Eleven

She was waiting there and watching television when Eddie returned that afternoon.  He had already successfully dodged a barrage of questions from the San Jose PD, and his mood was guarded.  He was happy to see that Nikki had come back, but he didn’t know how the job had gone, other than Ethan’s being assaulted.  Nikki looked up at him and her eyes followed him into the bedroom.  “So,” he called, tossing his now-useless BMW satchel on the dresser and loosening his tie, “are we successes or are we going to try again?”

Nikki turned off the TV and came into the bedroom.  She tossed the optical drive onto the bed.  “I’m hungry,” she said, sitting next to it.

Eddie allowed himself a sigh of relief and gave Nikki a congratulating smile.  “I owe you dinner, then.  Prodigy went ballistic, as I’m sure you could imagine.  Did you hit their kid?”

She looked at the floor.  “He grabbed me.  I’m not happy about it,” she added.

“Well, you busted his nose and cheekbone, Killer,” Eddie said in a congratulatory voice as he put the drive on the table next to his laptop.  His tone irritated Nikki, and she was on the verge of snapping that she could have done a lot worse to the kid.  To his mother, too.

Eddie said, “You’re clear anyway.  Mom thought you were a man.”

For some reason, that made her feel worse.  “What?” she gasped.

“You heard me.  She even described you with a mustache.  The kid couldn’t give a statement yet, but when he does it’ll confuse things even more, regardless of what he thinks you were.”

How was that possible?  Just because she was thin?  Because she’d hurt this woman’s son?  Nikki’s brow wrinkled, deeply upset.  It wasn’t fair.  She doubted that Taiisha had ever been mistaken for a man.  Not that Taiisha would have cared one way or the other.  But it hurt.  Nikki wished she knew why.

When Nikki didn’t say anything, Eddie took that as his cue to continue.  “Don’t sweat it.  It’s embarrassing, but it’s a good end to a spoiled caper.  I’m glad you remembered not to come back,” he said.  “Good thinking on your feet.  Now, for our next trick, I have a prospective job from an old friend in Michigan.  Unless of course something comes up between here and there.”

“I hate Michigan,” she said, without a lot of conviction.  She didn’t want Eddie to think she wouldn’t go with him, not that it mattered.  She wondered if she should kill him tonight after he fell asleep, or in the morning  He’d struggle a lot, and she was too worn out to do it now.  A bath and dinner sounded like better plans.  She didn’t want to think about it at all; injuring the kid had left her feeling unsettled and ashamed.  She couldn’t blame Taiisha for forcing her to do that, and the guilt was beginning to gnaw.  She could have blamed the boy himself, but what was he supposed to do upon catching a burglar?  She didn’t want to think about it any more.  “I hate it,” she said again, bringing herself back to the present.  “That’s why I left.”

Eddie sat on the bed and pulled his shoes off.  He hated dress shoes.  Nikki moved away from him, putting space between them–a move born purely out of habit, he could tell.  “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Eddie said.  He put his hands to his heart and made a sappy face.

“Not after a five-hour plane ride.”

“Well, I’m glad you brought that up, because we’re not flying.  We’re driving.”

Nikki frowned, confused.  She asked him why with her eyes.

He was getting used to her nonverbal questions.  “I bought a car.  Couldn’t pass up the deal.”  Murray had put Eddie onto a silver Lincoln Town Car at a local dealer three days ago.  It was a demo car with two thousand miles on it.  Eddie had always wanted to own a Lincoln, so he had bought it.  Judging by Nikki’s demeanor, Eddie guessed that she felt badly about hurting Prodigy’s kid–“hurting” being something of an understatement.  When the paramedics brought him out, he looked like he’d been brained with a small appliance.  Nikki seemed to be pissed at herself for doing all that though, and maybe about the job not going right, either.  It reminded him of…himself, actually.

Nikki muttered, “Takes half my life to get here and then I leave after a fucking week.”

“Pardon?”

“Nothing.  Nothing.” She started folding her afghan.  “Are we leaving in the morning?”

“Bright and early.  Hope you’re as good at quick travel as you are at picking pockets.”

“Eat shit and die.”  Yeah, she could kill him.  In the morning.  Right now she had to eat.

As if he had read her mind, Eddie put two twenties on the bed.  “Go get yourself some dinner,” he said, standing up again.

Nikki looked at the money.  “You’re not eating?”

“Naah.  I want to download that stuff,” he motioned to the optical drive, “and have a look at it.  Call me nosy.”

She couldn’t go.  If she went out without Eddie, Taiisha might think she was running away…

“What’s wrong?” Eddie asked.  “You shivered.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes you did, I saw you.  And your breath trembled, too.”  He met her midnight blue eyes.  “You afraid to go out for some reason?”

She didn’t deny it again.  Eddie was looking at her with that almost concerned look in his eyes.  It made her think of the way he’d cleaned her up after Taiisha’s attack, and a completely incongruous desire to ask him to bathe her rose up suddenly.  Just to have caring fingers on her skin, not touching to hurt but to comfort.  Just maybe.  She couldn’t ask, of course, that was stupid.

“Was it something else?” Eddie asked again, his grin widening.  “Just a hot flash?  Let me guess, it was that film guy Jason, right?  He’s got that grunge thing you girls go for.”

Nikki sprang abruptly off the bed, snatched the money, and stalked into the other room.  He heard her on the phone a moment later, ordering room service, and smiled to himself.  He couldn’t help himself; it was just fun to tease her.

He looked in on her a while later, to see what she was up to.  Nikki was sitting on the floor with a logjam of colored pencils by her side, hunched over her sketchbook.  Her hand moved in short, violent strokes.  She didn’t look up.  Eddie heard the lead snap with a faint, brittle click, and Nikki dropped the pencil, picked up another one of the same color from the pile, and continued without pause.  He was tempted to say something, but decided to let her be.

Eddie disappeared the next morning, leaving instructions for Nikki to call an answering service and take messages off of it.  There weren’t many; a call from someone named Dell, who wanted to see if Eddie could arrange a hotel conference and a bogus delivery van to intercept a package, a call from his friend in Michigan, whose name was Ian, a familiar, how’s-it-going call from someone named Cathy–Nikki guessed it was a relative or close friend, not a girlfriend–and finally a call from a toady-sounding man named Tony who said that he’d had a lot of requests for Eddie’s services lately and suggested a quick phone call.  Nikki wrote them all down.

Eddie returned half an hour later, without the optical drive, and checked them out of the hotel.  Before lunch, they picked up his new Lincoln and left for Michigan.

Eleven

I awake from a dream of suffocation.  As I scratch my way back to consciousness and discover that I can breathe again, I open my eyes and see Malice curled up in the bed next to me.  The longhaired black cat looks back at me with eyes that I know are green, but don’t look green right now.  My thoughts are pleasantly pink and fuzzy and insubstantial, like redpop froth.  “‘Lo, cat,” I say.  Malice yawns.  “What were we doing, anyway?”  I can’t remember, exactly.  Ian was…inside and outside.  And there was someone else, a writer, a Chinese girl, Dobie Cassarell, no, none of those was right.  No, maybe all of them were.  I roll my hands into fists and whack my temples lightly.   I was making bread, that was it.  Making it for…myself.  No, someone else.  It’s no good, I can’t remember.  Something to do with Late Apex magazine.  I consign it to the corner of my mind reserved for unimportant things and slide out of bed.  Malice doesn’t follow.

Downstairs, Dr. Zheng is in the library, or what will be the library when it’s finished.  If it’s ever finished.  I don’t like Dr. Zheng, as much as I dislike anyone at least, which isn’t very many people if you don’t count Becka Packard, who is to evil what Rolls-Royce is to basic transportation, or Tiffany Burke, whom I went to high school with.  Either way we don’t get along well, especially not when Ian has him stay in my house for days on end to watch over me.  I feel like a bug in a microscope with him around, and I don’t always like feeling like that.  I feel like I could deal with him better if I didn’t have to take the pills and deal with the pink cloud that goes with them, but he’s rigorous about giving them to me on time.  Besides which, mustering the energy to think and act and get rid of him would just be…just…something.

“Are you hungry, Lexi?” Dr. Zheng asks.

I like this room.  The shelves in the walls were there when we moved in, but the wallpaper and wood trim in the room had suffered thanks to a pair of windows that had been broken since the Sixties.  There are boxes of our books and other knicknacks and several crates stacked against the outside wall.  Dr. Zheng is looking through one of the boxes, and I drop into a tatty wingbacked chair that should be red.  He asks if I’m hungry again, and I tell him, “Him sad,” perfectly matching the strange pidgin accent that the dialogue from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is supposed to be spoken in.  “Brain broken!  This my vehicle!  You…pedestrian!”  It’s a shame he never saw the movie, and thus doesn’t appreciate the artistry of my mimicry.  I do like that he reads way too much into everything I say, though.

Dr. Zheng sighs a long-suffering, patient sigh.  “You really should eat something,” he says.  “You didn’t have very much for lunch.  You’re losing weight.”

“That’s Latin, darlin’,” I say, affecting a drawl and talking to an imaginary person next to me.  “Apparently Mr. Ringo is an educated man.”  I drop my voice to a threatening hiss.  “Now I really hate him.”  That one’s from Tombstone.  I get up out of the chair and turn in a less-than-graceful half circle, surveying the room.  I wish I knew why it’s easier to think of movie quotes than it is to actually talk.

“I don’t understand what you’re trying to say, Lexi.”

Suddenly I have a clipped French accent.  “Too bad.  You could warn them, if only you spoke Hovitos.”  Doesn’t he recognize anything?  Has Dr. Zheng ever even seen a movie?  Just one?  Come on!  Raiders of the Lost Ark?  Everyone’s seen that, haven’t they?

I stand in front of my chair, incidentally aware that I’m swaying slightly back and forth but unable to stop myself, and look down at him for a minute.  He’s about an inch shorter than me, has a darkish Chinese complexion like that token Asian henchman who gets killed in just about every Mel Gibson movie, and he’s always wearing a gray suit with a vest.  On top of that he’s losing his hair, just like Ian is.  He’s too ordinary by far and it makes me want to wear yellow, which, now that I think of it, might be fun to do regardless.  Unless, of course, I’m already wearing yellow.  I look down at myself.  I can’t tell.  I don’t think I am.

The doctor doesn’t waver under my scrutiny.  “I’m going to make some soup.  Would you like that?”

I channel Brandon Lee in The Crow.  “I see you’ve made your decision.  Now let’s see you enforce it.”

Dr. Zheng frowns and takes a step back, then turns and marches off to the kitchen.  If he had seen The Crow, he’d have known that it wasn’t a threat at all, although there was no line he could throw back at me.  I miss trading quotes with Ren.  Maybe that’s why I’m doing it.  Even though I wasn’t thinking about him (I wasn’t, dammit) it’s still a fun game with the doctor, who takes everything I say so seriously, even if I’m talking about space ships.  I think he writes down everything I say.  He probably thinks I’m completely insane and I haven’t been much in the mood to try to convince him otherwise, either.

I can hear the doctor’s footsteps all the way to the kitchen, on account of the nice Italian shoes he wears all the time, even though the driveway’s muddy (he wears little rubber shoelets that slip over them).  I also hear a cat padding down the stairs and turn my head just far enough to see Nance trotting through the foyer on his way to the kitchen, expecting a handout that isn’t going to come.  Dr. Zheng doesn’t give the cats treats.  He rarely acknowledges them.

Upstairs.  I want to be curled up in my bed, so that’s where I go.  Halfway up the stairs the phone rings.  I hear Dr. Zheng answer it.

Clock-clock-clock, he’s coming out of the kitchen to the foyer.  I rush the rest of the way up the steps, so I can be at the top when he gets there.  My house has a grand sort of foyer, with a big central staircase that splits halfway up to go left and right, to each wing of the house.  I feel like looking down on the doctor from the landing, like a faded but still powerful dowager empress, or something of that nature anyway.  My feet are listening to me, but my knees are half an order behind, so I trip once.  Dr. Zheng doesn’t seem like he heard the ungraceful thump, though.  “You have a phone call,” he says, holding the cordless phone up as if I could reach down with a stretchy Plasticman arm and grab it from where I’m at.  “It’s Glen, the reporter from Late Apex magazine.”

“Three seconds, break neck!” I shout, loudly enough that Glen can no doubt hear me too.  “Who runs Bartertown?  MasterBlaster runs Bartertown!”  No way is either of them going to understand that, but somewhere beneath all the pink mist I want to be inscrutable today.  Only Ren would’ve understood me.  Only he was ever allowed to on days like this.  Why does Dr. Zheng have to stay here?  Sometimes I need to be alone.  I turn and run for my room, and my legs obey me this time.  It’s a perfect exit and I’m very happy with it.  I even slam the door of my room behind me, to give Zheng something to write in his silly journal about.

This is my room.  Since I’ve spent so much time hibernating in here, it’s the most thoroughly thought out one in the house, most of which is still sort of trashed-out apart from having basic weatherproofing and electricity.  Well, most of it has electricity.  My room used to be three rooms.  Ren and I were going to share it, swish-click, swish-click I am not doing that right now, no.  This is my room, this is my room, this is where I am and I want to stay here, I really do.  The walls are unrestored–the maroon and green paint is cracked and flaking off in trapezoidal curls, and there’s minor fire damage where the damaged wall was torn out.  My bed stands under a nine by four-foot antique mirror that was there when we moved in.  The silver has darkened, but the glass is undamaged and I like it.  A heavy, half-filled bookshelf blocks what used to be doorway to the other bedroom we cannibalized.  It shares space with an art-deco armoire and a much newer bureau of uncertain heritage or design along the wall across from the bed.  My bed is flanked by two doors; one leads into a deep closet, the other to a staircase that goes straight to the kitchen.

The best thing about my room is the turret at the back of the house, whose second story creates a sizeable rounded bay window at the outside corner of the room.  I put a desk in the turret, and stood the computer on it, but it isn’t hooked up yet.  I haven’t decided if it it’s going to stay there, and haven’t devoted any thought to it.

I fling myself into the bed (it’s a queen-size bed with three feather ticks and two down comforters, so I could jump into it from a helicopter if I wanted to) and make a perfect one-back landing between Malice and the mail, which I must have collected earlier but don’t remember.  It seems like I’m working on two or three things at once, like I always used to when Ren was alive, but I just can’t remember all of them at any given time.  None of it (the mail, not the cat) is interesting (the cat is always interesting) except for a manila envelope with a Detroit postmark.  It has a mix CD, from Cygnet.  She makes them for me all the time, which isn’t a surprise as she’s a DJ at the coolest radio station in Detroit and she lives for music.  She’s been sending me CDs that I’m sure are calculated to cheer me up.  Sometimes they really do.

“My bag is in the hat,” I sing to my cat as I rip the package open, “it’s filled with this and that.”  Malice blinks and says nothing.  She doesn’t like Marilyn Manson that much.

The envelope contains nothing except a months-old copy of a New York newspaper from the day that Ren died..  I have a moment of clarity, and think, What a perfectly awful thing to send to me! I’m actually insulted. 

It reads like this: 

Warren Packard Killed In VT Car Crash

AP–Warren Packard, scion of the multimillionaire Packard family, was pronounced dead at the scene of an automobile accident that killed four people in upstate New York Wednesday evening.  The incident came as a shock to members of an automotive community that had barely finished celebrating the public introduction of the Crane-Packard sports car at the New York Auto Show.  Packard’s death thrusts the future of America’s newest car company into uncertainty.
Police said the crash occurred near Roxbury, Vermont, some time after nine p.m.  Packard and Alexis Crane, his fiancee and partner in founding the car company, were transporting display materials and a show car.  Reports from the scene suggest that the Ford F-350 driven by Crane struck Packard’s car and a Cadillac limousine driven by Gerry Okurowski of Fashionable Transport in Boston, Massachusetts.  Packard’s car and the limousine were forced off the road and into a water-filled ravine.  Packard, Okurowski and the limousine’s three unidentified passengers were killed.  Also killed was truck driver Ernest Murchison, of Middlebury, whose truck was traveling in the opposite direction and struck the Crane-Packard display trailer.  Police say alcohol has been ruled out as a factor in the crash and will release further details pending an investigation.
The $42,000 Crane-Packard sports coupe and roadster created a stir when it was unveiled to the public at the New York Auto Show Wednesday morning.  The automotive press was excited by both the theatrical stage presence of the company’s founders and by the car’s Corvette-beating performance figures.  The initial production run of twenty-five cars was sold before noon.
Neither Crane nor the Packard family could be reached for comment on the future of the company.

Apparently no one knows exactly what happened, other than me, since I was there.  Why did everyone else have to go and die?  There are diagrams based on Vermont state police analysis of the scene.  They get a lot of things wrong.  They think that Deus rear-ended the limo and made it run into Ren, and that didn’t happen at all.  I fall asleep thinking about that.

I dream of walls.  Cream-colored tile walls, to be specific.  My point of reference is very close to the tile, as if I have my nose pressed right up against it as I move slowly along.  The air is cold.  My feet are wet.  The tile races quickly along under my nose.  I push myself away from the wall, wanting to see more of my surroundings, and find that I am in a tunnel, lined walls and ceiling with cream-colored tile and indistinct ahead and behind.  As I move down the tunnel, the light (if there was any) moves with me.  I can feel myself moving slightly up, then slightly down, then slightly sideways.  The tunnel widens, becomes a great hall with a dirt ceiling and a tiled floor.  Frozen puddles dot the floor, but I can’t feel my feet touching it.  I move across the hall, whose walls remain indistinct, and I come to a closed wooden garage door with a brass knocker and handle.

Raise the door or knock first?  I choose to raise the door.  Inside I see only headlights, massive headlights that rush out as if freed from a cage.  There’s no time to jump out of the car’s way, and as it runs into and over me I find myself suddenly inside, behind the wheel.  It’s an old car, but I can’t quite place what make it is.  A big sedan, anyway.  1930s for sure.  I can smell potpourri.  The road ahead is dark except for the twin tunnels of white speared into it by the headlights.  The road curves gently, and the car turns with it.  The headlights turns with it too–it has Pilot Rays, I realize, those old foglights that connect to the steering rack and turn with the front wheels.  What a great thing!  I’ve never seen them work before, but there they are.  Super-cool.  I’m on the verge of identifying the car by its hood ornament, but it’s way too dark to see it well.

An imperceptible shift, and I’m not driving any more; I’m in the passenger seat.  I look toward the driver’s side and see a woman in her late thirties, her auburn hair shot through with gray and pulled back into a loose knot at the back of her head.  She’s wearing clothes that match the car’s time period, as far as I can tell.  The woman looks back at me; in the dim light from the dashboard’s dials I can tell only that the woman is handsome, with sad eyes.  We drive on without speaking, into the dark and then the dream drifts on to other things.