Ava led me to a park near Jacoby’s house. The trees cast eerie shadows on the deserted playground equipment, like ghouls growing out of the darkness. There was a pagoda with benches inside, where Claire and Jacoby were seated. They hadn’t seen us yet, and I started moving towards them, but Ava grabbed my shoulder, and whispered, “No.”
She continued sternly, “I need to talk to you first. In private.”
She pointed towards a bench a hundred feet towards the nearest street, where we’d be alone. Before going over there, I took off my t-shirt mask and shook my hair out. I felt relieved; the undoing of my hair was akin to the release of stress, of the pent up tension within me during the burglary. We’d made it. A smile tugged at my lips, but I needed to get though with Ava before I could feel truly relieved. She was bound to be pissed because of my repeated being a dick.
The cold from the metal bench seeped through my thick pants, thoroughly chilling me. I placed my hands on my lap and turned to my right to face Ava.
“I can’t handle it anymore,” she burst out. “You’ve been so frustrating these past few days. I know you’re a bit of a bitch to everyone—“
Not true at all.
“But you’re normally nicer to us. It’s just not how you’re supposed to treat your friends. I know we were on a mission, and everyone seemed to put you in charge, but you can still take our opinions into account.”
She took a breath, then was about to launch into another tirade when I cut her off.
“I’m sorry,” I said simply. “The stress got to me, and I didn’t need to be so mean. It was completely unnecessary. I should have asked you guys what you thought of the plan.”
Hopefully that would do. I did feel bad, but it was more because she was upset than out of remorse for my actions. Taking the context into account, they were acceptable, maybe even the right ones. When you are with a group of people in a risky situation, and there isn’t much time for talking, someone needs to be in charge. I came up with the mission, and they naturally defaulted to me. I wouldn’t have minded Ava being a leader, but that wasn’t even what she wanted. I had to be authoritative, and decide on my own, not to be rude, but because that was what the situation demanded.
She looked somewhat pacified, but when she responded, the vitriol was still there.
“I understand why you did what you did, and it’s not even that you did it that’s the problem, it’s that you showed such little concern for the rest of us. You didn’t ask us beforehand if it was okay for you to be in charge, and never asked a real question about whether someone was okay doing something. Anything you asked for, it was with the expectation that you would be obeyed. That’s my real issue with what you did.”
“Again, I’m really sorry,” I pleaded. I almost got down on my hands and knees, but she probably wouldn’t like that.
I continued, trying to sound a bit firmer, “I do care for you guys, I really do. Don’t for a second think otherwise. I just wanted the mission to succeed, and became way too single minded. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I just can’t handle it.” She looked away, over to Jacoby and Claire. “You’ve been treating us like shit, like you treat everyone else here. Don’t do that.”
She paused, but I didn’t interrupt. Better to let her get it all out this time before responding.
When she looked back at to me, it seemed that there might have been tears in her eyes; a slight glistening lined her eyelashes. A single trail ran down her cheek. I thought of reaching up to wipe it away, but she’d be as likely to slap me away as to bite my finger off. I didn’t think she wanted comfort, more reassurance.
Ava continued, “And then when I almost got caught, I thought of turning myself in, pleading for her to not tell. You never even mentioned she had a husband! I heard two people talking upstairs after something fell off the counter, then the footsteps. I grabbed as much as I could and ran outside. I don’t think whoever came downstairs heard the door shut behind me, and I made it around the hedge and stuffed the backpacks. And you guys were trapped in the basement. Honesty, that was shitty planning. I was so scared, this was exactly what I was afraid of.”
“I said I’m sorry.”
I tried to sound it. Some frustration might have slipped through though, because she looked skeptical. Well she was the one insulting my planning and organizational ability. That was uncalled for; we’d made it out without being caught. And wouldn’t be recognized and no one would come after us, because of the gloves and facemasks.
But no matter what, I had to make her not leave.
“Come on Ava. We got some good stuff, and now we can we turn it in and get some money. You can be in charge for the next mission if you want. Okay?”
She looked conflicted.
“I guess, but you really need to change your attitude. It depends on how you act at school this week. I know you always act more normal towards us, but be on your best behavior. It matters more what you do next time we decide to rob somewhere, but I hope that’s not until next weekend, and I want to make a decision before then.”
She smiled a little, continued, “And it was a little fun too. Not that I want to make a habit of it, but it wasn’t too bad. But I do want to at least be involved in the planning next time. No offense, but I’m more careful than you. I don’t know if walkie-talkies would work, but if those don’t then we need to have a more cohesive plan, so we can react to unexpected events better. Especially something like the basement, I could have communicated with you and caused a distraction or helped you escape. So if you’re willing to agree to that, I guess I’m on board for another. Sorry I was a bit of a bitch in this.”
“Yeah, I can do that,” I said. Anything to make her come again. “Whatever you need so you don’t leave. And you weren’t a bitch at all, I think I needed someone to tell me how I should’ve acted differently. You guys are different than everyone else, I recognize that, that’s why I’m friends with you, and there’s no point to it unless I actually act like you’re my friends. So we’re good?”
“Yes,” she said, “we’re good.”
I grinned. Euphoria erupted in me. I hadn’t won, per se, but she wasn’t leaving either. That was the most important thing. I needed her to stay and be with us on all the missions. It would mean a smaller split for me of the money, but I didn’t mind that at all. I wasn’t really in it for the money, more for the fun. And, though there were issues, it had been fun. Very fun, in fact. Anything that took skill had to be admired. What we’d done took skill, and was fun, so it was a close to perfection, on a personal level.
Impulsively, I reached over and hugged her. She pulled back a little, before relenting and embracing me in turn. She was solid; an anchor. I couldn’t lose her. Jacoby and Claire were great, but Ava was the one I liked, I needed, the most. She was the one that was always there when I needed cheering up, when I needed someone to talk to. I couldn’t imagine having her mad at me for long.
We let go of each other and stood up. Hopefully Jacoby and Claire had heard us, because otherwise they’d be worried. We’d been talking for at least five minutes, and that was five minutes more we could have been captured or caught by Mrs. Gissard or someone else.
I decided to sneak up on them. They had taken off their facemasks, but were still in the clothes. Jacoby’s looked mostly normal, but Claire appeared to be a cat burglar. Which she was, but you wouldn’t want to be seen like that in the middle of the night. I tiptoed up behind the bench she was on, Ava following a few paces back. She seemed to understand what I wanted to do. This was a good way to lighten the serious mood we’d all absorbed.
I reached slowly over the railing on the outer edge of the pagoda, before tapping them both simultaneously on the shoulder.
Claire jumped a foot, spun around and let out a shriek. I’d got her.
Jacoby, on the other hand, simply sat in his seat, not getting up or even appearing the least bit worried. He crossed his arms and turned his head so he could see us.
“I saw your shadow,” he stated, then turned back around.
Huh. Why was he so grumpy?
Claire exclaimed, “Fuck, you could have warned me, Jacoby, if you knew.”
She then looked at us, and asked, “What were you guys talking about?”
Before I could answer, Ava jumped in. “We were making out of course. Weren’t you guys? What else are you supposed to do with the after-mission leftover emotion?”
That got Jacoby’s attention at least.
He said to Claire, “Yeah, no. Sorry Claire, but I wouldn’t do that with you,” then he glared at us. “Maybe you guys should act normal for once, instead of being ridiculously horny all the time. You could sit and think about what we’ve done, first of all.”
Well that as unexpected. Unreasonably pissed off Jacoby was a fucking pain to deal with.
Ava said, trying to calm him down, “Jeez Jacoby, we weren’t doing anything, just talking. Were you jealous or something?”
That last jab was unnecessary. We needed him talking rationally, and if he was jealous at all that wouldn’t help. Not that we actually did anything, so it was completely stupid for him to be acting like that anyway. He probably wouldn’t be jealous either.
He retorted, “I know you didn’t do anything, but still. Why are you joking about that right now? It’s not fucking right. I do want you guys to think about it. I don’t know what stuff you got from upstairs, but what we did in the basement was fucked up. We broke their computer, it was an accident, but if we hadn’t tried to take it it wouldn’t be broken, and we stole a painting they probably care about. Neither of those things are okay. We also messed up the furniture in their basement. Think if someone did that to you, then you saw them escaping out the window. How would that make you fucking feel?”
Oh, so he was pissed about the moral thing again. I honestly didn’t get it. If someone took stuff from me, I would be upset, but I could just get new stuff. The computer sucked, because of the hard drive, but they probably had anything important backed up. Anyone with even a tiny bit of brains would to that. So I felt a tiny bit of empathy about that, but not much. If it had happened to me, I would be upset about the computer, but it would still be my fault I didn’t have the documents anymore, and I could just buy a new one.
In general, it took skill to steal. If I saw the person climbing out my window, I would hate them, but think they were awesome at the same time. I knew most people wouldn’t feel that way, but he did ask for my feelings, whether I could empathize. I could. But imagining myself in the situation wasn’t the way to do it if he wanted me to feel remorse. If only everyone agreed with me on everything… then they’d think we were awesome too. Not that I was doing this to be awesome, but stealing in general earned some props from me, just on account of how difficult it was. What we did, especially getting out of the basement quietly and safely, was skillful.
Jacoby was staring at me in disgust. I hadn’t said anything, and I guess he thought I was imagining if stuff got stolen from me. I was, but a smile was on my face. Fuck, I wasn’t having this argument again.
I turned to Claire.
“Can you tell Jacoby why what we are doing isn’t wrong enough that we shouldn’t do it, please?” I asked her. “I just had to talk to Ava, get her on board, and I’m so grateful to her for agreeing, but I don’t want to argue anymore. Please? I’ll give you an extra five percent of the money we get, taken out of my share.”
Her face brightened at that. For some reason, money had become a big factor for her. I’d have to talk to her about that later, figure out why. Unknown motivations weren’t a good thing for team members to have, when you had to rely on them in high pressure situations.
She started talking to Jacoby, and I sighed with relief and walked away. Talking to them afterwards was more exhausting than actually robbing the house. That wasn’t something I would have expected before. We better not have to go through the same arguments every time. Maybe I could get them to sign some kind of contract with me, saying they’d agree to do a certain number of a certain type of missions. But that would be harsh. There had to be a better way of getting their long-term compliance.
I went back to the bench I’d talked to Ava on and waited for them to finish their discussion. Claire could be persuasive when she wanted to. Not as good as Ava, but Ava probably wasn’t as enthusiastic as Claire about it, and wouldn’t want to try to get Jacoby to agree.
After five minutes, a time punctuated by raised voices, Ava tapped me on the shoulder. I felt a jolt of adrenaline, but it subsided quickly.
I stood up, and asked, “So are we ready to go?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Jacoby decided he needed to think about it more in private. So tomorrow we’re going to lock him in his room until he comes to a decision.”
I didn’t know if she was joking or not, but it didn’t matter. The exhaustion was sinking it. I just wanted to get home, or at least to Jacoby’s house, and go to sleep. I glanced down at my watch: eleven forty-five. That was fine, about the time we’d be coming home from a movie. So Jacoby’s parents wouldn’t get suspicious when we came in.
Before we left the park, I remembered we needed to change before we went back to his house. That was accomplished with little fanfare, all of us too tired to care about others looking at us, or taking peeks at each other. We then walked back, talking about school and homework, trying to regain a sense of normalcy.
At the front door, Jacoby left his backpack with us outside, and checked to see if his parents were still in the living room. They weren’t and the whole second floor was dark. I thought for a second that there might be a thief down there, but dismissed that idea quickly. Too unlikely.
We trudged up the stairs and put our bags in Jacoby’s room. Ava had, when she’d left her house, told he parents she was staying with me, so she was going to stay here with us. I hoped my parents wouldn’t talk with hers in the near future, when they both still remembered this well, and wouldn’t figure out the discontinuity in our story.
Claire took the spare bed, which was wedged in the corner of the room. I would normally sleep on the floor, but Ava wouldn’t have a spot then. Instead, Jacoby told us to go sleep in Brian’s room. I wasn’t afraid, per se, of ghosts, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be in the room alone. I was glad Ava would be with me.
I cracked the door open, not wanting something to jump out. Again, I wasn’t afraid, but it was still creepy. Ava stayed behind me as I reached my arm in and flicked on the light switch. The room was illuminated, and it looked normal. Just pictures of a dead person, nothing strange there. It was actually strange that Brian had had so many pictures of himself, but maybe his parents put them there when he died so they didn’t have to look at them. That’s what I’d do if someone I knew died; create a shrine for them. I hoped that we weren’t disturbing anything by sleeping here, but if Jacoby didn’t mind, it couldn’t be too bad.
There was a desk on the right side, while the bed sat on the left, like in Jacoby’s. The difference was that there wasn’t a second bed near the first. I ignored the problem for now. I’d packed a toothbrush, and went to go do that, as well as change into more sleeping clothes; shorts and a big t-shirt. When I was done in the bathroom, Ava used it.
I was sitting on the bed when she came back into the bedroom. She’d completely changed clothes, taking off the black sweater and sweatpants that she’d somehow managed to make look normal, and replacing them with a white tank top and Harry Potter pajama bottoms. I loved those things.
She threw her clothes down by her bag, and I said, “So, there’s only this bed. Who gets it?”
“It doesn’t matter to me. In fact, you can have it, because of how I acted earlier,” she said.
“Yeah right, if we’re assigning it that way, then it’s you who should get it, I was the worst, ordering you guys around and all.”
She came over to me and planted her hands on her hips.
“We are not having this argument again. We resolved it the first time. No, if we can’t agree, we’ll just have to share the bed.”
I smiled up at her, confused. “I mean I’m fine with that, it’s just not that big. Are you sure you want to try to squish both of us in there? I feel like I’ll fall off.”
She sat down next to me. “Come on,” she urged, “we can make it work. If you think you’ll fall off, you can have the side against the wall. So lie down.”
I did as she told me, lying down, facing the wall.
“Now, I don’t want to see all those creepy pictures throughout the night, so I’ll face you, okay?”
“Sure,” I said.
She seemed to want to be in charge of the sleeping arrangements, and given our arguments earlier, I was fine with that. I was also exhausted and couldn’t care less, but from what she’d said so far it seemed like it was shaping up pretty nicely. The light went off. I shut my eyes to try to adjust them to the darkness faster. She came over to me, and I felt the bed sinking, becoming more balanced with her on it.
“Are you going to get under the covers or what?” she asked.
In response, I sat up, and pushed the covers down. I tucked my feet under the bottom, and she did the same. Then I pulled the top sheet and comforter up, still on my back. I looked towards her, propping my head on my elbow.
Her head was so close that I had to suppress a natural instinct to recoil backwards. She looked so beautiful, a smile manipulating every facet of her face, from her mouth to eyes, even nose. I couldn’t stop myself from breaking into a smile as well. She’d decided not to leave us. I could change, if I needed to. Especially for her.
After a few moments of us simply looking at each other, she said, “Well, good night.”
I guessed I was supposed to turn around now.
My voice soft, I repeated, “good night.”
I turned around, facing the wall again. It was going to be cramped, being in so small a bed. But it was still soft and inviting. I lay my head on the pillow, of which there were two. Then I felt her hand on my arm, and breath gentle on my neck. She moved closer to me, but I didn’t feel squished; it was surprisingly comforting having someone so close. This wouldn’t be too bad of an arrangement at all.