Four

They took the dead couple’s Pontiac minivan.  Nikki didn’t even know their names.  Glancing out the back window, she couldn’t see any sign that the cheerful suburban house was burning from the inside out.

Ten miles out of town, they pulled into the hotel parking lot where Taiisha’s black Thunderbird had been parked overnight.  After switching cars, Taiisha got on the freeway, headed west, and let Nikki sit with her thoughts for four hours.  They were both content with the silence.  When they entered California, Taiisha spoke.  “You have a new kill to make,” she said.  “We’re going to San Francisco.”

Nikki took a long, slow breath, let it out.

Taiisha said, “His name is Edward.  He’ll have you do a job.  Do the job, then finish him.  It won’t take long.  A day or two.”

Nikki slitted her eyes.  “Another innocent, or did you hire him as prey, too?”

Taiisha resisted the urge to bang the girl’s head against the dashboard; she knew Nikki would do as she was told, but the sarcastic tone in her voice was intolerable.  But it wouldn’t do to have her show up bleeding and bruised.  “It’s a surprise to him,” she replied. “He won’t expect it.  I’ll be close.”  When she glanced, the girl’s midnight blue eyes were on her.

“What’s the job?”

Taiisha shrugged.  “Whatever it is, do it.”

“How do you know he’ll want me for it?”

“Let him see your beautiful sleight.” Taiisha knew Edward was looking for a thief, and Nikki’s fingers were phenomenally light.  “He’ll be on the wharf.  Pick some pockets.  He’ll see you.  Make him catch you.  He’ll work for it.  Maybe he’ll make you his apprentice.  Maybe he’ll partake of your trim little snatch for a few hours.  Go with him and do his work.  Then do yours.”

“What does he look like?”

“He’s fat.  Blue eyes.  Insipid smile.”

“Why am I killing him?”

“None of your business.  Do as you’re told.  I put your knife in your sack for you.”

Nikki could hear Taiisha’s patience running out.  The conversation was over, unless she wanted to be hit.  She was unaware that Taiisha had already decided not to hit her.  Nikki clutched her bag tighter and closed her eyes.  She couldn’t sleep this close to Taiisha, but a new facet of this game occurred to her and she hid it behind her eyelids.  She would have time away from her self-appointed mentor.  If she was doing a job for this ‘Edward,’ whatever it was, and it was a cover for his assassination, that meant that Taiisha couldn’t appear and attack or frighten her with impunity.  She had no doubt that the woman driving the car could find ways to work her “lessons” in from time to time, but there would also be times–maybe even hours on end–where Taiisha wouldn’t be able to appear without destroying Nikki’s cover.  She might have days of freedom.  No eyes on her back.  No sleep shortened by training exercises and mindgames.

Nikki suddenly wanted, more than anything, to run a hot bath and soak in it for an hour.  Even if there had been a bathtub in Taiisha’s tiny house (there was only a shower stall), she wouldn’t have risked having her head shoved underwater for three minutes again.  Being dunked in the stream had been bad enough.  Nikki had chanced the shower a few times, but it was an enclosed space with only one exit.  No place was even a temporary safe haven near Taiisha, except maybe for unconsciousness.  Nikki hadn’t had more than a hasty sponge bath over the sink in four months.  She could feel the dried sweat and accumulating grime on her skin.  She hated it.  She’d never get used to it.

They didn’t speak again until they reached San Francisco shortly after two in the afternoon.  Taiisha drove straight to the waterfront.  She stopped at the cluster of shops and tourist attractions at Pier 39.  She looked at Nikki, knowing it was the last time she’d see the girl for a few days.  Sad to part with her, but the things she would learn were more than worth it.  Nikki was past the most uncertain part of her molding.  Taiisha had no fear for her.  She kept her feelings behind the mask that was her face.  “Do,” she said, and turned her eyes away from Nikki.

Nikki got out of the car.  Taiisha was rolling before the door closed. 

She moved straight into the crowds, pretending to ignore the black Thunderbird but watching intently out of the corner of her eye as the car moved off down the block.  Nikki moved quickly through the throng, making a beeline to the nearest bathroom.  She wanted to wash her hands and face.

At the door she froze.  Taiisha could still come back for her.  No dawdling, then.  It was better to find Edward and get it over with.  Nikki paused with her hand on the door, then turned reluctantly away from it, facing the happy, colorful tourist trap with grimy hands (some of the streaks were blood) and greasy hair.

The lunchtime rush should have been over, but the shops and restaurants were crowded, mostly in small family units or pairs.  Why was it so busy?  The air was cool, actually, too cool to be high summer.  Jesus, she didn’t even know what fucking month it was.  Taiisha didn’t keep clocks in the tiny desert cabin she and Nikki stayed in, and there were no seasons.  When was it?  Nikki guessed that Taiisha had had her in that torture cell for at least eight months.  She could find out easily; she needed a newspaper for picking pockets anyway.

It took her a few minutes to find a discarded USA Today.  The date she saw made her stagger to the closest wall and sit down.  It was October.  Taiisha had kidnapped her in July.  But the year, the year was wrong, the paper said it was 1996, how could she have been traveling with that woman for two years?  It wasn’t possible, was it?  She hadn’t seen television or read a newspaper in two years?  There had been a lot of lessons, a lot of bad things, and it had seemed like a long time, but two years?  Nikki closed her eyes, wanting the awful thought to go away.  It did, but more rushed in to fill its place, and everything kept coming back to her life.  Two years.  Gone.  She was almost twenty.  The ages of eighteen and nineteen were just gone.

Nikki jumped up and ran to the bathroom.  She didn’t care if Taiisha was watching this time; she was going to be sick.  The door crashed against the wall when she hit it, and she bent over the sink and retched.  Nothing came up.

Nikki looked at herself in the mirror, at her dirt-smeared face and grimy clothes.  The stains on her shirt were maroon in spots.  Jesus, she was covered in blood.  She spent a few minutes washing her face, using a lot of hand soap and a lot of towels.  She wet her hair down as well, to get some of the dust out, and dried it under the hand dryer, ignoring the stares she got from the women who came and went in the meantime.  When the bathroom was empty again, Nikki ducked into a stall, took off her shirt, and exchanged it for a cleaner one from her bag.  When she returned to the mirror again, the woman looking back at her was a bit more familiar.  She was still two years older than she wanted to be, but she couldn’t get the time back.

Fuck it.  Her life was gone anyway.  All that mattered now was doing what Taiisha had told her to do.  Doing.  That was all.  Nikki left the bathroom and scanned the crowd.  She didn’t see anyone particularly remarkable, and no one paid her any mind either.  No fat men with insipid grins. 

In spite of the knot in her stomach (two years?), her shoulders felt lighter, knowing that Taiisha wasn’t watching.  She briefly entertained the notion of turning away from the pier, of running down the sidewalk and trying to lose herself in San Francisco, but she couldn’t convince herself Taiisha wouldn’t find her.  There was nothing to do but her task.  A few days’ freedom was enough of a gift, for now.  What did it matter?  She’d lost two years.

It was easy to lose herself in picking pockets.  There was a thrill in it, a constant challenge to choose the right target, to choose the right moment.  Nikki didn’t always select the easiest targets.  Better to look for people who needed the poetic justice: the stern-looking man dragging a child by one arm and screaming at his wife at the same time, for instance, or the fat woman who tossed a half-full tray of nachos on the ground ten feet from a trash can.  Only the first four wallets disappeared into the depths of her bag, however.  Nikki needed the cash.  After that, she picked pockets without robbing anyone.  She took wallets out of purses and pockets–then put them right back.  She did it quickly enough that anyone watching would think she’d lifted them.  It made a good way to follow Taiisha’s orders and still live with herself.  It was a delicious challenge, too.  Nikki found herself actually almost having fun, before long.

A hand fell on her shoulder.  There seemed to be a direct connection from the hand to her mind, because a male voice asked her in the same instant, “How much have you gotten today?”

Four

My toes clench tighter.  I’m not sure there’s any way for this to end without ugliness, probably the metal-bending kind.  I’ve been wrong before, but this looks bad and it’s all happening too quickly to process.

The big truck lays on the horn.  The limo is alongside Ren and going way too fast for the turn when he realizes his mistake, and swerves into Darkside.  I see Ren’s brakelights flash, but there’s no hope; the big Lincoln crowds him right off the road and into the guardrail.  They both go through it and vanish into darkness.

That’s all I have a chance to see and I don’t really have time to consider it, because my trailer is still coming around, crossing the centerline.  I hear the truck’s horn again and try to gather Deus up, but it’s no good, it’s too late.  I see the truck go past in a blur of yellow lights and feel the impact a heartbeat later as it plows into the jack-knifing trailer and tears it open like a sardine can, smacks it back the other direction.  The impact is monstrous, like a tornado striking inches from me.  The impact wants to spin my truck around as well, to tear it off the ground and throw it into the woods if it can.  I’m already steering Deus into the mess and getting off the brakes so I can have a hope of navigating this turn and not following the limo and Darkside off the edge, and somehow I do it, trailing sparks and smoke.  There’s a ditch involved in there somewhere, too, and saplings that whip mercilessly against the truck’s sides, against the floor from beneath.  I can’t see anything, the lights are bouncing too much and I am too, I’m just steering by feel, trying to go where I remember the road was, and soon I’m bouncing on pavement instead of dirt.  What’s left of the trailer pogos up down and sideways.

I get the truck stopped with the help of the guardrail’s remains and some shrubbery, and throw the door open.  I hear angry water flowing somewhere–a river, nearby, off in the woods.  Our trailer is torn apart, both left-side wheels gone and the whole thing yawning open like a shattered mouth.  The show car’s a writeoff, it’ll never be rebuilt in time for the magazine shoots, goddammit, and pieces of our display are scattered all over the road and before I can give that any significant thought and in that moment before the adrenaline hits me I

FEEL

HIM

DIE.

It feels exactly like fingers thrust through fragile linen and yanked downward look.  All of the texture goes out of the world in that moment.  The colors, the smells, the tastes, the sensations, I feel every one of them go, the moment he dies–not with a whoosh but with a bone-deep, drawn-out scrrrape–he’s dead, he’s really dead, there’s not the merest widge of hope that Ren survived that crash, I don’t even need to see, it’s not simple panic or paranoia, just cold hard reality:  he’s dead.  D E A D.  Gone forever.  They say it takes time for that realization to sink in, but I know it immediately, I must, that’s why I’m suddenly on my knees on asphalt and judging by the pain in my throat I’m making some kind of noise but I can’t hear that, either.

Everything gets kind of funny after that.  Something passes, a day, a minute, a week, I’m not sure which.  It’s like flipping from picture to picture on a View-Master; some unseen cosmic thumb presses down on a lever–swish-click–and I flip from one happy frozen scene to the next, with no annoying transitions in between.  Is there any connection between them?  It doesn’t really matter does it?

Well, does it?

Swish-click.  I’m sprawled on the floor in a police station, back against the wall knees together feet apart hands in hair, and I’m staring at the speckly pattern on the floor and I can’t stop thinking:  this day was not supposed to end like this.

I suppose I’m waiting to die.  Ren is gone; there’s no sense in my remaining in this world any longer.  I stare at the speckles on the floor and wait patiently for my heart to stop.

But it doesn’t.  It goes right on beating, the stupid thing, and there’s a nice clean-shaven police officer trying to ask me questions about what happened.  Apparently the truck driver died too, leaving a bunch of wrecked cars and only myself to tell the story.  I raise my eyes as far as his shoes and stare at them. 

Swish-click. I’m at home, and everything is in black and white.  Someone is there–it’s Molly.  She’s talking to me, but I’m not hearing her exactly, and I don’t care to, even though she’s my friend, a member of my most secret committee.  I look up into her face, which is almost perfectly heart-shaped and yet in the right light she looks like an Italian Betty Boop, if such a thing is possible.  Someone else is there, too, a gray, blurry face just beyond my field of vision.  There’s a small spongy ball in my hand.  It feels kind of like a muffin.  It is a muffin.  Judging by the crumbs on the floor and the lack of taste in my mouth I’ve been shredding it, not eating it.

Swish-click.  I’m in bed.  I like it in bed. I can close my eyes when I’m in bed.

Swish-click. I’m outside again.  I can almost feel something–warmth, on my head.  The sun.  Is it a nice day?  I look up, and see black suits all around.  There’s a flash of green grass, of red flowers, and then I see Molly again, looking less like Betty Boop today.  Beyond her is Cygnet, another member of my secret committee.  Cygnet always looks like that kid in Terminator 2, even when her hair is done up and she’s wearing a black dress and makeup, which is strange because Cygnet is the queen of the tomboys, assuming that I’m not, and I didn’t think she even owned a black dress.  Wonder of wonders, she’s wearing hose and heels, too.  Beyond Cygnet is Ian, who’s more Ren’s friend than mine, and then beyond him after a distance is the hearse and when I see that the colors all go away again.

Swish-click.  I’m in a courtroom.  People are talking.  I can sort of hear them; every time Ren’s name is spoken my ears seem to perk up.  I’m very, very hungry.  Ian is here again, talking to a man with a white beard.  Danny Packard is here, and he’s glaring at me and grinning like a monkey.  Danny always grins like a monkey.  He’s Ren’s younger brother, with the same bright green eyes (which look gray right now) and angular build but with a more simian face.  Apparently lots of women find that toothy jaw and strong brow thing attractive; I think he looks like a monkey wearing a human suit.  They’re talking about money.  Everyone is arguing about money.  It goes on and on, and I wish I wasn’t here.  Then there are microphones and cameras like glass eyes and people behind them yelling about Ren’s money, about our money, and I can’t get away from them.  The world’s doing that shuddery, too-alive thing, all the edges blurry and electrified  and Ren’s not here to make it better and I can’t tell which way to go.  Someone’s pushing me forward, into the microphones, and I feel as though I’ll be impaled on them if I keep going, but they won’t let me stop.  Voices keep yelling and yelling, yelling my name, yelling at me to look over here, over there, yelling Ren’s name, and then I start screaming.  I can’t go forward any more, don’t even know exactly when it was I stopped walking and started sitting on the hard hard ground because it doesn’t matter, I’m sure as hell not walking NOW, and I can’t stop screaming once I get started either.  Not even when it starts to hurt.  Someone picks me up by the elbows, and I smell acetone for just an instant.  Don’t stop screaming, though.

Swish-click.  Bed again.  Bed is nice.  There’s a cat on the bed with me.  I kick the covers off.  They remind me of Ren, and I don’t want to think about him.  Unfortunately I don’t want to not think about him either.  It’s easier to sleep.  So I do.

Swish-click. I’m underwater, in the bathtub.  It’s nice down here, quiet and warm, fetal.  Bubble bath above my head and warm below, warm all around, only my knees in the open air.  A hand grabs my hair and suddenly I’m up in the cold and loud again, Ian’s yelling my name and wanting to know what I was thinking, goddammit.

Swish-click. Wasn’t Molly here?  I thought she was.  No Lexi she left yesterday.  Hm, that’s funny.  I could swear my sister Alison was here, too, but she died when I was eleven.  I’m sure she was here, though.  I should ask Ren what he thinks of that.  Oh my God I can’t, he’s dead too. I hear someone start to cry, and realize that it’s me. 

Swish.  I wake up and wonder if I’ve lost my mind.  That doesn’t mean much though, I’ve wondered that before.  I am wrapped in a cloud that would be pink if I could still see colors, which I can’t.  It feels pink though, if that makes sense.  I like the cloud.  It blocks out the confusing things, and I can concentrate on being in bed, which I also like.  Very pleasant.  Ian is here again, and he smiles and pats my hand.

Click.  I find myself flying…

Inside outside upside down and backwards then sinking somewhat sideways into bed and up again.  It’s too warm for blankets, and I kick them off.

Am I awake?

Yes, I am, I’m awake and alone.  The room spins around my head once, twice; nothing wants to stay in focus.  I feel more awake than I have been in a while.  For a few minutes, I think that maybe I’ve been having a horribly unpleasant dream, but then I realize that the bedcovers are on the floor and Ren is still dead.  That’s disappointing.  I could go back to sleep, but something doesn’t want me to just right now, so I squint to focus and see what it is. 

It’s a woman.  No, it’s three women.  More specifically, it’s two women and a vague bipedal smear which I somehow know is a woman.  They aren’t in color, nothing is, but it seems like they should be blue, so I assume that they are.  They’re the kind of blue that comes right before dawn, right before you can see anything and yet I can see them in the dark.  They’re glowing, that’s why.  Glowing?  That makes no sense, but then to be honest, nothing makes much sense, not since we left the auto show.  The Great Big View-Master of Life takes over without my even asking it to: Swish-click: slide straight from the Jacob Javits Center in New York City to the woods in Vermont.  Swish-click: shattered taillights going under my tires, a limo and Darkside going over a cliff, the concussive WHAM as a semi truck clips my trailer and the world falling out from under me a moment later.  Swish-click: courtrooms.  Swish-click: arguments. Swish-click: microphones in my face.  Swish-click: running.  Swish-click: falling upstairs, falling downstairs, someone lifting me by the elbows.  Swish-click:  concrete stairs and swish-click me in the bed all alone alone swish-click swish-click swish-click swish-click okay okay okay DON’T GO THERE LEXI. Don’t think about him.  Don’t, don’t, don’t.

I’ll stop, I’ll stop, that’s not a good place to be.  I’ve already been there a lot.  Ren is there, but not in a good way.  I want to stay here.  At least for now.  My wrist itches.  I touch it and feel a scar that lots of people assume is from a suicide attempt.  My friends know otherwise–it was a mountain bike incident.

So then.  Where’s here?  I’m not immediately sure.  What’s here?  Three women, glowing.  Cat on the foot of the bed.  On my feet.  Warm.  My cat.  Yes, her name is Malice.  Pretty black cat, or she would be black if anything had any color.  Inventory note:  everything is gray.  Bed.  Toes under cat.

The room is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.  I try to think about it but my thoughts tumble into goo at the bottom of my brain (which would be pink if anything had colors, the goo I mean, not my brain) and stay there, and the feeling isn’t entirely unpleasant.  My brain is moving far too slowly.  I can tell it’s not working right, but something in the not-rightness of it makes it hard to care one way or the other.  Everything collapses into goo, if I think about it too long.  Is this room mine…?  Yes, but something isn’t right.  I’m alone, that’s what’s wrong.  And I’m alone why?  Swish-click, swish-click…oh, look, I’m back there again.  Don’t like that.

The silence is important.  The cool blue shimmering woman-shapes move, and I want to move with them.  I feel like they want me to follow also.  Well, fine, then I will.  Malice jumps off the bed, annoyed, as I move my feet.  My body falls into unfamiliar warmish air and down onto the floor, where I end up with dust in my mouth, hair and nose.

My hair is too long.

I push the floor away from me.  It dances obediently down, rolling out from under me at a strange angle, writhing, forcing its way under my feet.  I am vertical.  Haven’t been vertical in a while.  How long?  That question is lost in more pink-feeling goo, which isn’t such a bad thing on second thought.  The ceiling is closer than it needs to be.  I am farther up than I have been in a while, yes.

So…is there a door?  There is, and it’s closer than I expect it to be.  I have no depth perception.  The door is distant, then it looms huge, too close.  It’s partway open.  I concentrate and dodge through it as the floor tilts under me again.  Walking is like standing on a surfboard.

I make it through the narrow, wavery space, just barely brushing the edges.  The hall is silent, too.  I recognize this hall.  I’m in my house, which makes sense considering that I just came out of my room.  Am I alone here?  Other than the two glowing women and the smear who is also a woman, that is.  They’re ahead of me, and they disappear around an empty gray wood corner.  They’re not touching the floor.

That’s because they’re dead.  I’m pretty sure I knew that already, on some level.  They’re dead the same way Ren is dead.

Does that mean I’m dead?

I don’t think that it does.

The ghosts want me to go downstairs, but there’s nothing down there except the kitchen and a whole lot of rooms, none of which have Ren in them.  I don’t want to go downstairs.  I turn around and go back into my room.