Twenty-seven

After I caught Eddie with his whore and locked myself in the bathroom, it was ten minutes before he had the guts to knock on the door.  “Hello, in there?”

“You know,” I said, my voice echoing in the bathtub, “I wondered why you hadn’t tried to fuck me.  Now I know why.  You like soft-bellied, big-breasted redheads.”

“You’re home early,” he said.

“Is that supposed to be an excuse? I don’t care if you want to spend your time screwing sad little crack whores.”

“Well, that’s good.  I thought you were going to be jealous or something.”

“Go to hell.”

“Are you okay?”  He actually sounded concerned.

“You had a girl in Denver, too, didn’t you? When I was gone?”

He sighed.  “Yes, I did.”

“I smelled her,” I said, aware that if he honestly felt bad about it I was just twisting the knife, and not caring much.

“Hey, Nikki, I’m sorry.”

I threw one of my boots at the door, then the other.  “Shut up and go to bed,” I said.  “It doesn’t bother me.”

“Spoken like a true picture of stoicism.  Do you always throw things when you’re feeling calm?”

I was too tired to argue with him.  It never did any good anyway.  After Taiisha, I wasn’t in the mood for his brand of shit and what I really wanted to do to get his attention was to stab my sword through the door.  Maybe I’d impale him, right through his fat skull, and that would be fine, too. 

No, that wasn’t fine.  I felt like it would be for now because I was angry, but I really didn’t want him dead.  I’d even said so.

There was too much free-floating hurt and rage and guilt in me, not to mention a day’s worth of travel grime, shards of glass, bruises, and somewhere deep down, annoyance at not knowing how Miss Saigon was going to end.  I had to wash it all off.  Then I could think about what would happen if I didn’t kill Eddie.  About how many people would die instead.

The shower was a good one.  Hotels don’t always have good showers but this one was nice, enough hot water to turn my skin pink and a nice wide spray, like rain.  I like to have a lot of hot water falling on me.  It relaxes me.  I inspected my arms again.  The scrapes stung under the water.  They were even more superficial than they had looked, and I had an ugly black bruise growing on my shoulder from where Taiisha had thrown me into the mirror.  Not a surprise.  My back had started hurting, too, but the hot water convinced it to subside.

After I was in there for a few minutes I started to think about Shawn the usher again and I couldn’t stop.  I wished I hadn’t seen her name.  It was like a curse.  All the roads that led to that girl’s death had been laid by me.  If I had killed Eddie like Taiisha told me to, she wouldn’t have followed us to Chicago.  I wouldn’t have been there to see Miss Saigon and Shawn would be alive.  If I hadn’t attacked Taiisha, there wouldn’t have been a fight, and Shawn wouldn’t have even come into the bathroom.  If I had just gone back to the show instead of trying to get quiet time in the bathroom, it wouldn’t have happened.  It wasn’t right, and it was my fault.  I didn’t try to keep myself from crying, just tried not to sob too loud so the shower could cover it up.  I didn’t want to explain to Eddie why I was upset and didn’t want him thinking that I was crying because of the whore, either.

Had I been Taiisha’s toy for so long that I’d forgotten?  Death wasn’t meaningless.  Taiisha didn’t care who died and who didn’t, didn’t care that sometimes it wasn’t right.  I had killed seven people since hooking up with Eddie–four who would have come after him if I hadn’t finished them–and that had been all right, it had been okay.  They had attacked, thinking I was weaker than them, and I didn’t think twice about proving them wrong.  The world was better off without those people.  But Shawn wasn’t right.  And now that I was thinking about it, forcing myself to remember, she wasn’t the only one.  The couple whose house we had burned, right before Taiisha had set me onto Eddie, that hadn’t been right.  The man and his daughter in the desert, that hadn’t been right.  The man in Mexico, before that, I wasn’t sure about; Taiisha had let the man rape me first, so maybe that was right and maybe it wasn’t.

I didn’t want to think about them, or the others.  Taiisha might have had reasons for wanting these people dead, or they might have been chosen on a whim.  She didn’t care.  And I had been with her so long, moving from place to place or stuck in that desert cabin with no other human contact, that I’d all but forgotten there was a world with motives outside of Taiisha’s.  And it wasn’t right that Shawn was dead, wasn’t fair and wasn’t right.  It wasn’t fair.

Somewhere in there I got to crying for my family and friends who had died as well.  There were so many, and none of them had anything to do with what was happening to me now, but the scrubbing had torn those scars open.  And maybe I cried for myself, too.  I didn’t think about it.  I cried all of the tears that would come, while the water scalded the hurt and hate and guilt and weariness out of me.

When I had centered myself, I turned off the water, dried myself off, and put on the flannel pajamas that I had bought that afternoon.  They were decadently warm; I wished I could wear them all the time.  The sleeves also fell past my hands, nicely covering the cuts I’d acquired at the theater.

Taiisha hadn’t marked my face, but while I was washing up I saw that my nose was pierced.  Yes–when I had been killed the day before, and had to borrow time, the mirror-self I’d pulled had had a nose piercing.  Shit.  The hole would heal if I didn’t put anything in it, just like an ear piercing would, but that might take a week or two.  Hopefully Eddie hadn’t noticed it at dinner.  It was a good night to roll straight into bed.

The hotel room was cool, especially after the scalding shower.  I sat down on my bed and put my afghan around my shoulders again.  Eddie had put his clothes back on, and was making a big show out of working on his laptop. 

“So what’s the deal with the security blanket?” he asked me.  I hadn’t expected or wanted him to say anything to me, and I jumped, startled.

“I’m cold, what do you think?”

“No, I mean where did it come from?”

“Don’t talk to me.  I don’t want to talk to you right now.”

“I really am sorry.”

“I don’t care.  You really are a fuckwit, is what you are.”

“I guess I’m that, too.”

“Don’t agree with me.  Just shut up.”

He was quiet for a minute or two.  The problem with Eddie was that even when he was concentrating deeply on something, he was capable of talking.  And he did.  It was as if silence would cause him to explode.  “You left the play early.”

“I liked it,” I said.  “But I couldn’t stay any longer.”

“You had too much to drink.  Felt sick?”

“Something like that,” I said, looking at my hands.

“You better now?”

“Something like that,” she said.  I looked up this time.  He was looking back at me, mouth pursed so that his lower jaw was slightly pushed out, and he was chewing on the inside of his lip.  Was he honestly worried?  I wasn’t sure what that would look like, on Eddie’s face.

He had dressed like a typical fat man while I was in the shower, in cut-off sweatpants and a triple-XL Gap tee shirt, and I wondered what worried would look like on him.  He was either worried or paranoid.  I wanted to think that he was concerned about me, but I needed to feel something good from somebody and I was probably just desperate.  I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out for a moment.

“You look all used up,” Eddie said.  “Have I been working you too hard?  Was it the Denver thing?  What did that son of a bitch Mitch do to you?  I tried to call once, but the line was down.”

“I have a lot to think about,” I said.

“Want to talk–“

“No, I don’t, and neither do you,” I replied.  “I’m going to draw.”  I took my sketchbook out, and my Ziploc bag full of pencils.

“Draw what?”

I didn’t look at him.  “Leave me alone, Eddie.”

“Do you draw as an outlet?”

“Leave me alone,” I said again.  My voice was flat and toneless.

While I drew I thought about borrowing time again.  Taiisha had showed me how.  That meant someone had to have shown her how, and that meant that there were more people who could do what I did.  I wanted to know more.  Needed to.  There had to be a way to find other…borrowers like me, and I thought about that while I drew.  My sketch page filled up with faces like street signs, and a lot of arrows that pointed into deep, mysterious holes.  My hand hurt when I finished.

Twenty-seven

I prowl the house a little bit.  Doctor Edward tells me that Martin called for a tow truck and couldn’t get one.  That’s fine, it’s okay if they stay here, as long as they don’t give me Thorazine for trying to dance or get in the way of my working on Ren’s car.  I want to do that, but it’s not quite time to play with the car yet.

Nikki is in Doctor Edward’s room, looking into the closet. 

“Whatcha thinking about?” I ask her.

She jumps.  “You need a bell,” she says, her eyes going briefly to Malice.

“I learned where all the creaks are so I don’t step on them,” I tell her, confiding an important secret actually, and then I throw myself into Doctor Edward’s bed.  Flinging myself into bed is a wonderful feeling, and I try to do it frequently, though it irritates the hell out of Malice, who departs my shoulder mid-fling. 

Nikki considers me for a moment.  “Who lived in the house before it was abandoned?”

“Opal Foster,” I say.  “She’s the end of a long story.  Well, not that long.”  I give her the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the story Sir William told me, adding as many grisly details as I feel like making up.  She seems to enjoy the story, and I remember vaguely that I eavesdropped on her a while back.  For that, I feel like Nikki has the right to know some of my own secrets.  I want her to know who I am, since she thinks I know who she is and it makes her all eggshelly around me.  I want to show her who I am, who Ren is, who we are.  Were.  I decide to show her the secret doors into the attic.  “Follow me, and I’ll show you something.”

“What’s that?”

I put a finger to my lips and channel Gene Wilder.  “There’s no earthly way of knowing,” I sing. 

Nikki recognizes the song, and that’s just wonderful.  “Which direction we are going…” she continues.

I scoot past her, into the closet, and push through Doctor Edward’s clothes.  Kneeling, I can just reach the back wall and the two-foot high panel that slides to reveal what looks like a cubbyhole but is actually a vertical shaft leading to the attic, complete with a wooden ladder nailed to the wall and a trap door at the top.  The sliding panel moves smoothly, because there’s fresh grease on the hinges.  I can only barely remember doing that.  I crawl in and stand up.  Marion must have built these for herself, and she was probably smaller than me because I only just fit.  “The danger must be growing,” I say, so Nikki can tell where I’ve gone, “for the rowers keep on rowing.” 

There’s not a lot of light in here, but it’s easy to find the ladder.  Soon we’re in the attic; a little tug on a beaded chain brings the lights to life.  There are a lot of boxes, but very little dust.  I think I’ve been spending a lot of time up here, some of it with my father, but I might have dreamt that.  Nikki’s looking around like I’ve shown her a pharaoh’s tomb; I can tell she likes discovery as much as I do, in her little way.  “Delicious, isn’t it?  There’s a secret door on the other side that leads down into my closet too.”

“Marion built those?”

I shrug.  “I dunno.  Maybe it was just fashionable.  Prohibition and all.  Maybe the Maddoxes were bootleggers.”

“Somehow I doubt that.”

The tone in her voice makes me smile.  “So do I.  Some of these boxes were here when I moved in.  I looked in a few of them.  They’re mostly old newspapers and some pictures.  When I get a chance I’ll take them to Sir William’s.  He might know who some of them are. The door over there leads out onto a little widow’s walk on the roof,” I tell her, and point.  “Strictly a summertime activity, I think.  What I’d like to do, when the snow breaks a little bit, is start moving things from the storage area up here.”  This summer, when we put the new windows in, Ian moved a bunch of stuff to the storage area in Frankfort, where the cars are.  Oh, the cars!  I haven’t thought about them in a while.  I should go and see the kids, it’ll be fun.

“Storage area?”

“With the cars,” I say.  “Not the ones we built, just the collection.”  Nikki still looks lost, so I tell her about some of the wonderful cars Ren and I collected.  She’s not a car person, though, so the names Lotus and Daimler and Hudson don’t really mean all that much to her.  To her credit, she nods and puts up with my babbling for longer than most.  I change the subject and get back to showing Nikki who we are (were).  “This is Ren’s saxophone.”  I show her the instrument and see my hand reverently brushing dust off of the case like it’s some kind of heirloom.  “He used to play for me.”  Thinking about that almost brings on a bout of tears, and I try not to cry, I’m so goddamn sick of being maudlin all the time, it’s not the way I am.

“It isn’t your idea, is it?” Nikki asks suddenly.  “The pills.”

That’s a funny thing to ask.  I never really thought about it.  “It’s for my own good,” I say, trying for sarcasm but only achieving defensiveness.  “They keep me…sane.”

“They keep you fucked up,” Nikki says.  “You don’t need that shit.  Grief isn’t fatal.”

“It can be.” I look at the ceiling.  She sounds pissed off, but I’m not sure it’s at me and this is a strange thing for my doctor’s assistant to be asking me. Then again, Doctor Edward isn’t my doctor, Josie is and she hasn’t been here.  I meet Nikki’s stormy dark eyes, can’t read the emotion in them, and look at the floor.

Her voice is low, and serious.  Well, more serious than usual, but not quite scary.  “No, it can’t.  I went through the same thing…” She trails off.  There’s something in her voice and I’m suddenly not sure I want to look at her.  Maybe she doesn’t want me to look.  “Look at me, Lexi,” Nikki said. 

Well, score a negative point for my powers of observation and interpretation.  I do.  She stares into my eyes.  “Why am I looking at you?” I ask.

She shakes her head.  “Never mind.”

“Never mind what?”

“I said never mind, Lexi.”

I feel disappointed, like I’ve failed a test.  “What were you looking for?  Fish?  It’s only me.  Crazy little lazy little me,” I tell her.  I can’t think of anything to do but show her more things, to lighten the mood.  “Listen–if you go into the basement, there’s a sort of wine cellar.  It’s a little room, behind the furnace.  And if you go in there, you’ll see a bunch of old shelves half-bolted, half-leaning against the far wall.  Um, the north wall I think,” Lexi said.  “And if you look sort of past those shelves, at the wall behind them, the bricks are a different color, in just the shape of a door.  Marion–or somebody–bricked up a doorway there.  Maybe there’s another room there.  And another thing; most houses like this have central staircases–meaning, that the stairs to the basement should be directly under those that go upstairs, right?”

Nikki shrugs.  “I guess so.”

“Well, in this house, they aren’t.  The basement steps are completely separate.  There’s a door leading off of the TV room.  Looks like a closet, but it’s a short hallway, and the walls and ceiling are all old mirrors.  The door at the end–if you can find it, there’s no knob, you just sort of push on it–leads to the basement.” I look at Nikki and smile, and she almost smiles back, but doesn’t quite.  “You can go down there if you want.  The hall of mirrors creeps me out.  There aren’t any lights in there.”

“A hall of mirrors with no lights in it is sort of silly,” she says after a while.

“So am I.”

“You have a point.”  Nikki looks around some more at the boxes, at my history and life and love laid out on shelves around her.  “I like your house, by the way.”

“Stay here a while then, with me.  You can be mistress of the house and I’ll be your faithful servant.”

Nikki smiles, then laughs, a little self-conscious giggle.  “I could do that.  I could live with that.”

“You look like the luxury type.  I can see you curled up on a green velvet throne being waited on hand and foot.”

“Purple velvet.  And I don’t like people touching my feet.”

“Irrelevant.  You want the high life, you got to suffer a little bit.”

She rolls her eyes.  “So I’ve heard.”

“And?”

“And, nothing.  I have nothing to add.”

There’s that pulling away again.  It’s too easy to say the wrong thing to Nikki.  It reminds me of…myself, sometimes.  And the best thing for that sort of hypersensitivity is to ignore it, that’s what Ren knew instinctively about me.  “I don’t believe you.  I think you’ve always got something to say, but you usually keep your mouth shut.” 

Nikki looks uncomfortable.  “So what’s the difference?  Things unsaid don’t exist, do they?”

“In a big old house full of secrets,” I say, thinking I sound like a movie trailer, and then I hear noises where there shouldn’t be noises.  There’s someone in my room.  I showed Gray and Martin to the last spare bedroom on the other side of the house, next to Doctor Edward’s room, but there’s someone moving around in my space, and I don’t like that.  I put what I was going to say to Nikki away for later, and stand up.  “Walk where I walk,” I tell her, and cross the attic to the other trap door, the one that leads into my closet.  I know where the creaks are, so whoever’s in there won’t hear us coming.  Nikki moves like a ghost behind me; stealthy feels good.

We scoot down the little staircase (not a ladder) that leads into my closet.  It’s not disguised so much in my room, and so we duck through a low-ish crawl space and are among my clothes.  I peep through the keyhole in the closet door and see Gray looking out my window.  She’s got one of my hairbrushes in her hand.  “It’s Gray,” I tell Nikki, whispering.  “She’s–“

She puts her hand over my mouth.  “She’ll hear you,” she says.  Before I can reassure her that the door is plenty thick, the closet door is yanked open, right out from behind me, and I all but fall out.

She looks more startled than me, so I say, “Hellopers,” and stretch my neck.  I have a good case for complaining about her being in my space, but I’ll let it go for the moment.

“You frightened me!” Gray says.  “But what was it were you doing in there?  I heard you talking.  I thought it was a cat perhaps.”

“Impossible,” I say.  “Everyone knows cats are telepathic.  We were just, um, talking.  It is my closet, you know.”  She looks confused, and I like it.  She confuses me, she and her boyfriend appearing the way they did and making me paranoid, and it feels good to do it back.

“We?”

“Myself, and Nikki…a snail or two.  And some other imaginary friends.  We were discussing the exploits of the late, great Brad Pitt.”

“Brad Pitt’s not dead, Lexi,” Nikki says.  She scrunched back in the closet when Gray opened the door, but now she’s coming forward. 

Gray frowns.  “Why were you both in there?”

“She’s the doctor’s assistant.  Didn’t you know I was crazy?  Surely you’ve guessed by now.  It’s…therapy,” I say, drawing out the ‘th.’

Nikki surprises the heck out of me by adding, “Hypnotic post-traumatic regression,” and I giggle a silly laugh.

“It’s the latest thing.  You imagine surviving a train wreck and wandering around in a trancelike daze.  That’s the post-traumatic part.  And the hypnotism.  Then you, um, wet your pants.”

Gray looks less than convinced.  She doesn’t even smile in fact.  She reminds me of Dr. Zheng, not knowing a joke when one’s thrown at her.  “And this is helpful?”

“Who was in my room last night?” I say instead, channeling the Butthole Surfers.  “Who the hell was in my bed?”

Gray doesn’t know who the Butthole Surfers are, I’m sure.  “I’m sorry?”

“Were you looking for me?”

“It’s such a beautiful house, that you have.  I wanted to see more of it,” Gray says.  “I am sorry, if I intruded.”

Apologies are acceptable.  I feel a bit bad, for treating her like a spy.  I’m far too paranoid lately and I don’t think I have any reason to be.  Do I?  I’m just not myself.  I need to work on Ren’s car, that’ll help clear my head.  “Feel free to look around,” I say.  “I believe in free everything.”  I crawl out and spread my arms, tour-guide style.  “This is my skanktum skanktorum.  That’s, um, Latin, for a place of great meditative skanking”

“No, it isn’t,” Gray says.

Ignoring her is the natural thing to do.  Always pretend you didn’t hear a word the straightman said.  “That’s why there’s no furniture in here, except for the bed.”

“And a big round mirror to watch yourself in,” Nikki says.  I turn around and smile at her for that, and she smiles back this time.

“No furniture?  What about the dresser?” Gray asks.  She’s setting them up, and I’m knocking them down.  She’s even more fun than Dr. Zheng.  “The armoire?”

“That’s not furniture, silly,” I say.  “What’s wrong with you, were you born in Europe or something?”

She stares at me, and for a second I think I might have really pissed her off.  Then she shakes her head and looks at herself in the mirror.  I wonder if she’s reevaluating her decision to spend the night here with her boyfriend.  Did I decide that?  I can’t remember if I offered, or if it was just so obvious they would that I let it happen.  “This is a beautiful frame,” she says finally.  “But the glass is going dark.”

“Is it? I thought it was just polarized.”

She frowns again.  She’s one of those people I’ll never be able to lay off of, I can tell already.  Some people are just like that, they attract the Little Shit in me.  Like Ernst, the ex-BMW engineer who was one of our Crane-Packard suspension guys.  He was always kvetching at me to “be serious, Miss Crane” in the thickest, funniest German accent you ever heard, and even though I was being serious I couldn’t stop saying silly stuff.  Ren had the same problem with Pippi, the animal trainer who worked with me and Malice for the auto show stunt.  We used to solve the problem by having Ren talk to Ernst and I’d talk to Pippi, and nobody would have to turn purple around the ears with helpless rage, but now I didn’t have Ren to talk to Gray for me, I’d just have to restrain myself.  Or not. 

“It’s almost time for my nap,” I say.  “Life is a series of naps joined by breakfast and calisthenics.”  With that, I dive into my bed without warning.  I know Amy-Ann’s in there, I saw her signature bump in the blankets, and after wrestling with the surprised cat I stand up with her in my arms.  Amy-Ann is a skittish cat by nature but she’s used to being randomly grabbed by me.  I present her to Gray and Nikki, say, “Rowr,” then drop her into the bed.  I realize suddenly that I was thinking about Ren and it didn’t make me cry.

“I’m going to get some hot chocolate,” Nikki says, distracting me before I can rectify that situation.  I owe her for that, more than she realizes.  “Want some?”

“Yes please, but no deadly nightshade this time.  It gives me gas.”  Nikki starts toward the door, trying not to giggle, and I point toward the door next to the closet.  “No, take the secret stairway.  It’s lonely; it likes to be walked on.  And if it asks you to tell it your name, don’t.”  Now she knows where all of the secret doors upstairs are.

“Is that the door that comes out next to the refrigerator?” Nikki asks.

“The same.”

“There are more hidden passages?” Gray asks.

“No, just that one,” I tell her.  I don’t have a problem lying to her.