Forty-nine

It was going to be different this time.  I wouldn’t leave Lexi, like I’d had to leave Liz, like I’d had to leave everyone.  Maybe I could even find them again.  All I had to do was prove that I could save one of them.  I couldn’t help feeling like I was gambling with Lexi’s life, but maybe it was the only way to save my own, the only way to learn if I had one worth saving.

I went to Lexi’s room first.  She was already awake.  She was kneeling on the bed, looking into the mirror like it was a window.  “You didn’t have to rough me up so bad, Becky,” she said petulantly when I entered the room.  There was a purple line across her throat from the bowstring.

“I’m so sorry, Lexi,” I said.  “I didn’t mean to…I was just…” There wasn’t an apology, as much as I wanted there to be one.  I could just say I was sorry.  It didn’t change the fact that I had beaten the shit out of her.  It was up to her to forgive or not forgive.  Considering what I had done to her she didn’t have much reason to.  I felt a tear slip out of my eye, sparkling with self-hatred. 

She smiled at me in the mirror.  “Shh.  Listen–the day’s breaking.”

I looked toward the window, at the bright afternoon.  “I don’t understand.”

“It’s not for you to understand.  Only one of these features can help you avoid an accident,” she said. 

I sat on the bed.  Lexi had too many blankets on the bed and it was like sitting on a marshmallow.  “I’m sorry.  About everything.”  I couldn’t look at Lexi for more than a couple of seconds, couldn’t meet her eyes at all.

Lexi looked at a spot somewhere deep in the mirror.  “You hit a pothole, and the impact is diffused by the suspension, and the subframe, and the body insulation, and when it gets to you, there’s not much left to diffuse!”

“If it’s a big enough pothole, it still hurts.”

She shrugged.  “And where did that mattress on the freeway come from, anyway?”

“You lost me again.”

A smile.  “Confounding your neighbors is more fun than impressing them.”

“Coming from you that makes a lot of sense.  You need to re-bleach your stripe.”

“Oh, dear,” she said, touching her hair.  “My personality is molting.” Lexi looked at me suddenly.  “She’s going to make sure you do your job…on Mister Doctor who isn’t really Edward Sharp.  And she’ll ice all of us to make you do it.”

I just nodded.

“That’s too bad.  Gray’s such a neat name.  It should’ve been her real one.  You didn’t have to choke me, you know.”

“I’m so sorry, Lexi.”

“It hasn’t been much fun keeping secrets I know could save someone’s life.  And you choked me,” she said, pouting briefly.  “But that’s neither here nor there, unless it’s both.  I asked for it.  I shouldn’t have shot at you.  I was angry.  I’m sorry.  That was a very rude thing for me to do.  Rude rude rude.”

“You don’t need to apologize to me, Lexi.  I could have killed you.”  This wasn’t going at all as I had expected.  I hadn’t known what to expect, though.  I couldn’t tell if Lexi was angry with me or not.  Maybe she was doing it on purpose; maybe she hadn’t decided if she was angry at me or not.

“Really?  Oh, yeah…you learned all sorts of terrible things.”

Lexi was looking deep into the mirror.

“I’ll go,” I said.

“No, don’t.  Stay.  I changed my mind.” Lexi turned around and looked at me instead of the mirror.  “New friends don’t necessarily replace old friends, you know.  They do entirely new things.  It’s not fair to shut out new people because you miss the ones who’re gone.  It was rude of me to eavesdrop, but I’m harmless, you know.  I need to tell you my life story twice.  Then we’ll be even.” She smiled when I frowned, and started without preamble.  “My mom got killed by a falling IGA sign when I was five.  Nothing freakish about that,” she said with a touch of sarcasm.  She spoke in a low voice that didn’t carry far, as if she were speaking for me and me alone.  “I lived with my dad and my sister, who was five years older than me, and she committed suicide when she was fifteen and I was eleven.  Before her birthday and after mine.  She ate a box of sleeping pills and washed it down with NyQuil and then got in the bathtub.  We have that on film because I was playing with the video camera that night, and found her.  That was one of the low points in my life.  I moved to Michigan and met my best friend Molly Snow not too long after that.  Then I got my appendix taken out and sailed on a boat for the first time, it belonged to Margaret’s brother.  Oh, Margaret was a friend of my father’s.  She lived down the street and around the corner.  Maybe they sort of dated, I don’t know.  Who does? Parents don’t really have love lives, they keep them pretty well secret if you’re a kid.

“Anyway, I muddled through learning to drive–mowed down fifteen mailboxes with Dad’s ’71 F-250 but that was okay, he was laughing.  It was the coolest truck, too, old and faded red with a utility bed and a ladder on top that I don’t think ever got taken off.  It should still be at his house.  My dad was a handyman, he did odd jobs and I got to help sometimes when I was older.  By that time I was in high school, where I met my friends Cygnet and Katharine and Brittany, two of whom remained my friends through puberty, which took its sweet time showing up and had questionable results when it did–to be honest I think everybody says that though.  One of the highlights of high school was helping Cygnet and her sister escape from her parents, which is a really long story I can’t tell just right now.  After all of that excitement and head-punching, I helped Cygnet move to New York to go to college, and Molly and Katharine both went off to Boston, and I stayed in Michigan for college which was uneventful except for the parts about driving a school bus and a bagel van and some other stuff.

“But it can’t have been a complete wash seeing as how I met a few guys, including one named Darron who turned out to actually be a gorilla and later one named Ren who wasn’t.  Actually most of them were gorillas.  What is it with me and guys?  Maybe it was inexperience.  I didn’t have a real date until I was almost nineteen, and I have the kind of personality that clings to people who do things for me.  Sort of dependent.  And the people who do things for me are usually the possessive types who go for little submissive cuties like me.  But Darron was the only one who took the time to trash my house and kill my cat and gang-rape me.  Well, not by himself–one does not a gang make–but you know.”  She shrugged, ignoring the look of dumbstruck horror on my face.  “Then he said he was going to kill me and Ren but he never got around to it.  Oh, he was going to kill us because I went and fell in love with Ren, y’see, before Darron was finished being my boyfriend or whatever.  I couldn’t help it.  Ren wasn’t the first guy who was really nice to me, but he was good at it.  Being nice, I mean.  And on top of that we were soulmates.  His family didn’t like this much; they’re a bunch of bluebloods who weren’t particularly happy about their prodigal son running about with a poor little golddigger with a questionable past, although I am, for the record, neither.  Ren taught me to drive a big truck, and taught me to race, and we bought a warehouse and a lot of cars and then started building CPs but before we finished a lot of them he took an unauthorized trip into a river with four other people, and died.  I had a breakdown and came to this place and then the cars vanished thanks to a friend of ours, and probably all of our money too, and here I am trying to clear my head and decide what to do next.  Koo koo kachoo.”

She left the mirror and sat on the bed next to me.  “Then I was born.  My mother’s name was Anne, she was a German fresh off the boat, and she died in an auto accident when I was five.  A thunderstorm blew the grocery store’s big light-up sign down on her car.  I lived with my father Bert and my sister Alison, in a house that was as clean as we could make it but still astoundingly grubby, and Alison committed suicide when she was fifteen and I was eleven.  Sort of sad.  She was prettier than me, but she never got over Mom’s death and blamed it on Dad.  I found her after she died, floating in a tub full of brown water that smelled like shit and blood.  Dad and I moved out of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania within the week.  We landed in Westland, Michigan because Dad drove until he saw a house he liked, that needed TLC, and decided to restore it.  And we did just that.  Dad and I didn’t talk much for a few months.  I met my best friend-to-be Molly a few days after we finished the house.  It was funny, actually.  I threw a little fit and jumped off a bridge into the Rouge River, which was low, so I ended up in a giant mud puddle.  I screamed and yelled and threw mud around a lot, I don’t remember why really, but when the noise was over, there Molly was, in her Girl Scout uniform!  Like a vision.  And I muddled through learning to drive and high school and living in a little sorta-suburb where everyone told false incestuous stories about me and my dad and finally I escaped to the University of Michigan.  I met a few guys, including one named Darron who was a gorilla which doesn’t make sense because they say you go with guys who are like your father and my dad wasn’t like that.  My dad died before all the shit with Ren and Darron started up, which is probably a good thing, because he was overprotective.  Not in a bad way but in a way that it would have given him fits to know what was going on then.  He didn’t like Darron much, either.  It was really innocent at first, me and Ren, we were just friends.  We’d go to car shows and stuff.  Here and there.  Once we rented a Taurus and took it apart and put it back together again, over the weekend.  Darron made a big deal of it all, but I think if he’d really cared, he’d have gone with me to Molly’s wedding instead of backing out and making me take Ren so I didn’t have to be an unescorted maid of honor.  Sometimes I wonder if Ren would have thought to fall in love with me if Darron didn’t bring it up so much.  Darron was too insecure, he couldn’t handle that I went and did things with Ren if he wasn’t around.  But then he was jealous of Molly, too.  Can you believe it?  Go fig.  So he made a bollix of things and Ren and I got away from him after some requisite ugliness which included a cheap Jeep crashing into a really expensive house.  That could have been sticky legally, but the Packards bailed Ren out and paid Darron to leave us alone.  They think Ren and I didn’t know they’d done that, but we did. 

“That was okay, though.  We drove a truck for a while, and then bought a warehouse in New Hamster.  I mean, New Hampshire.  It’s still there.  It was dull, and kind of cold.  We didn’t have running water but we had a lot of space, which was good because we bought a lot of cars, and ran around a lot.  We raced for a few years, racing whatever we felt like, and went to lots of lovely shows, and then finally we decided that we wanted to build a car of our own.  Ren made lots of friends–he was good at that–and we did a bunch of development, and suddenly there were Crane-Packards.  Twenty-four of them.  Soon to be twenty-five, I suppose.  We were going to build lots more, but Ren died, as you no doubt are aware, in a car crash.  I saw it happen.  It was unpleasant.  I had a bit of a breakdown and came to this place and then all of our cars got lost and it was more or less my fault for being lazy.  End of story.  I’m kind of tired now,” she said, “and out of sorts.  Could you come back later?”

“Lexi, this is kind of important.  Ian left, but he’s going to come back.  He’ll probably have someone take you away.  He has to.  He’s afraid of you.  He thinks you’re dangerous.” 

“I am dangerous.  Did you know that when the car ships come over from Japan or Europe all full of Mazdas and Volvos and BMWs, that if just one car breaks free of its chains, it can destroy everything else in the entire hold?  And there’s nothing they can do about it.  They just have to listen to it bashing around down there until they get to port.”  She held up her hand suddenly.  “Leave us,” Lexi said imperiously.  The moods in her eyes shifted, and I couldn’t identify what I saw.  I left her alone.  As I closed the door behind me, she shouted, “Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station!”

Outside the door, I was nose to nose with Taiisha.  “How is she?” she asked, utterly insincere.  “You didn’t hurt her badly enough, Kerry.”

“What do you want?”

She smiled, amused at my irritable tone.  “Martin.  Made his phone call.  The chaos is working to his advantage.  Yours as well.” She started walking away from me.

“I’m not going to do it,” I said, loud enough that she could hear but not so loud that anyone else might.  My stomach clenched painfully, fearfully.

Taiisha turned suddenly.  She stared into my eyes.  I met the gaze, held it, held it…and then my eyes wavered and dropped.  “Yes you will,” she said.  “Soon, too.” She turned away again and finished her walk.

I might as well have spent the rest of the day sleepwalking.  I couldn’t find Lexi.  I heard her bumping around once in a while, but she never appeared.  When I looked for her, I couldn’t find her either.  What was stranger than that was that all of the cats seemed to have vanished as well. 

The only thing I accomplished was to throw together an inelegant tuna casserole at dinnertime.  Eddie was more interested in the Internet than food; neither Taiisha nor Martin appeared or offered to cook.  When I started serving the food it was just me and Eddie in the big, dark dining room.  There were windows in the dining room, but it was always curiously dark, as if the walls absorbed light.  I lit a few candles and liked it better after that.

I didn’t expect anyone but myself to eat, but Lexi showed up without a word and sat down next to Eddie.  Her eyes were far away.

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

She picked up a plate and held it out, and I spooned some tuna onto it.  Lexi looked haggard.  Her hair hung limply in her face, spiky as though it had been wet and was air-drying.  She kept her lower lip thrust slightly out in a defiant pout.  I got the feeling she wasn’t just sulking, though.

Like she was reading my mind, she said, “Welcome to my little world.  I am in a very deep sulk now.” Eddie looked up from the computer at her.  At that same moment, Teague jumped up into her lap and started sniffing at her food.  “Not now, James, we’re busy,” she said, shifting her hips.  The cat jumped down.

Eddie let her eat for a few minutes, and then said, “I’d sulk too, if I had chased all my friends away.  Ian was trying to help you, you know.”

Lexi glared at him, which had less effect on Eddie than when I glared at him.  Then she seized a water glass, closed her fingers tight around it, turned it sideways, and rapped her knuckles against the table hard enough to shatter the glass.  She never took her eyes off of Eddie.  The slightly irritated look on her face didn’t change as the blood began to flow.  As Eddie’s mouth dropped open in blank surprise, Lexi lunged forward and grabbed the laptop, snatching it right out from under his hands.  The cables flailed as they were jerked out of their ports.  She cocked her arms back and let it fly.  The computer made it most of the way across the dining room.  It hit the hardwood floor with a mortal-sounding crack and a flash.

“Aw, Christ!” Eddie yelled.  “Bitch!  You!  Computer!  Floor!”  He jumped to his feet, knocking his chair over, and scrambled across the room to the stricken device.

Lexi looked at me.  Her brown eyes were clear, cognizant, and flecked with gold.  “I’m sorry I shot you,” she said.  “I have to go now.”

“Go where?”

“I don’t know exactly.  But I have a map.  Ian’s coming back soon, isn’t he?”

I glanced at Eddie, who wasn’t listening to us.  He was on the floor assessing the damage to the laptop.  “You’ll have worse guests than that,” I said, thinking of Martin’s phone call.

“Walk with me,” she said, cramming a napkin into her bleeding palm.  She headed out of the dining room and into the ballroom, toward the foyer.

I was a couple of steps behind her, leaving Eddie in the dining room.  “Your hand.  A bandage?”

“Don’t need it,” she said absently.

“You’re crazier than she is.”

“Cuter, too,” Lexi said.  She pulled her coat out of the coat closet, then wrapped a scarf around her cut hand in lieu of the sodden napkin.  “And maybe half as dangerous.”

“We’re going outside?”

“Outside,” she replied, pulling a big flashlight out of the closet as well.

I put on my coat and followed.  Outside, Lexi frowned at the snow and quickly falling dark and beelined for the carriage house.  I followed as best I could through the snow.

Inside, she walked around the abandoned car once and touched it, then toward the other end of the garage.  Over there, in shadow, Lexi squatted. 

I moved around to the front of the car so I could see what she was doing, found her in time to see her stand up again.  There was dust on her knees from where she’d knelt on the floor.  Lexi ran her foot along the edge of the inch-wide crack in the concrete.

“What?” I asked.  I couldn’t figure out the look on her face.

She stomped on the crack, hard.  The garage’s far wall shuddered a bit.  I jumped back, startled.  She stomped twice more, and an eight-foot section of the garage floor caved in along the crack.  Lexi barely jumped back in time to avoid tumbling down into the hole she’d made.  She was half laughing.  “Just like the dream.  Curiouser and curiouser,” she said, switching the flashlight on.  She shined the light down into the hole.

“You’re going down there, aren’t you?” I asked.  I was suddenly very, very afraid for her.

“Maybe,” she teased.

“You’re not thinking straight, Lexi.”

“I’m always like this,” she whispered, not looking at me.

“Lexi, you’ll freeze to death down there.”

“Better than butterfly nets,” she said.

“Don’t,” I said, but she wasn’t listening to me any more.  She whispered something as she stepped off the edge and disappeared.

I heard her land a brief silence later.  Her boots crunched on something like gravel.  I ran to the edge, saw nothing but a ten-foot drop, barely illuminated by the light that leaked down from the shadowy garage.  I could see broken concrete and ice and frozen mud, and nothing else, not even the flashlight beam.  Lexi was already gone.