By the time six o’clock rolled around the evening, I had a
functional apartment. Apparently, when it became evident that I would not be
returning to Trenton Ranger had charged the core team with packing up what
remained of my belongings and sending them either to my family to do with as
they wished, or to the good will store to help someone else out. In a subtle
act of defiance, they had elected, instead, to store the items in a shipping
container on a block of land they jointly owned just outside of town. On the
off chance that I did return, they
informed me, they didn’t want me to be without furniture in whatever dwelling I
chose to live in. It was really very sweet, and I found it hard to speak to
thank them due to the lump that had formed in my throat.
While Bobby (having been called to the office that morning to deal with the broken nose I’d inflicted on Tank and then contacted by Lester with the news that a moving crew was required) left to retrieve the salvaged pieces of furniture, Lester sent Hal and Cal on a secret mission and dragged me out to haul my few belongings from the spare bedroom at Tank’s house. I opted to leave the white rental car there, though, not feeling right about driving it when I was so angry at the man who’d hired it out for me.
When we arrived back at the apartment building, Hank and Hector were there to unload everything from the back of the SUV for us. I wasn’t even allowed to lift the document box containing the precious items I’d received on my last volunteer placement out of the back. I had to stand there and watch as the men did everything for me. And then I wasn’t even allowed to follow them upstairs to my apartment. When I complained, Lester threw an arm over my shoulders and lead me out of the lobby and back out to the waiting SUV.
“You promised that if I found you a decent apartment and lugged all the boxes in you’d go through all your Mexico memories with me,” he reminded me, opening the passenger side door for me to climb in. “Part one: find a decent apartment, is complete. Part two: Lug boxes, will be as well, just as soon as you lead me to storage unit that contains them.”
“I’ve never been there,” I confessed. “I picked a storage company at random over the internet and mailed the boxes there after each placement ended.”
“Well then, give me the name and we’ll find it together, adventure style,” he suggested, shutting my door and striding around to climb in on the other side.
It took him no time at all to locate the storage facility and a remarkably short time to stack all the boxes in the back of the SUV. Before I knew it we were back at the apartment building and I was watching the men carry boxes up the stairs in a line - they reminded me of ants, always following the same path – while I stood guard at the car, making sure no one came along and stole any of my stuff.
Finally, the last box was retrieved and the SUV parked in an actual space, rather than right by the door in the loading zone and I was allowed upstairs. Lester stood behind me as we reached the sixth floor and started down the hallway to my new abode. Just when I was about to push the door open he clasped his large, warm hands over my eyes. I started to protest, but his voice cut me off.
“You have to promise not to be mad,” he informed me. “What you see in there is because we love you and don’t want you to leave again, and we also don’t want you to live in poverty like you did before.”
“I can’t make that promise,” I said flatly, a knot forming in my stomach as I thought of what I might find on the other side of that door. What could that possible have done?
“Then you can’t go in,” Bobby said firmly. “That apartment and everything inside is our gift to you and if you can’t accept it as that you can’t have it. We’ll use it as our man cave.”
I sighed, admitting defeat. “Okay, I promise.” What could it hurt to let a bunch of big burly men show their affection by giving me things? Besides, I’d find a way to repay them all in the future.
Lester guided me into my apartment and waited until the men had filed in behind us before reminding me of the promise I’d made out in the hall and removing his hands from my face. There was a moment where I couldn’t see anything, the sudden light hitting my eyes blinding me, but after a few rapid blinks I managed to peer through the left over haze at my surroundings. Where this morning there had been a large empty space with sterile white walls and a stark, curtainless view of the outside world, now I could hardly muster up the feel of the apartment when it was empty.
It feels like home now. It feels gentle and calming, and I don’t even mind the colours they picked.
The walls are still white, but broken up by colourful frames that are yet to be filled. I can still see the outside world clearly through the tall windows, but they’re bordered by soft grey curtains, matching the main colour in the large area rug I stand on. I take a step away from the cluster of men to see the room properly and my eyes land on the bed. They’d said they had saved my original bed for me and I’d assumed that meant that that would be what I found in the apartment. But this stunning piece of dark wood furniture with the padded turquoise bed head was not the bed I’d had before leaving for Mexico. My bed was pale and scarred and overall quite ugly.
I looked to the men for answers, allowing them to read my mind like they always seemed to be able to rather than voice my questions aloud.
“The bedding is new,” Hal supplied, glancing over the colourful duvet cover that spread across the majority of the bed.
“So is the mattress,” Cal added with a shrug. “There was a leak in the shipping container a couple of years back and the old one got mouldy and gross, so we chucked it.”
They weren’t answering my actual question, so I had to find my voice. “That’s not my bed frame,” I said firmly. “Or my bed head. Did you really think I wouldn’t notice?”
“You promised you wouldn’t get mad,” Lester reminded me. “And that is your bed frame and head. We said we saved it for you, but we didn’t tell you that we actually fixed a lot of it up. Like the bed. And the coffee table. And Cal reupholstered the arm chair and sofa.”
“And who’s responsible for the colour scheme?” I asked gesturing to the bed spread and the frames on the wall and the rug. The only colours I could picture the men picking out where the grey and the wood, the rest seemed way too adventurous for them.
“I’d love to lay claim to it, but I’d probably have to sleep on the couch for the next week as punishment,” Bobby explained. “Ash was our go to for the refurbishment stage.”
“And she and Eloise did all the linen shopping and whatever today,” Hal added, quick to give his wife credit where credit was due.
I turned slowly on the spot, taking in the splashes of colour with a new appreciation. The women had obviously heard enough about me over the years to manage pulling off something that felt so comfortable to me without effort.
“Why aren’t they here so I can thank them?” I said, crossing my arms and glaring half heartedly at Bobby and Hal.
“We are!” two female voices rang out from behind me. The slight echoing suggested, even before I’d turned to see where they were, that they were in the bathroom. “The boys were just too impatient to let us finish putting up the shower curtain before they let you in.”
I sent another glare over my shoulder at the men in question as the women emerged from behind the door. They’d get their comeuppance for letting the woman work so tirelessly without acknowledgement.
“But it’s up now,” Ash announced, balling up a piece of plastic in her fist. “Time to order pizza.”
As if on cue, my stomach growled, reminding me that the only thing I’d eaten today was half of the McDonalds Ranger had provided me with this morning. Rather than dwell on what had happened to cause me not to eat the rest of it, I announced loudly that if we were ordering pizza it had to be from Pinos. And then Eloise and Ash dragged me away from the men under the guise of showing me how they’d organised my cupboards.
By the time the doorbell rang to announce the arrival of our food, both women had expressed their sympathies and outrage over the way Ranger had acted and assured me that if I needed to talk, they were only a phone call away. I thanked them whole heartedly for everything they’d done for me already, and even went so far as to hug them both before we rejoined the men in the living area.
The men had gathered all the sitting surfaces in the apartment around the coffee table where several pizzas had been laid out along with garlic bread and a few bottles of soda. They sat on dining chairs, and the arm chair that used to be in the corner of my bedroom, leaving the couch free for us women to occupy in comfort.
When the food was gone, everyone was still there, apparently not willing to end the gathering yet. I was about to ask what we were doing now, when Lester leaned his elbows on his knees and speared me with a look full of meaning I couldn’t interpret. “Show us your Mexico memories,” he said after a long pause. I’m sure he meant it as a request, but it sounded a little like a demand. I decided to let it go for now. I wasn’t ready for them to leave yet. If they left I’d start thinking about this morning and if I started thinking about this morning I’d start crying and likely never stop. Distraction was the best thing for it at the moment.
“I don’t want to make a mess of my new apartment by going through boxes tonight,” I started, standing from my place between Eloise and Ash. “But how about I grab my laptop and show you some of the photos?”
“Brilliant plan!” someone explained.
“I’ll go get the projector,” Hank announced, standing and making his way to the door. “That way we can all see it properly.”
So that’s how the men ended up sprawled across the floor, staring at the wall where my photos were being projected, asking me the most random questions they could think of about my time in Mexico. I got the feeling that this was the kind of ritual they had for after long missions away, except I knew that they couldn’t share most of the information pertaining to said missions, so I struck the thought from my mind and went with it.
I’d just skipped quickly over a picture of me and Sera covered in mud after a team building exercise during which it happened to rain, when Lester clasped a hand down on my forearm. He’d been sitting beside me on the couch since we’d decided to rearrange positions so that Ash and Eloise could sit with their husbands, but I’d almost forgotten he was there.
“What was that?” he asked curiously, though I could feel the tension radiating from his body. “Go back a slide.”
Casting an uncertain glance in his direction, I clicked the back button so that mud covered me and Sera were once again displayed larger than life on the wall. Lester’s eyebrows drew together as he scrutinised the photo, his lips thinning. His jaw clenched so much that a muscle jumped just under his skin.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
“That’s Sera,” I replied, unsure why it mattered. “She was my best friend down in Mexico.”
“Sera?” Bobby muttered under his breath. “Isn’t that the name of...”
“Short for Seraphina?” Lester questioned.
I removed my hands from the laptop, extracting my arm from his grasp at last. “Yes,” I said. “How did you know?”
“Because that’s my second cousin,” he said darkly. “Ranger’s favourite first cousin. She’s been off abroad for five and a half years. In Mexico, apparently.”
I stared at the screen for a long time, trying to see the family resemblance between Sera and Ranger.
“What does it mean?” I asked in a voice so quiet I could barely hear myself.
“It means that Ranger’s probably known where you were since he told us to stop looking.”