Fourteen

Eddie had shooed Nikki out of their hotel room so he could return a call to Antonio Seago.  Eddie said, “Antonio’s one of the guys who finds me jobs.  He lives in Reno,” he added, as if that made some kind of difference.  “I’ll be on the phone for a while; go and do whatever voodoo you do.”

Nikki didn’t complain; she was glad to be away from him.  When Eddie decided he was going to work on something, he worked on it nonstop.  They’d been cooped up all of yesterday and most of today while he slaved away on some electronic project–she had no idea what the mess of wires and circuit boards and plugs was going to do when he delivered it to whoever asked for it, and he wouldn’t tell her.  There was nothing she could do to help, so she was stuck reading.  Eddie paused only to eat and to make other phone calls or check his e-mail.  He had tried to teach her some electronics, but wasn’t patient enough to make her understand today.  By lunchtime today they’d been doing nothing but snapping at each other, yet the work continued until well past dark.  The smell of solder seemed to be permanently adhered to the inside of her nose.  Being sent away was a privilege.

Nikki took her time sorting her clothes.  To be honest, sorting them was only remotely necessary; she was down to three days’ worth, and that was counting everything she was wearing already.  The clothes she’d worn at Prodigy’s house were gone, tossed into a goodwill box by Eddie, “just in case.”

Everything was dirty, but it would have all fit in a single washer even if she stuffed her afghan in.  She used two anyway, so she could start one load while mending the other.  One of her skirts had a big rip in it, and the waistband was coming off again.  There was a bra with a torn strap to be repaired, also.  Nikki wanted to take better care of her clothes, but Taiisha made it difficult.

She dug in her bag for her sewing kit.  Mending was comfortable mindless work.  Nikki was happy to occupy herself with stupid prosaic thoughts, like deciding between Burger King or Subway for a midnight snack  (Eddie had treated her to yet another room-service dinner, but that had been about two hours ago.).  It was nice to think about little things like that.

A more pressing problem was the cold.  The warmest thing Nikki had was her sweatshirt.  She hadn’t expected to be dragged back east, ever.  Actually, she hadn’t even thought about wintertime when she had run away.  She checked the clock on the wall, even though she knew it was too late to go and buy or steal a coat.  It was almost eleven, in fact.  It was also the first week of November.  It was freezing.  Nikki sighed, finished reattaching the elastic to her skirt (had it really been new once? it seemed so long ago), looked at it, decided it was good, and dropped it into the wash.

There was a small pile of makeup in her bag; an accumulation of lipsticks, eyeshadows, eyeliners, and mascaras that had slipped into her sleeves in drugstores from Sacramento to here.  Another pleasant luxury of being away from Taiisha was the chance to wear makeup, to dress up, to not look like a Dickens orphan for a while.  She spent a little while trying on lipsticks, most of them in shades of maroon or purple.  There was a silver-blue one, too, but that was just silly.  There was no one else in the laundromat; she didn’t even have to feel self-conscious.  The ones she didn’t like she put on the table, for whoever came along and was brave enough to keep found makeup.

Playing with the lipsticks led to the application of a full face; base, eyeliner and eye shadow, mascara, everything.  It was relaxing, as if she were getting ready for a night on the town–when was the last time she’d done that?  Half an hour later, Nikki looked at herself in the tiny mirror in her hand, then at her reflection in the window, too.  Pale face, blacked-out eyes, and in the end she’d decided to use black lipstick, too.  She needed to do something with her hair, though.  It needed a trim.  For now, she ratted it with her fingers until it stood on its own.  Dyeing it would be fun, too (maybe purple) but Eddie would complain.

The hell with Eddie.  The idea of how he’d react to her with purple hair made her smile, and that was good enough for now.  She found a little tin in her bag that had once held Altoids but was now stocked with jewelry.  Earrings–yet another thing she couldn’t wear around Taiisha.  Nikki put five in her left ear and four in the right, all of them smallish silver hoops.  There was a ring in the tin, too, silver with an oblong green stone, and she slipped it onto her right thumb.  Her mother’s necklace was taken out from its hiding place inside her shirt, so it was visible too.  Nikki looked at her reflection again.  She felt a hundred times happier, thus decorated.  It was easier to face the world looking like this; she’d forgotten how comfortable the virtual armor was.

The washer stopped.  Nikki put her things away and stretched, pressing the small of her back.  It always ached after she’d been sitting for a while, and always would, since she’d broken it in what seemed like another life, long before Eddie or Taiisha.  She opened one of the large-capacity dryers, ridiculously huge for her meager pile of clothes, and put two quarters into the slot.

Nikki dug her clothes out of the washer, tossed them into the dryer, then bent to get a sock she had dropped.  By the time she straightened, Taiisha had crossed the laundromat and reached her.  She seized Nikki by the back of the neck and waistband, yanked and lifted her so that the smaller woman grabbed the dryer’s edge to keep from falling, and then upended her through the door.  Nikki’s heels slammed into the top of the dryer as she went in, and she yelled once before Taiisha slammed it closed.

Nikki thrashed about, rocking the dryer’s barrel, unable to turn over or figure out where the way out had gone, and then she heard the coinbox ratchet as her quarters tumbled into the dryer’s cash box.  She heard Taiisha tap the door once before the dryer started to spin.

Hot, hot, intolerably hot air blew in through the dryer’s honeycomb-holed barrel, from all around, and then there weren’t any directions anymore and Nikki was tumbling over and over, tangled in clothes, banging her head and shoulders and elbows and knees and rolling over her back and hitting her head again, air too hot to breathe filling her lungs.  Sweat had broken out all over her, warm dampness mingling with that of the clothes spinning crazily around her.  Nikki shouted again, hearing her voice echo, almost lost under the sound of the dryer’s motor.  She tried to brace herself on the sides of the rolling dryer barrel but found it too hot to touch, and suddenly rolled up against something vertical.  Nikki opened her eyes; it was the back of the dryer.  She rolled sideways, tumbling with the dryer’s spin, in an effort to orient herself.  She was dizzy and rolling over and over and the heat made it worse.  She was up against the back of the dryer, though.  Nikki kicked out with both legs, hoping the dryer wasn’t more than five feet deep.

It wasn’t.  The door crashed open, bouncing off of the wall and cracking its porthole.  Cycle broken, the barrel slowed to a stop.  Nikki thrust herself out feet-first and hit the floor, unsteady but waiting for Taiisha.  She hadn’t seen the woman, but who else would have thrown her in a dryer?

The laundromat was empty; not even a counter attendant.  “I’m going to do it!” she yelled at the room full of indifferent machines.  “I’m going to fucking do it!  I just need more time!”

If Taiisha was still there, she didn’t respond.  Nikki dropped back into the chair she’d been sitting in.  Her hands were shaking, and she clenched them to make it stop.  So much for forgetting about her problems for a few hours.

Fourteen

Lexi was so excited and pleased about the Packard in the garage that she ate breakfast.  Dr. Zheng was already up, and didn’t seem to notice that she was coming in from outside rather than from her bedroom.  He did notice when she opened the cabinet and poured herself a bowl of cereal, though.

“Good morning, Lexi,” he said, trying and failing to act as if he weren’t shocked, as if she’d stop if he made a big deal about it.  He did make a note in his journal.  He made lots of notes in his journal.  Sometimes she wondered if he was going to write a whole book about her.  She didn’t care right now, though, because she was happy about the car and in the mood to eat.  Breakfast, and then she’d go for a drive.  A very nice morning indeed.

She slid into a chair across from him.  “So this is Paris,” she said, and shoveled a heaping spoonful of heavily-honeyed Rice Chex into her mouth.

“Actually, it’s Michigan,” Dr. Zheng said patiently.  “You’re in your house in Michigan.”

“I’ve been here before.  I think it was in a dream…”  Dr. Zheng said some other things to her, but she was tuning him out by then; her thoughts had moved past breakfast already.  At some point she was given a glass of nasty juice, and had to drink the honey-flavored milk that was left in her cereal bowl to wash away its bitter taste.

After eating she got up and went up the staircase next to the fridge, the one that led directly to her room.  Her intent was to take a shower, but by the time she’d made it to her room the pill had begun to put fuzz on everything.  Lexi sat on her bed for a moment (Malice, Nance, and Amy-Ann were all in it), which turned into almost an hour.  She had a waking dream that she had fallen out of an airplane and was tumbling slowly through the clouds, which were all pink.  Some of them purred as she went past them.  What was she planning to do, once she got to the ground?  Go for a drive, that was it.

The thought of driving spurred her back to her room, to the here and now, if that was what you could call it, and Lexi was suddenly a swirl of manic activity, rushing back and forth about the room, throwing on clothes (and simply throwing others) until she had a pleasing outfit.  On this day, that meant black jeans (which had been tighter the last time they’d been on, it seemed), a red turtleneck under a black T-shirt under an expensive red designer shirt that had belonged to Ren under a big bright yellow jacket, her yellow Doc Martens, and a black cloche hat to top it all off.  If she concentrated hard enough she could almost see the colors of her clothes.  Almost.  Cygnet had left a “cheer-up” mixtape for her, and she played it loud-ish.  She sang while she dressed, and attempted to dance a little bit, too, but fell down twice.

Zheng listened to Lexi sing and jump about while he wrote; her voice carried down the stairwell.  He wished that he’d have thought to bring a tape recorder, so he could remember the things she said, to better analyze them later.  At the moment she was singing in a distinct, nasal voice:  “Six-foot-two and rude as hell, I’ve gotta get him in the ground before he starts to smell…”

She seemed to enjoy juxtaposing violent imagery with her generally cheerful mien; there was a lot of anger in her, judging by that, the violent movies she enjoyed watching, and the horrific novels that lined her bookshelves.  She wouldn’t talk about the source of her anger, but Zheng had made the obvious connection that it stemmed from Ren’s death, and she was entering (or deep into) the anger phase of her grief.  That it always manifested itself as malice toward fictional characters was interesting.  He expected her to displace onto him, because he was convenient, but she was more likely to bang her own head against the wall than to lash out at him.  And if the images she enjoyed reciting for him were any indication, that was a good thing.

“We had our words, a common spat…so I kissed him upside the cranium with an ‘luminum baseball bat, my name is Mud!” she sang.  Definitely full of malice…wait.  Zheng flipped backward through his notepad.  One of her cats was named Malice, wasn’t it?  Yes, there was the list of their names.  And she clearly hadn’t renamed it after Ren had died.  He smiled to himself.  Yet another wrinkle to the puzzle.  Lexi’s peculiar mixture of disconnection from the real world and attention details was something he’d never encountered before.  Although she had no mental retardation to speak of, Zheng had watched Lexi recite from memory entire movies that she’d seen days ago, and that was the sort of thing that he’d only seen in autistic patients.  As far as he knew, Lexi didn’t have an eidetic memory, either.