The sound of a bell made the young man's stomach twist. That tiny little sound meant one of two things – he had a customer, or he had a special customer. Normal customers annoyed him to no end, with their endless demands and unfair expectations; it didn't help that the man, named Neil, wasn't a very good people-person to begin with. At the end of the work day, Neil was always exhausted and fought constant, pounding headaches. He just wanted to be alone.
But then someone new moved into Echo town and started coming to his shop. She was cute, she was nice, but she also didn't take any of Neil's crap. She was strong. He had never met a girl that didn't back off from his rough manners and brusque attitude, so he knew she was something really special.
Every time the bell rang, Neil wanted to turn around and see the girl. But then he told himself that he didn't want to see her, that he didn't want to fall in love. He didn't want to invest his heart into something that had a high chance of not working out. Neil couldn't help it though - there was just something about her that he couldn't get off his mind.
When the bell rang that time, it was exactly who he had been hoping it would be.
It was Alice.
Beautiful, spunky, redheaded Alice. Always wearing a cheerful smile, she never ceased to make Neil's day just a little happier. She had visited his shop the previous day to buy some extra cow treats. He wondered what she could possibly want, having visited the day before.
He gathered up the courage to look her near the eye and say as usual, "This is Neil's Animals. What's your business?"
"Hey Neil! I thought I'd try out the Animal Sanctuary. You said it keeps the animals happy, so…" Alice replied.
"Fine. Pick the animals to take with you." Neil handed Alice a list of the animals she had on her farm, and she put a check mark by all eight before handing it back without a word.
"Good," he mumbled as he looked over the list. "That'll be 800g."
Alice dug in her rucksack and pulled out the required amount of money. She then put it in Neil's hand, and he blushed as her soft fingers brushed against his rough, calloused palm. It amazed him how her hands could be so soft while she owned a farm with tons of crops and animals. Alice just became harder to resist every minute that Neil was around her.
Neil cleared his throat as he put the money in his cash register. "O-okay. Thanks. Let's go load up your animals."
Neil waited in his old, beat up truck while Alice was making sure her chickens were fed and put back in their coop before they left for the Animal Sanctuary. Minutes later, Alice was jogging towards the truck in an attempt to hurry. Neil got out of the truck as she neared the passenger side and opened the door for her.
"The handle sticks funny," he insisted. "You would've wasted more of my time by trying to get it open." However, Neil knew what he was doing. He was attempting to be chivalrous but nearly ruined it by his snarky comment trying to act normal.
Alice smiled and slid in the truck, saying, "You're right. Sorry I had to make sure the wild dogs wouldn't eat my helpless chickens by putting them back in the coop. What a waste of time that was. Next time I'll just let them get eaten because you don't want to wait. Means more business for you, anyway! I humbly apologize."
Without a word, Neil shut the squeaky passenger side door and got in the driver's side, cursing himself mentally for acting like an idiot. When he was inside, he turned the ignition, and after a couple of feeble coughs, the old, rusty truck started up. Now Neil was getting nervous; not only did he have to worry about the animals in the trailer he was hauling, but he really had to make sure that he didn't drive like a maniac around Alice. He didn't want her to think he was irresponsible or anything.
So he carefully pulled out of the farm and drove the old dirt roads to the Animal Sanctuary. After riding in silence for a few minutes, Alice reached over and turned on the radio, tuning it to the local pop station. Baby by Justin Bieber started playing, and Alice smirked to herself, deciding to test Neil and his tolerance for her annoying choice in music.
Neil was silent for about thirty seconds, until he finally cracked. "Who is this chick!? I've never heard such obnoxious music in my life!"
Alice burst into laughter as she grasped for the manual window handle, cranking it so that she could get some air. "Neil, this is a GUY. It's Justin Bieber! Come on, join the twenty-first century! He's one of the most popular artists out there!"
He tightened his grip on the steering wheel, his shiny, scruffy blonde hair sliding in front of his eyes a bit as he lowered his head to keep his temper under control. "Look, all I'm saying is that even before I went through puberty, my voice was deeper than that. And even someone like me has more creativity to come up with a chorus that doesn't repeat the same word over and over a million times with some ridiculous sound effects going on in the background. Couldja turn it to something different?!"
Alice chuckled and turned it up even louder. Neil glanced over at her, and he immediately relaxed. Her short, fiery red hair was blowing uncontrollably in the wind, her eyes were slightly squinty from a lack of sunglasses on that bright summer day, and she was smiling, revealing a brilliant set of teeth. She looked absolutely gorgeous, and the sound of her laughter made his stomach do tumble rolls.
But the music was even getting to Alice, who finally had enough of the repetitive tune. She flipped the radio to a variety rock station, and 21 Guns by Green Day was playing.
"Now this is better," Neil said, reaching over to the volume knob and cranked it to the right, turning the music up louder.
The two listened in silence for a few moments, Neil nodding his head with the beat, and Alice tapping her foot on the floor of the truck.
Finally Alice broke the silence. "I take it you like this song?"
Neil nodded, a flicker of nostalgia reflecting in his eyes. "Yeah," he muttered, "I do. It's my favorite, actually."
Alice raised her eyebrows and looked over at Neil. "Really? I didn't know that you liked this song that much."
"Yeah, it's got a really good beat and powerful lyrics. It's a good song."
Alice was impressed by what he said, but didn't know how to reply, so she just stayed quiet.
The rest of the drive was silent, save for the radio playing various rock songs, from artists like Coldplay to Aerosmith. Finally, they pulled into the Animal Sanctuary and Neil parked the truck behind a giant red shed. He then got out of the truck, came around to Alice's side, and opened her door. "The handle sticks," he reminded her, not making eye contact, as she slid out of the seat and plopped to the grassy terrain beneath them.
"Of course, thank you," she said, trying to hide a small smirk.
The squeaky passenger door slammed shut behind Alice as she stretched her limbs and took a deep breath of the fresh meadow air. She could see why this place was so relaxing to the animals. It was a basically giant area of lush rolling hills, flourishing with wild grasses and plants everywhere. Her animals were going to love it!
Neil called Alice over to the animal trailer, so she walked the short distance to meet him.
"After I let the ramp down, I want you to help me guide your animals over there," Neil said. He pointed to just in front of the shed, about two hundred feet away.
"Got it," Alice said affirmatively. Neil lowered the big, white trailer ramp, eventually letting it fall to the ground with a resounding thud. Neil climbed in the trailer and gently guided the animals out of it, and once they were on the ground, the duo led the animals to the designated spot that Neil pointed out, and then let them graze freely.
Neil turned to Alice. "Well, I'm just killing time now. We go back at nine o'clock. Go spend time with your animals."
Alice nodded and went to work. She talked to her animals, brushed them, milked the cows and yaks, sheared the sheep and llamas and alpacas, and then fed them all treats.
Neil was watching her from a distance, and he couldn't help but smile at the genuine love that Alice had for her animals. Watching her be so kind and caring to the animals just made him like her even more, but he felt that she could never feel the same. People as sweet as Alice don't fall in love with people like Neil.
By the time Alice was all done, it was about six o'clock. She walked back to Neil, who was sitting and leaning against the big storage shed, legs outstretched. The sun was beating down on his skin, giving him a light layer of sweat on his face. He began to scowl as she approached him.
"Are we going back already?" Neil snapped, his copper-colored eyes forming into a sharp glare.
She chuckled. "No, Mr. Grumpy-Pants, I was just coming to keep you company while we wait 'til nine. I'm all done caring for the little boogers over there."
Neil looked away and shifted uncomfortably. "Oh. Well. I don't know why you'd want to talk to me. I'm not exactly the nicest person you'll ever talk to."
"Well, I happen to like talking to you. Are you okay with that, or would you rather have me go make small talk with my cows?" Alice smirked.
Those words made Neil's stomach feel like six million butterflies were let loose in his stomach. She liked to talk to him? He glanced over at the spunky redhead. "I don't care if you stay or not," Neil lied. "I'm just stating that people don't usually talk to me."
"Okay then, since you don't care, I'm staying here." Alice plopped down in front of Neil and folded her legs in front of her. "So. Tell me. Why did you move here?" she inquired.
This question threw Neil for a loop. What would he say? Should he tell her exactly how he ended up here? Would she think of him as a no-good juvenile delinquent? Would she make fun of him? What would she think of him?
Neil mimicked Alice's sitting position so as to converse easier. He sighed and began his story, looking at the vibrantly green grass between them. "I was seventeen when I ran away from home. I never got along with my old man, so one day I finally had enough and left. I haven't been in contact with him at all ever since." He took a deep breath, glancing up at Alice briefly to see how she was taking everything. She was wearing a soft smile, and not a look of total disgust or shock as he had predicted.
He continued, "I kind of wandered from town to town, taking up various jobs as I went along. I found that I always took jobs that involved animals. Something about them has always drawn me, I guess. I've always wanted to care for animals, and I've enjoyed doing it. So eventually, with the right connections and a business plan, I became an animal dealer. I heard there was a need for an animal dealer in this area, so I moved out here."
Alice smiled. "That's such a neat story, Neil! Thanks so much for telling me all that."
"Yeah well... It's kind of depressing at the start, but I guess it ended all right, eh?" Neil said.
Just then, a gutwrenching sound came from behind Alice. The duo sprung up immediately and Alice turned around, only to find her precious sheep, named Bo Peep, in the far distance, lying on the ground, wailing and shrieking in what sounded like excruciating pain. Neil and Alice both ran as fast as they could towards the afflicted sheep to find out what was wrong, dodging Alice's other animals and hoping they didn't trip over a stone or some other obstacle.
Finally they reached the panicked sheep, whose front right leg was a little bloody and appeared broken.
"I'll calm her down, you tend to her leg," Alice commanded. She then got down on her hands and knees and calmly crawled over to Bo Peep, and upon reaching her, she petted her and cooed to her in a soothing tone. The sheep stopped wailing so frantically and instead just whimpered - she trusted and loved Alice so much that just her presence was enough to comfort her a little.
Neil was kneeling down, busy examining the little sheep's leg, trying to figure out how to get her back to the trailer without hurting her too much, and trying to determine the cause of the injury. He looked to his left and discovered a gopher hole right next to the sheep.
He cursed under his breath, but loud enough that Alice could hear him. She looked up and quirked a displeased eyebrow at him. "What was that about?"
Neil immediately felt embarrassed and ashamed; it wasn't typically good to curse in front of a lady like that. "Sorry," he said, and then gestured towards the gopher hole. "I think your sheep stepped in that gopher hole. I've told the people that own this land a million times that they need to get the gophers relocated, that the holes are a big danger to the animals. This is proof. It's dangerous. What kind of 'Sanctuary' gets an animal injured?"
"Have any animals before Bo Peep been injured?" Alice inquired.
He shook his head. "No. This should be enough to convince them to relocate the gophers before they get too out of hand. If they don't, I'll take my business elsewhere."
Alice nodded in understanding before asking, "Well, how's her leg?"
Neil sighed. "It's definitely broken."
A sickening feeling rose in Alice's stomach. "Does that mean we have to...put her down?" Alice was trying not to tear up, but the thought of her favorite sheep being euthanized was nearly enough to make her cry.
He noticed her voice wavering and scrambled to say something to make her feel better. "No, no, there's things you can do. It's expensive, but you can heal her broken leg without...that."
Alice let out a sigh of relief. "Oh, thank goodness. I was afraid that was the only option." After a few moments of silence, Alice asked, "Well...how do we get her back to the trailer? She's kind of pudgy."
"I was just wondering the same thing," Neil said quietly, rubbing his jawline. "I guess I could drive the truck out here and we could put her in the bed, and then drive her out to the trailer."
Alice thought for a second, and then nodded. "Sounds good to me."
"Okay. I'll be right back. Stay here with Bo Peep."
She complied, and Neil jogged back to the truck, unhitched the trailer, and drove back to Alice and Bo Peep.
When Neil arrived, Alice stood and brushed off her clothes. Neil lowered the truck door and walked over to Bo Peep and Alice.
"So. I was thinking that you can pick up her back end, I'll pick up the front, and then we can just gently put her in the bed of the truck. You'll stay with Bo Peep while I drive us back to the trailer. Sound okay?" Neil asked.
"Yep, sounds fine to me," Alice replied.
The duo then followed through with their plan. Neil went around to Bo Peep's head and upper body, as he knew how to deal with injured animals better, and Alice went around to the back end and slid her arms underneath Bo Peep.
"On the count of three," Neil said. "One, two, THREE!"
At the same time, they lifted Bo Peep gently, who let out a small cry.
"It's okay, Bo Peep, it'll all be okay," Neil cooed, waddling the chunky sheep over to the bed of the truck. Upon reaching it, they gently placed her on top of some blankets that Neil had set up.
They took a minute to catch their breath, as Bo Peep was no skinny young lass and was hard to carry.
Panting, Neil asked, "What on earth are you feeding that sheep? She's so fat!"
"Just the stuff I buy from you, but she's always been lazy and sometimes overeats," Alice explained.
A few moments of silence passed, before Neil broke it. "Well, are you ready to head back? I think Bo Peep could use an early trip home and a vet visit."
Alice nodded. "I agree. Let's go home!"
Back at Alice's farm that night, Bo Peep was given a very special - and expensive - set of crutches, complete with a leg cast. The vet said she'd be up and running normally by the end of the season, much to Alice's relief. The whole ordeal ended up costing her over 50,000g, which took a big dent in her profits that summer.
Alice invited Neil inside her little farmhouse after they put the animals back in the barn together. They sat at her table and chatted for a bit, Alice drinking hot tea and Neil eating some leftover shrimp chili that Alice had prepared the night before.
"This is really good," Neil said, his mouth half-full.
Alice chuckled. "I'm glad you like it! I heard it was your favorite, so I made some last night. I didn't get the chance to get it to you, so I was going to give it to you today as a thank-you for taking me to the Animal Sanctuary. Now I feel like I should pay you extra for the whole mess that went down!"
He shook his head quickly. "Hm-mm. Nope. I don't want any more money. In fact, I feel like I should refund you for this trip. Bo Peep sure didn't get a whole lot out of the visit."
Now it was Alice's turn to be stubborn. "Nope. I don't want money either. I paid you, you drove, took up your gas, wasted your time with me... You made all the sacrifices with this."
"...I didn't think it was a waste of time," Neil said quietly. "I had a good time."
Alice was taken off-guard. "Seriously? I was worried you were bored out of your wits the entire day."
He nodded. "That place relaxes me, too. Watching the animals happy makes me happy." Neil then stood up and took his empty plate over to the sink to rinse it.
She smiled. "You can just leave that on the counter, I'll take care of it later."
Neil set the plate down on the counter and walked towards the door. "Well, it's late. I should probably go. Thanks again for the shrimp chili, it was really good."
"No problem," Alice said.
Both of their hearts were pounding like mad. Their minds were racing as they tried to figure out what to say next. Neil wanted to confess to her right then and there; she was standing before him, beautiful as ever. Her short, fiery red hair was disheveled, with random pieces of straw popping out of nowhere. Her clothes were dirty and she had a bit of Bo Peep's blood on her tool belt, and she looked exhausted.
But all of this was a sign of beauty in Neil's eyes. The disheveled hair was from rolling down his old, creaky truck window and letting the wind take complete control. The straw was from laying down with Bo Peep in the barn as she had her wounds tended to, and the dirt was from taking care of her animals at the Sanctuary. The bags under her eyes showed that she was a hard worker, an early riser. The blood on her tool belt showed that she was strong enough to help carry the hefty sheep to its safety, and that she cared more about her precious sheep than her clothes.
She loved being a farmer. She loved having animals that relied on her that she could take care of. She loved being greeted by various moos, baahs, and clucks every morning.
Neil loved that she loved animals. He was certain that what he felt for her was more than just a crush. It wasn't love, but whatever it was, it was strong.
But he didn't know how she felt. He was scared to say anything to her unless he knew he wouldn't be rejected. Truth was, Alice felt the same about Neil. She loved that he was hardworking, dedicated, and had a total soft spot for animals. She loved that the more she got to know him, the more he let her into his life, and the more he let her know about him. He looked rough and could sometimes be rude, but she knew that he was a very sweet person on the inside.
Alice was scared to admit her feelings. She had been burned in the past, but something about Neil was just undeniably intriguing and irresistible.
After a few moments of panicked silence, Neil finally decided to leave. "Well. Goodnight, Alice."
"Oh, uh, goodnight," she said, snapping out of her thoughts.
As he walked out and shut the door behind him, something was bugging Alice. She knew what she had to do, no matter how embarrassing and irrational it may be.
She ran out the door and spotted Neil near the town entrance, but still on her property. She called out to him and began running to him.
Neil heard his name being called and turned around, just in time for Alice to catch up to him. "I..." she began, trying to catch her breath. "I, uh...um..."
Neil suddenly bent down and, aiming for her cheek, somehow ended up kissing Alice right on the lips. A few moments later, they parted and blushed madly.
"I, uhh..." Neil stuttered, running his fingers through his hair. "I was, um, aiming for your cheek. I didn't mean to, uh, you know. Kiss you on the...the lips...you know, like... like that."
Alice grinned. "And I was aiming for your lips. Guess I have pretty good aim!"
"I guess I have terrible aim," Neil chuckled.
Alice and Neil laughed out loud, totally releasing all the pent-up nervousness they had accumulated. They knew that this was just the start of something very, very special, and they were excited to embark on a new journey together - as boyfriend and girlfriend.