My monitor stared back at me, basically asking how dimwitted I was to be so undecided. It wanted to know how long it would have to wait. Account name, it asked of me. Password? Are you entering the world or not?
At least, not right now. If I was going to recant my earlier words to Smith about how we couldn’t be friends, it would be when I was sober and less willing to spill my entire life. I decided to leave my monitor on as a night light and went to brush the taste of sugared-rum from my mouth. I found a set of silk pajamas to remind me of my pedigree and slipped between a set of two thousand thread count sheets. Pure bliss. And I might as well enjoy it, was my final thought of the evening.
At three o’clock, I heard the front door open. Hyper-awareness must have been to blame, because I normally sleep right through Sarah returning home. With my eyelids scraping over swollen capillaries and my head feeling dull and foggy, I trudged to the kitchen where she was pouring milk into a coffee cup and setting it inside the microwave.
“Do you think you could be just a little louder?” I asked on a note of irritation, because despite having had three entire hours of sleep, I still felt the effects of my earlier buzz. Warm, itchy, irritable... Though that last was probably more of a personality defect, therefore permanent. I reached into a poorly stocked refrigerator and procured a bottle of Gatorade.
It’s a little known fact that electrolytes and vitamin C can stave off a hangover.
“Oh, sorry,” she grumbled, reaching for a bottle of honey that Cat had so nicely left upside down. She uncapped it and held it sideways, waiting for her milk to warm up in what Cat calls our ‘Cancer Conductor’.
I noticed little floaters in the milk and weighed the damages of informing her. By doing so, Sarah would be spared a few hours in the bathroom which might be construed as niceness on my part. Then again, telling her would mean getting to ruin the rest of her morning, and let’s face it. Sarah had kismet against her in a bad way.
“You know the milk’s gone sour, right?” I asked, taking a pull from my own unspoiled drink.
“How could it be sour already?” She checked the label and frowned. “It’s only a day passed the expiration.”
“And that date is just a suggestion?”
“It’s supposed to give you a little leeway.”
She sighed. The microwave beeped.
“Try the almond stuff – Cat swears it’s awesome," I told her after taking a seat at the little lonely table nobody ever occupies. I can’t even remember why I furnished this place when all we use is the couch and the TV. Even hobos have that much. “It’s full of protein or amino acids.”
Or rainbow extract or magical leprechaun piss. Who knows.
Sarah went through the motions of dumping her old milk and refilling the mug with something less lumpy. She added honey and put it in the microwave. Then she rattled on and on about how work was busier than usual, how she made such and such for tips, and how Pearl finally got pregnant again, so she won’t have to strip when the welfare kicks back in.
“Do I even know Pearl?” I asked. Translation: Why are you telling me this shit?
Apparently, answering my question didn’t top her list of priorities which at the moment were stirring her milk with a fork and recounting seven other non-issues at her job. The conversation only got weirder until the moment Sarah, standing directly over her milk, suddenly stopped talking mid sentence. At first I thought maybe she’d had a seizure, but then I saw bright red staining the surface of her milk. A crimson dot mingling with the creamy froth, like food coloring added to the petal of a white rose.
I stood and watched the two colors mix into a lovely, pale pink before another drop fell.
Sarah had a bloody nose. “Oh no…” She reached for the roll of paper towels, but the damage was done.
“You’re high again?” I asked through very tightly clenched teeth. According to my dentist I would have the TMJ symptoms of a sixty year old by my thirtieth birthday if I didn’t start controlling my anger.
I slammed my palm on the table. A pain shot up through my arm, lingering at my wrist. To keep from admitting how much it stung, I shut my eyes tightly and tried counting to ten.
One Sarah dangling from a noose.
Two Sarahs dangling from nooses.
I actually only got to about six before her jabbering started up again in the form of excuses. “It was only the one time, Laura! And I’m under a lot of stress right now… I wanted to say no, and it’ll be so much easier when I don’t work there anymore and the temptation isn’t right under my nose…”
“I can’t BELIEVE you’re high again! After everything you’ve messed up around here! After dragging me and Cat into all your stupid problems!”
“I’m sorry, Laura! It was an accident-”
“An accident?” I scoffed. “Seriously? You just leaned too far over a table to read some graffiti, took a nice, deep breath and viola! High again!”
“That’s not what I meant!”
“It’s what you said!”
Somehow, our shouting roused Catrina who came stumbling down the hall, one hand over her eyes. “Oh my gosh you guys! It’s like… It’s really, super early.”
“Tell our really stupid roommate that,” I said icily. “She’s high again.”
Cat woke up fast. “What? No you’re not.”
“Not any more,” Sarah whimpered through a paper towel catching the spill of blood. “It wore off an hour ago.”
With an air of compassion, Cat tried reasoning with Sarah. She tried asking her to stop hurting herself and was met with more whimpering and wringing hands and excuses galore. Sarah’s only defense was to say that this was the absolute last time. And she might as well have been reading them from an index card as often as we’d heard those very words in the past.
“Yeah, you’re right,” I told Sarah, getting in her face a little. “This is the last time. The last time I’m gonna believe you.” Not that I’d ever believed her much in the past.
Catrina glared at me. “That’s not helping.”
“Helping? Helping!" I shouted angrily at the both of them. “Of the three of us, I am helping the most! While Sarah is getting high with her tips, I’m trying to figure out how to sell my one valuable item and not get arrested in the process! I’m the only one fucking helping here.”
Sarah let her mouth gape open. “That’s your plan? Selling something? What are you gonna sell?”
“What does it even matter?” I asked. “After everything – even if we get through this intact – nothing will have changed! You’ll still be peddling your body for drugs that ruin your life.”
“Laura,” Cat whispered.
“It’s true.” On the verge of vomiting, I grabbed my drink and stormed out of the kitchen, but not before yelling, “I’m so glad my dead mother’s necklace is about to save someone who doesn’t even want to be saved!”
From my room, I could hear them putting two and two together. Sarah was crying; Cat was trying to console her. When I finally fell back asleep it was to a light jazz accompaniment I’d put on to drown out their sympathy.
Next morning, I rose without even looking at the clock. For once, I didn’t care that the sun hadn’t come up, only that the place was silent and the bathroom was unoccupied. I took a hot shower to wash away the icky feeling of having people feel sorry for me. Soaped down until my skin and hair felt as dry as it used to when I lived in California. That’s one thing I really, truly missed - skin that cracked from lack of moisture and morning nose-bleeds. Here in New York I always felt grossly damp.
After toweling off, I slipped into my underclothes – something silk – and dried my waist-length hair. It was a little frizzy, which was fine by me. I just braided it down my back and finished dressing.
I grabbed my boots, my coat. It wasn’t until I’d shut the front door behind me that I could take a relieved breath. Nobody had tried to give me a frigging hug.
Outside, the snow had melted. The cusp of a rising sun – ominous here on the east coast – peeked from the horizon, casting a gentle, sherbet glow. The orange reflection glinted off store windows as I made my way across a street washed clean by the night’s pelting rain.
Inside the café, I let the door close behind me with a chime of the bell. There was no line.
“Caramel latte?” the barista asked me brightly. Too brightly.
That she remembered me was more annoyance than convenience. “Actually, something cinnamon.”
We came to an agreement on all the elements of the coffee. Whole milk, half syrup, yes whip cream, yes sprinkles, no decaf. Then I waited patiently, but only because I was still half asleep. A few people entered the store, one in a camouflage jacket who gave me the creeps. Not because he was wearing hunters attire in the center of a metropolis, although that in itself was odd enough, but because he glanced at me with familiarity and took a seat in the back – without even ordering.
When it was ready, I grabbed my drink, double cupped it without asking, and ducked out, not wanting to be supervised. A shiver went up my back to think that Marcus might be having me tracked.
I walked the city for a good hour and a half, staying clear of any questionable areas. For a good twenty minutes, I imagined actually going to the police. I mean, there was a chance Marcus and his little proteges were small time crooks. Maybe they were just getting into the game, maybe they didn’t have a large web of backups willing to bury three girls who couldn’t pay up. Maybe, maybe, the cops would be able to help us out.
And did I actually want to take that chance with my life? I pulled out my cell phone, stepping over a puddle and onto yet another crowded sidewalk. I flipped through the numbers to find my father and wondered if one more plea for help might be in order. But then, what would I tell him? I sighed and turned back toward the apartments, pocketing my phone and tossing my cup in a garbage can along the way.
When I got home, Cat was sitting at the counter with a blue mug cradled in her hands. Sarah was cooking up some scrambled eggs and scones. The smell of buttery flour and chives was very thick in the air.
“Good morning!” they greeted me cheerily in unison.
“Is it?” I answered in question, tossing my jacket on the back of the couch. “Did you two forget what tomorrow is?”
“Friday.” Sarah’s answer was dense, or in denial, as she scooped eggs onto a plate. She handed the plate to me and smiled. “New leaf?” she asked.
I only hesitated for a second before hunger pains took over. I sat and took three bites before answering. “New leaf? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Sarah went about making up plates for Cat and herself. She pulled a tray of fresh baked scones from the oven. “Today is the first day of the rest of my life!” she answered. “Cat made me visualize my future. Where I’d be in five years if I didn’t get my life in order? And what I saw made me so depressed – I’m turning over a new leaf.”
Cat was watching me with hopeful eyes. “We know selling what belonged to your mother is a huge sacrifice.”
“And,” Sarah added, taking a seat at the table across from me, “We are so grateful. We took the day off work to go with you.”
My eyebrows went up. I took another bite. Compassion was trying to find its way into the cold chamber of my heart, knocking and requesting entrance. I wanted to stay angry, but the eggs were delicious. With a full mouth, I answered begrudgingly, “Fine – new leaf. But I don’t need any company today. I have to work, and then Mason’s supposed to find a buyer for the jewels.”
“Oh…” Sarah tried hiding her disappointment with a wan smile.
Cat grinned. “Mason, hu? You’re knight in shining armor? Come to rescue us all? Finding a buyer?” She broke her string of questions to sip at her drink. “Can’t you just go down to the pawn shop?”
It took me clear up until I had to work to explain why I couldn’t sell to just anyone. By then, I’d eaten more scones than an English brigade. My stomach so full all I wanted was to take a nap, I headed down to the bookstore where my drill sergeant was waiting just inside the doors.
With her arms crossed rigidly, Jen was tapping her foot with impatience. “You’re late.”
Incredulous, I checked the clock above the door. “Three minutes!”
“Do you have a good reason?”
“In fact, I do.” And I’m sick of you acting like this store is Air Force One, I thought grumpily.
She followed me to the back room where I borrowed an apron.
It turned out Thursday was shipment day, so it didn’t matter than I’d forgotten my name tag. Jen and I were placed in front of a wall of boxes that needed opening and sorting and placing. Each of us was given X-Acto knives and a pair of leather gloves to keep away the cardboard cuts. After four whole hours, she still hadn’t shut up on the importance of proper punctuation. And as I left the store, I couldn’t help thinking how lucky she was that my knife had been especially dull.
At four twenty on the dot, I banged through the front door to find the girls waiting anxiously. Cat was holding a piece of paper. “Mason called,” she told me.
Breathless, I took the paper and read. “Found someone. Meet me at the pool hall when you get off work.” I left my coat on and grabbed a drink of almond milk straight from the carton. I was nervous and scared and excited all at the same time. “When did he call?”
Sarah asked Cat, “An hour ago?”
Can nodded and confirmed, “Yeah, about. We told him you got off at four, and he said he would wait.”
With both roommates on my heels, I streaked down the hall to my room. They watched, teary-eyed, as I pulled the black velvet box from my closet and slipped it into my jacket’s inner pocket.
Sarah was chewing her nails. “You sure we can’t go with? We won’t get in the way, I promise.”
“No way,” I stated. “I just want to get this over with. And I don’t need you two crying and quoting Confucius the whole time.”
“Be careful,” Cat told me at the door. “And call me if you need help navigating the south side…”
“I’m sure I can manage,” I rolled my eyes and slipped out the door before they could try and talk me out of it.
At the pool-hall – where only a handful of people were hanging out – I found Mason right away. He was the one sitting long-ways across a sofa, a black laptop practically blending into his clothing.
He grinned when he saw me approaching. “You showed up?”
“Of course,” I scowled. The idea of having so much money in my pocket was discomforting. “My life might depend on it.”
Mason set his computer aside. “Have you heard from those guys at all?”
Though I felt in a hurry, I took the chair opposite him. “Not since they broke into our apartment.”
He nodded, a serious look darkening his features. “When are you paying them off?”
“Tomorrow night, I guess. It’ll be three days exactly by ten. That’s how long they gave us.”
Mason nodded. “I want to go with you.”
“I’m sure you do. It’s at a strip-club.”
He rolled his eyes at my joke. “I want to go with you to make sure they don’t try anything.”
“Maybe,” I thought out loud. “First, I need money.”
The bartender – same one from last night – stopped by and wiped the coffee table between us with a white wash cloth.
After he lingered a little too long, I grew irritated. “Can’t hear well enough from the bar?” I asked him.
Mason chuckled. “She’s joking.”
The bartender left.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, grimacing at my behavior. Mason was, after all, just trying to help me out. And here I was treating his friends like dirt. Nice.
“You’re under a lot of stress,” he allowed.
Understatement of the year. “So, where are we going?” I asked.
Before answering, he leaned a little closer over the table. I caught a whiff of something sweet and masculine. After shave? “Here.”
“Here.” I felt dazed by his scent. “The buyer is coming here? I don’t think that’s a good idea. There’s too many-” I’d been about to say there were too many people around, but a second assessment of the room reminded me how empty the place was.
Mason was smiling and tilting his head to the side, reading me. “Too many?”
“Never mind. It’s perfect.” And it was. Absolutely. The bartender, after my snooty little comment, was keeping at a safe distance. Only two people were watching television in the corner, but they were half a block away. And the others in the room were either asleep from having started drinking at noon or too caught up in playing pool to notice us. “So when’s he getting here?”
Mason lifted his shoulders and his hands. “Now.”
I looked around, searching for the person who looked well off enough to pay me a six digit fee. When nobody caught my eye, I turned back to Mason who was probably thinking what an absolute idiot I was. “You?” I asked.
He was reaching into a cargo pocket and coming away with a checkbook. When he opened the flap, I saw a trail of one’s and zero’s across the bottom of the blank check. Binary code. “Who do I make it out to?”
Anger flushed my cheeks. I stood. “You can’t be serious. I don’t need your charity.”
“It isn’t charity,” he told me softly, gazing up at me. “I just want to help you out, is all. And I can.”
“Nice,” I told him, fixing my jacket. In a moment I would be out the door. “Take pity on the poor girl whose father cut her off, and whose roommate is probably smoking crack right now because she promised me she’d quit the cocaine.”
“Hey, you’re the one who asked me for help,” he said slowly.
“Well, I was wrong!”
“Yeah, you were wrong!” Mason stood up then. “When you judged me for having done a little time. I’m not that guy. I’m not a criminal.”
“Well, you’re hard not to judge.” I spoke too quickly, thoughtlessly, using words I didn’t mean. But it was too late.
Hurt crossed his face as he replaced his checkbook and pulled a baseball cap down over his eyes. In another swift motion, he had his laptop under his arm and was heading for the door without a backward glance.
And I was left staring after my one and only chance at survival.