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His Plaything(9)

By:Ava Jackson

My eyes narrowed, but I continued, “We need to talk about roommate rules or apartment etiquette or whatever you want to call it. How about we declare a do-over?”

She folded her arms. “Fine. Where do you want to start?”

So glad you asked, Miss Priss. Welcome aboard. “First of all, there's only one bathroom. So you can't leave your girly shit strung out all over the place. I don't want to see a million shampoo bottles in the shower or any tampons lying around on the counter.” I knew that was a little petty, but fuck it. A man didn't get over being cock-blocked so easily.

“Well, since the big manly man is so offended by basic female biology, it's a good thing I don't get my period,” she snapped.

“What are you talking about? You on one of those crazy birth control shot things?” I asked. I have no idea why I asked—it was none of my fucking business. But … there was something in her tone bleeding through the retort, and her expression was dead serious … even somber.

She glanced down. I expected her to tell me to mind my own fucking business, but she didn’t.

“I … had cancerous cells,” she murmured.

Wait. What the hell? This was definitely not the casual dinner conversation I had bargained for. I took a deep gulp of my beer while I scrambled for a reply. Goddamn it. How had I already managed to misstep again? And what could I possibly say to such a personal confession?

“I don't mean I had, like, cancer cancer,” she went on, saving me from having to think up a response. “But that's what killed my mom. So when they found malignant cells when I was twenty, I had to decide what to do. I could undergo a minor surgery, which would risk the cancer coming back someday, or I could get a complete hysterectomy. Just … pull everything out before it could turn on me.”

“Jesus,” I said, and immediately wished I hadn't. How insightful. Nixon, you useless idiot. I'd been seeing Avery as a girl, an immature nuisance with all the concerns of a regular college kid, when she’d already faced some rough shit. She'd watched her own mother die, realized that the same thing could happen to her, and refused to take her fate lying down. Outside my line of work, how many twenty-one-year-olds had been forced to confront their own mortality like that?

She nodded a couple times, more to herself than to me. “Mom was diagnosed when she was twenty-three, right after she had me, but I guess she didn't treat it aggressively enough … she died when she was thirty-one. I didn't want to make the same mistake. And I figured that infertility wasn't such a bad price to pay. If I ever wanted kids, I could always adopt.” She toyed with the last bite of her food. “At least I could plan on living long enough to raise them.”

Without thinking, I reached out to lay my hand on hers. All the bravado I usually relied on had fallen away. I still didn't know what I say, so I just said quietly, “I'm sorry.”

Avery looked surprised, but didn't pull back. “I … don't worry about it. It's in the past.” She smiled. “I guess I kinda killed the mood there.” I shook my head, opening my mouth to say it wasn't a problem, but she interrupted. “So what's it like being a SEAL? Is it really as dangerous as people make it sound?”

“It can be,” I replied. “But we train a lot, to make sure we're prepared in any situation.” I removed my hand from hers to tick off items on my fingers. “Swimming and scuba diving, armed and unarmed combat, setting and defusing explosives, rappelling, navigation, small-unit tactics … it takes over a year just to get your trident. And then you train in a specialty that's meant to complement your other partners' skills. It kind of never ends.”

She nodded slowly. “Wow. That sounds intense.”

I chuckled. “It's fucking brutal. But I love it. The adrenaline rush, the way I'm constantly testing myself and what I'm made of… Plus, I get to serve my country.” Remembering the question she had actually asked, I slowed down. “I should probably explain that SEAL stands for Sea, Air, and Land. The Navy originally created the SEALs for covert recon in coastal areas, but today, we initiate strikes from land and air, too. We also specialize in extreme environments: deserts, mountains, jungles, tundra. You probably heard about this on the news, but it was a SEAL team that got Osama bin Laden. We do kill-or-capture missions for specific terrorist targets, rescue hostages, stop militia activity… ”

Avery's expression had turned to awe. “So you're, like, a real-life hero.”

“Oh God, no. Don't say that. I'm just doing my job.” I knocked back the dregs of my beer; it should probably be my last for the night. “If I'm anything, it's a masochist.” Before she could get all hero-worship-y again, I changed the subject. “So what about you? You're studying fashion shit, right? Seems like you're really into it.”