Playing Favorites – Chapter 14


Jacinda

In my entire life, I’ve been in hospitals exactly three times, and I have fond memories of exactly zero of those times.

The first time, I was bitten by a snake while trekking, when I was nine. Mom rushed me to a small clinic, where a very nice, very old Orc doctor gave me some antivenom -the syringe looked pretty intimidating, but I barely felt it-, then kept me for observation for a few hours. I was scared out of my wits the whole time, convinced that my leg would fall off, or that my skin around the bite would melt, or something equally dramatic. Turns out all it did was give me a lot of pain. It’s not often I cry, but I definitely did that time, mostly from fear. I remember wanting to hunt that snake and eat it for dinner, but Mom said no; probably because venomous snakes don’t taste any good.

The second time, I got in a car accident. Some douchebag thought red lights are something that happens to other people, and T-boned me. Thankfully, I got hit on the passenger side and was mostly okay, other than a little bruised and a lot pissed -my car was a goner, though.. Still, seeing my parents and my sister worried to death as they got to the hospital really marked me.

Oh, it also turned out that the aforementioned douchebag was driving without insurance, so that was fun too.

The third time, I was jogging in the uphill neighborhoods, until I tripped on something -thinking back on it, I’m pretty sure it was my own feet- and fell off the side of a hill, then slammed into a rock. The feeling of my forearm’s bones breaking is now forever burned into my memory. That’s right: bones, plural. I fractured my radius and my ulna in one go. On top of that, I broke my phone. Thankfully, a neighbor heard me growling in pain and called an ambulance.

That was the day I learned what greenstick fractures were, and that I was pretty damn lucky Hellhound had strong bones. What was less lucky was that I’m a righty, and had to wear a cast for a month. And what a fun month it was. Everything from putting on my pants in the morning to filling my own cup of tea without assistance became really fucking difficult.

Technically, I guess there was a fourth time: my birth, but I don’t remember a single part of that. From what Mom and Dad told me, it went okay; Dad once said one of the nurses ended up with bruises on her chest, but Mom shushed him before he could tell me more.

After vainly looking for a parking spot for over half an hour, I decide to put the car in self-drive, get out, and let it park itself. We wait in line for the reception desk. The old woman at the front seems to have a lot of problems, given how much she’s talking to the nurse; either that or she’s just thankful for the rare oppoortunity to interact with another sentient being. At least the middle-aged woman behind her is a lot less loquacious. Oh, she’s a mute. Yeah, that’ll do it.

It’s finally our turn. Chris asks the male Demon nurse about Manny, giving his friend’s full name and stating that he must have gotten here about two hours ago. The nurse checks his tablet, then gives us a room number, but tells us Manny can’t have visitors right now. I ask why not.

“He’s still in surgery,” the nurse says.

“Surgery!” Chris exclaims. “What happened? Is he okay?”

“Are you family?” he asks.

“We’re friends.”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you more than this, then.”

“It’s fine,” I tell Chris. “Let’s go find Viv.”

As we get into the elevator, I look at Chris, my insides churning once again as I take in his expression of worry. Hell, “worry” is an understatement at this point. And it’s hard to blame him. Manny is in surgery. Viv was apparently crying in panic when she called Chris. Multiple times, I’ve seen him pull on that rubber band he always wears around his wrist. Not entirely sure what that’s about, but I can’t imagine he does it because he’s happy and relaxed.

The silence of this elevator ride is getting to me. Should I say something? It hurts me to see him like this. Yeah, I should say something. Right, except… what? Should I try to comfort him? Cheer him up? Yeah, not that one. There’s nothing cheery about this whole situation. So, comfort him then. That’s what a girlfriend does. Okay, how? By saying something like “it’s gonna be alright”? “Manny’s going to be okay”? Right, except I don’t know that.

While I’m ruminating all of this, Chris places his hand in my paw, and rubs it with his thumb. That’s when I realize what I need to say. Seriously, Jacinda, you’re way overthinking this.

“I’m here for you,” I finally say.

And just like that, he visibly relaxes.

“Thanks.”

Nailed it. Let’s hold off on the fist-pump, though. That might be a tad inappropriate, right now.

Viv is sitting on a bench in the hallway, facing Manny’s room. I can smell the anxiety off her from ten feet away. As she sees us, her hands release her knees they were gripping, and she springs up from her seat.

“Chris,” she says, but her voice breaks immediately.

“What happened?” Chris says. “Is he okay?”

“I don’t know,” Viv replies, so high-pitched I thought for a second only I could hear it. “They say he’s been attacked.”

“Attacked! By who?” I ask. Whom. Whatever.

“I don’t know,” she says again. Her eyes fill with tears behind her AR glasses, and she chokes.

Chris sits next to her, and holds her forearm in a reassuring gesture. She doesn’t really seem to notice. I keep standing, not knowing what to do and feeling really awkward. Should I say that I’m here for her too? Oh, great idea, that won’t be weird at all. Not like I’m barely an acquaintance to her or anything.

“I’ll get some snacks,” I say. “You guys want anything?”

“Can you get me a soda, please?” Chris says. “Viv, you want something?”

Viv vaguely shrugs, her head lowered like she’s trying to hide it between her knees.

“Do you still like gummy bears?” he says.

She nods.

“Sure thing,” I say.

To be honest, getting snacks is mostly an excuse to get away from the awkwardness, but I actually am hungry. That’s a new pattern I’ve noticed with my metabolism: horny makes hungry. Which, while slightly inconvenient, is still better than my former pattern: horny makes dumb.

After turning a few corners, I finally happen upon a series of vending machines. They’re not what I would call well furnished, but at least they’ve got the basics, and my e-wallet works on them. I get half a dozen bags of chips for myself, a soda for Chris, and something that looks like gummy bears -gummy dragons, more like- for Viv.

By the time I get back to Chris and Viv, two more people have appeared in front of Manny’s room. People dressed in blue, wearing a badge, and with a nightstick attached to their belts. You know, that kind of people. They’re both female Humans, one tall and large of shoulders, the other small and a little overweight. The former wears so much cheap perfume I decide to not get closer than five feet from her.

“We don’t know anything,” Chris says, evidently answering a question he’s just been asked. “We just got here.”

“What’s going on?” I ask.

Small Cop is about to answer, but Chris quickly says: “They’re here to ask us some questions about Manny.”

Makes sense, since he’s been attacked. But why do I smell suspicion on Small Cop? Maybe it’s her default mode, what with her being a cop and all.

“I regret to inform you,” Overperfumed Tall Cop says, “that Mr Chang has been attacked by an individual with a knife.”

Viv squeaks in horror, slapping both her hands over her mouth.

“Holy shit,” Chris mutters.

“The doctors tell us his injuries are not severe,” Overperfumed Tall Cop -OTC for short- goes on. “He should pull through and make a full recovery.”

“Oh God,” Viv says. “Oh my God…”

“Who did this to him?” Chris asks. “Have you caught the guy?”

“We have a witness who saw the attack, and identified the culprit. He’s a known drug dealer in the campus area. We’re currently on the lookout for him.”

“A drug dealer?” I repeat, frowning.

“Mrs Zhang,” Small Cop says to Viv, “to your knowledge, has your brother ever taken any drugs?”

“What the fuck?” Chris says, expressing my thoughts, only more politely.

“N-no!” Viv stutters. “What- No! He does not- he would not…”

“What does that have to do with anything?” I say. Wait a minute…

“According to the witness,” Small Cop explains, “Mr Zhang and the culprit were engaged in a deal at the time of the attack.”

“What?!” Chris blurts out. “That’s bullshit!”

“A lot of cash money was recovered on Mr Zhang by the EMTs,” Overperfumed Cop says. 

“Manny doesn’t do drugs,” Chris says. “He never has. The strongest thing he’s ever tried is that dipping tobacco stuff, and he hated it.”

“I understand this must come as a shock to you,” OTC says. No shit. There’s a hint of sympathy in her voice, but I can’t smell whether it’s genuine or just faked in order to make them lower their defenses. “Look, we’re just trying to piece together what happened. You must see how this looks. We have a witness who saw the transaction…”

“Yeah, well, your witness was wrong,” Chris says vehemently.

“Then how do you explain the cash money?” Small Cop says. Not hard to guess who’s playing Bad Cop here. But I get what she’s saying: hardly anyone uses cash nowadays, especially not young people. In the popular consciousness, the only folks who still use cash are those who want to avoid traceability. Either them, or the kind of folk who live off the grid and blame everything from WWII to their cavities on the government.

“How would I know?” he says. “Maybe it was the dealer’s. Manny never uses cash. And why would a drug dealer attack one of his clients?”

That’s a good question. Small Cop doesn’t seem phased, though.

“Dealers aren’t always the most rational people, especially when they get high on their own supply. Could be that your friend tried to haggle, and he didn’t like it.”

“Manny was not buying drugs,” Chris insists. His jaw tenses up, and his teeth clench.

“Then, why was he talking to a known drug dealer?” Small Cop insists.

I approach Chris and take his hand, sensing that he’s about to blow up.

“That’s not really for him to say, is it?” I say. “For all he knows, Manny was asking him for directions or something. Look, is this really the time? We’ve just learned that our friend got attacked, and sent to surgery. Can’t this at least wait until Manny has recovered?”

Overperfumed Tall Cop answers, apparently to cut off her colleague:  “Of course.”

She pulls a card out of one of her jacket’s pockets and hands it to Viv. “Please call us if you learn or remember anything.”

Manny’s sister takes the card with shaky fingers.

The officers excuse themselves, and soon, it’s just us three again. Except this time, it’s not awkwardness we’re basking in, it’s something worse. I don’t know if there’s a word for it, but I fucking hate it. Eventually, Chris breaks the ice by holding Viv’s shoulder and saying:

“Hey, you know that’s crap, right? Manny doesn’t do drugs. The cops have got it all wrong.”

“I know,” Viv says in a very low, very squeaky voice.

A bell sound behind us indicates that the elevator has reached our floor. The door opens, revealing my twin sister Nova. She looks like she’s rushed here: she’s barely wearing any makeup, her clothes are a bit of a mismatch, and her hair and tail have not been brushed -usually a cardinal sin for her. Nova runs to Viv, who stands up and all but throws herself in her arms. Like a switch has been flipped, she immediately starts crying. And not just a few tears: she’s actually weeping against my sister’s chest.

“I’m here,” Nova whispers, petting Viv’s hair. “I’m here…”

“How about we leave them alone?” Chris says to me.

Great idea.

We find an empty waiting room, at the end of the hallway. I grab a chair, putting my legs on another one, and start munching on my chips. Chris remains standing, neglecting his drink and pacing around. He reeks of stress, with a few hints of fear and anger. It’s not hard to guess what’s on his mind.

“You think your father is behind this,” I say.

He interrupts his pacing to shoot me a look, a nervous hand brushing his hair.

“You think he’s the witness.”

“Something tells me he did a lot more than just witness this shit going down,” he replies, grinding his teeth. “He’s the reason it went down in the first place.”

Shit. I knew his father was bad news, but if he actually did this -and I trust Chris’ instincts on that-, then he’s even worse than I thought. And more dangerous. Manny could have been killed. Or barring that, he could have been hurt in such a way that his career as an athlete would be over before it actually begins. And that drug thing? Yeah, that’s another convenient way for him to fuck up Manny’s life. And thus, fuck up Chris’ life.

Fuck, what if that he comes after… No, don’t go there, Jacinda. Not now.

Chris resumes his pacing, getting more agitated with every step. He accidentally runs into a chair, and almost trips. Oh shit, I’ve seen that expression on his face before, and I definitely recognize the acrid smell that accompanies it. He’s about to work himself into another panic attack. I have to stop it. Taking a page from my sister’s book, I go to hold him in my arms. He hugs me back, and says:

“He’s not gonna stop here. I know him. He’s going to escalate.”

Not knowing what to say, I hug him tighter.

“I don’t know what he’s going to do next. Where is he going to strike? Who is he going to hurt? If…”

He takes a deep breath in.

“If he knows about Manny, he probably knows about you. What if he decides to come after you?”

“Then, that decision will become his biggest regret,” I utter. That line sounds very cliche, but I don’t care: I mean every word. That cestode has no idea who he’s fucked with today.

Chris is silent for a few seconds, then says: “What if he comes after Viv?”

“Then, that decision will become his last regret,” I hear my sister say behind me.

She has just entered the waiting room. I’m low-key amazed at how stealthy she can be, in spite of her size. I’m barely ten pounds heavier than her, and I’m about ten times noisier when I walk. Her face is stern, as blank as a polished mirror. Someone who doesn’t know her would think she’s perfectly calm. Her twin sister, however, knows she’s boiling on the inside.

Whoa. Either injustice is an even bigger issue for her than I thought, or she really cares about Viv.

“How much did you hear?” Chris asks her.

“Only the last part. Who are you talking about?”

I give Chris a side-glance.

“It’s… personal,” I say.

“No, it’s all right,” Chris sighs. “I think my father is behind this.”

“Then I’m sorry to inform you that you’re about to become an orphan,” Nova says, her voice perfectly even as if she’s discussing the weather.

“I wish it were that simple,” he says with a sad smile.

Nova squints. “What exactly does he want?”

“All right,” Chris says, grabbing a seat. “Let me tell you the whole thing…”

Telling the whole thing takes enough time for me to go through two bags of chips, and decide that onion and sour cream is my least favorite flavor. Nova, sitting in a chair, has remained completely impavid throughout Chris’ narration, but I can tell she went from boiling to steaming. She sucks on her fangs, like she often does when she’s deep in thought.

“Your mother,” she says after a moment.

Ah, yeah. Chris has barely mentioned her in his retelling.

“What about her?” he says.

“She still lives with your father.”

“Yeah.” Chris’s bottom lip trembles. “As far as I know.”

Nova leans back, and her chair creaks. “I see. This is indeed a complicated situation.”

“I really don’t know what to do. I don’t want to quit college… My mother took great risks to send me here. But I have no idea how to stop him. I never could before.”

“You didn’t have me before,” I say, sounding more and more like the protagonist of a 1980’s action movie. A role I’m rocking, by the way. Well, except I don’t have a stubble, a pistol, or a penis.

“I appreciate what you’re saying,” he says, “I do. But what can you do? I mean, you really don’t know this man. You don’t know how he thinks, you don’t know his world.”

He’s right, I don’t, and neither does Nova. I look at my sister, and see in her eyes that we’re thinking the same thing -that’s actually a rare thing, in spite of us being twins. We don’t know his world… but we know someone who does.

“Uncle Gordie,” we say simultaneously.

“Who’s that?” Chris asks.

“One of Dad’s friends,” I say.

“He’s… Let’s just say he’s no stranger to underhanded tactics,” Nova explains.

“You think he can help us defend ourselves from my father?”

“Defend ourselves?” Nova raises an eyebrow. “We are not going to wait until that craven asshole makes his move.”

“Yeah,” I say. “We’re going on the offensive.”

Nova and I nod sharply at each other. Oh hellz yeah. The Abercromby twins are on the warpath. Vae Victis, bitches.

“Woah, woah,” Chris says. “On the offensive? Look, I don’t know about this. The man may be a colossal douchebag, but he’s smart.”

“So’s Uncle Gordie,” I say.

“Yeah, he has his faults,” Nova says, “but he’s not lacking in the brains department.”

“What about my mother? He’s not above using her against me, or retaliating-”

“We’ll make sure she’s safe too.” I place my paws on his cheeks. “I promise you, we can do this.”

“How?”

“No idea,” I admit.

“I… I don’t know about this,” he says, rubbing his five o’clock shadow.

“Chris, do you trust me?” I ask.

“Of course I do,” he replies. “But this is… You realize you may be in danger? And your family.” He sighs. “It’s just… I don’t know if I can do this. Maybe I should…”

Oh no. I’m afraid I know where this is going. Quick, I have to say something. But what?

Wait, maybe I could… It’s kinda stupid, but I can see it working.

“I’m calling in my favor,” I say.

“What?”

“That favor you still owe me. I’m calling it in. I want you to trust me with this. Me and Uncle Gordie. Let us do this.”

He stares at me silently for a moment. “All right.”

Phew. “We’ll figure it out,” I say. “Together. Okay?”

A scooch of alarm has popped up in my tone. Part of me is worried he’s gonna do that classic movie thing where the male lead dumps the female lead to protect her. I’m especially worried I might kill him if he does. He responds by imitating my previous gesture and cupping my cheeks, and saying:

“Of course. Together.”

Woop, thank fuck. I smooch him.

We get back to Manny’s room. About an hour of anxious waiting later, Manny is finally brought to his room on a gurney. His is probably the only smile to be authentic. He looks pretty good; even after being told he would make a full recovery, I imagined a lot worse. I can tell he’s got a pretty big bandage across his stomach under his scrubs.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe the traffic is in the ER.”

There are some small laughs; mine’s forced, I admit. Because of the awkwardness, sure, but also because honestly that joke kinda sucked. Viv hugs him with as much care as if he was made out of glass.

“How are you feeling, man?” Chris says, shaking his hand.

“A bit woozy. That morphine is really something. Surgeon tells me the operation went great, though. They’re gonna keep me overnight just in case.”

“Is your mom around? I haven’t seen her yet; I’m guessing she’s the one who brought Viv.”

“Yeah, she’s still downstairs. She’s got all kinds of paperwork to sign.”

Chris glances at Viv, then at Nova. Message received, the latter’s body language says.

“Hey Viv,” Nova gently says, “how about we go get some tea?”

“Okay,” Manny’s sister says.

The two of them abscond. Chris pulls up a stool and seats next to Manny. Given that there doesn’t seem to be anything else to sit on, I put my butt down on a sturdy-looking table.

“Listen, err…” Chris mumbles.

“I know,” Manny says. “You want to talk about the attack.”

“Yeah. But if it’s not the right time, I get it.”

“It’s fine. I mean, I’m pretty freaked out, but I’m also on pain meds, so it’s fine.”

Chris nods, and takes a deep breath. “Okay, so… Do you remember what happened?”

“Kinda hard to forget my first stabbing. Well, second if you count that time I stabbed myself in art class.” Seeing my weirded out expression, he explains: “Don’t run with scissors, that’s all I’ll say.”

“Right, right,” Chris says. “Do you… Did you see…”

“The guy? Sort of. It all happened really quickly, and he was wearing a… you know, one of those hoods that covers your whole face except the eyes and the mouth, and makes you look like a Humanoid bowling ball.”

“Balaclava,” I say.

“Yeah, those. All I really remember is that he had really shitty teeth. When I saw him pull a knife, I thought he was gonna mug me or something. But he just… Well, ya know.”

His detached, almost blasé tone is kinda off-putting, considering what he’s just been through; I have to believe he’s putting up a brave front. Also, he slurs his words a little, I’m guessing because of the morphine.

“Do you recall anything else?” I ask.

“Not really… Wait, yeah. I heard someone make a phone call. To the cops, I think. I couldn’t see him, because he was behind a corner.” He frowns. “I thought it was weird, because the guy was like six feet away from me, and he didn’t try to help me or anything. Maybe he was scared the other guy would attack him too.”

Myeah. Orrrr…

“You think… your father is behind this?” Manny says.

“Yeah.” Chris’ voice is so husky it’s almost unrecognizable.

“Holy fuck.”

Sounds about right.

“This is… Oh, fuck. You think he’s the one who stabbed me?”

“Him personally? I don’t know; I don’t think so. It would be taking a pretty big risk. I think it’s more likely he let someone else do his dirty work.”

“Well, he should have hired a better someone else,” Manny says. “The doc told me he mostly got me in the rib. Barely even torn some muscle.”

“Yeah…” I say. “That was a lucky stabbing.”

“Right? Silver lining!”

Oh my gods. Is he really that detached? Or really high from the drugs? I get that everybody reacts to trauma differently, but damn. Chris seems just as befuddled as I am when he says:

“Err, yes. Do you know some cops went by earlier?”

“Cops? Oh, right, to investigate the stabbing. What did they ask? Did they arrest the guy?”

“Not yet. They asked us if you take drugs.”

“Huh?” Manny says, raising a quizzical eyebrow.

“Apparently, the man who attacked you is a known drug dealer.”

“Ah, right, that makes sense.” He nods thoughtfully.

“It… does?” I say.

“Well, yeah,” he says. “Chris’ dad is a dirty cop, isn’t he? Figures he would use a criminal for the job. It’s like in those crime series.”

That… actually does make sense.

“Yes, but…” Chris clears his throat. “The police asked if you were buying drugs from him.”

“What? Why would they think that?”

“They’ve got a witness who says you were,” Chris explains.

“Bullshit,” Manny blurts out.

“Yeah, we know,” I say. “Odds are, that witness was Chris’ dad.” I frown. “What’s his name, by the way? I didn’t even think to ask before.”

“It’s Jeremy,” Chris says.

“Jeremy. Hmm.” My nose wrinkles. “No, that’s too good a name for him. He should be called Daryl or Burl or Bryce. Whatever. We’ll just call him Asshole, it’s easier to remember.”

“Asshole is right!” Manny says. “Douche gets me stabbed, and then he says I’m a druggie. Fuck!”

“Oh, also, the EMTs found cash money on you, apparently,” Chris says.

“Ah, damn.” He scratches the back of his head. “I hope the cops didn’t seize it or anything.”

“It’s yours?”

“Yeah.”

“Why do you have cash? The only time you had any on you was when you went to that strip club.”

“There was this dude I met online who wanted to sell his baseball cards collection. Pretty pricey, but there were some goodies in there. Thing is, he was like this paranoid conspiracy theorist guy, and he didn’t trust online banking and cards and stuff. He only wanted to be paid in cash.”

“And that didn’t seem skeevy to you?” I ask. I really can’t tell whether that guy is smart or stupid.

“Well, at first, yeah. But I did my due diligence. He showed me pictures of the whole collection, and I’ve organized the meet at this place in a mall where they have security cameras.”

I sigh. “I’m gonna take a wild guess and say that either Asshole was behind the deal the whole time, or he found out about it somehow.”

Chris hums suspiciously. “Do you still have the pictures of the cards?” he asks.

“Yeah, on my phone.”

Christopher goes to pick it up among the bag of personal objects one of the nurses dropped off when they moved Manny back to his room. It’s a pretty old model -it still has one of those USB-C ports- and its screen is cracked in two places. Manny unlocks it, then hands it back to his friend, who peruses the images folder.

“Jesus. That’s what I thought.” He drops his head. “That’s my card collection.”

“Seriously?” Manny says.

“Well, was my card collection. I left it behind when I moved here.”

“Okay, so this was one hundred percent Asshole’s doing,” I say. “No, but that’s good. That’s actually really good.”

“How?” Chris asks.

“That’ll give Uncle Gordie more material to work with. The more he knows about his target, the better he gets.”

“You still haven’t told me who he is.”

Oh boy. Where to begin? Uncle Gordie’s a long story, one of which most chapters are still unknown to me -and it’s probably better that way.

“Like I told you, one of Dad’s best and oldest friends. He’s not actually my uncle. As for the rest… He’ll tell you more when you meet him.”

Viv and Nova come back, each with a styrofoam cup of cheap chamomile tea; from the scent, the former takes hers with a lot of milk. Manny’s sister is noticeably calmer, but the look on her face is still uncertain. After a few more exchanges, Chris and I decide to head out. I call Uncle Gordie on our drive back. He picks up the call, with the camera turned off.

“Hey, luv! Looking good today.”

“Hi, Uncle Gordie. How are you doing?”

“Doing well. Doing really well. Is that your boyfriend?”

“Yep,” I say with a big smile. “His name is Chris. Chris, this is my uncle Gordie.”

“Hello,” he says.

“Hey, lad. I only have one question for you: City or United?”

“What?” Chris mutters, frowning in confusion.

“Football, son. Which is the best: City or United?”

Poor Chris has clearly no clue what Uncle Gordie is talking about. Off-camera, I grab his hand, and draw letters in his palm.

“Err… City?”

There’s a brief silence. Chris looks at me, his confusion increasing.

“Okay,” Uncle Gordie says. “You’re allowed to date my niece.”

“Thank you?”

“So, Jacinda, I’m assuming this isn’t a social call.”

“Sorry. We need your help, Uncle Gordie.”

“What’s troubling you, luv?”

I hear some shuffling on his end. It sounds like he’s sitting on a leather chair, and adjusting his position.

“Somebody hurt people that I care about,” I say.

“People like your BF over here?”

“Indirectly.”

“Hm-mm. Any idea who that somebody is?”

“My father,” Chris says.

“Sounds like quite a story. Before we get into it, I have to ask: what exactly do you want me to do about it, Jacinda?”

“Well, I was hoping you could do… you know, your thing,” I say.

More shuffling is heard, along with the clicking sound of a glass being placed on a hard surface.

“Bloody Hell, luv, what’d I say about that?”

“Same thing Dad told you about swearing around me.”

“Do me a lemon, you’re a grown up. You can handle some curse words. Look, we talked about this. I no longer do that. That part of my life is over.”

“You did it for Nova, back in Vegas.”

“I-” He groans. “That was different. That bloke was scum. Someone had to stop him.”

“Well, someone has to stop Chris’ dad!” I say vehemently. “Just meet with us and listen to the whole story. You can decide then.”

He stays silent.

“Please, Uncle Gordie?” I say, pulling the whole “flopped down ears, puppy-dog eyes, little smile” routine.

“Yeah, yeah, all right,” he sighs. I can almost see him shaking his head. “I’ll be at your parents’ house at five o’clock.”

“Great!”

“One last thing: if I, hypothetically, consider doing this, it’ll only be with if your dad agrees. I’m not doing anything he disapproves of.”

He mutters something under his breath that sounds like “not again”. Sounds like another story I’ll never learn about.

“Okay. I’ll talk to him too.”

That might prove more difficult. My whole cute-little-puppy routine doesn’t work so well on him anymore. My fault, really: I used it tons of times over the years. And when I see the worried, somewhat standoffish look on his face as we make it home, I realize I’m going to need another tactic entirely. I quickly decide that complete honesty will win the day.

“Gordie just called,” he says. “He is coming over for tea. Apparently, there’s something he’d like to discuss. He said you’ll tell me more about it.”

“Uhh, yeah. How about we wait until Uncle Gordie gets here.”

“Okay…”

Raising an eyebrow, he doesn’t comment any further, and goes to put the kettle on. By the time Uncle Gordie arrives in his old, banged up Buick Encore, the living room and the kitchen smell of blueberry tea. He throws his bomber jacket on the back of the couch, and goes to shake my boyfriend’s hand.

“Nice to meet you, lad,” he says.

“Likewise.”

“I really love my niece, you know.” He tightens his grip ever so tightly.

“Yea-”

“Love her like she’s my own kid, really.”

“That’s-”

“I would hate to see her hurt, I truly would.”

“I see what you’re sayi-”

“She’s good people. Me, not so much. You get me?”

Chris waits a second, to make sure Uncle Gordie will let him finish a sentence this time.

“Yes. Of course.”

“Good lad,” Gordie says, patting his arm. “All right now, let’s sit down and have a chat, shall we?”

Dad reappears, carrying a tray with a steaming tea kettle, four cups, a milk pot, and a bowl filled with sugar cubes. We all take our cups, and fill them. I take mine with three sugars, Dad with one sugar and some milk, and Uncle Gordie takes his black. Chris takes one sugar, tries a few sip, then tilts his head with a satisfied “hmm”. After filling my stomach with some sweet, hot, fruity liquid, I begin informing my dad and my uncle of the recent events. Unsurprisingly, they have quite a few questions, but Chris has no issue answering them. It warms my heart to see how unafraid he is talking about what his father has done to him and his mother. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I won’t let go of his hand.

Dad goes through several expressions as Chris and I tell that story. Shock, anger, and sadness. Uncle Gordie remains focused, his face blank; I can see the cogs turning behind his eyes, however.

“I see,” Gordie says when Chris concludes his narration. “That’s quite a problem you’ve got, lad.”

“Yes,” Dad says, massaging his chin. “It certainly is.”

“I’m worried he won’t stop there,” Chris says.

“Oh, he won’t,” Uncle Gordie says. “I know people like him. They never stop; never see any reason to. A lifetime of getting away with all sorts of things makes them think they’re invincible.” Turning to me, he adds: “You and your sister are right: if you want to be safe, you’ll need to take the initiative.”

Dad sighs, and leans back in his armchair, his eyes swiveling to the ceiling.

“I know where you’re going with this, Gordie,” he says. “And you know how I feel about that sort of thing.”

“I do, mate.”

“The time when we used to do that sort of thing… Well, it wasn’t the best time of my life.” Dad has started talking in a lower voice. My keen ears can still pick up his words, but Chris’ can’t. “There are so many things I’ve done that I’ll never be able to undo. If I could go back and prevent myself from…”

“I get it, Duncan,” Uncle Gordie says. “I feel the same. But this is different, you know that. This isn’t for personal gain, or for fun. Well, maybe a little bit for fun,” he corrects with a half-grin. “Like we said, that bastard won’t stop. Things are only going to escalate, unless we do something.”

“Yes, I understand that.” My father holds his forehead between his thumb and his index finger.

“Dad, this is really important,” I butt in. “What if he comes after me or Nova, next? Or after you?”

He looks at me, and at my paw holding Chris’ hand tight, and sighs wearily.

“Very well. But do be sure to mind yourself this time, Gordie.”

“You got it, mate.”

“I’m serious: no collateral. You’ll make sure this man cannot hurt anyone else, and that’s it.”

“I give you my word,” Uncle Gordie says, sounding suddenly more serious than I have ever heard him before. “Nobody’s going to get in trouble that doesn’t deserve to be.”

Dad nods sharply, then says: “Oh, I still have some scones in the fridge. Anyone want some?”

I eagerly volunteer to take them off his hands, and he goes back to the kitchen to heat up the oven.

“Okay,” Chris says. “How do we do this?”

He doesn’t seem to be eager to get started so much as eager to see it through.

“We?” Uncle Gordie says. “Dealing with your dad is my job, lad. I’ll just have some more questions for you, then you can be on your way.”

“It’s my job, too,” he says. His fingers tremble against my palm. I rub them to calm him. “Whether I like it or not, that man is my father. That makes it my responsibility.”

Wait, what? He wants to be an actual part of this? Didn’t we agree to let Uncle Gordie do his thing?

“Is it a personal thing?” my uncle asks. “He went after your friend and so you want revenge, something like that?”

“I asked myself that,” Chris admits. “But no. It’s just that I don’t want to completely rely on someone else to take care of this. I have to be part of it. And there’s something else.” He swallows his saliva. “I want to make sure my mother makes it through okay.”

Uncle Gordie throws one of his legs over the arm of his seat.

“I’m not going to talk you out of it, eh? Fine, you’re in.”

“Then so am I,” I immediately say.

Both of them stare at me in surprise. Uncle Gordie is the first to react.

“What? No. Bloody no.”

“It’s my problem too, Uncle Gordie!”

“Your father will kill me. Or, most likely, he’ll hold me down while your mother kills me horribly. No offense, but she’s proper mental.”

“Please, Uncle Gordie. This is important to me.” I take a breath, and say: “He is important to me.”

Chris practically melts. My uncle groans.

“Christ. Fine! No need for all that bloody glurge. You’re both in. But no recklessness.” He blinks. “Did I just say that? I must be getting old.”

A deliciously sweet smell sneaks out of the kitchen, and my stomach grumbles in both appreciation and anticipation.

“So what now?” Chris asks.

“Now I do some preliminary work,” Uncle Gordie says, “and when it’s time, I’ll call you.”

“Is there something we can do in the meantime?” I say.

“Just take care of each other. That bloke is probably going to be laying low in the next few days, but still it’s good to be careful.”

I smile to myself. That sounds like a perfect excuse to me.

“You should stay over, tonight,” I tell Chris.

“Sure,” he says.

“Separate rooms,” Dad says, because of course that’s when he chooses to come back with the scones.

“Yes, Dad,” I say. Gods, why is it that every time I’m having Chris over, my parents immediately assume it’s for sex? I mean, in this particular case, that is what I was planning, but it might not have been. Wasn’t it my dad who taught me it’s wrong to make assumptions?

I finish my tea with a side of hot scones; too bad they’re too big to fit in the cup.

The rest of the evening is pretty uneventful, especially compared to the rest of the day. Seriously, today has been one for the books. One Hell of a rollercoaster, too. Only a shame it won’t end the way I hoped it would.

No… Come to think of it, this is for the best. I don’t want to make love to Chris for the first time the same day his best friend got hospitalized. Even though it would be an efficient way to get his mind off things, it just wouldn’t be right.

Oh well. Guess an evening cuddling on the couch while watching television is nice too.

“Thank you for today,” I say, lowering my head on his shoulder, tickling his cheek with my ear. “I had a good time on our date. I’m just sorry about what happened.”

“Not your fault. Plus, you invited me, I should be thanking you.”

“Technically, you should be thanking Mom. She’s the one giving me an allowance.”

One of my paws is resting on his other shoulder, while the other brushes his thigh through his jeans. His arms are wrapped around me. One of his hands is tantalizingly close to my breasts, but I don’t dare to move it: that would be a textbook example of starting something I can’t finish -not when my parents are in the other room washing the dishes.

We’ve decided to watch that TV series Dad and Nova seem to be obsessed with; the one they talked about some time ago over dinner. It’s called Daemon Spider. It’s… Well, it’s really dense. There’s about twenty characters introduced in the first two episodes, and about five concurrent plotlines. The story is about three parallel worlds, two of which have recently been at war, who are engaged in some kind of transdimensional Cold War, complete with military buildup and espionnage. Things start tensing up when some kind of scientist claims to have created another way to travel between worlds. About three scenes later, he has mysteriously disappeared.

The protagonist… Sorry, one of the way too many protagonists is a secret operative named Jaguar, who works for an alternate dimension CIA, and is tasked with finding Doctor What’s-His-Name. Circumstances force him to work with another operative from the parallel world (the one with which they were at war, if I’m following correctly), but it’s obvious they both have secret agendas.

Aaaand Jaguar’s dead already. Damn, I had just memorized his name. No, wait, that’s an alternate version of him. Ah, nope, that’s actually a clone. Wait, there are clones? Oh shit, I slept through an entire episode. Maybe two. Great, that’s really gonna help me catch up.

I slowly come to the realization that I’m lying down on Chris’ lap. There’s a big dark stain on his jeans where my mouth used to be. Ah, fuck, I’ve been drooling all the way down to the couch. He doesn’t seem upset, though.

“You growl in your sleep.”

“I do not,” I mumble, shuffling a bit to get more comfortable. Might as well finish my nap, now.

“And you missed a great scene. Jaguar saved his ex-fiancé from another alternate him who was trying to seduce her in order to murder her.”

“Did they fuck?”

“Nah. Turns out, that was not actually his ex-fiancé, that was an alternate version of her. So it was awkward for a little bit, and then they went their own ways.”

“Gods, why does this series’ plot have to be so damn thick? It’s bad enough there’s a shitload of characters, they all have three alternates and at least two clones.”

“Four alternates.”

“What?” I use my elbow to lift myself up.

“Yeah, turns out, Doctor Konate’s invention actually leads to a fourth parallel world.”

“Uuuuuugh,” I groan, dropping back on his lap. “I fucking give up. This is even worse than the time I tried watching The Wire and it was stuck in the Portuguese dub.” I blow some hair out of my face, accidentally spitting some saliva as I do. “Baltimore é realmente uma cidade horrível.”

I shut my eyes and yawn. Chris pokes me in the shoulder.

“How about we call it an evening? I’m getting tired too.”

“No,” I say, a little abrupt. “Stay here some more.”

“Why? You’re gonna fall asleep. Might as well do it in your bed.”

“Because…”

Because, now that I had some time to process it, what happened with Manny has finally gotten to me. I keep thinking about his attack, except when I do it’s you I’m picturing getting stabbed. And because my brain is an asshole, I’m seeing that scene with lots of details. The blade. The wound. The blood. Thinking about it makes me burn inside, and not in a good way. It’s taking me back to the dark place. Maybe I should get myself a rubber band like yours.

So I want you to just stay there, in my sight, in my reach, where I can be sure you’re okay. I want you to stay there forever. Or at least, until I’m one thousand percent confident that colon dweller cannot hurt you.

But I can’t say that, of course. Not only does it make me sound like there is a straightjacket out there with my name on it, I don’t want to freak him out.

“Jacinda! Your claws!”

Ah, shit. I release the grip I subconsciously took on his thigh’s muscle, grumbling an apology. His fingers mingle with my hair, catching a few of my many knots.

“I’m gonna be okay, Jacinda,” he whispers in my ear.

“How do you know?” I can’t help but ask.

“Because I’ve got you.”

Well fuck me if that’s not the smoothest, most butterfly-inducing goddamn thing I’ve ever heard. I turn on my back and cup his cheek. Come on, girl, say something smooth back.

“I won’t let you down.” Or let you get hurt. Or let you go. Ever.

“I know,” he says, kissing my paw tenderly like he also heard the part I was only thinking.

My eyes close on their own, and I make no effort to open them again.

“You know I can’t carry you to your room, right?” he says.

I place my index finger on his lips to shush him. He sighs, then resumes brushing my hair.

For the rest of the evening, I fall asleep, then wake up, then fall asleep again. At some point, I wake up to find Chris fast asleep too. I carefully lay him down on the couch, go get him a cover, then lie back down against him. My eyes close again, and, this time, they don’t open again until the next morning.

How’s that for separate rooms, dad?

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2 thoughts on “Playing Favorites – Chapter 14

  1. Look, while I genuinely enjoyed the whole chapter, and there was nothing at all wrong with the tone, I got to the end and laughed like a bastard when I realized that when shit hits the fan, Hellhounds call… an Australian (?)

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