You've Got Mail
"HELLO? ANYBODY UP THERE?"
Gaia had just stepped out of the shower when she heard the voice floating up the stairs to greet her. She wrapped a too-small towel around herself, went to the landing, and leaned into the stairwell. It was a familiar voice, but not one she expected to hear before eight o'clock in the morning.
"Um...what the hell are you doing here?"
She heard him laugh under his breath. "Just fine, thanks, and you?"
At the sound of his voice, a minute ray of happiness filtered down into the blackness of her mood. She hadn't spoken a word out loud since Saturday night, since everything...happened. Now it was Monday morning, and her words were so far back in her brain she had to hunt around for them. "N-Not that fine," she responded hoarsely. "I had..." How could she begin to convey the true horror that was her life? "Sort of a rough weekend."
"What else is new?"
She heard both affection and wariness in Ed's voice. He knew a "rough weekend" for Gaia meant more than teenage angst -- that it would involve things like firearms and kickboxing.
"Tell me about it over breakfast," he called. "I brought bagels."
Her stomach grumbled loudly. One thing this city had going for it -- authentic, fresh-out-of-the-oven bagels. They almost made up for the high price of Apple Jacks. She glanced down at herself and the small puddle forming under her feet. "I'm wearing a hand towel and a few cups of water," Gaia said, wishing Ella hadn't left early this morning, so that she could be disturbed by this exchange. At least Ella had taken George with her wherever she'd gone. Gaia disliked offending George as much as she enjoyed offending Ella.
"I repeat," said Ed, laughing again. "C'mon down!"
Gaia rolled her eyes, trying to ignore the undertones of the remark. Two minutes later, she'd slipped into her most-worn cargo pants and a gray T-shirt and was on her way downstairs, her hair dripping water over her shoulders. On the landing, she paused to study the familiar snapshot that hung in a frame there on the wall -- the photograph George had taken so long ago of Gaia and her parents. Gaia had tried to get rid of it, but Ella insisted it remain. She squinted at it, looking hard at her father.
Her father. She'd seen him two nights ago. Actually seen him and spoken to him. And decked him, she reminded herself bitterly.
After that he'd disappeared -- again.
Her stomach churned, both with confusion and with sadness. Why had he shown up here after all this time? What could it mean?
Was it some paternal sixth sense that had dragged him back into her life? Did he somehow know she'd been on the verge of ditching her virginity, and he'd crawled out from whatever rock he'd been hiding under all these years to give her an old-fashioned heart-to-heart talk on morality, safe sex, and self-control?
Or was it just one more whacked-out coincidence in her life?
She leaned closer to the photo and stared into his eyes.
They appeared to be soft, kind, intelligent eyes -- and the smile looked genuine. The man she'd met on Saturday night had not seemed genuine at all. The warmth and gentleness she saw in the picture had been missing from that man. He was different, somehow. Lesser.
Apparently abandoning your kid and living on the run could take a lot out of a person. In the kitchen, Gaia was met by the aroma of fresh bagels and hot coffee. Ed, who had positioned his chair close to the table, looked up from spreading cream cheese on a poppy seed bagel. "You didn't have to get dressed on my account."
She was annoyed at the blush his grin brought to her face. "Shut up." Her eyes narrowed. "How did you get in here, anyway?"
"Door was unlocked," Ed said. "You should really talk to your roomies about that. I mean this is a nice neighborhood, but why court robbery, or worse?"
Gaia collapsed into a chair. That was weird. George never left the door unlocked. Must've been another brilliant Ella maneuver.
"Do you think it's kismet that this place is handicap accessible?" Ed asked suddenly.
Gaia raised an eyebrow. "It's either kismet...or the building code."
"I'm serious," said Ed. "Do you have any idea how many places in this city aren't?"
She felt a pang of pity but squashed it fast. "So what's kismet got to do with it?"
"You happen to live in wheelchair-friendly digs. I happen to be in a wheelchair." Ed shrugged. "It's like the universe is arranging it so that we can hang out."
"The universe clearly has too much time on its hands." She sat down and pulled her knees up, leaning them against the edge of the table.
"Then I'm glad I didn't buy any." Ed pushed a steaming cup of coffee across the table toward her. "Three sugars, no cream, right?"
Gaia nodded, refusing to be charmed by the fact that he remembered, and took a careful sip. She could feel him staring at her.
"You look like hell," he said, shaking a lock of brown hair back off his forehead. Suddenly he appeared to realize this was not a smart thing to say to a girl -- any girl. "I mean...in a good way," he added lamely.
Gaia gave him a sidelong glance. "That's funny. I feel like hell." She took another, bolder sip of the hot coffee, letting the steamy liquid warm her from the inside.
"Now we're getting to it," Ed said, clasping his hands together and then cracking his knuckles. "You were unsurprisingly unfindable yesterday, Gaia. So let's hear it." He broke off a piece of bagel and pointed it at her. "Who was the lucky guy and how did the ceremonial shedding of the chastity belt go?"
Gaia ignored the bile rising in her throat, picked up a marble bagel, and took a gigantic bite. There was a reason she'd avoided Ed all day yesterday -- the need to avoid forced emotional spillage. "Subtlety isn't exactly a talent of yours, is it, Ed?" she said with her mouth full.
"Look who's talking."
He had a point there. She studied Ed for a moment -- the just-this-side-of-scruffy hair, the eager yet wary brown eyes, the dot of dried blood on his chin where he'd cut himself shaving. Gaia hated that she had to talk about this, but she did. She'd sucked Ed into the whole sorry situation when she confessed her virginity. Like it or not, over the past few weeks she had made Ed a friend, or something very close. He might as well know the truth.
Gaia closed her eyes. Shook her head. Sighed.
"It didn't happen," she said. And her whole body felt empty.
Ed dropped the knife onto the floor with a clatter. "It didn't?"
"Ed!" She opened her eyes and glared at him. "Think you can sound just a little more amused by that?"
"Sorry it didn't work out for you." Ed cleared his throat, and she could swear he was hiding a grin behind his steaming coffee. Some friend. "So what happened?" he asked.
Gaia took another aggressive bite of bagel. She chewed and swallowed before answering. "Let's just say I was witness to somebody beating me to it."
"Shut up!" Ed's eyes opened wide. "Gaia, tell me who we're talking about here. You can't keep me in this kind of suspense."
Say it, she commanded herself. Just say it. "It was Sam Moon."
A sudden shower of chewed bagel bits pelted Gaia's arms. "God, Ed! Food is to go in the mouth. In," Gaia said, brushing off her arms irritably.
"Do you mean you walked in on Sam and...Heather?" Ed choked out while simultaneously attempting to wipe his mouth.
Somehow, saying it out loud gave Gaia a bit of distance. The words were vibrating in the fragrant air of the kitchen. Outside of her instead of inside. "Ironic, isn't it?" Gaia asked, flicking one last bagel wad off her elbow.
Ed looked as if he were watching his life flash before his eyes -- backward and in 3-D with surround sound. Gaia had never seen his skin so pale. She'd forgotten for the moment that Heather meant something to Ed as well. A big something.
"Man." Ed let out a long rush of breath. His eyes were unfocused. "That had to suck."
It didn't suck. Sucking was getting busted for going seventy in a thirty-five-mile-an-hour zone. Sucking was losing a dollar in a Coke machine. Sucking didn't hurt.
"Could've been worse," she mumbled with a shrug. She wouldn't have believed it, except that it had actually gotten worse. The night had been full of mind-bending surprises. But she didn't need to share them now, if ever. They were highly dysfunctional family matters to be discussing over breakfast.
"What could be worse than walking in on the object of your seduction in bed with your mortal enemy?"
It was a decent question. Gaia was saved from needing to explain by the sound of the phone ringing.
Ed reached behind him, snatched the cordless from the counter, then slid it across the table to Gaia. She hit the button and held the receiver to her ear. "Hello?"
At first, nothing.
Her eyes narrowed. "Yeah? Who is this?"
The voice was distorted, like something from a horror movie. "Check your e-mail." It was a command. Maybe even a threat.
She felt as if ice were forming in her veins. "Who is this?"
"Check your e-mail," the voice growled.
The line went dead.
Gaia was on her feet, running for George's computer, which, luckily, he always left on. When she reached the den, she flung herself into the chair and punched at the keyboard. Ed, maneuvering his chair through the rooms, appeared soon after.
d"What's going on?"
Gaia was too morbidly curious to answer. She clicked the mail icon and stared at the screen as it choked out the early, cryptic shadows of a video image, and she tapped her fingers impatiently on the mouse as the picture emerged...slowly...slowly...
It was someone with his back to her, hunched forward. His surroundings were vague, too much light. Gaia reached for the speaker, in case there was audio. There was. Staticky at first. Distant, fuzzy, then clearing.
"Maybe it's Heather, playing a joke," offered Ed. "To get even."
Gaia was so intent on the image she barely heard him. "I don't think so."
Over the computer speakers she heard his voice....
Her heart seemed to freeze solid in her chest. No, no, no, no.
But the voice through the speaker repeated itself. "Gaia."
As if he'd heard her, he turned to the camera, and suddenly there was Sam's face on the computer screen. One of his eyes was black-and-blue, swollen shut, and he looked frighteningly pale. Weak.
Ed angled his chair close to the desk. "Oh, shit."
Sam's face vanished, replaced by a blank screen, and then there was a blast of static from the speakers as the same distorted voice addressed her. "Gaia Moore. You can see from this footage that we have a mutual friend. Sadly, he's not feeling well at the moment. Did you know Sam is a diabetic? No, I would imagine you didn't...."
Ed stared at the blank screen. "Who the hell is it?"
Gaia shushed him with a sharp hiss as a graphic began to appear on the screen -- a message snaking its way from the right side, one letter at a time:
The voice continued as the letters slid into view. "He's well enough for the moment, but around, oh, say, ten o'clock this evening he'll be needing his insulin, quite desperately. And that, my darling Gaia, is where you come in. You must pass a series of tests. You must pass these tests by ten o'clock tonight. If you do not, we will not wait for the diabetes to take over. If you do not pass these tests in the allotted time..."
The graphic slithered by: S...A...V...E...
"...we will kill him."
For a moment the question trembled there on the dark screen. CAN YOU SAVE SAM? Then the letters went spinning off into the infinite background, and another message appeared in an eye-searing flash of brightness. It read:
You will find on your front step a videotape.
You will play it during your first-period class.
DO NOT view the tape prior to showing it in school.
Without warning, the e-mail broadcast returned, showing a close-up of Sam's beaten face, his frightened eyes, his mouth forming a word, and the word came screaming through the speaker in Sam's voice.
Then nothing. The image and the audio were gone, and the computer whirred softly until George's sickening screen saver -- a scanned-in photo of Ella -- returned to the screen.
Gaia sprang up from the chair and flew to the front door, which she flung open. The early October air sparkled, and the neighborhood was just coming alive with people on their way to work and school. Gaia paid no attention. Her eyes searched the front stoop until they found the package.
She lunged for it.
Gaia had no idea who had done this. She had no idea why. But she wasn't about to ask questions.
In that instant, it didn't matter that Sam had had sex with Heather or that he didn't return Gaia's overwhelming love for him and probably never would.
Sam life was in danger. For now, that was all that mattered.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" Ed demanded, wheeling himself out from the exit under the stoop, afraid for a moment that the package might explode in her hands.
But Gaia had grabbed her ever-present messenger bag and was down the steps. Ed aimed his chair to the left, toward the sidewalk. He could barely see Gaia over the row of potted shrubs as she sprinted away.
He caught up to her three corners later. One good thing about being in a wheelchair -- even New York drivers slowed to let you cross the street.
She was bouncing on the balls of her feet, waiting for the light to change.
"Gaia, hold on. You can't just go to school and put that thing in the VCR!"
She didn't turn to face him. "Watch me."
"What if it...I don't know...what if it starts spewing out poisonous gas or something?" Ed offered.
"This isn't a Batman episode, Ed!" Gaia spat out, glancing over her shoulder. "What do you think, the Penguin sent that e-mail?"
"No, but somebody just as wacko did!"
"Somebody who's got Sam." Her voice was grim. Determined.
"Yeah, I get that. But we need to think about this. You don't know what's on that tape." He shook his head. "Okay, I admit, toxic vapor is a little extreme. But this whole thing is freaky, and I'm just saying we should be careful."
"You be careful," she snapped. "I'll be quick."
"Do you never think before you act?"
"Ed! Listen!" She grabbed the armrests of his wheelchair and leaned over to look him directly in the eyes. She was so close he could see the pores in the perfect skin around her nose. Her hair was still wet against her cheeks. "I don't know who is doing this or why," she said. "But I have to help Sam."
In the next second he watched, helpless, as she flung herself out into the middle of traffic. A cab swerved. A UPS truck hit the brakes. A bike messenger careened off a mailbox.
But she made it.
He expected her to go right on running, but when she hit the opposite sidewalk, she turned and looked at him.
It was probably the fastest look in the history of eye contact, but that look was loaded. It was part defiance, part desperation, and part apology.
"Go!" he shouted, his voice raw. "I'll see you there."
She nodded almost imperceptibly, then took off down the street.
He followed as fast as his confinement allowed. Thinking.
She wanted to sleep with Sam. Sam Moon. But she hadn't. It had taken complete self-control to keep from popping a wheelie in his chair when she'd confessed that. Saturday night had been torture -- the thought of her in someone else's arms, of someone else kissing her, had kept him awake all night. Awake and angry and sick to his stomach.
Because he loved her desperately. In mind, in spirit, in body. He wanted her.
So what if she wanted Sam? Seeing him with Heather must have cured that, right? The fact that she was rushing off to his rescue, no questions asked, just meant she was noble. One more thing to love about her.
Ed's remark about the universe setting them up came back to him, and he cringed. Stupid. Childish. Pathetic.
Yet on some level he'd meant it. He'd found her, that first day in the hall at school. She'd been so lost, and so not wanting to be lost. Ed knew how lost felt. He'd felt it every day since he'd first sat in this chair. Every day he was set apart.
He approached school and entered the crush of people. He imagined Gaia in her first-period classroom, slamming the mysterious video into the VCR. What the hell is on the tape? he wondered, feeling panic press into him.
And if he had to, could he rescue her from it?
He smiled bitterly at the ridiculous image. Sir Edward of Useless Limbs, the knight in not-so-shining armor, rushing in to rescue the fair Gaia, Lady of Brutal Ass Kickings.
Remember that, pal? Three punks in one shot. And without even having to touch up her lip gloss afterward. His lady had no need for a knight. And, anyway, knights rode horses, not chairs.
He broke from the pack of students and rolled toward the handicapped entrance.
As he did on every other day of the school year, Ed entered the building alone.
Copyright © 1999 by Francine Pascal