My dearest Mason,
I got the job and I start in two weeks! I wish you were here to celebrate with me. I miss you and can’t wait to see you in a few weeks. It feels like forever. I hope you’re safe wherever you go. I love you so much.
Thinking of you always,
I left a kiss on the postcard with my red lipstick and dropped it in my mailbox. I locked the front door and went back into the living room.
“News just in…” I turned off the television. The sunset was shining through the window, and the kettle on the stove was steaming. I sat up on the couch remembering how I begged him not to join the arm as he begged me to let him. That was probably why I married him right after our high school graduation and let him enroll in the army. I’ve been dying to see him after six long months. He promised me he wouldn’t die and he’d be back before I knew it. I was always skeptical about it and I tried to stay positive. But I was too afraid to answer my phone every time it rang – what if it was the general calling to tell me that my husband has passed away while fighting for our country?
I went out for my morning run and stopped dead in my tracks when my cell phone rang. I checked the caller ID and after the second quack sounded, I found the willpower to answer. My throat was dry and I had to swallow several times to be able to talk.
“Hello?” I answered quietly. There was a pause and I felt tears form in my eyes. Just then, a very familiar voice responded.
“Mason? Is this really you?”
“Still got that duck ring tone for me, huh?”
“What do you mean?”
“Turn around, silly.” I trembled and did just that. There he was, dressed in his army uniform wearing a wide grin on his face. I screamed in excitement and I couldn’t believe it. I quickly ran to him and jumped into his arms. He chuckled as he lifted me up, “I’m back, baby.”
“Oh my God. I missed you so much.” Our lips locked and I couldn’t let him go. “You came early!”
“I wanted to surprise you,” he laughed some more. “I love you so much.”
“Oh my gosh. I love you too.”
I watched him chug a beer can after another until he was curled up hugging his knees resting his back against the bed. He started to shout violent words at the wall until his cheeks were sore from the constant rubbing of his tears. I didn’t know what to do anymore. He talked about having nightmares and how I don’t understand what he went through, and he constantly pushes me away. I’ve suggested therapy, but he refuses to go.
“I need more beer.” Mason grunted.
“Babe, I think you’ve had enough. Let’s get some rest.” I pulled him up into bed and covered him with a blanket. He leaned his head against my chest as I embraced him, and I began to cry with him. “Shh, you’re okay. I’m right here. You’re home babe.”
I walked into the bedroom and there he was still in bed.
“Mason?” I said annoyed as I cleaned up the crushed beer cans overflowing the side table.
“Sorry, I’m going out with Blake and Clark later tonight.” He covered his head with the blanket and let out a snore.
“Seriously? What happened to our dinner reservation tonight?” I had worn his favorite black dress and strappy heels, but he didn’t even notice. “Mason?”
I pulled his arm and he immediately shoved my hand away. “Don’t fucking touch me, Zo.”
I let out a sob, “I thought we were going out tonight.” His hair was a mess and he reeked of alcohol.
He looked irritated as he sat up. I tried to snuggle next to him but he pushed me off to the ground. “I’m not in the mood, damn it. Didn’t you hear? I’m going out with the guys.”
“Okay, I’m sorry. I just thought—”
“Shut up, Zoey!” He laid back down and turned away.
“Okay.” I sighed under my breath as I picked up the cans and left the room.
I got home from work and saw that Mason was making dinner. It seemed like he also cleaned the house. That’s quite surprising. I peeped into the kitchen, “Mason?”
“Hey, you’re finally home!” Mason had on a goofy grin. “Come here. Sit down.” He pulled out a chair.
I tried to smile, “I can smell the beer on your breath.” I crossed my arms as I sat down.
He sat next to me. “Do you want a drink or anything? Dinner is about ready.” He said, ready to get up.
“No thanks,” I sighed. “We need to talk, Mason. No yelling, talking.” I sternly looked at him and he nodded back. “You drinking all the time… it hurts me. You skipping out on therapy… it hurts me too. And you haven’t been communicating with me and I don’t know…”
He reached to grab my hand but I pulled away immediately and shook my head.
“Mason, we’re not in high school anymore.” I placed my hands on my lap and tried hard to hold back my tears. “I’ve tried to be understanding and supportive, but it’s been so hard between us lately. I just… I don’t think this is going to work anymore.”
His eyes widened. “No. Zo, I swear… I’ll try harder. I want us to work, please don’t leave me. I love you more than anyone knows!” He glanced down and reached for my hands. “Zoey, where’s your ring?” His face screamed that he was hurt.
I ignored his comment about the ring. “Mason… I love you, but I just don’t think we’re right for each other anymore…”
“Where’s the ring, Zo?” He exclaimed.
“Mason,” I began to cry as I pulled out a tiny velvet box from my purse with the ring inside, “I can’t do this anymore.” I slowly passed the box to him.
He abruptly stood up and the chair fell back. “I don’t understand. I’ll stop drinking! I won’t skip therapy anymore! I’ll do anything!” He urged as he held my arms aggressively.
“You’re hurting me…” I cried out.
“I’m so sorry, Zo,” he realized how strong his grip was and released me. He reached down and held my hands. “I love you, Zo. Please, don’t leave me.” He leaned in for a kiss and I turned my face, so he pecked my forehead.
“I just need to think.” I walked away to our bedroom and he stood there speechless. I heard dishes shattering and I turned on the television to drown out the noise.
Beep. Beep. Beep. 5:00 AM. Where’s my phone?
I’m waving my right arm all over my bed before finally opening my eyes to find my iPhone on the side table and clicked stop. Did I leave my phone there? I placed my phone under my pillow, turned over and realized that I must have fallen asleep.
I got up and the crisp, cold air gave me chills. I slowly opened the door even though it still let out a loud creak. Ugh. Could you be even louder? I tiptoed to the living room and found him sleeping on the couch. There were empty beer cans all over the floor and I shook my head in disbelief. So much for trying harder, Mas. I gently shook him but he wrestled my hand away.
“Mason, come to bed.” I whispered and watched him try to wake up. He winced at me but he wouldn’t budge. I started to walk away, and I turned back to see if he would follow me back in to bed, but he didn’t. “Mason?”
“No thanks.” He turned his back to me and fell back asleep.
5:30 AM wake up. Stop.
5:45 AM time to get up. Stop.
6:15 AM you REALLY have to get up now!! Stop.
Mason never came back to bed but I guess I should give him space. I slid out of bed to get ready for work. Sigh. I thought about our talk last night and felt uneasy.
“Hey, I’m going to work now. I’ll see you later?” I lightly tapped his arm.
“Yeah.” He glanced at me and covered his face.
“Have a good day, Mas. Text me.” I could feel my heart sink but I knew I had to go to work, and I was running late again. I made a quick cup of coffee and got into my car.
Ugh. Traffic. Long distance commuting has grown very depressing. One hour one way, plus one hour back? That’s about two hours wasted out of the day idling in the 405 North traffic, isolated from the world in a suffocating fortress of solitude made with a steel frame, glass windows and cotton seats, leather if you’re lucky. That’s two hours just trying to go somewhere, but do I really have to be there? I’m only like half way there… I could just go back home and talk it out with Mason.
Maybe we could get some brunch. We haven’t had a brunch date in a while. Mimosas sound nice. No. I should go to work. I can’t keep calling in sick because Mason and I get into arguments. But this time was serious… I don’t know. No. I’m going to work. We’ll be okay. We’re always okay. It’s just a phase. I’m already half way to work anyway. I turned up the volume on the radio to drown out my thoughts.
8:17 AM. I hurried to my classroom so I could settle my things down. As I tried to run across the hall, some of my coffee spilled on my pants. Damn it. I entered my classroom and headed to the bathroom to see that Nathan, my assistant teacher, was already there. We’ve worked together the past year and he has been a tremendous help with running my class. I’ve been getting distracted at work because of Mason, but Nathan has been very supportive and understanding.
“Hey, Nathan.” I smiled, “Have you been here long?”
He turned his head to reply, “Good morning, Miss Zo. Lookin’ good as always!” He beamed. “But yeah, I got here half an hour ago to avoid traffic.”
“Smart,” I chuckled. “I was stuck in traffic all morning. It really sucked. Well I gotta use the bathroom, and I’ll be right out.”
“Oh, I know this isn’t the right time… but did you talk to Mason?”
“Nathan, I’m sorry. I’m married and I love him.” I looked at my hand and felt my empty ring finger. “I hope you understand. He needs me.”
“Of course.” He quickly turned away and continued working. “I’m almost done with the circle-time board.”
Hey Mason, I’m at work. Have a good day. -– READ RECEIPT 8:19 AM.
The 8:25 AM morning bell rang and I walked out of the bathroom to skim over my agenda. Nathan was outside gathering the students before I opened the front door at 8:30 AM. Thankfully, it’s a minimum day because of spring break next week. I really need some time to myself. Maybe I can go to the beach and read a book.
This month’s theme is Birds and Eggs, and today’s project was to make a baby chick with a toilet paper cardboard roll, paint, and feathers. It was a good distraction trying to make one, and time flew by quickly. The children finished their project within one hour, and I was about to begin the third learning center.
Hey. What’re you up to? — DELIVERED 11:09 AM. Still no reply.
To teach the definition of a “clutch”, I first asked my students how many eggs they think a bird can lay at once. Nathan wrote down their answers as they eagerly raised their hands.
“Ummm… 100 eggs!” West yelled.
“West, please use your indoor voice. But wow, 100? That’s a lot of eggs! Sarah, what do you think?” Nathan replied.
“One egg,” she smiled. “I’m thinking of a very small bird and it can only lay one egg at a time.”
“Mr. Red is in the building. Please advise.” The intercom beeped. All of the students looked up and I immediately shushed them. I pulled Nathan to the side of the room.
“It’s a code red. We need to secure the class room.” He nodded in agreement and began to gather the children. I checked my phone to see if Mason had read my text or replied. Nothing.
I closed the blinds and whispered to the class, “Alright. Thank you, Sarah. So class, we need to—”
Nathan turned off the lights and the children all gasped.
“Okay class, we all have to be very, very quiet. Remember when we learned about danger last month with the police officer, and he taught us what to do?” The children nodded their heads and I could tell they were just as terrified as I was.
“We’re supposed to turn off all the lights and be quiet because someone outside might hear us,” David replied.
“That’s right, David. Very good! So everyone, let’s all be very quiet, okay? Shh.” We all crouched down to the floor but they kept asking questions and whispering to one another, so I constantly had to shush them. I could feel a twinge in my heart but I needed to show them I wasn’t scared. I kept assuring them that everything would be okay, but I was starting to believe that I was just trying to convince myself.
Nathan kneeled down and wrapped his arm around me. “I’ve locked all the doors and windows. What should we do now?”
“We should block the door and hide the students.” I checked around the classroom to find a decent hiding spot.
The students gathered near the back of the room while we tried to discreetly push my desk to the front door. I squirmed as soon as the metal desk screeched loudly against the floor, and we immediately lifted it to place behind the door. My children watched us from the circle-time carpet and kept whispering, so Nathan shushed them again.
“The supply closets!” I gleamed.
Then, I opened the supply cabinets in the middle of the classroom and started taking out the naptime beds onto the desks. “I need four of you to hide in here and the other three to hide over there. Hurry.” They all stared at me as if I was crazy and I had to pull the children’s hands to motion them to get inside the cabinet as I reminded them to stay quiet.
“Miss Zoey, I’m scared.”
“Sarah, you will be okay. You won’t get hurt. I promise. Just try to stay quiet, okay?” I felt horrible and my hands were sweating, but I panicked and didn’t know what else to do. “Charlise, hold Sarah’s hand.”
“Okay,” Charlise whispered back. She was also tearing up but I could tell she was trying to be brave.
“I love all of you, okay? Everything will be alright.” They all whispered and I quickly hushed them back. I heard someone struggling to open the front door. I shh’ed my students one more time and Nathan and I crawled across the classroom to hide under my desk. We watched the doorknob vigorously vibrate and I covered my mouth to suppress my heavy breathing.
Nathan embraced me in his arms for comfort and I dug my face into his chest.
I could hear the person’s footsteps walking away and I watched the person’s shadow disappear from the window. God, oh God, please. God. Not this. My heart felt like it was trying to jump out of my body. God. God. God. Please, are you there? Please, let it be a cop. Let this be a drill. My fingertips were becoming numb and tingling, and my palms were damp in cold, heavy sweat.
Are you there? There’s a code red at school today and I’m scared –- DELIVERED 11:58 AM. No read receipt? Ugh.
I tried to breathe slowly while crawling out from under my desk and listened for any footsteps outside. God. Please. Please. Please. I wanted to take a peek at the window until the backdoor was knocked on. Shit.
Nathan pulled me down behind the students’ desks and I let him go to tell him I was fine. Fuck. Fuck. God, please. This can’t be happening.
We heard the door being shaken until the intruder slammed it down.
I recognized the voice. Is that…? I lifted my head above the desks. “Mason?” My eyes widened and my voice stuttered, “What are you doing?”
He stared at me and saw Nathan beside me. “What the fuck are you doing, Zo?” He raised the five seven pistol in his right hand at Nathan and I stood in between them.
“Please, Mason. I don’t know what you’re thinking but it doesn’t have to be this way. Please, just talk to me.” He lowered his hand and looked at me with worry in his eyes. “I love you, Mason, and–“
“Shut up, Zoey!” He breathed heavily, his breath stenched with alcohol, and his hand was shaking. He pointed the gun at me and I took a step back.
“Please, Mason…” I pleaded, “I never stopped loving you. Please.” I couldn’t help but beg for mercy, the tears strolling down my face.
“You think this is easy for me? I saw the texts between you two last night! You’ve been talking to him about me? You really think I wouldn’t find out that he’s been trying to get at you?” He glared at me as he tried to catch his breath, and I was in such disbelief.
“Mason, we’ve done nothing wrong!”
“No!” He pointed the gun at Nathan. “Move, Zo. I’m gone for a few months to serve in Iraq and this fucker thinks he’s better than me?” He glared at me, “Is that why you’re always here late with him?”
“No. No. He means nothing to me. He’s just my assistant, Mason. You know I’ve been busy because I want my first Open House night to be perfect. I love you. You know that.” He shook his head in disagreement and directed the gun to me.
“No, she’s right.” Nathan blurted, “She loves you and wouldn’t give me a chance.”
“What?” Mason pointed the gun back at Nathan. “You knew she’s married and you still tried to get at her?” Nathan instantly stayed quiet with his hands raised in the air. Then, we heard a rustle inside the cabinets. Mason turned around with the gun still aimed at Nathan, “Is someone else here?”
“No.” I shook my head and took a step closer to him. God. God. God. Please be quiet. Oh my God.
He turned back around and snapped at me, “Don’t lie to me, Zoey! Where are the kids?”
I took another step forward. “Please, Mason. They’re not here. It’s lunchtime and they’re at the cafeteria. I was getting the room ready for their naptime. Just put the gun down. This is all a huge misunderstanding. Please, Mas.”
Something fell inside the cabinet and we could hear one of my students started to cry. Nathan took a step toward the cabinet doors and Mason waved the gun at him. “Don’t you fucking dare come in any closer, you dick!”
“Mason! Please!” I pleaded as he began to walk toward the cabinets, keeping the gun faced at us.
He turned his head to reach for the cabinet handle so I leaped to pull him away. And then I heard a loud bang.
“Zoey…” Their faces were filled with horror. I looked down and there was so much red seeping through my shirt. I stared at Mason with tears uncontrollably strolling down my face, and I noticed Nathan was under my desk on his phone.
“I’m so sorry. No. No. No. I love you too, okay?” Mason dropped the gun. “I’m so sorry, Zo.”
I could feel it in my gut; the wrenching pain as I stood there clutching my chest and sides. I immediately fell to the floor as my hands trembled at the thought of my students still hiding inside the cabinets. The pain grew and the pangs stabbed my lungs with a dull edge. I heard Mason run out the door and Nathan ran to my side. He lifted my head onto his lap as he brushed the hair away from my face. I breathed heavy dry heaves as the discomfort relentlessly consumed me.
“Mas…” My voice was weak and I felt Nathan’s hands press against my stomach. I grunted.
“Zoey?” His voice cracked. “I’m right here. You’re going to be okay, you hear me? I’m right here. The police are on their way.”
My vision was becoming foggy and Nathan’s face was starting to blur. He kept one of his hands on the wound and the other under my head, but then my vision started to turn black.
I could hear someone talking… I tried to open my eyes but there was such a bright light preventing me from doing so. Why is it so damn bright?
“Zoey? Can you hear me?” She was barely audible. “I’m Dr. Grey and you’re at the Long Beach Memorial Hospital. Zoey?”
My eyes were finally fixed on her. Dr. Grey had pale skin and curly hair tied up. She smiled at me and I looked around in the room. Nathan was outside holding my favorite flowers.
“What happened?” I asked. I tried to sit up but I felt so weak and collapsed back into my laying position.
“Take it easy, Zoey. You were brought in with a gunshot wound to the stomach, but you’re doing much better now. We almost lost you in surgery,” She smiled at me with concern.
“What?” I was so confused, but then I realized what happened. “The kids?”
“Everyone is okay,” Nathan interjected as he peeped his head in the doorway. I looked at his gleaming face, but I felt another pit in my stomach. Where’s Mason?
END OF PART ONE