An hour and a half later (how it took two hours to give fifteen stitches was a mystery), Sarah emerged with a look of nausea. Her sleeve was still torn and bloody, but through the rip, a clean, white bandage was visible. Clutched in her freckled hand was a prescription for something to ease the pain.
After some debate, we decided not to go home for the hours remaining before our meeting tonight. Mason thought that would be taking chances, considering both Marcus and the camouflage guy knew where we lived. Instead, we took a taxi to Mason’s place where he invited us up for takeout Chinese delivered in twenty minutes or less. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was until I could smell the food permeating the paper boxes on the table.
“Hope you like it.” Mason set a stack of black plates on the table, along with a few forks. “It’s my specialty.”
“Yum,” Cat said, gathering a plate and stacking it high with the various flavors. Veggie fried rice, egg rolls she made sure were vegetarian, fortune cookies, and a swirl of thick, red sauce.
When Sarah had served herself, the two of them took seats at the table and began to eat, no longer paying attention to Mason and me.
I grabbed a plate, very heavy, and a fork, also heavy. In fact, the entire place looked filled with heavy, dark objects. It was cozy, that was the only way to put it. Large, overstuffed furniture; a grandfather clock that chimed every quarter hour; a giant, flat-screen television that took up the majority of one wall; lava lamps; and expensive looking trinkets. Overall, it felt like Dad’s study at home, and I couldn’t help but feel at ease.
For the first time since leaving for college, I yearned to be home in California, snuggled safely in my king-sized bed. Eating a banana split prepared by our chef. Watching re-runs of Friends.
A nudge from Mason interrupted my reminiscing. “You okay?” he asked quietly, keeping the conversation private.
I waited until we were across the room, sitting in one of his gigantic, suede couches before answering. “I’m just tired.”
Mason twisted a bite of noodles onto his fork, took a neat bite, chewed and swallowed. “Liar.”
The rice was perfectly sweet and salty, tainted with MSG, no doubt. I was surprised Cat was even eating it. But I was never one to look a gift-horse in the mouth, unless the gift horse was money, and the giver was a guy I liked. “Okay, I’m nervous. I don’t see tonight going very well. But I’m also tired. That was true. Cat got us up at the butt-crack of dawn this morning…”
At that, he laughed. The sound vibrated through the couch. “Well, if it helps, I’ll be there the entire time, okay?”
“Yeah,” I sighed.
“And you can take a nap, if you want. We have a few hours.” Mason reached over and pressed a button on one of the many controllers decorating his coffee table. The television came to life with an episode of Family Guy. “Background noise,” he explained. “It’s become a habit since I left home. My Dad always had the television on.”
“I like this show.” I took a large bite of rice, relishing in its texture and the relief it offered my empty stomach. “But I can never decide if they can hear Stewie, or not.”
Finished with his food, Mason put his plate and one socked foot on the table. “I don’t think they can decide. One episode they can, and the next they can’t,” he mused, pulling a merlot colored pillow into his lap and hugging it. “But I prefer when it’s just the dog that can hear him.”
When I’d eaten all I could hold, I placed my plate on top of Mason’s on the table. There was still some rice and a few bites of sweet and sour pork, but if I finished it all, I feared vomiting on Marcus later. Not that he wouldn’t deserve the gesture.
Cat announced at the door that she and Sarah were heading to the pharmacy, Mason gave them directions – it was only two blocks away – and against my greater efforts to stay awake, I closed my eyes and sank into the couch. It could only be filled with feathers, I thought.
Suddenly, with the noisy return of my roommates, I blinked the fog from my sight and sat up, realizing someone had covered me over with a blanket. But Mason was nowhere in sight.
“Wow,” Sarah tumbled onto the sofa without a single concern that it wasn’t hers. “These things are amazing. Not only do I not feel the pain in my arm, but I don’t feel my arm.”
“Greeeeat…” I drew out the word to match the extent of my misgivings that she should be taking opiates. Legal, or otherwise. “A new drug of choice?”
“Stop it,” Cat giggled.
“Did you take one, too?” I asked, craning my neck to see Catrina closing the front door and rolling her eyes at me.
“I’m high on life,” she said, kicking off her shoes out of respect for Mason’s plush, cream carpet. Her good mood could be easily explained with the knowledge that in just a few hours, we would never have to worry about Marcus and his thugs again. “You should try it sometime.”
I pulled my rested body out, not off, of the fluffy couch, stretched the kinks from my neck and back. “How long were you guys gone?” I asked, wanting to know the duration of my nap.
“The length of a rainbow,” Sarah answered, grabbing two of the pillows and sinking into the sofa.
The clock in the kitchen read six thirty three. I’d been asleep for well over two hours. “She’d better be sober by tonight,” I warned Cat, whom I blamed for letting Sarah indulge in more than half a pill. Then, I went to find a bathroom.
Down the hallway, I counted five doors. Since Mason never gave me a tour, I decided one was in order and pressed on the first door. It swung open to reveal a plethora of fitness machines and free weights. The second door led to a closet. I took a right down the t-shaped hallway and met a third door – bedroom. I decided it would be odd to stand and memorize the place where Mason slept, so I turned abruptly and ran smack into a wall of person. Warm and soft, yet firm and unyielding. The weights were doing a good job.
I stepped back, glanced upward to see him smile down at me. “Didn’t know you woke up.”
“Yeah, uh,” I stuttered. “This isn’t the bathroom.”
He chuckled. “Bathroom’s at the opposite end of the hall.” He turned around to show me the way, though I probably could have figured it out. “This is the office here.” He pointed out one of two undiscovered rooms. Glancing inside, I saw a long table joining two corner desks. Three computers and countless other items sat atop. “And here is the restroom you seek.”
Mason must have showered and changed during my nap. He was wearing a new set of clothes and smelled freshly of soap. The same soapy scent that drifted from the bathroom. Plus, without a hat, I could see his hair was still damp as it curled around his temples. My inspection must have made him nervous, because he fidgeted a little, pressing both hands into his pockets, then pulling them out and running them through his night-dark hair.
“Sorry.” I escaped into the bathroom and closed the door. It took a full five minutes before my heart would stop palpating erratically inside my chest. What was this effect he seemed to have on me? Whenever I was close to Mason, whenever I thought of him, I felt a warmth wash over me like hot sand.
In order to bide my time and calm any wayward hormones, I splashed my face with cold water from the chrome sink. With my fingers, I combed several knots from my hair and braided it down my back. When I ran out of ways to straighten my appearance, I opened each of the drawers in turn, finding nothing more than the usual bachelor items. Razors and boxes of generic soap, black and royal purple towels, bandages and toothpaste. When I escaped the bathroom, it was to find Mason leaning his back against the opposite wall, waiting for me.
“Find everything you needed?” He asked, alluding to my obvious breach of his privacy.
My cheeks burned with embarrassment. “I uh... I just wanted to...”
“Make sure I wasn’t a serial killer?”
Fine, if he wanted to go in that direction. “Something like that.”
He laughed. That sexy, gravely kind of laugh. “I’m actually flattered.”
“That I would go through all your stuff?”
“You wouldn’t do that if you weren’t interested in who I am.”
I blushed some more. “That’s true.”
“So, what did you discover?”
I smiled slightly, but refused to answer the question.
“You could go through my room next, if you want.”
Now it was starting to feel too warm in his house. “Did you turn on the heat, or something?”
“It’s winter,” he explained and laughed again. “I’m just giving you a hard time. I have nothing to hide, though.”
“I like your place,” I told him by way of diverting the conversation away from my desire to do exactly as he suggested - go through every drawer in his room. Maybe even through some of the files on his computer. I was a very nosy person. And he was interesting. “It’s comfortable.”
He smiled a knowing smile but went along with the change of conversation. “It’s not actually my place. I’m renting. And it came furnished.”
“It’s still comfortable.”
“Yes, it is,” he agreed, escorting me back to the living room.
Later, us girls showed Mason how to use his own espresso machine.
“This is like, a professional machine,” Cat told him. “You bought it and never learned how to use it?”
Mason opened the fridge and pulled out a half-gallon of milk in a glass jar. He set it on the counter next to Cat. “I won it at a silent auction. I didn’t actually think I would win, and when I got it home I realized it was more complicated than just pushing a few buttons. Plus,” he added, looking directly at me, “It’s just better going to the coffee shop.”
Cat turned on the machine. “You have to let it warm up. This light will go on when it’s ready to steam the milk,” she explained. Then picked up the milk. “Ooh, this is the good stuff - non-homogenized.”
She and Sarah commenced with making everyone lattes to order. Before Mason realized he wouldn’t be using the machine, he’d purchased every accoutrement from syrups to sprinkles, from espresso beans to whip cream. We were in heaven.
Soon, we were drinking gourmet coffees in front of the television like it wasn’t two hours before we would be asking a drug-dealer to please leave our limbs intact. Sarah and I listened as Cat and Mason bonded over a game of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, mocking the romantic comedy that was playing.
“This is Cat’s favorite game,” I told him, cradling my scorching hot mug. “Unless you’re watching Saving Private Ryan or Inglorious Bastards. In that case, keep your mouth shut, or she throws things.”
“I don’t throw things,” she argued. “Usually.”
“You’re right,” I conceded with a laugh. “Because the one time you did throw things, you immediately had to go clean it all up before you could finish your movie.”
“Well, nobody else was going to clean it up.” She gave me a pointed look.
“You like war movies?” Mason asked her. And somewhere very deep within, I felt a pang of jealousy that he was paying attention to her. Not that I’m possessive, or clingy, or lack confidence. And not that he was mine… “Have you ever seen A Soldier’s Sweetheart?” he asked, authentically interested in her reaction.
“Oh…” she groaned. “That was the worst. When she went into the woods at the end, and he knew she was really gone for good... I cry every time I watch that one.”
“Yeah, it was pretty sad,” he concurred. “But very interesting how they showed what war can do to a person’s psyche.”
The jealousy, once a seed, was blooming inside my chest. But after a minute, Mason went to the kitchen and returned to sit right next to me. So close that his side was touching mine. He opened his hand to reveal a neatly wrapped piece of butter caramel. “I stocked up.”
Jealousy melted away to leave a new feeling – love. Not that I loved him. But I loved that he cared enough to think about me at the grocery store. “Thanks.”
I unwrapped the candy. It was soft and chewy, went perfectly with my coffee. We sat through another whole movie that way, sitting near to each other. Neither of us tried to escape the physical contact, neither tried adding fuel to the fire between us. He didn’t hold my hand, or touch my knee, and that was okay. Just knowing he was here to protect me if the need arose, it was all okay. I was even warming to the idea that I didn’t have to fight all my battles alone.
With only two hours remaining, Mason whispered for me to follow him. I got up from the couch and let him lead me to his bedroom where he closed the door behind us with a soft click. The past held apprehension, the future was dark and unwilling to reveal itself, but the present – right now in Mason’s bedroom – held contentment.
“Here it is,” he stated. Then joked, “Feel free to look around.”
“Oh, haha.” Like I would go snooping around his bedroom - while he was here. The decor was simple. A bed covered in a blue comforter, no headboard. A lone bookshelf with varied titles like A Tale of Two Cities, Hannibal, and Descartes. There was also a single bedside table holding a bottle of carbonated water, a lamp, and a laptop which hijacked my mind with an image from my imagination - Smith laying in bed the night my place was assaulted. And with the image, came a taste of guilt, metallic on my tongue. How silly. To think of Smith here of all places. I pressed him from my mind and focused on Mason as he pulled a box from the clutter of his closet.
“What’s that?” I asked.
Beneath the flaps of cardboard were those annoying Styrofoam chips. He brushed them aside and pulled something black from the box.
“Is that… a bullet proof vest?” I asked, reaching to touch the fabric. It was surprisingly smooth, not the rough canvas I had expected, but something with a satin finish. Even the thought that Mason found this necessary wrung at my insides. “You got this for me?”
“Yep. And two others - one for Cat, and one for Sarah.”
“What about you?”
Mason chuckled. “I’ll just stand behind you. Here, take it.”
Armor, I was thinking as he handed it over. With the heaviness of it, probably fifteen pounds I wasn’t expecting, my upper body was carried toward the floor with a thunk. I hefted it back up, not wanting to appear as weak as I was. Mail Armor.
“Too heavy?” He looked at me, concerned. “It was the thinnest one they carried.”
I pinched the thickness, finding it to be about a half inch. It would fit easily under my clothes, and no one would be the wiser – unless I walked like a drunk person under its weight. “Do you really think these are necessary? We have the money. It should be pretty simple, right? We hand him the check, he says thank you, and we leave.”
“Yeah, drug-dealers always keep their word.”
“Well, he wouldn’t try to shoot any of us.”
“Which is probably what you thought when you went looking for the black market in a city like New York,” he responded, dryly.
“Better to be safe than sorry, right?” He asked. “These people literally broke through your front door; we don’t know what they’re capable of. And what if - I’m not saying this will happen - but what if, even after you pay them, they try to make sure you never go to the cops?”
“You think that will happen?”
Mason looked solemn. “I can’t say for sure. That’s why I’m going with you.”
My inner pessimist was taking over, telling me there was no way this could all end well. Something was bound to go wrong, and Mason was right - they would never let us walk away when we knew where they did business, when we knew where the police could find and arrest them. What were getting into?
“They’ll just shoot you, too! This is such a bad idea.” I was shaking my head and starting to panic when Mason took my face into his hands.
He tilted my head back to look directly into my eyes and said, “I will protect you.”
“What if you can’t?” I was practically whimpering in a fashion my father would not appreciate. Suck it up, kid, he would say. The struggle makes you stronger.
Mason was searching my face, undecided about something. Hopefully, it wasn’t whether or not we would survive. He bit his lip before he spoke. “Trust me.”
“Okay.” I decided it was all I could say - all I could do. I had to trust him, and I should. This wonderful guy bought me armor and insisted on being there during battle. My warrior.
I waited out the moment as it grew more intense. Mason’s hands touching my face, my limbs feeling numb from the close proximity, and finally a vibration between us - and not the metaphorical kind.
Mason sighed and pulled his cell from his pocket. “I have to answer this.” He lifted the phone to his ear and stepped away. “Yeah?”
In order to not look like I was intently interested in his phone call, and listening to every word, I started fumbling with the vest, trying to figure out the snaps and fasteners. It seemed pretty self-explanatory, but I still envisioned Mason helping me into it, adjusting the straps and standing just a little too close. The thought had me blushing yet again but thankfully he was too distracted with his call to notice.
“Yes, I know. You have the best time, man. Yep, tonight, right, that’s what I said. Alright.. sound’s good. I don’t think so. Just don’t be late... Kay, see ya.” He pocketed his phone. “Okay, so I hope you don’t mind. But we have someone joining us tonight,” he explained to me.
I was still pretending to inspect a snap on the vest. “Who? Why?” I asked, nervously.
Mason watched my hands as they figured out my new favorite piece of clothing. “My friend Greg. I’ve known him a lifetime, and he insisted on being there tonight as an extra precaution.”
“We’re meeting at a crowded strip-club. I doubt anything will go wrong.”
Mason shrugged. “You never know. And five just seems like a lucky number.”
Five, I thought to myself, catching another glimpse of his laptop. Like a raid group.
While Cat and Sarah had a blast searching through Mason’s extensive collection of DVDs and arguing over which were the ‘good’ movies, Mason and I buttoned op our coats. He explained how we needed to go and get a cashier’s check and not to answer the door if anyone knocked. He also told them Greg would be showing up but that he had a key, so if they heard anyone unlocking the door - it was fine.
“Are you guys even listening?” I asked them.
“Greg, key, cashier’s check - we got it,” Cat answered.
“Don’t be late,” Sarah added. It was more of a plea than a command.
We headed out the door into the blustery weather. Cars were honking, little gusts of wind were disturbing whatever snowflakes managed to reach the ground. It was cold and dark except for the pockets glowing with city light.
I shivered as we followed the sidewalk. Mason must have noticed, because he removed his scarf and wrapped it twice around my neck, a romantic gesture. I was immediately reminded of a particular movie that should never again be mentioned. Even more so when he put his arm around my shoulders.
“Is this okay?” He asked.
I nodded approval. “Thanks.” Now his scent was all around me, sweet and clean and perfect. We walked like that until we reached the bank where Mason pulled out his wallet and pushed a few buttons on the ATM.
“Ah, I knew it,” he said in frustration. “I should have done this earlier when the actual bank was open.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked, leaning in to read the screen. It said something about needing bank approval for that particular dollar amount.
Mason canceled the transaction and put his card back into his wallet. “It won’t let me draw a cashier’s check for ninety thousand. I thought it would be fine - but I guess it counts as a withdrawal, and there’s a daily limit on that.” He sighed and looked down the street for a second before asking, “You think he’ll take a personal check?”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Yeah, I mean,” Mason shrugged. “He could just have it cashed. It’s not like it would expose him, unless he deposited it into his personal account. I don’t know how that whole thing works. Do they just check his ID, give him the money, and forget the whole thing?”
“Maybe if it was a hundred bucks, but ninety thousand?”
His hands went through his hair. “Wait. Grocery stores have banks in them - and they’re all open later for the holidays, right?”
I didn’t want to admit that I knew nothing about banks. ATM’s were all I’d ever needed. You just ask them for money, and they give it to you.
“I think there’s a drugstore right around the corner.”
I nodded and followed Mason over a ridge of slush and onto the sidewalk. The snow was coming down thicker now, and the temperature was dipping enough that the flakes were starting to stick to whatever they touched. As we rounded the corner, we saw the door to the drugstore was propped open, which was a good sign. A lot of late-night shoppers were inside, wandering the isles. Entering through the door, we were met with warmth and softly playing holiday-themed music.
The bank was in the back, near the pharmacy. We hurried down the shampoo isle only to find the last cashier of the night locking the door.
“Hey,” Mason greeted her. “You guys are closed, huh?”
“Yeah, sorry,” she answered. “We closed at eight-thirty.”
“What time is it now?” He asked her, looking around for a clock on one of the walls.
She seemed to be fixing her hair as she told him, “Um, eight-forty, or so.”
Mason nodded. “And there’s no possibility you could re-open and do me a huge favor? It would only take a couple of minutes.”
She was shaking her head and adjusting her purse on her shoulder. “I’m not really supposed to do that...”
“Bethany?” Mason asked.
The girl smiled shyly and touched her name-tag. “Yes, I’m Bethany.”
“I like that name,” he told her, despite my scowling in his direction. Was he flirting with her? “It’s pretty.”
“Thank you,” she responded.
“Do people call you Beth?” He asked.
She sighed. “Sometimes.”
“But you don’t like that?”
She shook her head.
“Okay, well I won’t call you that.” He placed his hand on my back. “This is Laura, I’m Mason. But don’t call me Mase.”
“And all we need is one little cashier’s check,” he explained. “You could just open the door, print one up. It would be really quick, and you would be saving lives - seriously.”
She looked unsure. “I don’t know...”
Mason reached out and touched her arm. “Please, Bethany?”
And that’s all it took. She smiled again and fumbled to open the door. “Alright. I guess it’s fine. I’m working tomorrow morning, anyway. I’ll just add it to tomorrow’s paperwork.”
“Thank you. So much,” Mason told her, giving me an elated smile.
I waited at the door while they figured everything out. Mason had to sign a couple pieces of paper, including the check. But soon, his new friend, Bethany, was heading out of the store and Mason was folding a check and stuffing it into his pocket like it was simply a receipt and not my lifeline.
He smiled. “There we go.”
“What the hell was that, anyway?” I asked.
“What was what?”
“You just said her name a couple of times, and she melted. It was like sorcery.”
He laughed and followed me down an isle filled with everything red and green and gold. Christmas decorations, stuffed toys, and coffee mugs galore. I picked one up to inspect the design.
Mason was standing behind me. Close enough that I could feel his coat brush my clothes. “Like this,” he told me softly. “Laura...”
Ignoring the fullness in my chest, and the tingle up my arms, I told him, “It doesn’t work on me.”
He chuckled. “Yes, it does.”
I turned to look up at him, and seeing his teasing smile caused my own mouth to lift a little at the corner. “No, it doesn’t.”
“You’re kind of a brat,” he joked.
“That’s what I hear.” I placed the mug gently onto the shelf and straightened it out of respect for whomever would have to fix it if I didn’t. Then I walked to the next isle with Mason on my heels.
“Are you actually jealous?” He asked me.
Normally, I liked it when people got right to the point. When they skipped the pretenses and told you exactly how it was. But not today.
“You are!” He came closer.
I tried to ignore his presence and found myself extraordinarily interested in tinsel. Running my fingers through the gold strands until one of them sliced my finger. “Ouch!”
“Are you okay?” He was clearly concerned as he took my hand. “What happened?”
“Apparently, tinsel is sharp.”
“Yes, it is,” he mused. “You have a tiny cut. But it’s not even bleeding.”
“It still hurts.”
He continued staring into my eyes as he lifted my hand and kissed the tip of my finger. At that moment, I couldn’t even feel my legs, let alone the cut. He stepped closer still, even though there wasn’t much room between us to begin with. “Better?” he asked.
I pulled away and cleared my throat. “Yep. Yeah, sure.”
“Nope.” Not even a little bit.
We only had a few minutes left before we would need to head back to his apartment and collect everyone for the ‘meeting’. But we enjoyed every second of normalcy, going through all the novelty items and reading the different quotes on plaques and shirts and cups. At one point, I realized I couldn’t just buy the one I liked. And I even checked a few price-tags which I never do. This new life would take some getting used to.
Just as we were heading for the door, Mason caught my arm. “Oh, one more thing,” he told me, leading me back to a corner of the store. There we found a few shelves filled with movies. He rifled through most of them and came away with something neither of us had seen.
“It looks good,” I mentioned.
“For after,” he told me. “When we leave the club, and everything is over. We go back to my place and watch this together. I’ll even make pop-corn.”
So sweet that he was trying to give me hope - give us both hope - and something to look forward to.