By Any Other Name

The Stealing of Things [Chapter 6]

The nights I have off from work are truly my own. Jamison and the kids eventually have to go to sleep, while my own rhythm keeps me awake. Of course, I extend the same courtesy to them as they do for me in the afternoon, meaning keeping to myself and keeping quiet, but I might say those are already my defaults. On occasions I have tended to the sick or nightmare-stricken child, a reminder to myself that I am indeed a mother, one who doesn’t need to have her husband’s sleep interrupted.

If I were a more adventurous person, I would maybe go to one of those twenty-four-hour diners for a meal, or simply go for a walk under the stars, but then again, the nightly news has too often told stories of young women late at night being preyed upon by strange men wishing to do them indignities. That, and I had already experienced my own share of late-night adventures of a different sort.

No, for me, the night is for simply curling up to read a nice book. The television set doesn’t broadcast anything but the black-and-white fuzz at that time of night, and it would be too loud anyways. Sometimes I take the time to bake something fancy for the family to have for breakfast, but I have been also accused of waking them up too early with the good smells.

Books are all the company and adventure I need, really. That night, however, I was put at pause by the characters in my novel, namely those of the feminine sort. Flipping back through several pages of exposition confirmed my suspicions. It is far too often that a woman was only seen by the author as breasts, high heels, lips, or shiny hair. That, or they were entirely unpleasant and therefore unattractive. I can recall one female teacher who might be described that way, but that is beside the point.

There is one moment where women are described in more detail, being when they are taken for a kiss, especially by the bold and complex male lead. It is their hearts we hear about, and how they beat and flutter, and furthermore, their bodies that flop like a freshly-struck fish from the supermarket, only to be held more tightly by the protagonist. Never in my life have I ever flopped at a kiss from Jamison, not even upon the altar on our wedding day. To think of it, if I were to flop, even the fine, strong husband of mine might have trouble holding me up and steady.

I had to think harder if there was a time my heart had ever fluttered, at a kiss or otherwise. By that time, the words on the pages of the book were lost to me. The last kiss to reach my lips was… the strange woman in the garden of the museum. The heft of the hardcover flopping to the ground certainly made my heart jump, there in the otherwise quiet house.

I woke up Tuesday afternoon by an excited hand nearly pulling me out of bed. “Mama! Mama, the jewel! From the toom!”

“Sorry, Liz.” Jamison seemed to groan from the door of the bedroom. “They were so excited, I couldn’t hold them back any longer.”

Sitting up, I caught sight of my husband, still somehow in his button-up shirt from work. “Excited for… ah! Yes, the visit to the museum.” I patted the back of James’ little hand, still latched onto the sleeve of my nightgown. “I’ll get up and get ready right away. About dinner, though…”

“It’s an occasion, isn’t it?” Jamison posed, herding the little one out with a tap to his back. “We can eat out early. I checked the phone book, there’s a… bistro— if that’s how you say it— across the street. We can eat there before we head inside.”

“That sounds… perfect,” I hummed, finally placing my feet on the ground.

Perhaps in a manner to throw off my coworkers, I put myself together in a long dress, one of the very few I owned. With a neckline hovering around my collarbones, coupled with a heavy bow at the front, I hoped my face would be but a blur to most others. The boys stuck to their school dress, nearly matching button-shirts and not-too-wrinkled trousers. I hoped that if I were recognized, we could be seen as a proper family.

Parking downtown was a beast quite different during the day, but we managed a spot and walked the rest of the way. I had only ever seen the bistro dark, with its tables and umbrellas packed away. The combination of it done up and producing smells of fancy cooking made my morning slightly more bearable.

To spare the other patrons from noisy, yet-to-be-fed children, we took a table outside, not far from the road, and in view of the face of the museum entrance. I decided quickly from the menu and took the rest of the time to analyze the crowd headed for our final destination. Another sight caught my eye, however— the dark-eyes gaze of a tanned woman, hiding out under a wide-brimmed hat. Her eyes didn’t leave me even when I took notice of her, leaving me enough time to recognize the lips presenting themselves under her other delicate features. She was at a table all alone, but after our mutual eye contact, she stood, offering me a sole motion of her eyes to drag me up.

“I’ll be… I’m going to use the restroom.”

“Ah, okay—“ Jamison responded quickly, forced out of his own decision-making process. “I’ll order that thing you said for you if they come by, alright?”

I found the door inside the restaurant with a dress-shaped silhouette and entered, looking back over my shoulder several times in quick succession. Somehow I noticed myself in the wide mirror first, forcing me to fix my hair in an unconscious motion. Reflected behind me were three stall doors, all unlocked. One swung open slightly, the tanned woman glancing out through the gap. I jerked around, stepping her way with the words ready on my tongue.

“If you think I’m going to step in there with you—“

She raised a finger to my lips. “You’ve already come this way. Inside, before anyone else enters.”

I glanced at the door. It was a combination of both our powers that brought us inside, the metal latch sealing us in from the rest of the bathroom. “What do you even want from me? Are you going to come clean about what you’ve been doing those nights in the garden?”

“Besides seeking you out?”

I huffed and turned my head up, hiding the warmth on my cheeks. “No, stop this right now. This is all silly— no— probably worse than that.”

“What a beautiful family you have, a nice husband and two fine boys. You really wish to know my truth?” She hummed, pressing her hand against my abdomen in the already cramped space. I recoiled against the side wall behind me. “It is about the exhibit, and the treasure inside.”

“It doesn’t take a private eye to see that.”

“Do you know why?” She asked, leaning up closer to my face.

“Because you are a crook?”

There was a sudden clack of the bathroom door opening. She pressed harder against me, hand reaching up to cover my mouth. I sucked in a breath through my nose. Outside the door was a small clack of a makeup case, followed by the light pattering of a brush and a concerned humming of a fellow diner. My eyes darted about the stall and the ceiling, but my captor’s gaze didn’t depart my face. After what felt like an entire night shift, the other occupant exited.

“That jewel is my family’s heirloom,” she hissed and pulled away, eyes narrow and held to me like the points of arrows. “The Sudanese tomb? The woman mummy they found in there was my ancestor. My family has been trying to find that tomb for decades, and then some grave-robbing archaeologists working for a big museum come by and snatch it up first.”

“And so you’re just trying to steal it now?”

“They refuse our claim and blood connected to it.”

I shoved the woman away with a push possibly too gentle for the predicament. “And you want me to risk my job and help you with that, now?”

She pulled back and sighed. “You will, unless you would wish me to make a scene. Out there with your husband and the other diners. Asking why a lover of mine actually has been married all along.”

I grabbed at the lock, but her hand reached it first. “You wouldn’t.”

Her head shook. “Who would believe you? After all, every night at the same time, you go off in the dark to meet me, seeking out my lips and my touch. If people around here hear that, it will not only be your husband, but the museum too, to get rid of you.”

I bit my lip, staring at hers. “You’re absolutely ridiculous.”

“Please.” Her tone became calmer. “After your museum, the exhibit will go elsewhere. Another heist to plan, more risk I must place myself in.”

“You have a lot of nerve to say please like that to me after everything else.” I huffed, placing my arms over my chest. “What do you want me to do?”

“Nothing today. There will be a time. And you will know where to find me.”

“You are a presumptive little—“

Her hand grabbed at the edge of my arm, enough to pull herself up to match her lips against mine. The touch from her at that moment was the lightest it had ever been, and there was a pleasant scent to her I had not gotten before. With a flick of the lock, she exited the stall, then the bathroom entirely.

When I found my table once again in the outside dining, the woman was nowhere to be seen. “Too much coffee this afternoon?” Jamison asked, already several bites into his own dish.

“Yes, and perhaps a bit more excitement than what I’m used to, this early in the day.”

“Mama says she’s excited, too, James!” said my boy to his little brother.

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