Thirty-seven

That evening, Lexi went outside and cleaned the snow off of the vague white hump that was Eddie’s car.  It took him quite a bit of coaxing to get her to come inside to at least put a coat on; the look on his face when he finished made it clear that he planned to leave her to me from then on.  I didn’t bother to remind Eddie that she was supposed to be taking two pills every day, not one, because she didn’t seem to need them.  He just assumed I was giving them to her, apparently.  Soon he was wrapped up in the mini-project of fixing Lexi’s broken VCR.  That took him most of two days, because he had to make his own parts.

Eddie kept in touch with the real world through e-mail, and read about Ile du Soleil.  He watched the documentary, too–that was why he’d fixed the VCR–but I didn’t ask him about it, and he volunteered nothing.  When Eddie was finished with the VCR, Lexi and I dug out her collection of videos, so there were movies to pass the time.  She had close to a hundred movies on video, and we had similar tastes, except that she liked Bruce Willis shoot-’em-ups and Jackie Chan kung fu movies, and I didn’t.  Lexi built a card house out of the videos, then had to rebuild it every time we took one out of the walls to watch something.  She didn’t appear to notice that Eddie was no longer acting like a doctor, and I was kept well-exercised just following her around the house.  She dragged car parts out of the basement, and she had decided to arrange them in the library.  She’d moved boxes of books out of the way to create a car-sized space in the middle, and had an assortment of parts I would have called junk, except they were clearly new.

“Why won’t you eat?” I asked her while she was taking a hot chocolate break in a sunbeam.  The snowstorm had broken for an hour or two, and the sun was dazzling on the white world outside.

“Hm?” Lexi swirled a melting marshmallow on her spoon.  She enjoyed her hot chocolate.  She’d already had two cups.

“I said, why won’t you eat?”

“I’m…not hungry,” she said, immediately losing interest.  “Why won’t you let anyone be your friend? Catholic girls are scary.”

“What?”

She looked away, drifting off into the mist in her mind.  “This film has been modified from its original format to fit your screen,” she said.

“No,” I said a bit more forcefully.  “What did you mean by that?”

“God, Minerva! I was just joking!” she burst out.  I figured out what she was talking about.  We had watched Hudson Hawk earlier.  Bits of dialogue kept spouting out of her instead of coherent conversation, like steam escaping from her mind. 

“I’m going to the kitchen,” I told her.  “Do you want anything?”

“All I told you to do was follow the Hawk.  It’s not like I said ‘teach our nation’s children to read.'”

“I’ll take that as a no,” I said.  I left Lexi to her hot chocolate and car parts.

Eddie was in the kitchen as usual, intent on his e-mail.

“Still busy?” I asked him.

“I’m a busy man,” he said with a smile.  “There aren’t a lot of people who do what I do.  There’s a hundred meetings that never happened going on every day, and someone’s gotta make the hotel reservations for ’em.” He took a sip of his coffee.  “Ian’s coming up this weekend to get some things,” he said.

“Good luck getting in here.”

“I know.  He sent me a message asking if I thought he could get up here in an Explorer, I told him to give it a shot.”

In the other room, Lexi yelled, “Read my lips: Steakburger! French fries?  This is France, right?  You gotta have French fries.”  She couldn’t match the voices, but she had the inflections of the various characters perfect.

“She’s certainly the cutest psychotic I’ve ever met,” Eddie said.

I stifled a smile.  “Why is he coming up here?”

“To pick up some things.  He’s…how do I put it? Adding to Lexi’s trust fund.”

I looked at Eddie for a moment before I understood.  “He’s selling her furniture, isn’t he?”

“That he is.  Makes it easier to sell the house and get her set up closer to Detroit, Poppet ”  He didn’t look at me.

“Don’t call me that.  I thought her trust fund was several million dollars?”

“Out of which, I must add, comes the money that’s going to pay me.”

“Oh, well, if you stand to profit from it, let him go right ahead then.” My sarcasm made Eddie look up at me.  I didn’t feel like an ethical argument so I changed the subject.  “Are you ever going to pay me?”

It was an effective change.  “What for?” I had actually taken him off-guard.

“For all the shitwork I do for you, fat man.  I work for you, don’t I?”

“Free room and board, food, clothing, and travel expenses aren’t good enough for you?”

“Would they be if you were in my shoes?”

Eddie laughed.  He threw his head back and laughed for a long time.  For once he was laughing with me, not at me, and it felt good.  When he stopped, there were tears in his eyes.  “Point, set, and match, Ms. S.  As my grandmother might have said, you are truly a piece of work, Nicole Saxen.  Tell you what.  I’ll set up an account for you, and we’ll work out a pay scale we can agree on.  Direct-deposit, overdraft protection, full electronic access.  You want a health plan too?”

“It doesn’t have to be a lot,” I said.  “I just want to be able to buy things for myself.  CDs and books and things.  I lost my CD player and my CDs a long time ago.  I’d kind of like another one.”

“Tsk-tsk.  You’ve got the upper hand.  No need to backpedal now.” He turned back to his computer.  “Why don’t you just ask me for money?”

“Because I’m a grown woman.” He looked up at me with a comment and I cut him off.  “Even if I don’t look like it.  You’re not my father.  I won’t beg for my goddamn allowance.”

“Point taken,” he said.  “Consider yourself salaried.”

Over Eddie’s shoulder I saw something move outside the window.  There was someone walking out there.  It was Lexi, leaping clumsily through the deep snow for the second time in two days.  I heard myself say, “Oh, fuck me, she’s outside!”

Eddie turned, looked out the window, and sighed with annoyance.  “Well, that’s coming out of your paycheck.” I gave him a look.  “You going to get her or should I?”

I didn’t know why he asked; I knew he had no intention of going and bringing Lexi back inside.  I was already up to get my coat.

When I went out onto the porch, I only saw her tracks in the snow.  They went around the house, toward the kitchen, where we’d seen her from.  I didn’t want to walk in the snow.  It was almost as deep as I was tall.  Leaning off the porch, I called Lexi’s name.  My voice sounded amplified in the snow-quiet woods.

After a moment, she came back around the other side of the house.  She smiled one of her sunshine smiles and waved.

As usual, I couldn’t help but smile back, but I was still angry.  “Lexi, come on back inside, okay?  It’s cold out here.”  My nose was already going numb.

Lexi said, “‘Actually, it’s Rome,’ she said, as if it made a difference.  Are you cold? You look four times bigger in that coat.  It’s cute.  But you should have a hat on,” she said.  She wasn’t wearing a coat or shoes; she was stomping around in socks, sweat pants, and her bathrobe.  She was soaked with snow.  “Jump around in the snow and then go take a hot bath.  You like hot baths too, don’t you?”

“Inside,” I snapped.  “Now.”

“Why won’t you let anyone be your friend?”

“Stop asking me that.”

“Oh, did I ask that before? I can never remember what I said out loud.” Lexi turned and looked out toward the road.  “I need…” she said, then cocked her head, listening.  “There’s a car coming!” She began bounding through the snow toward the road.  She was clumsy; she fell twice, and disappeared completely into the snow.  Both times she sprang right back up laughing and kept going.

I didn’t want to get down off the porch, but I did.  When I descended the steps, the snow came up past my waist.  It was past my knees even if I walked in the path Lexi had broken.  I floundered to the Lincoln and climbed up on the car instead.

I was surprised; there actually was a car coming.  I hadn’t heard it, despite the silence.  An old, wood-sided station wagon struggled through the snow on three wheels.  One of its front wheels was missing.  The corner of the car dug a deep trench in the snow.

Apprehension bloomed suddenly in my heart, and I jumped off of Eddie’s car to begin floundering through the snow toward Lexi.  It was hard work.  I had to fight my way toward the top of the soft snow to take a step, only to sink back down waist-deep as it compacted under my feet.  My progress was measured in a series of desperate jumps forward.  It made my back hurt.

The car slowed to a stop when the driver saw Lexi.  She had jumped up on one of the open gates and was hanging there like a crazed monkey.  Halfway there, I could see that a man and a woman had gotten out of the car.

I tried to move faster.  I fell next to the apple tree in the center of the front yard.  Snow covered me instantly, so cold it burned my skin.  I got up, wishing I had put on my mittens and a hat, wishing I’d bothered to even button my coat.  There was snow up my skirt and down the back of my shirt.  My spine shrieked agony as I stood, and I almost dropped back to my knees.  I took another glance toward Lexi and froze right where I was.  The woman was Taiisha.  She smiled at Lexi, who smiled back at her.  I didn’t recognize the bearded man who got out from behind the wheel.  I was too far away to hear what they were saying.  I threw myself down in the snow again, nursing some stupid hope that Taiisha hadn’t seen me and they’d just drive away.

I told myself it was a silly thing to do, and it was.  My hands and legs got colder, my face wet with melting snow, and in a moment Taiisha was standing over me anyway.  “Took a tumble?” she asked with a mocking smile.  She was speaking in some sort of European accent.  I had known her to fake several in her dealings with other people.

Lexi was there a moment later.  “Oh, dear,” she said.  “I think you need snowshoes, too.”

“I’m okay,” I said.  I didn’t look at Taiisha as I got up, fighting to keep the pain hidden.  No.  No.  No.  She was here, and now she was going to kill everyone because Eddie was still alive. 

Lexi brushed snow off of me.  The man had walked up behind us, and he said hello when Lexi introduced him.  “This is Martin, and his girlfriend Gray.  Isn’t that just the coolest name? Anyway, they have an Estate Wagon problem,” she said.  “I offered them hot chocolate and a free phone call.  They’re entitled to it by law, you know.”

“We were going to try to make it up to Traverse City,” Martin said.  “Figured if the roads stayed snowy we wouldn’t do too much damage.”

“He’s the optimist of the family,” Taiisha added.  She smiled at me.  That smile dared me to tell them that her name wasn’t Gray.

“I could fix that wheel maybe,” Lexi said.  “Buicks are tough.  The rotor and spindle don’t look bent…just packed snow…I wonder if I have a wheel…” She went on like that under her breath, then squatted so only her head was above the snow, considering the car.

I avoided looking at Taiisha.  I knew Martin wasn’t her boyfriend.  But he didn’t look like the lackeys Taiisha usually found and disposed of either.  I wondered who he was.  He was of average height and build, with dark hair and a beard that made him look like someone’s young uncle, but his eyes were older than that.  I looked at him for a long moment, then at Lexi, and then I said, “I’m cold.  I’m going inside.  Are you coming, Lexi?”

She remained in her intent squat, scrutinizing the damage.  “I’ll be in soon, Mizz Nicole Saxen Doctor Sharp’s assistant,” she said.

I wasn’t going to argue with her any more.  My mind was preoccupied with greater threats than Lexi getting frostbite.

It felt good to be indoors.  It made the struggle through the snow worthwhile.  Eddie was still in the kitchen on the computer.  “We have guests,” I announced.  “Lexi found some stray travelers and she invited them in.”

A brief frown was the only indication that he was concerned.  “Recognize them?”

Part of me wanted to tell him that Taiisha was here and she wanted me to kill him, but that thought went unvoiced.  I also didn’t want to lie to him.  I hate lying.  Then the front door opened, and saved me from answering at all.  “Kill the computer, Eddie,” I said instead.

“What happened?”

“Car trouble,” I said.

“Not to them.  To you.  You’re all wet and you’re not moving right.”

He could tell?  “I fell in the snow.  My back hurts.  A lot.”

“From your old accident?” I nodded in reply.  I could almost see Eddie making a mental note to find me a heating pad.  When he knew I was hurting, all of his cynicism and snide sarcasm gave way to a clumsy sort of nursing.  It was as if he thought he’d broken me and had to put me back together before he got in trouble.

Lexi was yoo-hooing her way through the foyer.  One of her cats ran through the kitchen in the direction of her voice.  Eddie closed his laptop, stood up, and rubbed his hands together.  “Do they look right?” he asked.

“I haven’t decided yet,” I said.  It was half-true; I hadn’t decided about Martin yet..  Otherwise, the shit was moving rapidly toward the fan.

Thirty-seven

I spend the day avoiding everyone, with a vague hope that everyone but Nikki will leave.  They don’t of course.  Ian doesn’t come back, either, he’s fled entirely for the hills.  That’s fine.  I’m not really thinking about anything, just moving.  I spend half an hour quietly knocking everything in my room over, on a sudden mission to make it all the same height.  Moving furniture is cathartic, and it’s good thinking-time, too.  This done, I snuggle down in the pile of blankets that used to be on my bed and take a nap, and dream about the weird tiled tunnels again.  When I wake up, I’m thinking of the carriage house and have made a connection.  Or is it a leap of logic?

Either way, I smell tuna.  I wander down to the kitchen, and Nikki has made a cute little tuna casserole.  It feels and smells like a peace offering, and not in a bad way.  There’s no sign of Gray, or of Martin, and only Nikki and Doctor Edward are in the dining room.  The shades are drawn.  My dining room always seems to be the darkest room in the house (not counting the basement) whether the curtains are open or not, though.  There are trees right outside the window, I think that’s why.  Nikki has lit a few candles though, and it’s elegant.  I wonder why it never occurred to me to do that.

Doctor Edward’s got his little laptop computer, and I sit down across from him.  Nikki appears at my elbow like a ghost and puts down a plate of tuna casserole and a glass of orange juice, then sits down a seat away from me.  I notice a big puffy swatch of gauze on her hand and realize that she must have gotten slashed trying to bat my arrow out of the air.  Okay, now I feel terrible.  Getting good and mad is worthless if you hurt the wrong people. 

The room is tense, the way the air gets after there’s been a big argument that’s not resolved yet.  I scrunch up my face, stretching the skin over the swelly spots where Nikki hit me.  It still hurts, but not in an obtrusive way.

I’m in the mood for resolution, though.  The angry-snake has had the shit beaten out of it, but it’s not sleeping by a long shot.  I eat for a while, because it sucks to make food that no one eats and I don’t want to make Nikki feel useless like that, and then I say, “Welcome to my little world.  I am in a very deep sulk now.”  Teague appears from a pocket dimension, jumps up on my lap and sniffs for a handout.  “Not now, James, we’re busy,” I tell him, and twist my hips to dump him off.

Doctor Edward looks up at me and says, “I’d sulk too, if I had chased all my friends away.  Ian was trying to help you, you know.” 

He clearly doesn’t know what a very deep sulk means, in my language.  At the very least, it means, don’t talk back.  I drain my orange juice, which Nikki hasn’t spiked, bless her heart, then wrap my fingers tight around the glass and slam my knuckles into the table so hard that the juice glass shatters.  It’s a horrible, painful outburst that, to be honest, I learned from Alison, and it has the desired effect.  Doctor Edward’s mouth falls open in naked, stupid shock.

While he’s staring at me, I lunge forward across the table and grab his laptop.  The cables pop out when I yank it toward me, and I sidearm it as hard as I can toward the ballroom.  It doesn’t quite make it there, but it does bounce wonderfully off of the wall and then hits the floor with a very satisfying breaking noise. 

“Aw, Christ!” Doctor Edward yells.  “Bitch!  You!  Computer!  Floor!”  Doctors (real and otherwise) are so funny when they’re incoherent.

I tell Nikki, “I’m sorry I shot you,” and she nods.  She doesn’t seem surprised about the computer; she’s looking at my fingers.  I notice that my hand is bleeding, just like hers no doubt was.  Perhaps I’ve paid my karma debt.  “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?”

“You’ll have worse guests than that,” she says.  Worse?  How could the company get any worse than Martin and his homicidal Eurotrash girlfriend?

I’m heading for the front door, through the ballroom.  “Walk with me.”  Along the way I grab a napkin and cram it into my palm.

“Your hand.  A bandage?”

“Don’t need it.” 

“Fucking hell, you’re crazier than she is.”

And we both know who she’s talking about.  “Cuter, too,” I say.  I get my coat out of the closet,  and then find a scarf that looks like Ian’s.  I wrap it around my hand.  “And maybe half as dangerous.”

There’s confusion in Nikki’s blue eyes.  “We’re going outside?”

“Outside,” I repeat.  Somewhere on the top shelf there should be a big red flashlight, there it is.

It’s getting dark, and it’s going to be a freezing evening.  I head straight for the carriage house.  I can hear Nikki following, scrutching through the snow, but I don’t look back.  Inside, I walk around the Packard once, touching it, feeling the cold metal under my fingers.  It feels like possibility.  I imagine the ghosts of four more cars, filling the empty space.  Then I switch on the flashlight and go to the crack in the floor.

I kneel and look into it.  It’s more than just a crack, as I thought.  There’s air coming out of it.  The flashlight’s beam doesn’t touch the bottom.  I stand up and run my foot along the edge of it.

Nikki catches up and looks at me, confused.  “What?” she asks.

I give the big vent in the floor a good, healthy stomp.  Nikki jumps back with a little curse, and the carriage house wall shakes.   Two more stomps, and an eight-foot section of the garage floor vanishes downward, crumbled concrete bouncing and rolling down some slope.  A long slope, from the sound of it.  “Curiouser and curiouser,” I say, thinking of the dream again.  I shine the light into the hole.  The bottom is about eight feet down, and it slopes away to…which way is that?  It’s south.

“You’re going down there, aren’t you?” Nikki asks.  She sounds frightened.

“Maybe.”

“You’re not thinking straight, Lexi.”

“I’m always like this,” I tell her.

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

“Better than butterfly nets.”

“Don’t,” Nikki says. 

“Don’t let anyone take the house while I’m gone,” I say, and jump into the hole.  A short, predictable fall through darkness and there I am, landing on the uneven floor and falling right on my butt.  At least I don’t drop the flashlight.  Either way, ice is hard.  Owie.