the unbelievable understanding Cal, Hank, and Bobby had showed me when they
realised who I was, I was so far from being prepared for Lester’s reaction that
I was practically in another universe, and alternate world where everything was
hunky dory. I just figured that all the guys would accept me back with open
arms. Of course, I should have known it was wishful thinking that Lester could
be as accepting as the others, what with his attitude toward Kit.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’d intermittently wondered if his surliness was a direct result of my leaving. Now, standing barefoot in the middle of the mats with tears streaming silently down my face, I knew it was so.
The guilt of returning under cover, which I had slowly been coming to terms with now that I had the acceptance of three Merry Men, was back in full force, weighing down my chest until I could barely breathe. I began to think that maybe it would have been best if I’d never returned at all. Lester had said he’d mourned my death when they couldn’t find me. He couldn’t have been the only one. Any number of the men in this building could have unnecessarily grieved for me and eventually gotten past the aching pain to move on with their lives. By coming back I was just ripping open old wounds.
Without thinking, I returned to the bench I’d used earlier and put my socks, shoes and glasses back on, before heading out the gym door and down the stairs. I was more likely to encounter one of the Merry Men this way, but I couldn’t handle standing still to wait for the elevator at the moment. I needed to be moving. I needed to be in action. If only I could think of a suitable action to soothe the pain I had caused Lester.
When I reached the parking garage, I slid behind the wheel of the first Rangeman fleet vehicle I came to, grateful for the fact that they still kept the keys in the ignition when on site. I’d left my hand bag in my cubicle with the assumption that I would be returning to it after a gruelling session of physical defence training with Lester, so I couldn’t take my rental. Well, gruelling had been right, but not for the reasons I had thought it would be.
How on earth could I possibly set this right?
Once I was clear of the parking garage, I drove thought the streets of Trenton at Random. In the mindset I was in I could quite easily have found myself driving back to Mexico. Of course, there were a number of things wrong with that plan. First, I was in a fleet vehicle, which would definitely contain a tracking device, meaning if I went any great distance from town, a team of guys would be on my tail before the night was over. Second, my purse was still at Rangeman, and my passport was in a safe at Tank’s house along with a bunch of other essential items. Can’t get far without any money or ID. And then there was the biggest factor of all: Running away is what got me into this mess in the first place, no way would repeating my actions from six years ago fix the pain I’d caused here today. I had to stay put and face reality for a change.
I’d allow myself an hour or so to calm down before returning to work, I decided. There was nothing I could do to mend the broken bridges between Lester and I at this very moment – neither one of us was in the right frame of mind for a discussion right now – but maybe with time, I could somehow soothe the burning pain I had caused him.
“So Lester figured it out,” Tank mentioned in a deceptively casual tone that night as he tossed a mix of vegetables, chicken and Asian sauces in a wok. It was obvious he knew it hadn’t gone well, just from the fact that he was broaching the subject so delicately. “You wanna talk about it?”
I slumped against the island bench opposite to where Tank was working and took a long pull from my beer. I’d wanted something a little stronger to help me forget the horrible afternoon I’d had, but Tan insisted that he’d lost the key to the liquor cabinet and his lock picking tools were in his desk at work. “I deserve the way he reacted,” I said on a sigh, which was only a slight variation on my usual Lester related tune, ‘I deserve the way he’s treating Kit.’
“No, you don’t,” Tank assured me, just like he always did. I’m not sure about the big man, but I was getting tired of having the same conversation every time I had an encounter with Lester. Every now and then, an expression crossed his face that made me feel that if I didn’t suck it up and stop complaining he’d lock me in the basement until I was ready to behave. At least it was better than a third world country...
“He reacted exactly the way I expected you all to react,” I pointed out, reminding him of the D and M we’d had the night I returned to Trenton. “He has every right to be angry.”
“Look,” Tank said, laying down his wooden spoon and crossing his arms over his mile wide chest – that look flitted across his face again. “Yes, Lester took it a little harder than most when you left, and even worse when we were given the order to stop looking, but only because he’s so much closer to you than the rest of us.”
“No he’s not,” I countered, scooting up onto a bar stool. “If I’m closer to anyone, it’d be you.”
He considered my words for a moment before resuming his stirring with a shake of his large, bald head. “Recent events may make it seem that way,” he explained. “Proximity alone at the moment gives me the advantage, but speaking in overall terms, Lester will always be closer to you and more personally affected by anything that happens to you.”
His explanation, while I’m sure was based on logic within the confines of his mind, made no sense in my ears. Sure, I like Lester, when he wasn’t glaring hatefully at me with first clenched so tight I could have sworn he wanted to hit me – and was maybe even attracted to him in a benign sort of way, but I didn’t think I was any closer to him than any of the other Merry Men. I certainly didn’t see how anything I did would affect him more personally.
“He’s Ranger’s second cousin,” Tank informed me. When I gave him a confused stare, he continued. “Your actions, no matter how small, affect the way Ranger acts. Toward you, his company, his family. Ranger and Les were always extremely close growing up, despite the distance of their familial relation. When Les’s dad died, their bonds strengthened. Even when I came onto the scene and took up residency as Ranger’s second on nearly all things in life and in the military, Les was closer to Ranger than I could ever hope to be. But you,” he paused, an unnameable emotion crossing his features for a split second. “With you everything changed.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, sitting up a little straighter. He’d said ‘changed’, as in past tense; not pertaining directly to the current event? I was so confused.
“They both love you,” Tank informed me, which pretty much blew my mind. We’re talking wide eyed, open mouthed, gobsmacked silence here.
I’m sure he left three-quarters of that statement out. Like, ‘They both love you in different ways but it hurt them both equally as much when you left.’ Or, ‘They both love you in blue and wish you’d wear your hair out more often.’ Okay, so that last one might be a bit of a stretch (especially since my hair was short now and I wore it out about ninety percent of the time), but still, the point is, I was missing a truck load of details here.
“Close your mouth, you’ll catch flies,” Tank admonished using his free hand to reach across the island and gently push my jaw up. “You act like you’ve never been the common vertex of a love triangle before.” He was smiling, which let me know he was making a joke at my expense, but his wording sent me from Confused Town all the way to the Metropolis of I-should-have-paid-more-attention-in-school City. And it must have showed on my face. “Vertex is a math term used to denote corners of a polygon.”
“And polygons are shapes, right?” I asked. It’s hard to keep up with him when he pulls our the technical terminology like this.
“Sure,” he agreed, putting the spoon aside and dumping a packet of noodles into the wok. “Get the bowls?” he requested with a nod to the cupboard.
“Tell me what you mean,” I countered, arms crossed over my chest in defiance.
“I could just get them myself,” Tank pointed out. “It’s really not my place to say, anyway.”
“No, you’re going to finish this. You’ve already said too much,” I said, hopping off my stool to grab two deep bowls from the cupboard. “Ranger and Lester both love me how?”
He sent me an indulgent look as he crossed to the oven just in time for the timer to go off. “The usual way a man loves a woman, I suppose,” he said with a shrug. “They both wanted to lay claim to you. After that first decorating job, Lester announced quite emphatically that you were the one; the girl he was going to settle down for and marry.”
“But he... I...,” I tried to interrupt, but I just couldn’t find the words to articulate the thoughts in my head.
“But he never asked you out? You were never given any indication of his feelings beyond the crude flirting he’s maintained for years?” Tank guessed. I could only nod affirmatively. “That’s because Ranger said no.”
“He what?!” I screeched, glad I had already placed the plate I’d been retrieving for the spring rolls on the bench, otherwise it would have smashed against – the floor... the wall... Tank’s head... – something.
“He told Lester he couldn’t pursue you,” Tank clarified, transferring the spring rolls from the oven tray to the plate. “He said it was a, quote-unquote, ‘conflict of interests’.”
he... just...” I struggled to find words to express both how I felt and what I
wanted to say. “What made him think he had the right to do something like
that?” I eventually asked, pacing the length of the island bench. “And
furthermore why would Lester take that shit? Cousins or not, who does that to
someone? God-fucking damnit!” Now I REALLY wanted to smash something, and if my
wrist wasn't still slightly tender I probably would have punch the wall.
“Why would you tell me that?” I demanded of Tank.
“You asked.” He seemed content to let me stew this through, calm as a cucumber. Bastard.
“Yeah...but...You're not supposed to dump it on me like that! You're supposed to ... you're supposed to … I don't know.” I plopped back down on a bar stool, energy gone. Suddenly I felt hollow. Like really, gut-wrenchingly hollow. Like a black-hole had formed in the pit of my stomach and had sucked everything, and the kitchen sink, out. “Lester loved me. And Ranger forbade it. And Lester listened to him. Fuck.”
I laughed. I couldn't help it. I laughed until it hurt, until I cried, until I couldn't breathe. Until Geraldine nudged my face and I realised that, somehow, I had landed on the floor.