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.

Thirty

Lexi woke up before dawn with the urge to run again, and run she did, bolting into the closet and up through the attic, around and down the folding staircase into the hallway, then downstairs and out the front door and into the snow for a while.  She was in pajamas, sockless in boots, and the snow that slopped over the sides burned deliciously, just the level of discomfort some part of her was looking for.  She ran to the Buick and back, then threw herself in the snow to get the feeling all over her body, and she screamed wordlessly at the sky. 

“I’m not going to stop you from running around in the snow,” her father said, “But you’d best start doing it with a coat on, Al.”

“Hi, Bert.”  She smiled up at him, crowned in snow.

He frowned down at her, his cheeks ruddy from the cold wind.  He was wearing flannel and the John Deere watchcap he’d always worn in the winter.  “Get up out of the snow, Al,” he said.  There was no anger in his voice, just matter-of-fact logic.  The snow was cold, and she was going to get frostbite, and she should get up, that was all Bert’s voice said.  So she did.  “What’re you running away from?”

“I don’t know.”

“No need to be afraid of it, then, is there?”

“I don’t think I am.”  She wanted to tell him about yesterday’s encounter with Gray, but it made her think of the abuse she’d suffered at Darron’s hands and Bert had never known about that.  Lexi shuddered to think of what her father would’ve done to Darron if he’d been alive, if he’d been around to find out about the rape.

“I know,” Bert said.  Lexi looked at him, horrified.  He reached out, as if to squeeze her shoulder, but she couldn’t feel his hand.  “Why are you so surprised?  I’m dead!”

The naked exasperation in his voice yanked a laugh out of her, and Bert smiled back.  The humor faded quickly.  “I’m sorry, Bert. I’m sorry you had to know that.”

He shook his head.  “You survived,” he said.  “That’s what counts.”  There was pride in his voice.

“That’s what I do, bounce back,” Lexi said without humor.  She started back toward the house, mood neutral.  Halfway there she decided to go in the carriage house instead.  “Did I show you the old car I found?” Lexi asked her father, but he was gone.  Had she dreamt the car, too?  Well, now she had to doublecheck.

She didn’t hesitate to veer off of the path that she’d broken, heading for the derelict garage that stood a dozen yards or so from the house.  It had weathered seventy-odd years’ indignities with less composure than the house had; there were cracks in the doors and walls where gray sunlight peeked through.  The roof was slate, with some missing and broken tiles. 

A push on the door opened a wide enough gap for her to slip inside.  The shadows weren’t as deep as Lexi expected, considering the dim day.  Sure enough, the Packard was still there.  The car had a feeling of sleek opulence, even though it had been there so long that all four tires had gone flat and it was gray-brown with a thick coating of dust.

Lexi stepped softly toward it, one hand extended, moving with mingled reverence and excitement.  After a few careful steps her fingertips touched a gracefully curving fender, and she brushed dust off of it.  She could smell it, the warm soft smell of old things and a coarser scent of oil or rust.  It made the air seem clearer, and the cold in her feet was forgotten.

A streak of goosebumps raced up Lexi’s arms.  The car made the dreams she’d had about Marion real, too real, and she was suddenly afraid of it.  The headlights stared like big, blank eyes.  Lexi opened the driver’s door and leaned inside.  The scent of the interior rushed out at her, a smell of antique cloth and a hint of powder, delicate and feminine.  She was smelling Marion.  It was whole.  There were thirty-two thousand miles on the odometer.  It would be a nightmare to put back together, of course, but it was hers.  Marion had parked the car one day and never used it again, and here it was, whole. 

She returned to the house exhausted and cold and wet, and soaked in the tub for a while before going back to bed.  An excellent morning, all things considered.  She’d risen again, around noon, put on a chunky white sweater and black leggings and white go-go boots on, then drifted downstairs to say hello to Martin and Doctor Edward in the kitchen and to prepare herself a breakfast of hot apple cider and pecan spinwheels.  She expected Doctor Edward to give her a pill, but none was forthcoming.  The two of them were discussing sports, which interested Lexi not at all.  Of Gray and Nikki there was no sign. 

She went into the library where Ren’s car was, and discovered that the partly-assembled engine was up on the stand, bolted perfectly into place.  When she touched it, the motor was as cold as ice.

She wasn’t sure which one of the dead folk had done it, but it seemed a decent sign that building the car was barking up the right tree at least.  “Thank you kindly,” she told the room, and got back to work on the car.  She’d have to go and get the body, soon.  Actually it might be easier to take everything to the body.  The engine was finished, and the transmissions were still in their crates from Getrag, the company who’d made them, so there was nothing to put together there.  Steering and suspension components were lined up neatly, ready to be installed.  And the wheels?  Where had–oh, she was sitting on the stack, never mind.  And the wiring harness was done; she’d finished it and her cheesecake at about the same time, at three in the morning two nights ago.  Might as well build brake calipers today.  They were in boxes too, direct from Brembo; Ren had insisted on only wonderful pieces, of course.  She went into the basement to fetch them, dumped them in the knobby-tired Radio Flyer wagon that had been parked in the hall of mirrors for the purpose of schlepping parts, and headed back into the library.  Halfway there she was struck by an uncontrollable urge to sing Primus, so she did, only getting through a few verses of “My Name Is Mud” before deciding that she didn’t want to sing alone.  She took a detour into the ballroom and put the CD on, loud enough that she could hear it in the library to her satisfaction.

That taken care of, she set herself up next to the various clusters of car parts.

She’d finished the first caliper when Martin drifted into the library.  He looked around the room, sizing it up as if it were a bar, and then made a beeline for the wingback chair, which he turned to face her.  “Afternoon,” he said. 

He was holding a glass of milk in a way that she found annoying, but let it go.  Letting the little things about people bother you was just a waste of time.  Martin was nice enough apart from that, and apart from the fact that he was here sort of dishonestly.  “Oh, welcome to this world of fools, of pink champagne and swimming pools…where all you have to lose is your virginity,” she sang along with Primus, fully aware that the rapid, rolling lyrics were nearly unintelligible (and equally aware that it was “well” not “where” but “where” made more sense).

“Uh-huh,” he said.  “So how are you going to get the car out, once you’ve built it?”

“Oh, there’s plenty of room.  Look at those doors!” she said, pointing to the wide doorway that led into the foyer.  “There’s enough space to admit a buffalo, also known as the American bison.  Not to be confused with the European bison, which, in addition to being smaller, is extinct.  What was I talking about?”

Martin smiled indulgently.  “Don’t you worry that they’ll institutionalize you, if you keep acting like this?”

“I’ve spent too much time worrying about how to do things, and how to behave in front of whom.  I stopped worrying about it, and I’m much happier.  Besides, it’s my house.”

“That it is.  I envy your freedom.”

“As well you should,” she replied.

“Can I help you at all with that?”

Lexi shook her head.  “My hands only,” she said.  “No other hands allowed.  Those are the rules.”

“What rules?”

She gave him an innocent, head-tilted look.  “What rules?”

“What rules are you talking about?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said.

Martin nodded slowly.  “I guess you don’t,” he said.  “Hey, I’ve got another question for you.  Two of them, actually.”

“No, I’m not wearing anything under this sweater,” she said.

He grinned.  “How’d you know I was going to ask that?”  Actually he hadn’t been, but he had noticed, and humoring her would keep her talking. 

“Roger, that’s a Special Forces tattoo,” she said imperiously.

Martin didn’t catch the Lethal Weapon reference.  He was learning better than to ask her to repeat herself though.  “Let me ask you another question, then.  Is that okay?”

“Kinder with poison than pushed down a well,” she replied.  Her attention seemed to be entirely in the brake caliper she was assembling, although it wasn’t.

“It’s hard to understand you, when you talk in riddles all the time,” he said.

“Did you ever stop and ask yourself why I talk in riddles?”

“No.  But I suppose you’re going to tell me.”

“Nope.  I am not.  And anyway, they’re not riddles.”

Martin got out of the chair and walked to Lexi’s side.  He squatted between her and the Radio Flyer, and put his hand lightly on her shoulder.  “What are they, then?”

“Ooh, an invading cheliped,” she said.  “Is it full of meat?  It’s painfully typical.”

He started to rub her shoulders, then her neck.  “Don’t worry, it’s platonic,” he said.  “I’m sure you’re terribly lonely.  Since Warren,” he added.

“We had a race car–it was a Saab, we called it HellSaab Number One–that said, ‘get your Eye-talian loafers out of my bedpan!’ up one side and ‘I’ll give you boys five dollars for this!’ down the other.  How can you not miss someone who knows what all of that means?  There’s the trick.  You can’t.”

Martin opened his mouth, then closed it without saying anything.  He continued to rub Lexi’s neck for a few minutes, but apart from a small sigh she didn’t acknowledge him.  She might as well have been made of warm wax.

“Afternoon,” Doctor Edward said as he entered the library with a mug of the cider Lexi had made.  He looked at home, and he didn’t ask what Lexi and Martin were doing.  Martin turned and nodded. 

“Gozer the Gozerian, Gozer the Destructor…the traveller has come,” Lexi said in a gravelly voice, without looking up from the proportioning valve in her hands.