Eight (author’s note: RATED NC-17)

But Nikki went downstairs instead.  She wanted to walk.  Just for a little bit.  Nikki adjusted her bag on her shoulder, though it didn’t need it, and went out into to the glass, wood, and marble lobby.  Hypersensitive to whatever invisible clue Eddie had picked up from her, she got the impression that everyone there thought she was a whore, too.  They had seen her come in with Eddie, and now they thought she’d done him, gotten paid, and was going home.

She shut them all out, walked as proud as she knew how, walked out of the hotel and halfway down the block.

Nikki didn’t even think about Taiisha until she was grabbed.  Taiisha came up behind her, put her arm around her shoulders, and steered her around the next corner, into a narrow alley leading behind the buildings.  “How goes it?” she asked as they started down the alley.  Nikki smelled garbage and diesel fumes.

It crossed Nikki’s mind to lie, to say Eddie had sent her out to get Chinese or something, but she was a poor liar.  She said nothing.

Taiisha’s arm around her shoulders tightened.  “So,” Taiisha asked her, “where were you going?” Her voice was nearly devoid of inflection.  She was angry.  Not even a day had passed, and Nikki was walking away, leaving Edward alive.  It wasn’t time for her to walk away yet.

The alley ended in a small, deserted cul-de-sac, which smelled even more strongly of garbage.  It was surrounded on all sides by the backs of buildings, one of which was the hotel.  There were no windows facing this way, and the loading docks were empty, their doors closed.  A good little pocket of nowhere in which to punish Nikki.

“I don’t know.  I was just walking.”

“You’ll do as you’re told!” The sudden rise in her tone was all the warning Nikki got.  Taiisha brought her arm down hard and tossed Nikki over her hip.  She landed flat on her back, her bag bouncing next to her.  Taiisha followed her to the ground, one knee on Nikki’s chest, and punched her in the face.  Maybe twice.  Maybe three times.  Nikki lost count.  Taiisha was pulling her blows; she could hit hard enough to shatter bones, but these punches were meant to hurt, not kill.  Nikki didn’t cry out or scream, instead frantically searching for some place to go in her head, to hide.

Taiisha pulled her to her feet.  Nikki’s bag slipped off of her shoulder and fell to the ground.  She reached for it instinctively; the motion earned her another shot low in the belly.  Stop resisting, she thought mindlessly.  Just stop.  Do, do do, don’t think.  Nikki staggered forward, up steps, against steps, vertical again.  Taiisha grabbed her hair and pulled her head back, tilting her body so far backward that the fist in her hair was the only thing keeping her from falling.  Nikki flailed at the air as Taiisha stuffed something into her mouth, a rag, a sock, she didn’t know what.  It smelled and tasted of gasoline.  Her vision was smeared with red.  She might have been seeing double.  The world was beginning to look like a television with bad reception.

“You’ll do as you’re told,” Taiisha repeated into Nikki’s ear.  Nikki felt herself lifted, shoved roughly against a railing.  The railing on the loading dock.  Taiisha pushed her hard against the railing.  It pressed into her ribs, then into her belly.  She doubled Nikki over the railing.  Her feet and hands swam ineffectually in air.

Nikki tried hopelessly to pull herself back to the ground.  She was hanging over the loading dock and the ground was too far down.  She was afraid of heights.  It was only about an eight-foot drop but her disorientation made it seem like a cliff.  Nikki squirmed, and Taiisha hit her fiercely between the shoulders with a palm, knocking her wind out.

Taiisha pushed her skirt up and pulled her underwear down.  Nikki felt cool air on the backs of her thighs, and shrank away from the exposure even though there was nowhere to go.  She knew what was going to happen.  Taiisha had done this before, only once, when Nikki had been stupid enough to try and run to the police for help.  The cop she had actually spoken to was still listed as missing.

Nikki moaned desperately against the rag.  It was a miserable noise, the sound of her fear.

“And she likes it, too,” Taiisha said, her voice low and tight.  As if she’d read Nikki’s mind, she added, “She likes being scared.”  Taiisha wasn’t getting any kind of sexual release out of the act.  It was strictly terror-making.  It was Nikki’s strongest lever, sex.  The girl was afraid of it, good or bad, and thus this was the hardest push Taiisha could muster.  She’d made Nikki numb to almost everything else, and now was not the time for power struggles.  Taiisha had to get her to obey unquestioningly.  No entertaining thoughts of vanishing into San Francisco.  Taiisha inserted a finger into her protege, then another.  Nikki tried to kick at her, and failed.  Taiisha tightened her grip on Nikki’s back and pushed her whole hand inside, past the wrist.

Nikki wished she could just close her eyes and let it all happen without having to live through it.  But her mind didn’t go anywhere, didn’t offer a place to hide.  She tried to scream.  It didn’t do any good, with the rag in her mouth.  Taiisha was pushing against her, pulling and pushing again.  It felt like she was being torn in half.  Her screams turned to whimpers inside the rag.  She wanted to pass out, wanted to vomit, wanted to do something but her entire body was frozen around the intrusion.  She couldn’t even move for fear of making it worse.  Some debauched part of her was afraid that if she moved it might get better and knew that such a discovery would have driven her instantly, completely insane.

Assuming she wasn’t already.

Finally it was over.  Taiisha let go, tugged backward and she fell off of the railing, back to the concrete.  Nikki couldn’t stand up.  She was crying.  “Now, go back, and do as you’ve been told,” Taiisha said, watching for the inevitable hardening of resolve.  It would take some time.  Nikki was shattered for now, and Taiisha let her have the moment of paralysis.  She looked down at the girl once with sadness in her eyes, and then walked away.  She didn’t look back again.

Nikki pulled the spit- and scream-soaked rag out of her mouth and rolled over onto her knees with her chin on the ground.  She stayed like that a long time, in a semi-fetal position.  Her breaths sounded like sobs, ragged, one after the other.  She couldn’t make them stop.  She wished she could make the breaths stop, to just quit breathing and die quietly, in this alley turned torture chamber.  But that wouldn’t have done her any good either.

Nikki was always afraid to move very much after sex, whether it was one of Taiisha’s assaults or real sex.  A childish fear gnawed at her; if she stood up, her insides would push out from between her legs and fall on the ground.  They felt like they were trying to push themselves out.  The loading dock remained deserted, so she stayed there until the feeling faded a little bit.  She saw blood on the concrete in front of her; her mouth was bleeding nicely.  Nikki closed it, tasting blood and dirt.

Her first attempt to stand didn’t work at all.  She didn’t have the strength, barely had a desire.  She lay on her side and pulled her underwear up, then clenched her teeth and tried again, and made it to her feet the second time.  Then she threw up peanut butter crackers and chocolate and Sprite, weakly.  Nikki got her bag and walked back to the hotel on numb legs.

Eight

Swish-click:  Bathtub again.  Cygnet’s here and she’s just thrown something into the tub; a cheerful yellow rubber ducky, it is.  It appears to be brand-new, and it squeaks magnificently.  “Quit losing weight,” she says.  “If you start making me look fat, one of us is going to have to die.”  I smile, but the color fades out of the ducky as I’m looking at it.

Somewhere off in the distance I hear the sounds of voices raised in anger, and one of them sounds familiar.  “Is Molly here?” I ask Cygnet.

She nods.  “She is, and is she peeesed.  I wouldn’t go down there, if I were you.”

With my two bestest friends in the house though, I’d be an idiot for sitting soaking in the bath, so I get up.  Cygnet doesn’t care; we had gym together for two years, and I’ve seen her burn scars.  “What’s going on?”

“She’s giving Ian hell.  He didn’t tell either of us that you were coming down to Detroit.  I would’ve been at work that day, but Molly asked him to tell her when the meeting was, so she could get a flight out, and he lied and told her you weren’t going to be there.”

Oh, dear.  Molly has put figurative heads on pikes for far less.  “Well, he deserves it then.  It would’ve been nice to see you guys.”

“We shouldn’t intervene,” Cygnet says, “but let’s eavesdrop.  God!  Look at all those ribs.  You make me sick.”

“It’s not a good diet,” I tell her.  I wrap up in a towel and we sneak to the top of the steps.  It sounds like they’re in the living room, which is underneath my room, but the sound carries better through the foyer.  We can’t really hear Ian, but Molly’s voice carries when she’s irritated.

“Take me through your thought process here, Ian.  I want to know exactly how it went.  You lied to us because you didn’t want to bother us, or because you thought it would be good for Lex not to see any of her friends?  How is this helping her, exactly?”

Ian’s response sounds like a mumble. 

“What doctor?  I’ve talked to Josie–she hasn’t seen Lex since July…Josephine Hu, Ian, Lexi’s physician.  I know you’ve met her.  So what doctor is giving you this wonderful advice on how to help her?”

I look at Cygnet, who’s barely containing her laughter.  I have a question, somewhere, but forget what it is.

“Okay, so which is it?  Either the mysterious unnamed doctor thought she shouldn’t see us, or Lex decided at the last minute to go and you didn’t tell anyone.  I’m sure I couldn’t have gotten a flight on such short notice, but that was my decision to make, Ian, not yours.  There are plenty of flights between Boston and Detroit and I suspect I could have found one.  And Cygnet lives fifteen minutes away!  You couldn’t have called her?”  Molly’s voice raises suddenly.  “Shut up!  I don’t care what she said, don’t interrupt me.”

“Trying to speak out of turn,” Cygnet says quietly.  “Classic male error.”

“Why do they always try to argue?” I say.  It’s true, too.  There is no arguing with Molly when she’s like this, the best thing to do is shut up and take it; fighting back just makes her angrier and prolongs the thing.  Ian’s doing just what Molly’s ex-husband used to do, interjecting just enough attempts at self-defense to keep her wheel spinning.  “This could go on for hours.”

“Should’ve brought popcorn.”

I don’t feel like listening to arguing though.  I never did like listening to Molly and Rich fight, either.  I creep back upstairs so I can put clothes on. 

Cygnet follows and sits on my bed while I look for something to wear.  “So,” she says, “OJ and Tupac Shakur knocked you off the front pages of the tabloids, you know.  You’re going to have to do something drastic if you want that coveted spot back.”

“What did Tupac Shakur do?”

“He died, sweetie.  Not that you should do that, of course, if you commit suicide, I promise you I will get to hell so I can kick the living shit out of you.  But anyway, yeah, someone friggin’ shot him.”

That’s incredibly sad, but the fact that the world has been spinning without me is…something.  It doesn’t feel as horrible as I suppose it should, but it doesn’t feel good either, it’s somewhere in between.  “Did anybody else famous go and get themselves dead while I’ve been napping?”

“Um, let me think.  Ella Fitzgerald and Erma Bombeck pop to mind.”

“Ella Fitzgerald?”

Cygnet nods.  “It would be so much nicer if the shitty artists died once in a while.  You missed two big plane crashes, too.”

“Tell me something cheerful, creepo.”

She rolls her eyes.  “Clinton beat Dole, and there was much rejoicing.  They cloned a sheep, they’re making an electric car, Lollapalooza kicked ass, and you missed the summer Olympics in Atlanta.  And you guys promised to get me tickets.”

And just like that, I’m crying.  We were all going to go to Atlanta, that’s right.  Ren promised Cygnet he’d take us.

“Aw, fuck, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said–hey, hey, it’s okay.”  Cygnet pulls me into a little hug and I sort of fall into her lap, wishing the waterworks would stop.  “I was just joking, Lexi, it’s all right.”

It’s not all right, though.  It’s never going to be all right again, and we both kind of know that I think.

“Besides, someone set off a big bomb there.  With our luck they’d have blamed us.”

“What about the electric car?”

“Huh?”

“You said they’re making an electric car. Who’s building it?”

“Oh, GM.  I saw a picture of it–it looks like a suppository.  You’d never get me in one.”  Cygnet drives a rusty old Isuzu Trooper.  When I close my eyes I can picture it, midnight blue with flowers of iron oxide blossoming around the fenders and the leading edge of the hood.  She has two bumper stickers on it.  One says, “Don’t Mess With Texas;” the other, “Visualize Whirled Peas.”

“I feel like Rip Van Winkle,” I say, pushing myself up out of her lap and wiping tears with the towel.  “The world just went running along without me.”

“It does that,” she agrees.  “And you look like Rip Van Winkle, too.  When was the last time you shaved your legs?”