Before this, the only time Liz had ever worked side-by-side with her employer was at her mother’s restaurant. Midori had no qualms about pitching in anywhere it was needed, although heaven help you if it was your job she felt she had to jump in and do. Liz hadn’t worked at Bella Midori for very long–that’s right, her mom had fired her almost a year ago, and she’d completely forgotten about it–but she remembered being proud of her mother’s work ethic. Usually the boss sat back and gave orders, and that was it.
Mr. McIntyre jumped right in with Liz and Murphy, the truck driver, to unload the mess, though. The state cops attending the scene stood around or stayed in their cars, and the recovery driver, who arrived a few minutes after they did, didn’t get out of his truck to help either. It was fine, though. The McIntyre’s Fish team went right at it, transferring the boxes from the wrecked truck to the U-Haul with very little conversation or complaint. It was obvious what needed to be done, so no orders were barked. Liz concentrated on her breath steaming in front of her and moved each box one at a time, doing her best to ignore the size of the pile so she wouldn’t get demoralized. It worked; she felt tired, but never so tired that she couldn’t lift one more box and move it.
When it was over, ninety minutes later, her fingers, feet and face were numb and windburned, but the job was complete. Mr. McIntyre watched the tow truck swing into position. He seemed to be assessing the damage to the crumpled truck, which Liz knew belonged to the business and was going to be an insurance nightmare to fix. She suddenly knew why the wrecked truck had bothered her, too; it was because of the way Mikey Arrington had died. One of her best friends (Andrew’s too; they’d known each other since high school) had been killed when an out-of-control dump truck had run a light and broadsided him. Mikey’s death had triggered a month-long binge that…well, it hadn’t been good. God. Liz shook the memory off.
“It’s Miller time,” Murphy said as McIntyre went to one of the police cars to sign some paperwork. He took a deep breath, and blew it out in a cloud of steam. Liz had seen him at the store, when he came by with the truck, but he’d never spoken to her, and hadn’t yet today either. His aloof, gruff demeanor seemed calculated to intimidate everyone except Mr. McIntyre. Even the overly garrulous Keith let him be, choosing to waste the time of the contract drivers instead. She was surprised when he turned to her and said, “You’re the only one of those deadbeats from the back who bothered to show. I know a good place in Toledo, and George and I are headed over there. You want a beer?”
Liz looked at her hands. Her fingernails were purple. A little voice inside her screamed, “Beer! Beer! BEER!” “No, thanks.” Mr. McIntyre definitely knew she wasn’t supposed to be drinking, and he’d tell her father.
“Seriously. I’ll buy. You earned it today. Hell, we both did.”
“I can’t, Murphy. Thank you for the offer, though.”
“Can’t handle it and drive home?”
A bitter smile crossed her face. “Not exactly. I…don’t drink any more.” Which wasn’t patently true. But it was the official position.
“You don’t drink, don’t do drugs. Your body’s a damn temple, eh?” His tone wasn’t entirely unfriendly, but more than a little condescending, and now there was a challenging tone.
She couldn’t help being irritated, mostly because she did want a beer, or a rum and Coke, or a fifth of Jack, and Murphy was reminding her of that. She wanted to drink him under the table, because she was pretty sure she could. Liz was glaring at him before she realized it. Murphy glared back at her.
Mr. McIntyre returned in the middle of the staring contest, and grinned. “You hassling Liz, Murphy? Let her alone, would you? She’s Ted Bahti’s kid.”
The annoyance vanished, and Murphy’s eyebrows went up. “The cop? Really? I didn’t know he had a kid.”
“Not with Margo. ‘Nother marriage.” McIntyre flipped through a clipboard full of paperwork, holding it down against the wind. Liz leaned against her car, wanting to get inside and wondering what other details about her life Mr. McIntyre was going to offer up. She didn’t even know what her father had told him to convince him to hire her.
“I wasn’t fucking with her. All I did was try to buy her a beer.”
“Don’t,” McIntyre said instead of looking up. “She’s working for me instead of going to AA.”
“Couple beers never hurt anybody,” Murphy said, a little defensively, maybe a little disdainfully. Liz wasn’t sure, and wasn’t caring much what Murphy thought anyway.
When she looked up again, the two of them were looking at her. “You want to get some hot chocolate, Liz? On me.”
“Shot of brandy in it will warm you right up,” Murphy said, grinning.
“Cut it out, asshole,” Mr. McIntyre said without taking his eyes off of Liz.
She smiled. “No thanks. I’d rather go home and lay in the tub a while.”
Mr. McIntyre nodded. “Thanks for coming out to help. I think you’re one of the best dock people I’ve ever had.” He and Murphy went to the U-Haul.
The compliment bounced around in Liz’ head for the entire drive back home. Her boss had noticed her, and that made up for Murphy being an asshole, and almost for having to put up with Eric. It was a crappy minimum-wage job, true, but Mr. McIntyre paid enough attention that he knew she was trying her best. Of course, that was probably because he knew her father, but still. The compliment felt nice, and was made even better by the fact that she hadn’t been angling for recognition when she’d agreed to unload the truck. She’d done it because it needed to be done, and that meant that the goodness he’d noticed (assuming he’d noticed it) was from inside her, not an affectation. She was surprised how nice it felt.
On the other hand, she was thinking about it way too much. You need to have lunch, she thought. She considered going to Pandora’s Pizza again, and that got her thinking about the guy she’d met in aikido. Charles. He had an unconscious, easily shockable manner that was a hell of a turn-on. Would he be there again? He’d said he was just going as a distraction, while he was in town. Liz wondered how long that would be, and if she could possibly find a way to get him into bed before that. It was rare that she got to sleep with a guy significantly taller than she was, and her imagination played through the possibilities. He had seemed interested; if she could get him out to dinner again, there’d certainly be a chance to play.
The phone was ringing as she got in, and she had to step quickly to get it. She needed an answering machine, assuming one would even connect to the ancient wall phone. “Hello?”
It was Andrew. “Hey, there, what’s up?”
“That’s a portentous ‘hey there,’ so I’m guessing you want something from me,” she said good-naturedly.
“Did I wake you up?”
“The opposite, I just ran in the door. I was working.”
“Aw, well don’t worry about it then–“
“Ondrew, what do you need?”
“It’s not me, it’s Natasha. She needs someone to get Greg out of her house.”
“The guy she came to your party with.”
Liz hadn’t really considered their little stir-fry gathering a party, but semantics weren’t the issue now. “The guy who was wearing the clothes that matched hers? What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s all fucked up on something, and she wants him out but of course her car is snowed in. She called me a few minutes ago. She’s locked in the bathroom crying and she wanted me to come over and ask him to leave.”
“I’m closer, I can go do it.”
“Are you sure? I didn’t know you were working, if you’re tired and don’t want to deal it’s okay.”
“Ondrew, it’s fine.” Liz got a little curl of pleasure in her belly, at the notion of being able to help one of her old friends. Maybe it would make that displaced feeling go away, and she’d feel more like she belonged here. “Does she still live in the same apartment in Belleville?”
Thank goodness. Her Michigan friends didn’t move around as much as the assholes in LA did. “So what’s Greg’s deal?”
“I’m not sure exactly. They go through these phases, where they’re fine for a while and then they’re at each other’s throats, and Greg’s getting high all the time. You know.”
Liz tried to reconcile the buttoned-down guy she’d seen Natasha with and a nasty pot habit, and couldn’t. You never could tell. “Okay. Where does he live?”
“That’s no problem, I can go down there and then run him home, and preserve her sanity.”
“Thanks. I would have just stayed on the phone with her and talked her down, but that could take hours.” She could practically hear him smiling. “And I just met this other chick, and I wouldn’t want her to call and get the wrong idea…”
Liz sat up. “What chick? Where did you meet someone? What’s her name?”
“Met her at the mall last week, and then I saw her at The Barn and she gave me her number, so I called. Her name’s Drusilla.”
She laughed, nearly dropping the phone. “Drusilla? You met a girl who said her name was Drusilla and called her? What did I tell you about chasing after goth girls with made-up names?”
“I keep forgetting…” Andrew replied.
With that laugh, and another round of thanks from Andrew, she was right back out the door. Once back in the car, she was somewhat glad; she’d been looking forward to relaxing, but when she thought about it she couldn’t imagine a relaxing afternoon-evening that didn’t involve alcohol. God, had she always been that single-minded, or was it just now because she was denying herself? Driving to Natasha’s eliminated the need to think about that.
When she got there, Greg answered the door. He looked disheveled, but not particularly insane or fucked up, just tired. The apartment smelled of weed and cigarette smoke, and the curtains were drawn. The heat was turned up to an explosive temperature, and the TV was turned to a B-grade comedy from the Eighties. Liz shrugged out of her jacket as she went inside. “Greg, right?”
“Yeah. You’re Andrew’s friend, what was your name again?”
“Liz. Is Natasha here?”
“Bathroom,” he said, rolling his eyes.
She didn’t move. “Is everything all right?” she asked him, her tone making it clear that she knew everything wasn’t.
“She call you?”
“I am the cavalry,” Liz said. “You want a ride home?”
Greg plopped himself on the couch, groaning. “This is such bullshit. I can’t believe she went behind my back and dragged her friends into it.”
“Don’t worry, I wasn’t dragged.” Greg made no sign that he’d heard her; he had focused his attention pointedly on the television. “Do you know half the TV channels are out? The cable’s all fucked up and I can’t get 2, 4 or 7.”
“I haven’t turned on a TV all day,” Liz said. She went to the bathroom door and knocked. “Natasha?”
“Liz? Did you bring Andrew with you?”
“No, I came instead. I was closer. Open the door?” Her stomach gave a growl, and she realized she’d forgotten to eat. It didn’t help her mood much.
The door clicked open, and Natasha peered out. Her eyes were red from crying. “I can’t take this shit any more,” she said. “You’ve got to get him out of here, or I’m going to leave.”
“You can’t drive in that shit,” Liz said. It was a pointless argument anyway; most of the cars in the lot had been hopelessly buried by the snowplow.
“I don’t care. I’ll walk. Serve him right if I freeze to death.”
She wanted to tell Natasha to stow the melodrama, but Greg had come up behind her and spoke first. “I’m just trying to protect you, you dumbass!” he yelled suddenly. Liz jumped and Natasha cringed backward with a little cry.
Liz spun on her heel and shoved Greg backward. He started coming forward again, and she pushed him back again, propelling him back into the living room. He railed the entire time–“Everything’s fucked up out there, goddammit! Who knows who’s going to break in here while I’m gone! You’re safer with me here!” Liz could smell something metallic on his breath, and wondered what he was on. She didn’t argue with him, and kept pushing until he was at the front door. She was tired and not in the mood to deal with a psychotic boyfriend, and perhaps she shoved him harder than she needed to as they went out.
Greg stumbled in the snow, and Liz propelled him toward her car. He tried to rush around her and back into the house, and she straightarmed him. She was strong enough to stop him, but he was big enough that they both went down. Liz rolled on top of him and knelt over him. “Cut it out!” she snapped. “She doesn’t want you here, and you need to go home.”
“I don’t have any shoes on,” Greg protested.
“My car’s nice and warm,” Liz said. “Get your shoes later.” She held him there until the snow began to soak through his clothes, and they were getting a decent dusting from the clouds as well.
It took another minute before Greg seemed to sober up. “Okay,” he said. “Okay, I’ll go. Fuck it, I’ll go.” Liz let him up, and he turned and shouted at the front door. “Screw you!” he yelled. “You fucking child!”
“Very dignified,” she said under her breath. Greg didn’t hear her. Once he was in the car, she went around and got the heat turned on. She wanted to tell Natasha that they were leaving, but Greg would probably follow her into the house if she went back in. She was glad it hadn’t taken any longer, or come to blows, and decided that Natasha would figure out what had happened. Liz pulled quickly out of the lot.
“Goddamn, I’m gonna be sick,” Greg said.
“Puke in my car and you will disappear, I promise,” Liz warned. He didn’t.