My apologies for the long delay. Life's been crazy and I had technical difficulties.
Special thanks to Skillets for laying the groundwork for this chapter.
Tess and I had our first "date," if you could call it that, at the mall. Dad said that would be a good way to find out about her priorities, but added that I should leave my wallet at home. As it turned out, money was the least of my worries.
Things were pretty low-key at the first couple of stores we went to. She window-shopped at a fashion boutique here, a jeweler there, bought a few things. I tried to figure out a way to ask if she was a Christian, but everything I could think of was either too Billy Graham or too Christopher Churchmouse. It didn't help that she kept my brain preoccupied with questions about how this would look and did these pants make her look fat. So far all I was learning about her was that appearances meant a lot to her. Okay, not the best of signs, but what did I expect her to be doing, stocking up on Bibles? Most girls at my church liked to look good too, or so I assumed. She also didn't seem to mind covering a snack at the pizza shop in the food court when I told her I had no money. "You can pay me back later," she said as she rang it up on her parents' credit card.
I wouldn't have minded a free slice of double-cheese, but she was a girlfriend, not a piggy bank.
It was only when we reached our next destination – one of those stores I try not to even look at as I pass – that I realized I'd made a dumb mistake coming at all.
"Jeremy, where are you going?"
I looked toward her, concentrating hard to look at her and not the store front window. "I don't know, where are you going?"
"In there," she replied, jerking her thumb over her shoulder.
I could feel my face turning red. "Well, have a good time. I think I'll wait in the bookstore."
I made it five steps before I felt her hand on my arm. "Come on, Jeremy, it's just a store."
'An underwear store,' I thought. "Yeah, I'd just rather not go in," I replied, turning to face her.
"Come on, don't be a weirdo." She tried to pull me along, but I locked my legs and stayed put like an anchor. If she wanted me to go into that store, she'd have to drag me, and she didn't have the muscle.
"No thanks," I replied, extracting my arm from her grip. Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, which for all the practice I'd had at it still felt like a failed effort, I walked over to Baileywick Books and headed for the fantasy section. I needed a good dose of fiction to clear my head of this reality.
Half an hour later, I had almost gotten over that business outside the "girls-only store" by scanning a copy of Dragonology and shaking my head at the mistakes. Dragons using jewels as stomach armor?
"Hey," came a voice behind me. "Anything good?"
I didn't even have to look up to know it was Tess. I shook my head, trying to pretend everything was normal. That I wasn't bugged about her being bugged about… ah, you get the idea. "Eh, bunch of mumbo-jumbo. It's hard to believe they even thought this stuff up."
She looked over my shoulder as I stood. "So, you're into dragons?"
I shrugged. "Yeah, it's a sickness. Kinda runs in my family."
She snorted. "A science about dragons? Who thought of that idea? Nothing like them could ever exist."
'If you only knew,' I thought. "It's still fun to read about," I offered in defense.
"Yeah, if you like that junk."
Ouch, and girls think guys are insensitive? "Gee, thanks. Should I make some quips about your taste in clothes?"
"What? Hey, don't be a dweeb about it. It's just a store."
I'll spare you the details of the argument. To make a long story short, I finally got her to stop making a fuss when I asked if she wanted me looking at her like a non-person. After a moment's pause, she changed the subject. "So, you find any books you want to buy?"
I shook my head. "No, I've got better than this on my shelf at home." I put the book back. "Let's go."
"Great, I've got a few more stores to visit."
I just hoped there wouldn't be any more skimp shops.
By the checkout of the last store I felt half-dead, loaded down like Graceless from Pilgrim's Progress. Not with bags, but with doubt. It seemed like I had been totally wrong about things with Tess, but the prospect of breaking up seemed almost as bad as continuing. I was just in the middle of trying to convince myself that there was some way of changing her attitude when something blew my thoughts like a nuke.
"Hey, check this out," she said, handing me a magazine. It was one of those tabloids that feed off of unusual stories. Normally I wouldn't have bothered to even consider if any of it were true, if it weren't for the front cover catching my eye.
You know how sometimes when you get really bad news it takes a minute to sink in? That's what happened. At first all I saw was a tabloid cover showing a bunch of stuff: Elvis clone marries two-headed alien, Loch Ness Monster Lays Eggs, the usual junk. Then I noticed the picture in the lower right-hand corner, and my gut clenched like a fist as my danger sense went into overdrive.
It was me. Not that anyone who wasn't in my family would know, thanks to the rag wrapped around my head. But the bright orange scales were a dead giveaway.
"Stupid dog…" I muttered.
"What did you say?" Tess asked.
"Nothing!" I blurted, feeling the panic start to come on. My worst fears were being realized. I had to tell myself to calm down. 'Don't worry, you were wearing a mask. No one can tell that it's you.'
"Pretty weird, huh?" she continued.
"What!? Yeah… weird… heheh…"
Tess frowned. "Something wrong?" she asked.
"No!" I said a little too quickly and wishing she'd stop asking. I mentally cringed, using all of my might to refrain from doing so physically. "Nothing's wrong," I repeated, this time more calmly, trying to keep my voice steady. If she even guessed that it was me… I didn't even have to tell myself the implications; they had haunted me for so long.
"Are you sure?" she said. "You seem kinda… jumpy."
"I'm fine." I offered a weak smile that I hoped would convince her.
"Okay…" she said in a vaguely unconvincing tone. However, at the moment I was hypersensitive to it, when usually small hints like that would just fly over my head.
'Great, now she thinks I'm even more of a freak…'
Something in my brain told me I was overreacting. I just had to calm down, before she got too suspicious.
"They always doctor photos to look like that," I offered weakly, hoping she would buy it. My story, not the magazine.
"Maybe…" she said, taking back the magazine and staring at it. "I think I'll buy it," she said, registering a bolt of panic in me, "so I can read the article. It says the picture was taken by a woman in our town. Flipping to the page mentioned, she began reading out loud. "'She found the creature scuttling around her yard…'" Now she was reading directly from the article, and her eyes got wide when she saw the address. "Isn't that really close to where you live?"
I looked. "Yeah," I said. "Weird." She continued to read the article as she waited in line at the register. Suddenly, I was hit with an idea. Grabbing a copy, I made my way toward Tess, and stood in line behind her. She looked up from the tabloid.
"You're buying one too?"
"Yeah," I replied, thinking fast. "Matt lives on that street. I think he'd like to see this."
It wasn't a lie. I figured Matt would want to see it even if I'd regret showing him later. The whole truth, though, was that I intended to show my parents.
Uh-oh. Moving to another state is starting to look like a good idea...