When Clover excused herself to go and call Matt, to tell him to make his own dinner, Dori realized that it was her first moment alone with Nikki all day. She half-expected a big outburst from Nikki, but there was only a sigh, once Clover was out of earshot.
She still recognized the sigh, even though she hadn’t seen Nikki much in the past two years. “Sorry,” Dori said. “I know she can be kind of annoying. But she means well. Sometimes she’s pretty helpful.”
Nikki shook her head slightly. “I can deal,” she said. She picked up a piece of pasta on the end of her fork and looked at it without really concentrating on it. “We should talk later about furniture, though.”
“Do you still want to go look for that girl? Taylor?”
Dori nodded. “I was hoping Clover wouldn’t piss you off so much you’d want to leave, because I wanted your help.”
“She’s coming,” Nikki said. It wasn’t a question. “Fucking great.”
“Sorry,” Dori said again.
Nikki responded with a ghostly smile. “I’ve suffered worse,” she said. That statement seemed to take all of the tension out of her. Nikki didn’t speak to Clover again for the rest of dinner, or on the way to the bar, but the sense that Nikki was gearing up to throw down on her disappeared also. Maybe it was my imagination, Dori thought.
Showing Taylor’s picture at the bar worked better than she expected. When they arrived, Nikki took over. She left Dori and Clover behind, and showed the photo to the bartender, who passed her on to a manager, who passed her on to a group of customers. Dori was too far back to hear the exchange, and when Clover tried to get involved she held her friend back, not wanting Clover to queer whatever deal Nikki was making.
When she finished with the customers, Nikki smiled at them–that was strange, since she rarely smiled–and headed outside, taking out her cellphone along the way.
“Where’s she going?” Clover asked.
“I don’t know. Let’s wait and see.”
“People are going to think we’re a couple.”
Dori shrugged. “It’s not like we have to prove it or anything.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You belong here, as far as they’re concerned.”
“You’d be surprised at how wrong you are about that, actually.”
“So, what does your friend do?”
“Nikki? I don’t know exactly. I haven’t seen her in two years. She just came back to town a few days ago.”
“Oh! She’s that girl you met when you went down south to see Naomi?”
Dori nodded. The music was just loud enough that she had to yell to be heard, which wasn’t any fun. Clover didn’t have this problem. The smoke smell was also making her want a cigarette. All in all, Dori was ready to leave.
“Why is she in Michigan?”
“She lives here. Or she did, a long time ago, and she’s just moved back. Something like that.”
“And you have no idea how she makes a living?”
“None. But that doesn’t mean anything. I don’t know what you do, either.”
“Yes you do,” Clover said, giving Dori a playful shove. “I’m still in the PT department at the university, you know that.”
She shrugged again. “I don’t pay much attention to people’s jobs. It’s not an important aspect of who they are, to me.”
“I’d say that a person’s job is a very important part of who they are. Your work shapes you. It defines you.”
“Um. Okay.” Dori felt like disagreeing, but not like arguing. The front door opened, letting in a soft rush of cold air. Nikki was back.
“She went home with two other women,” Nikki said. “The day before yesterday. I have an address.”
“How on earth did you do that?” Clover asked.
“I have sources,” was Nikki’s response.
“You’re a cop, aren’t you?”
Nikki gave Clover an amused frown. “Do I look like one?”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“I thought a person’s job shaped them,” Dori couldn’t resist saying.
“Dorito, shut up,” Clover said with massive irritation in her voice. “Are we going to go there, then? Is she still there?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t get a phone number, only an address. I think we should just go there,” she said, looking to Dori for confirmation. “It’s out in Ferndale.”
The house was a little ranch in on a street full of little ranches just like it. Unlike the others, there were blankets over this one’s windows instead of drapes. There were two cars lined up in the driveway, and one in front of the house, and the porch light was out, although the front window flickered with the glow of a television. Dori looked at it and sighed. She hesitated before getting out of the car, but that was just because it was cold out there, and very toasty warm inside Nikki’s rented SUV. There were butterflies in her stomach, but she’d never let them slow her down before.
The door rattled loudly when she knocked, as if it were little more than two sheets of thin Formica nailed together. There were sounds of a leisurely response from within, and while Dori waited she looked around the yard. It was mostly covered with snow, like everything else was, but the house had the feeling of being the only one on the block that didn’t have a lawn. Nikki and Clover stood in the driveway, waiting to see what would happen next.
“Whoizzit?” an irritable voice said from the other side of the door.
“I’m looking for Taylor,” Dori said, before she could think about how dumb she’d feel if this were the wrong house, or if Taylor wasn’t here. Or if she’d stumbled onto a white-slavery ring and Taylor was tied up in the basement awaiting delivery to Saudi Arabia, or something. Her imagination raced gleefully into the possibility of winding up a member of some random sultan’s illegal harem.
The least-requested member, probably.
The voice inside called, “Just a sec.” Shuffle. Shuffle.
The knob twisted violently and the door was yanked inward. Dori’s suspicion that this was the local ghetto house was instantly confirmed as a pungent smell of dogshit and pot boiled out of the doorway. The guy who had opened the door was about her age, with a clean-shaven face and somewhat more of a beer gut than he needed (currently quite visible thanks to his shirtless condition), and he relaxed a little bit when he saw Dori and Nikki and Clover in his front yard.
“You’re here for Taylor?” he asked. “Are you her family?”
Dori shook her head, thinking that was a stupid question but not saying so. “Just her friend. Is she here?” Also a stupid question, at this point. Oh, well, I’m not really a private eye, she thought. I just play one on my days off.
“Sure. C’mon in. I’m, Ron.” He stepped aside. Ron probably wasn’t part of a white-slavery ring, so Dori went on in. Clover and Nikki followed.
On TV, Mel Gibson was battling outback biker savages in one of the Mad Max movies. There wasn’t any furniture in the living room, only the television on a pair of milk crates and a pile of blankets that served as a couch. There wasn’t any carpet, either, although the tack strips that had held it down remained all around the perimeter of the room. Dori squinted in the half-gloom as she introduced herself and her friends, and saw that there were two other people in the room, both sprawled on the blankets and watching television listlessly. The smell of pot seemed to be coming from their general vicinity. The floor was littered with ashtrays, empty Wendy’s cups, compact discs and computer components. Ron nodded in greeting to all of them, said two names that Dori forgot immediately, and then disappeared into the house to get Taylor.
“Jesus,” Nikki said under her breath, her nose wrinkled in open disgust. Clover was somewhat less rude, but she stayed near the door. Nikki moved out of the foyer and into the living room, prowling toward the kitchen. No one attempted to stop her, so Dori assumed it was okay if she moved too, and walked far enough into the living room to see the TV screen and to realize that the dogshit smell was getting stronger. Neither of the blanket-bound TV watchers acknowledged her.
“Dori!” Taylor squealed from the hallway. She rushed out and threw herself into Dori’s arms. Dori stumbled backward, not prepared for the collision, and hit the wall. Taylor’s face was awfully close to hers. “What are you doing here?”
“I came looking for you.”
“I knew you would!”
Dori extricated herself from Taylor’s embrace as best she could. “So, um, what are you doing here, exactly?”
“I’m going to stay here. I didn’t want to wear out my welcome at your aunt’s house, so I asked Ron and Tamara if I could crash here, and they said it’s cool. There’s a spare bed in the back bedroom for me. I have to figure out a way to get the rest of my shit from home.” Taylor addressed one of the baked-out people in the blankets. “Hey Tammy, this is Dori, who I was telling you about.”
If there was a response, Dori didn’t hear it.
Taylor saw Clover and Nikki. Recognizing Nikki, she gave a little wave. “Do you guys want to go out and get something to eat or something? I think there’s a couple of places that’ll be open.”
“Actually, um, we came to take you home.”
“To your place?”
“No, Taylor.” Dori suddenly felt very, very old. “To your parents’ house.”
Taylor laughed. “Yeah, right.”
The girl stepped away from her. “Fuck you! I’m not going. What’s the matter with you?”
The butterflies in Dori’s stomach were fading, but the hairs were standing up on the back of her neck. She hated confrontations, even more so considering the last one had gotten her punched in the head. And, for that matter, it was somewhat easier to be mean to Taylor considering she hadn’t even asked why Dori had a bit of a black eye going. “Dude, don’t even get like that. I’m kind of pissed at you, you know.”
“What for?” Taylor’s eyes flashed angrily, but the look on her face was one of hurt and betrayal.
“You told your parents that we were screwing around! They think I’m having sex with you!”
“So? Who cares what they think?”
“Taylor, they’re gonna arrest me. You’re a minor, remember? I’m not. I can get in big trouble for that kind of shit, and it’s only your word against mine that says I didn’t do it.”
Taylor crossed her arms haughtily. “Well, if you have feelings for me, you should be prepared to face them, and tell them they’re wrong for wanting to keep us apart.”
Okay, now she had to be a real jerk. Great. Dori rolled her eyes and made the meanest face she could. “Taylor, I’m not interested in you. I’m sorry if you got that idea.”
“What are you talking about?” Taylor’s voice rose immediately and tears sprang to her eyes. “You took me in! All the stuff we talked about? You…I fell in love with you! As soon as I met you–”
“No, you didn’t. You have a crush, maybe, but that’s the way this shit is. I don’t think you know what you want exactly, but sooner or later you’re going to figure out that it’s not me. And either way, the feeling isn’t mutual, okay? I like you, I think you’re cool, but…” But I sound like every other after-school special and I’m probably giving you a neurosis that’s going to fuck you up for life, Dori thought, hating every second of this. “Let’s just go, okay? Your mom’s a complete bitch, but she’s worried about you.”
Taylor was crying openly. “Fuck you!” she cried. “Fuck you, you fucking bitch!” Dori tried to give her a sympathetic look, but it wasn’t well received.
“Are you done?” Clover’s voice surprised both Dori and Taylor, as sharp and unignorable as an eighth-grade algebra teacher’s. “Because whenever you are, we can go home. And you’re coming with us, whether you want to or not. I don’t think you were listening exactly, but Dori could go to jail if you keep telling people you’re having sex with her. And if you really loved her, you’d give a shit about that. But I don’t think you’re old enough to know what love is, and certainly not to know what you want. So let’s go.” Clover opened the door, and some of the dogshit smell rushed out into the night.
Taylor turned to run to the back of the house. Dori grabbed her arm without even thinking about it–Taylor had turned and oh, look, suddenly her arm was in Dori’s hand. She had no idea what she was going to do with it, but when Taylor pulled and tried to run, Dori held on. She looked at Taylor in surprise, and saw Taylor’s hand going back to deliver a slap. Coming right on top of all the damage Smile had done to her head, that would’ve sucked, so Dori let Taylor go, and the girl overbalanced and fell backward.
“What the fuck’s going on?” Ron yelled, storming out of the shadows. “I’m on the goddamn phone!” There was still no reaction from the TV watchers, but the female lump might have been watching them now.
“Nothing,” Dori said. “We just have to take Taylor home.”
Ron put his hands on his hips. “Doesn’t look like she wants to go.” Taylor got to her feet and scuttled around behind Ron, glaring at Dori with tear-filled eyes.
“That’s fine,” Nikki said. “We’ll just send her parents. Dori, this isn’t our business. Tell her mother where she is and let her send the police.” Her voice was quiet, but carried easily over the noise of the television. “I don’t give a shit and I’m not going to fight.” She was already moving toward the door.
Ron took a deep breath, looking from Clover to Dori. “You better go,” he said to Taylor.
“But you said I could stay!”
“Yeah, well, I want you to. But if I get busted, what are you going to do?”
Taylor gave him a look of hate and stormed out the front door, slamming it open as hard as she could. She rushed out into the dark without a coat on. Clover stepped out the door to make sure she wasn’t taking off, but Taylor merely raged to Nikki’s truck, got in, and slammed the door behind her, crying loudly.
“That went well,” Nikki said mildly, squeezing past Ron to leave.
“I thought you were her girlfriend,” Ron said. “Why are you treating her like that?”
“I’m not,” Dori said. “And she’s only fifteen. Jesus, I’m almost ten years older than she is, I couldn’t be her girlfriend even if I wanted to. She needs to go home.” Ron’s response was a nod. He seemed happy just to have the drama leaving his house.
Back in the car, Taylor didn’t say a word as they drove back to Ann Arbor. The girl did nothing but look out the window and sulk quietly, and they let her. Her quiescent attitude might have been due in part to Nikki’s silent, stormy presence. Dori wondered if she was going to tell her parents where she’d been, or if she’d lie and say that they had been together, or worse. She felt badly about it, but part of her hoped that she’d pissed Taylor off so much that the girl wouldn’t want anything to do with her ever again.
Apart from another thunderous door-slam, Taylor’s departure was equally drama-free. Dori sighed and threw herself back in the seat. She heard Clover sigh and relax as well. As they pulled away, she said, “I’ve dealt with kids her age a lot, at the hospital. They want to be talked to like they’re equals, but the minute you treat them like adults they walk all over you,” Clover said, yawning. “When they’re being like that, the best thing to do is yell an order, and walk away. They want to argue, but if you refuse to, they’re still young enough that they feel compelled to obey the adult in the end.”
“Some adults are the same way,” Nikki said.
“Sad but true,” Clover agreed. “This has been a long day, Dorito, I’m going to call it a night. When do you move into the apartment you signed for?”
“Two weeks,” Nikki said. “A week before Christmas, and my birthday.” She sighed. “Fucking wonderful.”
“Where are you staying?” Clover asked Nikki.
“I have a hotel. I’ll be fine.”
“That could get expensive. If you’d like a place to crash, we have a couch.”
Nikki shook her head no. “I’ll be okay.”
“Are you sure? Even two weeks in a cheap hotel is almost a month’s rent–”
“My job pays for it.”
“What do you do?”
“They call me an executive assistant in charge of whatever,” Nikki said with a ghostly smile.
“So you’re a secretary?” Clover sounded disbelieving.
“Among other things.”
That closed the subject.