DOME SWEET HOME
The dome place they were staying at that night seemed pretty cool. Or, at least, it seemed cool from the blindspot Chad had been taking cover ever since he walked in and ducked out of sight to make sure Bella didn’t notice his arrival.
The marketplace was big enough to host a football game in any direction but still somehow too small to hold both Bella and him.
Chad was currently pretending to be interested in a doormat that said DOME SWEET HOME with a little picture of the dome when he was really interested in checking out the watches about 12 booths down.
He felt like the booth was far enough away from where Bella was when he scoped it out, but now he wasn’t feeling it. The open layout of the marketplace didn’t display anything above chest height.
If he crossed to the booth, Bella would spot him. And if Bella spotted him, she would glare and Chad wasn’t in the mood for another glare that day. He was all glared out. It didn’t even matter if she aimed the glares at the back of his head.
He’d still feel it and he just wasn’t in the mood.
Especially since there was an actual forest outside that G. I. Jane had said they were welcome to explore if they didn’t feel like spending money. And Chad didn’t. Not if it meant sharing the same air as Bella. Yet he couldn’t go back to the weird treehouse they were staying in either, since Whitney and Adam were all cuddled in for a night of stargazing.
No way he was third-wheeling on that action. He’d rather disappear into the woods … and he nearly had until his feet drew him over to the dome to see how Bella was doing. And the answer to that question was: Great. Bella was doing great. She was in her element with the bohemian vendors and their handmade wares. This was totally her vibe—being waited on hand and foot by grown men who circled and fawned over her.
At present, three merchants circled around her like Disney birds preparing Cinderella for her first date with the prince—one pinning fabric to mark her measurements, another braiding ribbons into her hair, and the last tracing her feet for a pair of custom shoes.
Bella preened under their attention and it was all Chad could do not to charge in and start punching every male merchant in a ten-foot radius. He didn’t even care who they were or if they deserved it. He just wanted to let loose … especially on the guy who was taking her measurements—supposedly to pin the fabric at that length for a dress, but he had to be 40 and Bella was still a minor. His hands shouldn’t be on her, even if it was his job.
That was Chad’s opinion, even if Bella seemed comfortable and, technically, nothing unprofessional was happening. That didn’t stop random beads of sweat from pushing out of every pore as Chad felt the hammer of his heart in his temples as he tried to focus on the doormat.
DOME SWEET HOME. It was funny. So why couldn’t he laugh?
Why could he only think about how happy Bella acted when he wasn’t around. She was a completely different person. Light. Funny. Playful. And the moment she noticed him, all that would all disappear and be replaced with an RBF that was second to none. It was a cold, silent dismissal that never failed to get under his skin.
It was one thing if Bella got in his face and yelled about hating him. Then, at least, he’d know she cared a little.
But Bella just got happier and had more fun when he left the room and acted like a fart had just entered the room every time he showed up—scrunching her nose as if Chad smelled of sour milk, or something.
Which he didn’t.
According to every other girl Chad had ever met, he smelled amazing. In fact, hundreds of unsolicited compliments was the reason Chad bought all his soaps, deodorants, and shampoos unscented. He didn’t want to mess with the perfection of girls always leaning in to get a better whiff.
Yet all it took was one distasteful look from Bella and Chad was ready to bathe in his dad’s Old Spice collection to get her to stop looking at him like a wet, muddy dog at a black-and-white party.
“I recommend hiding elsewhere,” a female voice said from his side and Chad felt himself flush red at being caught stalking. Then his blush doubled when he looked over and saw who was smirking at him. He’d guess she was from India somewhere, based on her makeup, skin tone, and nose ring. Normally, he wasn’t into facial jewelry but he was looking at a total exception to the rule in that moment. She looked like a princess in a movie.
“I can’t promise I won’t sell you out,” the girl added. “I like a little drama from time-to-time, and you seem like easy pickings.”
Was it just him, or were the women out in the desert hotter than the ones in the city? It seemed unlikely, but they seemed to be everywhere the past couple of days. Chad’s heart hammered and his tongue forgot to speak as he looked into the sales woman’s eyes.
She couldn’t be more than ten years older than him, but she’d been around the block and would laugh at any denial he gave her. He could see it in her eyes. Trying to save his dignity at this point was useless.
Instead, Chad pointed to the DOME SWEET HOME mat. “I was just thinking that my mom would love this.”
The sales woman smiled. “Lovely choice. Shall I add it to your tab and have it shipped to her in some nice wrapping paper for her?”
Chad smirked at the thought—imagining his mom’s reaction. The X-Files had been her favorite show when she was his age and the picture of the dome kind of reminded Chad of Moulder’s poster in the show. His mom was way too buttoned-down now to put the mat outside the main house, but probably wouldn’t be able to resist placing it at the doorstep of her she-shed.
She liked to keep things whimsical in her creative space.
“Sure,” he said, looking around for G.I. Jane. “I’m not sure how to do that—“
“I’ll put it on your tab,” the woman interrupted. “Just approve it with Gia and she’ll ship it to your home.”
Chad froze like a deer. “How do you know I’m here with Gia?”
The woman laughed. “I have Instagram, Chad. I know who you are, and everyone here knows that Gia is escorting four rich kids to Z Labyrinth.” She sent him a little wink. “Why do you think your friends are getting the royal treatment?”
Chad couldn’t help it. His eyes wandered back to Bella just in time to see a Middle Eastern man slip a gold ring on her finger and her all but faint in wonder as she modeled it on her hand.
Chad’s heart puked at the sight, then started hammering with such rage that he knew it was time to leave before he did anything he regretted.
“Wrap it up,” he said through the choking sensation in his throat as he pointed to the mat and move back toward the entrance. At least, he hoped that was where he was going. His vision was a bit faded around the edges and red in the middle as his fists clenched and urged his feet forward. “My mom will love it.”
The saleswoman pursed her lips as if she found his retreat amusing. “Gotta run?”
“Yeah, it’s kind of stuffy in here.” It wasn’t. The air in the dome was surprisingly well-ventilated and pleasantly cool. It had to be at least thirty degrees cooler in the dome than it was outside “I think I might try a hike.”
“Never a mistake in these parts,” the beauty replied, not calling him out on his lie. “It’s a perfect night for it.”
“Right,” Chad choked out as unwanted thoughts filled his head and his heart raged as if his imaginings were real. They weren’t. All he had to do was look Bella’s direction to see his brain was making stuff up, but that didn’t help.
He could still see it and his mind reacted accordingly.
He had to get out of this place. Immediately.
Chad was almost to the door when he saw Bella grow still across the room and sniff at the air as if she’d caught a whiff of something distasteful.
She was onto him. He didn’t know how, since she was half a football field away and there were dozens of people between them.
There was no legitimate way Bella could smell him at that distance, but Chad didn’t wait to prove himself right as he ducked low and raced from the building—forcing a couple to release each other’s hands so he could race between them and back out to the desert air.
The sun was a faint glow on the horizon when Chad stepped out into the festoon lighting that showed the way back to the parking lot and that treehouse they were staying in for the night.
Ignoring both paths, Chad headed straight ahead into the dark of night.
“Hey!” a male voice shouted after him, bringing Chad to a stop and his fists back into a clench.
An inner-volcano surged at the thought of being stopped. G.I. Jane had said they could explore and she hadn’t mentioned a curfew. If someone wanted to change all that now, then somebody was definitely getting punched tonight.
Chad turned to face the guy who’d yelled after him and found someone not much older than him.
“You headed out there?” the guy asked.
Chad was debating his answer when the stranger tossed something his way like a football. Chad caught it on instinct and found himself holding a 20-ounce blue Gatorade … his good-luck drink—in the exact size he chugged before every trick, game, and jump.
“Stay hydrated,” the guy said and walked off, leaving Chad alone in the darkening night..
Totally caught off guard, Chad looked down at the drink in his hand, gripped it tight, and ran off before anyone else could find an excuse to stop him.
Beyond the festoon lighting, Chad found the landscape much better-lit than he’d imagined. He half expected to look up and see a full moon, even though he knew the moon was the slimmest of fingernail shapes above him and casting next to no light at all.
It felt good to run after so many days in that stupid transport vehicle. Sitting all day made Chad feel like a spring coiled up in his own body, just waiting to get out. The strain of sprinting on his lungs did a lot to let that feeling out.
Half-way to the trees, Chad pulled his shirt off to let the light breeze of the evening cool the sweat on his skin, rather than trapping the heat against him. It felt good—especially when he made it past the rolling hills and under the canopy of trees he’d been eyeing since they arrived.
Chad slowed for a moment, then stopped as he realized he could almost see better in the dark forest than he had in the glow of festoon lighting.
Weird, he thought, twisting off the cap to his Gatorade and chugging half of it before looking around and wishing he had his sketchbook with him. This forest looked way cool at night, but he was too twitchy to sit and draw.He needed to run.
So he got to it—sprinting through the trees, not caring when twigs scraped up against his bare skin. He just kept going and got better at avoiding them until he moved into an easy rhythm that felt like a lazy jog around the track at school, rather than a sprint through unfamiliar woods.
Chad didn’t question the easy rhythm he found. He just kept going, not slowing until the trees thinned out and he found himself at the lip of a dropoff. Only then did he stop—eyes locked on the starlit sky as he dropped his shirt and the Gatorade bottle at his feet so he could rest his hands on his knees and catch his breath.
He had no idea where he was or how to get back, and something felt quite liberating about that.
Maybe he was lost.
Maybe everyone would leave him in the morning.
A guy could hope.
Reaching for the Gatorade, Chad removed the cap and downed the rest of it. A familiar supercharge skittered through him like lightning when the flavor touched his tongue.
The flavor of invinsibility. The taste of triple-back flips into rivers and nailing tricks on his first try.
As Chad chugged the last drop, he couldn’t help but think of the current impossible task before him: Bella. Tonight, blue Gatorade was the flavor of the thought of kissing her, even though Chad knew that was something he could never do.
Not until Bella kissed him first.
It had to be her choice, or she would never admit that she wanted it. That was just how Bella was and the day Chad forgot it was the day he shot himself in the foot and lost his chance with her.
The first kiss had to be her move. Then, and only then, could he kiss her back. He’d known that since he was six years old and failed to lure her in every day since. He’d gotten to the point where he couldn’t even imagine what it might take to get her to kiss him.
But Chad stared up at the stars and tried to think of scenarios anyway, until fatigue took over and he passed out in the dirt and called it a night.