Opening my eyes the following afternoon was a little strange. I felt foggy after so little sleep, and the shock hadn’t yet worn off. At first, the night’s events felt like a bad dream. One of those nightmares about being chased into a dark alley or free-falling from a cliff. Or one where you make the dire, whimsical mistake of getting your boyfriend’s name tattooed to your boob. But then, despite the relentless yellow sunshine blazing across my room, reality set in to leave me feeling nervous and afraid.
My whole life I’d been protected, sheltered, spoiled… And now, not only were bad things happening, but I had the distinct feeling that darkness would increase before I saw any glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. It left a metallic taste in my mouth, similar to blood.
I stumbled from bed and trudged to the bathroom with a change of clothes. In the shower, I stood under the hot, steamy water for way too long trying to get rid of a headache now forming at the base of my neck from lack of caffeine. After a salt scrub to wake me up, I dried off and pulled on a pair of dark-wash jeans and a long, black cashmere sweater. Perhaps the avoidance of color was a reflection of my mood.
By the time I left the bathroom, it was nearing noon, and I couldn’t put off calling Dad any longer. He turned out to be in a meeting, so I was left to pace for twenty minutes in front of a slightly gaping front door before he called me back.
“Hey sweetie, what’s up?” Dad always got right to the point. His never wanting to waste precious time on sentiment was likely the reason for my apathy toward, well… everything.
“Hi Dad. Bad time?” I asked, matching his hurried tone.
“Well, we’re dealing with another merger today. Poor bastards never like being put out of work.” He didn’t sound all that sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Good ol’ Dad. “Is anything wrong?” he asked.
Now, I knew I couldn’t just tell him the truth. Doing so would evoke a measures of protection including a helicopter rescue that would leave Sarah and Cat on their own. I sighed, hoping a good lie would materialize. “Actually, I was hoping for an advance on my allowance.”
“Advance?” Dad sounded shocked. “Have I taught you nothing about financial management? And aren’t you living in the ghettos of New York these days? Should be fairly affordable.” His disdain for my living arrangements had never been much of a secret.
“Dad, I don’t live in the ghettos,” I answered while staring at my broken front window. “It’s inner city. And it’s expensive here.” When your roommate has a coke addiction.
“Mm hmmm,” he murmured. “Kid, I don’t know anyone who can spend money like you can. I just gave you a raise from twenty five to fifty because I could never swallow all that bullshit about not spoiling your children.”
I’d heard this beloved speech before. I loved this speech. “Yep.”
He continued. “But you decided you didn’t want to work for me here in California. You wanted to stay in New York after graduation. Get a taste of real life. Make your own way. And that’s fine. But me giving you six hundred grand a year isn’t really supporting your decision.”
No, no, no… This was not the direction I’d wanted this conversation to go. “Wait. Are you saying no to the advance?”
“Kid, I’m saying no to the advance,” he answered forlornly. “And I’m saying no to future funding of your little Disneyland ride. If you want to be on your own, you gotta be on your own. That means finding a job-”
“Actually,” I cut him off, “I did find a job.”
“Well, that’s a step in the right direction! Where?” he asked.
“Bookstore.” My headache was no longer threatening – it was worsening, letting me know I needed coffee bad.
Dad laughed. “One of the pions, huh?”
“Yeah, I’m not making much money yet. Can’t you just give me like two months worth and then take away my allowance? I’m in really hot water here!” I pleaded without any thought to personal pride.
“I don’t think so, sweetie. This’ll be good for you,” he tried convincing me before we got off the phone. “It’ll give you grit.”
Yeah, grit. That’s what I would have between my teeth in two more days, I thought, hanging up.
Sarah was still sleeping; her snoring could be heard from the kitchen where Cat had left me a note to call her at work. After dialing, I cradled my cell in the crook of my neck and fumbled through the fridge for our coffee canister which turned out to be empty.
“Hello?” Cat must have been sitting by the phone waiting for my call. It only took her half a ring to answer.
“Shit.” I slammed the canister back onto the shelf and closed the door to the fridge. “Why are we out of coffee?”
“I sold it to pay the loan sharks. It was high end stuff.”
“I would know,” I answered on a note of sarcasm. “I bought it.”
“So glad you’re finding this funny,” I growled.
“You talk to your dad, yet?”
“Yeah, you’re not gonna like this,” I sighed into the phone, closing my eyes against the throbbing behind them. “I kind of talked him out of giving me money at all, let alone early.”
“He cut you off?”
“He’s backing my decision to live in the real world,” I told her with the tone I usually reserve for children. “You know the one – that decision to move in with you and Sarah because I thought it would be fun.”
“Look, don’t be crabby with me, just because Daddy finally cut the pseudo umbilical cord,” she stated.
“What do we do now?” I asked.
After several terse moments, Cat sighed in reply, sounding exhausted. She had about as many ideas as me when it came to solving our dilemma.
Everything felt up in the air, with no possibility for resolution. Well, all but one thing. I knew for certain, if I didn’t get caffeine into my bloodstream, I’d be fending a migraine. So, as soon as we hung up, I stuffed my socked feet into a pair of black suede boots and donned my jacket. The last thing I grabbed before heading out was a pocket-sized, spiral notebook and a pen I could click while thinking of a plan to get a fake ID and move to Bangkok.
Outside, the sunshine was muffled by wisps of snow and a dense fog. The streets had been plowed, and I had to step over a foot-high bank of ice and gravel to reach the front doors of the coffee shop - which would normally be a problem - but today not even a security fence would have kept me from my fix. Inside, I stomped my feet and pulled my hood back. The room was fairly crowded, considering it was lunch time.
I ordered my usual twenty ounce, caramel, something or other, with an extra shot and found my way to an empty table against the wall. Somehow, even knowing my fate of a shattered rib cage in forty eight hours, I felt safe here in the coffee shop. The creaking, mismatched dinettes; the windows painted in holiday themes; the lack of overhead lighting during daylight... They were all viable comforts.
Mere minutes after my first sip, the headache began to ebb, leaving a little room for creative power. I opened my notepad and drew tulips on the top right corner, a little frog at the bottom. He was holding a leaf umbrella to fend off rainfall. If only my own solution could be so simple...
How serious was our predicament, I had to wonder. How powerful were Sarah’s new friends? Would they really hurt us if they didn’t get their money? Were they so devoid of morals that a debt justified murder? And if so, could we escape, or would they be able to track us down no matter where we went? I wasn’t even sure if I could go back to California, or if I would be endangering my father... During my reverie, I’d sketched out a poem:
The cloud presses downward, enveloping.
Dust and debris become chaos, desiring.
I stand and wait for the end, relenting.
Eyes closed; the rush of wind in my ears.
Mind closed; the thought of death, no fears.
“A bit morbid, are we?” The voice came from over my shoulder, startling me.
“A bit nosy, are we?” I answered, my tendency toward thoughtless retorts overpowering the part of my brain that remembered to think before I speak. As soon as I looked up to see Mason standing there with one eyebrow raised in defense, I cringed.
He took the empty seat across from me. “No, just curious.”
I closed my pad of paper. “Sorry about that.”
“Where did you come from?” I asked, a little perturbed at having been caught off guard. After all, I was facing the doorway.
“I was sitting in the corner when you came in.” He nodded toward the back of the room.
“So, how’s it going?”
“You read the poem,” I told him.
How much do you tell a stranger? Plus, he’d inadvertently hurt my feelings by comparing me to Kate, and I still hadn’t forgiven him for that. “It’s fine. Everything’s fine.”
He allowed only the hint of a smile at his mouth, though his eyes were flat-out laughing at me.
“What?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Nothing.” But his expression said it all. He didn’t believe me, and he found it amusing that I was trying to be tough.
“Seriously,” I added on the defense. “I’m great. Really great.” I didn’t want him knowing about the madness in my life, and I certainly didn’t want him to know that his being here riled up the butterflies again.
“What was your name again?” I asked, for good measure.
He laughed and leaned forward in his chair. “I saw you at the bookstore.”
“Uh... you did?” I asked, feeling suddenly very transparent and very vulnerable. Did he know I’d been following and listening to him, creepily tip-toeing around the bookstore like a huntress? Thinking how clever and covert I was being when really I might as well have been wearing bells and playing a trumpet for all his being aware of me?
“Yeah, you almost came down my isle, but then you changed your mind, or something.”
Yep. I almost stood up, took my latte, and left the cafe like we weren’t in the middle of a conversation. Except I couldn’t make myself move. Uncertainty had me cemented in place, as though staying perfectly still might render me invisible.
“I would’ve said hi, but you looked busy. I didn’t wanna bother you. Plus, it might have been weird if you didn’t remember me,” he admitted.
Relief flooded through my body like cold water over a burn. I didn’t have to defend my neurosis, after all. And I’d maintained my reputation as cute (and completely normal), girl from the coffee shop who he’d worried might not remember him.
He took a drink of his coffee but never looked away from my face. “You told me you didn’t have a job.”
“I didn’t - at the time.”
“How do you like it?”
“It’s okay.” I shrugged. “It’s a job.”
He nodded, ever so slightly, thoughtfully. “But it’s not your passion. Your life-long dream come true?”
“Dusting bookshelves? No.”
“My dream job?”
It always perturbed me how people discussed their job, their mode of survival and something that could change depending on the size of the paycheck, as their identity. Like it made them who they were, it defined them. I’m a writer, I’m a lawyer, I’m a nurse. Not a person with feelings and thoughts and goals, but a tool - an object used to accomplish a certain task and nothing more.
Then again, I’m sure my option was a direct representation of my wealth, anyway. If I’d ever been poor, maybe I would feel more tightly wound around the occupation that fed me.
“I guess...” I finally answered. “I haven’t really figured that out.”
Most of the time, when someone asks a question, they don’t even hear the answer. They just wait for you to reciprocate so they can talk about themselves. With Mason, I got the feeling he was really listening. He didn’t jump right in with his own idea of the dream job, he didn’t offer advice, and he didn’t move on to another topic. He sipped his coffee and watched me, waiting for me to continue, making me feel like a bug under a microscope until i couldn’t stand it anymore.
“I mean, I went to college,” I said defensively. “I just don’t know if I get it - the whole rat race thing. Like how people are always saying that their job is so fulling, so rewarding. Isn’t that weird? And those are the same people who are just exhausted all the time. They’re like those really skinny, malnourished vegans who try to convince you they’ve never felt better. Just a bunch of people lying through their teeth about how happy they are - and I don’t see it.”
He tilted his head a little. “Wow.”
“I know,” I sighed. “I’m too opinionated and pessimistic. I should just fall in line behind the zombies. Get a career, pay my taxes, be a carbon-copy of everyone else, and never question the narrative.”
His gaze was intense then, his eyes narrowed a little. There were two faded scars across his upper left cheek that I hadn’t noticed before. They looked like they’d had stitches once upon a time. And they made his appearance more believable, adding character to an otherwise flawless face.
His pause made me itch to speak again, but if he wasn’t already counting the seconds until he could leave, then another sermon would probably do the trick. So, I stayed quiet. I had to bite my cheek to keep from filling the silence, but I succeeded.
“You’re right,” he said at last, leaning forward over the table. He was very close now. “It’s like what Mark Twain said about pausing and reflecting whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority. Most people follow the person in front of them. They go to college because their parents went to college. They get a job that they’ll probably be stuck doing for the rest of their life. And it’s hard to justify quitting, or admitting how much it sucks, when you’ve spent so much time and money on it...”
“So, they just stay on the same path,” I added, a little shocked that he agreed.
“And their kids follow that path, generation after generation.”
“And nobody stops to ask ‘why’.”
“Except for you,” he practically whispered before leaning back in his chair again and wrapping both hands around the ceramic mug he’d opted for over the tradition paper cup.
I wasn’t sure if his words were a compliment, or a realization that I was a little nuts.
So, I asked him.
And he laughed. “I don’t think you’re nuts.”
“Give it time.”
“Oh, I plan to,” he said with a smile.
It was suddenly much too warm in the coffee shop. I pulled off my coat and draped it over the back of my chair.
“So, what was up with the poem,” he asked.
I shrugged and deflected. “Just words that rhyme.”
“True words that rhyme?” He asked.
I didn’t answer.
“Can I read it again?”
“If you want.” Even though nobody except my college professors had been privy to my rough-drafts.
He slid the notebook to his side of the table and opened the cover. After a moment, he stated, “So your life is a storm, a tornado. Uncontrollable.”
“That makes sense,” he noted.
I scowled. “What makes sense?”
“The way you question the norm - it makes sense. Because you can’t control the system, you wonder if the system works.”
He glanced around the room and sighed. “I don’t know.”
“That’s not what the poem was about, anyway.” I grabbed the notepad and put it in my lap, out of sight. I was irritated - not at Mason, but at my own transparency. Somehow, I could keep myself hidden behind a stony facade with everyone else. But in two conversations, he could see into my soul. “It’s something else entirely,” I added. “Nothing important.”
His expression softened. “Tell me.”
My heart skipped a couple of beats. “No, you’re just gonna say, ‘it makes sense’.”
He chuckled. “Will I?”
“It’s money trouble, okay?”
“Even with your prestigious position at the book store?”
Sighing deeply, I answered, “It would take me a lifetime to earn the money I need to pay off in two days.”
Mason removed his hat and rested it on the table between us, then pulled black hair behind his ears with both hands. Bits weren’t yet long enough - they fell forward immediately, curling around his temples. And his ears were pierced, not with studs, but plugs. Little black circles of plastic had widened the holes ever so slightly. “How much?”
“Don’t worry about it.” I tried shrugging off the conversation. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. It isn’t even my debt. It’s my roommate’s. She owes some guy money, and he’s a little pissed off about it. But it’s nothing.”
The way in which Mason leaned forward made me feel secluded. As though nobody else around us even mattered. The sound of the brass bell clanging against the glass each time someone opened the front door, the murmur of voices, the machines foaming milk, were all faded into the background as I stared into Mason’s intelligent eyes. “Doesn’t sound like nothing,” he stated quietly.
He was right; I couldn’t hide from that fact behind a wall of apathy. And even if I lied through my teeth, the truth was probably clearly written on my face. I wasn’t a very good actor. But this felt a little too deep for a first encounter - a little too uncomfortable for my taste.
“Well, it’s nothing you need to worry about,” I told him. “I’ll figure it out.”
“Don’t you need to get back to work, or something?” I asked.
He leaned back in his chair again and tipped the last of his coffee into his mouth. “I do freelance programming, so I choose my own hours.”
“I think so,” he agreed. “Right now I’m re-writing a security system for a company around here.”
“They don’t like me to say,” he answered with an air of mystery.
“Sounds sketchy,” I joked.
“No, the jobs are straight,” was his response. “Getting into my line of work was a little sketchy…”
Listlessly, I picked up his hat by the rim and studied the Celtic design on the front. It was barely noticeable being a black design on a black hat. In fact, everything he wore today was black, including a hooded sweatshirt.
“How so?” I asked.
Now it was his turn to shrug and try to avoid the conversation. He glanced away and cleared his throat, stuffed both hands into the conjoined pocket of his sweatshirt.
“No, no,” I insisted. “I told you all about my issues - it’s your turn.”
He smiled, but nervously so. “Let’s just say I’ve seen the other side of the tracks.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He leaned forward again, as though we were sharing in some exclusive secret. “I got into a lot of trouble in high school,” he began in explanation. His voice was soft and gravely with the memories from his past. “It wasn’t keeping my attention, so I found other shit to do. Mostly breaking into websites and databases. Once, I made the mistake of cracking a server linking all the courthouses. I altered a few cases that were going on, thinking it was funny, and ended up getting arrested.”
“Arrested?” Oh, Dad would love that.
Mason chuckled at the look on my face. “I was a minor. I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. I mean, most of the cases I changed were minor offenses.”
“Don’t worry, I got what I deserved. The system staved my trial for over six months so they could try me as an adult.”
I knew a little about the law. I knew that even at seventeen, if you committed a high-end crime, one that needed planning and intellect, they would assume you were mature enough to take the punishment of an adult. “But it wasn’t a violent crime? Why would they do that?”
“Teach me a lesson, maybe?”
“That’s kind of horrible.”
“You’d be surprised what the government let’s themselves get away with.” His eyebrows went up slightly, and offered an easy smile as though he wasn’t at all perturbed by his past. “No worries, I was out in eighteen months, and companies all across the country were begging me to work for them. Test out their security systems to see if I could break in. It’s pretty lucrative.”
“Wow,” was all I could come up with as I watched him pick at the callouses gracing the fingertips of his right hand.
“Does that bother you?” His words sounded far away as I thought about my life.
“Not at all,” I answered, because I had very little room to judge.