Thirty-six

The next day was quiet, as if the snow had insulated the house from time itself.  I spent most of the day reading, and found Lexi sitting in her pillow-pile in the TV room late in the day.  There was a small sculpture of tubes, metal and wires next to her; it had been a pile of separate pieces earlier, but now it was all attached.  It looked like some arcane car part, and there were two more exactly like it on the floor in front of her.  Lexi had her knees pulled up to her chin and her eyes closed.  When I asked what she was doing, she raised a hand, urging me to silence.

“Wind fluttering the flue,” she said.

“What?”

“The wind is making noise in the chimney.  Don’t you hear it?” She pursed her lips and made a soft “brr” sound.  I listened, and then heard the noise from the fireplace.  She said, “It’s better to have a papasan chair if you’re going to lay about interpreting sounds and reviewing your various shortcomings, but I can’t seem to find mine.  I’m making do.  Sit with me.”

I sat.  “What are you listening to?”

“Oh, whatever.  The wind.  Cat-noises.  The refrigerator, if you listen carefully.  It’s delightful how noisy this house is when it’s quiet.” As if to punctuate her observation, we both heard Eddie blow his nose upstairs.  Lexi laughed.  “Not exactly pastoral.  I like the wind beating on the walls, though.”

“Sounds like it’s trying to get in,” I said.

“Of course it is.  It’s warm in here.”

“I doubt the wind cares how warm it is.”

“I doubt you ever spend much time thinking about what the wind wants,” she replied.  “What does it want? Warmth? Donuts? World domination? Well that last one is a gimme, everyone wants world domination.”

“I don’t.”

She gave me a look of surprise.  “You don’t?” Her expression changed to amused disbelief.  “Oh, yes you do.  You don’t fool me one bit.  Not an iota.  You’re just as bent on total supremacy as the rest of us.  I mean, aren’t you?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Or maybe you’re like me, concentrating on just getting control of one aspect of reality at a time,” Lexi said.  I looked at her; she had closed her eyes again.  “Anyway, once you’ve subjugated the masses and taught them to live for themselves and never, ever buy anything just because Marketing says they should, it’s all downhill.  So much more fun to be the ever-struggling number two forever, don’t you think?”

She swung from seriousness to nonsense too quickly for me.  “I don’t know, Lexi.  You make me think too much.”

“That’s the idea, my love, my dove.  You keep up better than most.”

“It still makes my head hurt.”

“In the words of the late, great Juha Kankkunen: if it’s not hurting, you’re not getting stronger!”

“Who the fuck’s Juha Kankkunen?”

“He’s a rally driver,” she said absently.  “And I don’t think he ever said that, but that’s just because he didn’t think of it, and he would have said it in Swedish anyhow.”

“He’s not dead, either, is he?”

Lexi smiled.  “No, of course not.”

“Well, I know someone who might agree with you anyway.”

“Ha! See? And I didn’t even have to take her class.  Although to be honest I think I’d prefer the home game.  Hey, don’t you think it’s cruel that they always give the loser on Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune a copy of the home game? As if you’d ever want to play again after being humiliated on national television?”

“Now you remind me of another person I know,” I said.

“Everyone reminds you of someone,” Lexi said.  “But I’m none of them, and I’m here, while they, as far as I know, are not.  So let me have the floor on my own merits, please.”

“I didn’t mean to annoy you.  I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.  I’m not annoyed.  Did I sound annoyed? Oh, dear.  One of my greatest weaknesses is a tendency to make my voice the wrong color.  You’ll have to forgive me.  Well, you don’t have to, but I’d be happy if you did.  Inflections aren’t my strong point.  People always call me angry when I’m not really.”

It made me feel good when she voiced thoughts I knew and understood intimately.  “Me, too,” I said.

“I s’pose it’s a pretty small shortcoming to have overall.  I have no complaints about it.  My only other problem with myself is that I want to have sex all the time.”

I looked at the floor, feeling myself blush, and didn’t say anything.

“I’m not going to run out and boink anything that moves, you know.  Actually I woke up this morning with a huge chip in my panties for Ren.  I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise.  But imagine being crazy horny for only one person in the whole world, and having him be unavailable.  Really unavailable.” She uttered a surprisingly loud laugh, a cackle that had teeth in it.  “Stupid book they gave me–How To Survive the Loss of a Love--doesn’t say anything about hot flashes for the dead.  What do you expect though? It was written in the fifties or something.  But still, you’d think the idea would have crossed their minds.”

I wished she would change the subject, and looked at my hands.  I didn’t want to talk about sex with Lexi.  It felt strange.  It wasn’t because I didn’t know her well enough; more that it felt too much like flirting with her, which felt uncomfortably natural.  I didn’t want to feel like that; I just wanted to be her friend.

She seemed to pick up on my disinterest.  “Anyhow, it made life in my little pink cloud a bit more interesting this morn.  Oop, look, there go the tears.” Twin trails of wetness marked her cheeks.  “It feels so shallow to be crying because I can’t have sex with him.  I don’t like myself very much right now, Nikki.”

“That’s not all you’re crying about,” I said.  My voice was a throaty whisper.  “You know it isn’t.”

“Maybe.  But it’s all I’m thinking about.  Long, tender, quiet, sometimes giggling, rolling-off-the-bed sex.  That’s the only thing on my mind.  I try to think of other things but even flaming cow asses don’t change the subject for long.  And flaming cow asses are a pretty good subject changer normally, let me tell you.”

“You really loved him,” I said.  Lexi teared up worse.  “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”

“You ‘pologize too much,” she said, wiping at her face.  “You don’t have to be so submissive to me.”

“What can I do? To make you feel better.”

She looked at me, big tears in her eyes.  “You know, I bet you’d just do ‘most anything I asked right now, wouldn’t you? Just to make me feel better.  That’s sweet.”

That put me on my guard.  She knew I could die and come back.  What was she going to ask for?

“Unfortunately what I’d really like is to play scatter in the ballroom.  Did you get to play, in junior high? Every Friday in gym the boys got to go play scatter, and we had to go do gymnastics.  I always wanted to play scatter.  I had to go to their side of the gym on one Friday, and saw what they were doing, and I obsessed about it for the rest of junior high.  It’s not fair that only the boys got to play brutal mindless attrition games.  I mean, I was one of the best at Smear the Queer, I would have rocked at scatter.  But anyway, I’d like to play scatter in the ballroom but it wouldn’t be much fun with just us two.  We’d need twenty more people to make it interesting.”

“And windows would get broken,” I added.

Lexi nodded.  She had stopped crying.  “I only have one playground ball anyhow.  We need five.  At least.”

“Maybe someday we’ll play.  It sounds fun.”

“Did you get to play?”

“No, we didn’t do that at my middle school.”

“Gah, what kind of education is that? Sue them.  Molly went to parochial school so she didn’t get to play either.  I keep telling her to sue the Pope.  Lack of rim scatter is probably why most parochial school kids are all messed up.”

My lips curled up into a smile.  “Are they?”

“Oh, yeah they are.  Have you ever met one?  They’re all nuts.  When they get to high school they’re the ones who get into the crazy shit they’ve been denied all their lives, or they become the valedictorians and class officers who were really nuts in their own socially acceptable way, let’s admit it.  Molly was kind of the latter–she ran the newspaper senior year–but I won’t hesitate to point out that she’s also the one who suggested we set Brittany on fire and I think she was serious.  Of course we didn’t do it in the end, I just bashed Brittie’s head into a locker because I’m not a parochial school kid so I’m not repressed one bit, thank you very much, I wear my little heart right on my sleeve, or on my locker door as it were.  But that’s another story.  The coolest thing Molly does these days is that she writes newspaper columns about ghosts.  She wants to run all over the country chasing ghost stories and mysterious happenings, just like Fox Mulder, except with a social life.  Well, and Duchovny’s cuter.  And he’s got a quieter voice.  Molly could scream the ears off a chihuahua.” She looked at me, wiping her cheeks.  “Don’t look at me like that, I don’t know what that means exactly.  It just came out.  Although it does remind me, I didn’t tell her that my house is haunted, and she’d be really pissed off if she found out and I hadn’t told her.  So I’d better give her a call.”  Lexi bounced up out of the pile of pillows.  “Right now,” she added, and headed out of the room.

Thirty-six

Nikki found Lexi in her room looking into the mirror like it was a window.  “You didn’t have to rough me up so bad, Becky,” she said petulantly when Nikki entered.  There was a purple line across her throat from the bowstring.

“I’m so sorry, Lexi,” Nikki said.  “I didn’t mean to…I was just…” There wasn’t an apology, as much as she wanted there to be one.  She could just say she was sorry, but it didn’t change the fact that she had beaten the shit out of her.  It was up to Lexi to forgive or not, and Nikki didn’t think she had much reason to.  She felt a tear slip out of her eye, sparkling with self-hatred.  “I shouldn’t have done that.”

She smiled at Nikki in the mirror.  “Shh.  Listen–the day’s breaking.”  Nikki knew a lot of the same movies, so she was using automobile advertising phrases now.

Nikki looked toward the window, even though she knew full well it was nearly noon.  “I don’t understand.”

“It’s not for you to understand.  Only one of these features can help you avoid an accident,” Lexi said.  Her eyes were distant, but not quite vacant.

Nikki sat on the bed.  She sank five or six inches into it; there were four down comforters.  “I’m sorry.  About everything.”  She couldn’t look at Lexi for more than a couple of seconds, couldn’t meet her eyes at all.

Lexi looked at a spot somewhere deep in the mirror.  “You hit a pothole, and the impact is diffused by the suspension, and the subframe, and the body insulation, and when it gets to you, there’s not much left to diffuse!”

“If it’s a big enough pothole, it still hurts.”

She shrugged.  “And where did that mattress on the freeway come from, anyway?”

“You lost me again.”

A smile.  “Confounding your neighbors is more fun than impressing them.”

“Coming from you that makes a lot of sense.”

Lexi looked at Nikki suddenly.  “Her name’s not Gray, is it?” she asked.  “She’s here to make sure you do your job on Mister Doctor who isn’t really Edward Sharp.”

Nikki nodded.

“That’s too bad.  Gray’s such a neat name.  You didn’t have to choke me, you know.”

“I’m so sorry, Lexi.”

“It hasn’t been much fun keeping secrets I know could save someone’s life.  And you choked me,” she said, pouting.  “But that’s neither here nor there, unless it’s both.  I asked for it.  I shouldn’t have shot at you.  I was angry.  I’m sorry.  That was a very rude thing for me to do.  Rude rude rude.”

“You don’t need to apologize to me, Lexi.  I could have killed you.”  This wasn’t going at all as Nikki had expected.  She hadn’t known what to expect, though.  She couldn’t tell if Lexi was angry with her or not.

“Really?  Oh, yeah…you learned all sorts of terrible things.”

Lexi was looking deep into the mirror.

“I’ll go,” Nikki said.

“No, don’t.  Stay a minute.”  Lexi turned around and looked at her instead of the mirror for the first time.  “New friends don’t necessarily replace old friends, you know.  They do entirely new things.  It’s not fair to shut out new people because you miss the ones who’re gone.  It was rude of me to eavesdrop, but I’m harmless, you know.  I need to tell you my life story twice.  Then we’ll be even.”  She smiled when Nikki frowned, and started without preamble.  “My mom got killed by an IGA sign when I was five.  Nothing freakish about that,” she said with a touch of sarcasm.  She spoke in a low voice that didn’t carry far, as if she were speaking for Nikki and Nikki alone.  “I lived with my father Bert and my sister, who was five years older than me, and she committed suicide when she was fifteen and I was eleven.  Before her birthday and after mine.  She ate a box of sleeping pills and washed it down with NyQuil and then got in the bathtub.  That was one of the low points in my life.  I moved to Michigan and met my best friend Molly Snow not too long after that.  Then I got my appendix taken out and sailed on a boat for the first time, it belonged to Margaret’s brother.  Oh, Margaret was a friend of my father’s.  She lived down the street.  Maybe they sort of dated, I don’t know.  Who does? Parents don’t really have love lives, they keep them pretty well secret if you’re a kid.

“Anyway, I muddled through learning to drive–mowed down fifteen mailboxes with Bert’s ’71 F-250 but that was okay, he was laughing.  It was the coolest truck, too, old and faded red with a utility bed and a ladder on top that I don’t think ever got taken off.  It should still be at his house.  Bert was a handyman, he did odd jobs and I got to help sometimes when I was older.  By that time I was in high school, where I met my friends Cygnet and Katharine and Brittany, two of whom remained my friends through puberty, which took its sweet time showing up and had questionable results when it did–to be honest I think everybody says that though–and through college which was uneventful except for the parts about driving a school bus and a bagel van and some other stuff.

“But it can’t have been a complete wash seeing as how I met a few guys, including one named Darron who turned out to actually be a gorilla and later one named Ren who wasn’t.  Actually most of them were gorillas.  What is it with me and guys?  Maybe it was inexperience.  I didn’t have a real date until I was almost nineteen, and I have the kind of personality that clings to people who do things for me.  Sort of dependent.  And the people who do things for me are usually the possessive types who go for little submissive cuties like me.  But Darron was the only one who took the time to trash my house and kill my cat and gang-rape me.  Well, not by himself–one does not a gang make–but you know.”  She shrugged, ignoring the look of dumbstruck horror on Nikki’s face.  “Then he said he was going to kill me and Ren but he never got around to it.  Oh, he was going to kill us because I went and fell in love with Ren, y’see, before Darron was finished being my boyfriend or whatever.  I couldn’t help it.  Ren wasn’t the first guy who was really nice to me, but he was good at it.  Being nice, I mean.  And on top of that we were soulmates.  His family didn’t like this much; they’re a bunch of bluebloods who weren’t particularly happy about their prodigal son running about with a poor little golddigger with a questionable past, although I am, for the record, neither.  Ren taught me to drive a big truck, and taught me to race, and we bought a warehouse and a lot of cars and then started building CPs but before we finished a lot of them he took an unauthorized trip into a river along with two cars and four other people.  I had a breakdown and came to this place and then the cars vanished thanks to a friend of ours, and probably all of our money too, and here I am trying to clear my head and decide what to do next.  Koo koo kachoo.”

She left the mirror and sat on the bed next to Nikki, and told her the story again, emphasizing different moments on the second telling.  “Then I was born.  My mother’s name was Anne, and she died in a freak accident when I was five.  I lived with my father Bert and my sister Alison, in a house that was as clean as we could make it but still astoundingly grubby, and Alison committed suicide when she was fifteen and I was eleven.  Sort of sad.  She was prettier than me, but she never got over Mom’s death and blamed it on Bert.  I found her after she died, floating in a tub full of brown water that smelled like shit and blood.  Bert and I moved out of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania within the week.  We landed in Westland, Michigan because Bert drove until he saw a house he liked, that needed TLC, and decided to restore it.  And we did just that.  Bert and I didn’t talk much for a few months.  I met my best friend-to-be Molly a few days after we finished the house.  It was funny, actually.  I threw a little fit and jumped off a bridge into the Rouge River, which was low, so I ended up in a giant mud puddle.  I screamed and yelled and threw mud around a lot, I don’t remember why really, but when the noise was over, there Molly was, in her Girl Scout uniform!  Like a vision.  And I did the learning to drive thing and the high school thing and the living in a little sorta-suburb where everyone told false incestuous stories about me and my dad thing and finally I escaped to the University of Michigan.  I met a few guys, including one named Darron who was a gorilla which doesn’t make sense because they say you go with guys who are like your father and my dad wasn’t like that.  My dad died before all the shit with Ren and Darron started up, which is probably a good thing, because he was overprotective.  Not in a bad way but in a way that it would have given him fits to know what was going on then.  He didn’t like Darron much, either.  It was really innocent at first, me and Ren, we were just friends.  We’d go to car shows and stuff.  Here and there.  Once we rented a Taurus and took it apart and put it back together again, over the weekend.  Darron made a big deal of it all.  Sometimes I wonder if Ren would have thought to fall in love with me if Darron didn’t bring it up so much.  Darron was too insecure, he couldn’t handle that I went and did things with Ren if he wasn’t around.  But then he was jealous of Molly, too.  Can you believe it?  Go fig.  So he made a bollix of things and Ren and I got away from him after some requisite ugliness which included a cheap Jeep crashing into a really expensive house.  That could have been sticky legally, but the Packards bailed Ren out and paid Darron to leave us alone.  They think Ren and I didn’t know they’d done that, but we did. 

“That was okay, though.  We drove a truck for a while, and then bought a warehouse in New Hamster.  I mean, New Hampshire.  It’s still there.  It was dull, and kind of cold.  We didn’t have running water but we had a lot of space, which was good because we bought a lot of cars, and ran around a lot.  We raced for a few years, racing whatever we felt like, and went to lots of lovely shows, and then finally we decided that we wanted to build a car of our own.  Ren made lots of friends–he was good at that–and we did a bunch of development, and suddenly there were Crane-Packards.  Twenty-four of them.  Soon to be twenty-five, I suppose.  We were going to build lots more, but Ren died, as you no doubt are aware.  It was a stupid, stupid car wreck.  I saw it happen.  It was unpleasant.  I had a bit of a breakdown and came to this place and then all of our cars got lost and it was more or less my fault for being lazy.  End of story.  I’m kind of tired now,” she said, “and out of sorts.  Could you come back later?”

Nikki got up, but didn’t go right away.  “Lexi, this is kind of important.  Ian left, but he’s going to come back.  He’ll probably have someone take you away.  He has to.  He’s afraid of you.  He thinks you’re dangerous.”

“I am dangerous.  Did you know that when the car ships come over from Japan or Europe all full of Mazdas and Volvos and BMWs, that if just one car breaks free of its chains, it can destroy everything else in the entire hold?  And there’s nothing they can do about it.  They just have to listen to it bashing around down there until they get to port.”  She held up her hand suddenly.  “Leave us,” Lexi said imperiously.  The mood in her eyes shifted, and Nikki couldn’t identify what she saw.  She went. 

As she closed the door, Lexi shouted, “Now, witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station!”  She dug the phone out of the dresser drawer she kept it in, checked the address book, and dialed Sir William’s number. 

He answered on the second ring.  “Greetings.”

“Sir William?”

“Is this the lovely Miss Alexis Andrea Victoria Margaret Corinne Crane?  What’s the matter, dear?  You sound terrible.”

The fact that he remembered her full name made her smile, and feel a bit less alone.  “It hasn’t been a very good morning.  I’ll tell you about it later.  Listen, could you do me a small-scale favor?  I have a friend who needs to be picked up and taken indoors, and I can’t go and get him right now.  Can you help?  You’ll like him, he swerved to miss your sheep and ran into the ditch too.”

“I most certainly can.  Haven’t had the truck out for a few weeks, so the hand controls are going to be stiff as hell, but for you I’m willing to brave it.  It’s going to cost you six hundred dollars and seventy-five cents, my bright-eyed friend, but luckily I deal in imaginary money.  Do you think you can come up with those kinds of funds?”

“Why don’t I give you fourteen thousand five hundred, and you can keep the change?”

“A lady after my own heart.  Tell me how to find your friend.”