“Christa, Maria!” Seasa waved her arms above her head, trying to catch her friends’ attention. They were huddled in the far corner of the food court.
“Seasa!” squealed Christa running over to hug her. “How’ve you been? I was worried when you didn’t show up as Esme’s”
“Oh, I’m sorry I worried you. I guess I got wrapped up in my work,” muttered Seasa.
Maria placed a hand on her shoulder and finally broke her silence. “That’s why we asked you to lunch. Christa and I want to ask you some questions.”
“Shoot. Can we chat in line? I’m starving.”
“I guess. Look,” said Maria walking towards one of the restaurants, “you’ve been skipping out on us a lot recently. Is something wrong?”
“You haven’t been sleeping enough.” Christa cut in. “You’ve got these ridiculous bags under your eyes.”
“-You always say you were ‘caught up in your work’-”
“-You had a pretty bad limp last week-”
“-You never go anywhere without checking with one of those guys you live with-”
“-And you have an awful lot of bruises for a textile worker.”
“Tell us what’s wrong. We’re your friends. We’ll be here for you no matter what.”
“Now you’re doing that poker face thing you do whenever we ask you a personal question. Seasa, don’t lie to me,” said Christa. Her classic smile had been replaced with a frown.
Seasa’s blank expression slipped a little when she saw her friend’s face crumple. “I- I can’t- I don’t know what to say.” She busied herself with paying for her chicken strips in an attempt to ignore her friends’ inquiries.
“You know, if you need someplace to stay for a while, you can crash with either of us for as long as you need,” said Maria once they’d sat down.
“I’m not worried about losing the apartment. It’s a little crowded with the three of us in there, but it’s super cheap, even without the factory worker discount. You don’t need to worry about that.”
“That’s the problem,” said Christa, “we think we do. Those guys you room with… I know you say you got out of Liamsburg with them, but are you sure you’re safe?”
“Seasa, the mysterious injuries, your tiredness, the way you’re constantly checking in with them. That Leviticus fellow looks dangerous!”
“Wait a moment.” Seasa’s previously stony face broke into a grin. “ You think they- They’re my brothers. Brownie’s not dangerous, he gets upset over roadkill. Why do you think we call him Brownie?”
“Well,” she added, looking into Christa and Maria’s twin expressions of disbelief, “Jonnel’s my half-brother and Brownie’s my brother from another mother. And they both might have some violent tendencies. Brownie’s only dangerous to people who mess with me or Jonnel. We’ve got the kind of bond that runs deeper than blood.”
“I thought you called him Brownie because his last name is Brown,” said Christa.
“That’s beside the point. We’ve been family since I was twelve, and friends for almost as long as I can remember. I’m used to telling them where I’m going and when I’ll be back so they can come bust heads if I get held against my will. I mean, right now I know that Brownie’s at the apartment prepping dinner and Jonnel’s on his way home from work.”
“Then how do you explain the injuries?”
“Come one, Maria. It’s just this and that. You know the factory isn’t safe by anyone’s standards. If this is all you wanted to talk to me about I have better things to do with my time.” She got up abruptly hugged both of her friends. She left quickly, leaving a handful of fries at her place.
Maria turned to Christa and said, “She’s hiding something.”
“I know.” Christa still wore her troubled expression. “Why would she lie. I thought we were her best friends.”
“Like she said- this gang shit runs deeper than blood. Her ‘brothers’ reek of it.”
“I didn’t think Seasa got involved in that stuff. She’s never talked about it, and she seems so… nice.”
“Don’t be so naive, you know where she’s from. You either get involved or get dead.”
“What can we do?” asked Christa.
“We can follow her.”
Seasa resisted the temptation to slam the door behind her as she stalked into the apartment she shared with her two ‘brothers’. “Where’s Jonnel?” she snapped.
“I sent him out for some groceries. I’m not used to working with a slow cooker, didn’t realize what all I’d need. He’ll be back by fourteen hundred hours.” Brownie stepped out of the kitchen and put his hands on his hips. “What’s got your feathers ruffled? You didn’t even say hello,” he said.
“Christa and Maria think I’m in an abusive relationship with you or someshit. They practically staged an intervention when I met them for lunch.
“Yeah.” Seasa buried her face in his chest- Brownie was over half a foot taller than her, at six foot three. “What do I do?”
“You should’ve had a plan. I told you your behavior would appear-”
“Leviticus Brown, if you finish that sentence, you’ll wish you’d never been born,” said Seasa, not letting him go.
“Easy on the full name.” Brownie winced.
“Then don’t say I told you so.” Seasa finally let go and threw herself down on their couch. “They’re good friends- good people. They help keep me sane, given what we’ve been dealing with these past few months. Plus Christa gets us access to a lot of heavily guarded places.”
“What’d you end up telling them?”
“You guys are my bros, the bruises are from work, reporting in regularly is habit.”
“I hope they believed you. I’m surprised they even noticed the reporting in thing.”
“Don’t underestimate Maria. She’s cleverer than you’d think. Ugh! What’m I gonna do? They’re in danger now, just ‘cause they were trying to be good friends.”
Brownie gave up on finishing his cooking in the near future and sat down next to Seasa. “Don’t worry. You’re clever too. You’ll work something out.
“Shush!” snapped Maria. It was bad enough Christa dyed her hair a shade of platinum blonde that reflected light splendidly, but she also managed to snap every twig they came across as loudly as humanly possible.
The two friends were huddled in the bushes outside seasa’s apartment, waiting for something to happen. So far, all they knew was that all three residents were home, and had been since Jonnel had gotten home with several bags of groceries at two o’clock. All the windows had blinds or curtains, so there was no knowing what was going on inside. They’d been taking two hour shifts, but at eight, Maria had insisted that they both stay, figuring that whatever they were looking for was more likely to happen after dark.
“Maria, I really, really have to pee,” said Christa.
Maria took a calming breath. “Fine. But it’s a mission as well.” She grinned and pulled something out of her pocket.
“That’s Seasa’s work ID!” exclaimed Christa.
“Be quiet. Yeah, I palmed it while we were in line. Here’s what you do. Go up and return it, saying she left it. You can take a look around and use the bathroom while you’re at it. Make sure you loop around down the sidewalk. I wouldn’t put it past her to notice that you came out of the bushes.”
Christa nodded and crashed enthusiastically off towards the road.
Seasa barely glanced up from her folder when the doorbell rang. “Jonnel, get the door.”
“Brownie, get the door,” mumbled Jonnel.
“Get offa me so I can.” Brownie stomped over to the door. He opened it sharply and growled, “Whaddaya want?” Christa shrunk back and mumbled something unintelligible. Brownie rolled his eyes and said, “Seasa, it’s for you.”
Seasa dropped her orange folder, labeled ‘Takeria leadership, 387-404 N.E.’ and dashed to the door. “Christa!” she exclaimed, her eyes widening in surprise. Her friends almost never called on her at home, and definitely not without some sort of notice.
“Um, hey,” Christa mumbled. She held out Seasa’s ID. “You left this.”
“Oh, thank you. I was wondering where I’d left this.” She glance inside, unsure what to say.
“Any chance I can use your bathroom?” asked Christa.
“Sure.” Seasa turned and yelled into the apartment., “She’s coming in, act normal.” She leaned over to Christa and whispered confidentially, “They’re such losers sometimes.”
Christa stepped apprehensively over the threshold. She’d never actually been inside, despite being close friends with Seasa for over half a year.
The apartment was tidy, plain, and surprising normal. There were only really five rooms- two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, and an L-shaped area that wrapped around the kitchen and served as a combination living-dining room. It was plainly furnished with a slightly beat-up couch and really old box of a TV. The dining room table was plain wood.
Christa silently chastised herself for her surprise. It wasn’t as though she’d expected to find a satanic ritual in practice. Se dashed for the bathroom, which was also clean and barely furnished, and relieved herself. As she was drying off her hands, Christa heard the familiar sounds of an argument. She ignored the impulse to rush out and see what was going on, instead choosing to eavesdrop as best she could.
“-goddam faggots, can’t keep your raging hormones in check-”
“Leviticus Brown, do not make me remember your middle name.”
“But nothing! You two will behave with decorum when I have friends over!”
“Better watch out Brownie, she’s moved past swearing and brought out the three syllable words,” drawled Jonnel.
Christa picked this moment to emerge from the bathroom. She opened the door to find Seasa whacking Jonnel with a rolled up folder. Her jaw dropped and she burst into laughter. She hugged Seasa and said, “I’ve got to head out. Thanks much.” She waved goodbye to Brownie and Jonnel, who were sulking on opposite ends of the couch.
She practically skipped outside, forgetting to loop around by the street on her way to the bush where Maria was still hiding. She also didn’t notice Seasa watching her retreat from between the blinds of one of the windows.
Maria watched nervously as Seasa exited the apartment, calling, “I’m just getting a bit of fresh air. Be back in five.”
“What do we do?” asked Christa.
“You stay here. I’ll tail her.”
In the end, no one did anything, because Seasa didn’t go for a walk, instead making a beeline directly for the bush her two friends were hiding in. “You can come out,” she said.
Christa stood up first, followed shortly by Maria. “Are-”
“No, I’m not mad at you. You did pretty good, Maria, but I knew you swiped my ID. Did you think there was even the slightest possibility I wouldn’t? I was a pickpocket from the time I was six. Damn good one, too.”
Maria at least had the decency to look ashamed. “Don’t be,” said Seasa. “I’d rather you cared too much than not at all.” She gave a sad smile. “Did Christa's little visit calm your fears a bit?”
“Yeah. They’re a thing, aren’t they? It’s also reassuring that you can, according to her, ‘beat them up with a rolled up newspaper.’ Is that true?”
“It was a folder.”
Maria laughed. “It’s too funny- the image of you laying into Brownie with a rolled up folder.”
“It is. Now, I’m exhausted, and I bet you are too. You guys should go home. I bet your parents are worried about you.”
As soon as the other two had rounded the corner, Seasa slumped. I wish I had to think for even a second about whether I’d chose my friendship with them or my mission, she thought. She turned and walked up to her apartment, and her orange folder.