Elena didn’t make it to her room. She nested in the couch and dozed off in an instant, her damp wavy hair drawing a halo of rain around her body, arms bracing her chest for warmth. Her full lips had turned a funny shade of purple, the mix of cold blue and bright red lipstick. I tucked her in a whole stack of blankets and sneezed all the way to my bedroom, a sign that it was time to free myself from my frozen, sticky dress. I cautiously untied the laces of 666’s mask behind my head and placed the delicate piece of fabricon my wooden-barrel nightstand, against the starry-night lamp that I cherished. It was a Christmas gift Elena had sent through the mail last year—although she’d denied it—when staying alone in Vancouver was more appealing than spending the holidays with my father back at the ranch. She was the only one to know how I missed the mesmerizing Alberta sky.
As Elena’s snores blasted through the walls, I sprawled onto my bed, mind stuck in obsessive mode. I’d lost control over my train of thoughts the second I’d walked out of The Love Shack. Since then, each and every detail of our encounter and orgasms had kept playing over and over again in an endless silent movie, leaving me hungry for more, just like Philippe had predicted.
A heat wave spread through my body, ridding me of all shivers as warm blood returned to my numb, icy feet. The connection between 666 and me had felt so deep and the passion so intense that I’d lost myself in the love that he’d surprisingly showered my warped body with.
At some point in the night, the temperature peaked to dangerous heights under my sheets. I was too exhausted to oppose the overthrow of my headand wet to the point of flooding my bed. I pathetically succumbed to the temptation of giving my pussy some good old satisfaction, as a last resort, hoping there was such thing as touching oneself to sleep.
Minutes turned to hours; and after a great deal of shifting, moaning and rolling in my bed, the idea of getting rest deserted me completely. It was six o’clock. My sexual appetite was satiated and my lower lips were sore.
I sat up, sighing, and found something else to mull over the moment I turned my head right. The mask. I’d purposefully placed it next to me, just so the two almond holes in its center could watch me burn for their owner throughout the night.
Its golden macramé and lace ornaments were as good as new—a little humid, still—the white velvet soft and the silver feathers smooth under my clammy fingers, like his skin.
I’d come across five different mask colors during the before party: white, blue, green, red, and black. As Elena and I had been offered black ones, I’d figured each edition’s new members had their own color—apart from the general gold and silver—probably to differentiate older members from rookies in some hierarchical order. This place and its ways obviously remained a mystery after only one night, but it had spurred enough curiosity for a multitude of questions to pop up, which I now needed answers to. I had a feeling white was the color of the first or second edition, given that 666 was a smaller number than 1308, if thosenumbers made any sense at all. I’d seen hundreds of people, but certainly not a thousand. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if one’s attributed color gave them any privileges or access to other rooms of The Love Shack I hadn’t seen yet.
Whoever 666 was, the white mask staring back at me testified of his great care—if not worship—for such precious instrument of his love-thieving activities. No wonder he’d mistakenly taken mine on his way out.
Returning it to its owner via the front desk would be the right thing to do, even though I would have happily kept it as a souvenir of the night I’d had sex with somebody that wasn’t mine for the first time.
When I sprang out of bed to get about my morning routine and the first rays of sunlight filtered through the blinds of my window, I already knew that I’d be going to The Love Shack next Friday, and every Friday after that until the end of this year’s edition.
Elena abruptly sat up and hollered, “He did what?” signaling the end of her three-abs streak, her personal record so far. There was no justice in this world. It had taken me two years of sacrifices to lose weight when all it took her to keep her body slim was the lift of a finger.
I walked off to the nearest weight bench, knees faltering at the thought of 666, “I know. It was so intense, and so weird at the same time, like he could read right through me. I didn’t expect…that.”
A part of me hoped that I’d bump into him next Friday, but after telling me the juicy details of her mind-blowing night with a woman over a protein-packed breakfast, Elena had confided the odds of us meeting again were small.
The Love Shack opened its doors each week in a different place and scenery—Taara’s usual secret spots—so as to spice up and protect the underground experience along with its most famous members. Wealthy businessmen and -women, actors, athletes, and artists came from all over the world, traveling back and forth for a memorable one-night stand per week for two months. The hundreds of members, celebrities and lucky nobodies—likeus—were free to come or not; they’d paid for it anyway. Then, the first two hundred people to be invited into the tunnel were dispatched in the empty bedrooms, and Elena’s witty bartender had sworn there’d never been such thing as two members meeting twice in a row, the matching process working its algorithm magic in all circumstances. In other words, 666 would be a needle in a haystack, and running after him or my mask would be a waste of time.
“I guess that’s the power of The Love Shack,” she smiled.
“And his mask…”
“Oh, we should investigate on that,” Lee advised, and shot a flirty wink at a red-haired, middle-aged man, hypnotized by his contracting back muscles under the lat pull-down machine. She’d never been attracted by older men, but the confusion of her fresh separation with Isaac had certainly messed with her hormones.
I forced the forty-five-pound weights on each side of the rusty barbell and rigorously followed the rules and tips that Herman, the gym’s only coach, had taught me last year, when my ambitions switched to gaining muscle weight.
The tips of my thumbs brushed the edge of the knurling and I tightened my grip around the bar to ensure perfect width between my hands. Then, I slid under the bar and back up the bench until the rack hovered over my chest, all the while planting my feet firmly into the mat. It was time for a body scan. Legs were tense, glutes squeezed, core engaged, and shoulders packed. Position checked.
“No way,” I blurted.
“Don’t you want to know who he is?”
“I do,” I confessed, “but first, it’s against the rules; and second, you said it yourself: I won’t see him again.”
“To hell with the rules!The guy made love to you and stole your mask. That’s creepy. Imagine what he could do with it.”
Knowing she’d play the same song on repeat, I blocked my ears to focus on the task at hand and asked her to secure me. She went on telling me for the hundredth time how her friend Stacey was stalked by a psycho for a month, and came to stand behind my head, at last.
Unracking the weight, I took a deep breath and started pressing, and on and on, body burning and heart pounding throughout the set. The sensation was liberating. All negative emotions of the previous day mustered into my internal pump, fueling my muscles with enough fervor to win my battle against the bar. When I secured it back onto the rack, Elena was still listing all the terrible things 666 could do with my mask.
“What if he hacks the chip for your identity? Or changes all the answers to your quiz next week and you’re paired up with a woman? You’re not into chicks! Or the guy who assaulted you?”
She crossed her arms and watched me wipe the sweat off my neck with a towel. The hair around my face had either stuck on my forehead or gone fuzzy, trickling my nose. I combed my hair back with a hand,“That’s insane, Lee. I’m sure he accidentally swapped them and realized it when he took off. As for the douchebag, you should have seen the securityofficers drag him out. I’m pretty sure he won’t be invited anymore.”
“We should hack his, then.”
“Whatever you’re thinking, don’t. I’m giving it back to the front desk first thing next Friday,” I replied, and lay down for another—more silent and challenging—set under Elena’s wandering eyes. I couldn’t work out with her. She was always more interested in the people around us than doing the work herself. With a hundred pounds threatening to choke me to death at all times, I needed another gym partner to trust my life with, and quick.
“I’m quite good at hacking, though, Mathew taught me back in high school. I could find a way to—”
“Elena!” I stopped her before she could elaborate on the touchy subject of Mathew. “We’re not going to The Love Shack to find true love, remember? No feelings, only fun!”
She paused and sighed, “Well, that’s going to be hard if all the guys you bang decide to make love to you.”
We gazed at each other in silence, gauging the other’s reaction, and burst out laughing. That was a good point, actually, and it even worried me more about next Friday. Could I do it with somebody else? Another number? Another mask color?
“Do you think the numbers and colors are assigned chronologically?” I asked.
“Good question. We’ll have to dig into it next week, Sherlock. That white mask could help us if you decided to keep it.”
WhenI finished, she carried the weights back to their rack in a duck-like walk, claiming it was enough of a sweat for the entire month, and I asked, “Does it mean we’re going next Friday?”
As I moved over to the stack of dumbbells, the answer to my question came as obvious, “Of course, we are. Don’t you want to?” She frowned, sensing the confusion in my eyes.
“Of course, I do, Watson.”
As though I wasn’t completely drained, I grabbed heavier dumbbells than I’d planned to, one in each hand, and let them hang along my hips to squat. Hopefully the anxiety would blend in with the physical pain, making it insignificant in the wave of endorphins that would wash over me soon.
Elena started squatting, too, counting up to four this time, and quit at the first buzz of her phone in her pocket. She complained about Isaac harassing her this morning and picked up with a violent tap on her screen, not even checking who was on the line.
“Can’t you leave me alone you piece of sh—Oh, Mister O’Neil!”
Her eyes popped out of their sockets and instantly darted to me, urging me for guidance. Both bells slipped off my hands and bounced off the mat, only inches away from my feet, to finish their course in the wall. I felt allthe life in me flood down my face, mixing with drops of sweat as I shook my head and gestured my index at her in bewilderment. She sighed, listening to whatever reproaches my father had to spill, and kindly replied, “Avery’s buried in her thesis right now. Yes, graduation’s in two months. I’ll tell her to call you back. Bye.”
A sigh of relief escaped my mouth, but Elena’s rounded into a circle, like it always did when she was about to burst.
“Don’t give me that look,” she scolded.
“That scowl; I’m done lying to your dad. Pick up your damn phone!”
“I don’t know what to say to him,” I retorted.
She placed both hands on her slender waist and grasped it firmly to make her point, “How about, ‘hi dad, I miss you, I’m sorry I haven’t visited for almost two years. Guess what? I’ve lost sixty pounds’?” snatching her towel from the elliptical bike next to her.
“Yes, well, it’s not that simple.”
“Then tell him that. And please, stop working out so much. It’s crazy.”
I turned my back to her, and as I shoved my towel in my bag, decided to discard the pang of guilt in my stomach. It was past nine already, and wasting any more time talking about my dad only added more anxiety on my poor nerves. Besides, it was a dead end. I’d planned myself a long day of research for my thesis, the subject of Granville Island’s industrial history—my initial subject—having crossed my mind multiple times through the night, in between the thoughts of 666’s addictive body and Philippe’s traumatizing disguise.
A most awkward silence took over the empty gym, leaving us both pensive as we gathered the rest of our things. Luckily, the strident screech of the front door disrupted the electric atmosphere. Isaac marched through it and up to us, his barista apron still tied around his waist.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Elena murmured. Her fists clenched alongside her thighs, but her glassy eyes mirrored the pain of her broken heart. It would take some time to adjust to seeing him around, I thought. Isaac’s darkenedgaze locked into mine. His hands slapped his legs in despair, and I could swear I’d seen Elena’s lips curl up when he muttered, “Ave, can’t you answer your phone?” She just huffed. She said, “I keep telling her that,” her face beaming with pride when Isaac’s words reached my ears.
“I don’t check it when I work out,” I plainly answered, and plopped down on the weight bench again.I’d never been addicted to my phone, and it was a device I could easily live without if the world around me didn’t revolve around it so much. Isaac clenched his teeth, his jawline protruding angrily for a split second, “Sheridan’s been trying to call you for an hour. He’s waiting for you.”
I shook my head, “Impossible. He’d never let anything get in the way of golfing on a Saturday, and his office is probably the last place he’ll go to.”
Isaac untied the knot around his waist and shot his coldest glances at Elena. The sexual tension built up between them as they started a game of outbidding the other’s provocations, discretely running their fingers on the hidden places of their bodies where they missed the other’s touch, and I soon realized that Isaac was particularly hung up on Elena’s thighs.
I cleared my throat, bringing them back to the matter at stake before they got to tearing each other’s clothes apart on the smelly floor. Isaac’s head instantly turned to me while Elena’s dropped to her feet in surrender.
“He’s not in his office and it’s about your project,” he said, a dimple showing above his smirk, a very James feature which ran in the family, I reckoned.
“The man’s gone nuts. He’s sent Lisette to the coffee shop for you.”
“Where is she?”
“Probably home, now. She was still asleep when he called her. Can we go now?” He crossed his arms, foot tapping his stress into the floor.
Acquiescing with a nod, I threw my bag on a shoulder and scoured through my pockets for my phone.“Shit.” A dozen missed calls from “Crazy Irishman” popped up on my screen under my dad’s. My ankles shook at the thought that he might actually have put his golfing plans on hold.What had I done wrong?
“How did you know I was here?” I asked.
“You’re always here on your free time, Ave. Come on, let’s go!”
Elena cheekily cheered at his accusations, throwing her arms up in the air. Before she could say anything, I waved my hand at her and snapped, “Don’t you dare,” knowing she’d take advantage of Isaac’s words again to prove another one of her—too many—points.
Sheridan and I weren’t supposed to meet before next Friday, but whatever this was about had to be an emergency. Nobody would ever dream of being remembered as the one who’d dared to make the craziest Irishman alive wait.
I followed Isaac outside, and Elena halted at the door, muttering something about being the third wheel. Hepicked up the pace to his car through the empty parking lot, and snapped, “Come along, Elena, knock yourself out!”
Instead of following, she headed the other way,“No actually, a friend’s expecting me at the coffee shop,” she said in a confident tone. I frowned, trying to remember the moment she’d told me about her secret plans.Not to miss a reaction, I glanced at Isaac and asked, “Who’s the lucky one?”
“Philippe. Who knew he was an engineer? He offered to show me his work on artificial intelligence. I’m so excited!”
“Philippe, our—” I started, but cut myself off when her eyes widened. Pursing my lips to contain the laughter down my throat, I winked her goodbye as Isaac stiffly hopped in his old Chevy.
Of course, there wouldn’t be any sex involved. The tech-savvy goddess would seizeevery opportunity to satiate her thirst of knowledge on the subject. Had Philippe been a hacker, she would have consideredit, though. Bad boys were quite a turn on. Funny how her weakness was an awfully good man.
“Philippe the engineer. What a joke!” Isaac broke as I fastened my seatbelt. Oh, how I wanted to tell him that Philippe was a bit less classy and empathetic than him! Knowing it would only comfort him in his decisionof dumping Elena, I kept my mouth shut and looked around.
There was one car apart from Isaac’s on the parking lot: a Mercedes grey van. Of all the space around us, itsdriver had picked the spot next to ours, making Isaac gripe when he pulled up.
“What the—” I started, recognizing the car.
The tinted-glass windows prevented me from seeing anything inside. Just as I thought its owner was the red-haired guy working out in the gym, the Polynesian dancer on the dashboard started wiggling. I gasped in surprise, certain that I’d seen a finger flick it, and as we drove away, the silhouette of a man in a dark suit loomed through the passenger window. He was watching me.
“I think that’s the van that almost ran over us yesterday,”
“What? Where did that—” Isaac brutally braked.
“Outside the coffee shop,”
“Note down his license, I’ll look into it. ” Heart racing, I turned on my seat, made note of the plaqueon my phone, and sent a snapshot to Elena to warn her, just in case. She probably was at the coffee shop already, the gym being only a block away from it, but we were never too careful.
“I have a bat in the trunk—” he started, and I had to grip his shoulder to stop him from going, “No, no, no, Isaac, forget about it, just drive!”
When we left the parking lot, I gazed into the mirror; the van didn’t move.
“Okay,” he breathed. “Before we get there, I need to come clean about something. Promise you won’t be mad.” His knuckles turned white, his hand tightened around the wheel, and his foot sank into the gas pedal. I gripped the armrest, since the city was suddenly zooming by, and used the most reassuring tone I could, “how about you spit it out and slow down? We’ll see about the mad part later.”
It wasn’t like him to act that reckless. Yet, he repeated the word “promise” in a compulsive way, still speeding as though on a racing track, until I surrendered, “Alright, I promise, Isaac, spit it out and slow the fuck down!” yelling over the music.
“I’m the reason Sheridan wants to see you!” His eyes were fixed on the road ahead, avoiding contact with mine. Had I been blessed with laser eyes, I would have disintegrated him on site. My belly tensed, awakening the sore muscles I’d just overworked, and my teeth clenched in anticipation as I instructed, “Go on,” rather calmly. The car slowed down, to my relief, and he sat back up.
“I went to practice after work yesterday, and Sheridan was there, talking with our coach. I think they’re buddies, that’s kind of wei—”
Dear Lord, him and Elena made quite a tiring chatty pair, I thought. After the fright he’d just put me through, I couldn’t handle it any longer, “Isaac!” I screamed.
“I told him my idea for your project and he loved it.” His hand went to his forehead as my jaw dropped, “What?”
The idea of him going behind my back and meddling in my affairs was enough for a limp of anger to grow in my throat, making me forget to ask what his idea was in the first place.
“You promised,” he reminded me, so I went with a scowl instead of Italian swear words and huddled in my seat to kick my frustrated feet up on his dashboard. I didn’t care if there was an airbag in there. It might as well break my legs.
“Here,we are.” He turned left on a parking lot, only a couple of miles away from campus and pulled the handbrake at the leprechaun’s feet. Dressed in the worn-out green velvet suit he’d been wearing whole week, Sheridanwas staring at me through the windshield, arms crossed, lips pursed. Definitely not a good sign. An old man in bright red sweatpants and a cap was standing next to him, making them both look like the most unwanted pair of Christmas elves in the whole wide world.
“The wrestling club?” I asked, confused, but Isaac had already hopped out to join them.
“O’Neil,” Sheridan called.
His small, sunken eyes narrowed to the ground as he lit up a Cuban cigar with an oxidized Zippo lighter. The whole group of men disappeared in thick smoke. Slamming the door behind me, I strode up to him—or rather his blurry silhouette—embarrassed by my scruffy appearance.
“Professor, I’m so sorry I made you wait, I didn’t—”
“Ah, drop the niceties. What happened to you?” he asked, eyes widening as he scanned my body. “Did you melt in the sun?” he laughed fatly, and coughed his lungs out before finally introducing me, “O’Neil, this is coach Billy, my oldest pal.”
I shook the old man’s hand with the usual pleasure-to-meet-you lie and smiley face. He smiled back at me, uncovering his yellow teeth, a harsh contrast with the red complexion of his skin which accentuated his coarse facial features.
“Billy trains our country’s best pro wrestler. He’s just been called to compete under our flag in the next Olympic Games,” Sheridan said, clipping his sentence for a whiff of his cigar here and there. Looking at his appearance, I let out the smile I’d struggled to contain as I spurted, “Congratulations.”
Sheridan’s weekend appearance was a true skit. Let’s say it differed from his daily one, making me feel good about my sweaty face.
His white hair, disheveled, stretched out on either side of his bald head, wig-less. His walrus mustache wasn’t properly trimmed over his thin lips and these large square glasses I’d never seen on him magnified his strabismus. The man was barely recognizable. He stepped closer to me, holding his cigar between two fingers, and adjusted his glasses, their bright yellow cord dangling on each side of his face.
“Listen, O’Neil. Team Canada’s ordered three documentaries on their most promising athletes, including that amazing wrestler in there. You could do it within the next six weeks and graduate in May. That’ll save your ass and jumpstart your career.”
I listened attentively, trying to keep focus on his words rather than the paralyzed part of his face, the consequence of a stroke he’d had years ago.
Isaac’s idea wasn’t a bad one but deserved some thinking, since I wasn’t into sports documentaries. Knowing this film would be my last before entering the industry, the decisions I made regarding it would somehow affect my career.
“Wait,” my head tilted to the side, “Are you saying you want me to shoot this documentary instead of working on my initial project?”
“Yes, or did you have a better idea?”
“That’s crap!” he sputtered. “You’re not going anywhere with that, unless you want to go on a promotional tour around the country’s nursing homes,” he brought his cigar to his mouth, chuckling at his own joke. I wasn’t in a mood to laugh at all. No, I was about to burst.
“Look, wrestling’s still a touchy subject right now. It was supposed to be removed from the Olympics this year, which means a lot of people are looking forward to this documentary.”
“I don’t want to do it,” I plainly said.
“Oh, but you will,”
“Because I said so!” He yelled, and walked away to his old 67’ Camaro RS, a hand in his pocket, another around the cigar between his lips. I followed him, trying to keep up with his pace, despite the cramps in my legs. I needed to drink.
“Sir, you can’t force me to do that, it’s my thesis. I-I’m not even into sports documentary—”
“You’ll learn,” he said in a harsh tone, refusing to look at me. I choked on his smoke as he opened the door and sat behind the wheel. He’d already made his decision, and it was final.
“I don’t know a thing about wrestling, and the clock’s ticking, I don’t have time for research!”
“Watch Bennet Miller’s Foxcatcher.”
“No buts. It’s a tough world out there, O’Neil. You gotta be a shark if you wanna make it. We have something in common, you and I; we’re both Irish, strongheaded. Figure it out.”
His cigar pointed to my face as I bent over his window, at a loss for words.
“I’m not Irish—”
“O’Neil, I’ve pulled my best strings for you. Don’t make me regret it. I expect a masterpiece.” On these last pressuring words, he elbowed me off his window, turned the ignition and roared his engine out of the parking lot. Shit. Was this a joke or a bad dream?
I was so mad at Isaac that I could feel my stomach flip, and marched back to him, determined to share with him a piece of my mind on his shitty behavior these past two days. My fist fired through the air, but he grasped onto my wrist before I got the chance to punch him. He scoffed, “What the hell, Ave?”
I shoved my other fist in his chest, frenetically hitting him, “This is your fucking fault—” but he didn’t flinch. Although he was narrow-framed, he was still taller and stronger than me.
“Alright, Miss O’Neil,” Coach Billy intervened and pulled me away from Isaac with two wide palms gripping my shoulders. “How about we take a deep breath, here?”
I tugged an escaping lock of hair behind my ear as though composing myself, and breathed through flaring nostril, eyes still glued to Isaac’s, who’d found nothing else to do other than open the door for us, “You’ll thank me later,” he whispered as he passed by. I had trouble believing I’d thank him for getting me stuck in a project I didn’t want.
“Are you calm, now, Miss O’Neil?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, just call me Avery!” I shouted at the old man, accepting my sentence angrily.
Coach Billy chuckled and wrapped his arm around my shoulder in a fatherly way, slowly leading me towards Isaac and his fucking door.
“Avery, it is, then. Let’s go inside and meet the beast. This might be a tough project for you, since you don’t know anything about wrestling, but you’ll be in good hands, that I can assure you. Besides, Isaac’s here to help.”
I sneered at the sarcasm in his voice. Like I would ever accept Isaac’s help again. We entered the empty hall that smelt of rubber and disinfectant. Coach Billy stopped in front of a door on his left and jangled his keys into the lock as his eyes darted from Isaac to me.
“What?” I asked cheekily. He laughed, “I think you’re just the right person for the job, actually. You’ve got temper.”
“My temper has nothing to do with my work.”
“Actually, it does. Surely you won’t need it for the camera. But you’ll need it to tame him. Three filmmakers have tried before you. None of them had enough…spirit.”
Spirit? His wrestler sounded like a freaking brat. He wasn’t the one making the documentary and wasn’t in a position to tell me what to do. I’d have to make sure he well understood that, because I was planning on expediting the task, and nobody—not even an Olympian—would get in the way of my work.
“What happened?” I asked.
He sighed and invited me inside his office with a wave of his hand, “He fired them all,” his tone dripping with disappointment. Who the hell was the asshole I’d have to work with?
When I stepped into the dark office, and Billy switched the light on, my heart wrenched at the sight of a huge poster on the wall above his desk. An enormous, fucking dimple. This couldn’t be happening.
“Nobody’s good enough for Aaron James,” Billy concluded. “Isaac, get changed.”
A/N : Thank you for reading this far :) I’ve edited and posted the latest versions of chapters 1, 2, and 3, taking into account all the amazing comments and advice I’ve received from you all. Chapter 4 is a long one, and I’ll definitely have to edit it. Feel free to tell me what you think and what could be corrected ! :)
Now, what do you think is going to happen next? I’m curious ! :D
Thank you again !