."

"Yeah, but why not? Is this one of those pity date things?"

"No! We're just . . . waiting. That's all."

"Waiting? Jennavieve, that's something people say about sleeping together. Not kissing."

"Can you just drop it? It's not a big deal."

"Fine, calm down. It's your relationship."

"Yes, it is. Thank you."

The conversation slips into something comfortable. We eat and then head to the movie theatre to watch the movie. The cute cartoons scurrying across the screen make my day even better as they rescue the lost child. It's a feel-good film all around.

When it's over, Eric drives me back to my apartment. It's getting dark out, and I'm feeling the effect of the hard work I put into the soccer game today. Okay, maybe I am out of shape. I think I'll go and see if the gym by my house has a membership policy, or if they're just open to the public.

I laugh to myself, realizing that's silly. As if I'll actually go to the gym.

"Thinking about your dreamboat?" Eric asks, snickering.

"I will destroy everything you've ever loved," I threaten. "Starting with your guitar."

"I'm so sure," he replies, unfazed. "We both know how that would turn out. If you even touched my guitar I'd break your coffee machine and you'd cry. I don't think you want to go there."

"Fine," I reply, sulking as I get out of the car. "We're not friends anymore."

"Whatever you say. I'm going now. Try not to stab me in the heart with your glare."

"Well I'd go for your head, but your skull is so thick that-"

"I'm leaving."

I give out a triumphant crow, a laugh coming afterwards. 

"Bye, Eric. See you in a few days."

"Have a good night. Sweet dreams. Or sexy dreams. Whatever you want."

He ducks, and one of the shoes I'm no longer wearing sails harmlessly over his head.

I'm surrounded by idiots.

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