Because You’re Mine – Rea Frey

The car idles. Grace cuts the engine, cradles the parking brake, and pulls. Her secret swirls inside her. She presses a hand to her belly and takes a deep breath to kill the nerves. After a hurried morning school drop-off for her son, Luca, Grace checks her hair in the rearview, hoping Lee can squeeze her in for a quick trim before work. She loves that her best friend owns a hair salon in her home, and that Grace can test the latest hair potions and coloring techniques when Lee needs a guinea pig. She knows it comes at a price: Lee’s gifted son, Mason, her chronic singleness, her insistence on being housebound. Her entire world is shrink-wrapped. Grace registers what she has to tell Lee and doesn’t know where to start. She imagines the shock, the aftermath, and how it might affect their relationship. She shakes her head, knowing it must be done, and exits the car. Lee’s small ranch—a rental in the up-and-coming Donelson Hills neighborhood—begs for fresh paint, new windows, and an updated roof. The rusted railing outlines a weather-worn front porch, unruly shrubs, and a once gorgeous magnolia has recently been struck by lightning. Now, a singed black nub is the only reminder of shady mornings spent beneath its leaves. On more than one occasion, Grace has offered to hire a mowing service or landscaping company, but Lee insists she’s got it handled.

Grace lets herself in the side door. Lee’s voice rumbles from the back in a succession of pleas. “Come on, buddy. You’ve got to work with me.” She tiptoes toward Mason’s bedroom and stalls in the hallway as Lee struggles to get Mason’s shirt over his head. No matter how wide Lee stretches the necks of his shirts, that moment his head disappears, he panics, punches, and claws against the thin womb of fabric as the claustrophobia—one of his main phobias—takes hold. Mason and Luca are both seven, but Mason refuses to get dressed by himself. As a result, mother and son work in the same order: right sock, left sock, underwear, pants—never shorts, even on the hottest days—long-sleeved shirt, short-sleeved shirt over the top (soft cotton only), and a plain rubber band around his left wrist. “Buddy, please work with me.” “I can’t if you’re doing it wrong.

” Mason’s tone splinters his mother’s resolve. Lee’s ribs quake with every breath, but she starts the process over, layer by layer. She knocks a flock of hair from her forehead with the back of a knobby wrist. Grace taps gently on the wood, careful not to startle Mason. “Hey, hi. I didn’t hear you.” Lee swivels toward the giant wall clock. “Is that the time?” Grace knows Lee is calculating the morning routine: Mason’s breakfast, her breakfast, shower, waiting for Noah—Mason’s homeschool teacher and occupational therapist—mixing color, and prepping the salon. Lee’s cell rings and she abandons her task to grab the call from her office. Mason rolls his eyes and turns his attention to Grace.

“Please help me.” She kneels down. “I’m always here to help.” “Why can’t she do it right? We’ve been doing it the same way since I was five.” Grace smiles. “I know. Come here.” He reaches his arms overhead as she removes the fabric. She drinks him in. His unruly mop of kinked hair.

His impossible paleness, despite hours of sunshine. His slight build. The patches of red that sometimes crop against his cheeks like poppies. “What do we have here?” She inspects the shirt and pinches the tag. “The culprit.” Mason crosses his arms and taps a foot. “She’s slipping in her old age,” he says. “Clearly.” Grace chuckles and snags a pair of scissors from Lee’s desk to snip the tag. “You know, your mom’s got a lot on her plate.

You should cut her some slack.” She glances at Lee, who’s still on the phone, her back turned to both of them. “You’ve got a lot on your plate, but you always remember to remove Luca’s tags.” “Luca doesn’t mind tags.” He shrugs. “Well, if he did, you’d remember.” She winks. “Maybe.” She helps him with both shirts and stands back to assess. “So handsome.

” He bows. Lee returns. “How’d you get him dressed?” Mason straightens and eyes his mother warily. “Grace found a tag.” He says the word as if it’s grotesque. “There was a tag?” She looks bewildered. “I could have sworn I cut all of them out.” “Hey, it’s fine. It happens. Right, bud?” Grace gives him a stern look.

He sighs and bumps against Lee’s bony hip as he walks to the dining room. Lee presses the pads of her fingers into her eyes. “Sometimes I feel like he hates me.” Grace fondles her shoulder. “He doesn’t hate you. It’s called being a mother. It’s their job to give us a hard time.” “Luca doesn’t give you a hard time. Not like that.” She shrugs.

“Luca and Mason are totally different.” Lee looks at the time again. “Shit, can you…” Grace already knows the rest of that question. Can you make him breakfast? “Sure.” Their shorthand developed quickly when Lee was in the throes of Mason’s diagnosis. Grace’s divorce from her ex, Chad, was old news by then, and she was available to help as much as possible with Mason. When Lee realized homeschool was going to be the best option for a child with sensory processing disorder, she quit her job at a well-known Nashville salon, Parlour & Juke, morphed her garage into a studio, and began taking clients at home. “Noah’s coming in an hour,” Lee continues. “I can’t afford to cancel any appointments today, but I’m just…” She rattles her head. Grace knows that Lee needs close to six clients to make enough money to pay Noah, and the bills.

Though Noah works for a steep discount, Lee barely makes ends meet. “Go get ready. I’ve got breakfast.” Lee snorts. “What? This isn’t professional?” She motions to her sweatpants and wrinkled T-shirt. Grace assesses Lee. She is rail thin, thinner than she’s been in a while, with prominent elbows, hips, and kneecaps that protrude when she crosses her legs. Grace clocks her concave middle, her tiny breasts, and settles on her face. With bone structure to make a model cry, Lee could have made a fortune on the runway as a living fashion hanger if she’d wanted to. “You look beautiful.

Even in pajamas. A little thin, if you ask me, but…” Lee rolls her eyes. “Well, if I had time to eat.” She gathers her hair into a ponytail and gnaws a rubber band from around her wrist with slightly crooked teeth. “You sure you don’t mind making him breakfast? I’ll be quick.” “She doesn’t mind!” Mason shouts from the next room. “See? He knows what’s up,” Grace says. “Gluten-free toast?” “Yes, with—” “SunButter, not almond butter. I remember. Cut into squares.

Berries on the side. Not touching.” Lee sags. “What would I do without you?” “Go. Shower. Be clean.” Grace longs to flush away Lee’s overwhelming sense of responsibility. When they’d first met, Luca and Mason had been budding, exploratory babies. Lee had been looser, happier. Now, everything revolves around her mini daily dramas, and though Grace always listens, she knows their friendship has shifted in the last few months.

Their conversations focus almost entirely on Lee: what she’s dealing with, how her past issues keep cropping up, how her stress surmounts everyone else’s, her sobriety, and how money is tight. Sometimes, Lee even makes cryptic comments about the night Mason was conceived, alluding to the answer to everyone’s question—who is Mason’s father?—but then, as if afraid of confiding too much, she shuts herself off like a faucet. Grace doesn’t want to add to her stress. She has something big to tell her, but she’s not sure this morning is the right time. She joins Mason in the kitchen. “So what happened besides the tag?” She opens the fridge and removes the bread. Mason taps out a rhythm on his pants. “She’s trying to quit coffee again. And we all know how that goes.” “So we’ve found the heart of the matter, at last.

” She pops the bread into the toaster and washes her hands. “I have an idea. What if I make a pot of coffee just to get her—and you—through the day? Would that be okay?” “Is the pope Catholic? Yes. Please, yes.” She peers closely at him and cocks her head. “Are you absolutely, one hundred percent positive you’re not a middle-aged man? I could have sworn seven-year-olds don’t say things like that.” “I can’t wait to be middle-aged.” Grace snorts. “Trust me. I’m over forty.

It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” “Lies.” Grace’s heart swells at their banter. Though Mason suffers from sensory processing disorder and carries his own aversions and anxieties around people, noises, touch, and even food, she knows he’s simply a divine being who is tangled in a complex world that doesn’t often understand him. But Grace understands him. Ever since he came into her life, she has been there for him, feels connected to him in the same way she does to Luca. She would do anything for him, and Lee knows it. Grace makes a pot of coffee and his breakfast. When it’s ready, he receives his plate and bows again. Grace curtsies.

He shuffles to the table that’s pocked with dents and stains from years of use. “All good?” Mason nibbles an edge and arranges his fruit to spell y-e-s. “Impressive you are,” she says in her best Yoda voice. Mason’s lips twitch into a smile. The shower cranks off with the groan of old pipes. “How we doing?” Lee emerges a few minutes later in a pair of black jeans, motorcycle boots, and another (cleaner) V-neck T-shirt. She fingers her thick fringe of bangs into place and swipes under her bottom lip to remove a smear of red lipstick that’s migrated out of place. “We’re all good here, right, Mason?” Mason nods and chomps another crispy edge. “Don’t be mad,” Grace says as she edges back into the kitchen. “But I made us coffee.

” “Oh my God, I love you. Thank you.” She greedily takes the cup Grace offers and inhales. “Why do I even try to quit? It’s pointless.” “Totally pointless!” Mason offers. Lee playfully rolls her eyes and leans against the counter. “Sometimes I think he has X-ray ears.” “Because I do have X-ray ears!” Grace takes a sip. “Have I told you lately how much I love him?” Lee absently circles a finger along the rim of her cup. “Did you see Carol’s email?” Grace rummages in the fridge for cream.

“I did.” “Why does she keep sending them?” Lee extends her mug and Grace pours in a splash of half-andhalf. “I think it’s just her way of contributing. You won’t ever let her help.” “Because her type of help is too much,” Lee jokes. “We don’t need extra helpers,” Mason adds. He’s such a little gossip, Lee mouths. “Hey, bud.” She peers around the corner. “Why don’t you get ready for your session with Noah?” Mason lifts his head and wipes crumbs from his mouth.

“Because I’m having too much fun listening to your conversation.” “We’re going to the studio.” Lee slides the pocket door closed as they step down into the converted garage. Grace laughs. “Sometimes I feel like you’re hiding from your little brother.” Lee offers a tight-lipped smile. “He’s just very nosy right now.” She takes a sip. “What were we talking about? Carol?” Carol bombards Lee’s in-box with the newest alternative therapies for Mason’s sensory issues. While some people provide a list of traits for children with SPD, Grace (and Lee) knows what does and doesn’t work.

He doesn’t fit any singular checklist. While he struggles with hypersensitivity in some areas (tactile, movement, sounds, oral input), in others, he is hyposensitive (visual input, auditory-language processing, and certain social-emotional areas). Anything Carol sends is generalized and not specific to Mason. Lee has worked hard with Noah to devise a homeschool curriculum that works—the Waldorf method. As a result, Noah teaches Mason three days a week and completes his at-home occupational therapy sessions two days a week to work on gross and fine motor skills. “I do appreciate it,” Lee says, “but the whole ‘quick fix’ thing just isn’t applicable for him, you know?” “I know. But it’s not just you. She sends me emails all the time about the best way to handle being a divorced parent or being on a single-parent income. Or coparenting with a touring musician. Or starting my own business when she knows I’d love to do it but can’t afford to take the risk.

” Grace shrugs. “That’s Carol’s way of helping.” “But it doesn’t help.” “I think she just wants to ease your stress in some way. We all do.” Lee is accustomed to doing everything herself. She grew up just minutes from here, raised by a drunk who’d died years ago when Mason was just a baby. When Grace, Alice, and Carol had become friends, they could all tell she was unaccustomed to receiving help. She seemed private, reluctant to let them assist with Mason in any way. Now, she accepts help—even if she still feels she should be able to handle everything herself.

Grace thinks about Noah. She introduced him to Lee after Luca needed some occupational therapy for handwriting. With working overtime and some extra budgeting, Lee was finally able to hire Noah full-time six months ago. Though he’s only been Mason’s teacher and therapist for less than a year, he’s drastically altered Lee’s outlook on Mason—and men. Lee chugs her coffee and tilts her head. “How’s Luca?” “He’s okay. We had a bit of a rough morning of our own. I’m slammed with board meetings today. Which is going to be a bit of a nightmare, but you know.” She shrugs.

“Sorry to keep you.” Grace ignores the prick of annoyance. Lee rarely asks about her work anymore. Maybe because it’s boring or she can’t relate, but it would be nice to have her interest, however small. “Can I ask you for a quick favor before I go?” Lee laughs and pats the back of her styling chair. “Sit.” Grace takes her seat and spins in the plush leather. “Just the ends?” “Yes, ma’am.” Lee gathers Grace’s hair and pulls it behind her ears. “I don’t know why you won’t let me do a bob.

Or straighten it. It would work wonders for your face.” Grace shakes her hair free. “I like my face. And it’s just easier to keep it long.” “You’re no fun.” Grace almost snorts. She’s no fun? She takes a small sip of coffee and lets the frustration fade. Instead, she focuses on the space: the huge ornate mirror, rimmed in leafy gold; the soothing playlist crooning from tiny tacked speakers; the painted concrete floors. The lighting is a nice touch, as it smooths her crow’s-feet and neck wrinkles that have suddenly sprouted with the passing of her fortysecond birthday.

Her skin is still porcelain, her cheekbones high, her mouth wide and sensual (or so she’s been told). Where her features are strong and sturdy, Lee’s are small and delicate. She angles forward to set her mug on Lee’s vanity. A gray journal with an engraved L catches her eye. “What’s that? A new appointment book?” “Hmm?” Lee removes her scissors from a sleeve and drags the blade across a cloth. Grace motions to the book. “New appointment book? It’s pretty.” “Oh, no.” Lee combs through Grace’s hair with damp fingers, spritzing only the ends. “It’s a journal actually.

” “Oh? I thought you stopped that a while back.” Lee shrugs. “I did. I got so busy, I stopped writing, but a few months ago, I picked it up again. Cheaper than therapy, right?” She smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “I have to keep moving it though, because suddenly Mason has taken an interest in what I’m writing and keeps trying to steal it. No matter where I hide it, he finds it.” “Kids are good that way. Like miniature sleuths.” “Yeah, but there are some things your seven-year-old should never read.

” Grace wants to ask like what but refrains. She would hate for Luca to read her private thoughts, her secrets … especially the one she needs to reveal. Besides, she knows Lee respects privacy above all else. She’s relieved she’s getting her feelings out in some real way, though, even if it isn’t by confiding in her. The trim goes fast. The scissors hack her ends. The excess hair scatters across her shoulders and spills onto the floor. She removes the smock once Lee finishes and kisses her on the cheek. “Thanks for the trim.” She steps back into the kitchen, dumps the rest of the lukewarm coffee in the sink, washes her hands again, and waves at Mason.

“Have a good day, okay?” He barks at her, and she barks back. Lee’s face twists into a mask of concern. “Lee, we’re just playing. We’re dogs, right?” Mason bobs his head and smiles at her. Lee doesn’t always get to witness their special conversations, the way he opens up with her. She sees moody Mason. Difficult Mason. Challenging Mason. She waves again, hesitating only for a moment, and then slips out the door. Her secret pricks her conscience.

She has to tell her soon, no matter how stressed Lee is. But today is not the day. 2 lee Lee retreats to the bathroom to blow-dry her hair. She clicks the dryer on and off, listening to Mason’s light conversation. She wishes he would talk to her like he talks to Grace. When she’s done, she rushes back to the kitchen, but Mason’s chair is cocked and tossed. His stacked fruit leans in a quadratic equation. She rotates in the small room as panic clogs her throat. “Mase? Mason? Where are you, buddy?” She checks under the table, the closets, every corner of his room, and even the hamper, where he can sometimes still fit if he makes himself very small. She rummages through piles of clothes, opens and closes doors, then hurries to the kitchen window, where she can see him standing under a tree by the garden.

She tiptoes out the back door, careful not to surprise him, and announces herself about ten feet out. He jerks his head toward her. “Quiet, or you’ll scare it away.” “Mason, we’ve talked about this. You can’t go outside unless you ask.” “Shh.” He stabs his index finger at something by his feet and she edges closer. “What is it?” “It’s a bird. Judging by the color of the breast, I’d say this is a rose-breasted grosbeak, though…” He tilts his head. “No, I’m positive.

Grosbeak.” Lee inspects the small mound at his feet. “Is it hurt?” Mason toes the bird, but it doesn’t move. “Dead, by the looks of it.” “Well, don’t touch it. Birds carry diseases.” Mason clicks his jaw. “I’m not going to eat the bird, Mother. I’m studying it.” “Let’s finish breakfast.

” She rotates her watch on her wrist. “I have a client and Noah is coming.” Mason crouches even closer. “This bird is not rare,” he mumbles, completely ignoring her request. He stands. “I want to study the Christmas Island frigatebird before he gets here.” What the fuck is a Christmas Island frigatebird? “Okay.” They begin to walk back toward the house. “Did you know that Christmas Island frigatebirds have nothing to do with Christmas?” “I didn’t.” “Did you know that the Christmas Island frigatebird has nothing to do with Christmas and lives in the Indian Ocean?” Lee shakes her head.

“Did you know that the Christmas Island frigatebird is the rarest seabird on Christmas Island?” His single-minded focus instantly washes away the curiosity for the bird in the garden as they step inside. “Did you know that the Christmas Island frigatebird is the rarest seabird on Christmas Island, Australia?” He ambles past her—on the balls of his feet, always in a shuffle—and resituates himself at the table. Carol has suggested the easiest thing to do would be to toss an iPad at Mason, to let him search, swipe, and play. But Mason isn’t a stim-seeker. Stim-seekers like textured fabrics, music, flavorful foods, even vibrant colors, technology sometimes. Lee discerned quite quickly that Mason is stimavoidant. He craves less, not more. He prefers organic cotton, noise-canceling headphones, and sunglasses for bright lights, and he does not enjoy physical touch. He possesses a heightened focus that some would call obsession. She knows Mason hasn’t been in her friends’ lives on a daily basis as he has in hers—except for Grace—and she tries to remind herself of that.

Their kids seek constant stimulation, wanting to go, see, and explore everything until their parents collapse at night, utterly exhausted from their unwavering energy. Though Mason is one of the most curious humans she’s ever met, his intelligence so far surpasses that of an average seven-year-old that people—adults even—just can’t keep up with the speed of his mind. It draws a fine line between them and her during public outings, and while Lee accepts this divide, welcomes it even, Alice and Carol constantly try to urge her and Mason to “step outside” their tiny boxes. Lee grabs the encyclopedias he loves, the only possession of her mother’s that remains after all these years. The pages are yellowed and musty, the majority of the print gummed from snacks she used to devour while reading. She runs her fingers over the crispy pages, and they crackle beneath her touch. She loves flipping through all the highlighted pages now, witnessing her own self-prescribed education. She used to make lessons for herself on those boring, sticky, endless summer days, or the heavy winter mornings back when it actually used to snow, and the white would drape across her house like a blanket. Lee leaves him to find the bird section, hoping it contains what he is looking for. She scours the cabinets for more coffee—she and Grace used the last bag—but has to settle for herbal tea.

As she waits for the kettle to boil, dreaming of Turkish coffee thick as pudding, the exhaustion settles into her bones, and it isn’t even nine. She studies Mason’s profile, thinking, as parents often do, how quickly time has flown. Wasn’t he just a baby? She remembers those early years—the complicated past she tried to outrun. The things she’s done. The secrets she’s kept. She craves wine then, so much that it almost makes her dizzy. No. She grips her mug of tea and descends into her studio, sweeping up Grace’s hair and rearranging her styling products until the rap of knuckles alerts her to Noah’s arrival. She rushes to the back door, eager to see him, as always. She pulls open the door and her heart palpitates as she says hello.

She has memorized every bit of him: his dark hair that sweeps off his forehead with the firm part dividing his hair like a scar; the swimmer’s build with clothes impeccably tailored to accentuate his muscles; the smooth, olive skin; the natural musk he exudes that makes Lee want to devour him. “Hey, you.” His green eyes soften when he sees her. She swallows as her body involuntarily heats with desire. A few nights ago, when he stayed late, they’d talked for hours. She thought he might kiss her good night, finally, but he didn’t. She’s been obsessing about that missed opportunity ever since. She rearranges her face to neutral and opens the door wider. “Hey, yourself. Right on time.

” He flashes his watch, a vintage Rolex. “Actually, I’m three minutes early.” She moves aside so he can step through. “Tea?” He glances at the kettle. “Off coffee again?” She shrugs. “Ran out.” He knows her constant up-and-down battle with caffeine. One week, she offers him the strongest brew, and the next, it’s nothing but herbal blends that taste like flowers. “I thought as much.” He reaches into his bag and produces a thermos.

“I came prepared. Just smell that.” He wafts the canister under her nose, and she gently slaps it away. “Not nice.” She does a double take at the army-green thermos with the silver top. Where has she seen that thermos recently? Noah brushes past her, their elbows touching, and an electric shock jolts her below the waist. He enters the dining room, says hello to Mason, and arranges all of his materials in a straight line. She watches his body descend into a chair, and she longs to massage his shoulders and kiss the back of his neck. Get it together, Chambers. She clears her throat.

“Are you guys okay here?” Noah turns and flashes her a sexy smile. “All good. Thanks.” She pours herself another cup of tea, buries the sexual hunger that has bloomed in the last few weeks, and tugs the pocket door into place. She paces her studio floor in socked feet and spins in her styling chair as Grace did moments ago, cranking to a stop in front of the mirror. It’s ironic that she and Noah both grew up in Nashville, in opposite neighborhoods, but they never met. It wasn’t until Grace introduced them that she learned he was an occupational therapist. She couldn’t believe her luck, but at the time, she couldn’t afford his services. Once she’d opened her own salon and squirrelled away some cash, at Grace’s suggestion, she asked Noah for a professional assessment of Mason. He was kind enough to work out a deal, and now, seeing how well Mason is doing, she wishes she’d found him years ago.

Noah is so good with him, so different from Mason’s biological father, that she could cry from relief. She shakes away the thought of his real father, just as she had the wine. Not today. Because Noah gives her a discount on services, she cuts his hair every two weeks for free. Secretly, she relishes that time, stretching the appointments as long as possible. She loves the moment his head tips back over the sink and her fingers move across his scalp. The way his Adam’s apple bobs while he relaxes beneath her touch. It is the only time she feels sensual: when she rakes conditioned fingers across the slick flesh of his neck, up the base of his skull, and across to his temples and forehead. Sometimes, she even massages his shoulders, loving how the knots dissolve beneath her touch. He always says she should have been a masseuse, but she only gives him such special treatment.

She only craves his wet hair against her hands. Every time she has him in this chair, she thinks about leaning in to kiss him. The exact way she would do it. She imagines his response, how he would pull her to him … She blinks away the daydream and faces herself in the mirror. Tired eyes—large and gray, fanned by a set of thick, inky lashes, easily her best feature—blink back. Alice recently told her about some new laser treatment to “brighten and tighten” tired eyes. Though she’s never had work done (mainly because she can’t afford it), she should start taking better care of herself, at least invest in a good eye cream. It wouldn’t hurt to make a little effort. She hears Noah in the dining room, and she sighs with longing. There is the promise of more—she can almost taste it. All she has to do is tell him how she feels and see what he says. She’s given it enough time to make sure Mason likes him and is comfortable. What does she have to lose? She whirls away from the mirror and lets any sort of physical desire evaporate. There will be time for romance, but she has to stay focused. There’s such a precarious balance to her life at the moment: Mason comes first, her sobriety second, then her business. She spins back toward the mirror. There’s more to that balance. Of course there is. A knock at the door—her first client—snaps her out of her reverie. She rises to answer it. There’s the deep, underlying truth. She plasters on a smile as she pulls the door open. The truth she keeps only for herself.


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