Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
“But, Mommy, I want to stay with you.”
Grace tried not to look too closely at her daughter’s sad, imploring face. She knew that one peek at Maddie’s droopy blue eyes, flushed cheeks, and wisps of sweaty blonde hair stuck to her forehead would set off the motherly instincts that she was trying her best to bury. Maddie was sick, and she would continue to be sick until Grace could find the money to pay for medical treatment. She kept this knowledge in her mind as she unclipped Maddie’s car seat.
“I know you do, baby girl, but mommy has a test she needs to take, and I can’t take you with me. Don’t worry. You’re going to have lots of fun with Uncle Harry and Uncle Mason.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I know,” Grace replied, lifting the four-year-old from the seat. Maddie immediately buried her face into the crook of Grace’s neck, her fingers clutching at Grace’s shirt collar.
Mason opened the door to greet them before they had even walked halfway down the driveway. He looked like an Italian model: his tall, slim, muscular build enhanced by his choice of a fitted gray shirt and blue jeans. With his undercut styled jet black hair, chocolate-colored eyes under bushy eyebrows, and an olive complexion, Mason was the complete opposite of Grace’s blonde, blue-eyed brother Harry. But then, people did say, “opposites attract.”
“How are my two favorite ladies?” he called out with a bright smile on his face.
Grace shook her head, and Mason’s smile faded into tender-eyed sympathy.
“Not feeling good today, sweetie?” he asked, rubbing Maddie’s back lightly. “I might have something to fix that.” He held up a DVD that he had been hiding behind his back. “Want to watch some Princess Sofia with me?” he asked, and then leaned forward and added in a whisper, “And I’ve got a super-secret, special snack for once your mom leaves, too. What d’ya say?”
Maddie tried to hide her smile, but it was obvious that she was hooked.
“I knew I’d win you over,” Mason chuckled, motioning toward the house. “Harry got a work call and had to pop out for a bit, but he’ll be back soon.”
“That’s fine,” Grace replied as she carried Maddie towards the spacious living room just to the left of the main entryway. “He warned me that he might get called away.”
While Grace situated Maddie on the couch, Mason got the TV set up for their movie watching experience. By the time Grace was kissing her daughter goodbye, Maddie was snuggled up in blankets and ready for her mother to leave so she could enjoy her show and find out what the super-secret treat was.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Grace smiled, tapping Maddie on the nose. She waited for her daughter to nod and then headed for the door. Before she reached it, however, Mason had wedged himself in front of her, blocking her exit.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Little late for this conversation, don’t you think?” Grace replied, not looking Mason in the eye. She couldn’t afford to let him change her mind. “It’s safe. It will get me the money I need to help Maddie. I’m doing it.”
Mason sighed but stepped out of the way, allowing Grace the escape she’d asked for.
The first hour was nothing but paperwork. “…and sign here. Please initial that we have explained and you comprehend the…” blah, blah, blah “…concerning this procedure.” Grace couldn’t understand why they were making such a big deal about the test. Virtual reality had been around for years. Why did it matter whether or not you were asleep while you experienced it?
Next, they asked her about her personal life. Nothing too specific, just questions about her family: what her daughter was like, her parents, her brother, Mason. They asked her if she was married, dating, if she had eyes set on anyone. She answered vaguely, “Who doesn’t see a cute guy every now and again?”
Finally, they had her change into a blue cloth gown and led her to a room containing only a single hospital bed and a bunch of monitors. They inserted an IV into her left arm. Grace had never been good with needles, but after having watched Maddie get multiple pricks and sticks, she felt stupid freaking out herself.
“Now, like we’ve said, this machine is programed to give you the perfect dream,” a lab technician explained as he attached little electrodes to her forehead. “You’ve got the easy job. All you have to do is sleep while we watch your vital signs on the monitors.” He smiled as if he’d made some sort of joke, but Grace didn’t get it.
He cleared his throat. “Are you ready?” When she nodded, he plunged a serum into her IV catheter. “Sweet dreams.”
It took a moment for Grace to realize that the water was still running in the sink. She had been watching Maddie out of the window as the happy child played with a small Labrador puppy in the backyard. The two were running around aimlessly, Maddie shrieking with laughter as the puppy chased after her, nipping at her heels anytime the four-year-old slowed down enough for it to catch up.
“Everything all right?”
Grace turned to see Mason entering the room. He was dressed in a plaid button-down shirt and blue jeans, his black hair was short and combed neatly to one side. For a moment, Grace thought he looked a little different than usual, but the moment passed, and she smiled. “Yeah, everything’s fine. I was just watching Maddie and got distracted, I guess.” She turned off the sink and turned towards Mason who was stepping forward to wrap her in a hug. She fit perfectly in his arms, felt safe there.
“I think that puppy was a good idea,” Mason said, as they both gazed out the window. “I know Maddie is young, but it’s never too early to begin teaching responsibility. This way, she can have a little fun as well.”
“Mhmm,” Grace grunted in agreement.
“And speaking of responsibility,” Mason began. “Your brother is going to be a little late to dinner tonight. He has a situation at work that’s going to keep him longer than expected.”
“What else is new?” Grace sighed, falling out of Mason’s embrace. She turned back towards the sink but couldn’t remember what she had been doing there in the first place.
“He is bringing his new boy-toy, though,” Mason announced. “So at least he got back to us on that.”
Grace rolled her eyes. “I wish you wouldn’t call them that.”
“I wouldn’t have to call them that if he would stick with one long enough for the guy to be considered anything else.”
“He just hasn’t found the right person yet,” Grace countered. “Not everyone can get it right the first time,” she added, smiling up into Mason’s deep brown eyes. How she loved those eyes.
“Yes, well,” Mason muttered, leaning forward to give Grace a kiss. It was a full kiss, a deep kiss that made Grace hunger for more.
Grace and Mason broke apart to see a muddy puppy scrambling down the hall, leaving a splatter of footprints in his wake as Maddie charged full speed after him.
Maddie paused long enough in the doorway to screech out, “Dodger got inside!” before continuing her chase after the rampaging puppy.
“I’ve got it,” Mason announced, “but we’ll finish this later,” he added, passing her a sensual look.
As Mason cleaned up the mud, Grace prepared dinner, and by the time six-thirty rolled around, everything was as good as it was going to get. Grace’s parents arrived first, her father as loud and jovial as always while her mother stood quietly by his side, smiling politely when necessary. Mason’s father was next to arrive, his mother having declined the invitation. Ever since their divorce it was always either one or the other. This left only Harry and his date who, surprisingly, appeared only a mere half-hour late.
“This is Brian,” Harry introduced, and Grace was surprised to see that Brian looked a whole hell of a lot like Mason.
Who knew we had the same taste, she thought as she herded everyone into the kitchen to make up plates.
The meal was basically finished when Mason turned bright-eyed towards her, the corners of his mouth turned up in anticipation. “Are you ready to make the announcement?”
Grace smiled back, the warmth of his loving expression filling her up. “You do it.”
“Okay.” He picked up his fork and began tapping the side of his water glass. It was corny, but cute, and managed to get everyone’s attention. “Hey, everyone, we actually invited you all over for dinner tonight because we have a special announcement.”
He paused then, at which time Maddie popped up in her seat and cried, “Mommy’s having a baby!”
Grace never got to hear her family’s reaction. A moment later, she found herself lying on a hospital bed, staring up at a blinking monitor.
“You did really well,” a lab technician said as he began unhooking her from the machine. “We got excellent readings. All that is left now is for you to fill out a little questionnaire and you’re free to go.”
Grace nodded, but she hadn’t really been paying attention to what the man had said. Her hand was on her stomach, right over the baby. She was pregnant, but not by Mason, or even someone like Mason—not like it should be. Derek wouldn’t want this baby, just like he hadn’t wanted Maddie. He merely wanted the sex, content to jump in and out of her life like a yo-yo. There would be no family dinner where the announcement was made followed by congratulatory smiles. In fact, she hadn’t even bothered to tell anyone yet because she knew the kind of looks she would receive.
The dream had shown her what she wanted, all right. Maddie healthy and running around was no secret, but she’d thought the crush on her brother’s husband had been locked away deep in the depths of her soul. How did the computer know about that just by a few questions concerning her everyday life? She felt dirty now—secrets exposed, her true feeling laid bare even if it was only in her own mind.
She wished she’d never had that dream and yet… if she could trade it for the life she had now, she would. That machine was dangerous. Sure, it might keep nightmares away, which was supposedly its purpose, but who would want to live in the real world when they could have the one they always imagined while they slept?
Once Grace was unhooked from the machines, she was taken back to her changing room. She ripped off the gown, flinging it away from her before scrambling back into her own clothes as if they would somehow vanquish the grimy feeling left behind from the test. When she opened the door of the changing room, she startled as she found herself face to face with the lab technician.
He handed her a clipboard. “If you could just fill out this questionnaire before you leave. And also, for further reference, would you be interested in repeating this test if the designers thought it useful in the future?”
“Yes,” Grace replied without thinking.