“What do you mean, you know who it is?” Cat sounded less than thrilled at Sarah’s little revelation.
Under my bed, in the dark, and with burglars making no secret of their invasion, we still felt the need to whisper.
“I know who’s at the door!” Sarah whimpered pathetically. “I know what they want!”
“Well, do pray tell!” Irritated, Cat tucked her sleek, black bob behind both ears to better see the look of fear shining from Sarah’s doe-brown eyes. The light from my monitor dimmed slightly as my computer prepared to sleep, but the shadow of worry was still visible on their faces.
Rather than explaining, Sarah found herself lost in personal hysteria. She began to babble, letting her voice rise with each new partial thought. “It’s only been a month. I thought it would take longer… I never thought they’d actually come here! I mean, how do they even know where I live?”
“Are you asking us?” Cat hissed.
“This is such a bad idea, Laura!” Sarah was crying now, tears streaming between the freckles on her face. “They’ll find us under here, for sure!” she squeaked. “And the police won’t make it in time, and I’ll never see twenty five, and it was only a small loan!”
“Be quiet!” I hushed her to better hear what was happening with the front door. It seemed to be holding strong, but there was a strange scraping now. They weren’t giving up, and Sarah wasn’t far from the mark in saying I’d turned us into sitting ducks. “You’re right, this is bad.”
I clambered out from under the bed, gesturing for them to follow. “We need to find weapons. Come on!”
Sarah crawled out after me; Cat trailed behind with a scowl.
“A small loan?” she thought aloud, trying to piece things together.
We skirted through the apartment like hit-men, looking for anything to use against our possible assailants. You’d think, being in New York, where break-in’s were a commonplace occurrence, that we at least had a baseball bat – but we didn’t. And we didn’t have a gun, or mace, or anything useful, except for Sarah’s chef knives.
“We can’t use those!” she told us. “They cost me two thousand dollars!”
“And your life isn’t worth that much?” Cat nearly yelled, grabbing for one.
“Don’t use the Santuko. It’s my favorite…” Sarah clearly had her priorities confused. She took the knife from Cat and wiped it down before handing back another with a serrated edge. “Better for fighting,” she stated, matter of fact.
Three heads whipped toward the door when the scraping became a shrill sound, adding to the horror of the moment. I envisioned our intruders with little metal tools, trying to pick the lock. But that was stupid. We had a deadbolt…
Adrenaline coursed frantically through my veins. Both Cat and Sarah looked as though they could each lift and toss a small car, yet none of us were using our energies to our benefit. As the strain intensified, we started turning on one another.
“This is not happening.” Cat swept passed me on her way into the living room where she picked up a poker and tested its weight in her hand. Now with two weapons, she looked a lot like an anime warrior. The only things missing were a set of leather knife sheaths strapped to each of her thighs. “Who are these people? What do they even want?”
A very shaky Sarah, looking pathetic and useless, paced between the bar and sofa. “I don’t know who they are! But they want money. I owe them money…”
Cat paused, appalled at her childhood friend. “You owe money to people you’ve never met?”
"Basically?" Cat screeched at high volume, not a concern in the world for the fact that loan sharks were listening to us fall apart in here. “How much?”
You could almost see Sarah crumble from the inside out as she hunched over the couch, defeated. Her voice was a whisper, barely audible. “Thirty?”
“Thirty.” Cat’s deadpan expression was on point. Shock must have been setting in. “Thirty what?”
It was a feeble hope that Sarah owed the guys thirty bucks, or even thirty lap-dances. But I knew it was worse than that.
“Thirty thousand…” Sarah whimpered the two simple words that might be her detriment, because if the guys outside didn’t eventually break in and shoot her in the head, Cat would probably bludgeon her with the poker.
Barely able to bite out the words, Cat asked tightly, “Thirty… thousand…?” The look on her pinched face was clear – she was hoping to wake from a nightmare at any second. We all were.
The scrape at the door turned into gentle pounding. It interrupted Cat’s sleuthing before she could discover what Sarah had bought with that much money. Then the sound stopped.
“Did they…?” I moved toward the door and saw why the scraping had paused and why it was about to get much louder.
Cat was the only one of us not confused. “That’s a saw…” She took a step back.
The intruders were working ingeniously, sliding a small electric jig saw between the door and the frame just above the deadbolt. We could see the jagged metal. For one extended moment, where we each just stood staring at it and wondering how much longer we had before they would be inside, it was silent. Too silent. And then the nerve-rattling shriek of metal on metal sounded through the air. Silver dust wafted to the ground.
“HOLY CRAP!” That was Catrina, circling the living room like a caged animal and whispering frantically. “What are we supposed to do?”
“I don’t know!” I told her, searching through a kitchen drawer for the hammer we’d bought when we moved in. It was the only thing I could think of, and time was running out. “Like I’ve ever done this! You two are the ones from the wrong side of the tracks! You tell me!”
Sarah wrung her hands and streaked from the room. When she returned, it was with a can of aerosol hair spray. “Would this be good?”
At this point, I was beyond pissed at the girl. My retort came out angry and rude. More rude than usual. “Maybe,” I told her. “Have you ever huffed that brand before?”
“That’s not funny!” Sarah pulled off the plastic lid, cracking it in the process. She threw it aside and sprayed the air between us in demonstration. “If I get it in their eyes, it’ll blind them!”
Fuming, Cat walked back and forth, psyching herself up for a fight – and not with our visitors. “Just because we didn’t have chaffers growing up, does not mean we came from the wrong side of the tracks,” she told me.
“What?” Between the mix of pens, and notepads, and other miscellaneous crap, my hand finally closed around the smooth wooden handle of a hammer. I pulled it out and quickly slammed the drawer. “You two grew up in the South Bronx!”
“So?” Cat stopped her pacing to glare at me. “That doesn’t mean I know what the hell to do right now!” To Sarah, she said, “Get some matches. Hairspray? Matches?”
“Oh, right!” Sarah scuttled frantically into the kitchen.
Cat went back to yelling at me and shaking her poker in my general direction. “You are so fucking judgmental, Laura! Just because we grew up with crime doesn’t make us criminals!”
I met Cat in the living room. “Just because I grew up with money doesn’t make it my fault you had a bad childhood!” I nearly yelled. “And I’m not judging! I’m being honest!”
Cat clenched her teeth together. “Honesty isn’t always the best policy.”
A saw was currently chipping away at the one thing keeping thugs from getting in and tearing off our arms as a ‘warning’. Yet, Cat and I were having a heart to heart. Of course, this might be the only chance we got to finally talk about the issues we’d so far swept under the carpet.
“Look, I’m sorry!” I told her, checking out the back window, looking for police lights in the grid of littered streets. “I’m a bitch with money – you’re a hood rat with grit.”
“Fuck you, Laura!”
With an eight inch lighter used for lighting fireplaces, Sarah came skidding into the living space, begging for us to shut up and concentrate on fighting for our lives. “I couldn’t find any matches,” she whimpered. “Just this!”
The saw had cut nearly to the end of the deadbolt. Only a sliver of metal remained.
Still, I continued to make my case. “Growing up all coddled and shit isn’t always a good thing!”
Cat didn’t believe me. She rolled her eyes. “Really? Oh, poor you! All those catered dinners and unlimited shopping sprees!”
Sarah pulled the trigger on the lighter several times before shaking the worthless thing and shouting in frustration. “Frick, Frick, Fucking Shit!” Except for the fact that her expletives sounded like a naughty rendition of a Dr. Seuss book, her interruption went unnoticed.
“I’m serious!” I seethed, whispering as best I could under the stress of fear and anger. “I had money, but no friends! I had stuff, and an easy life, but no mother! You had nothing except for everything that I wanted!” I admitted.
There was a short moment of silence during which the sound of a ringing phone could be heard coming from my bedroom - likely the 911 operator following protocol after being forgotten. As the ringing continued, the last thread of the bolt gave away. The door crashed open with the kick of a large boot, the chain left dangling uselessly. And two very rough men were revealed, one a burly body-builder, the other a very skinny apprentice. The latter looked to have traded waiting tables for a more exciting profession.
Sarah retreated until her back met with the fireplace; Cat tilted up her chin in insolence as the men came toward us. “Who the fuck are you?” she asked.
The burly man laughed. Apparently, he and his little friend weren’t afraid of being identified. Neither were wearing masks. “Who the fuck are you?” he retorted in a gravelly voice.
“I’m sorry,” Sarah slid between us, making herself a human sacrifice of sorts. “I have your money – it’s just not here.”
“Well then...” The skinny one stepped forward to take over. “We’ll just have to break your legs.”
“Smart.” The burly dude smacked the smaller one in the chest, causing him to double over. “How will she get us the money if she can’t walk? Just shut the hell up and watch,” he commanded.
All of us obeyed.
“Marcus is waiting,” he explained, stepping closer to grab Sarah by the hair. “And Marcus hates waiting. You were supposed to pay up a week ago, and you’ve been avoiding us. So now the debt is tripled.”
By way of salvation, the sound of sirens came up between buildings – the former annoyance was a ringing of hope and joy.
“That’s for you,” Cat told the man bravely. She really was a hardened bitch from the hood.
Burly guy glanced at his nervous accomplice before he practically chucked Sarah across the room where she landed with a crash against a lamp in the corner. “Three days.”
“And then what?” I couldn’t help but asking.
He turned on me then, stalking heavily forward, gripping me by the neck with one large hand. His fingers reached clear around to squeeze my windpipe. I was scared not to be able to breath, but grateful to be spared his rancid scent of drugstore aftershave and cigar smoke. “And then?” he said.
“Yeah?” I mouthed sarcastically.
For a second, I imagined he might snap my neck the way he was glaring.
But then he laughed. “And then I won’t keep psycho here from breaking whatever the fuck he wants.”
I was tossed aside rather hastily as he and his buddy turned toward the front door – I caught myself from falling and gasped a relieved breath of much-needed air.
From the hallway, all of us heard the same thing. The ding of the elevator opening. In five quick seconds, our intruders would find themselves handcuffed, and Sarah would be explaining her lifestyle.
Sadly, that’s not at all what happened. Before us girls could head for cover, three shots were fired, all from the novice cop-in-training. His senior officer hit the deck, and the two thugs broke through our front window and scrambled down the fire-escape.
“Is anyone injured?” Officer Tag hefted his excessive weight off the floor and glared at his aid.
“Not physically.” Cat was watching Sarah try and right the lamp.
“Fire escape?” Internally, I was bawling. How could we have missed such an obvious solution?
“Who made the call?” Tag wanted to know as he checked a slip of paper, probably a printout from his cruiser.
“That was me,” I offered, setting down the hammer and trying not to crack the coffee table in the process. We had enough problems.
“And me.” Cat was still staring out the shattered window.
Officer Tag pulled out a pen as though we were doing an interview.
“They’re getting away!” I gestured to the window, but nobody seemed to give a shit.
“They’re gone,” Cat whispered.
“Gone,” the aid affirmed.
It wasn’t entirely unbelievable that two cops, one of them seasoned, wouldn’t try and follow the perpetrators down ten stories of a fire escape. That was only shit you saw in movies. Around here, people either accepted the crime rate, or moved.
We went through the song and dance of answering questions. Of course, most of our responses were vague or flat-out lies. Yes, the guys were wearing masks; no, we didn’t know who they were or what they wanted... I didn’t need to have lived in the ghetto to understand the dangers of ratting out the mafia, and Sarah didn’t need to have grown up in high society to understand the dangers of admitting her illegal banking expedition.
By the time the cops left, it was four in the morning. Our door wouldn’t lock, and we had to fashion a cover for the window, but there was little chance the thugs would ever return. We had three days, after all. Three whole days...
“I’ll call the landlord later,” Sarah offered, as though that would fix everything. Each of us took up a place on the sectional sofa, exhaustion etched into our faces.
Usually, it was just me who didn’t agree with Sarah’s ways. But now, after a life-threatening experience, even Catrina was pissed. “Explain,” she said.
Sarah took a deep breath and told us how she’d thought the coke would help her work longer, thus creating a larger income. But the drug was expensive. “The first few times I tried it, it was a tip from this guy – Marcus - a regular customer. It helped me get through my shifts, and I had so much energy, I was getting better tips! I thought it could be a solution, that if I made enough extra money, I could start to save up for school. But cocaine is expensive, and by the time I realized that fact, I was hooked. So, the next time Marcus came in, he convinced me to sell the stuff. He said that I would make enough extra money, even on top of using, that I could put some away. And the girls at the club are all doing it, anyhow...” She shrugged off the justification. “So, he gave me some to sell - about thirty thousand worth - but I ended up using it all!” she finished on an exclamation.
I couldn’t believe my ears. “You used thirty grand worth of cocaine? How long ago did he give it to you?”
“Three weeks ago,” she answered. Then Sarah did something completely out of character but perfect for the moment. Crying, she crumbled before us, pulling herself into a tight ball in the corner of the sofa.
The pressure had gotten to us all. I was starting to feel empathy for cat’s friend. My friend.
Catrina slid to Sarah’s side of the couch and gave her a hug. “It’s okay, sweetie. We’ll figure this out.”
But Sarah had lost all hope. “Ninety thousand!” she cried.
Cat echoed herself, glancing in my direction. “We’ll figure this out.”
“Oh, no.” I finally got her meaning and stood up suddenly. I paced the living room, now filled with the stench of cops and robbers. “I don’t have ninety grand! Dad only gives me fifty a month!”
The words were out before I could think twice. I tried retracting them at the looks on both my roommate’s faces. “I just mean that it’s mostly gone as soon as I get it! I pay rent and utilities. I spend two thousand each month on coffee alone! Another five on fast food...”
“You spend fifty thousand dollars each month?” Cat asked, appalled.
“No wonder all you do is play that stupid game!” She got up from the couch and went into the kitchen where she started to boil water for tea. Hopefully decaf.
“Would your dad give you an advance?” Sarah asked while wiping at her puffy eyes.
“Yeah,” Cat laughed. “On your allowance?”
“Ha ha.” Would he, I wondered? “I don’t know.” To Sarah, I said, “So now you want my money?”
“She wants to live,” Cat said simply.
A legitimate concern.
At the stroke of six am, when we’d come up with the solid game plan to beg and plead for my father’s sympathy, as well as his money, I dragged myself to my bedroom. Sitting on my messy desk was a darkened monitor. I wondered if Smith was asleep. But I was certain I’d worried him. He deserved a note of explanation – or at least a partial explanation. No way in hell would I give all the ridiculous details. Then he’d know what a disaster of a life I was living.
Being so tired and out of it, I didn’t think through the logistics of not being able to communicate across realms. I simply signed onto the game – the motions were second nature now - and noticed the little mail icon, calling out to me.
The note was from Smith’s level one warrior alt, asking if I was alive, because how was he gonna go on without my tremendous healing ability?
Apparently, he thought my explanation of a break-in was a joke.
I started my scathing retort when-
[Smithlol2] Hey. You okay? I’m assuming yes if you’re on…
[Healslater] Yeah, I’m fine. Just a random burglary in New York.
Did I just tell an online stranger where I lived? Oh well, it was a big city. Big and dangerous.
[Smithlol2] Shit – what happened? You’re not hurt, right?
For the next twenty minutes Smith tried to calm my nerves. It was a nice gesture coming from the guy who’d once called me a bitch. In turn, I tried to soothe his. I told him about the break-in, that the guys wanted money, the cops showed up, and that my roommates and I had bonded over the experience. All truth.
[Healslater] It’s really not a big deal. The landlord will fix our door tomorrow.
[Smithlol2] What’s wrong with your door?
[Healslater] They broke in. They sawed through the deadbolt.
I wrote the sentence like it was something that happened every day, and maybe it did, how would I know?
[Smithlol2] That sounds pretty serious.
[Healslater] It’s not. I’m fine. You waited? Online? This whole time?
[Smithlol2] On and off. I was worried…
[Healslater] That’s weird. But nice…
[Healslater] Because you don’t even know me.
[Smithlol2] I know some things about you…
[Smithlol2] Like how you never quit? Like how you’re not afraid to stand up for yourself. Two very dangerous qualities to have during a robbery.
[Healslater] lol – Yeah, I guess.
[Smithlol2] I wasn’t sure if you were gonna try and be a hero and get yourself shot. So, I just sat here listening to music and hoping you wouldn’t end up on the morning news.
[Healslater] Might still be on the news…
[Smithlol2] Heh – I’m just glad you weren’t hurt.
[Healslater] Me too.
[Smithlol2] Or abducted, or something.
[Healslater] Or that… Thanks for the seed of fear, though…
[Smithlol2] lol – Sorry…
I got a very clear and heartwarming picture in my head of some guy sitting up in bed, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. Staring at his laptop with a look of worry across his face. Only my father had ever worried about me.
[Healslater] What music are you listening to?
[Smithlol2] Dragpipe. You heard of ’em?
[Healslater2] No. Is that skaw?
[Smithlol2] Skaw? What?
[Healslater2] Isn’t a drag pipe something skaters use? And don’t they all listen to Skaw?
[Smithlol2] Maybe in the 90’s.
We continued to toss comical banter back and forth. By the time we sighed off, he didn’t seem at all concerned that he would have an entire two hours before the workday started. Maybe he worked unconventional hours? I was making a list of chores in my head including a shift at the bookstore and an uncomfortable call to my dad... Not really looking forward to either.
[Smithlol] Alright, I’ll let you go. But seriously, you have to listen to Dragpipe, okay? Fountain of Pain. The lyrics don’t make a lot of sense, but the music will make you high.
The claim was a pretty big one, and also very true. As I slipped under the covers, with the sun sending a ribbon of pink to sweep across my room, it was with my headphones streaming a very hypnotic bass line to counter my trepidation. Tomorrow - today - was going to be a bitch.