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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1. Meeting through a stalker is a little unusual, right?

Oh god. Not another one. I don't want to see another sickening display of public affection. Can't they just wait until they're not in a grocery store?

My eyes are currently landing on a couple down the aisle from me.

The man looks tall and far too skinny, almost as if someone had taken a stick and attached hair to it. This isn't helped by the fact nothing he's wearing actually fits him, giving him the appearance of being even smaller. What is it about guys sometimes refusing fitting clothes?

He runs a hand through his already tousled dark hazel hair, the strands fluffing up at his touch.

The girl is leaning against a shelf of rice, a flirtatious smile plastered onto her face. She has sidled up in front of the man, badly dyed blonde hair swishing about as she obnoxiously flips it back. Repeatedly. I'm wondering if she's going to get a crick in her neck.

Her eyes keep doing this weird fluttering thing, like she thinks people in real life bat their eyelashes as cartoon characters do.

Even her general look is exaggerated. I'm not one to judge people for their style, but with her shirt that's obviously a size too small and her makeup caked onto her face in layers, I'm having difficulty determining if she's twenty-three or forty-six.

This is like watching a mating ritual.

But as I study to man being assaulted with way too much body language, I realize he looks quite uncomfortable.

To be honest, I'd be uncomfortable too if someone was trying to shove their way into my space. Quite literally. The man is subtly trying to use the grocery cart he standing behind as a shield, a barrier against the affections of the girl. Now he's looking extremely frantic.

They are most definitely not a couple.

As I near them, I'm walking a bit more cautiously. I want to hear what they're saying.

No, I'm not snoopy. Nor am I a creepy person. I just have way too strong a sense of curiosity for my own good. Don't tell me about the cat, I know.

"So," the girl purrs, seduction dripping from her voice, "what's a handsome stranger like you doing by yourself?"

The guy's Adam's apple dips, and his eyes dart back and forth between her and the cart. It's like he's worried she'll just magically change the laws of physics and morph through it.

How can she not see that he's more tense than turned on? Maybe she likes the chase.

That's such a gross thing to say.

"I-I, um," he stammers through panicked breaths, "I'm here with someone."

She raises one curved eyebrow at him.

"Yes," he says, a bit more confident, "I'm here with . . . my girlfriend."

It's obvious to me he's bluffing, he's not the best liar, and the girl senses it too.

"Oh, really?" She asks, undeterred in her efforts to reach him. "What's she doing that's making you stand alone?"

Any second now the girl's going to either metaphorically or literally lunge at the man. I feel some sort of strange protective instinct over him. I suppose so would anyone if they saw the way his eyes widen like a deer caught in the headlights. He's out of lies, and he can't deal with this on his own anymore.

Fine, I'll go help him. Hopefully it works, as I'm not quite sure how to make this happen. 

It may come as a surprise, but I don't generally make it a habit to swoop in and save guys like they're damsels in distress. What's the male equivalent for that? I think I'll make up my own. Dude in danger? No, that sounds stupid. Chap in crisis? Now I sound like I'm from Britain and I'm ninety-two. Okay, whatever. I'll put the thought on hold because the girl looks more predatory than ever and the man is starting to tremble.

Praying he's as smart as he looks, I leisurely stroll up to where he's quivering, carefully timing my pace so it looks like I'm meant to be there.

"Hi, babe," I greet him casually. "I got the milk."

I place it in his cart carefully, between his head of lettuce and his package of mini carrots. He's so lucky that's the only thing I'm carrying and that it’s not the day I usually go for supplies. Because then I'd have a full cart and he'd be on his own.

The man jumps quite a bit, startled by my sudden appearance. For a moment he looks like he's going to have a heart attack out of the sheer freight of having two girls cornering him. But when I make no move towards him, instead giving a meaningful look to him and then the girl in hopes he understands, he settles down. Good, he's not an idiot.

"Hi," he responds, not quite ready to handle this new development.

The blonde eyes me suspiciously, her gaze raking up and down my form as she analyzes me. She's trying to check out her "competition." The way she tilts her head like she's superior reassures me my choice to defend the man was the right one. Now this is personal.

"Who's this, babe?" I ask, curling my arm around the man's. He stiffens slightly, but doesn't flinch. He relaxes as he finally processes fully what I'm doing.

"She was just asking me where the granola bars are," he answers, looking and sounding significantly less nervous. 

His voice is much deeper and smoother than I would have imagined belonging to someone with such a thin frame. It's almost as if the voice comes from his feet.

"Did you get the right milk . . . honey?" he adds, almost sounding foreign.

Be more convincing, grocery guy.

"Sure did. Skim milk, store brand."

I smile the way my best friend Eric describes as coquettish, hoping it looks that way and not like some strange grimace.

The blonde's eyes have settled on our intertwined arms, looking dubious.

"This is your girlfriend?" she asks, doubtful. "As in, you two are dating?"

This is because you're not a good actor, guy. I told you to be more convincing. Well, only in my head, but still.

Except when I look up to the man's face, his eyes seem resolved and intense.

"Yes," he answers, almost sounding angry, "this is my girlfriend. Is that a problem?"

I nearly shriek in surprise when his arm slips from mine only to snake around my waist and pull me to him. 

Okay, fine. I take it back about his acting skills. He sure could have fooled me into thinking we're dating with the way he's pressing me to his side like his life depends on it. Not that I really mind because wow, he smells good. There's no other way to describe it but the smell of fall, a fresh scent with a hint of spice. It's almost intoxicating. He's warm and comfortable, and I fit under his arm perfectly. Except he's a total stranger. Why do I need to remind myself of that?

Realizing the girl is staring at me, I fix a slight scowl on my face and harden my gaze into a glare. I lay my head against the man's shoulder in an almost defiant way.

"It's not a problem," the blonde says, seeming intimidated by our harsh stares. "I was just curious is all."

When neither of us say anything more, she slinks away, presumably off to prey on another poor creature. 

For a moment it's quiet, the lull obvious now that the "danger" has passed. The man still has his arm around my waist.

"So, are you going to let go or are we just going to stand here all day?" I ask.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," he says, stumbling over his words as he jerks away rapidly like he's been burnt. "I forgot we were, uh, touching. Thanks for, um, saving me from that girl."

There's an awkward silence as we stare at each other. He's better looking up close than I thought, his wide, puppy-like eyes a shock of emerald contrasting with his pale skin and dark hair. He has a sort of understated attractiveness, hidden by his clothes and the mussed hair that's just a bit too long for his face. If you didn't look closely, you would miss the handsome curves of his features. I thought he might have been an older teenager before, but now he looks more around his mid-twenties like me.

Okay. Before this gets even weirder, I'm leaving.

"Well," I say, breaking the quiet, "if nobody else is after you I have some other errands to run."

I reach back into his cart to grab my milk, and then turn on my heel.

The man doesn't make any movements, and his worried look is the last thing I see before I round the corner of the aisle. I feel kind of like I've just left a baby duckling out in the wild without its mother.

I shake off the thought, weaving through the aisles as I search for the coffee.

Oh, look. It's the guy again, passing me. Hi. I smile at him as I walk by.

I turn into the next aisle, only to find him again. Slightly weird. And then the next one, as well.

I move down four aisles, determined to see if this is just coincidence.

He's not there when I enter the aisle, so I feel less suspicious. Until I run into him by the end cap. Alright, whatever this is ends now.

I slip out of sight behind a grocery dolly, and I see him turn around to study his surroundings. Now I just have to sneak up behind him.

"Is there any particular reason you're stalking me?" I ask once I creep near enough.

He sucks in a startled breath, whirling around to face me.

"I, uh, what?" he asks, looking extremely flustered.

"I asked if there’s a reason you're stalking me," I repeat, slowing down my words.

His face flushes a deep crimson, ears looking like they're tomatoes. 

"N-no," he stutters, "I'm not uh, stalking you. I'm not even, um, following you at all."

I raise an eyebrow at him, making it clear I'm not buying it.

"I'm just shopping," he says, more confident. "It's a grocery store after all. I'm looking at . . ." he trails off, peering at what's on the shelves. This happens to be pregnancy tests, and his blush doesn't have the time to really recede because it comes back full force. It makes me want to laugh. The man just can’t seem to stay out of trouble when it comes to his ability to lie. But fine, if he wants to play the oblivious card he can. I'm still going to get to the bottom of this.

"So, are you excited about possibly being a father?" I ask coolly.

I should probably be creeped out he's following me, but he seems so harmless it's like watching a puppy trail behind people. 

I have to bite my lip to hold in the smile at his obvious distress as he tries to come up with an answer, not ready to lie about anything else. Too bad it wasn’t jars of olives instead of a child detector stick. That’s what I used to call them, anyway.

His mouth opens and closes a few more times before he finally gives up, slumping against his cart. He buries his face in his hands and groans, looking hopeless.

He mumbles something, but it's too muffled by skin.

"What?" I ask, gently this time.

"I'm scared she'll come back," he repeats. "I'm sorry for following you but I don't know how else to evade her."

I burst out laughing, causing quite a few people to look over at me. 

"You mean you're worried the blonde she-wolf will come back and eat you?"

He nods, still looking embarrassed.

I can't help it when laughter bubbles from my lips again. He seems so chagrined. Poor guy. I guess if I had a male equivalent after me, I'd need protection too.

"Stop laughing," he snaps, now upset. "This isn't funny. She's after me, I swear. Every time I turn a corner I'm waiting for her to be lurking there with a syringe full of sedatives. Either that or I'll just hear 'sleep now' and then be chloroformed."

The giggles keep on coming, adding to his embarrassment. I focus intently on stopping, but it's still a good minute or two before I can revert back to just a smile.

"Okay, okay," I say in between recovering breaths. "I didn't mean to upset you."

He sticks his hands in his pockets, peering at me in a pleading way.

"Please help me," he begs. "I have dreams I want to fulfill that don't include being locked in a basement after I'm kidnapped."

I think for a moment. I have to meet Eric in an hour and I have an appointment later, but other than that I don't have plans for the day.

"Oh, all right," I say, resigned. "I'll help you. But we're finishing my shopping before we finish yours."

"Okay," he breathes, relief visible on his face. "Whatever you say."

And then suddenly he's sweeping me up into a hug, which almost elicits a surprised squeak from me. He needs to stop scaring me like that.

"Thank you," he almost sings, voice high and happy.

"Whoa there," I reply, leaning back. "Let's just keep our hands to ourselves, pretty boy."

"Sorry!" he exclaims, pulling away. "I didn't mean to, I was just so happy."

Then confusion registers on his face.

"Wait," he says. "Did you just call me what I think you called me?"

I pat his arm, then gesture my head down the aisle.

"Come on, pretty boy," I reply, purposefully using the nickname again. "I've got to get some coffee so follow me. That is, unless you really do need to look at pregnancy tests."

A jubilant smile appears on his face, covering the blood that rushes there as well.

"It's Brendon. I'm fine without them, thanks."

"If you're sure. And I'm Jenna."

We spend about an hour carting through the store, getting our groceries. 

It's empty enough nobody really bothers us. Right around 3:00 is when customer traffic dies down. To be honest, we finished halfway through, but we both pretended we were looking for something else. Brendon has some really interesting things to say once he stops looking like he's going to have a heart attack at any moment. I'm given the impression he's shy, but once you get to know him he's a lot more open. Maybe too open. I can't decide if I like the occasional sass that slips out from his mouth.

We talk about hobbies. He likes to play tennis, I like to play the Wii version of tennis. Or at least, I did until I accidentally chucked the remote into my television and it broke. Because, you know, I'm too cool for wrist straps.

Then we talk about things we like. Somewhere along the line this turned into a debate about coffee and tea. He thinks tea is superior, and I wholeheartedly disagree. Ground bean water is better than ground leaf water.

The most in depth discussion is of whether Pluto is a planet or not. Fortunately he agrees it is, so I don't have to personally seek out the blonde girl again and sacrifice him to her.

We actually do see blondie again, but she slithers away before we crossed paths in the aisle. Brendon makes it very clear to me with this that he was right about needing my protection. 

Now he's telling me bad jokes.

"So then I turned to him and I said, 'That's no banana, that's my wife!'"

"You're the worst joke teller in the world. I'm pretty sure that's not how it goes."

"Yeah, well . . . shut up."

"That's a great comeback."

He gives me a light shove, and I almost collide with some sausage.

"Hey, watch it!" I exclaim. "I don't want processed meat all over me."

"That would just be the wurst day ever, wouldn't it?"

"I hate you."

"No you don't."

"I'm not even going to give you the satisfaction of a good reply. Just know, I'm judging you."

"I think I'm okay with that."

His warm peals of laughter resound through the aisle, and I find myself echoing them with my own.

We're both startled by a sudden ping from my phone, Eric's name flashing on the screen.

"I swear to god, woman," the text reads, "if you're ditching me right now to watch cooking shows I'm revoking your rights as my best friend."

Oops. I totally forgot I had to meet him. I'm sure that had nothing to do with the now curious dark haired standing in front of me. Not at all.

"Don't get your granny panties in a knot," I text back, "I was busy with something else. I'll be there in half an hour."

"You're buying the ice cream because you're late. And how dare you. I'm wearing a thong, you insensitive jerk."

The text makes me giggle, Eric's stupidity amusing me. This is why he's my best friend.

Brendon is still peering at me curiously, so I turn to him.

"I have to go," I say, now feeling rueful this encounter was about to be over. "My friend is waiting for me. I'm actually running late, as he informs me. He's always bothering me about my punctuality, even though he's the one who hogs the shower to make me late."

The man just won't stay at his own house at least half the time. He says he's there to protect me from any break-ins or robberies. I know it's really just that I have better water pressure in my shower than his.

Brendon kind of stiffens, like he's just been stung by some particularly nasty insect.

"What's wrong?" I ask, concerned.

"Nothing," he recovers, brushing off nonexistent crumbs from his shirt. "I'm just thinking about that girl again, that's all."

He doesn't sound authentic in the lie, which isn't surprising considering how we started this day, but he doesn't say anything else.

What's his problem?

"Okay . . ." I trail off, making it clear I don't really believe him. "Is there anything else you need to get before we checkout?"

"No, I'm fine," he answers awkwardly, scuffing a foot along the floor. "Thanks again for helping me."

While I'm trying to fathom why he's suddenly reverted to his original behavior, he speaks again.

"You should probably go," he says, adding quickly, "so you don't get in trouble with, you know, your friend."

"Right," I reply, still confused, "I guess I should go."

"I wouldn't want to keep you from whatever business you have," he answers, distant.

Did I do something wrong?

 "Goodbye then," I say quietly, unsettled, "It was nice to meet you."

I can't help but feel slightly hurt by his sudden demeanor change. Why? It's not like we had anything. We'd just met an hour ago, for heaven's sake.

"It was nice to meet you too, Jenna," he answers, something warm spreading through his eyes. He turns away right as I catch the look, so I have to wonder if I imagined it.

We both have meaningless conversations with our checkers when we head to the front of the store to finish up. Even though we’re faced ­­­­away from each other, it somehow manages to be awkward. Especially when we share a glance before parting ways, an unnerving silence still hanging in the air.

Fine. If Brendon doesn’t want to talk to me, he doesn’t have to.

I’m never saving anyone from creepy people again.

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