Ten minutes later, Emily and Michael were in the darkened foyer of the Budds’ house. The walls, red with a golden trim, were now muted, lit only by the light of a distant streetlight. Emily moved a fern to the side and peeked through the thin curtains beside the door.
“What are they doing?” Michael asked, his voice low, sitting on the stairs behind her. Mr. Budd had insisted that they leave quickly, and Michael didn’t want him to know they were still there.
“Watching a movie on a laptop. They keep rewinding an explosion over and over and rewatching it in slow motion.”
“No. But that would be hilarious. What time is it?”
“Probably ten ‘til.”
There was a large ornate vase by her feet, that now held only a single black umbrella. “I didn’t know you had cousins.”
“You told Mr. Budd that your cousins had a pool table.”
“Oh, they’re not really my cousins. There are about ten Macedonian families in New Orleans, and we all know each other. So I just call them my cousins…you know, like you and all your uncles.”
“Oh.” Emily turned around. Michael sat with his feet apart, his hands clasped between his knees, looking at the a single square of light on the hardwood floor. “Michael…we just got played, didn’t we?”
He brought his eyes up to hers slowly, and she looked away, frowning. “I don’t know. Probably. You notice how he had us sit on those boxes, so we’d be lower than him? And he kept asking us simple questions, like ‘You understand?’ so we’d get in a rhythm of agreeing with him. That’s called a ‘yes ladder’…getting us to say ‘yes, yes, yes.’”
Emily half-smiled. “It’s a little freaky you know about stuff like this.”
“I read a book about being a better salesman once, I don’t know why. Oh, and at the end, all of a sudden he’s out of time and he has to ‘be straight with us’ and make his offer and we had to let him know if we were going to help right then. You know?” He shrugged. “There was probably other stuff I didn’t catch.”
She widened her eyes. “Oh my god, we totally did get played! Let’s go back up there and tell him we changed our minds. There’s no way I’m going to help him now.”
“Well, just because he was, uh, guiding the conversation doesn’t mean that he was lying or manipulating us. I mean, he’s been in politics for twenty years, talking like that is probably second nature at this point. He may not have even realized he was doing it.”
Emily frowned at him, then glanced at the ceiling and rolled her eyes.
Michael shrugged. “I think you made the right decision. If we don’t help him, there’s a chance the Budds might not come back. If we do help him…well, the Budds still might not come back. But at least we’ll have done something, right?”
“That makes sense. I mean, yeah, that was pretty much what I was thinking when I told him we’d do it.”
“Also, the first thing he asked us to do is nothing: we should go visit David anyway. Litta'Bit, too. And if he asks us to do anything we’re not comfortable with, we just say no. What’s he gonna do, tell our parents?”
“Exactly.” Emily sat down on the stairs beside Michael, then knocked his knee with her own. “You know, I wish you’d said anything while I was deciding. Or even looked over at me.”
“I didn’t want to sway you.”
“I know, that’s what I’m saying. I wanted you to sway me. I didn’t know what you were thinking and I just felt really alone.”
Michael looked over at her. “I said before we got out of the car that I’d be with you no matter what. I wanted you to make up your mind, and then I’d support your decision. I told you: we’re in this together.”
Emily laughed. “I don’t know if this is an ESL thing or what, but we’re in this together doesn’t mean what you think it means. I don’t need a bodyguard, Michael, or someone who will just back me up no matter what. Okay?”
He nodded. “Okay.”
“You got me?”
“I got you.”
“It’s fun! You know?”
“I should have never said anything.” He pointed his chin towards the window. “What are the guards doing? If that guy is coming here at eleven, we need to get going.”
Emily got up and looked through the blinds again. The two were still engrossed in watching a movie. “They’re making out. Maybe they won’t notice if we tip-toe out. Hey, you know what? We should totally do that breath thing before we leave.”
But almost as soon as Emily had turned her back, Michael had moved to the door. He was already untucking his shirt just a bit, relaxing his posture. “Let’s roll, yo.”
“Michael, wait. I’m not…” But he opened the door and, with a lazy stride, tumbled out on to the porch. “…ready,” Emily mumbled.
She followed him out nervously, locking the door behind her and pulling it shut. Michael, with half open eyes, threw an arm over her shoulder and steered her towards the Mini. A few loping steps later, he dropped his arm and, glancing over at the guards, nodded his head at them.
They were almost to the car when the smaller of the guards walked over to stop them. The blonde guard looked up, a little concerned, and joined his partner.
“You know, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t search that bag. Your father is a druggie, you know.” Behind him, the blonde frowned but didn’t say anything. The guard squinted out a grin. “Allegedly, I mean.”
Michael smiled over at him. “Come on, man…be cool.”
“Be cool, huh? You’re telling me to be cool? Tell you what, why don’t I just frisk her? See if she’s hiding anything under that little dress.”
Emily had just glanced down at her purse, to find her keys, so she didn’t fully see what happened immediately afterwards. By the time she looked up, Michael had lost all of his pose and had moved between her and the cop, staring down at him with angry eyes. He held one low hand out, another barrier between him and her.
Everything was over almost as soon as it began. The blonde cop put a hand on his partner’s shoulder and pulled him back roughly. “Every single time with you,” he mumbled.
“You just come on back, bro…just come back any time you want,” the smaller cop was yelling.
Michael hadn’t moved, and the blonde turned back to him with a scowl. “Would you two get out of here? Jesus Christ.”
“You feel froggy, you just jump on over here, boy.”
“Shut up. You know how sick I am of this junkyard bullshit?”
Emily and Michael got into the Mini and backed out. The last thing they saw was the blonde sit back behind the laptop, shaking his head.
Neither of them spoke, and Emily just made turns at random before finally pulling into the parking lot of a convenience store. A police car pulled in behind her, and she froze, but it was two different policemen. They parked and went into the store.
“I’m sorry,” Michael finally said, in a low voice. “I should have ignored him…he was just barking. I guess middle school taught me nothing, huh?” He sighed. “And not two minutes after you told me you didn’t want a bodyguard.”
“No, Michael, no. It was…noble.” Emily had run through a list of inappropriate but perhaps more accurate words before settling on that tame adjective. “Thank you.”
“Well, still. We need to keep a lower profile than, uh, starting fights with off-duty cops.” Michael had left his cell phone in the console of the car when they went in to see Mr. Budd, and now there was a red light flashing on the screen. He picked it up and glanced at the screen, then called his voicemail on speakerphone.
Emily whispered over at him as the phone rang. “You know, in corny old books whenever Italians or I guess Mediterraneans get angry it always says ‘their eyes flashed.’ But it was totally true, your eyes were flashing, it was-”
Michael glanced over at her, a look of exaggerated annoyance on his face, as the message began. It was from his father, telling him that he had gone out to dinner and would be out late, and that Michael shouldn’t wait up for him.
“Oh man,” Emily giggled, as the message ended, “I hope I never get used to that. ‘Don’t vlait up.’ Oh, do you think he’s with that woman from Thursday?”
“Could be. We don’t really talk about stuff like that.”
“We have to stop him, Michael…he vants to zuck her blod!”
Emily backed out of the parking lot and pulled up to a red light. “So you can stay out late tonight? Oh, you have to work tomorrow, don’t you?”
“No, I’m mostly done with that, aside from filling in for people here and there. My dad wants me to ‘enjoy the summer.’”
They were driving now under the heavy oak trees of Uptown, getting closer to Michael’s house. Emily stole a glance at him. “You mean, he wanted you to…have an adventure?”
“Well, I don’t know. Something like that, I guess.” Michael looked over at her and laughed a little. “I don’t think this is what he had in mind, though.”
They had pulled up in front of Michael’s dark stone house. “So, you can hang out for a while?”
“Tonight? Sure, I guess. Do you want to see what the rest of the Gang is doing? We could have a midnight reunion.”
“Actually, um…” Emily tucked some hair behind her ear and laughed once or twice. “Do you, I don’t know…do you want to go up to your room and fool around?”
“Absolutely.” Michael laughed and looked over at her, smiling broadly. (Something about his smile, though, gave her courage; he seemed too eager to look like he was laughing it off, just in case.) He was quiet for a few beats, his smile settling into a shy grin. “Wait…seriously?”
Emily bit her lip, then nodded her head softly. “If you are.”
Michael glanced past her, into the street, then looked back at her face. “Yeah, okay,” he whispered.
Emily smiled and looked down at his hand. She reached over to take it, and he met her halfway. His hand was warm and large, surprisingly rough at the fingertips. Her hand seemed to fit in his palm by design, and he held it as though it was something that had just been born. “I guess we should go inside, then,” she said softly.
But neither of them moved, there in the moonless summer night. Not for a long time.