Stunned silence followed Lester’s words. Everyone was
looking either at me or at the screen where the image of Sera and I was still
displayed. I didn’t know where to look. I wanted to look at the others, to see
if I could figure out how they felt about this new information, having been
betrayed for far longer than any of us had originally thought, but there were
too many of them for me to be able to focus for any length of time. That, and I
was struggling with what to think of what I’d believed to be my friendship with
Sera. Was she really my friend? Or was she just a tool Ranger had been using to
manipulate me? For the longest time I stared at my hands trying to remember if
it was my idea or hers to go into town the day I ran into Tank – whom had also
betrayed my trust by proving to be nothing more than Ranger’s lackey… I
shouldn’t have been surprised on that front, Tank always sides with Ranger, no
“Steph?” Bobby’s voice cut through my thoughts, fragmenting them into millions of tiny shards that seemed to scatter across all of time and space as I raised my eyes to meet his. Concern was so clearly written on his face that I had to wonder how long I’d been sitting there without saying anything. Surely they all expected me to go flying off the handle at uncovering this new layer of deceit, but after the day I’d had, I just couldn’t muster the energy. “Are you okay?”
I held his gaze for the longest time before finally finding words to explain how I felt. “I don’t know,” I finally said. It was far from a useful answer, but with all the new information that had been dumped in my lap today, it was the best I could do. “Sera was…” I couldn’t even define what Sera was to me, how vital she had been to me in the last five and a half years. Without her I probably would have kept to the outskirts of all social situations, and probably wouldn’t have grasped the Spanish language as quickly. She was the one that dragged me back into the land of the living after my breakdown over the realisation of what would have been the baby’s due date.
Suddenly, I couldn’t sit any longer. Before coming back just six weeks ago, Sera was the only living soul I had told about my miscarriage. Had she told Ranger? Did he already know about it before I told him this morning? But then, why would he just walk away?
Before I could work myself into a state, Lester was directly in front of me. His hands wrapped loosely around the tops of my arms, enough to stop my pacing actions, but not enough to make it feel like he was holding me there. I could get out of his hold any time I wanted, and that’s exactly what he wanted me to realise. He wasn’t forcing me to stay there. I would though.
“Talk to me?” Lester requested, holding my gaze more firmly than he held my arms.
“Sera was the only person I told about…” I stopped talking abruptly, aware that we were not alone. Hal and Eloise knew already, of course, but I didn’t want to just blurt it out and freak out the others. It didn’t seem fair to them. I now realised that I needed to tell them; that telling them would not make them treat me any different, but this was not the way to let them find out. “Ya know,” I said vaguely, hoping he would get what I was referring to without me being any more specific. “Until I came back.”
“Only person you told what?” Bobby asked from nearby, making me tense. I should have known I wouldn’t get away with being vague. “Steph, what happened six years ago that caused you to leave everything behind?”
They’d each asked me dozens of times in the last month and a half, and each time I’d steered the conversation in a different direction, evading the question at all costs. I couldn’t do that now. They’d helped me so much, not only today, but every day since I came back. No. Since I met them. I wasn’t going to push the question aside this time.
Turning so that I was facing the rest of the people occupying my new apartment and took a deep breath before explaining everything. There were a few mutters and clenching jaws, but no one walked out before I was finish this time, which I took as a good sign. Maybe it was their understanding nature that kept them in place, maybe it was the fact that they were further removed from the situation than Ranger, maybe it was the fact that I wasn’t as flustered as I was when speaking to Ranger this morning. My words came together better. Or maybe it was Lester’s constant presence behind me. He wasn’t touching, but I was pretty sure I could feel the comforting warmth radiating off his body.
“I was about to explain to Ranger that I now knew that there was no way the baby could have been anything but his when he stormed out of the office this morning,” I finished. “Sera was the first and only person I’d ever told until a few weeks ago. What if she told Ranger? I mean, clearly she came down to Mexico on his orders. Probably to keep him informed on every little thing I did. Seriously, Sera and I were practically joined at the hip after my break down. We did everything together. Sera could have given Ranger a daily run down of what I ate and how many times I went to the bathroom if she was paying enough attention. I can’t believe he would have done something like this!”
I was pacing again, the agitated energy refusing to leave my body any other way. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that things could go so drastically wrong once I returned to Trenton. I should have. But I didn’t. I realised now that keeping the truth from my family and friends back then didn’t help anyone. Not me. Not the baby I lost. Not Ranger. Not the Merry Men. Not my parents. I should have swallowed my pride and, at the very least, told Ranger. We could have gotten through it together. But instead, I’d buried it all down deep and let it eat at me night and day until I couldn’t take it anymore and ran away, where the events I’d been trying to escape had haunted me often enough anyway.
And he’d probably known most of that time anyway!
“Something doesn’t seem right,” Lester said. He was leant against the island bench, his brow creased in a frown as he stared at the picture still projected on the wall.
“What?” I asked. The tenuous grip I’d had on my sanity all day was slipping fast, I felt like I was hanging off a cliff, scrambling for a hand hold so I didn’t fall. Lester’s words were akin to a hand reaching over the edge to grasp my wrist, steadying me. A life line. Surely he had a solution to all this.
“I’ve known Sera her whole life,” Lester explained. “Granted, I’m not as close to her as Ranger is, but spending almost six years down in Mexico to keep track of a person just because Ranger asked her, or told her, just doesn’t seem like something she’d do. Besides, Uncle Frio is down there anyway. Why not get him to keep tabs on you? Or at the very least get Uncle Frio to get someone to keep tabs on you. Why risk sending in his twenty-one year old cousin on the off chance that she might be able to befriend you and stick to you like glue?”
“What are you saying?” I asked, not entirely following his explanation. Blame it on my emotional – and physical – exhaustion.
“I’m saying,” Lester said slowly. “That perhaps we should get more information before jumping to conclusions.”
My shoulders slumped, all the hope I hadn’t realised I’d allowed to build up from the moment Lester interrupted my pacing rushing out of me. “How are we supposed to do that?” I asked, dropping down onto the sofa cushion I’d occupied before my entire world had be flipped upside down for what must have been the thousandth time in the last few weeks. “I’m pretty sure Ranger isn’t in the mood for talking to me.”
“You don’t have to talk to Ranger just yet,” Ashley surprised me by piping up. I’m ashamed to say I’d pretty much forgotten she and Eloise were here. If the Merry Men were removed from the situation, they were so far distanced that they appeared as tiny specs on the horizon. At least that’s what I thought, but as I stared at her, trying to work out where her teacher mind had taken her, I realised that they weren’t as far from the situation as I’d originally believed. Whether I liked it or not, my situation affected the men and how they went about their daily life, which meant that Ashley and Eloise, and even Richie and Julian, were affected by my life and the decisions I made. Everything I did, or said has consequences.
“What do you mean?” I finally asked.
“Sera,” she said simply. “You talk to Sera.”
I frowned at her, not seeing the logic. “How is that useful?”
To her credit, Ash did not seem exasperated or annoyed at my lack of comprehension at all. Her tone was even when she explained, “You said Sera was your best friend down in Mexico. That means you trusted her. Clearly you did, or you wouldn’t have divulged such a painful secret to her. So why not just ask her if the reason she came to Mexico – to the specific volunteer camp that you were at – was because Ranger asked her to, and if so, what were her instructions?” She paused, letting the idea sink in for a moment before continuing. “You trust her to tell the truth, don’t you? She’d know how important it is to you that she be honest.”
Unable to unstick my tongue from the roof of my mouth where it had lodged itself at the thought of talking to Ranger after this morning’s less than stellar conversation results, I simply nodded.
“I’m dialling,” Lester announced from behind the couch. Now he was pacing. “We’ll get to the bottom of this one way or another.”
“Okay,” I managed to squeak out.
Honestly, the whole situation had spiralled dramatically out of control since I arrived back in Trenton. My life had been so predictable down in Mexico, nothing out of the ordinary ever really happened to me or around me. But I wasn’t sure I regretted coming back. On the one hand, my life had turned into one big ball of stress and drama, but on the other, I’d reconnected with my friends and soon, would reconnect with my family as well, and I wasn’t sure I could give them up again. I wasn’t sure how I’d ever convinced myself to give them up in the first place.
I pulled my feet up onto the sofa, hugging my knees to my chest while Lester continued to pace behind me. The others still hadn’t moved, but I could see how tense the men were, and the way Ash and Eloise were exchanging glances.
“Seraphina!” Lester exclaimed into the phone after just a few moments. “Glad I caught you. I didn’t wake you did I? How’ve you been? Listen I have a few questions to ask you.” He didn’t give her enough time to respond between questions and statements before charging on, clearly as anxious as I was to get everything out in the open. “It’s about why you decided to go travelling. Mexico, right?” He paused. “Right. There isn’t any chance that Carlos influenced your decision, is there?” Another pause. “You’re sure? It’s just that I have my friend Steph here, you remember Steph, right?... Uh huh, that one. I have reason to believe that you’re quite familiar with her yourself,” he said. “You’re absolutely certain Carlos didn’t put you up to this?”
The tension in the apartment waiting for Lester’s reaction to Sera’s response was absolutely stifling. I turned on the sofa just in time to see his eyebrows rise up his forehead.
“What?” I questioned urgently. “What did she say? Was it Ranger’s idea? Tell me!”
Tilting the phone away from his face he explained, “She’s adamant that Ranger did not ask her to go down to Mexico and find you. She says he was actually annoyed with her when he found out.”
“But…” I said. But I wasn’t really sure where it was leading. “If it wasn’t Ranger’s idea, then… what…? How?”
Lester got a look on his face like he was concentrating on listening to something we couldn’t hear – like Sera’s voice down the line. “Hang on, Sera,” he said. “I’ll put you on speaker.” He pulled the phone away from his face and touched the screen. “You still there?” he asked.
“Still here,” she confirmed. “But just so I know, how many people am I talking to?”
“A fair few,” I informed her. “Me, Les, Bobby, Hal, Hank, Cal, Hector, Ash and Eloise.”
“Okay,” she said, but didn’t delve into any kind of explanation.
Lester moved around the sofa to plonk down beside me. “What were you saying about emails?” he asked.
“I got an email from my Papa about four months after you apparently went missing,” she began, clearly speaking to me and ignoring the others. “He’d spotted you while tracking his target. Everyone in the family already knew of your disappearance, thanks to Lester, so he took a few photos and asked for the picture Lester had circulated a few years earlier to make sure before saying anything. He sent the photos to me and I took them to Carlos, thinking he’d drop everything and go down to bring you back. But he didn’t. I don’t know why, or if he ever planned to come get you. He wouldn’t speak to me any more after I visited him that first day. So I decided to take matters into my own hands. I came down and I met you – I’d always wanted to meet you anyway. Papa, who was still watching you, noticed my presence and contacted both me and Carlos about what the plan was and if his assistance was needed. And found out that Carlos had no plan. Carlos didn’t even know I’d gone down.”
There was a short moment while she apparently collected her thoughts to continue. I was thankful, as it gave me some time to catch up mentally.
“So Ranger was pestering me to leave you alone, that he’d deal with it in his own time with his own plan, or whatever he means when he just grits my name out. When I refused, I half expected him to come down and drag us both back. But he didn’t. In fact, I managed to convince him to let me be his informant. He’d allow me to stay if I fed bits of information about how you were doing. Things were pretty okay for a bit, and he was even planning on coming down to speak to you and see if he could finally figure out what happened. But then you had your break down and I knew you needed more time. I told him not to come.”
I didn’t get to finish voicing my concerns before she cut right of across me. “Of course I didn’t tell him about it. You told me that in confidence.”
“So Ranger was waiting for your word to try convince me to come back?” I asked.
“Hell no,” she exclaimed, causing the phone line to crackle at the volume. “My cousin needs to learn a lesson in letting people work on their own schedules, not his.”
“He gave Steph six years,” Hank pointed out, leaning closer. “It appears that he was at least trying to let he decide when she was ready to come back.”
“That’s not how Ranger works and you know it,” Bobby scolded. “He was waiting for a convenient opportunity.”
“Tank was down in Mexico on a mission,” I agreed.
Silence filled the room as we all let that sink in. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Ranger had known my location since almost the beginning. But the problem was, for me at least, I was starting to think about how much of the blame was actually mine. I’d been so busy being angry at Ranger for walking away before I finished explaining, but I should have told him all of it six years ago. He’s had six years to let this open wound fester, probably only hindered by constant, superficial updates from his cousin. Learning the reason I left had been equivalent to a rapid moving, flesh eating parasite in that wound I’d caused. He’d been unable to handle a single moment more.
But on the other hand, he manipulated me into coming back and every other thing that had happened since. This situation was just impossible.
“So, is it alright if I come visit? I’m actually heading back to the States on Monday.”
“I’d love to see you,” I assured her. “Just tell me one more thing,” I requested. “You didn’t get tips from Ranger on how to make sure I accepted you as my friend, did you?”
“Our friendship is one hundred percent genuine,” she stated firmly. “You’d already accepted me before Ranger even knew.”
Exhaustion finally overcame me as Lester hung up and tossed his phone on the coffee table. I collapsed backwards, hanging my head over the arm of the sofa and letting out a long, low sound that reminded me of a wounded cow. It definitely was not attractive, but I didn’t care anymore. My brain had been overloaded with a multitude of twisted, complicated events today. I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to turn my thoughts off and get to sleep, but I definitely needed to.
“We should go so you can get some sleep,” Hank announced, obviously reading my thoughts – unless I really had taken up the habit of thinking aloud again. They all murmured their agreement and began to stand, Hank unplugging the projector in order to take it with him.
I panicked, sitting up abruptly. I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts. I didn’t want to be alone in a new apartment I hadn’t fully explored. I didn’t want to be alone if I suddenly decided that I couldn’t deal with how complicated my life had become and had the urge to run away. I couldn’t do it again.
“Do you all have to go?” I asked.
The guys looked around at each other, silently deciding who would call first shift.
“I can stay if you like,” Lester finally said.