It’s graduation day. I’ve got a million things to do, none of which includes going to the actual ceremony. I look over at the shrink-wrapped square enshrining the cap and gown that I’ve abandoned on a side table. I’m completely aware of the fact that I’m graduating, and I don’t need to sweat in a black robe for four hours in the California sun to prove it. Besides, what’s the point if no one’s there to watch?
“So, I guess this is it,” I say.
Kitty twists the lollipop in her mouth, getting blue sugar syrup all over her fingers. A goldfish swims in the plastic bag she’s clutching in her other hand. “Yeah. You’re really not going?”
“Well, you’re not going.”
“The ticket was, like, a billion times cheaper if I left today.”
I shrug. “And this interview’s more important.”
“That tech company? You are such a geek!”
I laugh. “I like the toys.”
Kitty’s eyes narrow. “You know you scheduled it on graduation day on purpose.”
“Did not,” I lie. “They asked me to.”
“I’m serious.” I laugh. “I’m just glad to be done. Things are going to start happening for me—for both of us. We’ve got the whole world ahead.”
“They never even answered the invite, did they?” Kitty says quietly, biting the last bits of blue off the stick. “I’m sorry.”
I try to play it off like I don’t care that my family decided a long time ago to stop being my family. “I only sent it as a courtesy.”
She pulls the lollipop stick from her mouth and it comes out clean. She crams the used stick in her cargo pocket. “Well, I guess this is it.”
“I guess so,” I say, frowning hard and trying not to cry.
“You’re really not going to graduation?” she asks.
“I know. You’ve got a plane to catch.”
We stand there repeating ourselves because we don’t want to accept that everything’s about to change.
Kitty lunges forward for a hug, the bagged goldfish swinging wildly in her grip, water dripping off her wrist down my neck. As fast as she lunges forward, she pulls back. “We hate good-byes,” she says. She thrusts the plastic bag at me. “I tried to get Mrs. Bimmel to take him, but she said her cats might eat him. You’ll remember he needs to be fed?”
I take the bag with a sigh. “I’ll remember. He’ll be here when you get back.”
“I don’t know,” Kitty says skeptically. “He’s pretty old.”
I hold up the bag and we watch the goldfish together. Then we look at each other.
“Well,” Kitty says, “I know you won’t try to kill him on purpose.”
We laugh to keep things from getting teary, but, of course, they get teary anyway. Kitty picks up her final suitcase and opens the front door. At the last second she looks over her shoulder at me. I echo her words before we fall apart: “We hate good-byes.”
Kitty’s black pigtails bob as she goes out in the hall and starts lugging her suitcase down the stairs. She stops and turns and calls up to me, “This is going to be great. You know? And just think, no waiting for the bathroom. It’s all yours. So… you’re okay, yeah?”
“Of course!” I chirp. I sound like I’m trying too hard.
“Good. Just remember, Roxanne, it can’t always be about tomorrow. Sometimes it’s about right fucking now.” Kitty heads down, waving her hand behind her in farewell.
I shut the door and stand there for a moment, listening to the clomp of Kitty’s combat boots on the stairs becoming less clompy with every step until there’s nothing left. Sirens blare outside. I hold the goldfish bag up to eye level. “It’ll be fine,” I say, then look around for something to put him in.
The phone rings.
The doorbell rings.
I look between the phone and the door…
… and I pick one.
We had everything before us; we had nothing before us. I’d read that once, but I couldn’t help thinking it had to be one or the other. Alone in the middle of the street staring into darkness, I wondered which was worse, and forced myself to keep walking.
I was on the way to the 7-Eleven. It was two o’clock in the morning. I was almost positive there wouldn’t be anyone in there but me, so I could just go straight in and buy something and then I’d turn around and come straight back. What could possibly happen?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing was going to happen, so there was absolutely no point in panicking.
I’m not going to panic… not going to panic… not going…
I tried staring at my feet as I walked, tried to focus on anything at all that wouldn’t freak me the hell out. The heels of my shoes struck the pavement with the sound of a confidence the rest of me just didn’t feel.
Which was silly, because when I got there, there would be one person I knew, someone familiar. Naveed. So, that would be fine. Although if I thought about it too much, I’d have to consider just how pathetic it was to count the manager at the local convenience store as one of my better friends. That was the last thing I wanted to think about: the state of my world. What had become of my so-called life since graduation.
I needed to focus on the positive, not on the negative. This was all about rebuilding, clean-slating, making dull things shiny. That’s why I was here. At two o’clock in the goddamn morning on my way to the 7-Eleven. Two blocks down and two blocks over, a five-minute walk.
Granted, a lot of crime could take place in five minutes, but I liked to think that my neighborhood was far enough north of the really sketchy part of town to avoid that stuff, even if the 7-Eleven itself was really the line of demarcation. We had lots of quaint Victorian facades, only some of which were still crumbling, and we had fairly nice neighbors, most of whom tried to grow gardens. We were still close enough to the bay to hear the comforting low of foghorns at night, even if we couldn’t see the water. We had hills near enough to climb and look over to see a grand city view, even if we weren’t living in it. In short, my neighborhood wasn’t the worst and it wasn’t the best. We had lots of things I could think of to make myself feel like I wasn’t being a complete idiot by coming out here like this.
I made a point of walking in the middle of the street, but it wasn’t like I was loitering; all I wanted was to get to my destination, get my stuff, and get home. My head down, I jammed my hands deeper into my hoodie pockets and powered through the crisp air, moving from dark to light and back again as I passed beneath illumination from the occasional street lamp.
At the halfway point between my house and the convenience store, the panic I was trying so hard to keep at bay started to win. Once more I stopped in the middle of the street and tried to work it out in that same logical, rational manner.
What are you doing, Roxanne?
I’m going to the 7-Eleven. People go to the 7-Eleven all the time and absolutely nothing happens to them. Chances are that absolutely nothing is going to happen to me, which means there is absolutely no point in panicking. Keep walking.
The first step was always the hardest, for I’d discovered that once you got going, it was all a lot easier—in a relative sense, anyway. So I forced myself to move forward, trying hard to believe everything I was telling myself, because if I let myself panic, everything I feared would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I made it another half a block, then slowed to a halt and turned to look behind me toward home. A discarded S.F. Chronicle fluttered and slid across a shard of light striking the pavement. I turned toward my destination. The pale glow of the 7-Eleven was only a block away, a gas station beyond. It was so close. But so was home.
And as I stood there, staring at the glow, a figure emerged from the shadows and stepped into the street.
Give me a break. This would certainly have been the moment to laugh if one was in the mood to do so, and I could feel my body begin to react—in a bad way, with all the symptoms of fear, coming together one by one. I shouldn’t have thought about self-fulfilling prophecies.
I didn’t make any sudden moves; I simply raised my foot to take a step, landed with the swivel of an about-face, and started walking home at exactly the same pace.
But suddenly, some distance in front of me, there was the figure of a second man, rising up from a crouch in the middle of the street, as if he’d been waiting for some time.
“She’s mine, Leo!”
I whipped around and looked behind me at the guy who’d shouted.
“I think not, Mason,” a British accent shouted back. “She’s mine.”
I whipped around to look at the guy who’d answered, and a funny little wheezing sound started coming out of my mouth. I’m going to die.
I pulled at the messenger bag strapped across my chest and started scrabbling for my phone, which was, as always in times of dire need, somewhere very far and very deep inside. While I was wheezing and frantically feeling out the corners of the bag, the two men started moving in on me, not more than a block away each, and hunched over a bit as if they were stalking me.
In my mind I screamed at the top of my lungs; in reality I suspect the noise was nothing more than a futile squeak. Arms out, taking tentative, sideways steps as they moved in on me, the men had gone completely silent with a kind of predatory focus that chilled me to the bone.
I dropped to my knees on the street, upending my bag. The contents spilled everywhere: tissues, Band-Aids, sunglasses, money, keys, an expired driver’s license, and a few other bits of general crap that had no real purpose but to make me feel more normal. Last was my cell phone, which reacted to my sudden lack of motor control by flying out of my grasp and rattling off across the pavement.
I looked wildly from one end of the street to the other, at the men. They looked the way animals look in that split second before attacking. Sure enough, the men left their marks, sprinting full-bore toward me.
The pavement vibrated from the pounding of their feet. Terror clutched at my throat. I couldn’t get air into my lungs. The curb seemed to spin around me as if it had been built in a circle. Dizzy and gasping, I focused on my cell phone.
The pavement shook harder, and I cringed downward, anticipating a fist or a boot in my face at any moment. I still couldn’t breathe, and I could barely move. All I could do to prevent a complete surrender was stay focused on the phone. I inched toward it on my hands and knees, leaving a trail of personal belongings in my wake.
If nothing else, go down fighting. But I knew those old words and that belief were as hollow as the mantras I’d repeated over and over and over on the way here, and I gave in. Curling my head down into my knees, I rolled onto my side in the street. Even to save myself, I couldn’t work past my panic and the fear. I felt so weak. So, so weak. I hated that feeling more than anything in the world. But I couldn’t do anything about it.
The endgame came in a flurry of fisticuffs, arms and bodies and men shouting and muscle against muscle. I cringed again, waiting for pain. Silver streaked through the air, and out of the corner of my eye I watched a gun flip end over end until it smashed down hard on the pavement some distance away.
I sensed the presence above me before he even opened his mouth. The British-accented voice yelled, “I’ve got her!” Then two arms slid under my armpits, and I was wrenched up from the street. “I’ve got her,” was repeated, the voice growling and angry.
How strange. The emphasis was all funny. The emphasis was on the I’ve, though I had no idea why in a moment of such terror I would even notice.
I waited for the end, but my captor merely crushed me against his suit, my face pressed into his chest. “Sorry, Mason,” he said. “You lose. A bit out of shape, aren’t you?”
“I tripped on a goddamn Big Gulp cup,” the second man said sullenly.
My captor started backing away, and I was dragged along like a rag doll. The toes of my sneakers scraped across the pavement as I hung limply in his hold, my eyes squeezed shut. “This is where it ends,” he said.
I didn’t know how a person might prepare herself to die, and when a gunshot rang out in the next second, I thought I might never have time to figure it out. I fell away from the man holding me, landing hard on the pavement. But I wasn’t the one who’d been hit. The most polite curse I’d ever heard flew from the lips of my English captor, who gripped the top of his arm with the opposite hand. I watched in a kind of trance as razor-sharp lines of red appeared between his fingers.
“This is where it begins,” the American voice said, distinctly triumphant.
The two men looked at each other. A beat of silence passed between them. Then, with matching battle cries, the two charged each other again like horseless knights in some kind of 7-Eleven-sponsored urban joust; my former captor, the British guy in the suit, versus the other guy wearing a simple T-shirt and jeans. They were smashing their fists into each other again and grappling like a couple of high school wrestlers all because…
Let me get this straight. Are they fighting over who gets to mug me? There was no time to process that question. Hoping to God I wouldn’t get shot, I lifted myself to my knees. Shutting out the sound of the struggle and testosterone-fueled grunting, I continued crawling hand over hand, knee over knee, down the middle of the street toward home, shaking so hard I could barely propel myself forward. It felt like I was moving slower than was even humanly possible. The likelihood of escape—
“L. Roxanne Zaborovsky!”
I stopped crawling. Only my closest friends knew about the L. It wasn’t even on my driver’s license.
“It’s me! Mason Me—” The announcement was lost in a kind of gargle. The speaker had probably just been hit in the face.
Frozen in midcrawl, I finally looked over my shoulder. It all happened really fast from there. The T-shirted guy was struggling in a choke hold, the suited man behind him. The darkness had leached to a smoky gray, making it easier to see their faces. One I didn’t recognize at all. The other man, in the T-Shirt and jeans… I could hardly believe it. Mason Merrick?
His eyes met mine, and in the next second he’d made some fancy move and turned the tables. Suddenly it was Mason sitting on his adversary’s chest, punching the guy in the face. He actually took a moment to look over at me in the heat of the struggle and yelled, “Get in the car!”
I’d crawled up next to Mason’s car. It seemed long odds on a typical bumper-to-bumper San Francisco curbside, but I’d somehow crawled up next to it. I recognized the Mustang immediately; it was the one he used to wash and wax outside my house ad nauseam.
I reached for the door handle, my fingers trembling so badly I could barely work them, and opened the door. Launching myself inside, I banged my shin hard on the stick shift. I locked the door, pulled my feet up on the seat, wrapped my arms around my knees, and stared down at the keys in the ignition, which were faintly tinkling against one another while I did my best to will myself home to my room. I never should have come out tonight. I knew it. Self-fulfilling prophecies have always been my downfall.
When I looked out the window, Mason was still on top of his adversary but had one arm out searching blindly for the gun. It was just beyond his reach. He had to sacrifice his hold, but he got what he wanted by arching his back in a desperate grab.
The Brit freed himself, but he didn’t get far. Mason swung the weapon around, pointed it onto the Brit’s face, and yelled, “Advantage.”
Favoring his bloody arm, the Brit slowly got to his feet. I thought he was going to lunge forward, but the two men both went slack, simultaneously turning away from each other to check… their cell phones? They just as quickly and just as calmly put them away again, and picked up the intensity of their conflict as if it had never waned in the first place.
The heat inside the car spiked. I automatically reached out to turn down the temperature, but the car wasn’t running and the heating system wasn’t on. Outside, the air had thrown off a chill that prickled my skin. Inside the car it was sweltering, hotter than seemed reasonable, logical.
I pressed my body back against the seat, my skin crawling as claustrophobia set in. Sweat slipped down my burning face onto my sweatshirt. I grabbed for the window handle, but the mechanism was stiff and my fingers too damp to get a grip.
Out the window again, I saw Mason was in the other man’s face, gesturing in my direction, taunting, flailing his gun around. The other man was in some pain. He finally put his good hand on his hip, swore violently at the ground, and surrendered.
It was almost too easy, I thought, and any relief I might have felt at Mason’s victory was tempered by the oddness of the circumstances and my discomfort over Mason having shot the guy, even if it seemed in self-defense. At least I felt like I could now take a chance on leaving the safety of the car. I was suffocating. I thought I might be sick from it all. My sweaty fingers finally bested the handle and I pushed the door open.
I basically fell out of the car, and for a moment I just lay on my back in the filthy street, staring up at the stars with my arms splayed above my head like a corpse, and breathing in huge gulps of cold air. It seemed to me that the sky should have been light gray by now, but it looked pitch-black again.
“Pack it in, Leo,” I heard Mason say. “No straight line here, buddy. You’ll have to go around.”
I turned my head and saw the man called Leo shake his head and walk away. His good hand clasped his bloody arm.
Mason quietly watched him go, then stuffed his gun in the waistband at the back of his jeans and looked at me. I scrambled to my feet, swaying backward against the car as the blood rushed to my head.
“Hey, Rox,” he said. He grabbed my messenger bag and started stuffing my belongings into it.
I was grateful for a few extra moments to compose myself. The last thing I wanted was for Mason Merrick to see me completely fall apart in front of him. By the time he reached my side I was as close to normal as I was going to get. Assuming normal was speechless and gaping.
If you’d asked me back when my first college roommate, Louise, broke up with Mason Merrick whether or not I’d ever see the guy with the two last names again in my lifetime, I’d have said the chance was nil. Then again, the last time I saw him he was wearing nothing but boxer shorts and eating my sugar cereal, and I’d have given even lower odds at the chance of finding myself in a situation with him involving weaponry beyond a cereal spoon. In the span of one short night, both unlikely events had come to pass.
Thing is, I don’t believe in coincidences…
Mason handed over my bag and, as if nothing unusual had happened, asked, “You okay?”
I stared at him for a moment, then blurted, “Am okay? No!”
“How do you feel?”
Totally disoriented. “Not well. If you need something more specific, I’m somewhere between a heart attack and a nervous breakdown.”
“That guy’s not going to hurt you again. Not while I’m around.”
I didn’t know where to go with that. I was a mess. Actually, I was beyond even the concept of a mess, mentally and physically. I looked down. My palms were scraped up; the knees of my sweats were shredded and absolutely filthy.
Mason looked over his shoulder, turned back, and casually picked up where he’d left off, as if we’d bumped into each other at a party. “It’s been a long time, Rox. It’s good to see you again,” he said with an odd hitch in his voice.
“Stay away from me.” Clutching my bag against my chest, I turned and started booking it.
“Hey! That’s it? I just saved your ass!”
I glanced back at him and picked up my pace.
I was so getting out of there.
I realized immediately that even if I could have run faster, he would have caught me. I stopped short under a street lamp—if anything else happened, this would make it easier for someone to witness from one of the apartments. Mason closed the distance between us as if it were nothing. As he came up to me, in the glare of the light the brutality of the fistfight really registered; those were raw cuts and bruises on his face, a real swelling over his eye. Somehow, I’d expected him to look fine. That he wasn’t fine made what had just happened all the more frightening, all the more real.
“Can I give you a ride home?” he asked.
“I’ll walk you home then.”
Mason fell into step next to me. “You’re probably wondering what all this is about. Me showing up like this…”
I stopped abruptly and turned on him. “I don’t believe in coincidences.”
He managed a tight smile. “I don’t either.”
I started walking again. He stayed right with me. “Are you stalking me, Mason?” I half-joked.
“Who said that to you?”
“What?” His response was not what I’d expected.
“Did somebody tell you I was stalking you?” I looked over at him and he wasn’t smiling. “That’s really not funny. Kaysar likes to use that one.”
My stomach plunged. What the hell was going on? “Kaysar?”
“The man I was fighting. Leonardo Kaysar. He’s very dangerous—no, listen to me. Listen to me.”
I was already walking again.
“Leonardo Kaysar is trying to get to you, and I’m trying to stop him.”
“ ‘Get to me.’ Uh-huh.” I was still walking.
“I’ve been following your situation for a long time, and things have finally come to a head.”
I put on the brakes. “Following my situation, or following me? How did either of you know I was going to be at the 7-Eleven tonight?”
“He’s a dangerous man, Rox,” Mason repeated, blatantly skirting the question. “A very dangerous man.”
“You’re freaking me out. If there’s some kind of bet involved, tell me what it is and I’ll help you win. If there’s some kind of joke, tell me what it is and I’ll help you make them laugh without the joke having to be on me. But stop this. For old times’ sake, okay? You have to stop this. It’s very, very scary.”
I’d backed up to allow for a nice, big amount of room between myself and Mason, and if he so much as put a pinkie into my personal space, I was going to go berserker all over his ass. Well, that’s what I liked to think I was capable of, anyway.
Mason didn’t move.
I turned and tried to pick up my pace again, but exhaustion hit me hard. Mason followed me home in silence. I considered pretending another place was mine, but he’d lived here for a couple of years, so he already knew the address.
It was a two-story condo in a complex with a bunch of other condos. The place was given to me by my parents as compensation for marrying into new families and never contacting me again, and I’d lived there forever. And while there were walkways and stairs in the complex that I was certain I knew better than Mason, he’d already made it apparent I wouldn’t be able to outrun him.
At the top of the steps up to my place, I froze. The dumbest thing I could possibly do would be to open my door and give him an opportunity to overpower me. Once we were both inside, I would have no escape. I had to get rid of him.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said.
I raised an eyebrow. I didn’t know what to think. How could he possibly know?
Mason hesitated, as if he were testing words on his tongue before saying them out loud. “Look, this is very complicated. The most important thing for you to understand right now is that you’re in trouble. You have something Kaysar wants.”
“What does he want?”
I didn’t say anything. He didn’t say anything. The phrase just hung in the air waiting for a laugh. Neither of us laughed. Mason stood there, his head tilted, waiting for his dramatic proclamation to impress me in some way.
My chest tightened. “You jerk! This is a joke, isn’t it? It’s a joke.” The only thing worse than being attacked for real was being attacked and the butt of somebody’s joke.
Mason looked at me impatiently. “Kind of an elaborate gag, don’t you think?”
“You and your colossally stupid practical jokes. This one is really out of line. You’re trying to humiliate me or scare me, and either way it’s a nasty thing. I don’t know why you’d do this to me after all these years.” Choking with the effort of holding back tears, I was barely coherent when I spit, “Good-bye, Mason.”
“Rough splice,” he said.
After a moment of incomprehension I looked with complete disgust at the cut on his forehead and replied, “You’ll live.”
“Hey, you liked those jokes. I mean, you pretended you didn’t but that was part of our thing. You know. We had a… a thing. It was funny, those jokes and gags and stuff. You thought it was funny.”
“There was no ‘thing,’ and I don’t remember whether it was funny or not. What I’m saying is, it’s not funny now.”
“Oh, there was a thing,” Mason said suggestively.
“It was just you looking for attention.”
“Maybe it was me looking for attention from you,” he tossed out.
I didn’t know what to say. All I knew was that there was nothing funny about any of this now, and I wanted him out of here. I widened my eyes and said, “Oh, shit. I dropped my wallet.”
He turned and looked down the stairway, then took a couple of steps away, exactly as I’d hoped, at which point I ran over, jammed the key into my door, launched myself inside my place, and slammed it shut.
A second later his shoulder hit the door with a dull smack. “Give me a break!” he shouted through the wood, in between pounding it with his fist. “What kind of joke involves two guys beating the crap out of each other like that, over a girl one of them doesn’t know and the other one hasn’t spoken to in over four years?”
A really bad one. He was right. It didn’t make much sense. I waited for something more from him. Something to justify the real punches and real bruises and very real men grabbing at me and trying to prevent me from running away.
“Roxanne,” Mason said, the effort to remain calm obvious in his voice. “It’s not some game we’re playing here. It’s not a joke.”
Stop saying that. If it’s not a joke or a game… what is it?
My knees gave out and I slid to the floor, holding my breath while I carefully leaned in and pressed my ear against the door. I huddled in a ball of quivering flesh and bone while Mason called my name a couple more times until someone across the way opened a door and told him to shut the hell up. Mason swore and mumbled something, and the door vibrated as if he’d stepped closer.
I held still. Something metal scraped against the wood. Some kind of tool? His gun? Or maybe nothing more than a zipper.
“You’re going to have to open this door at some point, Rox,” he said quietly. “You know you want to.”
I did want to. Part of me, at least. Mason had always lived a big, bold life, whether he was simply giving himself the run of my apartment or making big, blowsy plans for himself and my roommate Louise. When I wasn’t busy envying her for it, I guess I was busy admiring him. He was too thick to see it—or at least I hoped he was. Otherwise, I’d be as mortified now as I was terrified. The thing was, it didn’t really surprise me that he was running around town in some kind of lethal skirmish with an Englishman ripped out of one of the spy novels I loved to read; what surprised me was that I was suddenly running around with him.
A soft thump reverberated against the door, and I could imagine Mason’s palms right up against mine on the other side. Breathlessly, I stared at my hands, slowly splaying my fingers as I knelt on the ground.
What do you want from me? I wondered.
“I’m going to back off, okay? Give you a chance to settle. Leo’s gotta go deal with that arm and… stuff… so I don’t want you to worry. I’ll come back tomorrow,” Mason said. His voice was low and level. He knew I was right there. He knew I was close enough to hear, and his words were strangely intimate, divided and huddled though we were.
“You’re going to have to open your mind, Roxanne,” he finally said, and then he struck the door hard as he stood up.
I flinched, my heart pounding. But there wasn’t anything more, nothing besides the sound of footsteps fading. I stumbled to my feet and fled upstairs, barricading myself in my bedroom with a chair that I knew couldn’t possibly do any good.
No, I didn’t understand what the hell had just happened. I didn’t have a clue what Mason Merrick was trying to pull off or what his motives could possibly be; I’d cut him off at every pass. Now he’d left me alone, as I’d asked him to, and it was a solitary confinement with which I was all too familiar.
Open my mind, open the door, he’d said. I’d be a liar if I denied that part of me was glad he was coming back.