My day was supposed to go like this: Fret about money, call Dad, get money wired, have coffee, go to work, go home, drink wine, play game. So far, nothing was going the way I’d hoped for, and one thing was going better.
Mason insisted on walking me to work, and by the time I’d ended my grueling four-hour session with control-freak Jen, he was there to walk me home. As soon as I came out the front doors, coat zipped up tight against the wind, I could see him waiting with his hands in his pockets, the bottom of his right foot resting against the brick at his back. He seemed to be concentrating on the stream of cars passing through the grey of dusk.
“Hey again,” I called, approaching hesitantly. “Have you been out here this whole time?”
He gave me a confident grin. “I’m not stalking you. I promise.”
Unable to contain myself, I laughed. He couldn’t know the reason, and I didn’t inform him. “Maybe I like stalkers,” was all I said.
He offered a quirky, sideways glance. We started in the direction of my apartment building, me slightly in the lead. Every few feet we walked through a cone of white light from the streetlights.
“Maybe this is your way of finding out where I live…” I said, only half joking. The prior day had left me even more pessimistic about people.
“Actually,” he paused as a bus splashed loudly passed us. “I have your first name and a basic physical description. I wouldn’t need much more to find your address.”
“No way.” I shook my head, disbelieving his claim.
“True story – but I wouldn’t.” He kicked a soda can that was in our way. “I was just thinking about the money your roommate owes, and…” He trailed off and shrugged. For a guy who’d only met me twice, he was a little overprotective, but I didn’t mind.
“You worried?” I asked him.
The little butterflies came alive again. I was supposed to go home and argue with Cat and Sarah about who was first to work the streets. (I mean, Cat has the business savvy, but Sarah has the experience...) Then I had a date with the game, microphone and all… Still, here I was, letting a very sweet, very mysterious, very attractive guy walk me home. A guy who made a ton of money and chose his own hours... What was a girl to do?
“Well, I was a little worried.” He smiled down at me. “But I was a lot bored.”
“Oh, yeah?” I laughed. “So glad I could fill that little void.”
We joked, and teased, and grew even more comfortable in each others’ company. Soon we were stepping out of the elevator leading to my tenth floor apartment. The sound of fighting came through my front door which was open because Craig, the manager, was fixing the deadbolt.
“Laura, Laura,” he muttered, shaking his head from side to side. “This is trouble, I tell you. And we talked about this when you moved in. I said to myself, these are nice girls! Not girls that cause trouble!”
“Yeah, Craig.” Even though I was only barely above five feet, I could meet him eye for eye. He was a little, balding Italian who used a lot of hand motions whenever he talked. “Sorry. Won’t happen again.”
Mason was eyeing us both with confusion.
Craig went on - even though Cat was inside shouting about loan sharks and bleeding to death. “I just don’t want to see anybody getting hurt now,” he told me.
Mason whispered, “Loan sharks?”
“Yeah, that’s the part of the story I left out earlier,” I answered, sheepishly. “You might as well come on in…”
I led the way through the half-open door. We emerged into a scene where Cat was trying to open a bottle of wine, and Sarah was crying.
“Hey guys!” I offered with sarcastic cheer.
“Fuck!” The cork broke off half way, angering Cat. Then she turned on Mason. “Who the hell are you?”
He looked at me.
“You’re Mason,” I told him.
“I’m Mason,” he repeated to Cat. “Should I leave? It looks like you guys are... busy.”
Cat watched him remove his hat and wipe his boots respectfully on the mat before stepping into the room. Then she quickly changed her tone. “No, I’m sorry. We’re just dealing with some - stuff - around here. Mason?” She smiled sweetly and held out her hand, probably thinking how he could be her soul-mate. With all the black he was wearing and how courteous he was being about keeping our floor clean. When he asked if he should remove his shoes, she almost lost it.
“Oh, no, no, no,” she gushed. “Don’t even worry about that.”
Confusion was written all over Sarah’s face. “But you always make us take off our shoes.”
Cat laughed. “I do not.”
“Yes, you do,” I argued.
Cat indulged in a moment of guilty silence before going back to her wine problem. “Would you like a glass of wine, Mason? I wish we had something stronger, like Vicodin...”
“Is this her second bottle?” I asked Sarah, practically accusing her of being a bad baby-sitter. Someone had to keep Cat from destroying her liver, and maybe the stripper wasn’t the best choice.
“I hope not,” she answered. “I just got home.”
Sarah became indignant and almost started crying again right there in front of Mason. “I’m trying to fix this problem, too, you know! You’re not the only one in danger here. You’re not the only one worried about-”
“Okay, okay,” I interrupted. “Sorry I asked.”
Sarah introduced herself to Mason then slumped into our sofa with a whimper.
Mason and I shared a look.
“So, these are my roommates,” I explained, going to help Cat with her Merlot before she flat out broke the bottle against the counter.
Mason looked worried, but he wasn’t heading for the door, yet. Probably a good sign. “I see,” he responded. “So, loan sharks?”
“You told him?” Cat accused me, drinking her wine like it was her first glass of water after a week in the desert.
“No,” I glared. “YOU told him when you were shouting about it through our open doorway.”
She tried to smile and tucked her hair behind both ears. “You sure you don’t want wine, Mason? Something to eat? I can’t really cook, but Sarah can!”
“I’m not cooking,” Sarah mumbled.
“Never mind,” Cat told him.
“I’m actually okay,” he returned.
Cat turned to me. “Hey, are you cheating on your game?”
I scowled in silent warning for her to stop this line of questioning. I did NOT need Mason knowing about my vice - that I was a gaming nerd with absolutely no life outside the occasional coffee-run.
“You’re just usually playing by now,” she went on, not catching my hint to shut her mouth. Then she spoke to Mason. “She has this whole thing with Craft World. Plays all the time.”
Mason looked utterly confused, and that confusion only increased when Craig poked his head through the front door to let us know our lock was fixed and to warn us about not having anymore break-ins, which might be difficult considering the first one was so much fun. Then he lumbered over and set two keys on the counter. “You’ll need to get a third key made, but you can take it outa next month’s rent. And I know a guy who does windows. Will one of you girls be here tomorrow?”
“Someone broke into your place?” Mason asked me.
Shrugging at Mason, I thanked Craig. Sarah told him she could be here tomorrow to meet the window guy. By the time Craig left, Mason was looking very concerned.
“And they broke your window?” He asked.
“Yeah, it’s fine,” I told him.
“No, it’s not,” he countered. “Did they actually come through the window?”
“Nope,” Cat joined in. “They sawed right through our locks.”
Mason thought about that, glancing back toward the door. “For real?”
“And then, after their nice little speech about how stupid we were to borrow money from their boss,” Cat went on, refilling her glass, “They went down the fire escape.”
Sarah spoke up from her spot on the couch. “I SAID I was sorry!”
Everyone ignored her. Cat started riffling through the pantry. She came up with a bag of trail mix and poured it into a bowl on the counter. Then she found another bag and tossed it my way.
“Dried bananas,” she explained. “Since they were the closest thing to real food that tastes like candy.” Then, on her way to the couch with her third glass of wine and her bowl, she told Mason, “She only eats candy.”
I rolled my eyes. “That’s not true.”
Mason quietly watched our interaction, but didn’t say anything. He seemed to be considering the ramifications of befriending me - now that he knew the extent of the danger I was in.
“Are you okay?” I asked him. “You probably want to leave and forget you ever met me, right?”
He shook his head slowly. “That’s not at all what I was thinking.”
“Then what were you thinking?”
He paused. “Just that... you get more interesting every time I talk to you.”
“Oh, you have no idea!” Cat laughed from the sofa.
“Okay… Mason’s leaving now.” I practically pushed him toward the front door before Cat could drag out all my dirty laundry.
“What?” She asked. “Why? Don’t make him leave. We can all watch a movie.”
I shook my head, firm in my decision. “No.”
“Why not?” He asked.
“Because you’re busy.” I followed him out the door and closed it behind me.
“I’m actually not.”
At the elevator, I pushed the down arrow. “You don’t wanna be a part of all of this,” I stated, waving toward my apartment and it’s residents.
Mason’s eyes softened. “What if I do?”
I could feel the blush throughout my entire body. “You don’t. It’s a mess. I shouldn’t have brought you here.”
He shoved his hands into the conjoined pocket of his sweatshirt and looked down at me with what looked to be compassionate curiosity. Finally, he spoke. “So, it’s Sarah who owes the money?”
“How much?” He asked, not for the first time.
“I don’t know if I should tell you that. This might be a pretty serious situation, and I don’t want to drag you into it.”
He took a deep breath and released it. “Okay.”
“But if I end up in prison for say, robbing a bank, you would come and visit me, right?” I asked. “Give me some tips?”
Mason chuckled at my dark humor. “Don’t lose your cup.”
“Precious commodity. You only get one.”
I laughed even though it wasn’t really all that funny to think that the best place I could end up would be prison. “It’s more likely, you’ll be visiting my grave stone.”
“Don’t say that.”
Sighing, I pressed the arrow again. “Just kidding. I’m sure I’m just being dramatic.”
Mason took a small step forward and asked gruffly, “Are you?” He was close enough that I could smell skin and soap. It was a soft and comforting scent.
I wanted to move closer and breath him in, but that would be weird. Instead, I moved back a couple of inches to keep myself from doing anything embarrassing. I splayed my hands. “Absolutely. It’s just a couple of typical New York vandals who want their money. They acted all tough, doing shit they saw in the movies. But honestly, if they were serious thugs, I’d already be dead.”
Mason scowled in question.
“I kind of... talked back to them when they were here,” I admitted. “And one of them grabbed me by the neck. He looked like he wanted to end my life - but he didn’t. So, yeah. If that didn’t get me killed, I doubt they’d actually hurt any of us.”
Mason chuckled - a sarcastic sound - and glanced away, shaking his head. “I knew it.”
“You knew what?”
He didn’t answer. I watched him run his fingers through his hair, pausing with his hand at the back of his head, indecisive. Then, without reservation, he reached and touched my neck very softly, concern etched into his expression. He didn’t say anything, didn’t give me an explanation, didn’t apologize or pull away. But his thoughts were quietly evident - it angered him that someone would hurt me, and it angered him that he couldn’t prevent it.
I felt a little breathless. A moment like this had never occurred in my entire life. Losing my mother so young had made me weary of ever making a connection that could be broken and lost, leaving me broken and lost... again. So, I’d kept a safe distance from everyone, both emotionally and physically.
Fortunately, the elevator dinged and interrupted the moment. The doors slid open. I pulled away and threw my foot on the track to keep them from closing.
“You coming with me?” Not only did he smile, he winked. “Not that I would mind.”
Blushing profusely, I explained how the elevator only gave you about three-fourths of a second to get in before the doors slammed shut with enough force to take off a finger. “Craig was supposed to have it fixed, but…”
He looked to want to say something, or not want to say something. “How about if I give you my number? I’m renting about four blocks from here. If anything happens, you can call me, okay?”
“Alright.” I pulled my pad of paper out from the inner pocket of my coat, the pen from another pocket.
When he held the notepad against the wall and started writing, my earlier suspicions were confirmed. “You’re left handed,” I told him.
“Yeah, I noticed,” he teased, handing back the pen.
“And you play guitar.”
“Sometimes,” he answered. “How did you know?”
“Callouses on your finger tips,” I told him. “They’re the reason I quit guitar lessons when I was ten.”
He handed me the pad of paper. “I’ll play for you, sometime.”
“If I survive,” I joked. At the look on his face, I apologized. “Sorry, I’m a pessimist, remember?”
“You’re a realist.”
“Yes, I am,” I agreed, liking the sound of that.
He stepped into the elevator and turned to face me, reached to press a button. “Call me if you need anything.”
He smiled. “Or if you don’t need anything.”
My stomach clenched around the butterflies. But I didn’t want him to see that he affected me, so I shrugged nonchalantly. “I’m just surprised you’re giving me your number. It’s real, right?”
“Call and find out.”
Before I pulled my foot off the track and let the doors slide closed, I apologized a final time. “I’m sorry... for everything. You must be shocked by all of this.”
Mason put his hat back on, pulling the rim down over blue eyes that sparkled with humor. As the doors closed, he left me with some very confusing parting words. “More than you know.”