She woke with a start, her heart beating the only sound in the cold. Nell drew her coat up around her neck and sank down. It was dark out, deep dark, with a light haze in the air. She couldn’t move. The seatbelt held her fast to the seat and her neck cried out. Sleeping in the car? Not a good idea. What time was it, anyway? She couldn’t have been there for long, yet her whole body felt pressed into the seat, sore and old. Fuck. The lights were still on in the apartment above, she looked up through the frosty windshield. She reached down and unbelted herself, stretched her feet out between the gas and brake pedals. This was unfair. She shivered and pulled herself through the seats into the back. In the trunk there was a sleeping bag for winter emergencies. She folded the seats over and reached back to the damp, cold trunk.
No one home. No note on the counter, the fridge, the welcome mat sat back in place, mocking. Sara’s mess was here on the coffee table: wine glasses and a pizza box. The sun slid sideways across the floor, bathing the dirty room in orange light as it rose. Nell laughed harshly, tears flooding her eyes. She’d just had the worst night of her life and it did not need to happen. A sob burst out of her mouth. She clapped her hand over it and crept towards Sara’s room. No one was here. The door stood open enough for Nell to see the empty bed. God damn her. There were four messages unanswered on the machine and a sink full of dirty dishes. Nell bit back her tears. Exhaustion and frustration of having nowhere to go made the tears come, it was silly to cater to them. She took a deep breath and looked out the front window at the pink and orange world. Behind those tears and the fatigue, she felt the odd freshness of morning, a second wind poking through the film covering her eyes. Forget that, though, Saturday meant sleep and she would get it; she deserved it after the end of this week. Another glance at the misty yellow city and Nell kicked her muddy shoes across the room, against the door. Finally, at six A.M. it was time to snuggle into her own bed.
Her hand slapped at the alarm clock until she realized that no sound came from it. Nell swung her legs over the side of the bed and listened to the phone ring again and once more before the mumbly voice of the answering machine took over. Sun streaked into her small room, high in the sky, casting small shadows on the floor. Her knees, back, and shoulders ached from her night in the car, but she couldn’t go back to sleep. Her head throbbed with the dull empty ache of too much sleep.
Thank God Sara wasn’t home yet. The way the sun took over the entire living room, invading every crumb on the table was enough to tell Nell she was safely alone. The floor felt humid on her sticky feet as they slapped along tile to the blinking light on the answering machine. Her stomach hovered low and shot back high, anticipating that rough slow voice. Damn, she almost wanted to hear it, wanted to be threatened again. Or perhaps it was just Lucy wondering why she had let Ron into the house. She pushed the button in hard and backed a step from the counter.
“Nell, hello, this is your mother,” she groaned automatically, accidentally. “I was wondering whatever happened to you the other night when you said you’d drop by with that vase. I just wanted to say hi and make sure you’re all right. If you see your brother.” (She scoffed at herself on the tape, as if seeing Ron were less likely than spotting bigfoot,.)
“Let him know that your dad is getting ready to box his things up and send them to the Goodwill. He’s really serious this time. Well, we love ya, sweetie. Give us a call.” The machine beeped and stopped its blinking. Damn. For a long moment she stared at the number on the display: 5. Some may be Sara’s saved messages, but she knew, as her finger pressed the plastic button in with a slow click, that Nick’s threats remained there. The sound of his voice filled the room with an electronic air. He sounded so tired, dead. Why the hell didn’t he have the cops at Ron’s—well Mom and Dad’s– door? Nell erased his messages one by one and sat back at the kitchen table.
She knew one thing, and that was that she did not want to call her mother back. Why hadn’t Ron brought the vase home, for one thing? She didn’t want to give Mom an account of what her son had done. She wanted to talk to Lucy and have a friendly, normal conversation with someone. They didn’t even have to talk about the incident. Suddenly her stomach felt empty. Sara would be home soon, right? Or she could be gone all day long and all night and even all weekend. Nell rolled her eyes at the thought of her roommate and picked up the phone to call her mother.
That laugh. It killed Nell slowly, in sharp, piercing stabs. It was Sara’s mindless flirty laugh. She and this James character sat in each other’s laps watching a sitcom Nell didn’t recognize. She sighed pointedly, eyes drifting back to the computer screen crowded with boring black type. She could not help the hatred swimming in between the paper on the screen and her sore eyeballs.
Sara and her hands and eyes on James’ red shirt wasn’t the only reason Nell’s hands sat dead on the keys and the book flopped slowly open past her bookmark page by page. Mom. Her voice lay behind every word in the half-done history paper. Ron wasn’t home. He hadn’t been home. Did he still go to work? Change clothes? Mom didn’t know and neither did Nell. Lucy’s phone rang and rang without answer. Mom had tried that possibility. There was always the prickly chance that they’d get back together. At least in bed. But the call to Lucy’s had done nothing. The answering machine’s pleasant but flat version of her sensuous voice offered little hope. Before the imposing beep, Mom had hung up the phone. But if he wasn’t there, then where was he? It was enough to make Mom worry. Hell, it made Nell worry. But when she had laid the phone back in its cozy grave, there was nothing more she could do except write her ten-page paper for grammar class.
Sara had come in a half-hour ago, her laugh preceding her by minutes consumed with a sharp and sweaty silence. The male voice outside the door pricked Nell’s soft neck hairs into sharp short needles. She’d glanced to the computer and the 4 at the bottom of the screen smiled up at her. That was an hour ago, and the four no longer reassured her. There was no way to concentrate.
Nell’s eyes drifted on to the television, the perfection of the blond actress whose name lay buried and still somewhere in her mind. The canned laugh tracks echoed with Sara’s own girlish, plastic giggles. Where could Lucy be? The question didn’t seem answerable anymore. It was almost as if she’d never existed. Ron didn’t walk around in easy confidence. Mom and Dad pretended they weren’t disappointed in their only son sleeping sometimes in the guest room, sometimes on the couch.
Sara’s face suddenly overtook the view of the mindless sitcom, mouth parting in black profile. Fuck. James leaned in then too, unconscious of Nell’s weary eyes and her mouth dropping sadly open. Blue television light blurred the foreheads and the hands constantly moving along their silhouettes. Nell’s first reaction became replaced by tears throbbing to escape, to burst out in anger. The computer keys made a harsh noise under her fingers as they simultaneously clenched, drawing a string of nonsense across the screen. There was nowhere else to go. The sounds of canned laughter were underscored by wet, sloppy smacking.
It scared the crap out of her when the phone rang. The room fell silent between piercing rings. Nick. It was him. Or Lucy, finally. Nell’s heart swam in uneasy adrenaline. The phone rang again. Sara would not get up. For all Nell knew, the situation was more complicated than kissing. As the phone rang a fourth time, she plunged at it, heart complaining from her throat.
“Hello?” She sounded choked and stupid. The TV laughed.
“Is Sara there?” There. Her mind shut off. Soon she was in front of the computer again, Sara’s happy voice at the end of a tunnel.
Disappointment. But why should she care if Sara got a phone call? She always got calls. The acid in Nell’s stomach surged as Sara flipped her hair and giggled, playing both to the boy on the couch and the one on the phone.
Nell wanted Lucy’s voice. Not the long black nonsense on the computer or the restless energy of James. Lucy was always so hard to catch. Nell’s feet kicked at the thin legs of the computer desk. Cheap, fake wood. If Lucy were home, would she even call? The thought turned Nell’s stomach. She hated that there was a real chance she would not.
At her wedding, Lucy had run back and forth with such grace that it looked like a ballet. Two bottles of champagne on each table with gold and white ribbons, and the hourglass of Lucy’s figure dancing between them. Nell had dressed in a long flowered dress that covered everything but her ankles, conservative, boring, resigned. She’d wanted to be a bridesmaid in ethereal pink that seemed brighter than white, but Lucy hadn’t asked. She sat at the table with her parents, facing the happy, plastic wedding party. Sara had been her date.
Unreal. Even remembering the evening reception seemed as blurry edged and quiet as a movie scene. Ron’s face sat groomed and grinning beyond recognition. His eyes had glassed over. Everything became an eager mirror for the flowing white and tight lace and silk curtain of Lucy’s black hair. The antique glass of her blue eyes. You knew just by watching Grandma and Grandpa, Aunt Jenny, Uncle Chris, that Nell was not the only one wondering how Ron captured this beautiful creature, or why she would submit to his inadequate snares. Nell would’ve bet her life that he couldn’t look like that: happy beyond comprehension, glowing, in love. Where he should have been proud of the intelligent, stunning pet that he had won, he was mesmerized by her. There was nothing triumphant about the quiet way he received the crude congratulations of his groomsmen, or the awe of their family members. He just looked to Lucy with a look Nell could not relate with, one of absolute amazement, gratitude and love. He was trapped too. It made Nell’s stomach twist.
Mom and Dad sitting and mingling and greeting and smiling seemed wholly detached from the thing. Once certain arrangements had been taken care of; invitations, place settings, caterers, Mom sat back with a glass of champagne to watch. Pride dripped from Dad, mingling with his wide eyes and shaking head. He didn’t believe it either. His eyes followed Lucy’s fairy-like flight from table to table.
Conversations that night were lost to Nell. Lucy’s bridesmaids snuck her glasses of the cheap champagne. She could still see herself in the crowd of girls—but separate—on the dance floor as Lucy stood above them on the stage. She laughed beautifully as she tossed the bouquet back. It happened too quickly to even know which hand snatched the petals from the air. Lucy, like a queen, had turned slowly on her heel laughing, and looked upon the crowd with a strange wisdom. She and Ron both seemed to be distracted from their own wedding. Lucy watched the place like a spectator, while Ron watched her with silence and awe as if she were a unicorn stepping into a field of light.
Detatched. That word said Lucy all over. A little drunk and very new at being so, Nell waited for the perfect moment to congratulate her sister-in-law and warn her about binding herself to Ron forever and ever. She sat down quietly at Lucy’s side as she chatted with one of Ron’s old friends who she was comfortable with. The champagne had glued a smile to Nell’s face and dulled her responses.
“Hey Nell,” Lucy said, standing. The white dress whispered as she turned away. And the things Nell planned on saying dropped out of her mind. Ron’s friend grinned at her, head tilted and drunken. He lifted his table’s last bottle of bubbly to his lips and drained it dry.
“How’d your brother end up with that supermodel, eh?” he twisted the empty bottle in his hands. “It’s fuckin’ depressing, isn’t it?”
Depressing. Sara’s lips had abandoned the phone for her boy again. Sara didn’t have the exotic beauty of Lucy, but she was just as fun. She knew the art of talking to everyone, anyone, and genuinely. She needed other people. She was lost if single for more than a few weeks. James was the newest one, and he seemed nice enough. Sara thought so. She never did anything half way. Now the two pulled away from each other, perhaps sensing Nell’s stare. Still, every place where flesh touched flesh was another slap across Nell’s face. She sighed as loudly as she could and stared back at the computer screen.
The answering machine demanded attention. Coming home had become like Christmas ever since the incident. Nell decided to go to the bathroom first. Turn the TV on. Monday afternoon, something good should be on. The blinking number hovered in her thoughts as she kicked shoes off, put her things in the small messy bedroom.
The possibility of a Ron related message rumbled inside her like heartburn. Life was back to normal, except for the casual thoughts about Lucy or Nick. A phone call would ruin it. Nick had given her the weekend free, at least two days of it. But she wondered. Pressed the button.
Her feet scraped across the linoleum to the fridge, hiding her disappointment, listening to James’ voice for Sara. then the hiss of carbonation as she pulled a bottle of Coke open. Next message. Mom.
An ocean of sticky brown dripped from the counter to the floor, hissing to accompany the four beeps that signaled the end of the messages. Dropped Coke. Mom’s voice faraway and fragile. Did she know where Ron was? What was he hiding from some man, Mr. Cavalier? Why was his lawyer on the phone? Lawyers. It wasn’t her business, not her fault, not her problem. Betrayed. Her stomach pinched together in the pain of thinking that Nick didn’t trust her. Why he should was a mystery, but sadness hit her. If only Ron wasn’t an asshole. Now Mr. Cavalier—Mr Cavalier! Had his lawyer calling, and she had failed. Shit. Call the parents right away if you hear from Ron. His things are in the garage right now. Dad wasn’t paying for this.
Nell picked up the phone and dropped it with confused fingers. Her heart pounded in her throat. Damn it, Ron. Damn it. She dialed Lucy’s number and bit her lip hard. Harder. The taste of blood made her thirsty for Ron’s. One ring at Lucy’s house. Two. Three. The click and disappointment of an answering machine. Nell hung up. She’d have to try the work number, how late was it? She found the buttons with one hand and flipped through the address book with the other numb fingers. Lucy’s work number—if she even still worked there. The silence between rings stayed for a long time, filled with obnoxious static. “Hello?” finally broke through into Nell’s stomach bile.
“Hi. Can I speak to Lucy Frank?”
“I’m sorry, she’s out all this week. Could I take a message for her?” Nell gasped. Shit!
“Is there any way I could reach her?” Her brain faltered. Now what, now what?
“Can I please ask who’s calling?” The voice seemed to bristle. Nell could feel the woman’s grip tighten on the phone, her posture stiffen.
“My name is Nell Ledbetter,” she didn’t know how much more to say.
“I see. Your brother is Ron?” She made it frightening to answer. Especially “yes.”
“Yes, but I’m also a friend to Lucy,” on the defensive.
“I really can not give out personal information about where she is, but I can give her a message when she calls in,” the woman said coolly. Nell felt her defenses failing, her throat tightening and eyes bulging.
“It’s kind of an emergency,” she choked.
“Listen. Your brother has been calling all last week, and we can not tolerate the harassment—“
“I know!” Shocked at her insistence, Nell took a deep breath to calm herself. “I know. I promise that this has nothing to do with my brother.” Silence. Urgent silence. The voice sighed.
“I’m really sorry, but Ms. Frank should be calling in very soon. If you leave your number—“
“She has my number!” Nell growled, angrily. It didn’t help.
“Well, I’ll make sure she gets the message. Bye,” and hung up.
Well, great, then. She flipped through the book again to the front page, where hastily she had scribbled Nick’s name and number from the snatch of paper he’d given her for Ron.
“Hello?” Loud and clear. She gulped, suddenly unsure. This wasn’t her business, after all. And she’d done a lot to save Ron’s ass for no good reason already. “Hello?”
“Uh, hi,” she sputtered, face burning.
“Let me guess,” she could hear his grin. “Nell?”
“I’m sorry. Yeah.”
“Oh, don’t be sorry. What can I do for you?”
“I don’t suppose you know where Lucy is?”
“I uh, well,” good lord was she bad at this. She rolled her eyes at herself, at his mocking aloofness. “Ron lives at home, so, well you have my mother worried.” How lame! She hit herself softly on the forehead.
“She probably should be if they’ve heard from my lawyer.” At this, Nell burst out crying. It shocked her, shaking with the phone in her hand. Nick scoffed. She was frozen between throwing the phone down and clutching it to her. Suddenly she hung up, as fast as she could and ran to the bedroom. What was this? What was this? Crazy. Crazy! Ron got himself into this and Lucy didn’t really matter. Lucy was in the past. She knew the phone would ring before it did. As it hollered, she stood in front of her mirror, drying her eyes. What the fuck? It was all right. All right. The answering machine caught Nick’s confused voice.
She let it roll to a stop, beep, wondering about her hormones. How embarrassing. This thought pushed tears across her eyes again. Her teeth in her lip and her fists in her eyes stopped them. She listened to Nick’s message.
“Nell? I,” he scoffed again. “Uh, I’m kind of unclear about what you want. Listen, call me back or something.” And that was it. Obviously, he was a bit put off. She breathed slowly, listening for shakiness in her voice. Can’t risk doing that again. It was that bitch at Lucy’s work at fault here. If only she hadn’t been so damned frustrating! Now Nell had to call him back. She reached out tentatively. She didn’t have to do it. The phone rang again, scaring her back into the counter. Damn.
“Hello?” She asked, relieved to not hear the tears on her voice.
“Nell? It’s Nick Cavalier again,” he sounded softer.
“Hi,” she said sheepishly.
“Now,” he said behind a not-like-I-care sigh, “What was it that you wanted from me?”
“I just wanted to know if you’ve heard from Lucy at all. My brother is missing and I need to find at least one of them, so that all this is their problem, not mine.”
“Hmm,” he said. He knew! Suddenly she knew he knew. “Well, I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, but Lucy is in Las Vegas getting married to someone named Dave or Don or something.”
“What? Why the hell didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s not my place to tell you. It was supposed to be a surprise—their eloping.”
“God damn it, why didn’t you tell me before?” She shrieked, almost bursting into tears out of sheer anger.
“Hey, like I said, isn’t my place. I didn’t know you were gonna cry on me, or I’d have told you right away.”
“God! And you talked to Lucy? About what, Ron?”
“It was a while ago, a few days. Not that it’s any of your business, but I ‘m invited. To the wedding.”
“What the Hell?! So you’re going?” Was he at the original wedding? There were so many people there then, too many to remember them all.
“No, I’m not.”
“What, your work won’t let you off?”
“None of your business, alright? Listen—“
“Since it’s 3 o’clock and you’re at home, let me guess: you have no job.” Anger washed the remaining tears from her voice.
“What? Why the hell am I talking to you?” he laughed softly then. “I’m not going ‘cause I don’t have a date.” he seemed amused by his sarcasm, but Nell struck like a rattlesnake.
“I’ll be your date. Come on. You should go.”
“Hmm, I don’t think so.”
“Nick, she invited you. Did you tell her you weren’t coming?”
“I haven’t talked to her.”
“But she expects you to come!”
“I suppose, yes.”
“Nick, she must really care about you to invite YOU to this secret—“
“Stop it. I don’t know why I’m talking to you; it’s none of your business. I just hope your brother kills the new husband so he’s put behind bars where he belongs.”
“Well, I’m offering. I swear to God, I’ll drive, I’ll go. I have such a bad feeling about this! What if Ron followed them? He’s snapped.”
Nick sighed heavily. Did that mean he was considering it, or just trying not to make her cry again? “Nell, you seem like a really nice girl, okay? I don’t want to cause any trouble for you personally. You should just forget about your brother and live your own life.”
“Lucy’s my friend, too! I mean… who ARE you? Invited to a secret wedding? Who are you?”
“I’m Nick Cavalier. The man your brother attacked for no reason. That’s all I am to you.”
Dial tone. Fuck.
Well, now she knew where Lucy was, if not Ron. Not that it mattered so much. Nell didn’t know what to do with herself except hang up the now-whining phone. Being hung up on is not a satisfactory way to tie up loose ends.
What was the possibility Ron followed? Nell picked up the phone again and dialed Lucy’s. The answering machine picked up on cue. “Ron, if you’re there, please pick up,” Nell said, desperately. He didn’t and she hung up, feeling idiotic that she had to leave such a message for Lucy to hear. Nell paced over to the window and looked out over the apartment buildings. It wasn’t too expensive to go to Las Vegas, right? And flights have to leave for there pretty often. She left the overcast sky and fuzzy light of the window and sat at the computer. She waited patiently as it screeched and screamed and connected to the Internet. One travel website later it looked like it was a couple hundred bucks to fly to Vegas. Ron could afford that. She could not. Nell logged off and went back to the window. Her breath left a white cloud. She went to wipe it away and noticed in the sky a plane moving slowly by. That could be Ron right there on his way to murder someone.
The phone rang at her parents’ house, and Mom finally picked up. “Hi, Mom, it’s me.”
“Have you seen Ron?”
“He hasn’t been home in three days,” Mom gasped. “Do you know about this? He has some man calling our house leaving messages about owing him money? Nell, is Ron in trouble?”
“I don’t think so,” Nell said. “He doesn’t talk to me very much.”
“Well, I’m worried, Nell. Your father is going to kick him out if he doesn’t get a job, and now he owes someone money? I can’t believe him.”
“Me either. Listen, if he comes home, tell him to call me. I uh, want to know. . .” She searched for a quick lie. A good lie. “I want to know if I can borrow his van.”
“Well what for, him, maybe you can use Dad’s truck.”
“No, that’s okay. I don’t need it right now. Maybe Sara can get her boyfriend to drive.”
“Road trip?” Mom asked pleasantly. Nell smiled in spite of herself.
“Yeah, maybe. I have a lot of homework, so I better get to it.”
“All right, dear, and if you hear from Ron, let me know too.”
Road trip. Those words gummed up Nell’s mind. She could drive to Vegas. Hell, Ron could drive to Vegas. How far away was it? Nell had no idea. Monday, Monday afternoon. She couldn’t just drive away on a Monday afternoon. And which hotel, which chapel would she find anyone at? And why should she even care? Ron was probably still holed up at Lucy’s. Nell could not sit still. Sara would be home soon, and Nell didn’t want to see her.
She wanted to see Nick.
No! No, no, no. Well, all right, yes. Nell stopped in mid-pace. Providing he let her in, talking to Nick face to face would be much more persuasive, especially if she could get herself to cry again. She ran into her bedroom, the little silver kitty on her key chain chiming with her footsteps. From the stack of CDs she chose the most depressing. If only she had a DVD player on her dash, then she’d be ready to bawl for sure.
“Not you.” Nick groaned. Nell waited silently for the door buzzer, but the intercom spat out more static. “Can you please just let it go?”
She pressed the button. “No.”
“Well, I’ll come down there then. You’re not coming back in here.”
Nell hit the button again. “Bring a toothbrush.”
He didn’t look to be carrying a toothbrush. Maybe he didn’t own one. That wasn’t a very nice thought. Somehow today with yellow and purple around his eyes he looked much worse. His hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and maybe that was it, you could see more of his battered face. The ponytail bounced as he walked qucikly towards the door, frowning the whole way.
“You’re persistent,” he remarked.
“You look awful.” Unfortunately it was all she could think of to say. He sighed with his whole lanky body.
“Please, stop with the comments. You’re inflating my ego. What do you want now?”
Nell found her mouth dry and her brain empty. Nick’s arms jutted from the void of his shirt like vulture-picked bones.
“I’m waiting,” he said softly. The insides of his lips were marked with bruises and she noticed two black spaces where teeth had once been.
“Come on,” she had to turn from him, cheeks getting red.
“Oh, no, oh no. You’re not—“
“Wait, come on. Let’s just go out for coffee or something and talk. Please?” Nell turned back to him with her most shining smile.
He chewed his lip, thinking. “I guess I could use a drink.” Nell’s heart kicked up. Famous last words.
The presence of his body in the passenger seat cast a dark, thick mist over everything. Nell couldn’t use her peripheral vision without a glimpse of bruised eyes or black hair. The road ahead moved beneath them silently and rigidly. He would surely notice her slipping onto the freeway on-ramp, but what would he do? Movement tensed Nell’s shoulders and tripped up her heart. Nick shuffled through her CD cases.
“Lively stuff,” he said. So he didn’t notice as she turned onto the freeway. Hadn’t commented on the sleeping bag or backpack in the back seat either. Not yet.
“I’m a lively girl,” she answered. Her body tingled under cold sweat.
“Wait a minute,” something made a hard scraping noise between them. “Wait a minute.” Nell figured the sound came from his fingernails clawing at the seat.
“What was that? Don’t drop my CDs.” Words felt clumsy and imperfect on her adrenaline-tinged breath.
“Kidnapping. This is kidnapping, and you’ll rot in a cell right alongside your psychopath brother,” Nick growled. His eyes shone pearl-like in the dark windshield. “I bet you don’t even know where you’re going. We’ll never make it to Las Vegas.”
“Well, we’ll see,” so far so good. He was pissed off but he wasn’t jerking the wheel or anything.
“No we won’t. Stop the car.”
“What am I supposed to do, let you off in the middle of the freeway?” She had him there. His fingers scraped the armrest. He dropped her CDs on purpose next to his feet on the floor. The sound of the cases crushing beneath his feet echoed in the small car. “Don’t be a jerk,” Nell hissed.
“Oh what, like beating the crap out of a guy? Or harassing him constantly? Or kidnapping him? Damn!” He stomped a boot down, making his point in shattering plastic. Nell let the sounds fill her. She waited until he was finished grinding his heels, ruining three perfectly good CDs until she spoke again.
“Think of it as an adventure. I mean, really, how many people do you know that have been kidnapped? And by a girl. It’s like we’re in the movies. Just don’t try any James Bond stuff ‘cause I rigged the car to explode if it’s not in Vegas by Wednesday.”
Nick grunted angrily, crossed his arms and planted his butt in the seat so that he totally faced the window. In the dark reflection of the windshield, Nell’s teeth glowed in a bright smile.
Well, Nick had one thing right. Nell had no clue how to get to Las Vegas. Of course she wasn’t about to tell him that right away. Interstate 35 south seemed to be a good start. It ran straight and fast through the cities and down south into the country. Nell drove the speed limit, humming softly to her favorite parts of the CD.
Nick hadn’t said a word for the past hour. Hell, he had probably tried to breathe extra quiet just to piss her off. It worked, a little. Nell glanced over, first to his boot resting on her CDs, then up to his head. Nick still did not face her. His whole body still twisted towards the passenger window white with his breath. His body must be locked into position with ass uncomfortably sideways on the seat and one leg crossed loosely over the other. Nell shifted her glance quickly from him to the dash. The gas light glowed amber. Close to empty. Crap. Well, the next exit shouldn’t be too far off.
Nell pulled into a Citgo. Thank God for credit cards. Nick didn’t move.
“Hey, Nick?” she asked. He remained silent. Well, either he was sleeping or she’d killed him. That would be a challenge to explain. No, officer, I didn’t mean to kill him. I just planned on kidnapping him for a little while. My brother’s the one who wants him dead.
His sleep could be a blessing in disguise, although she had hoped to con him into driving a little of the way. She shut her door as silently as she could. Another cold spring night. Fill ‘er up. Nell shivered as she placed the hose in the tank. She could use some caffeine and maybe a little food, as could Nick by the look of it. Maybe she’d pick him up a toothbrush. If he didn’t come in after her, raving about kidnapping plots, Nell would buy him anything his little heart desired.
Inside felt a lot nicer. Good thing she’d packed sweats. They would have to find somewhere to stay tonight if Nick refused to drive. Nell’s stomach turned. Could they possibly make it there in time? What about money? The credit card had a thousand-dollar limit and she was buying, unless he’d had the foresight to stuff his jeans full of cash. The clerk’s eyes followed her as she slowly browsed the snack aisle. Nell wondered what he would do if Nick woke up and came inside raving about being kidnapped.
“You buying?” A gruff voice startled Nell from behind.
“Jesus Christ, Nick!”
“You are twenty-one, aren’t you? Good,” he handed her a six-pack of Bud Light.
Nell picked some pretzels and a bag of chocolates. Try to keep it cool, push away the doubt. On to the Coke with a glance to the bored clerk. How guilty did she look? Nell pretended to browse the drinks and turned to the dark shadow behind her. “Have a nice nap?” She asked Nick as he floated around the candy. He grunted assent. All right, a liter of Coke and a bottled water to balance it out. She turned to Nick. His shoulders slumped. A feeling crept into Nell’s consciousness. Time stopped. Either that or his movements were so slow and calculated that the illusion was created.
Nick rose slowly with an armful of candy. His eyebrows turned sharply towards his dented nose. Nell couldn’t tell whether he was angry or in pain again. Probably both. “Lemme grab one more thing,” he said, handing over his selections. No anger in his voice, only pain. Heavy, ragged breathing. Nell felt sorry as she nodded consent.
She walked from him, biting into her lip hard. Nell set the pile of snacks on the counter. The clerk looked at her with the same suspicion he had when she walked in. “I have gas out there, too,” she admitted sheepishly. Nick’s shuffling steps got closer.
“Here,” he moaned. His hand plopped down an extra large bottle of aspirin. For a man as thin as a twig, he had incredibly big hands. Strong looking, but shaky now as he pulled them back from the counter.
“Christ,” Nell muttered. That was a big damn bottle of aspirin, too.
“Thirty-two sixty-five,” said the cashier. Nell handed the plastic over. Nick shuffled away, ringing the bell on the exit door on his way out. “He don’t look too good.”
“No, he doesn’t,” she agreed. Now she felt really bad. Nell didn’t look up, but felt the eyes for the clerk follow her out the ringing door.
Nell set her paper bag between the seats. Nick had laid the seat back and now reclined with his hands pressed to his temple. “Are you all right?”
He sat up with some effort and grabbed for the bag. “You didn’t have the insight to kidnap my medication,” he complained. Nell’s stomach cramped. It hurt so much she could use some of that aspirin herself. Or a couple of those beers. Nick wrestled one from the six pack and popped it open.
“You can’t drink while I’m driving,” she scoffed. Nick pushed himself against the door, paper bag in his lap.
“What do I care if you get pulled over for ‘open container’?” With one hand he snapped the cap off the aspirin bottle and shook a few pills into his mouth. With a gulp of beer- at least half the can- he washed them down.
“God, Nick, you’re going to kill yourself.”
He grunted, eyes shut.
“Seriously, aspirin and beer don’t add up to good things.” Nell stared. Nick kept his head back against the window, lips pursed around aspirin and alcohol. “You aren’t all right, are you?” Might as well get the obvious out of the way. It might open him up to more intimate information. Nell’s stomach threw itself into a graceful somersault.
“Broken ribs hurt. Especially without codeine or whatever the fuck they gave me.” He looked over at her and his expression softened. “I’ll live,” he shrugged.
“I’m sorry,” Nell said. “I wouldn’t have kidnapped you if I knew you were in such pain.” Four days later and he still hurt. Maybe Ron was stronger than he looked.
“It’s freezing cold out here.” Way to change the subject.
“I have a sweatshirt. You want it?”
“Actually, yeah. Although that won’t pay my medical bills.” Nell opened the back door and reached for her bag. She’d packed light. The University logo sweatshirt sat folded right on top. She handed it over the back of the seat to him. “Thanks.”
She got back in the car. Nick struggled to balance his beer, candy and pull the shirt over his head all at once. It took time. His breathing became tinged with little grunts as he worked the shirt over one arm, then the other, passing his beer back and forth carefully. Nell caught herself staring again. Why? He wasn’t much to look at, especially in the sweatshirt. It was big enough for him; she liked her sweatshirts bulky. The cut wasn’t exactly right, and what was comfortably roomy on her full body positively swallowed him. Nick tipped his open Bud back and finished it off.
“Uh,” Nell found herself grinning out of sheer embarrassment. “Do you know how to get to Las Vegas by chance?” He turned to glare.
“I still don’t agree with this little joy ride. Even if I did know how to get to Vegas, fuck you. I wouldn’t tell.”
“Well, it will be a lot longer trip if I don’t know where I’m going,” she growled.
“I’ll make it a long trip anyway. This isn’t fun for me, you know.”
“Yeah, that I’ve gathered,” Nell hissed, stony-eyed.
“Should’ve just called the fucking cops,” he mumbled and crossed his arms across his chest. Nell stared at him, trying hard not to hate him.
“Maybe you should have. It’s too late now. I’ll make sure you’ll get your damn money, and I’ll never bother you again.”
“Thank God,” Nick spat. “I don’t want to be paid back with your company.”
Nell felt adrenaline hit her in the heart. She felt like punching him herself, but took her anger out on the car door instead. She stalked back into the store. The clerk stopped his whistling and watched her in silent distrust. Nell bit her bottom lip and tried to ignore everything. Maps were expensive. They only had the big book atlases. Well, they were already this far.
Nell opened to the big map. Shit! She hadn’t realized how far away Vegas is. If they drove all night, she doubted they could make it. And then the same amount of time coming home? She’d be automatically dropped from all of her classes. The shortest route as far as she could tell went through Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and finally Nevada. They couldn’t do it. It would take too long. What a stupid idea. What was she thinking? She was just reacting. And it wasn’t working anyway. In her fantasy about this ride, Nell saw Nick opening up all about the wedding, all about Lucy. All she had managed to do was to piss him off and make him suffer to boot.
What if Lucy was there and gone by the time they even got there? That would be exceedingly stupid. As if this was going so well to begin with. Fuck. Nell choked on the beginning of tears. What the hell was she doing? Nick had some spell on her, it was true. This must be his twisted payback for letting Ron kick his ass.
They already had time and gas invested into this endeavor. Little over an hour, anyway, and a few bucks. Lucy’d be out all week if her secretary wasn’t lying, and Nick hadn’t used any excuse about not getting there in time, so it could be that the wedding was to take place later in the week. Maybe he didn’t know. Nell sighed. It was cold, outside and in. She decided not to buy the map. Not yet. Drive now. Think later. Maybe turn around. She no longer cared if Lucy and her hubby were murdered by Ron, or if Nick ever got paid for his broken ribs and black eyes.
Three beer cans had joined the crushed CD cases at Nick’s feet. He lay still as Nell sat down and buckled her seatbelt.
“Are you gonna sleep the whole way?” She asked. He looked somewhat more comfortable in the sweatshirt.
“Yes,” he slurred. His eyelids hovered barely open above jet black and red eyes.
“All right,” Nell sounded even more disappointed than she felt. “At least get in the back then. It will be more comfortable.”
“I can’t get comfortable. I’m being held against my will.”
“It hasn’t been that bad, has it?” Nell sighed. He looked at her in an condescending kind of way. Made her feel small, tiny. She couldn’t look at him any more. She turned the key in the ignition.
“Bad compared to what?” he mumbled.
“I’ll take you home,” Nell said. He grunted and turned away from her again. Nell felt tears rising. How stupid could she be? The click as she unfastened her seatbelt made him twitch, but he didn’t even look as she exited the car and slammed her door.
“Son of a bitch!” Nick cried. His body clenched in a spasm when she opened the passenger door on him. He fell half out onto the concrete.
“Get out here.” Nell swallowed a heavy lump. Don’t cry now or he won’t get back in.
“Listen, now, I’m fine here.” He could sense her rising tears, she just knew it.
“Seriously. Get your ass in back or I make a scene.” Nick’s eyes couldn’t look more bloodshot. He reached under the seat and righted it from the reclined position. One leg came shooting out of the car, then another. Nick grunted as he got to his feet, leaning on the car door like an old man. His body towered next to Nell a toothpick skyscraper. Heat radiated from her sweatshirt hanging off his bones. Nell shivered.
“You’re nuts,” he said. Gas smell permeated the thin air. No one except him, her and the attendant. This must look crazy. Hell. Nell swung around to clear the backseat. Threw her backpack up front and snatched the sleeping bag. Her nose wrinkled at the breath of a thousand campfires.
“Lay down.” She pointed to the back seat. Nick folded his spider-like frame into the car. He shoved his feet at her end, curled up in a semi-fetal position. Nick moved restlessly, truly unable to get comfortable with spindly legs and arms jutting out everywhere. Nell reached in, handing him one end of the sleeping bag. It unraveled, made his thin body into a mountain range of green waterproof cloth. Making sure she wouldn’t smack his head, Nell slammed the door shut.
She would leave her body. If given the choice by aliens right there, bam! Goodbye cruel world. Nick sighed and settled in behind her. Each sound– from gentle rustling cloth noises to his soft aching breaths– scraped at her brain. Damn him. Damn Ron. Damn Lucy. Nick sighed like a little kid being tucked into bed and the space behind Nell’s eyes burned. Now she really couldn’t ask him to drive.
COP STOP WHEE see a cop, freak out, turn around? Turn around and dream of wedding
Highway and highway and highway. Soon it was too dark to see shit, and Nick had been snoring for a while now. Empty fields and massive billboards slipped by silently. It hurt Nell’s head to follow the white lines flying on either side of them. What a terrible idea this had been. Madness. Nell had plenty of time to consider the benefits of counseling, or even checking herself straight into the loony bin. Both seemed plausible.
Soon enough, 35 split back off into two highways, and not long after that, the Minneapolis skyline rose on the horizon like a crooked jeweled crown. Nick’s snoring quieted to a harsh breathing, just loud enough to assure Nell that the aspirin and beer cocktail had not killed him.
Kidnapped. Well, soon he would be un-kidnapped. It might be fun to take him home and chain him to something, just for the effect. Maybe send a patched-together ransom note to Lucy. Cut his fingers off one-by-one until Nell knew everything there was to know about Nick Cavalier and why he should know about Lucy getting married. It wasn’t really funny. The way Nick chased half a dozen aspirin to his stomach with beer drained the fun and excitement right out of the evening. And so here they were, turning into his building, safe. He could crawl straight into bed or lie on his couch and get sloppy drunk all alone. What a depressing thought.
Setting the shift lever into park felt monumental. Waking him up would ruin it, whatever this was. The movie would end. It was better this way, a happy ending sort of, even if Nell felt left out of the plot. Nick would be safe at home, and not trapped in a speeding car by a psycho he’d just met. Lucy would be re-married, Ron would be—well, who cares? Nell cleared her throat. Nothing. “Nick.” She said forcefully. Nothing. She honked the horn.
He rolled over, right off the seat with a dull thump and a loud groan. Ouch. Nell had to force her face to un-cringe. “Are you all right? We’re there.”
“Where? What? Oh.” He sat up, sort of, looking beat up as ever. His face remained blank. Nell smiled and waved her hand slowly in his direction.
“We’re home. At your place. You’re un-kidnapped. I’m releasing you back into the wild.” Nick rubbed his eyes and kicked the sleeping bag into a dirty pile.
“Okay.” Boy, was he slow. He leaned over, climbing carefully back onto the seat. “Thanks. Bye.” He shut the door behind him without even asking for the rest of his beer or anything. Nell watched him fish his keys out of his jeans and let himself in to the building. She shuddered. The insanity was over. She had to stop interfering. Whatever happened now happened, no matter where Ron ended up, she would stay out of it.
“Nell! Where the hell have you been? Your mom called. She sounded kind of worried.” Sara stood at the kitchen island spreading cream cheese on a bagel. She could have done without the skimpy pajama top. No one else was around to appreciate the cleavage.
“Did she say about what?” Nell felt too tired to really care. Maybe Ron had called from a Nevada jail.
“No.” Sara dropped the knife onto the cool light of the counter. The sweatpants looked like MC Hammer pants on her athletic frame. “Are you okay, Nell, you’ve been acting weird the past couple days.”
“Weird? Weird how?” Nell grabbed the cordless phone as she sat back into the rough embrace of their 70s couch.
“Weird like that. You just aren’t yourself.” Nell grunted as she dialed her home phone number.
“I’ve been studying too much I guess.” She said, absently. The phone rang shrilly.
“Hello?” An unfamiliar voice.
“Uh, hello, is this the Ledbetter residence?” Stupid. Not like her own home phone number had changed in twenty-two years.
“Yes it is, is this Nell?”
“Yeah. Who is this?” And what did you do with my parents? Sweat glued the phone in her hand.
“I’m the neighbor, June. Your mother asked me to look in on her birds while they were out.” Those damned birds. Mom wouldn’t have them babysat over nothing.
“Where are my parents? What’s wrong?” Sara stared at her with more curiosity than concern.
“They had to take your brother to the hospital. Apparently he collapsed. I’m sorry I don’t know much more than that.”
“My brother? Which hospital?” How, when, what the fuck? Nell’s brain couldn’t keep up with its own questions. Thank God they’d stopped in their tracks to Vegas! She scrambled for a pen and wrote down what the lady told her. “Thanks, thanks.”
“I hope he’s all right,” the neighbor said sweetly.
“Me too.” Nell hung up.
“What’s going on?” Sara asked.
“Ron’s at the hospital, apparently.” Her words sounded far away from her mouth.
“Oh my God,” Sara said, tilting her head like a confused poodle. “What happened?”
“I don’t know, but I’m going to go find out. I can’t not go.” Car keys, on the counter. They felt cold in Nell’s hand. Thank God they hadn’t gone to Vegas, thank god.
At the first stoplight she thought she should’ve remembered to take the beer cans and the rest of the six-pack out of the front seat. She could use some aspirin, now. Why the Hell would Nick tell her Ron was going to Vegas, then? Why would Ron collapse anywhere near Mom and Dad? Had Ron done something to himself? Why anything? Her foot nervously shuffled, the one not on the brake pedal. The smell of stale beer only added to her nausea.
Ron wouldn’t hurt himself though. Would he? Maybe he did not eat or sleep for lack of Lucy? A grown man doesn’t just collapse. Nell’s mind drifted to a picture of Ron lying across Lucy’s kitchen table with an angel figurine in his hand, unconscious. She wanted to throw up.
The Emergency entrance stood out like a beacon of light, so how come a place to park was hidden at the center of some labyrinth she didn’t know the entrance to? God, she drove like she was drunk. Beer fumes getting into her brain. Finally a small tilted sign directed her to a place she wouldn’t be ticketed.
Through the doors was a reception area, the same Nick had stumbled into a few days ago, bleeding. A desk, doors, chairs, death-smell. Enough to drive anyone insane. Mom stood when she saw her, Nell found her out of the corner of her eye and made a little noise out of pure surprise.
“Nell, how did you know where to come? Oh, I’m so glad you’re here!” It took a lot of words until Nell could focus on what Mom said. Dad sat in one of the chairs next to a passed-out woman, looking unimpressed. So, it wasn’t all that bad.
“What the hell is going on?”
“Watch your language! We had to rush your brother to the emergency room! He came home tonight for dinner and I thought he looked pale, so I made him sit down on the couch and have a glass of water. When I called him in to eat, he stood up from the couch and just collapsed! Your father woke him up with a little cold water, but he had a fever of one-hundred-and-two. So we brought him in. He’s back there right now. Oh, Nell.” Oomph. Mom’s arms squished around her, pressing her breasts too hard. Through gritting teeth and squinty eyes she caught Dad giving her a knowing, apologetic look.
“I hope he’s all right,” Nell’s eyes couldn’t process the fluorescent lights correctly.
“Me too, me too. Come sit down with us.” Mom led her back.
“Hi, Dad,” she felt embarrassed suddenly. If anyone could look at her and know she had kidnapped someone earlier that night, it was Dad.
“Hi, sweetheart, how are you doing?”
“Mister and Misses Ledbetter?” They all turned to face the voice and found a plump blond nurse with freckles smiling at them. Nurses usually didn’t smile when about to tell you your brother was dead. Then again, maybe she met him before he became a corpse and was happy about his passing.
“That’s us,” Mom stepped forward, clutching claws deep into Nell’s arm.
“If you would come with me, I can tell you what’s going on with Ron.” was that a bad sign? Nell’s heart beat too quickly.
“All right,” Mom said in her best sweet patronizing voice. They followed the nurse into a small room with a curtain separating them from anyone else. Her smile disappeared.
“Ron has suffered an infection from a bite wound on his back. It appears to be a human bite.”
Nell’s world froze. Froze. Somewhere she had known why Ron was here. Air was tough to come by. The nurse seemed shorter. The room smaller. Ron was suffering from a bite wound. A human bite. Suddenly Nell felt like brushing her teeth.
“Oh my!” Mom clutched Dad as if she had the vapors and needed help onto the fainting couch. Nell bit down on her tongue, hard. But not too hard.
“Now, a wound like this can be dangerous in a couple ways. One, it can become infected, which is the case in Ron. We’re going to drain the wound and treat him with some antibiotics. The other problem we have here is that different diseases can be communicated through human bites. The most concern we have is with tetanus. Now, it is not very common to contract tetanus, but Ron’s medical records show he hasn’t had a booster in a very long while. We would like to keep him overnight for some tests, observations, and to start him on some IV antibiotics because his infection seems a bit severe. I don’t think he has contracted any diseases from the bite, but we need to make sure.”
“Oh my God,” Mom gasped. “Who would bite Ron?”
“Can we go in to see him?” Dad asked, grip firmly supporting Mom.
“Once he is moved into a room, I’ll come back and let you know. It shouldn’t be long, now.” They thanked the woman and she left. How mom wouldn’t catch the pure guilt stamped across Nell’s face, she did not know.
“Tetanus? Don’t you die from that?” Mom shrieked.
“Ron will be just fine, although it should be interesting to hear who bit him.” Dad reassured.
“Uh,” Nell put in nervously, “I don’t think I’m useful at all here. I have a huge exam tomorrow I should study for. You’ll call as soon as you hear about Ron?”
“Of course, of course!” Mom said. “Will you do me a favor? Stop by the house and check on the birds? Make sure June covered them and that there water is full?”
“Sure, yeah, anything. I know Ron’ll be all right. I feel bad for leaving.” Yeah right.
“That’s okay, honey. There isn’t much we can do.” Dad shook his head. Mom reached out for a hug with all her worried, shaky might. Nell hugged back tentatively. This may be the last hug from Mom she ever received. She wasn’t going to be there when the shit hit the fan. She’d rather be still on her way to Vegas.
“Call me as soon as you know,” Nell sounded choked up enough. Innocent, even. Fear rolled in her stomach. If Ron died from her bite, there could be trouble. Ron wouldn’t tell, though. He couldn’t! Oh god, especially if he died. He’d be fine.
“Of course, dear. You’ll be the first to know.” Mom pat her back, distractedly. The smell of hospital cleanliness began to stick in Nell’s sinuses. Grinning nervously, clown-like, she barely held herself from running out of the place. Barely.
In the cool air of outside, Nell sighed. It hurt like mad to fall against the brick building and scrape down into a half-sitting position. She shook. Tonight sucked. She laughed when she thought this, a hard sound in the night silence. Las Vegas. Whatever happened to Las Vegas? Crazy, she should turn around and ask for a quick psych evaluation. I bit my brother and kidnapped a complete stranger, so what do you think, a little Prozac? Sure. Well, maybe a lot.
Nell didn’t look at the birds. They slept under the towels Mom had embroidered their little green likenesses on. straight for Ron’s room is where she had her heart set. Dad had supposedly begun to throw it in the garage. Crap all over, that’s what she would have to look through, but it should be worth it. If Ron kept a journal, the birds might be repeating some loud, albeit happy swear words tomorrow morning. Nell opened the door.
Shocked. Nell fell onto Ron’s made bed with a stiff, resigned plop. Something was not right here. Maybe before collapsing, the infection made Ron delirious enough to clean his room. Lucy stared at her from an eight-by-ten frame. It was probably the last picture Nell would have chosen for the bedside stand. Black frame to match her hair and the dress she wore. Nell remembered that dress—how could you forget it? How Lucy had avoided supermodeldom remained a mystery to everyone, but this picture made it more than a mystery. It made it an injustice. Nell had no idea when it was taken, or for what. No Ron, just Lucy shining. Laughing. Deceitful is the word the motherly side of Nell’s brain came up with. The rest of it could only think beautiful.
The wedding album, white and pink, shone like a beacon from under the bed. Only thing not covered in dust under there. Maybe he’d taken it from Lucy’s. Nell’s knees crackled as she got back up to sit on the bed. Fingers on the edge of the sharp plastic seams, she opened it. First person she saw was Lucy, glowing, as angelic as someone with such black hair could be. It sat done up above her face, some curls falling calculatedly about her sensual cheekbones. Ron beside her seemed happy, yes, but misplaced, and Nell looked as if pasted in as an afterthought. The dress she wore did not suit her at all, she thought. No dress ever really did. Maybe if she looked like Lucy, or was built in a way that vaguely resembled her, she might have pulled it off. She had not.
But Nell had seen plenty of photos of herself at the wedding, before the wedding, after the wedding, trying on the dress, having her hair done and anything else Mom had witnessed with camera in tow. She looked for a tall, thin man with dark hair and a chronic sadness to him. The reception was probably the best place to start. Flipping the pages back put a great weight on her arm. She set it on the clean bedspread and leaned in for close inspection.
Dancing. Ron stank at it. Lucy and her father. Lucy and Dad, Mom with some relative of the Lucy family. There had seemed to be a limitless amount of Lucy Relatives, all equally unimpressed with the whole shebang. Ron’s friends all managed to look as scruffy and spaced out as usual, even the ones in tuxes. And there he was. Somehow, as Nell imagined it, Nick stood out, even in the company of Ron’s loser friends.
He sat alone, for starters. If Nell could have imagined any photo of him at the wedding, sadly it would be this way. But it was no sad portrait of a depressed man sitting in solitude. Instead, his aloneness sat wedged in the strangest place. It was the photo of Lucy throwing her bouquet. In the foreground Luce smiled, leaned back, hair now down in drunken bliss, fanned behind her arms caught in mid-toss. The bouquet itself, a floral blur sat above and to the left of the shadow of Nick. The camera angle was so odd. Mom had climbed on the stage next to Lucy to take it. In the crowd, caught only from shoulder up, Nell spotted herself. She stood looking sour, making no attempt to catch the flying flowers. From the side and above, she looked awkward and fleshy. Nick sat perched to the right of her giant forehead. He did not watch the festivities. His face was turned to gaze at something off-camera, or out into space. He did look quite pensive. His now bushy hair was shorter but still unruly and he wore all black. All black to a wedding—classy. In front of him on the table was a beer bottle and the same small bouquet that graced every table, except that he had removed one of the flowers, Lucy’s favorite, a daisy, and held it clutched in his hand. Because he was so tiny, Nell could not read his face.
Nell flipped through the rest of the photos and found no more evidence of him. Closing the book, she didn’t know whether to be more confused, less confused, or convinced of anything other than her status as a stalker. Maybe this could still be called detective work, rather than stalking at this point. Tying the loose ends together. Nick had known Lucy well enough to be invited to the wedding. The strange thing was that he had come. It obviously was not his type of thing, to go to weddings. So they had been good friends, maybe they still were. Lucy was known to keep long-dead relationships going slowly on and on in a platonic way. Ask Ron. Nell replaced the wedding album in its space, tossing it far back there. Now what? It was over, but she didn’t want it to be. Lucy might be in Vegas, but Ron was “safe” in the hospital, dying from her venomous bite. Nick had slithered into his apartment to do whatever the hell he did. Mom’s birds slept peacefully because they didn’t need as much attention as Mom imagined they did. Nell wanted a drink, or to call someone, or to take a long walk. But she could only really do one thing, the last thing she wanted. To go home.
3:46 AM. Sleep. Usually so easy. What could be easier than closing your eyes and drifting into dreamland? After all, Nick could do it while being kidnapped, why couldn’t Nell do it just because she had killed her own brother?
Mom could call at any time, any time now to tell her that it wasn’t tetanus. Isn’t tetanus lockjaw? Wouldn’t they know Ron had it by the lack of stupid things coming out of his mouth? The clock sat defiant at 3:46. Was a minute really this long? Maybe it was the minute they were calling Ron’s death, and God wanted to make sure she suffered all the way through it.
3:47, finally! The phone rang. Shit, maybe she was right. Maybe. She couldn’t get up. Couldn’t move. How could she answer the phone to hear that Ron was dead? Dead by her bite. How often do you hear of that? It could make the news. But you never did hear of it. That could be a good sign.
The phone rang number four as she finally jumped out of bed, into the hall. It rang a fifth time and she had it, out of breath and said, “Hello?”
“Nell? This is Mom. Did I wake you?”
“No, I couldn’t sleep. Is Ron OK?”
“Yes. They determined it wasn’t tetanus, just a bad infection. Of course, they’re still keeping him overnight.”
“Well, that’s good.” She couldn’t sound too relieved to Mom. As she slipped down the counter in a cold sweat. “That’s great.”
“You should visit him before they discharge him and say you’re sorry,” Mom scowled. Nell had laughed before she could even think about holding it in. So he told. What a bastard.
“I’m not coming to see him,” she sighed.
“I can’t believe you, Nell! You put him here; the least you could do is apologize. Soon! Your father and I should hold you accountable for the medical bills!”
“Mom, don’t you think I had a good reason to bite him? I’m not some kind of psycho.”
“Well then what was your reason? Why would you ever bite your own brother?”
“If Ron won’t tell you, neither will I,” Nell said. Mom scowled, and Nell could see her face on the other side of the line, the same disgusted look she had received millions upon millions of times. Hopefully Dad thought it was funny.
“I don’t know what has gotten into you, Nell, but I don’t like it. All I can say is you had better shape up or else.” Click. Hung up on by her own mother! Oh boy. If it wasn’t so late, and if Ron wasn’t so alive, Nell would be worried. Sara would be crazy not to have been awakened by the phone. Even the sound of the receiver settling into its base was like a sonic boom in the late night silence. Nothing to do now but sleep. Make it like the past few days never happened. She could use a sleeping pill or five.
“Nell?” Shit! Sara’s shadow materialized into solid form in the hallway. Nell fell from her reverie onto the countertop.
“Sara,” she gasped. “You scared the crap out of me!”
“I’m sorry, hon.” Sara’s hot hand found her shoulder for a second as she passed and leaned on the opposite end of the island. “Is Ron all right?”
“Yeah, he’s fine. He had a weird infection, but he’ll be fine.” Saying it felt even better than hearing it.
“Wow, do you know what gave him the infection?”
“He had a cut or something,” she sighed. “Sorry if the phone woke you up.”
“No, it’s all right. I’m glad Ron’s okay.”
“Me too,” she agreed. Sara looked odd in the half-light. She looked at Nell too hard. Nell felt guilt poking her in the ribs.
“Nell, we should do something tomorrow. I feel like we haven’t seen each other in ages,” she smiled oddly. Maybe her boyfriend was out of town or something. No, that was unfair. It was true Nell hadn’t hung out with Sara at all lately. In fact she had done nothing but get deeper in this Ron and Lucy crap.
“All right,” Nell agreed. “We can go out after four. That’s when my last class ends.” What was tomorrow? Tuesday? Then that was right. It was too late for this thing.
“Great, I’ll be home around six. We can go out and eat or something, get some beers.”
“Great,” Nell agreed, but she felt differently. Life didn’t seem normal anymore. She felt distant from Sara as if the person standing with her in the dim kitchen was only a cardboard cutout of her friend. All Nell really wanted was to fall asleep and stay that way for a long time.