Or something like it, anyway. Early afternoon, perhaps. A day off, at any rate. The sunlight was muted and brownish through the cheap curtains. Liz sighed and looked at the ceiling, which was, strangely, freshly painted. She’d never noticed before.
There was barely room on the bed for both of them, but Charles didn’t wake when she pushed herself up on one elbow to look down at him. He was a deep sleeper, or maybe just exhausted. It had been a long night, after all. Liz smiled. She felt…full. Everything was in its place.
Not literally. The apartment was messed up, of course. It could have been worse; she had driven him from couch to floor to bed, and back again. Charles had been delightfully flustered much of the time, then even more delightfully wanton later. He’d seemed shocked at what he was doing, yet unable to resist her, and that felt pretty goddamned good.
She knew she’d taken him by surprise. Oh, he’d been thinking about it, she could tell, but to have the well-buried impulse ripped open and acted upon was obviously something he’d never considered. He was so…repressed was the first word that popped to mind, but it wasn’t the right one. He was just overwhelmingly normal. He had a good job, and she could imagine the nice house and nice car and pretty domestic fiancée that went with all of that. He was from some TV drama world full of book-lined offices and three-piece suits and laptop computers, and she’d never been a part of a world like that.
But somehow, he was still interested in her. He couldn’t resist. Oh, she knew it wouldn’t go anywhere beyond sex. Not if he was engaged for real. Shit, she didn’t want it to go anywhere. Fucking up someone else’s life to suit her own desires was worse than fucking up her own. What mattered most, just right now, was that he had wanted her. It was a comforting confirmation of something. Whatever it was, she felt like she’d found it for the moment.
It felt a lot like the way the alcohol did though. It wouldn’t last. She’d need more later, whether it was available or not.
She realized that she was steeling herself for the inevitable moment when Charles told her that of course he was engaged, and this couldn’t continue, so they’d have to pretend this had never happened. Whatever. No matter what he said, she’d scratched his surface a little bit. He probably wouldn’t tell his lady, and she’d never know why he was just a little bit spicier. It didn’t matter what was said about this being a one-time thing. Liz wanted to hold on to the good feelings for a while longer; she could get around to feeling like a slut later.
She got out of bed; Charles still didn’t stir. Liz slipped into the bathroom to scoop the dead rat into a trash bag and rinse the blood and hair out of the tub. That accomplished without waking her guest, she pulled on last night’s sweatpants and a bra, then went into the kitchen. Might as well make breakfast, to complete the one-night stand procedure. What she really wanted was a bloody Mary. Bloody Marys and burnt bacon, an old classic. She snorted, opened the refrigerator, and squatted in front of it, looking for an alternative. Seeing as how there was no vodka, an omelet would have to do. She had English muffin fixings, too. Would Charles want coffee? Probably. Liz busied herself getting domestic. That felt good, too; once upon a time, she’d have left for a few drinks and hoped he was gone when she got back.
Dammit, she was going to miss him when he ran away.
Charles Saxen woke to a world that seemed to have subtly shifted overnight. It wasn’t something he could see or touch exactly, but something was different. He knew what it was, and wondered if the feeling of displacement would return to normal.
He opened his eyes, saw the small bedroom area of Liz’ efficiency apartment, the folding screen pulled to separate it from the living room. It looked different in daylight. The decor was white paint and dark wood, or brown plastic which approximated the wood. The carpet also matched. He could see just a corner of the wall in the living room, which was brick. It was cozy and impersonal at the same time. She had put on some electronic music that seemed to be a relative of what she’d danced to the night before.
The night had been straight out of a fantasy he’d never let himself have. Liz had been everywhere, coaxing and cajoling and rejoicing, and he’d all but forgotten who he was and how he’d gotten here. She’d done things to him with her mouth that he’d never considered possible. And when it was over, he’d expected her to roll over, turn her tattooed back to him and forget all about him, so he lay on his back, comfortably numb. But she was still there. She had butted her peach-fuzz head against his arm until he moved it to let her lie across his chest, and she’d fallen asleep like that. Just like Andrea did, sometimes.
Jesus, what was he doing here?
Charles got up, found his pants and underwear. Liz was making breakfast, clad in her sweats and a bra, and he could see most of the ink that covered her back now. He’d gotten glimpses of it during the night, and felt it, too. He’d never known that tattoos had relief. Liz had rolled her shoulders and eyes with pleasure when he touched it; she said the skin was more sensitive.
She had made a surprisingly big breakfast, and laid it out on the cheap table as attractively as possible. She’d even made a makeshift centerpiece of the jelly, butter, and english muffins. Of course; her mother’s restaurant. Charles sat down, out of habit, and she put an omelet in front of him, complete with garnish. “You’re not allergic to potatoes, milk or onions, are you?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “Liz, what happened…”
“Was fun. Don’t spoil it by making speeches.”
He tried to find his courtroom voice, but didn’t quite make it. He was too deep in her territory. “You really should know that–“
She cut him off again. “That it doesn’t change the commitment you’ve made to the Mrs.-Charles-Katz-to-be. I know. I don’t care about staking a claim on your commitment.” Liz sighed. “This is going to sound stupid. But if I was the kind of person who was supposed to do the three bedroom house, picket fence, two and a half kids thing, well, I think I’d like to do that with someone like you. But that’s not me.” She looked briefly at him, then away. “All that happened last night was that three condoms were destroyed in the pursuit of a little temporary happiness. Four, if you count the one that about killed me when it broke.” She held back a laugh, and he couldn’t help smiling too. “And it worked. So let’s just leave it at that, okay? Eat your breakfast and we can be friends again.” She almost added, ‘if you want,’ but didn’t want to give him that easy an out.
“No, I’m not. But I already know I’m ultimately unworthy, so don’t remind me. Let me be a good hostess while I savor my minor conquest.”
“Is that all this was?”
She sighed again, and sat at the table across from him. She had her own omelet. “No, Charles, it wasn’t. I needed someone, in ways I can’t even describe, and now you’re talking about it too much. Did I truly make you do something you didn’t want to do?”
He took a deep breath. She wouldn’t want him to lie to her. And she’d know if he was just saying what she wanted to hear. “Yes, and no,” he replied.
Inexplicably, she smiled. “Good.”
Charles had a thought of leaving, of extricating himself from this situation so he could figure out what to do next. She’d be hurt, of course, angry even, but he didn’t see any other way to refocus himself, until he saw the photographs. The apartment was sparsely decorated, so the unframed pictures Liz had stuck to the fridge with magnets stood out. With a surge of joy, Charles spotted Nikki in two of them. In one she was by herself, gothed out and standing next to a wrought-iron cemetery gate. In the other, she was with Liz, Andrew, and three other young people–Nikki looked the youngest by far, but older than when Charles had seen her last.
So Liz definitely knew her. The mingled good and bad feelings about the night before receded. Liz felt more or less as he did, so there was no reason to be rude to her. He took a bite of his omelet; it was perfect, and he told her so. “So what are we listening to?” he asked, to get the conversation angled in a different direction that might lead to the pictures on the refrigerator.
“Leæther Strip,” she said. “You like it?”
He smiled as politely as he could. “It’s…different. A lot like what you were dancing to last night.”
“Not that much like it. But if you want a detailed analysis, you’ll have to ask Peach. He likes to analyze things.”
“I got that impression from talking to him. I see a picture of him over there, too. Is there anybody else I know?” he asked.
Liz relaxed. They could remain friends after all. She was surprised at herself, for being so certain it wouldn’t happen. She turned to see what pictures he was looking at. “A few people,” she said. She pointed to a few of them. “That’s Ondrew, who you know by now. That one’s Nikki, whom you don’t know, and this one is Dennis and Peach. You met Dennis, too. Um…the group picture is Ondrew, Nikki, Mikey, Robair, Dennis, Natasha, Carla, and me. Took it on the steps of St. Andrew’s. It’s a little club and concert hall, downtown.”
“You’re the one with the green hair?”
She pulled the picture off of the fridge and handed it to him. “Yep. I only shaved it a couple of weeks ago, in fact.”
Charles looked closely at the picture. The group was sitting on stone steps. All of them seemed to be touching one another, even Nikki, who’d always had a thing about physical closeness. She didn’t even like hugs, but she had one arm around Liz and the other around a boy with dark curly hair, and she was smiling and looking shyly at the ground. There was a blond streak bleached in her bangs, which looked terrible. “The girl here is Nikki?” he said, feigning ignorance and not feeling like he’d done a convincing job of it.
“Who’s on the other side of her?”
“That’s Mikey. I don’t know why I have that picture up, it’s macabre. Mikey and Carla are both dead, and Nikki… anyway, I shouldn’t be able to even look at that thing.”
He wanted very badly to ask her what about Nikki, and couldn’t. “I’m sorry. Can I ask what happened?”
She grinned. “I guess we’re intimate enough for that,” she teased. “Mikey was in a car crash. Fucking dump truck ran a red light, broadsided him. Carla OD’ed. Natasha and I found her dead in a club bathroom.” Charles glanced up at her; she was looking right back into his eyes and no longer jovial. “You’d think I would have taken the hint, don’t you?”
“Addiction being a bad thing,” she replied, taking the picture back.
Liz drove Charles back to his condo shortly after noon. He was preoccupied for most of the short drive, looking out the windows at nothing and thinking about Andrea and his sister. Of course he couldn’t tell her, but he couldn’t not tell her, either.
He didn’t think about Katz until they were almost there. Shit! The paranoiac might have the entire Michigan State Police out looking for him by now, if he’d seen him go home with Liz. Or maybe he’d called Andrea himself…
Charles put his head in his hands, tried to think about something else for a few minutes. Liz was silent, but comfortably so it seemed. When she suddenly asked, “Where’s your car?” he was startled.
“Beg pardon?” Charles looked; the rented Buick wasn’t in the driveway. So Katz hadn’t come home, either? Charles found himself wondering for a brief moment if something had happened to the private eye, then realized that he was falling into the man’s delusion. He was probably just following them. “It’s not where I left it,” he told Liz. “Is this a high crime area?”
“Not that I know of. Oh well, fuck it, it’s a rental, right?”
Crisis averted. Charles opened the door to get out, admitting a brief blast of cold air. “That it is.” He bent down to look back in, hoping she wouldn’t expect a goodbye kiss. “Thank you,” he said. “For…”
She waved her hand at him, dismissing the whole thing. “Want a ride to aikido tomorrow?”
He considered, then thought of Nikki’s picture on the fridge. “Sure.” He watched Liz’ car trundle off through the snow, bumping heavily over packed drifts. The complex was quiet in the middle of the day, as if he had been abandoned in a well-developed wasteland. The warm air indoors felt good.