by Liz Maverick
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It's graduation day. I've got a million things to do. None of which includes going to the actual ceremony. I don't think too much of that kind of stuff.
I look over at the shrink-wrapped square enshrining the cap and gown that I've abandoned on a side table. "A total bus station moment."
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. But I'm kind of sorry I'm missing it."
"You're really not going?" she asks.
"Interview's more important."
Kitty's eyes narrow. "You know, I think you scheduled it on graduation day on purpose."
"Did not," I lie. "They asked me to."
"Like I said, graduation day is nothing but a bus station moment. All that waiting, it finally gets here, you get on for the ride and then you're unceremoniously booted out of your seat and replaced by someone else."
"Graduation is maybe the kind of bus you don't want to miss."
"I couldn't care less."
"I'm serious." I laugh. "College was only incrementally less painful than high school."
Kitty nods. She pulls the lollipop stick out of 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 again.
"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 lunged forward, she pulls back. "We hate goodbyes." She thrusts the plastic bag at me. "You'll remember to feed him?"
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 last suitcase and opens the door. A sharp noise echoes down the inner staircase and we both jump.
She sticks her head out and looks both ways.
"What was that?" I ask.
She shrugs then looks back over her shoulder at me.
I echo Kitty's words. "We hate goodbyes."
Kitty's black pigtails bob as she starts lugging her suitcase down the stairs, waving her hand behind her in farewell. She stops and turns and calls up to me. "Just remember, Roxanne, it can't always be about tomorrow. Sometimes it's about right fucking now."
I shut the door and stand there for a moment listening to the clomp of Kitty's combat boots on the stairs. They become 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, or something like it, 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 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 my item 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, trying to focus on anything at all that wouldn't freak me the hell out. The heels of my shoes struck the pavement in the sound of confidence that the rest of me just didn't feel.
Which was silly, because when I got to the store there would be someone I knew, someone familiar. Naveed. So, it would be fine.
Naveed worked what seemed to be around the clock at the 7-Eleven near my place. Two blocks down and two blocks over, a five-minute walk. I realized that 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 it—even if the 7-Eleven itself was really the line of demarcation. We had lots of quaint Victorian facades in the area, 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. It just was. And we had lots of things I could think about to make myself feel like I wasn't being a complete idiot by coming out here like this.
Besides, I made a point of walking in the middle of the street, and it wasn't like I was loitering or anything; all I wanted was to get there, get my thing and get home.
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 spotlights from the occasional streetlamp.
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.
So chances are that nothing is going to happen to you, which means there is absolutely no point in panicking. Keep walking.
The first step was always the hardest, but I'd discovered that once you got going, it was all a lot easier. In a relative sense, anyway.
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 towards home. A discarded S.F. Chronicle fluttered and slid across a rectangle of light spilled across the pavement. I turned again to look forward. The pale glow of the 7-Eleven was only a block away. It was so close. But so was home.
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. But it was 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 there, some distance in front of me, 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 again and looked at the guy who'd answered.
A funny little wheezing sound came from my mouth. I'm going to die.
I pulled at the messenger bag strapped across my chest and started scrabbling for the phone in my bag which was, as always in times of dire need, somewhere very far and very deep. And while I was wheezing and frantically feeling out the corners of the bag, the men started moving in on me. Not more than a block away, each was hunched over as if they were stalking me.
In my mind, I screamed at the top of my lungs. In reality, I suspect it was nothing more than a futile squeak. Arms out, taking tentative, sideways steps as they moved in on me, the men went silent with a kind of predatory focus that chilled me to the bone.
I dropped to the street, upending my bag. The contents spilled out. 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 came my cellphone, which reacted to my sudden lack of motor control by flying out of my grasp and tumbling across the pavement.
I glanced wildly in one direction down the street and then the other. I thought of the way animals looked in that split second before striking out, tearing away from encroaching predators. Sure enough, the men left their marks, sprinting full bore towards me.
The pavement vibrated with the pounding of their feet. Terror clutched at my throat. I couldn't get air into my lungs. The curb spun around me as if it had been built in a circle. Dizzy and gasping, I focused on my cellphone.
The pavement shook harder and I cringed down into it, anticipating a fist or a boot in my face any moment. I still couldn't breathe, and I could barely move. All I could do to prevent a complete surrender was to focus on the cellphone. I inched toward it on my hands and knees, leaving a trail of belongings in my wake.
If nothing else, go down fighting. But I knew those words 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 the panic and the fear. I felt so weak. So, so weak, and I hate that feeling more than anything in the world.
The endgame came in a flurry of 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. I sensed a presence above me before he even opened his mouth. Then the British accent yelled, "I've got her!" Two arms slid under my armpits and I was wrenched up from the street.
"I've got her," he repeated, his 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 terror I would even notice such a thing.
I waited for the end, but he 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 voice said sullenly.
My captor started backing away, and I was dragged along with his body movement like a rag doll. The toes of my shoes 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 not have time to figure it out. But the sound was answered merely by an angry gasp in my ear and a lurch sideways.
I fell away from my captor, landing hard on the pavement.
"This is where it begins," the American voice said, distinctly triumphant.
No one picked me up again, and I dared to raise my head just in time to watch the two men bear down on each other like knights at some kind of 7-Eleven-sponsored urban joust.
My former captor, the irritable British guy in the suit, versus the other guy wearing a simple t-shirt and jeans: they were smashing their fists into each other 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 wasn't bullet-worthy, I lifted myself to my knees. Leaving all of my things behind, shutting out the sound of punishing body contact and testosterone-fueled grunting, I crawled hand over hand, knee over knee down the middle of the street towards home. Shaking so hard I could barely propel myself forward, I was moving slower than seemed 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. He'd probably just been hit in the face.
Frozen in mid-crawl, I thought about it. I really did. Then I decided to look over my shoulder. It all happened so fast from there. The t-shirt guy was struggling in a choke hold, the suited guy behind him had one arm hooked around his neck.
The night's darkness had leached to a smoky grey, making it easier to see their faces. One I didn't recognize at all. The other, the man in t-shirt and jeans... I could hardly believe it. Mason Merrick?
His eyes met mine, and in the next second he 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 and yelled, "Get in the car!"
I'd crawled up next to Mason's car. Along a typical, bumper-to-bumper
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 each other while I did my best to will myself home and into 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 again, Mason was still on top of his adversary but had one arm out searching blindly for the weapon just beyond his reach. He had to sacrifice his hold, but he finally got what he sought, arching his back and grabbing the gun.
The Brit used his opportunity to free himself, but didn't get far. Mason swung the weapon into his face and yelled, "Advantage."
The Brit slowly got to his feet, and I thought he was going to lunge. All of a sudden both men relaxed. They checked their cell phones, of all things, then calmly put them away. Then they picked up the intensity of their conflict immediately, as if it had never waned in the first place. Bizarre.
The air inside the car was suffocating; the temperature seemed like it had very suddenly climbed over one hundred. I automatically reached out to turn down the thermostat and froze with my arm stuck out in front of me as it registered that the car wasn't running so the heating system couldn't be on. Outside, the air had held a bit of a bite, a thin chill that prickled the skin. Inside this car it was sweltering, hotter than seemed reasonable, logical…possible.
I pressed my body back against the seat, my skin crawling. Claustrophobia set in. Sweat slipped down my burning face and onto my shirt. I grabbed for the window handle, but the mechanism was broken. I couldn't even budge it an inch.
I looked out the window again, frantically jiggling the knob.
Still holding his gun on the British guy, Mason was all up in the other man's face and gesturing in my direction, taunting him. To my shock, the British guy merely put his hands on his hips and swore violently at the ground. Mason flailed his gun around a bit more; then, to my shock, the British guy just surrendered.
It seemed too easy, despite my lack of knowledge of the circumstances, and any relief I might have had about Mason's victory was tempered by the oddity of it all. Still, it seemed I could take a chance on leaving the safety of the car. I was suffocating. I thought I might even be sick. My sweaty fingers grappled frantically at the door lock. I managed to pull it up, wrench the handle and push the door open.
Falling out of the car, 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. Breathing in huge gulps of cold air, I thought to myself that the sky should be light grey by now, but it still looked as dark as it had earlier. Darker, even.
"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 named Leo shake his head and casually walk away, brushing the dirt off his suit jacket. Mason stood quietly, watching him go; then he stuffed his gun in the waistband in back of his jeans and looked over his shoulder at me.
I scrambled to my feet, swaying backwards against the car as blood rushed to my head.
"Hey, Rox," Mason said. He walked to my bag and started stuffing my belongings back 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 me I was as close as I was going to get to normal. Assuming normal is close to speechless and gaping.
If you'd asked me back when my college roommate 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 that the chance was nil. But then again, the last time I saw him he was wearing nothing but boxer shorts and was eating my sugar cereal, and I'd also have said that the chance of finding myself in a situation with him involving weaponry beyond a kitchen spoon was nil. In the span of one short night, both events had come to pass.
And the thing is, I don't believe in coincidences.
Excerpted from Wired by Liz Maverick. Copyright © 2007 by Liz Maverick. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.