Chapter 15, Deep-Fried Balls
[BY DANIEL LANSFORD]
If ye mess up the food for tomorrow, we’ll be serving deep-fried balls. Courtesy of whatever’s between yer legs.
Nessa’s words have been haunting me all day. I’ve already come up with a selected course for the wedding and with the assistance from Paul and Pollock, Amber couldn’t foil my plans with her problematic appetite. Now it was just a case of precooking what could be precooked and going over the menu with the kitchen staff. They’ll be cooking for tomorrow, but Nessa still insists that the weight should be on my shoulders. Al l because I once tasted her cooking and said that even I could cook better. Over the years she’s run with it and I’ve had to upgrade my cooking from 2-minute noodles on toast to dishes with names I can’t pronounce.
“That Bagpipes will be the death of me,” I mumble under my breath just as I finish up in the kitchen.
It’s only eight 0′ clock but Nessa has gotten everyone in bed to get their beauty rest. Everyone except me because there’s apparently no cure for my distorted face. That woman.
Too nervous for tomorrow to sleep, I walk to the front door, open it and stand next to the two guards stationed there.
“Hello Hotchkiss, Browning,” I greet the two gang members.
“Hey Daniel,” Hotchkiss greets back with a wide grin. Even with a broken nose, the kid always looks happy to see his superiors.
“You want a smoke, Landsford?” Browning offers - taking a pack of cheap cigarettes out of his worn coat pocket.
I stopped smoking a while ago. Nessa would hang me by my innards if she found out. But, I guess we all might end up dead tomorrow in any way if the plan doesn’t work out. “Sure, why not?” I reply and take the cigarette from him. Browning lights his own smoke before handing the lighter to me.
“Hey, don’t be stingy!” Hotchkiss complains to Browning.
“You’re too young,” Browning says in deadpan as he takes a drag and blows the smoke in Hotchkiss’ face.
“No fair! I’m twenty-three! Just like Daniel!” Hotchkiss protests.
“Yeah but you’re short and you have a babyface. I don’t feel comfortable giving a cigarette to a kid,” Browning says simply. He’s not lying. Hotchkiss has light blond hair and pouty lips that make him look like he could be on a diaper ad. It doesn’t help that he only reaches my shoulder.
“We’re both in a gang! I can use a gun, but I can’t smoke? What kind of world is this?” Hotchkiss demands. When it’s apparent that Browning isn’t going to give him a cigarette, he leans back against the pillar by the front door and folds his arms across his chest - looking more toddler-like than ever. His automatic hangs by his side but it looks more like a toy gun in his presence than anything else really.
Still amused by the whole interaction, I put the cigarette to my lips. I cup my hand even though the summer air won’t try to stop me and light up a smoke. Once I have it lit, I take a drag and fill myself with that burning sensation.
“God, I missed that,” I sigh - letting a puff of smoke leave me before I cough for a moment.
“Are things settled for tomorrow?” Browning asks. There’s concern in his dark eyes and as he takes a second drag, the light from the cigarette creates wrinkles that would otherwise not be seen in normal light. This life is making us all age. I even found a grey hair this morning. A grey hair! I immediately plucked it out of course and it’s not quite as prominent as the grey hairs in Browning’s beard, but it still unsettled me.
“Everything should be fine,” I answer, “Where are you two stationed?”
“We’ll be patrolling at the Southern Gate,” Hotchkiss answers eagerly - finally forgetting that we view him as a child.
I nod and continue to smoke. “If any of those Southern Sterling fuckers try to get in through the forest, stuff them with silver,” I say with both nervousness and confidence running through me.
“We’ll shoot anyone that tries to harm the North,” Hotchkiss reassures me, but the kind remark is short-lived as Browning quickly smacks the back of Hotchkiss’ blond head.
“You aren’t shooting anyone. I told you to just watch me. Your mother’s going to kill me if she finds out I’m even letting you hold one of the guns,” Browning scolds.
“You aren’t even that much older than me! You like just turned thirty so stop acting like you’re my dad,” Hotchkiss grumbles.
Browning decides to ignore him and instead turns to me. “You’ve got nothing to worry about. The upper gang is loyal. None of them will let the enemy slip inside.” Browning’s one of the few who has been in the gang longer than I have so I trust him. I trust all of the people whose job it is to keep me safe.
The person I don’t trust is...
Amber’s words from two days ago echo through me.
“Now you guys, I trust Blake. He won’t betray us so please don’t treat him like he’s the enemy. He’s our friend and after all he’s gone through, the last thing he needs is for his remaining friends to doubt him and push him away. Nessa, Daniel, I know you two don’t know him as well, but please trust me on this.”
Damn that girl. She’s too caring. But... I guess I get where she’s coming from. Back when the original Northern family was killed, most people thought Xavier was the one who did it. The older gang members all insisted Xavier was a traitor that worked with Sterling. And Xav... That guy always plays with the cards he’s dealt with. He’d pretend to be the bad guy if it meant protecting people... And yet, even though he didn’t tell me if he was innocent or not, I trusted him. I wasn’t going to doubt him for a moment. It paid off when the truth was revealed.
“Thank you guys. Don’t forget to come see me during one of your shifts tomorrow. I’ll get you a drink,” I smile, “Not you though, Hotchkiss. I don’t condone underage drinking.”
“I’M LEGAL FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!” Hotchkiss protests. “AND YOU’VE BEEN DRINKING SINCE YOU WERE TWELVE!” he adds for good measure.
Chuckling at his reaction, I finish my smoke and flick it into the empty vase next to the stairs. “I’m going back in. One of the maids will bring everyone coffee and soup in no time. I think Claire’s on duty,” I inform before I wave the two guards off and head back inside Isabella.
I head up the dimly lit stairs and I swear I’m on my way to my room, but I suddenly pause when I’m outside Owen’s room. There’s light creeping out from under the dark oak door. I wait for a second and when I don’t hear anything, I quietly open the door and slowly walk in. A soft creek moans through the room, but it doesn’t seem to wake anyone.
To be honest, I was already expecting the scene before me.
Owen is tucked in the large dark green bed with white pillows fluffed behind him. The room is spacious but his wheelchair, equipment, and medication seem to fill the area. And yet the thing that demands the most attention is the red-haired woman sleeping by the foot of the bed. Nessa’s body is mostly on the thick white carpet in front of the bed, but her head is resting on her arms which are crossed on top of the bed. She’s always spitting insults and doesn’t give you a moment to recover, but it’s in these quiet moments where you have to wonder why she always feels like she can’t let people see past her defenses.
I walk over and sigh at what I’m seeing. A broken man and a fiery woman sleeping soundly.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think Nessa would fall for anyone, nevermind Owen. I kind of figured she leaned more towards women than men on the Bi-spectrum, but... maybe that was just my way of feeling better about myself.
I go to sit on the bed - next to Nessa. She’s knocked out cold - probably drank sleeping pills to make sure she didn’t lose a second of her beauty rest.
“You’re going to wake up with a cramp if you sleep like this, Silly,” I sigh.
Nessa doesn’t respond and I look over at Owen.
“You really did take all the butter for yourself...” I tell him. “I can’t believe I let a cripple beat me and get away with it.”
When I realize that insulting a sleeping cripple might be a new low for me, I turn back to Nessa. “You know,” I start, “I like to think that tomorrow will go down without a problem, but... But if they somehow end up seeing through it and this place gets torched... I know this is selfish... I know there are better things to ask for, but if tomorrow is our last day alive, please... could you...” I stumble over the words and curse at myself for letting the woman get under my skin. She’s not even conscious and she gets the better of me.
But that’s the thing... Somehow, she’ll always get the better of me... And I can’t help but be happy that at least she’s not getting the worst of me. Because God knows I’m sure as hell not all about shits and giggles if you dig deep enough.
I scoff at the thought. I don’t have to worry about people digging. Nobody expects more from me. I’m like Blowinda to them. Plastic on the outside and nothing but air on the inside.
“God, I hate feeling sorry for myself,” I sigh before turning back to Nessa and tucking a curly red strand of hair behind her ear. “Nevermind what I was going to ask. If tomorrow’s our last day, spend it with someone you actually like.”
Done with being depressing, I get up. “Come on, Bagpipes,” I say and lift Nessa up into my arms. “We need to get you to bed.”
I walk over to the door but stop when I hear Nessa moan.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“Man...” she mumbles through her sleep.
“Man whore?” I ask amused. Is she dreaming about me?
“Man Candy...” she says through a snore - louder this time.
I lose my smile.
And then slowly, I paste it back on.
“Yeah yeah, I’ll take you to your crippled prince,” I say while rolling my eyes and heading back to Owen’s bed. I pull back the covers on the left side and make sure to place Nessa gently before I tuck her in. I hate to say it, but they look... good together. The cripple with nothing to live for and the seductress that has everything to live for.
I glare at Owen. “You better clean up your act. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and appreciate the things you didn’t lose.”
When I’ve lectured an unconscious cripple long enough, I leave the room. Though, this time when I head to bed, I stop at the sound of a faint voice coming from Amber’s room. Deciding I can afford to sneak around one last time, I tiptoe to Amber’s room and stand outside the closed door.
“I’m glad you’ll be there,” I hear Amber say.
“So, the wedding really is here tomorrow?” Blake asks. I’d recognize that pompous voice anywhere.
There’s a short silence. “Blake... be honest with me... Do you really want to see the wedding?” Amber asks. I frown at the question. Is she trying to get him to tell her if he’s a spy? She’ll need to get the torture devices to pull a confession out of that lying bastard’s ass.
“Amber... I know I’ve had trouble with the truth in the past so I’ll be completely honest... It breaks my heart. Even though I know I’m not the one for you, you are still the one for me and it still hurts to know that I can never have you...” Blake admits.
Damn, I’ll need to keep my eye on that slippery bastard. He might make a move on my leader at this rate...
“I see,” Amber says so softly that I almost don’t heat it. There’s a long pause and I nearly leave, but then Amber finally speaks again. “You know... Something I’ve learned is that lies can save people too... It’s not always a bad thing to be a liar... So if you feel as though you must lie... Whether it’s for your own sake or someone else’s, I understand. I can only hope I’m on the side that gets protected by your lies.”
“Where’d you get that?” Blake asks. I’m not sure what he’s referring to, but I assume Amber must have given him something.
Feeling like I shouldn’t be listening in on a conversation like this - especially since Amber is my leader, I head to my room. Xavier’s room at the end of the hallway is dark, but even if it wasn’t, there’s no way I’d risk spying on my leader. He’d let Nessa lose on me and give her permission to turn me into one of her coats. Finally in front of my room, I open the door and fall into my silky dark purple bed. Feeling restless, I move my countless pillows around to envelop me.
When not even the mountain of pillows can calm me down, I stare up at the ceiling with wide eyes. Hours. It must have been at least a few hours of staring at the ceiling and ignoring the creaking in the house. The ticking clock above my dresser is starting to annoy me and I end up focussing on the distant chatter of guards stationed outside.
Something doesn’t feel right... Something feels wrong...
I get up and check my phone. It’s almost midnight, so about three hours have passed. Feeling hungry, I head downstairs again. Claire should have served everyone their soup and coffee not too long ago. Sure enough, when I get to the kitchen there are some spare bowls of soup. I pop it in the microwave for a minute and blow on it when it’s hot and ready. Grabbing a spoon, I head to the front door again while eating the chicken soup.
Hotchkiss and Browning are still there.
“Oh, you should be resting, Landsford,” Browning tells me when I open and close the door.
“Yeah, I can’t sleep. I’ll just wait with you guys. Your shift ends in an hour, right?”
“Yup. We’ll probably go sleep in the safe house down the road before getting back bright and early tomorrow. There’s no way I’m going to be late for the wedding,” Hotchkiss answers.
“I’m surprised the kid is still awake,” I tell Browning - ignoring Hotchkiss in the process.
Hotchkiss is about to protest, but Browning beats him to it. “Speaking of kids that can’t sleep, that guy that escaped from Souther Sterling walked around earlier,” Browning says casually - shifting his weight.
My heart drops. “When?” I ask.
“About an hour ago. He was on the phone,” Browning replies, “Hey don’t look so stressed. He was probably just telling his family that he was safe.”
“What makes you say that?” I ask - a deep dread sinking into me.
“I heard him say ‘brother’ to the person on the phone,” Browning answers.