North by North Tree-st
A few hours later, the kids were sat in a local medical centre, not too far away from the rangers' station. Wrapped up in thick fleece blankets, drinking special drinks to help replace the salts and electrolytes they had lost, they were waiting for their parents to stop talking to the doctors, so that they could go home.
Their attention was on the television, tuned to “SpongeBob,” which was, ironically, playing “The Camping Episode,” and they were all watching silently, except for Rudy, who had fallen asleep on the only bed.
They had all been patched up; Tina, Gene, and Louise all had their arms in slings, and Louise's knee was bandaged. Gene's wrist was also bandaged tightly, there was a patch of dressing on his arm, and he was using his free hand to eat the fruit that had been left out for them.
Poor Rudy was covered almost completely head to foot in calamine lotion, as a precaution, and his leg was wrapped up. Andy and Ollie had band-aids on their forehead, but were fine otherwise, and patches of dressing decorated both of Jimmy Jr's knees. Only Zeke was unharmed; just a few minor bruises and scrapes.
Tina used her free hand to put down her cup, and pick up one of the many bananas that had been provided for them. It was a bit of a challenge, considering her current limitations, but she managed to hold it in her left hand, and peel it with the other.
Louise, her eyes glued to the screen, used her right, sling-covered arm to hold the edge of her blanket, while her left was holding the cup of blackcurrant-flavoured Dioralyte they'd all been given. Her face screwed up a little at the taste, but she kept drinking. The little doll one of the well-meaning rangers had given her had been instantly discarded, and was now lying on the floor.
“What's taking them so long?” muttered Jimmy Jr.
“I heard the doctor say they wanna keep us here tonight, and our parents are tryna get us home,” said Zeke.
“We don't need to stay, do we? We're fine,” said Gene, and Zeke shrugged.
“I guess it's the doctor's orders.”
He and Tina didn't make eye contact with each other; Zeke was feeling guilty; he'd kissed his best friend's girl, you weren't supposed to do that. But it had been friendly and platonic, right? So, it didn't mean anything, right? Zeke was also a little bit worried about inadvertently revealing what he had done, which he was sure would show on his face if he looked at Tina. He didn't want there to be a huge row in front of everyone.
Tina was feeling.. pretty good actually, in spite of everything. Oddly enough, she didn't feel guilty, which felt weird. Technically, she and Jimmy Jr. weren't actually dating at the moment, so she didn't cheat on him. This marked the third time she had kissed Zeke, and even though only two of them were little pecks, it shocked her at just how much she preferred him over Jimmy Jr.
Tina shook her head slightly; perhaps it was just the stress of the past three days, making her think like this. Still... Zeke was there for her during that frightening time, and he was the only one who had been there for her. He listened to what she had to say, and took her suggestions on board; even her own siblings rarely did that. She had really felt like things had been okay when he was there.
Tina lifted her eyes, looking over at Zeke, who couldn't seem to focus on anything, and kept looking around everywhere. Everywhere but where she was. After a while, his gaze caught hers, and they stared at one another. Tina offered a small smile, and Zeke blushed once again. She had never known him to be so shy, but before she could say anything, all of their parents entered the room.
“Finally!” said Louise. “What were you doing out there, racing snails?”
“No, we were talking to the doctor,” said Linda needlessly, “and he said you can all come home!” She had to cover her ears when the kids all cheered, causing Rudy to stir.
Eager to get away, the kids stood up, all except for Rudy, who was still half asleep. Sylvester walked over and picked him up once again.
“I gotta get him home; I'll see ya later,” he said, as he walked out the door, giving the others barely enough time to bid him goodbye. To be fair, they were all more concerned with getting their own children home, and they all quickly left in the same manner.
Stepping out of the station, a cool breeze caressed their faces, and the setting sun made it necessary for them to watch their footing. Once again, they were all escorted by Jeeps to the area where the barbecue had been held, where their cars were. It seemed so long ago that they were getting ready for what they thought would be just an ordinary day.
For the Belchers', the car ride home was silent; all of them too relieved and tired to talk. Linda, though close to falling asleep herself, kept one eye on her kids in the back seat.
“So, how did it happen?” she couldn't resist asking.
Through her yawning, Tina told of how they had tried to cross the log over the ravine, and it had fallen, and how they had decided to walk.
“We made a fire, and slept in the bushes, and the next day, we waited for ages,” she said, resting her head against the back of her seat, doing her best to stay awake.
“So, why did you leave? We found the fire pit, and all those daisy chains the next day, as well.” Linda reached over her seat, and took Tina's hand.
“There was a bear, and we-”
“What?!” Linda shrieked so loud that Bob jumped, causing the car to swerve slightly, and Gene and Louise, who were on the verge of dropping off, jolted awake. “A bear?”
“Oh, yeah; there was a bear,” Louise yawned, and Bob and Linda looked horrified.
“Are you all okay?”
“We're fine.” Louise rolled her eyes, and waved her free arm. “But it chased us, so we ran, and we fell into the river.”
“What?” Bob almost crashed the car. “A bear chased you?”
“You fell in the river?” asked Linda, and the kids nodded.
“Yep, and down the waterfall,” Louise yawned again. “No more talking,” she ordered. “That's enough.”
Linda quietened down, though she still held Tina's hand, and Bob continued driving. As he was getting pretty tired himself, he unrolled the window to allow the fresh evening air to hit him in the face.
“They're asleep,” Linda said after a while, her voice low. Bob glanced in the rear view mirror, and saw that she was right.
“Okay, good; they looked like they needed it.”
“I know; poor babies. They've had a rough time. Well, they're all staying home tomorrow,” she said, and Bob nodded. Linda then fell quiet, not wanting to disturb the kids.
They were still asleep when Bob finally pulled up outside the restaurant, leaning into one another, Gene mumbling slightly.
“Lin?” Bob whispered. “Wait here for a minute; I'll just take Tina upstairs.” He pulled his sleeping daughter out of the car, being careful not to knock her arm, and carried her inside the apartment, putting her in her bed. He then returned to the car. “I'll grab Gene, and you take Louise.”
Linda nodded, and manoeuvred Louise carefully into her arms, taking the joy in holding her child close, and took her upstairs, as Bob picked up Gene, balancing him. He stood there for a second, making sure to lock the car, before he headed into the house.
Once they had settled the kids into their beds, Bob and Linda retreated to their room, passing out as soon as their heads hit the pillows.
Bob was the first to awake the next morning; a force of habit from many decades of early morning prep work. For a while, he lay there, staring at the ceiling, wondering if he could get himself to fall back asleep; he was definitely tired enough. He felt Linda roll over next to him.
“Want some coffee?” she yawned.
“Yeah, that'd be great,” Bob mumbled, rubbing his eyes.
“Well, go and make it,” Linda joked, nudging him gently with her foot. Bob laughed as well, and sat up. It felt so weird knowing that he wasn't going to work today. Like, what was he supposed to do?
He headed to the kitchen and began making coffee, along with breakfast. Linda came in soon after, tying her robe, and yawning. “What a weekend!” She said, as though Bob had not been experiencing it right along with her.
“I know, but at least it's finally over.”
“Yeah.” Linda grabbed her coffee cup, and sat at the table. “So, you still up for having a lazy day on the couch?”
“I don't know,” Bob admitted, the feeling of having a day off still foreign to him. “Sure, I guess.”
“It's gonna be great; we can watch a couple of movies. I'll make popcorn.”
Bob nodded and grabbed some bowls, placing them on the kitchen table. It sounded good enough to him.
“Should we wake the kids up, or leave 'em?”
“Let 'em sleep,” said Linda, as Bob sat down beside her, coffee pot in hand. “They need it.” She paused. “Should they go back to school tomorrow?”
“I don't see why not,” said Bob. “The doctor said they're fine, and I think they don't have to do P.E for a while.”
Linda nodded, as Bob poured her coffee.
“I'm sure they'll fine,” she said, more to herself. “But maybe they should have more than one day off? And they'll definitely be happy to stay home from school.”
“You got that right,” Bob chuckled. “Well, we'll see how they are today, and decide about school later,” he said, and Linda nodded again, satisfied with the answer.
Tina awoke a few hours later, her left arm feeling weird in the sling. Yawning, she got out of bed and started to dress, which was harder than it needed to be. She was able to get her skirt on with no problem, but trying to put on her shirt was like trying to solve a maths problem without a calculator – impossible. She eventually managed to do it, and just sat on her bed, panting slightly, using her free hand to brush her messy hair out of her face.
When she went into the kitchen, Bob and Linda were still there, and Linda sprang up, and hugged her tightly.
“How you doin', my Teeny Tina?” she asked, being careful not to hurt her daughter's arm.
“I'm fine,” came Tina's muffled voice. “Just a bit hungry.”
“I bet! What do you want? You can have anything today.” Linda said, as she led Tina over to the table.
“Uh, chocolate chip pancakes?”
“You got it!” Linda wrapped her arms around Tina's face, and planted several kisses on her head, before bustling over to the cupboards.
Tina didn't know quite what to say as she ate her pancakes. They seemed to taste even better today, and Linda had made a smiley face out of the chocolate chips. Linda appeared to have made enough to feed a small army, so they were all able to have second helpings, with plenty left over for Gene and Louise.
“So, what are we gonna do today?” she asked, not knowing what else to say.
“We're gonna have a movie day on the couch,” Linda told her, sitting down. “We'll wait for Gene and Louise to wake up, and then I'll make popcorn and cocoa. How's that?”
“Sounds great.” Tina smiled. “Are Gene and Louise okay?”
“They'll be fine,” Bob assured her. “Just like you.”
“Okay, good.” Tina smiled again as her dad reached out and gently patted her good arm. “What's wrong with my arm? I didn't hear what they said.”
“Uh, they said you have a mild shoulder tear,” said Linda, and Tina looked confused. It didn't feel like anything had ripped. “But it'll be fine, and they said to give you ice packs and medication and it should heal up on its own,” said Linda, and Tina nodded. “Gene sprained his elbow and wrist, and Louise twisted her knee, and sprained her shoulder.”
“Okay,” said Tina.
For a moment, the three of them were silent, Tina finishing off the last of her breakfast, and Linda clearing the plates when she was done. Tina was wondering what the kids at school were going to say when she and her siblings returned. She didn't know if the other kids had gone back already, and if they had told anyone. It wasn't like the teachers could give them detention or anything, but Tina wondered if they would believe her; Louise did have a tendency to stretch the truth. Perhaps the teachers would understand if her parents explained it; they'd have to believe the grown ups, right? Adults didn't lie.
As she tried to imagine what school would be like with her arm in a sling, there came a knock at the door.
“I wonder who that could be,” Linda put down the plates, and headed downstairs. Opening the door, she beamed when she saw Zeke standing there.
“Good mornin', Mrs Belcher.”
“Hey, Zeke, how ya feelin'?” She bent down and hugged him.
“Oh, just fine, ma'am. I was wonderin' how your kids are doin'?”
“They're fine; you're so sweet for asking.”
“Thank you, ma'am. Can I speak to Tina?”
Linda stood by and called Tina, retreating back upstairs when Tina had come to the door.
“Hey,” she said, not knowing if she should hug him, or take his hand, or do nothing, so she did nothing.
“Hi.” Zeke appeared to be just as unsure as she was, and kept shuffling his feet. “Are ya okay?” he eventually asked, not really knowing what else to say.
“I'm fine. What about you?”
“Oh, I'm all right. What about Gene and Louise?”
“I don't know; they're still asleep. Mom and Dad said they're gonna be okay.”
“Okay. That's good. ” Zeke bounced nervously on the balls of his feet, while Tina just stared at him. She found that she liked the way his curls bounced when he did, the way he bit his bottom lip. His eyes (a very nice hazel-green, she noted, as if seeing them for the first time) kept looking between her and the ground. He glanced behind him. “Can we talk?” he asked.
“Sure. Come in.” Tina stepped aside and allowed him to enter. Closing the door, they headed upstairs to her bedroom. Once inside, Tina sat on her bed, and gestured for Zeke to do the same. When he did, she noticed that he was fidgeting a lot, just like when they were in the forest. “What is it?” she asked, watching his twiddle his thumbs, and shake his knee.
“I don't know how to say it,” he said quietly. Tina merely waited, looking at him. She didn't feel nervous; she didn't really know what she was feeling, except that she was glad to see him. “Well, I've told ya before that I like ya – like, like-like ya, haven't I?” he asked, and she nodded, remembering back to that time in the maze. Back then, she had been unsure if he was genuine.
“I remember,” she said, thinking to later on that day, when they were all back at home, absolutely drenched from head to toe. It had been late, so after they had dried off and put on their warmest pyjamas, Linda had sent them straight off to bed. And then Tina had got to thinking. Thinking about Zeke. “You had a whole date planned for us.” She could still remember how shocked she had been to discover that Zeke knew what her favourite things were. A typical date with Jimmy Jr. would involve a dinner in his dad's restaurant, followed by a walk on the beach, and usually somewhere where he could dance. She would have loved for him to take her to the aquarium. Not that she didn't enjoy the beach; she loved walking barefoot in the sand, especially at sunset, but Jimmy Jr. would be too busy dancing to pay much attention to her.
“And I really meant it. What I'm tryna say is that I do like ya, I still like ya, but we shouldn't have done what we did.” His gaze flitted to the ground. “I didn't mean to lead ya on like that.”
“What? Lead me – you didn't do that,” Tina assured him. “I kissed you, and I did that because I wanted to. Because I like you, too,” she admitted, and Zeke finally looked up at her.
“You do?” He seemed so shocked that it made her want to laugh. She had a feeling she was going to enjoy getting to know him. The past three days had shown her so much about who he really was, and it kind of excited her to find out about the “real” Zeke.
“Yeah.” Saying it out loud felt almost cathartic, like a release of some kind. Zeke smiled at her, his eyes crinkling, and she smiled back.
“But -” the smile quickly dropped from his face “- yer datin' my best friend, and we kissed. That's wrong.” He didn't want to say the word 'cheating'; it just felt too real, and too grown up.
“Technically, me and Jimmy Jr. aren't together right now,” Tina told him. “We haven't been 'together' for a couple of months now.”
Zeke looked back at the ground, anger building up inside him. How could Jimmy Jr. do that to Tina? How could anyone do that to anyone? If Zeke knew Jimmy, which he did, he knew that Jimmy Jr. would decide to get back with Tina when it was convenient for him, and he would expect her to be right there, waiting for him.
Zeke remained quiet, fearing that he would say something that he would regret. After all, Tina had dated him for what seemed like years, and Jimmy Jr. was a good friend. It felt wrong to talk bad about him behind his back. “Zeke?” Tina's voice caused him to look up at her. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I'm fine,” he said. “Just feel a li'l guilty.”
“We didn't do anything wrong,” she said. “I didn't cheat on Jimmy Jr. You don't need to feel guilty about anything.” Reaching out, she took his hand once again. Zeke didn't pull away and merely clasped her hand tightly.
For a while, they just sat like that, quiet and content. They didn't speak; they didn't need to.
“So, what do we do now?” asked Zeke, looking over at her, and Tina gripped his hand tighter.
“Well,” she began slowly. It dawned on her that there was only one thing to do. “First, I should officially break up with Jimmy Jr. Even though we're not together, I should still break up with him. Then, after that, maybe we could go out somewhere?” she suggested.
“Ya mean, like a date?” His eyes practically popped out of his head.
“Yeah. Don't you want to?”
“Sure!” he said, a little too eagerly. He felt like punching the air; Tina liked him! She wanted to date him! Was this really happening, or was this some crazy, wonderful dream? He couldn't believe it. “Oh, wow, T-Bird! I never thought this would happen! What time is good for ya?”
“Maybe this weekend?” she suggested. “Or Friday after school? I'll have to let you know when I have a day off.”
“Okay.” Zeke was beaming; his face flushed with excitement. Tina had to smile; it was great to see him so happy. She didn't think she'd ever seen him like this when he wasn't wrestling.
“I think Friday after school would be best,” she said after a moment. She knew her parents wouldn't mind her being a little late.
“Sure; you got it.” Zeke turned to face her, still beaming. “This'll be a great story to tell our kids,” he quipped, and Tina smiled.
“Like 'How I Met Your Mother'?” she said, and Zeke laughed.
Once again, they fell silent, still holding hands. Tina couldn't help but notice how gentle his touch was. Holding hands with Jimmy Jr. was like holding a limp fish; his grip was always so slack. Until he started dancing, and then she would be pulled to and fro. Zeke was just holding her hand, giving a caring squeeze every now and then, his fingers intertwined with hers, his thumb occasionally rubbing the back of her hand. It was nice. “I suppose I should get goin' now,” said Zeke, after a few more moments of silence. “I'm not really supposed to be out; my Grandma will pitch a fit if she finds out I'm gone.”
“Okay,” said Tina, and they both stood, but they continued holding hands. Together, they walked out of her room, and down the hallway. Only when they reached the front door did they let go.
“I'll see you Friday, then?” asked Zeke, his eyes bright, a hint of a blush creeping up around his neck.
“I'll see you probably earlier. I think we're gonna go back Wednesday or Thursday, so I'll see you on those days. I'll see you on Friday, too.”
Zeke only smiled; he loved it when Tina got tongue-tied, and took things too literally.
“Ya wanna meet by our lockers after school on Friday?”
“Sure.” Tina smiled. “I'm looking forward to it,” she said honestly.
“Me, too. So... I'll see ya later?”
“Bye.” Before Tina could change her mind, she leaned forward and gave Zeke another peck on the lips, smiling again when he stuttered a little bit. “See you later.”
Zeke was now grinning so widely it was a wonder his face didn't split in two, and Tina couldn't help but watch him as he walked down the street, a spring in his step.
Tina chuckled to herself as she heard him whoop faintly in the distance, and she closed the door and headed back upstairs. She couldn't stop smiling, and she didn't even register the pain in her arm; her mind focused only on what was going to happen on Friday after school. Tina made her way back to her bedroom, and lay on her bed, daydreaming about what was to come, and what it would mean for her.
She thought back to what Zeke had said when she had stolen the mascot costume for him, and another smile crossed her face.
'Damn, Tina. Now I got a story to tell on our wedding day. You think that's not gonna happen, but I'll get ya, girl. I'm gon' getcha.'
Not if she could tell it first.