Thirty

Lexi looked much different than I expected.  When Eddie told me her name, the picture I formed from it must have been influenced by the proximity of the affluent theatergoers crowding Miss Saigon; I pictured a willowy, green-eyed blonde in her early thirties, a perfect American glamour queen.  I knew my preconception had no basis in anything other than my own prejudices, but I was surprised anyway when I turned around and saw Lexi for the first time.

She wasn’t much older than me.  Her hair was almost as dark as mine, except for white streaks bleached in it here and there, and her eyes were brown and muddy with inactivity.  I thought that her face would have been beautiful if it weren’t so blank and gaunt.  She was wearing a fuzzy yellow sleepshirt with a Japanese-animation cat on it, and her hands were clasped in front of her, playing with one another.  My hands do that sometimes, too.

Lexi looked surprised to see me.  She stood there and blinked a couple of times as if she were trying to think of something to say.  She probably didn’t know Dr.  Zheng was being replaced.  I spoke first, since she hadn’t said anything yet.  I put on my best professional voice.  “Hello, Miss Crane.  I’m Nicole.” I prefer Nikki but Eddie suggested that to most people the name Nikki conjured images of a mindless bimbo, and he’d know.  I introduce myself as Nicole when I want to be thought of as anything else.  “I’m Dr.  Sharp’s assistant.  We’re going to be replacing Dr.  Zheng.”

Lexi’s hands kept playing with one another.  I could see my words swirling lazily into her brain like water down a clogged drain.  When they all got there, she smiled.

I had never seen a smile like hers.  The blankness in her face disappeared for just a moment, and it was like all of the happiness in the world was channeled through Lexi.  It was the visual equivalent of a baby’s giggle, a bolt of pure sunshine.  I couldn’t help but smile back.  Usually other people’s smiles don’t affect me.  Lexi’s was so wonderful I wasn’t even surprised that it did.

It didn’t last long.  As soon as the smile was gone, the curtain dropped back down over her eyes.  “Welcome…to my little winter wonderland,” she said.  “That would make me…Alex.” She paused in the middle of speaking, as if she’d forgotten what the rest of her sentence was.  Lexi stared through me for a moment.  God, she was stoned.  Whatever Ian and his doctor had given her, it slowed her down enough to keep her from going to the mailbox, let alone finding sufficient presence of mind to kill herself.  She had asked for this? “Alex in Wonderland,” she said finally.  She leaned against the wall.

“Is that your full name?” I asked.  I tried not to be patronizing, but I didn’t know how coherent she was behind her wall of narcotics.

Another pause.  Lexi straightened a little bit, looked over my shoulder, then at me.  “No.  No, no, no.  My full name…is Alexis Andrea Victoria Margaret Corinne Crane.” She pressed her lips together in an expression of pride.  “I have enough names for a…” She started into the kitchen mid-pause, and went to the refrigerator.  She opened it as if it were a bank vault’s door.  “I want some juice,” she said.  Lexi stared into the fridge for a moment, focusing on the pitcher she wanted.  She grabbed it with both hands, as if it were trying to move away from her, and hauled it out onto the counter.

She was going to end up dropping the thing.  I put my sketchpad back in my bag and got up to help her.  “Where are the glasses?”

“I don’t know…a box.  Some box.  Somewhere…” There was a glass in the sink, so I washed it out and poured some orange juice for her.

Eddie and Dr.  Zheng came back into the kitchen then.  “This place is amazing, Poppet,” Eddie said. “You’re gonna–oh, hello,” he said upon seeing Lexi.  “I’m Edward,” Eddie said to her.  His full name sounded more respectable too.  “Edward Sharp.”

“Doctor Sharp,” Ian said.

She stared at them both, slowly putting it together in her mind.  “Mister Doctor…Edward Sharp,” Lexi repeated.  She said each word carefully, turning it into a little cadence.  She didn’t seem to notice when Ian introduced me at all, and kept repeating “Mist-er Doc-tor Ed-ward Sharp” to herself.

“Are we all set, then?” Dr.  Zheng asked.  He sounded like he couldn’t wait to get out of the house.

“I want…to go to sleep,” Lexi said.

“In that case, I should be away fairly soon.  It’s a long drive back to Farmington Hills.” I remembered the name of that town.  He lived close to Birmingham, close to the Prices, the distantly related family that had fostered me.  If they still lived there.  I doubted they’d moved.  Dr.  Zheng would have fit right in in Birmingham, too.  I decided that was probably what I didn’t like about him.  My judgments of people aren’t always fair, but at least I know where they’re coming from.  “Do you want something to eat, Lexi?”

Lexi drained her glass of juice and banged it on the counter.  She wobbled a little off-balance when she did so, and had to put a hand out to steady herself.  “I’m…going back upstairs now.  I’m tired.”  She turned on her heel and disappeared through a door next to the refrigerator.  Nikki had assumed it was a pantry, but it opened to reveal a dark, dusty staircase going up. 

“Where the hell does that go?” I said, mostly to myself.

“To her room,” Eddie said.  “There are halls and passages everywhere.  It’s a funhouse.”

“Pardon me if I fail to squirm with excitement.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you squirm with anything.  You’re the classic picture of an ice princess.  You could be Russian royalty, for Christ’s sake.”

I actually found that flattering.  “I think my mother was a quarter Russian,” I said.

“Okay, then.” Dr.  Zheng said.  “She hasn’t eaten anything today, that I know of.  I haven’t had much luck getting her to eat.” I looked at him, sort of surprised that he was so clueless about her.  I imagined that if he didn’t talk to her like she was a goddamn puppy, she’d have been happy to eat.

Ian smiled patiently.  “We’re going to head out,” he said.  “Sounds like the weather has gotten pretty hairy down south.  Detroit is looking at two feet tonight, and more tomorrow.”

“Shit!”  Eddie said.  “You sure you’re going to make it?”

“We don’t know if we don’t try,” Zheng said.  He headed for the door.  Ian shared another glance with Eddie, who shook his head slightly.  I wasn’t as good a judge of people as Eddie, but even I could tell that doctor was pissed off beyond measure, and needed a heaping helping of mollifying.

I had that sense of being watched again, as if Lexi had gone around the corner and was listening to Eddie and Zheng talking about her like she was a dog.  I looked out the window, then into the dim dining room adjacent to the kitchen.  There was no one in either location.  I went and looked into the dining room, squinting at the shadows.  Nothing there either.

As I came back, Eddie looked at me with eyebrows raised, and I shook my head slightly.  I sat at the table across from him.  “So what’s his deal?  Is she going to come after us with a steak knife, or what?”

“I’m just going to wait and see,” Eddie said, straightening his tie.  “How’s the larder?”

“The doctor was right,” she said.  “We need food.  And I need warmer clothes.  Where are we sleeping?”

“There are four bedrooms upstairs.  Lexi’s is on one side, and ours are on the other.  You can have the tall canopy bed.”

“God, you’re so great to me.”

That made him smile.  He had apparently built up an immunity to sarcasm long before meeting me.  “You want to do the groceries, or should I?”

Eddie usually had a cup of coffee and sometimes a sweet roll for breakfast, and maybe one other meal during the day.  He would buy thirty TV dinners and a box of donuts and be happy.  I, on the other hand, ate half again as much and at least twice as often as he did.  If I wanted to eat, I had to do the shopping, even though I was tired, and I was reasonably sure that he knew this.  “I’ll go,” I said.  “And I have a question.”

Eddie lifted up a corner of my bag curiously.  He saw my sword under there, nodded in recognition, and pulled it out.  The overhead light flashed on the chrome.  Eddie looked at his reflection, then turned the sword around in his hand and said, “Shoot.”

“Are we doing anything except babysitting a grown woman?”

“Not a thing.  I told you it was a vacation.” He grinned that stupid Eddie-the-troubleshooter grin that I hated.  Right now I was more annoyed at him for playing with my sword.

“I don’t think you take vacations.”

“This is as close as I get.  Why’re you so nervous? Didn’t you ever babysit when you were in school?” He pressed the flat of my sword against his cheek.

“No,” I said sarcastically, “all the children were afraid of me.” That wasn’t true.  Before my family died, our neighbors in Albany actually liked for me to babysit because I didn’t spend the whole night on the phone–I didn’t have anyone I wanted to call.

“I bet their parents were, too,” Eddie said.

“Quit it, please,” I said, keeping my voice low.  He always took notice of my concerns.  He said I had good instincts.  The thing that pissed me off was that he didn’t always show it when he was listening to me.  I had to remind myself that he was paying attention, and probably picking up more than I wanted him to.

Eddie laid my sword back on the table with a clatter.  “Don’t worry, Poppet.  I’ve had a busy year, before you showed up, and I want to relax for a while.  Think about how to approach the new year.” 

“Afraid I’m a better troubleshooter than you?” I asked sarcastically.  Eddie furrowed his brow, chewed on the inside of his lip, and looked away from me. He’d been doing that on the exceedingly rare occasions that I managed to cut him to the quick.

“Grocery store,” he said curtly.  I got the keys, took my bag, sketchpad, and sword off of the table, and left without another word.