Forty

Sometimes it’s good to trust my instincts.

When Liz and Mikey tried to get me to go out with them as the spring warmed the air, my plan was to absolutely refuse to let Mikey talk me into going for a ride on his motorcycle.  I was afraid of it.  The memory of the truck crash was too fresh in my head and no matter how good a rider I knew he was, every time I thought about it I saw myself falling off of the bike somewhere, into the road, bouncing and breaking and… 

No, I had to say no.

Circumstances worked against me though.  The weather waxed suddenly perfect, almost seventy degrees and sunny in the final days of April.  Michigan weather is so unpredictable.  Mikey and Liz and Liz’ friends Peach and Andrew all dusted their bikes off and Mikey led them to the Prices’ house just in time to meet me after school.  He practically dragged me outside to where they were waiting at the end of the driveway.  Their bikes were bright, summery colors, and it made me smile to look at them: green for Liz, yellow for Andrew, red for Mikey.  Peach’s bike was older and dark teal, sort of beat-up, but even it looked happy.

“We’re gonna welcome summer,” Mikey said.  “Want to come?”

I shook my head and smiled.  As I opened my mouth to tell him I didn’t have a helmet, he held out the extra one he had brought.

“It’s a perfect day for a ride,” he said.

“You said that in the middle of winter, too.” I was aware of Mrs.  Price watching us from the house.  No doubt she was making up personalities for all of them based on the fact that they’d ridden motorcycles to her home to pick up her foster daughter.

“Oh.  Dammit, you’re right.  Well, you should have gone then, too.”

“It’s good for the soul,” Peach said with a little smile.

I looked at Liz, but she was looking at her feet with the oblique smile she always got while she listened to Mikey talk to me.  She was really happy with the fact that he was so into me, even if he wasn’t going to do anything about it.

“Why not?” Mikey asked.  He was almost whining.  Almost.  He wasn’t quite whiny enough to cease being cute.  “You can’t fault the weather, or the equipment…”

“Or the driver,” Peach added.  “That’s important.”

“Right, or the driver.  So what’s wrong?”

I took a deep breath.  “I’m scared,” I said.  Fine, so he’d laugh at me.  Maybe they all would.  I felt the age difference between us.

Mikey erased it with a smile.  All of it.  “Of course you are.  You were in a huge car crash.  It was so recent I bet you can still smell the hospital.  Didn’t you get flung out of the car? Shit, I’d be scared of anything without seatbelts and a roll cage myself.”

I blushed.  I looked at the ground to hide it, which did no good.  When I looked up again Liz and Andrew were both watching me.

“But I promise, I promise I won’t drop the bike.  We’ll go slow.  I won’t go fast unless you ask me to.  Please?” He looked at Andrew.  “Should I get down on one knee?”

“Two to beg, one to propose,” Peach said.

“Oh, right.” He looked back at me.  “If I ask you to marry me will you ride the bike?”  My blush got hotter.

Liz laughed.  “That’s not binding, Michael.  She could marry you and still refuse to ride.”

“Oh.  Shit.” He grinned; he liked playing the dimbulb game.  He looked back at me and for a moment I thought he would say that he’d marry me anyway.  Part of me wanted him to, in a daydreamy little way.

He didn’t say anything, though.  Liz spoke first.  “Compromise.  Why don’t you two ride around the block, slow.  Then if you want to go out on the road, Nikki, we’ll take you.  If not, you can follow us in your car.  How’s that sound?”

“I can do a compromise.” Mikey looked to me.  His eyes were bright and eager.

I was almost able to accept the idea of riding on the bike with him, but then I got suddenly, ridiculously shy about putting my arms around him.  “Could you take me around the block?” I asked Liz, a little hastily.  “So I can see…?” My voice trailed off, got small.  I was afraid I was insulting the hell out of Mikey.  If he was hurt he didn’t let it show.  “Then I can ride with you,” I said to him, a little less convincing than I wanted to be.

She considered it, running a hand through her green hair.  “So des’.  I can do that.” Liz straddled her bike.  “Michael? Why don’t you helmet her?”

“Ohh, I’d love to,” he said.  I looked sharply at him and that made him grin.  He enjoyed shocking me with his innuendos.  I kind of liked letting him do it.

He eased the helmet carefully over my head and adjusted the strap.  My neck bobbed with the weight of the thing. 

Mikey looked at me and smiled.  “We’ll wait here,” he said.

“Girls ride first,” Andrew said mysteriously.  I barely heard him; the helmet muffled sound.  While I was pondering what he had said exactly, he picked me up.  His hands reminded me of my father’s hands, strong and square.  He lifted me easily and set me on the bike behind Liz.  I didn’t mind; the helping hand left my hands free to hold on to my skirt, keep it from flying up.

“You need to tuck that in,” Peach said, speaking to me and Mikey.  “Before she fires it up.  It’s gonna get snagged.”

“He’s right, the chain’ll rip it right off of you,” Mikey said.  He picked up the hem of my long skirt and shook it a little.  “I think it’s so cool that you don’t own a pair of jeans.”

“Megan’s are too big for me,” I said.  Megan was the Price’s daughter, blond-haired, blue-eyed and my age.

He didn’t hear me through the helmet.  “What?”

“Nothing.” I concentrated on tucking my skirt under myself and not letting it reveal too much of my leg.

Liz was putting her own helmet on.  She had long periods of silence like I did.  Everyone always thought she was mad about something because of it.  But she was just quiet.  Only Andrew and I knew that she was a very recently recovering alcoholic.  She was still ashamed of some of the things she had done.  Even Peach and Mikey didn’t know all of it.  They didn’t know how bad she had really been, even though they had known her when she drank.  Liz got her helmet on (it was green and white, like her bike and hair) and looked back at me.  She winked at me, which was completely out of character for her, but it made me smile back.  My cheeks rubbed against the inside of the helmet.

The motorcycle roared to life underneath me.  I grabbed Liz’ sides in surprise, then let go, embarrassed.  She said, “Go ahead,” yelling to be heard through the helmet and over the yowling engine.  “It’s easier to hold on to me than the bike.” I slipped my hands back around her waist.

A slight rise and drop in engine note, and we were rolling.  It felt like we were on a tightrope.  I closed my eyes, and they stayed closed.  Even though I trusted Liz, I didn’t trust the bike to stay up, despite her skill.  When she asked if I was okay, I nodded without looking at anything.  The air flowing over my body and through the helmet was pleasant, and I concentrated on that rather than the tilting and weaving of the bike as we took a parade-speed trip around the block.

When we got back I agreed to go on Mikey’s bike then.  I couldn’t resist looking at the house as I climbed off of Liz’ bike and onto Mikey’s.  Mrs.  Price was gone.

We had gone a few blocks and gotten out on the road before I finally opened my eyes.  With no protective cocoon of metal and glass to shield me, the other cars on the road looked huge, almost predatory, as they rolled along on either side of us.  I looked at the cars on either side of us; no one was watching us.  Knowing I wasn’t in the limelight made me feel better also.  But we were going so fast…  I held on to Mikey a little tighter and rested my head on his back.  He felt more substantial than Liz.  She was soft where he was firm.  I noticed that I could feel his muscles move as he shifted his weight, keeping the bike on track.

When I felt that, the ride got better.  I could feel him controlling the bike.  My fear of falling didn’t disappear, but it receded several steps.  I tried on another smile, liked it, and let it stay.  Craning my neck to look behind us, I saw Peach bringing up the rear.  If I leaned out just a little bit I could see Liz and Andrew riding side by side in front.  Mikey wobbled when I leaned, so I tucked back behind him.

I understood what they had meant about welcoming summer.  The sun seemed warmer, and all the colors were brighter.  I felt very…real, as if I’d been ethereal for the past six months or so and was only just becoming solid.  It was a good way to get around.

I liked being close to Mikey, too.

We rode through downtown Birmingham, catching a few sidelong glances from faces in expensive cars and trucks.  I saw my foster sister coming out of one store and going into another; if she saw me, she didn’t know who she was looking at.  I had no reason to acknowledge her, so I didn’t.  I felt like I had escaped their world, for just a few minutes.  Relief beyond compare.

When we turned onto Woodward, Liz and Andrew accelerated violently.  Peach shot past us also.  I expected Mikey to follow them.  I squeezed him hard in anticipation, but he didn’t launch.  He looked over his shoulder at me, and his eyes were smiling.  He kept his promise not to go fast.  We caught up to the others slowly.  Mikey snaked the bike through traffic subtly, never taking chances, never having to brake or accelerate hard.  My fear of tumbling off the back of the bike abated somewhat, although I still felt naked back there.  Ahead of us, the others were pulling into McDonald’s.  Mikey followed suit.

Liz and Peach helped me off the bike.  I was surprised to find that my legs were shaking, once I was on the ground.  I took a little stagger-step, and Peach caught my elbow.  “Whoo there, careful.”

I took the helmet off.  “I’m dizzy.”

“You’ve been too lazy,” Liz said.  “You’re tasting that aged adrenaline, that’s been sloshing about in those glands for what must have been months.”

“Did you like it?” Mikey asked, touching my shoulder.

I looked at his hand, then at his face.  The sweet look in his eyes took my words away.  I nodded and smiled.

“I’m glad.”

Liz and the others went inside, leaving me with Mikey for a moment.  “Thank you for coming and getting me.  I don’t go out otherwise.”

“Why not? You have a car, don’t you?”

“It’s not that,” I said, shaking my head.  “I don’t have any place to go.”

“Come and see us,” Mikey said.  “Or, if you don’t want to, I don’t know, just get out and drive.  Go to the mall, like you were the day we met you.”

I closed my eyes and sighed.  “I know.  I can’t stand being there either.  I just see people who remind me of the ones I’m trying to get away from.  I’m too jaded to deal.”

He smiled and opened the door for me.  “I don’t think you are,” he said, and dropped the subject.

Forty

Nikki greyed out as they slogged through the woods.  She didn’t lose consciousness, but was only incidentally aware of her surroundings.  She stared at the white ball of light cast by Lexi’s flashlight until it got blurry around the edges and was the only thing in existence.  There were no trees, no snow; even Lexi was a dim shape.  If she was aware that they had come out of the woods and were walking past a barn, past a large snow-covered garden, the knowledge never really made it past her eyes.

In five minutes they were in Sir William’s cozy den, which was richly decorated with the comfortable detritus of forty-odd years; framed photographs, miscellaneous awards, odd pieces of used farm equipment, and an older version of Ramona graced the walls.  There was no television, only a sixty year-old cabinet-style radio.  Glen was there, too, poring through a dusty hardbound book and nursing a cup of coffee.  They both looked content and comfortable; Glen clearly didn’t mind the unexpected detour and delay.  Lexi wondered if they’d left the Porsche he was driving in the ditch, or if it had been freed.  She felt a stab of remorse for more or less forgetting about Glen all day, and made a mental note to keep track of loose ends like that.  As soon as she did, she realized how many of them there were, and started trying to ignore them again.

Sir William took one look at Nikki, announced that he had been a field surgeon during his years in the war, and had Lexi guide her onto the couch so he could have a look at her leg.  Although she wasn’t sure Sir William was serious about having been a field surgeon (something in his tone suggested that it wasn’t the whole truth) Lexi decided to trust him anyway, and held Nikki down during this process.

“Sorry I had to run off on you,” she told Glen.  “It’s been a strange little day.”  She sat on one end of Sir William’s happily threadbare couch with Nikki’s head in her lap.  Nikki was barely there; her face was waxy.  Lexi guessed that she’d probably been close to the edge of exhaustion even before being shot.  Nikki gasped and kicked mindlessly as Sir William squeezed water over her ravaged calf.

“I’ll say,” Glen replied.  “How did she get shot?  And who is she?”  He stood near the doorway, out of the way.  Sir William was dispatching Tinpot to fetch the things that needed fetching, so for the moment Glen was somewhat superfluous.  He desperately wanted to call Molly about the papers that Curve had left him; maybe she had some idea.

“Nikki is a friend of mine.  She was shot by an extremely unfriendly houseguest, whom we’re going to have to evict.  Once that’s done, you and I can have our interview, although there won’t be as much playing in the snow as I’d hope, seeing as how the car collection I thought I had…well, I don’t.”

“That’s okay,” he said.  “William lent me his truck, and I got my car out of the ditch.”

“Delicious!  Well, don’t leave town, okay?”

He held up a hand.  “Promise I won’t.  Can I ask you a question?”

“I am all about questions.”

Glen took a breath.  “Do you know the name David R. Frederick?”

“Um…” she frowned.  “I do know it.  He’s someone…well, of course he’s someone, that’s a silly thing to say.  I think Ian knows him.”

Nikki gave a little cry and sat up, reaching for Sir William’s hands.  She managed to swat the sponge onto the floor before Lexi was able to move with her and hold her back.  “Almost done,” Sir William said patiently.  “We’ll tuck you into bed as soon’s I’m done.”

“No, I have to go back,” Nikki wailed.  “I have to go back.”

“Why?”

“She’ll kill him.  She’ll kill Eddie and then she’ll find you here and kill you too.”

“I wish I knew what was going on,” Glen sighed, thinking of the mysterious clues left by Langdon Quimby and Curve.  Molly had said Ajax had seen weapons in storage, and now something bad had almost certainly happened to Ajax.  There was another leap of logic to be taken here, but he wasn’t sure in which direction it went.

“So do I,” Lexi replied.  “I think there are dead people in my house,” Lexi said as nonchalantly as she could.  She didn’t feel like she’d succeeded, but Sir William and Glen were suitably creeped out by her lack of affect.

Sir William chuckled.  “Of course there are.”

“No, I mean fresh ones, with bullet holes and blood and innards and so forth.  My houseguests seem to be murdering each other.”

The old man’s mirth wasn’t diminished.  “Well, that can be fun, too.”

“I’m glad you’re all taking it so well,” said Glen.  Several concerns wadded themselves up in his head, and he couldn’t voice any of them.

“Sir William has led a strange and wonderful life,” Lexi said.

“What’s your excuse?”

Lexi grinned crookedly.  “Me?  I’m just stupid.”

Glen found his way to a chair and sat down. This was more than he had bargained for, but it seemed worth sticking around, so long as there was no shooting in his vicinity.  “Are we in any danger?” he asked.

“Long as you stay here, I doubt it. Me?  I might be.”

“No,” Nikki rasped.  “You stay here too.”
“I can’t do that.  It’s my house.  I’ll take care of my own vermin problems.”

“I can see why Curve was interested in you,” Glen said.

Lexi took a roll of gauze from Tinpot, and passed it to Sir William, then started as she realized what he’d said. “Curve?  You can see him too?  I knew Curve was real.  Everyone else said he wasn’t, you know.  Did he show up randomly in your car, too?”

Nikki’s eyes were on Lexi.  Sir William offered her two Tylenol and she shook her head, though her eyes were bright with pain.  “You can’t go,” she said. “It’s too dangerous.”

“I only look like a cute widdle kitty because my claws are sheathed,” Lexi said.  “And, it’s still my house,” she added implacably.  “Sir William, can we borrow your truck, please?”

“Without me in it?  I’m afraid that’s going to cost at least a thousand dollars.”

Glen gaped.  “A thousand dollars!  Does she get to–“

Lexi held up her hand to let him know it was okay.  “That sounds fair.  Will you take it in nickels?”

“Milady, that’s absurd,” Sir William said, wheeling himself away from the couch.  “I have two trucks; old and older.  Tinpot, keys.”  The dog vanished into the kitchen and returned a moment later with a big ring of keys.  Sir William took them, praised the dog, and identified the Dodge and International Harvester keys.  “Path to the garage is already clear,” he said.  “Good luck, gallant Alexis,” Sir William said.  “I shall light a candle for your safe return.”

“That’s so sweet.  But what you really ought to do is shut the doors and pretend you’ve been here all night and not seen anyone, in case someone follows our footsteps through the snow.”

“She won’t come here if I’m not here,” Nikki said.

Lexi looked at her for a moment.  “Okay, there’s something else going on here that I don’t understand.”

“They’ll be okay, if I’m not here,” Nikki said again.  She was reasonably sure it was true.  “Let’s go.”

“Wait till you see the garage,” Glen replied.

He was right.  Sir William’s garage–a second, low-roofed barn, actually–was a storehouse for machinery.  The two pickup trucks he’d promised were parked closest to the door.  Looming in shadow beyond them, Lexi could see a backhoe, a skid-steer loader, a Sno-Cat, three antique tractors, an industrial-size woodchipper, a small cement mixer, a trench digger, and even a sewer-vacuum truck on a mid-’60s Ford chassis.  “Oh, wow,” Lexi said.  “And I was his friend even before I knew he had toys.”

“He says they’re mainly for loaning out,” Glen said.  Lexi pulled the door of the early Fifties-vintage International pickup open and he started helping Nikki in.  “He lets people borrow thngs in exchange for getting stuff done around his own land.”

Lexi nodded, and hopped in behind Nikki. 

Glen closed the door behind her and leaned on it.  “I, ah, suppose this is goodbye?”

“I never say that, unless I’m not coming back,” she replied.  The International started on the first crank.  As they pulled out of the garage into the snowy night she gave Nikki a nudge.  “Stay with me.”

“I’m okay,” Nikki said. 

“When we get home, you’re having a nap.  I have some other things to do.”

Glen took her aside.  She couldn’t help but smile at him; he had to be confused beyond all hope of understanding, and he hadn’t run screaming or tried to seize control of the situation yet.  “Are there really people shot in your house?” he asked.

“If Nikki says there are, I believe her.  But I won’t know for sure till I see.  And then I get to throw up, if there are, and I’m really looking forward to that.  But what can I do?  Not go home?”

He nodded.  “What do you need me to do, then?  Should I call the police?”

“How long have you known Curve?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Glen said with a frown.  He wasn’t thrown off by her change of subject, and she liked him for that.  “Four or five years, on and off.”

“I’ve only met him once.  Would he call the cops?”

“I doubt it.”

“Then I suppose I won’t either.”

“Just what I need,” Glen said wryly.  “More friends like Curve.”

“Well, if Ian comes back with a squad of goons bent on committing me, it won’t do much good to have corpses about.  We should go.  Can you carry Nikki?”

“I’m okay,” Nikki said doggedly, trying to get to her feet.

“You’re going to bite through your lip before it stops hurting,” Lexi said.  “There are some things you can’t walk off, bulldog girl.”  Glen stepped in to help her, and she didn’t protest.  “I have a knee brace at home,” Lexi said.  “That might help a little.”