R.E. Hagan vs. Cheryl King
Adult grape juice seeps down his perpetually dry throat. It tastes like the gods’ nectar; but then again, so does any substance when you are as depressed as him. Even on the first drink — even mostly sober — he feels drunk.
Hugo McCaffrey chuckles at his own sorrow, voice so muffled amid the din of jovial executive suits that any one of them would mistake the croaking sound for a frog who snuck indoors. (In other words, no one notices the unlikely event.) He kicks his feet onto the coffee table and watches the news.
A balding, middle-aged man stands erect on the widescreen TV, reading from his teleprompter, commanding control over every gesture.
McCaffrey’s nice suit sinks into the leather couch. In a different world, he wonders what his life would have been like if he went into broadcast journalism instead of business. And then he remembers being any kind of authority figure invites Hatred to come knocking at your door. The only way to keep your sanity (in his experience) is to hate everyone else. Hearing his name alongside the words “CEO of Verso-Tile Media,” he winces, taking another intoxicating gulp.
The Company’s recent CEO appointment dominates every media-biz outlet’s bandwidth. It lines their coffers too.
“McCaffrey, my friend!”
“Dave?” Hugo’s deep wrinkles barely recede upon hearing the lively greeting’s tone. Dave Daniels — another exec from…some other branch — comes up to him with an outstretched hand. He is a powerful, confident-looking Black man with a kind smile. Though Hugo always has hopes for execs of color, he would not be surprised if Daniels was merely a token, a talking head. McCaffrey rises like a man three times his forty years of age and shakes his hand. “Yes, hello.”
“Good speech at the Detroit shareholder meeting the other day.”
“Huh,” Hugo replies with yet another sip. He detects the bullshit in Daniels’s voice right away. That has always been his strong suit: detecting bullshit…and Hatred.
“Ok.” Daniels drops the act. “It sucked more dick than a stripper in a slum—”
“But he’s all we’ve got to work with, right?” Zippers clink and rattle. Jewelry sways. A prim and proper woman in a fancy, but modest coat and dress draws near; a middle-aged capitalist, freckles decorating her otherwise bland face.
Hathaway is a dime-a-dozen four-quadrant gal who can sway most middle-of-the-road opinions through a mere cursory glance. “He got picked by the board, so we have to back him.” She pats McCaffrey’s neck with a firm, but disingenuous slap.
Hugo smiles, but his eyes water. Most people would not interpret these as tears, though that is exactly what they are. “Look, I know I come across like a pretentious asshole on camera. You don’t have to rub it in and you sure as hell aren’t my PR team.”
“They’ve got a hard job,” Daniels chuckles. “You aren’t easy to sell.”
“Well…” Hugo sighs. The newscast’s less-than-favorable opinions echo those meetings between him and his stressed-out PR team. “It’s my brand.”
Hathaway lets out a ‘tisk-tisk-tisk.’ “Always the lone wolf…” She points to the TV screen. “Not a good idea when the hyenas are circling.”
“Story of my life.” The CEO swirls his finger in his wine. “Alone in a sea of sharks.”
“Guaranteed he hasn’t picked someone to fill the empty VP spot. That last guy left real quick when Micky-boy here got appointed.”
Daniels’s jaw drops. “Still don’t have a vice president yet? Come on! You in particular need one, what with your bad people skills and all.”
“Both of you, please shut up.”
Hathaway scowls at both Hugo and the screen above. “Don’t give the board an excuse to disown you.” She smiles. “None of us want a coup d’etat or anything.”
“I heard some suits are fond of muscle. Heard some use hit squads on people they don't like,” says Daniels with a similar, devious smirk. “May want to watch your back, McCaffrey…”
Hugo tunes him out. The cocktail bar’s soft orange lights and its deep brown furnishings smudge whenever he blinks. He takes a few steps away from his fellows, his expensive, polished shoes scuffing the fine wood floor. Balancing himself against the aquarium embedded in the wall, his eyes fall upon the private pub’s pride and joy: a collection of custom Verso-Tile coins minted by a brand-loyal craftsman. The two-inch-wide copper circles are pressed into a display booklet held open for perpetuity. Every CEO has their place here, engraved on a coin, each one joined by a mate. All these dynamic duos staring at Hugo remind him of the vacant space to his left.
Still, vacant space has always fascinated him. Emptiness comforts him with increased mobility.
Another aspect of the display piques his attention. Stacked into small towers, blank coins beneath the book call out to his even blanker soul. He takes one and clutches it tight. The smell coats his hand.
My shawl slides off my shoulders. Soft music elevates to match the rhythm of my beating heart. Power centers in my core. Exuberance suffuses my bullish stride. The crusty old sucker and the conspirators are here tonight. Two opportunities, one victory.
No more games.
No more pussy-footing around.
Rejoining the other Company execs, Hugo notices their heads are both turned in the same direction. He follows their sightline’s vector.
“Woah Nellie,” murmurs Daniels.
“What the hell is that?” Hathaway spits.
Hugo’s thoughts mirror their expletives. He chuckles. “Vicky is at it again.”
A beautiful twenty-five-year-old woman enters the banquet room. Her smooth skin and arresting Japanese features form a cherubic visage. That innocent face contrasts sharply with her dress — a red, plunging low-cut silken cloth that hangs loose against her youthful body to the point where a single false move would expose her to the whole party. A slit in the abdominal section rides all the way up to her hip bone, revealing her whole leg with every step she takes. Her black hair just barely touches her shoulders and her dreamcatcher earrings wiggle with every step. She smiles at the gawking fellows.
“God, how does she even walk around like that?” Hathaway’s spite is as caustic as chlorine.
Daniels shrugs. “That’s Valentina for you. Never ceases to amaze.”
Another ounce trickles down Hugo’s throat. “I mean, it’s her brand at this point.” He watches her closely, eying her blocking: the way she walks like she is floating; the way she controls every single child-like movement; the way her red lipstick glistens when she laughs at the fellows who accidentally step on her dress’s hanging threads; the way she plots out every behavior with intelligence and confidence in herself. McCaffrey’s heart races, and yet it feels even more empty. This woman outclasses him in every way.
“Right, a brand that appeals to a bunch of perverts and deplorables.” Elize rolls her eyes.
Hugo holds back a smile. “Literally the only reason people know her name is because of the wardrobe malfunction she had on live TV.”
“Still can’t believe the immature little slut went on talking for five straight minutes with her left breast popped out,” Hathaway rants.
“And then cracked jokes about it on Twitter for days,” Daniels scoffs.
“That’s why she’s a genius.”
Hathaway and Daniels look at their drunken boss like he needs a straightjacket.
“Hey, it’s true. She came up out of nowhere, took my social media management seat after I had it for three consecutive years.” Happiness in Hugo’s own voice catches him off-guard, so he reigns himself in. “That’s hard to do… Plus, she’s a damn good social media marketer.” Watching her socialize openly and without inhibition, her extreme extroversion digs its way under his skin, conflicting with his elevated heart rate. “She does piss me off though, not going to lie.” He raises the glass to his lips again. Only a dribble touches them. “I need another drink.”
Truth be told, I’m unhappy. Always have been. But pretending numbs the pain, just like a drug. A hard shell hides my weakness.
They put me through hell, but no one knows it. Those self-righteous pigs gawk at me from on high.
We’ll see if they stay up there after tonight.
Get me a sling, bar-boy.
Hugo stumbles up to the bar, leaving the two board execs behind. Neon beams guard him from their peripheral gaze. The lights above encase him in a protective halo. Numbing effects govern him. The CEO slaps his money against the bar’s granite surface. “Scotch. Strongest one you’ve got!”
The bartender’s hardened eyes, likely scarred from all the incidents he has borne witness to, lower. But he complies nonetheless. Drink after drink enters McCaffrey’s system. The world gets ever-hazier, more pleasant. At last he need not put up with the headaches and the heartache. Everything is soft like beds of clouds. But he does not stop. This buzz is not what he remembered it to be. He wonders why his tolerance has become so high, then dismisses the stupid question. Soon, pleasantness turns to queasiness. The room is spinning, which, combined with his involuntarily tracking the bartender’s handheld mixer, makes him sweat. That pleasure maraca swishes. His cheeks puff out. He takes the blank coin from his pocket and passes it between trembling fingers. His breath gets heavy.
“Shit!” Suddenly, his coordination totally gives out. He flicks the coin across the taps and it lands with a loud splunk inside someone’s beverage.
Vicky raises the thin glass to her lips, giggling with a friend. She pauses right before her puckered mouth sips. The steel circle clinks and her eyes widen, gravitating to Hugo, who leans forward, mouth agape. Valentina excuses herself. Setting her sling down gingerly, she loops around the bar. She holds her dress up so as to not trip over it. “Howdy, stranger!” The woman’s head tilts at McCaffrey’s cartoonish, old mug. “What’s your deal?”
Hugo clears his throat. “My…deal?”
“You put something in my drink.” Vicky points to the coin whose surface bubbles like a soluble tablet. “I paid good money for that mix, you jerk!”
“S—sorry,” Hugo replies with a hiccup.
A smile crosses Vicky’s face, her dimples creasing. “S’okay. Accidents happen.”
Hugo’s drunken gaze turns back to where he left Daniels and Hathaway. They are still there, gawking at the pair. A nefarious sneer dons Hathaway’s facade.
Valentina pinches Hugo’s jaw. “How ‘bout you pay me back by buying me a drink?” McCaffrey cannot help but look down at her borderline-topless chest upon which a necklace with a little gold American flag rests, slightly off-kilter. “Hey!” Vicky snaps her fingers just above his nose. “Focus, asshat,” she barks with an endearing semi-performative irritability. “Wait a minute. You’re Hugo McCaffrey.”
“The one and only,” he grumbles between another pair of hiccups.
Her eyes twinkle. “I remember competing against ya like it was yesterday. Now you’re our president! How’s it feel?”
“Like shit. Lonely.”
“Oh… Right, you’re still without a VP.” The gears churn inside Vicky’s cranium for a moment, her beautiful black eyes darting between him and the ogling execs. Hugo does not detect this anomaly due to time’s drunken flow. “Tell you what, corporate boy. I’ll order you one if you order me one, ‘kay?”
McCaffrey’s cheeks puff out. “Awesome, sure thing.” He hacks up a bit of his lunch.
Valentina squeals softly, thanking her lucky stars none of the clumps hurled onto her. “Actually, no. Let’s not do that.” She wraps her arm around Hugo’s trunk. “You’re intoxicated enough…” The bartender breathes a sigh of relief. “I wanna have a talk with you though. About professional stuff.”
“Oh-kay,” Hugo muses in a singsong tone.
Vicky stands him up, trying her best to be discreet as he stumbles upright. She clutches his shoulders and guides him through crowds of politicking execs. Many look at her with lowered eyes. Being just a tad older than a teenager, they assume she is conducting a party train with McCaffrey at the prow. The drunken CEO sings the Company jingle, uninhibited and with a hint of derision. Valentina hopes the execs can see her embarrassed smile in the shallow orange lights — that smile being the social cue for the far-more acceptable of the two reasons she’s escorting him away. “Settle down,” she whispers in his ear.
Exiting the bar-proper, Vicky drags Hugo to the lounge. It is a tropical-themed room with upbeat music playing and a floor made to feel like a boardwalk (wooden creaks, specks of sand, and all). Rectangular semi-transparent pockets line the walls. Five of them are occupied and heat radiates from their glass covers.
“That’s nice and private, I think,” Vicky says.
McCaffrey suddenly pushes against her. “Why am I here?”
The sensual company woman shoves him into a sauna. His butt slams onto the plastic indent. “Shhh,” she hushes with a finger at her lips. “Let’s just chat.” Then she delivers a firm donkey-kick to the button behind her. Her stiletto heel collides with the rubber thing and the rough glass door shuts.
Hugo gasps for air. Valentina is still right on top of him and her heat suffocates him. “I can’t breathe, woman,” he complains.
Valentina lands a smooch on Hugo’s forehead. He lazily attempts to force her off of him, but she leaps back and perches herself on the other indent. “Sorry…kinda,” she whispers mischievously.
Hugo’s breath slows. The lipstick on his forehead melts into sweaty beads as they run down. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing.” Vicky chuckles. “Just playing the game.”
“The business game?” Hugo’s drunken mind prevents him from doing anything except playing along.
“By assaulting me?”
“Oh, come on. I didn’t hurt you one bit, you big baby.”
McCaffrey moans. His tailbone aches even through layers of intoxicated nerves. “I could put you behind bars, Valentina.”
Vicky’s sweat and the steam congealing in the air make her dress heavier, even looser on her body — indecently loose. “Not sure you will when I’m done with you.”
Grinning cheeks throb from the workout they have been getting throughout this little kidnapping. Hugo grunts. “Why’d you spirit me away then?”
She crosses her legs and fixes her dress so that her shoulders are exposed now. “That can wait since we’re here now…alone.”
Hugo detects some arousal in her voice. No bullshit. “I always thought your sexy-girl-slash-femme-fatale thing was an act.”
“Well…” She bites her lip. “It kinda is, but not… I wanna get to know you a bit, that’s all I ask.”
The CEO lets some of his bitterness escape with a caustic guffaw. “So you aren’t just some dumbass who got lucky enough to beat me.”
“Soooo flattering,” Vicky utters, eyes rolled. “No wonder you’re a one-man show.”
“Why, thank you.”
“But no, seriously.” She leans forward, her American flag necklace swaying. “I’ve always wanted to chat with you outside of business politics. You were a worthy opponent.”
Hugo chuckles dryly at the lie. “Why should I believe that’s all you want from me?” He struggles to sit up straight. “You play dumb-blonde with people to get one over on them. That’s what makes you tick… Smart move, that.”
Vicky holds up her pointer and middle fingers. “One) thanks for the compliment;” she lowers the pointer first, leaving only the middle; “Two) stop being so cynical and just drop your guard for once, old fart. We’re only talking.”
Too drunk to question, Hugo leans into Vicky as she nestles next to him. Hissing steam radiates around them. Sweaty and hot, the businesspeople share a quiet moment. Tropical music transports them to a place nicer than New York — a freer place.
“So,” says Valentina, “you gonna talk to me or what?”
“No.” Hugo’s terseness falters, a slight stammer in the second half-syllable. His emotions show in his wavering eyes, he knows it. Weakness is in the eyes.
“Liar! You’re frothing at the mouth to spend time with me. You’re exhausted and overstimulated by all those haters.” Upon such a pretty thing invoking the L-word, the company man gets stiff as a defensive armadillo. “Relax.” Vicky senses the tension in Hugo’s muscles. “It’s fine. Nothing’s wrong with lying. That’s our job.” She massages his shoulders.
“Like it? I used to be a masseuse.”
“Not bad at all.” His muscles unravel, five knots popping apart at a time. “Better than I could ever do with my cold, unfeeling hands.” Vicky’s treatment is years too late for a tormented body. “I used to golf, personally. Could’ve gone pro.”
“Cool! Sports are fun. I tried kickboxing in college.” Valentina lets McCaffrey’s limp shoulders droop and returns to her spot beside him. “You don’t golf anymore?”
“I do, but not because I like it.” Even though he is far older than her, Hugo cannot help but stare at her youthful figure and marvel at how little concern she has in showing it off. “Be honest with me since we’re off the clock. How do you…use yourself the way you do? Carry yourself like it’s nothing?”
“Oh, you mean?” Vicky looks down. “It’s not so hard when you see yourself as a performance artist. Winning people over is an art. Ever thought about that?”
“N—no. I’m not an artist.”
Vicky giggles. “That’s the way you see the office. And look how happy you are.”
Hugo glares at her. “You don’t know shit about me.”
“I know when someone isn’t playing the game very well. Just look at the coverage on you. Your performance ain’t clicking with the people.”
The CEO knows Vicky is right.
“Let’s change the subject. What makes ya happy?”
Movement gives them pause. Someone is whispering and tip-toeing around outside. Dress shoes shuffle. Suspicions prompt them to lower their voices. “What?”
“You heard me. What makes ya happy?”
McCaffrey’s drunken eyes begin to water as the answer to such a simple question eludes him. “I—I used to enjoy golf, like I said.”
“And work ruined it. Now I dread the caddy and the holes… The rolling hills are Hell on Earth when you’re only there to socialize.”
“Oh. Can’t relate. When I was a little gal, I always wanted to be a performer.”
“No surprise there, Miss Extroverted,” he interjects. “Jesus Christ. Kickboxer, masseuse, actress. You have a lot of talents, woman.”
“None of ‘em turned out so well…” Her normally chipper poise wilts. “People made fun of me for it. Two people in particular turned me into their bitch… But they’re wrong about me,” she murmurs. “I’m more than their toy…”
Valentina folds her arms and shakes her head. “Forget it, bad memories.”
Aural stimuli and punctuated silences remind Hugo of how vulnerable he is. Few are the times when he is alone with a single person and with only a handful of things to perceive. He listens to the soundscape whistle through the sauna stall’s cracks. His heart starts racing, but his lethargic body barely moves. The whole circumstance overwhelms him, so he softly pushes Vicky away. “I appreciate the small talk, really,” he says. “But I want to know why you took me now—”
Blinding light and a barrage of cool air rush onto the exposed businesspeople. The booth’s gate thrusts open. An imposing, silhouetted figure looms above them. His dark sunglasses glint in the overhanging hairlight. As Hugo opens his mouth, the guy sinks his grip into the CEO’s wet tie and drags him away from Vicky.
She hollers at the man. “What the hell is this?!”
Hugo’s limp body slides across the wooden floor. His groan vibrates with each bump. The man picks him up by the collar, buttons popping off under his own weight. One look at his attacker’s scarred-up face and his expensive suit tells Hugo everything he needs to know. This man will kill him.
Vicky stands up only to be shoved back down by the man’s other hand. “Oh, no.” Her light-umber skin turns pale. “Please, this can’t be happening! This can’t be happening,” she says through heavy, shocked breaths.
McCaffrey throws all his weight into the man, managing to stagger him. A switchblade pops out of the assassin’s sleeve. It flutters open like a butterfly of death drawn back and ready to fly. Its sharp tip jabs at his neck. The executive braces for the end.
Suddenly, weight shifts. The man staggers and the switchblade drops to the floor. Valentina’s sharp red fingernails cut the man’s cheeks from behind. Hugo falls on his tailbone again. Numbing pain springs him upright. He capitalizes on the opportunity and knees the assassin in the groin. A deep grunt follows, the man’s consciousness waning.
Vicky retracts her claws from the man’s face. “Catch.”
The assassin stumbling his way, Hugo windmills his arm. “Batter up,” he says, delivering a swift punch to his jaw. The assassin spins and falls face-first into the stall, butt stuck up. Hugo marvels at his sloppy handiwork.
“What a move!” Right after her last word, Vicky screams.
“Vicky?!” Hugo turns around fast.
Another assassin — practically a clone of the first — has her from behind. “Get.” She kicks her stiletto heels off and digs her thin black socks into the wood’s crevices. “Off.” Mustering all her strength, she flips him over. “Me!” The killer lands on his head. With the man incapacitated, she pauses.
McCaffrey notices strange contortions in Vicky’s face — like a sickness is eating away at her stomach. It’s the same face he makes when waiting on his colleagues to raise their hands for a big vote — an industry-standard expression when businesspeople find out someone is coming for them or when things don’t work out. “Vicky, what aren’t you telling me?”
“I was afraid of this happening someday. Dammit! It has to be them. They hate you too…” She paces. “Hathaway and Daniels sent thugs after both of us.”
“What?” Hugo’s blood pressure heightens. “How do you know it’s them?”
“Who else would want us dead? Those pieces of crap are the worst, most over-the-top, controlling, and petty assholes. And they still suck even after being dumped!”
“Wait, you’re Daniels’ ex?”
“Yep…well, sorta. Not only his. They probably wanted to take out their competition and their ex on the same, pivotal night. Two birds with one stone—”
Before Vicky can continue or Hugo can pry answers out of her, the hitman gets up and bum-rushes him. His bleeding head collides with his chest. The drunk CEO’s back cracks against another stall’s glass.
Valentina pulls the assassin away by the seat of his pants, yanking his belt loose and whipping him with it. “I. Hate. Them,” she says between flogs. “That pair owes me big time.”
Hugo punches the assailant. “Hathaway and Daniels? I got the impression they hate me, but what do they want you dead for?”
“They baited me into a three-way relationship.” Vicky uses the belt to parry the hitman’s strikes. “I thought the feelings were mutual, but I was only a toy to them. Hathaway loved making me the inferior one. Plus, Daniels treated me like shit, insulted me like I was his bitch to hurt. So I left.” The hitman prepares a stealthy strike on her stomach. “Nice try,” she taunts, butterfly-kicking his hand away. “That’s what you get for taking on a kickboxer.”
Black sleeves wrap around Hugo’s head. A new attacker tightens his clasp. McCaffrey squirms. Then a glint flashes; the switchblade’s reflection between the floorboards. He stomps hard. The knife twirls an inch off the ground and, using a careful (but clumsy) tap, he nudges it into his hand. McCaffrey cuts the assailant’s wrist. His palm feels warm, blood pooling, the blade having nicked him on the way up. Vicky clocks the first assassin in the cheek with his belt’s metal buckle. His pants slip down. A small giggle escapes her.
Businesspeople stand back to back.
Finely-dressed, but bleeding and half-naked hitmen remain guarded.
“We’ve got them on the ropes,” Hugo mutters. Hiccups bubble back out of his mouth. “Mind telling me why you kidnapped me?”
“Are you serious? The booze is talking now?”
The red-faced man strikes Hugo’s guarded arms. “It’s a reasonable question.”
“Not now!” The half-naked man throws a flurry of punches at Vicky. “We have a genuine thing goin’ with this-here dance, and now you’re rushin’ to the point?”
Hugo and the red-faced man lock hands. “It’s who I am. I don’t like staying in the dark too long. Talking is hard.”
“You’re in the wrong business, then. Our job is to talk.”
“Easy for you to say.” Hugo takes his frustration out on the red-faced man. “You’re too loose.”
“Yeah, well you’re too tight!” She gives the half-naked guy’s hairy leg a thwack. “Wanna know why I took you here to chat? Because you’re lonely. Hell, ya don’t even have a mate… So, pick me as your VP.”
“Seriously?” Hugo struggles against the groaning killer. “Just to get back at Hathaway and Daniels? That was your game all along, wasn’t it?”
“Well, sorta. What better way to stick it to ‘em? I also kinda like you.”
“Pretty please?” Vicky begs. “If we survive this, we’ll make a great team.”
“Listen, you’re a competent, no, great businessperson, but it won’t go well.” Hitmen deal a double blow — body slam and drop-kick — to the distracted duo. Each bangs against the other’s back. Hugo clutches the red-faced man’s wound, fluid seeping from his palm. “Besides, you literally just baited me into it.”
Vicky wraps the belt around the half-naked guy’s waist. “So you still don’t like me?”
“I didn’t say that. You’re crazy though.”
“Crazy…” Valentina says as she spins the half-naked man like a dreidel, the belt unraveling, “cute!” She twirls him onto his side and kicks his face, taking his consciousness.
“Good move.” Hugo grabs his blood-faced attacker. Every muscle toils. At this moment, he could not be happier he still golfs. Holding those postures has kept him in shape. “Last one. Help me out!”
Vicky subjects the assassin to a mad series of punches and kicks. “Hired muscle,” she says, “here’s a message for Hathaway and Daniels: Don’t mess with the girl they called ‘nothin’ more than a sexy toy.’ Tell them she ain’t talentless and she’ll kick their asses.” She nods to the CEO. “Drop him.”
Hugo chucks him to the ground. He stumbles away from them, whimpering as he leaps from the window and somersaults to safety.
Vicky slides her feet into her discarded high heels. Hugo loops his tie back around his neck, straightening his coat and spine. He and Valentina breathe heavily. It’s done. The single remaining body groans and writhes. Slowly, Vicky’s exhales transform into laughter. Hugo cannot help but join in.
“That. Was. Badass!” Vicky forces out between wheezes.
McCaffrey gasps for air and sits atop the body. “We don’t even need bodyguards.”
“Yeah Hathaway and Daniels are real weaklings ain’t they? Literally got beat by an old man and a ditsy bitch!” Valentina extends her arms for a hug.
Hugo leaps into her. She tightens herself around him, every limb clamping. They enjoy this moment together. He absorbs her energy and she his poise. Then, the awkwardness of the whole situation settles in, their clothes flattening and goosebumps forming. “That was…fun,” Hugo admits to an agreeable Vicky.
Vicky and Hugo weave back into the cocktail crowd. Their wet clothes leave a trail of liquified steam on the tiled floors. Heads turn, especially those of Hathaway and Daniels. Hugo’s hand is wrapped around Vicky’s waist. That loose dress barely clings to her — likewise with Hugo’s unbuttoned suit. His wrinkled and hairy body peeks out from his wife-beater.
Hearts sink at the bizarre sight. But the pair’s hearts soar. Vicky sways smoothly, even more than usual, serious in a sexy way. Hugo has a pep in his step despite his throbbing head.
Company execs continue to mingle as the night wears on. Daniels and Hathaway, stunned and dumbfounded by their failed assassination attempt, pretend to get acquainted with the anomaly that is McCaffrey and Valentina — not unlike an untrained astronaut growing accustomed to breaking gravity.
I stride by his side up to the bar. That concerned bartender gives us a look. My inside guy shoos him off and fills up a row of shots.
McCaffrey downs the first. Inebriation puts a wall between his mind and reality.
“So, about my proposal?” Vicky asks carefully.
“We saved each others’ lives.” Hugo winks. “No one has done that for either of us before, so…”
Dimmed lights accentuate me.
Does my poise upset them?
I raise my glass, hand-in-hand with the boss. His palms grow clammy with each serum my man passes him. The drunkard is mine to numb.
Valentina, radiant as ever, toasts the new partnership in front of the party. Just before she takes a gulp, a cold piece of metal taps her lips. She peers down at the coin swirling inside. Etched on it, her face and Hugo’s stare back, smiling and scowling respectively; and yet, their likeness’s raised eyebrows tell the whole story.
McCaffrey presses his forehead against Vicky’s. “We’re in this together. Thank you for being here for me.” Tears roll down his cheeks. “Thank you so much.”
He really thinks the other execs tried to kill us… I mean, they did. Those weren’t my guys; just took it easy on us. It’s amazing what throwing a few promises at some disillusioned hit squads can do; the second you promise them a better deal and a fun night out with some paid escorts.
Speaking of that, let’s have some fun, McCaffrey. To the dance floor we go!
Vicky Valentina’s Company dances the night away, drunk on passion. Her numbed boss guzzles every drink she passes him. They taste like the gods’ nectar to him, for she is his God.
And the face minted in the coin? It is immortalized like Cleopatra’s.
I See Her Sometimes
The familiar tap-tap-tap comes from the wardrobe, followed by the light tinkle of giggles.
“Psst. Leena, come play with me.”
I groan and roll over in bed to face the voice. “Maisy, you’re going to get me into trouble.” A yawn muffles my words, but behind it is a smile as I wonder at my sister’s perpetual giddiness. I shuffle to the wardrobe, my socks slipping on the slick wooden floor.
It’s a monstrous thing, the wardrobe. English oak, seven feet tall with a carved crest, mirrored doors and brass handles. A perfect play place handed down from our grandmother and her grandmother before her and who knows how many grandmothers before. And little Maisy has practically claimed it as her new home. Our new home.
When I swing open the doors, Maisy is sitting cross-legged among Mommy’s gowns and shawls, a fuzzy scarf wrapped around her neck, and her pet corn snake threaded gently through her fingers like a string of pearls. I swish a dress aside, releasing a puff of Mommy’s scent, rosy like her cheeks, and my mind flashes back to the accident — Mommy’s scarf in the snow, Maisy’s sparkly marker on the asphalt, the broken terrarium, blood, smoke snaking in the beams of the headlights. I blink away the memories and pull the doors closed, and we are enveloped in a moment of darkness before the circle of my flashlight illuminates our faces.
“I have a new story!” Maisy announces. “A ghost story.”
“I don’t want to hear a ghost story,” I groan. “I want to hear a happy story.”
“But this is a happy ghost story. With a happy ending. I promise.” And she launches into a “once upon a time” tale of two sisters escaping a horrible monster. I drift into my own thoughts and let her soothing voice sing me back to sleep.
Shouting startles us. I turn off the flashlight and we cower together, hidden securely among the clothes, having never reached the happy ending to Maisy’s ghost story.
After school, I take my homework into the wardrobe. Maisy is already there waiting for me. “Did you get in trouble?” she asks.
“I’m always in trouble; you know that.” I wink at her and settle my notebook in my lap under the ring of the flashlight. Maisy takes her sparkly marker and doodles a snake in the corner of my paper.
“Hey!” I protest.
“It’s Bella, my snake.” She smiles, proud of herself.
“Leena!” The shout from downstairs is the unmistakable sound of Daddy when he’s been at the bar all day, a common occurrence since the accident, his loneliness masked by angry eyes. I hear his boots pounding up the steps and scramble out of the wardrobe before he makes it into the room.
“What are you doing, girl?” he slurs.
“Nothing, Daddy. Just homework.”
He squints at the wardrobe, then at the notebook in my hand. Snatches it from me. I expect him to punish me for the drawing, but he doesn’t. He sinks back, then tosses the notebook on the bed and stumbles out of the room.
The bruises on my arms are easy to hide, but the ones on my heart spill out for all to see. Yet no one understands, or wants to. My silence at school is met by laughter and teasing from the other children. You’re so strange. Why won’t you talk? I can’t look at them. I’m afraid of what their eyes would say, considering their mouths are so cruel.
I sit in the wardrobe with Maisy often, trying to remember Mommy.
“I see her sometimes,” Maisy says. “She misses us, our family.”
“I see her sometimes too.” I lean my head against hers and conjure Mommy’s face in my imagination. But I can’t keep the image. Daddy’s enraged face always replaces it. I know he’s grieving, but it hurts me how much he’s changed. I tried to tell him that once, that I feel his pain too, and that I need him. Remember when we used to have picnics in the park? How happy we were? We can do that again sometime. He just glared at me, and what I read in his expression was that we wouldn’t have gone out in the snow that night if it hadn’t been for me. It was my idea, the dinner at Coney Island, the spur-of-the-moment visit to the pet store, the corn snake for Maisy. The accident was my fault.
Tears slip down and dampen our clasped hands, and Maisy whispers, “It’s okay. You’re safe here.”
In the wardrobe with Maisy is the only place I laugh, I think. Everywhere else, there is fear and loneliness. “You’re the best sister in the world, Maisy,” I tell her.
“I’ll always be here for you.” And she is. Even now. Especially now.
“I think I’ll stay in here forever,” I sigh.
“Good! I’ll finish telling you my ghost story, then.”
I feign exasperation and roll my eyes, but I’m happy to get back to Maisy’s story.
But just like before, we don’t get to the end. Daddy is looking for me, and I am in trouble.
When he finds me in the wardrobe one Saturday, he swings the doors open so hard that the mirror breaks, shards of glass crashing to the floor. He grabs my arm and yanks me out, then throws Maisy’s and Mommy’s clothes, handfuls at a time, across the room. His face is red and spittle flies from his mouth. I cower behind the bed, crushed, violated.
Then he has a furniture dolly, crow bar and hammer, and he’s taking the wardrobe apart and carting it in pieces down the steps and out the door, the stomping of his boots reverberating in my head. And I can’t breathe.
I’m doubled over on the hill outside, watching as a truck pulls away with the wardrobe in its bed. And I sob.
I turn to look at my sister’s headstone, next to Mommy’s.
“What’s the happy ending, Maisy?” But I can no longer hear her.