“Elena!” I called from the bathroom, “Have you received the text yet?”
It was nine. The sun, guilty of this unseasonably high temperature, initiated its descent in a slow motion, taking pleasure in delaying the long-awaited advent of darkness. My impatience got the best of me the minute I wrapped the gritty towel around my damp chest; and after a most boring week, the slightest friction of fabric against my burning skin aroused all my senses. I was beastly horny, the presage of a hot second night at The Love Shack.
Elena grumbled her twentieth “no” of the day, too kind to send me packing, yet too annoyed to elaborate. She was in the living room, sitting on the same chair she’d claimed as hers all week, typing her fingers away on the keyboard of my laptop. Ever since her geeky afternoon with Phil, as she liked to call him now, she’d been consumed by Artificial Intelligence, thus filling her time with pointless coding exercises he’d so generously assigned—of which I understood nothing. She’d even made a habit of pointing out the little effort I made to hide my disinterest in the subject, or in her new best friend, I wasn’t certain.
“Done!” she exclaimed and leant back on her chair to stretch out her numb limbs. All I could see was the fatigue on her face, hollowed by lack of sleep and hours of nighttime crying.
Taking my usual tough-love tone, I pointed at the table, “Good, so now you can help me clean this mess of an apartment and hop in the shower; you stink.”
She sniffed her armpit as though doubting me. That behavior was so unlike her, but I’d come to accept the well-needed diversion that coding had granted her; it was something I’d found in The Love Shack myself the previous week.
As I repaired the damages that careless tornado Elena had wreaked upon my neat pile of clothes, the box I kept under my bed appeared open through the chaos, and the hard drives it contained were scattered all over the couch, “Lee, how many times do I have to say it? Don’t touch my box!”
She glanced at it, expressionless, and resumed her nonchalant gathering the fashion magazines that papered the table, “I just wanted to watch your old videos again while you were at work. Chill, it’s just a box.”
At that moment, I wished she were less self-centered. The sadness of her recent breakup was one thing, but her neglect for my belongings was another. It was beyond her understanding that the most precious things I owned were the simplest—they all fit inside that shoebox—and that I needed them to endure the passing of time unscathed—a tough thing to comprehend for someone whose valuables were constantly prone to phasing-out, depending on their price tag.
She picked up a book I’d borrowed at the library and placed it on the tower of wrestling books that overloaded the kitchen counter.
“Rules of freestyle wrestling,” she read, “Don’t you think it’s time you reached out to him?” referencing Aaron.
I’d told her everything, from the coffee shop to my revenge, including the forced thesis project. She’d laughed at me for hours, explaining how the wheel of life had turned and gifted me with everything I’d ever wanted: Aaron and sex; and damn, she was right.
“After what he said? Not a chance!” I scoffed, “If he can get inside my head, then surely he can find my number and address.”
“But you’ve both played each other. Maybe you’ve hurt him, too, and he’s waiting for you to take the first step.” I shot her a scowl of disagreement, to which she raised her hands, “I’m just saying,” and plopped down on the couch to rub some salt in her open wound, “Can you believe that in three years of dating Isaac, I haven’t heard a single thing about Aaron or the Jameses?”
She buried her face in her hands and started sobbing again, “How come, huh? He didn’t even love me enough to introduce me. What have I done wrong?”
“Oh, Lee,” I patted her back. This kind of breakdown had sprinkled our week with abrupt emotional highs and lows, and my wisdom well had dried out of witty proverbs to comfort her.
“You haven’t done anything wrong,” I tried, but the sobbing intensified, “You’re just saying that because you’re my friend.”
“No. I’m saying that because I’m right,” the words burnt my lips to be voiced out, but she was too fragile to hear them yet. Isaac had always turned to me for guidance and comfort through each and every one of their breakups, and never had they lasted more than seventy-two hours. This time, I knew in my guts something was awfully wrong. There had to be another truth to that moving-together story; one he wouldn’t even tell me.
“Then,” I sheepishly replied, “Can you picture Sheridan naked, shaking his ass in one of those cages at The Love Shack?” hoping a little humor would work. Her tears suddenly turned into a deep, fat laughter, to my relief, “I’m fine, now, thanks for the nightmare.”
I stretched my arm out to the tissue box and handed it to her, “What will you do, though? You can’t wait for Aaron to come around forever, and Sheridan…” she said, blowing her nose in a most unladylike manner. It was the first time I had to translate gibberish, but the names of Aaron and Sheridan in the same sentence made her meaning quite obvious, “I don’t know, I just—I don’t want Aaron to think I’m desperate with my thesis. It’ll only give him all the reasons to make the filming a living hell. Besides, he’s the one that should apologize first.”
Aaron’s radio silence had made me doubt the effectiveness of my plan. I’d expected the pressure of his wrestling obligations to hit by the third day following our altercation—fourth, counting his foolish battle against his pervasive pride—but certainly not a whole week.
I’d proscribed all usual pit stops by the café, forcing myself to embrace a caffeine-free diet that only transferred my addiction from the hot beverage to The Love Shack, hence all the distracting reading, last-minute cleaning, and—surprisingly—WWE watching; a guilty pleasure that now followed me in bed.
After spewing her most evil wishes for the James brothers in Italian, Elena sprang up to her feet, “I have to get ready, I need a rebound.”
At last, she started to the bathroom. I was thanking the darkening sky through the window for making her when the doorbell rang. Would I ever get a minute to myself to dress? The strident ring stopped her in her tracks, and she checked the kitchen clock suspiciously. Neither one of us expected a visit.
Within seconds, the miserable layer of cotton that barely covered my body got me sprinting to my room.
“Elena, please, take it. Please!” I implored.
Catching a fleeting glimpse of the lace underwear I’d laid on my bed automatically filled me with lust as I dropped my towel next to it. I hoped the man I’d have sex with would burn to peel it off me, like 666—It rang again.
Whoever was standing behind that goddamn door was taking their frustration out on the bell button, which eventually broke, releasing a bleak last ring through the hallway. What was she waiting for?
“Lee, please!” I tried once again, but the bathroom lock clicked loud enough for me to hear, and her aggressive voice echoed through the walls, “No way! You take care of that one!”
“Come on, I’m nak—ah!” I screamed my guts out, gaze fixed on a man’s face, sneaking in my half-open door.
“Woah, woah, woah!” He brought a hand over his eyes after peeking at my boobs—I was hiding the rest with my hands—and before I could register who it was, I threw my towel at him and sent the door slamming in his face.
“Fuck! Isaac, what the hell?” It took him a moment to answer, for we both needed to breathe back to our senses, “Elena wouldn’t open. She saw me through the peephole. I still got the key, so—”
“You scared the shit out of me! Don’t ever do that again!”
“Sure won’t,” he muttered under his breath and waited for me to dress up behind the door, his soothed breaths covered by the pitter-platter of Lee’s shower. He hadn’t seen too much skin, thank God, but sounded oddly unaffected by the sight of me. Could he be…I shook my head, discarding all crazy suspicions the moment I remembered that he’d known me overweight and seen me in a one-piece swimsuit dozens of times at the campus pool.
Once I opened the door, my eyes succumbed to the temptation of sending daggers his way, and I turned my back to him queryingly, coiling up my hair out of the zipper’s way, “Make yourself useful, will you?”
“You’re not going out like this, are you?” he asked, but pulled it up anyway in one swift movement, as though hiding me away from the prying eyes of my apartment’s invisible crowd.
“Why are you here?”
“That red dress is the antonym of sober, and I’ve looked into that van’s license. Turns out it’s fake. You shouldn’t go out at all tonight. Not in this dress, not downto—”
“Isaac, I don’t have time to argue,” I replied harshly. “Thank you for the heads up, but we’re not changing our plans just because of a van. We’ll be careful.”
I walked back to my mirror, putting on my mother’s pearl earrings. Nothing would stop me from satisfying my hunger for sex tonight, not even a van.
Isaac just followed me in, slouched on my bed to sigh, and quietly watched me braid my hair. I crossed my arms, demanding an explanation for invading my privacy. Since he hadn’t mentioned Elena yet, why the hell was he still here?
“I’m worried,” he pouted, “I haven’t seen you at the shop, and you haven’t returned my call—”
“Your girlfriend’s been crying her heart out all week,” I barked. Surely, he was pulling my leg, “So, you’d better come up with a good reason for being here. I’m fine.”
“She’s not my girlfriend anymore, and if you knew the—” he paused, sat up and grazed his fingers along the thick line of his brows, changing the subject, “Ave, I’m sorry. Truly. I shouldn’t have talked to Sheridan without consulting you first. I screwed up.”
His head swung from left to right as I walked back and forth between the mirror and dresser, following the well-rehearsed steps of my makeup ritual. I couldn’t believe he was here to apologize to me, but his reluctance to tackling the subject of Elena was proof he had something to hide, and I wasn’t so sure I could hear his secrets without taking her side, yet.
“Good,” I concluded, “Apology accepted. You can go, now.”
“No, you tell me what’s going on, first. Coach has gone mad, telling everybody he’s part of a mysterious plan, and Aaron won’t talk to m—Hey, is that a—”
I was taken by a panic attack when I realized 666’s mask was still on my nightstand, and Isaac was staring right at it. My mascara brush poked my eye as I shrieked, “Aaron! That’s what happened! He was so delightful that I quit! Shit!” bringing his attention back to me. Wiping the black cream off my cheek, I scurried to the living room to slip in a pair of black pumps, where Isaac luckily joined me. He was apparently more interested in his brother, the mask was saved, and I was ready to go.
“Can I know why you quit at least?” he frowned, glaring at my shoes disapprovingly.
“He knew things about me,” I snapped, “Intimate things, and he used them against me. I got mad and left.”
“Oh,” he grinned, “What intimate things?” and sat down on the couch, ankle resting on his opposite knee. My eyes fled to the bathroom door. If only Elena could barge in and save me.
“I know about those dreams,” his frail voice suddenly dripping with confidence.
I fell on a chair, heart suddenly pounding, “What? Wait, ho—”
“To answer your next question, no, Elena didn’t tell me. It was all your faul—”
Lee’s distant hair-dryer cut him off, “Remember a month ago when you both went to party downtown, and you were so drunk that you crashed at my place?”
The memories of that night made me smile. We’d played darts in a pub with a gang of wild hockey fans after an epic Canucks’ game. Too tired to walk back to our apartment, we’d fallen dead asleep on Isaac’s living room floor, just above the coffee shop.
With a simple nod, I bid him to continue, “Aaron sleeps on the couch whenever he works in late; and you have a tendency to talk—no, scream—in your sleep.”
The whole room went spinning around me as my blood rushed straight up to my cheeks, burning my chest and neck on its way. Impossible.
“Yeah. It must have been a pretty intense dream. He told me you begged him to put the steamer—”
I covered my ears so as to prevent my heart from bursting at his next words, mixed with mocking laughter, and yelled, “Shut up!”
Aaron had heard me moan in my sleep. Of all people. Him. And I thought he didn’t know a thing about me. The only silver lining in all this was that the steamer dream was the softest of all, making me feel grateful he hadn’t heard the others.
“Relax, everybody has wicked dreams every once in a while,” he said reassuringly.
“Well, he was cruel enough to bring it up to hurt and humiliate me. I tried to play him at his own game, but I think it backfired. I shouldn’t be expecting an apology, actually.”
“No shit,” his eyes widened in disbelief, “You played him?”
“Well, yeah, I think so, but he—”
Isaac bent over his knees, whispering, “Did you hurt him?”
His interest was odd. He was supposed to be mad at me for manipulating his brother; instead, he was upsettingly fascinated.
“I did confuse him a bit, and squished his forearm—”
He sneered, his gaze suddenly fixated in void, “I can’t believe it, finally somebody who stands up to him!”
“Am I supposed to be proud of this?” I asked, baffled.
“Ugh, this is going to sound weird,” he scratched his forehead, “Aaron’s always had this rule of testing people before allowing them into his life. He, um...thinks their real intentions surface when they’re hurt.”
“So, you’re saying he hurt me to get to know me? That’s crazy!” I gasped.
“I know, the guy’s mistrust is sickly,” he responded, running a hand through his hair, “For what it’s worth, he’s not a bad guy. He just has weird ways of coping with his…whatever. He won’t hurt you again, that I can assure you. If you won him over, though, you’ll be the first woman ever to get an apology. He has a ten-days rule.”
I wanted to ask why I’d be the first woman ever, hoping he was capable of apologizing to his girlfriend now and then, but Isaac’s last words surprised me, “What the hell is a ten-days rule?”
“I guess you’ll see,” a charming smirk curled up to his dimple.
“I don’t get it, Isaac. How can you tolerate him? You work together, wrestle together, and you’re nothing alike!” I stood up, wondering what Elena was doing in that goddamn bathroom, and started pacing around the living room. The Love Shack would be as dark tonight as it’d been the previous week; therefore, making contemporary art of her face was useless. She’d get out of there looking like Batman’s Joker anyway.
“Yeah, we do have our differences, but I have to admit he can be a fun guy to be around. Don’t tell him I said that, though.”
Doubting I would ever speak again to Aaron James, I spat, “Is that what you did with your brother on the mat the other day, wrestling your differences?”
He rolled his eyes at me, “No, I—”
Both our phones buzzed at the same time, and by mutual agreement, the conversation we were having was set aside with no further ado. Like a wildcat jumping on its prey, I grabbed my phone, struggling to conceal my excitement at the sight of an unread message,
You are cordially invited to the second night of The Love Shack, 2020 edition, tonight at 11pm. Dress up for the occasion and join us here: Cypress Bowl Road, Bowen Island, BC. Follow the torches. Valhalla—Shh, it’s a secret. Cheers, The Love Shack Team.
This road was one I knew well; it led north to Grouse Mountain, where we went snowboarding every winter. I wanted to look it up on my phone, just in case, but I was too busy analyzing Isaac’s face. Had he just received the same text?
His gaze was still stuck on his screen when I put it back on the table, and he swept all my doubts away with a sigh, “Ugh, speaking of the devil, I gotta go. Friday night practice.” He stood up, and giving me a high five, whispered, “Please don’t wear that dress tonight.”
“Why? What is so wrong with it?” I frowned.
He opened the door, “You don’t look like yourself in it,” sending me a friendly smile that left me perplexed as to his true intentions. As soon as he left, I flew to my room, snatched the mask, picked up my phone and car keys.
Elena scooted out of her cave, all pampered up, “I thought he’d never leave. What did he want?”
She opened her purse for me to put 666’s mask with hers, “I’ll tell you in the staircase. Take a coat, we’re going to Grouse Mountain,” I almost sang, jiggling my car keys at her.
“That’s weird,” she agreed with me as I opened the front door of the building, “A ten-days rule, come on, who would—”
Before she could finish, two large silhouettes stepped out of nowhere, barring the way to my old Jeep. The obscurity prevented us from seeing them clearly.
“Excuse me, I’d like to pass,” I said feebly, and looked around for help. There wasn’t a sign of movement nor life, but just a street lamp whose light kept flickering frenetically over our head. Neither one of the men moved, their gaze intensely dark on us. We didn’t even have time to back away that they pounced at us and forced our arms behind our backs.
“What the—let me go!”
I kicked the man between his legs, but he only tightened his grip on me, an evil grin looming on his face. Elena started screaming her lungs out, her purse tearing through the air to defend herself, the only weapon at hand.
“That one’s a squealer, put her to sleep,” one of them ordered the other, voice hoarse.
“No!” I screamed, floundering in the man’s arms as I watched her pass out in his bulky arms, his hands all over her neck.
“Shut up, or you’re going to dreamland, too,” my abductor threatened.
Next thing I knew, I was thrown like meat inside the rear of a vehicle to join Elena’s limp body. I couldn’t even fight before they slid the side-door closed; my body was frozen stiff.
Weeping tears poured down my cheeks as I gasped in horror and brought a hand to my shaking lips. Not a sound. Plain, utter silence around us.
Crawling, I blindly groped the cold carpet until my hand landed on the leather straps of her purse that were still attached to her wrists. She was on her side. I took a deep breath and put two fingers on her neck, automatically feeling her steady pulse, “Mamma Mia, thank God you’re still here.” The engine roared in the front. We had to get out of here, now.
“Wake up, wake up, wake up,” I whimpered, blindly holding Lee’s head through the bumps and potholes on the road. We were moving.
“Speed up, she’s waiting,” one of the men muttered.
My breath caught in my throat as I realized we were the targets of a woman’s wrath. Soon enough, I found myself wondering if either of us would live to see the next day. Maybe we should have changed our plans, after all.
A/N: Thank you ! Seems like it’s going to be hard to go to TLS tonight XD.