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Friday morning, November 23
Mall of America, Bloomington, Minnesota
Rebecca Cory stood her ground despite another elbow shoved into her shoulder blades. She'd let the first two shoves go. A quick glance back at the tattooed man convinced her to ignore this one, too. The man towered over her, wearing camouflage pants and a muscle T-shirt. No signs of a coat. Quite a strange fashion statement considering it was twenty degrees outside and snowing, but not a bad idea in the crowded mall.
Even with a glance it would have been hard for Rebecca not to notice the purple-and-green dragon that snaked down the man's arm, its tail curling up around his neck and its fire-breathing head squeezing out of the T-shirt's tight armhole. The tattoo crawled all the way down past the man's elbow. The same elbow that kept finding its way into the middle of Rebecca's shoulder blades.
She told herself to be patient. She could finally see the order counter as the line to the mall's coffee bar grew shorter. It wouldn't be much longer. She tried to concentrate on the Christmas music, what she could hear of it through the crowd's chatter and the temper tantrums of impatient toddlers.
"…in a winter wonderland."
She loved that song. But it certainly didn't feel like winter in here. Sweat trickled down her back. She wished she had left her coat back with Dixon and Patrick who were guarding a rare find, a bistro table and four chairs in the mall's overcrowded food court.
Rebecca hummed with the music. She knew all the words. They had sung Christmas songs on their long road trip. Connecticut to Minnesota. Twenty-one hours. Thirteen hundred miles. Surviving on Red Bull, convenience-store coffee and McDonalds. She hadn't caught up yet on sleep although yesterday they all crashed after Thanksgiving dinner at Dixon's grandparents' house. The first holiday meal she'd had in years—turkey, dressing, real mashed potatoes and all the trimmings. Granddad said a blessing. Nanna served seconds whether you asked for them or not. Dixon had no clue how lucky he was. Family, tradition, stability, unconditional love. It gave Rebecca hope to see those things still existed despite being absent from her family's life.
She resisted looking back this time.
What in the world was she doing here?
She hated malls and yet here she was on the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day and craziest shopping crowd of the year. She'd let Dixon talk her into it, just like this whole trip, convincing her it'd be an adventure she'd never forget. He'd been doing crap like that since they were in kindergarten and he convinced her paste tasted like cotton candy. You'd think she'd learn by now that Dixon's taste for adventure was pretty much like his taste for cotton candy, tame and sugar-coated, the hype being the most exciting part of anything Dixon did. What did she expect from a guy who quoted Batman and Robin?
And poor Patrick, along for the ride, trying to be the good sport.
He was a whole different story. She should have found Patrick's behavior endearing. Instead, she thought it a bit suspicious that this totally cool and together guy would want to travel 1300 miles to spend Thanksgiving with her and Dixon. Seemed a long way to go just to get inside her pants.
That wasn't fair.
She knew he didn't have any family to keep him in Connecticut over the long holiday weekend. His mom was in Green Bay. He had a stepsister in D.C. He'd asked if they could cut through Wisconsin on the way back, like that was part of his excuse to go along. That maybe they could just drop in and say "hi" to his mom. But no big deal if it didn't happen.
That was Patrick. Low-key, mature, steady as a rock. Dixon called it "boring." Rebecca called it dependable and she liked that about Patrick even if she wasn't so sure about his intentions. Dependable felt good. Having Patrick along felt good, though she didn't like admitting that even to herself.
They'd become friends working at Champs across from the University of New Haven. Patrick tended bar and Rebecca waited tables. She wasn't old enough to serve drinks to the table and if there wasn't another "of age" waitress working then Patrick did it for her, always so patient about it even when he was swamped behind the bar.
Patient, kind,gentle… very suspicious.
Pretty weird, or maybe just sad and pathetic, that she found all that suspicious. Mostly in the beginning. Not so much anymore. Next to Dixon, Patrick was her best friend. Her mom didn't think it was normal for Rebecca to have boys as best friends.
"Are you having sex with these boys?" her mom wanted to know. Then when Rebecca told her "absolutely not," her mom seemed even more perplexed.
"You're not a lesbian, are you?" her mom had asked and quickly added, "Not that there's anything wrong with that."
In the last three years Rebecca had watched her mom and dad yell their way through a divorce. Her dad immediately married the coworker he claimed to have just met. Her mother reciprocated with her own stream of men. After watching the two of them, Rebecca had long ago made the decision to concentrate on her future, to use their love life catastrophes as inspiration. Her future was her escape and she wouldn't allow someone, dysfunctional parents or a boyfriend, to screw that up for her.
Besides, her love for animals, especially dogs, was the one thing Rebecca knew without question. Taking care of them, healing them would save her. She looked to it as her salvation from an otherwise dreary, miserable life. She knew veterinary school would be a long haul, but she was willing to put in the tough hours. Maybe someday have her own clinic. That and a pack of dogs, a couple of horses, some cats, too. Her mom wouldn't even let her have a small dog in their post-divorce condo. It was just as well. Not having someone she was obligated to, had made it easier to leave for college and live on campus. Same theory went for not having someone to hold her back, distract her from her dream.
When her mom asked if she was coming home for Thanksgiving, Rebecca's first inclination was to blurt out that she didn't have a home. But her mom wouldn't have understood. And she certainly wouldn't have allowed Rebecca to travel halfway across the country with Dixon and Patrick, so Rebecca lied.
No, not really a lie.
She simply told her mom that her dad had asked her to spend Thanksgiving with his new family. That was actually true. He had asked her to join them on their extravagant Thanksgiving trip to Jamaica. It wasn't Rebecca's fault that her mom hadn't checked it out, that she would rather swallow fire than talk to her ex-husband.
By the time Rebecca made her way back to the table, Patrick had gotten a Cinnabon for each of them. From the look on Dixon's face she knew Patrick was making him wait for her.
Add dependable and courteous to that list.
It made Rebecca smile just as Andy Williams started singing, "I'll be Home for Christmas." The mall must have the same Christmas CD collection that Dixon owned.
Dixon was singing the words to "I'll be Home for Christmas" as she set down his Red Bull and coffees for her and Patrick.
She barely sat down and he bit off a mouthful of cinnamon roll while popping the tab on his drink. Her friend was charming and talented and witty and totally oblivious to anyone else when he was obsessed. Which was the reason they were here at the mall on the day after Thanksgiving. His latest obsession involved the red backpack at his feet.
"Chad and Tyler are already here."
He waved at them across the food court but they even didn't look his way. Typical, but Rebecca didn't point out to Dixon that the two jocks still treated him like an elementary school tag-along. The four of them had gone to school together up until Rebecca's mom dragged her away to Connecticut. Dixon chose West Haven for college partly to be with Rebecca but as soon as he came home to Minnesota, Chad and Tyler could draw him into their escapades with a simple phone call.
Rebecca noticed they both carried red backpacks identical to Dixon's. What did he get himself into this time? She pulled off her coat and let it hang over the back of her chair. She usually stayed away from Dixon's adventures. She wiped at her bangs that were pasted to her forehead and stretched her back expecting it to ache from the tattooed man's elbow.
"We agreed to start on the third floor and work our way down."
"What exactly is it you guys are doing?" Patrick asked.
Rebecca wanted to kick him under the table. Dixon took on causes like they were T-shirts with slogans that he changed every other week. Most likely this was Chad and Tyler's idea. Dixon read Vince Flynn novels and superhero comic books—Batman was currently his favorite. He did a cool imitation of Homer Simpson and knew all the characters from Lord of the Rings. Not only could he find Venus, and sometimes Mars, in the night sky, he could name all three stars in Orion's Belt. When he told Rebecca he had decided to major in cyber-crime, she couldn't imagine him stepping out of his fantasy world long enough to deal with real life criminals. He was a smart, quirky guy and Rebecca hoped he'd realize soon that he didn't need Chad and Tyler.
"Do you realize that eighty percent of toys sold in the U.S.A. are made in China?" Dixon told Patrick as he stuffed another piece of cinnamon roll into his mouth. "And that's just toys. Don't even get me started about other products. Like those cute little patriotic flag pins everyone puts on their lapels…made in China." He drew out the phrase like it was all the proof he needed to substantiate his argument. Never mind that it sounded like he had memorized it from some pamphlet.
Patrick glanced at Rebecca as he sipped his coffee. She winced, wanting to tell him it was too late.
"Over a half million production jobs were outsourced to other countries last year," Dixon continued. "Just to make everyday products that we can't live without."
"Like your new iPhone," Rebecca said pointing to the gadget in Dixon's shirt pocket, the earbuds a constant fixture dangling around his neck. "Made in China but you can't live without it."
"These are different." He rolled his eyes for Patrick as if saying she didn't know what she was talking about. "Besides, this was a gift, a reward, in exchange for lugging around this backpack all day."
"Ahh," Rebecca said and didn't have to add that she knew there had to be a catch.
"And I can live without it, Miss Smartypants," he added.
"Really?" Rebecca raised an eyebrow to challenge him.
She put out her hand. "Then loan it to me for the day. You owe me for losing my cell phone."
"I didn't lose it. I just haven't remembered where I placed it."
But already Dixon's smile disappeared as if he was trying to contemplate life without immediate access and communication to the world. Just when she thought he couldn't bear to relinquish it, he pulled the cord from around his neck and slid the cord and the iPhone across the table to her. The smile reappeared.
"Don't break it. I just got it."
"What about the backpack?" Patrick asked.
Both Rebecca and Dixon looked at him as though they completely forgot what they had been talking about. Patrick pointed to the pack at Dixon's feet.
"What's the deal with the backpack?" he asked again.
"That, my friend, contains the secret weapon." Dixon was back to his infomercial. "Inside is an ingenious contraption that will emit a wireless signal. Completely harmless," he waved his hand, "but enough interference to mess up a few computer systems. Wake up a few of these retailers. Last time I was home Chad and Tyler took me to a rally with this cool professor at UMN, drives a Harley, one of the big ones."
Rebecca couldn't help but smile. Dixon wouldn't know a Harley from a Yamaha, but she didn't say anything.
"This is a guy who's been in the trenches, knows what he's talking about. You know, he's been to the Middle East, Afghanistan, Russia, China. Professor Ryan says that until we hit people in the almighty pocketbook nobody's gonna care that we outsource hundreds of thousands of jobs every year or that the southern invasion is stealing twice that many jobs right here, right out from under us."
"Southern invasion?" It was Rebecca's turn to roll her eyes at Dixon. She'd lived through many of his obsessions and humored him by listening to all of his rants, but once in a while she had to let him know she couldn't take him seriously. Next week Dixon would probably move on to saving beached whales.
"So why the padlock?" Patrick asked, still interested.
Dixon shrugged like it didn't matter, that the padlock was a minor point and besides, he was finished with his spiel. Rebecca recognized the look. He was ready and impatient, looking over his shoulder, concerned with finding Chad and Tyler. That's when she knew this idea was probably theirs. Not Dixon's. But he'd go along, wanting to be friends with the cool guys, the high school jocks he grew up following around. They were always getting Dixon in trouble and she didn't understand why he kept going back for more. Maybe another semester away at college, away from them, would help.
One thing about Dixon, he was there for his friends. Rebecca could account for that. In the early days of her mom and dad's divorce Dixon was always there for her, just a phone call away, telling her it had absolutely nothing to do with her, reassuring her, making her laugh when it was the last thing she thought she'd ever do again.
Dixon's iPhone started playing the theme song from Batman and she slid it back over.
"It hasn't even been five minutes—" she started.
"Hey, I can't help it, I'm a popular guy."
But within seconds of answering Dixon's face went from cocky and confident to panic.
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
"What's wrong?" Rebecca sat forward. The mall noise had amplified. Somewhere behind them a PA system was announcing Santa's arrival.
"That was my granddad." Dixon's face had gone white. "They just took Nanna to the hospital. She may have had a heart attack."
"Oh my God, Dixon."
"You want us to go with you?" Patrick was already pulling on his jacket.