My hoodie was soaked when I entered the wrestling club. The weather had no intention whatsoever to be indulgent on a Sunday and the pelting rain proudly sustained my heart’s incessant rumbles. Despite Elena’s genuine attempts at relativism, Friday night’s storms still boisterously raged within.
No wind—not even the strongest—could blow away the thought of being a complete failure. Incapable. I could write a story line and a freaking master’s thesis, make a ninety-minute film, but still; performing the most instinctive act of all was out of my skill set. Unbelievable. Passing out in the middle of foreplay. What a joke.
Sex wasn’t my forte, but I never thought I could suck at it until Eros incarnate got in the way of my Love Shack experience and offered me two unsettling nights to brood over.
I believed his intentions toward me to have switched on our second night. This wasn’t an unattached one-night stand. He’d tried to tear down my walls the way I had his, and it bothered me to admit that his knight-in-armor rescue had touched a place in my heart it shouldn’t have. The Love Shack wasn’t a place for emotions, after all, and now that Philippe knew all about our Betty problem, there was a zero percent chance of us meeting at all.
My weekend daydreaming and self-deprecating somehow merged this morning when I read his note for the second time. He didn’t sign it with his name. Identity protection 101—a real shacker, born and raised. He didn’t leave a phone number—he didn’t want me to look for him or contact him.
The signs—or absence of, to be more specific—spoke for themselves. He didn’t like me. He couldn’t. Not sorry I saw you. This was plain sarcasm for “You were a funny piece to watch back there, unconscious on the bench. I even took a picture to show my friends.”
Unless he knew me.
No, that’s crazy, Avery.
I was overthinking it, but at the same time, the stakes were too high to discard any plausible scenario. I couldn’t have sex every Friday with the guy who’d deflowered me, broken my heart, and vanished overnight without an explanation, nor with douchebag Conor.
The idea that Mathew might be my 666 got me wallowing in the past the whole weekend. Elena caught me setting up an altar on my dresser this afternoon, and when she heard me pray the Almighty Lumière brothers for revenge, she kicked me out, reminding me of Isaac’s big day, along with the fact that the Holy Creators of the Sacred Seventh Art had no power over an enormous prick who couldn’t shake off the need to thrust everything that moved.
It all coincided, though. His minty breath, his touch, his body. Yet, a part of me still clung to the hope that 666 was somebody else, somebody I didn’t know anything about. A perfect stranger.
In my memory, Matt’s handwriting was different, less angular; and I doubted it had changed that much in just a few years. Plus, I couldn’t recall Matt’s hair being that thick between my fingers, even if my heavy weight loss and Taara’s game of depriving senses had heightened everything else. Perceptions. Emotions. Sex. Oh, Lord. Especially sex. But he loved caps. It was hard to tell in the dark. Mathew or not? Fuck. What a mess. Did I really want to go next week?
As the wind slammed the door shut behind my back, a hundred pairs of googly eyes fixed on me, and it felt like I was stripped naked on the spot. I looked like a hag, and for the first time in two years, I wanted to be fat again—and dry—so I could go back to hiding behind my fat rolls. At least, my worn-out, oversized hoodie would help with the hiding part, but it didn’t make it any easier to endure the intense stares of a young gang of blue singlets. They were the only group of men who refused to get back to whatever their business was and were even entertained by my walking along the makeshift bar of this crowded, noisy hall.
“Hey,” the gruff voice of a grizzly bear called as I passed by. I stopped in my tracks, uncertain the semi-catcall was for me, “Yes, you.”
Turning around, I gazed up at the man, because he was that tall. A wrestler of the 125-kilo weight class, judging by his bulky figure. “Aren’t you from Edmonton?” He nodded at me. The red Team Canada jacket he wore threatened to crack around his tense shoulders. How the hell could he know? Impatient, he crossed his arms as I inspected every inch of his common features. A groomed three-day stubble stretched along the lines of his strong jaws and melded into his unruly dark curls. His thick eyebrows reiterated his question as they furrowed together, bringing out his evil dark irises. If that was his best intimidating trick, he should be warned that it didn’t work on me anymore. I’d already got the Aaron shot for that disease that seemed to spread among arrogant men, especially when in the company of impressionable women.
Shaking my head, I spat, “Doppelgänger.” He did look familiar, but to be honest, anybody who came up claiming to know me from somewhere did; so I shouldered my way through the jolly crowd, keeping my hood on, and sat at the farthest, most inconspicuous seat available in the packed stands: the upper-right corner. I wasn’t here to make friends.
Hell, I knew coming here was risky, since Aaron wouldn’t miss an opportunity to show himself. He was the last person I wanted to see, but I’d promised Isaac I’d come to his tournament weeks ago. He needed his friend, today. It was his day. The day he and his team fought for first place in the Western Canada Club Championships against the region’s best amateur wrestlers. I couldn’t let him down. Hag or not. So, if being here for a friend meant turning my head from my murderous sentiments for Aaron James this one night, I would do it.
I did turn my head, thus letting the unusual spectator next to me steal my attention from the much-awaited show. The blond girl, no older than five, was deep in a role-playing game with herself, imagining an epic story in which she—the masked superhero—saved the world from a wicked mollusk. It fit inside her palm. She shook, squished, and scrunched the stuffed octopus until it surrendered to her benevolent sentence: a second chance at a happy life on another planet.
Her light eyes sparkled just as much as her purple mask when she saw me, shedding a ray of sunshine through my current obscurity. How I wished I could be that clueless and innocent.
My upgraded mask was hidden from Elena’s hands and eyes in the cardboard box of memories under my bed. Keeping her in the dark regarding my activities and motives would ensure her protection from Taara. I had yet to figure out whether that mask would remain in that box forever, like all memories, or lead me through the maze of The Love Shack’s deeper and darker third night.
“Mar’, come here, it’s about to start,” a blond woman’s dulcet tones got men’s heads spinning. She only cared about the little girl who I presumed was her daughter. The spitting image of her.
As she turned around, a baby’s hairy skull brooded over the valley of colorful blankets firmly attached around her chest. No doubt the long day and the din of this place had knocked the little human out. I had a nasty feeling, looking at these kids. They looked familiar, too.
“Time has come for our last, decisive match, folks. Two teams are tied, pressure is heavy on our two contestants’ shoulders. On my left, from Burnaby…” The plump host announced. Burnaby as in the city where some of Hollywood North’s movie studios were, along with Taara Bakshi’s Third Eye Productions’ headquarters. A place that seemed to grow further out of reach each day. That wreck of a thesis would blight my only dream, blight my chances at a career in production at all.
“…against Isaac James from Vancouver’s Pacific Wrestling.”
Half the crowd stood up to applaud, including me. From his corner of the mat, Isaac pointed at me, mouthing the words “Thank you,” and stuck his tongue out childishly. The little hero giggled.
“Go, uncle Zeezack!” she cheered, prancing.
Oh, my. My neurons fried out at the realization of the little girl’s identity, and in the meantime, a manly, view-blocking silhouette sat in the empty seat in front of me, asking, “Did I miss anything?”
The Team Canada jacket on his back should have alerted me, but his voice was what froze my butt onto my seat. Even though I was still mad at Aaron, his voice was a bewitching song to my ears, so gravelly it could shake any woman to the ground, even cast a vanishing spell on my hatred. That was a power I feared he’d always have over me.
“Don’t—You know that won’t help.” The blond woman from the picture in his office placed a soothing hand on his shoulder as they both followed Grizzly’s movements. Aaron’s vertebrae clacked in his back as he straightened up, and his ears twitched, the consequence of his clenching teeth. “And no, you didn’t missanything. You’re right on time, for once.”
In need of a quick fix, Aaron stroked the sleeping boy’s head, and smiled so lovingly one couldn’t believe he was a cruel beast inside. He had that look only a father could lay on their child. Full of pride, affection and admiration. Funny how babies worked their magic to purify the darkest hearts.
In an outburst of masochism, I forced myself to watch and feel the pain. That of a brand-new blade slicing its way inside my crippled heart; and I wondered if and when I would finally get over him, invoking Auguste and Louis Lumière’s enlightenment on the matter. Again. Hopefully they’d answer.
“Hey Marissa, can I have a kiss, princess?” Aaron asked the girl without moving, and I pulled my hood all the way down to my chin, not wanting to be caught in case he did. His family. My heart bled out and the blade fell inside my empty rib cage, torturing the carnal walls of my mortal cell. No sudden move. Stay calm and…leave.
I had to go somewhere else, find another seat. This was the price I had to pay to move on. I couldn’t bear watching all the love and happiness floating around here; it was too much. It was the only way to sober up. I needed to leave.
The girl ignored her father’s wishes and crawled up to me, scrutinizing me, her soft eyes glistening with awe.
“You’re all wet,” she frowned behind her mask, “Are you a mermaid?” and twirled a small finger around a lock of my hair, “You’re a pretty mermaid.” She was mesmerizingly imaginative for her young age, and the only thing I could find to do was smile, sheepishly. Then the worst happened.
Aaron whipped his head around to me.
The world stopped spinning. Neither could I move nor close my eyes. His deep-blue seas washed into mine, and his face bore the signs of a contrite criminal. This fleeting moment lasted long enough for me to believe I’d be be awarded an apology, at last. A stupid “I’m sorry” could have sufficed, given how bad of a sucker I still was for him, but nothing came out of his mouth, and he turned back to his brother, blushing a deep, furious crimson.
The second a black and white jersey stepped on the padded mat in the center, the convivial, family atmosphere of the day-long tournament grew ripe with tension, hence the testosterone-charged slurs that the gang of blues suddenly addressed to Isaac, who warmed up in a corner, imperturbable.
Billy’s red boys weren’t, though. Isaac’s team stretched across the front row, and like the first line of an army during warfare, they stood up one after the other to defend their soldier just as Grizzly and his pups marched down the central stairs for all to witness their provocation.
Aaron sprang to his feet, “That’s it, I’m done taking his shit,” and jumped down the flight of stairs. The stands shuddered under his weight.
Coated in the same bloody red jacket, the two tall leaders exchanged a few inaudible words, which resulted in more domineering stares. Physical affront was inevitable. To my outside eyes, it seemed that there were many old scores to settle.
Everybody stopped breathing, awaiting the two men’s next moves in agonizing silence, and before Isaac could intervene, Aaron’s forehead collided with the Edmonton bear’s, who reeled to the floor.
In one fell swoop, James’ irrational decision gave way to mayhem as a large-scale brawl broke out from every corner. The referees, quickly followed by the remaining spectators, fled out the back door, taking with them all hope of a return to peace before the end of the night.
Women and men from different clubs ostensibly picked a blue or red side to fight for, and only when the last one of them paid allegiance to the blue singlets, the red circle was crossed off the yellow mat with slapdash scribbles of reds and oranges. Noses were punched, sides and groins were kicked, teeth were spat out, along the rattling notes of scornful songs.
Marissa stood next to me, crying. Her fingers, halfway inside her whimpering mouth, were covered in a mix of tears and drool. But Aaron got a good beating in the stomach right under her nose, and she bolted. I turned to her mother, who was gathering her stuff with one arm, and trying to soothe her baby against her breast with the other. “Please, go find her, I can’t run. I’ll find you by the back door in a sec.”
She didn’t even get to finish. I’d already tracked Marissa down the stairs and wrapped both hands around her shoulders. “Marissa, look at me.” I tried to catch her attention. We had to be quick. I had no idea what these men were capable of. Hurting kids and their mother? Maybe, if they knew they were related to Aaron James. Marissa wouldn’t stop crying. Her face contorted in terror. “Marissa, nothing’s going to happen to you.” I pulled her close to me and carried her all the way to the back door, hugging the walls behind the stands so nobody would see us.
“You were right,” I whispered in her ear to shush her down as her mother strode down to us. “I’m a mermaid. My name’s Avery. I’ll tell you all about me another time, because right now, you need to follow your mom. I’ll take care of Aaron and Zeezack, okay? I promise.” She automatically stopped at the mention of Isaac, like an alarm that had just been turned off, and wiped her blood-shot eyes. “Okay, Revery. I like you,” she whispered back, and placed her tiny, slimy hands on my cheeks to pull the tip of my nose to hers, “That’s an Eskimo kiss. My uncle showed it to me. It’s a secret kiss that says I like you.” I melted on site, and it wrenched my heart to put her down, but she had to go.
Before I cursed myself for making another rash promise, her mother arrived, hugged me lightly so as not to crush the bulge between our bodies, and gripped Wonder Woman’s hand. She gave me a sly smile, “Thank you” and left the place, rolling her teary eyes at Aaron who watched us from afar, a hand over his nose. Was trouble brewing in paradise, maybe?
“Ave, office, now!” Isaac screamed, jumping at some blue guy’s throat right behind me. Looking at the chaos, I conceded wanting no part in the bedlam and sprinted to Coach’s refuge, hoping for the men’s adrenaline to crash as fast as possible.
As I watched Aaron fight Grizzly like the future of the city was on the line, the sirens of the city police wailed nearby, and in no time, James knocked out his opponent with a savage kick in the head and blustered inside the dark office. I shivered.
“Oh, my god.” His face was covered in blood from his brows to his chest, and his left eye was already puffy and colored. “Take a bottle of antiseptic in the cupboard on the left and come with me. We have to go,” he mumbled through painful teeth, leaning on the door frame. His breath hitching at each touch on his ribs.
I nodded, not caring for his sudden lack of manners –not that a quick please would have killed him—and sneezed two or three times at the dusty cupboard, “Where’s Isaac? And Billy?” to retrieve a whole moving box of supplies. Antiseptic, cotton, band-aids and bandages filled the box, not to mention all the different ointments. It was as though somebody had robbed the hospital. Or somebody was just prepared. Used to the wounds.
“Gone and trying to throw everybody out. We’ll pick up Isaac on the road, though. Let’s go. Now!”
I followed him, box in hand, hood on, and we both crawled under the stands toward the backdoor, to avoid being seen.
The view on Aaron’s ass was fantastic, as always, but I couldn’t wrap myself to enjoy it. The sirens grew closer. The police would be here any minute, and although I’d done nothing wrong, I didn’t want to end up at the station, telling my version of a wrestlers’ gang fight over and over throughout the night.
Aaron opened the door for me, and when I stepped outside—“Aaron, watch out!” A red arm snaked around his neck and pulled him back, forcing him to arch his back.
“Ah!” Aaron cried out his pain. Definitely not the same intensity as my little jumping on his forearm the other day. I dropped the box outside and rushed in to help, without Grizzly really noticing. Aaron was running out of air, and Grizzly put all the more pressure on his neck as his opponent fought back. Do something. Quick and effective, Avery. Come on.
I scanned my environment for a weapon—anything that could be used as such—and froze on the stands’ skeleton on my right. Of course! All the gym equipment had been stored under for space on the mat. Without wasting any more time, I trudged inside and grabbed the first barbell within reach.
I widened my palms along the bar to get a good grip and skipped on Herman’s rules for once, thinking he wouldn’t blame me for not doing a body check tonight. “Aaron, down!” I shouted at the top of my lungs, and swung the twenty-pound barbell into Grizzly’s stomach as Aaron simultaneously dropped himself free to the ground. The metal clinked on the floor. The bear growled, loudly, and fell onto his knees to catch his breath while I rammed my head under Aaron’s arm, seeing him out, and flexed a bit more to catch the box of medical supplies with one free hand.
“Is that Isaac’s Chevy back there?” I asked, barely recognizing the features of a car in the dark, gravel parking lot. Aaron grunted. It was a yes, then. His head dangerously swayed back and forth. Shit, he was heavy. “Give me your keys, now! A few more steps and you can comatose all you want,” and I literally shoved him inside as blue and red lights flashed behind the building. Leaving, now.
Only when the gym was out of my rearview mirror did I relax my neck in the head restraint. I burned to ask for an explanation for the memorable fighting back there, but I could tell his thoughts were elsewhere, typing away on his phone. The blood on his face appeared matted dry in the city lights. I should bring him to the hospital for a checkup, since his ribs made him wince at each bump on the road. I just didn’t want to pull up a fight. If he felt like going home, it would be fine by me. I broke the heavy silence with a little apprehension, “Where are we going?”
“Let’s take you home. Isaac’s going to my apartment. I’ll find him there afterward.”
Nodding, I slowly turned on our street. “Why are we at my place?” He asked, failing an attempt at frowning, “I said we were taking you home, first.”
I stopped the car, “Yes, well…I basically live across the street. Red building, second floor, so…” and kept my gaze straight as I felt his eyes pressuring mine, for whatever reason. This was awkward.
“Thank you,” he whispered, gazing through the window, “For Colleen and the kids. And for saving my ass with a freaking barbell,” he smirked slightly.
I pulled my hood off, presuming Colleen was the mother of his children, and pulled my hair up into a ponytail with a snort, “I’m strong, right?” but Aaron missed the sarcasm to fumble with the door handle instead. “You can go home, you know. You’ve done plenty enough.”
“Is Colleen upstairs to—”
“No,” he breathed.
I shook my head, watching him grind as he slowly slid off the seat. I’d never seen anybody other than him or Isaac get in and out his apartment in the last four years, and the fact that she wasn’t here tonight let me think there was more than trouble brewing in paradise. Could they be separated?
“Then, I’m not letting you or Isaac alone to—” I stopped, realizing that I’d sound desperate if I ever finished that sentence, and sighed, “I promised Marissa I’d take care of you both.”
Truth be told, the status of Aaron’s relationship with Colleen didn’t change anything. I regretted so damn much staying in his office that night and seeing that picture frame. I should have chosen to keep the fantasy. At least those didn’t break hearts. And now, here I was, turning the other cheek, forcing my help on him. All for one selfish reason.
Whatever it meant, Marissa had placed all her trust in a single Eskimo kiss to a fake mermaid, and it was my responsibility to see it through. Because her faith in adults depended on it. I wouldn’t be the one to toss her aside and make her feel undermined, just because she was a child. She deserved to be heard and considered. Just freaking considered. Something my dad had blatantly failed to do.
Bent over the hood, Aaron didn’t reply, but rather stared at me while tilting his head to the side in an expression that was hard to decipher. Damn swollen eyes. Then, he let me help him all the way up without resisting. I didn’t need him to say anything. I knew he’d let me honor my word to his angel of a daughter.
A/N : First time at Aaron's apartment... What do you think is going to happen? :)
Thank you for reading, AGAIN ! <3
Always feel free to comment, review, like, and share your opinion! That's how I'm learning and growing :) You can also follow my writing adventures on Instagram --Alex.