Nell peered into the piss-yellow of the Miller Lite in front of her. In it, the goofy crap on Applebees’ walls distorted and wavered. There was nothing else to really look at. How long could Sara spend in the bathroom anyway? Ten minutes and counting. Well, it was better than sitting at home or studying, and the food had been good.
There she was, coming from around the corner with some guy. Some guy. They laughed and smiled and he sat right in between them. He looked familiar with blond hair and black eyebrows.
“Hey, Nell, you remember Todd, right? He’s back from Europe, finally!” Sara grinned and nodded, but didn’t look at Nell for even a second.
“Yeah, hey, Todd,” Nell’s voice lacked enthusiasm, so she smiled to try and cover it. She and Sara had been having a good time for the first time in a long time. Of course, she could always find a guy to throw things off.
“Hey, how’s it goin’?” He asked, looking at Sara. Nell took a deep drink of the beer.
“Nell, Todd has to go back to Duluth tomorrow. Do you mind if I go over to Steve’s with him? You can come if you want to.”
“That’s fine,” Nell said. “I should go home and work on my history homework anyway.”
“Are you sure?” Sara sounded ecstatic.
“I’m sure.” Nell smiled back. Who is Steve, she wondered. It occurred to her that she really didn’t know Sara. Her best friend. And Sara did not know her.
“Thanks, Nell. I had fun tonight, we really should go out more often.” she threw a bunch of bills on the table.
“That would be great.”
Sara linked arms with the boy and pulled him off. Nell fished for her wallet. Drinking the last third of her five-dollar beer seemed kind of pathetic at this point. Pathetic and Nick-like. The responsible thing to do, she decided, would be to actually do her history homework. Responsible, boring, but better than sitting and drinking alone.
Rain. Had it rained as they ate? It smelled like it, little particles of clean dirt floating in the air, kicked up by raindrops. The low sky still held a bit of a glow to it, days getting longer. Nell shut her car door. The ruddy brick apartment building was darkened in places by what must have been a quick rain. Feeling for her keys in the cottony void of her pockets, Nell walked toward the door.
“Hey!” A rough voice shot from the darkness. Nell screeched as a dark figure hopped out from behind a van. “Chill out, it’s me.”
“Me?” Nell buzzed from the back of her neck to the tip of her toes. She breathed slowly around the lump in her throat, aware with every pressing beat that it was her heart.
“You know, me, your favorite kidnapping victim. I was on my way in to give you this.” The shadowy figure stepped forward. Aluminum cans rattled. A hand jutted from the darkness stuffed with wrinkled grey cloth.
“Are you drunk?” Nick smiled and he had beautiful teeth. Beautiful teeth if they had still been there, at least.
“Have I been drinking? Yes. Am I drunk? Not yet.” He fell forward a half-step, thrusting his hand forward.
“This is my sweatshirt?” Nell reached with her fingertips. She fell back as it hit her in the chest. Nick grinned.
“Well, it isn’t mine.”
“You are drunk,” Nell scoffed as she reclaimed the shirt. Stepping back allowed her to see the whole Nick, stooped over and swaying in the breeze. His black jeans and wrinkly t-shirt were dark with spots of rain.
“I told you, not yet.” She should invite him in to sleep it off. Who else would look after this fool?
“You must be feeling better?” She could not be sure. Maybe he was just too doped up to notice. Nick shrugged.
“I guess,” he slurred.
“Did you walk here? How do you know where I live?”
“Looked it up. Rode the bus. There’s your shirt. I didn’t want you to come bothering me for it, so I brought it to you.” Made sense. Twenty minutes after dinner, Nell’s stomach felt empty.
“I still have your beer from our trip. Do you want to come up and have one?”
“No, no thanks. Those are your beers now.” Nell winced as he fell into the van next to him, sighing. Hopefully he wouldn’t leave a skinny, oily dent.
“Thanks,” Nell conceded. “Would you like me to drive you home?”
“No. You can drive me to the bar, though.”
“Really. You know the beer in my place is free. The beer at a bar is expensive.”
“Don’t want beer. Hey. . .” A strange look gripped his face, like he’d gotten the joke ten minutes after everyone else had stopped laughing. “Why don’t you come have a drink with me? Then you can drive me home!” Nell shivered. His off-center grin emptied her brain of any other thoughts.
“Okay,” she agreed. Nick pushed off the van uncomfortably. He shuffled out into the lot, confused. Nell sighed. What a terrible idea. “Come this way.” He spun on a heel and tripped after her in cinematic slow-motion.
Nick plunked into the passenger seat again. It felt good to have him there, drunk or not. He wasn’t complaining this time at least. Hell, she had to admit, she liked his company. Must be how he was unemployed, or a drunk, or how he was weak enough to have his ass kicked by Ron. Something glamorous like that.
“You have a particular place you want to go?” Nell asked. Nick sighed.
“How about the Hole?”
“What’s the Hole? Where is the Hole?”
“Start driving, and you’ll get there eventually,” he stretched out. The seat jerked back into a reclined position.
“Make yourself comfortable,” she quipped, and turned the key.
Didn’t take long, just a short silence to make it downtown . Nick lay as sprawled as he could across the front seat with one foot on the dash, looking out the back seat window from his comfortable place.
“Where is this place now?” Nell asked. She was afraid he’d fall asleep at this rate. Or pass out. She didn’t feel like carrying him up to his apartment. Definitely not into hers.
“I forget,” he purred, shifting his legs in the broken plastic of a few days ago.
“Well, we’ll go here, then,” she pulled into the next open meter on the side of the road. This area had plenty of bars. Nick could get out and choose any one.
“Excellent,” Nick yawned. Nell shivered as she closed her door behind her. The brief rain had cooled things off quickly. Nick shut his door and began walking in the direction they’d just come from.
Nell followed, feeling like a puppy. Nick dipped into the first darkened and neon-clad door they came across. Nell didn’t catch the name of the place. It was anything but Nick-like. A crowded, loud sports bar with TVs in every corner. This was the type of place Nick could get beat up in again. He sat them right down at the bar on sticky red stools. It was probably the only open place to sit. Looked like the Timberwolves were playing, sounded like they were winning. Nell blinked hard, not yet used to the smoke.
“Lemme have two Jack and Cokes,” Nick called to the bartender. All of the bartenders wore Wolves jerseys. Their server had muscles sticking out of his in all kinds of places. Nell did not like Jack and Coke.
“I hope you’re drinking both of those,” she said, poking Nick’s side. Black hair brushed her cheek as he turned to face her.
“Okay,” he grinned. “What do you want?”
“Cheap light beer,” she answered. Only one. There was no driving drunk, and absolutely no acting like a drunken dumbass in front of him, no matter how far gone he already was.
“Cheap light beer? I had you pegged as a sex-on-the-beach type girl,” he grinned. Nell’s hand twitched. If the remains of two black eyes hadn’t been there, she would’ve slapped his face. Under the purple and yellow bruise, Nick’s face blushed. “I’m sorry, I meant that you seem like the type who would like fruity drinks, that’s all.”
“Funny, I was thinking the same thing about you,” Nell scoffed. The bartender came back with the whiskey cokes.
“Looks can be deceiving, I s’pose,” Nick philosophized, turning to the bartender. “Can the lady get a bud light?”
“You sure can.” He replied, winking. Two in a row. Nell laughed hard.
“It’s not fair,” Nick protested. He took a drink in each hand and spun to face her. He gulped at one, then the other. Beefy bartender man dropped a big mug of bad beer in front of Nell.
“Thanks,” she didn’t mean it. Didn’t need another beer. There had been the tall Miller Lite at Applebees. Even one beer here could push her over the edge. Nick sucked thirstily at Jack Daniels, obviously not sharing her worries.
Nell took a tentative drink. She felt her face scrunching into its beer face, even though the stuff didn’t taste all that bad. She always had the same reaction. Nick didn’t notice. Usually people noticed. Sara noticed. Sara could probably drink a whole keg of beer by herself and still be thirsty. The ‘Wolves game moved along in the unison of three—no, four—TVs in Nell’s line of sight. This was not the best place to have a conversation. Nell jumped a bit as the guy to her left yelled with displeasure. She’d never cared about basketball, and did not care now.
Obviously, Nick had nothing to say to her, and she didn’t have much to say to him. The Jack in Nick’s left hand was high and dry sitting on the bar now. God, what an idiot I am, Nell thought. Nick looked at her, as if he heard her telepathically and needed an explanation. Nell fumbled for something to say.
“Uh, you know,” she began, and giggled nervously. “My mom hates me because of you.”
“What the fuck are you talking?” Nick asked. His brows creased down and he finished his sentence. “About. Talking about?”
“Well, I put Ron in the hospital because of you. When he was, uh, hitting you, I bit him in the back.”
“He’s in the hospital?” Nick’s eyes blew up into flying saucers.
“Yeah. Well, he was. I assume he got out today some time, but my family isn’t really talking to me at the moment. The bite became infected and he passed out or something. Anyway, my mom is pretty pissed.”
“Wow,” Nick mused. He raised the second drink to his lips and gulped it down. And gulped some more. Nell felt worry burning her forehead as he drained the glass and slammed it on the wooden bar. “That deserves a drink. Seriously. I’m buying you a drink and you have to drink it.” He looked far away. Nell felt pity rising up in her chest for him, and shame that she found him pitiful. She winced as he swiveled back towards the bar.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he called in a loud drunk voice, “come here!” The bartender glared as he walked up to them.
“Nick, I don’t need another drink.”
“You might not need it, but you deserve it,” he grinned. “We want two sex-on-the-beaches,” he declared, triumphant.
“Good lord,” Nell said to herself. The bartender gathered the empties and walked off.
“Well, I hate to have a girl fight for me, but thanks for biting that bastard,” Nick glowed with sweat.
“This whole business is crazy,” Nell said. Nick looked past her, through her. “What did you have to drink before you came over tonight?”
“I didn’t come over,” Nick turned deathly serious. “I was dropping off your shirt.”
“Okay,” Nell gulped as the bartender set two orangey-pink drinks in front of them. “How much did you have to drink before you dropped my shirt off?”
“Not enough.” He picked up his sex. “We need to toast this biting thing.” His arm swayed gently with the weight of the drink in it, held right up to her nose. Nell felt a little nauseous. She picked up her drink and extended it.
“To biting Ron?” she offered. Nick shook his head, hair flying in all directions like a dog shaking itself dry.
“To Lucy.” His expression flattened into seriousness again. Nell’s glass wavered.
“Okay,” she gulped, seeing past her confusion-dipped eyebrows. “To Lucy.” Nick slammed his glass into hers, splooshing weak alcohol all over the bar.
“Fuck,” Nick cursed. He went to set his drink down and tipped it over, all over the bar now and a bit into Nell’s lap. She jumped to her feet with a shriek. “Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” he stumbled into a standing position. The Jack must really be hitting him right now. With two fists.
“It’s okay. It’s okay.” Nell stood herself up, brushing alcohol from her jeans. “That’s all right. Maybe we should call it a night.”
“One minute, you haven’t drunk your drink. Drank your drink. Drink your drink!” The bartender pointed himself their way, obviously on a mission.
Nell took a nice big gulp of the fruity alcohol. No face this time. “How’s that?” She asked. The bartender stood over them like the incredible hulk.
“Problem here?” He grunted.
“We were just leaving,” Nell found thirty bucks and reached out with it. The bartender glared at her as he took it. Nick’s hand swooped in and snatched the sex-on-the-beach. His lips curled around the glass sloppily. The bartender cleared his throat as Nick set it down minus a few ounces of booze.
“Have a nice evening,” the strong, no-nonsense barkeep said. Somewhere else, warned his puffed-up chest and sneering eyebrows.
“I can’t take you anywhere,” Nell softly said as she linked her arm into Nick’s. He tripped a bit, shuffled sideways. The man had to weigh under a hundred pounds. If Ron could kick his ass, Jack Daniels could easily kill him.
Nick broke away in the cool night. He stumbled his first few steps, but turned in confidence back to Nell. “Where next, Jaws?”
“I know this great place. It’s pretty low-key, but I’m sure you’ll like it,” Nell said. Nick’s face brightened up.
“Is it very far away?”
“Not like Las Vegas far,” she teased. “Come on.” He let her link arms again. The space between his t-shirt and ribs seemed endless.
He inelegantly shoved himself back into the car. Silently Nell prayed he would pass out on the way back to his apartment. If she had to roll him out onto the parking lot and leave him that’s what she would do. If only she had known how damn drunk he already was, they could’ve avoided wasting thirty bucks. She never had been good at that sort of thing. And now the bud light and sex on the beach had her head buzzing a little bit, judgement fuzzed over like bad TV reception.
Oh, did it feel good to sit in her car. Nick wouldn’t care if she put in a good CD, right? She was in that kind of mood. Nell turned to ask him and was stopped with a snore. Crap, she thought. But only a minute previous she was wishing for it. Oh well. He wasn’t even buckled in. Nell winced and carefully leaned across his body. She tried not to touch him as she pulled the belt from the wall and reached across him to close it. Phew. He did not awaken. Nell picked a good CD from the selection she had and started back to Nick’s.
“Nick, wake up now.”
The drunken man groaned and stirred the tiniest bit.
“Wake up now. Come on. I will throw you out of my car.” Nell pushed at his corpse. Nick groaned. “Come on, Nick, let’s go have one more beer,” Nell said, exasperated. Even with the tetanus scare and the hospital stay, Ron owed her for this, for all of this. And Lucy too. She needed Lucy now, if only for the relief of telling someone, anyone about what the hell had been happening the past week.
“All right, why the fucking fuck didn’t you say so?” Nick’s eyes opened like a stuck projector screen, hitting the top and reeling. He searched for the door handle like a blind man, and finding it, burst out into the night. Nell’s heart began throbbing under her loose clothes. She jumped out after him. At least he didn’t stagger or stumble or fall, or even falter with his keys as he procured them from his pocket and let them inside. Nell followed nervously through the familiar dirty hallways. What the hell would she do once they got to his place? Have another beer? Didn’t seem like the best idea ever at this point. Nick let them in to his place, flipped on the light. Maybe she could hold his hair while he puked.
“Sit down, I’ll get you a beer,” Nick said. He seemed okay as he walked to the kitchen. Nell sighed. Fortunately, Nick cleaned up since she had been here last. No beer bottles, and the bloody carpet had been scrubbed well. Hard to believe, really, that she had stood right here and watched Ron whip Nick’s ass.
“Here you go,” Nick was quick. He had the same green bottles, and reached out to her with one. Before she even tried to twist the cap off, the smell of beer hit her sinuses. The apartment still reeked of it. Pity again boiled up into her forehead. She’d never known an alcoholic before. Now this one stared at her, waiting for her to join him for another drink.
“I’m sorry, spaced out,” Nell apologized and twisted her cap off. How uncomfortable was this? Nick’s eyes darted around the room.
“It’s okay. You want to watch TV?”
“Not really. I mean, there’s nothing on that I need to see right now.”
“Okay,” each drink he took was like ten of hers. Maybe twenty. Half his beer was already gone.
“Nick,” she caught his eyes between glints of green bottle. He lowered it just enough for her to see that they were dark brown. Almost black. “How do you know Lucy?”
“From school.” He sighed. From the way his head swayed unintentionally around his half-raised bottle, she gave him half an hour at most of coherence. Now seemed the perfect time to squeeze details out of him.
“You loved her?” No need to be gentle. The black eyes looked over at the silent TV set.
“Loved her? You could say that.”
“You’re still friends?”
“Every now and then she appears out of the blue. Like this wedding thing. She invites me to all her weddings.” he tipped the bottle back.
“You really don’t have a job?” That stuck in her throat a little bit. Not like he needed another reason to be depressed.
“Not right now, nothing nine-to-five. I do some computer crap off and on to pay the bills.”
“Do you know this guy who Lucy is marrying?”
“Lucy and I don’t see each other often. When we do, oh, nevermind. You’re too nosy, and I’m too drunk.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be pushy.” Crap. Nick shrugged and went to fetch another beer. He staggered a little this time, choppy drunken steps. Nell watched him come back in with another beer. His face had changed, become sadder. The black eyes now seemed extra glazed over and his mouth turned down in a frown. “I’m sorry about that whole kidnapping thing.” The silence felt terrible suddenly. “It really made sense to me that if Ron found out Lucy was eloping that he would follow her, and you know me—or at least you know one thing about me. I like to watch my brother get into trouble. I didn’t really think it over rationally. I thought it would be fun. I don’t know. Maybe I knew the whole time that I’d chicken out. It’s not like me to kidnap people.” No reaction. Was he even listening? Alive? Throw some beer on that awkwardness, make it go away. Nell gulped and for the first time noticed that this beer had more flavor than the miller or the bud. Made her face crinkle up too much. “I’m going to the bathroom,” she said. Nick’s body jerked as he snapped out of his own thoughts.
“All right, Nell,” he said.
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck,” Nell swore under her breath. Harsh light and empty countertops made the bathroom feel institutional and safe. A haggard, red-eyed Nell swore back at her in the big mirror and looked back with the most perplexed look. She didn’t need to be sitting there giving him the twenty questions. He must think she was some sort of psycho. But then again he offered her beer. He let her in. He was too drunk to notice how stupid she was. He had come to her this time, she wasn’t bothering him. Nell sighed at her own face. “No more drinking,” she whispered. With a nod she agreed with herself and prepared to go back out. Maybe it would be a good time to call it a night.
Nick sat with a beer in his hand, eyes closed. “Nick?” He had to be sleeping. He didn’t respond. Nell stepped over and took the beer from him, still half-full. She reached for hers on the way to the kitchen. Sound reverberated in the little dark apartment. Every clink of glass echoed around her like church bells. Gritting her teeth, Nell tried to be as quiet as possible, but watching the yellow liquid trickle down the drain, she decided it would take a marching band in the living room to wake Nick. What time was it anyway, it felt so early. Nell looked around. The microwave said twelve thirty-five in green light and a little analog clock on the stove read one-forty. So somewhere in the one AM range would probably be a safe guess. Pretty late. She felt like she had to do something for Nick, take care of him. Somebody should. As soon as she could talk to Lucy, she would. Maybe Luce knew some of his friends—he must have them—someone who could sit down and ask him to cut back on the alcohol. Especially while on painkillers like he was two days ago. She assumed he still had them. Her breath choked. He better not be dead.
Feet shuffling on the carpet and her own swallowing rattled Nell’s eardrums. “Nick?” She asked again, in case he might awaken. No such luck. The black cloth of his t-shirt did however ripple slightly and then replace itself with his breath. Nell held her breath for it to ripple again. It did. “Thank god you aren’t dead yet,” she said. Now what? He still had shoes on, jeans on, hell he was asleep in a chair that made him look like a giant. Nell knelt next to his feet. “Don’t wake up now,” she told him, gently placing her fingers around one of his shoelaces. Nick didn’t stir as she untied them, holding her breath. Carefully, Nell pulled them off and put them near the door. Nell stood above the passed-out man, watching his face. He looked kind of peaceful, but stressed at the same time. Nell couldn’t think of anything more to do for him without either waking him or summoning superhuman strength to carry him off to bed. Speaking of bed, she decided it wouldn’t be so bad to take a peek at his bedroom, grab him a blanket and a pillow.
Surprisingly clean. There sat his computer over in the corner. Papers and clumps of plastic CD cases sat piled up in neat rows. Next to the desk stood file cabinets in buff metal. The wall held a mix of sports stuff and photos, along with a poster with a knight on it advertising some video game she’d never heard of. Nell examined a Minnesota Twins pennant signed by someone—looked like Kirby Puckett. Plain blue blanket and matching sheets on the unmade bed. The bed, dresser, desk and night tables looked like a set all made of the same cheap black material. Was that on the bed table closest to her what she thought it was? It had to be. A framed photo of Lucy, not unlike the one Ron had! Wow.
The five by seven frame was heavy in her hand, untouched by dust. This was weird now. A smile attacked Nell’s lips. What if Ron had the right guy after all? No way. It was a different photo entirely from Ron’s. There were people in the background of this one and Luce wore a t-shirt and jeans, not some goddess dress. The shirt was tight and cut a bit short, though. Lucy glowed in it. Her face, beautiful as ever, had a bit less bulk to it and almost an air of naiveté. College. Nick himself was there, too, his eyes caught Nell, black and critical as they could be, but under relaxed brows on a content face. Clean shaven. Surrounded by friends. That was a great haircut on him, too, much shorter but long enough to show off a little curl and a healthy shine. On second thought, that couldn’t be Nick even with his black eyes and his slightly pointy nose. They looked like they could be a couple, although not posing as one, and Nick looked nice and normal. Happy. He looked happy. Nell wondered that it didn’t break his heart every single night and every single morning to see himself in that picture and then walk the ten feet down the hallway to see what he had become underneath the clean sharp lights of the bathroom. A sour pain stirred at the bottom of Nell’s stomach.
She gave up on trying to be quiet on her way back and plopped down on the couch as close to Nick’s chair as she could get. The cushions squealed. Comfy couch. What the hell happened to Nick Cavalier? Nell scrunched up into a fetal position to crush the rising acid in her stomach. Maybe it was the Applebees.
She pushed her eyes closed. He might wake up any minute now to see her staring. But she needed to stare. There he was asleep, breathing through his mouth now. The breath came frequently and loud. It moved a rogue strand of his dirty black hair up and down in front of his teeth and the dark spaces Ron had left in there.
“No,” Nell whispered, lids putting pressure on her tired eyes. Too late. Something terrible had happened. She pulled arms tighter around her chest to squeeze out the unpleasant feeling, like adrenaline that just sat there without asking her to move around. The alcohol, it had to be the alcohol. She had drank more tonight than she had for a long time, probably since the wedding. It wouldn’t be a good idea to drive home. She could sleep in the car again. Man that was uncomfortable. Nick accented Nell’s thoughts with soft snores. She thought about his blue sheets and the black headboard. She had forgotten his blanket. Nell stood and made her way back down his hallway. Back into his room, flipping on the light switch. Clumsily, she gathered the blue blanket in her arms and turned back.
Nick didn’t move as she raised her arms over her head, fluffing the blanket over him like a giant, soiled parachute. It descended softly on him, turning his skinny angular limbs into soft blue mounds. Now Nell headed for the kitchen again. She pulled open a cupboard. She couldn’t believe his dishes—crazy. It looked like he’d got each plate from a different garage sale and all his crystal at Christmas from Arby’s. Nell grabbed a glass with Batman “carved” in it and filled it with tap water. A guy who drank as much as he did had to have a few hundred Advils around here. Nell shot back to the bathroom. She could definitely say this was her favorite room in the house. Why, she didn’t really know. Small and safe. The shiny metal medicine cabinet squealed when she opened the door.
Pills, pills, pills. There really weren’t many to choose from, and none were prescription except a half-empty bottle of penicillin. Must’ve hidden the codeine. He had Tums, Neosporin, band-aids, dental floss, aspirin and next to the after-shave, some ibuprofen. Nell set the water down and shook two pills into her hand. Better make it three, or four.
She set them on the table right where Nick would see them, in the direction he was facing. He would appreciate it, or at least Nell would if she was about to wake up feeling like she’d spent the night in the gutter. There really wasn’t anything else short of dragging him into bed that she could do. Nell stood directly in front of Nick’s sleeping body. He lay in the exact same position as she had left him. Mouth open, blue blanket up to his chin. Nell sighed and the adrenaline stirred around right between her breasts. Man, she’d be sorry when he turned out to really be insane.
She sat on the couch again, to think. If she fell asleep here, that might be all right. Safer than driving home in this half-drunk state. It would be an awkward morning, but what moment hadn’t been awkward with him, really? Nell sighed. She might as well sleep in his bed if she was going to stay. It would be more comfortable. And she could sleep. Sitting here she could only watch him. What the hell had he done to himself? She wondered what he majored in in college. Computer science, probably. That’s what he said he did, right? Computers. Working at home. No wonder he felt like he could maintain the look of a grunge rocker. Then again, maybe he shaved and cut his hair when he had an actual job. When or if.
Nell froze. He moved. Slightly, licking his lips, sighing, and then going back to his original position with mouth wide open. Fuck, he really would think she was nuts. If his eyes had opened right that second, he’d have caught her all-out staring. Now that the danger had passed, and her heart slowed back to normalcy, Nell couldn’t look away. In his slight shuffling, the hair drifting in front of his mouth had been pushed off to the side. He looked so harmless, so damn harmless. Definitely not a threat to Ron’s manliness or Lucy’s purity. Just some guy who kept to himself, mostly. Just a sad, lonely drunk.
The closet where she grabbed towels on that first night is where she looked for a blanket. There on the bottom shelf was folded a red one along with matching sheet. What, did his mom buy him a matching sheet set every Christmas? Didn’t matter. Nell gathered up the red blanket and turned to the bedroom. Again she thought, maybe it would be more appropriate to crash on the couch. But Nick snored. She couldn’t sleep with the snoring. She would rather be close to him. That’s exactly why she should sleep in the bed.
Nell sat up, trembling. Sunlight poured across red and blue fabric. It smelled sweaty here, with a hint of after-shave or some kind of boy toiletry foreign to her nose. Nick’s place, of course. His alarm clock next to his picture of Lucy told her it was way too early to wake up. She lay back down, looked at the ceiling. She wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. She wouldn’t be able to stop thinking or staring at the ceiling or longing for human contact and a chance to use her voice.
Nell took her time carefully folding the red blanket and replacing it in the closet. Took her time in the bathroom. She could sneak out. She could, but didn’t really want to. Nell walked softly down the hallway into the living room.
Awake. Nick sat up, hunched over, face in his hands. Nell stopped herself against the wall, breath catching in her nostrils. She had known he’d look bad. He looked bad. The blue blanket made a surreal puddle around his feet, and the Batman glass sat on the table in front of him, empty. Something she did, some noise alerted him, and his head snapped up as if activated by a switch.
“Good morning,” she said sheepishly and stepped into the living room. Nick groaned. In daylight, the place didn’t seem as clean as it had in the semi-dark of the night.
“I thought you went home,” Nick moaned.
“No, I felt too drunk to drive.”
“My bed comfy?” His voice grated against itself.
“Yeah,” oh boy was she getting red. “Thanks for letting me sleep in it.”
“You’re welcome. Thanks for the water. And stuff.” Nell walked the rest of the way in to stand up over him.
“You’re welcome too. Feel awful?” Nick looked up and locked her eyes with his black ones that were now bloodshot and squinting in a what-the-hell-do-you-think attitude.
“Naw, I feel like another beer,” he said. “Woah, I’m just kidding. No need to look so damn disgusted.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to look disgusted, I meant to look worried.” she snatched the Batman glass away before he could say anything smart in return. “More water?”
“Sure,” Nick sighed. Nell ran off to fetch it before her face could get any redder. She got herself a matching glass, the riddler or something, and filled them with lukewarm liquid from the tap.
“Here you go.” She noticed his hand shaking as he reached it to her. He grunted and she sat back in her original position, trying hard to ignore the tension weaving in and out of them in choppy hungover movements.
‘Thanks,” he mumbled and reached for the TV remote. That should lessen the burden of conversation at least. Nell thought she might play a game called see how long you can stay before Nick kicks you out. But that would be rude. In a few minutes, after she tried to get some more info out of him, then she would be on her way.
Nick flipped through the channels. He didn’t have cable. This early all they had to choose from were infomercials, cartoons and newsmagazines. Nick chose a local early morning news show and sat back with his glass pressed against his forehead. Nell sat on the edge of her seat, words jumbling around in her head. She knew what she wanted to know but not how to find it out. Nick didn’t seem in the mood to spill his deepest darkest secrets. Nell moved forward, hoping to catch his attention.
“Can I ask you something,” she finally got the courage to say. Watching his face, Nell could almost predict what he would answer word-for-word.
“I don’t think I can stop you,” he said.
“All right. Well, I guess I’ll just be blunt. Did you sleep with Lucy while she was married to my brother?” Nick laughed a short, amused chuckle.
“Maybe you should talk to Lucy about it.”
“I’m not going to have him re-beat you up or anything.” Nell sighed. How to convince him she was totally harmless?
“Well that’s a relief.” He drank some more water.
“Were you guys getting together the whole time? I mean, at the end it was obvious Lucy was cheating, but in the beginning?” Nell’s forehead wrinkled.
“Nell, look, I would love to gossip with you like a couple of old ladies, but whatever I say could hurt Lucy. I don’t care what you think or know about me, but I’m staying away from Lucy’s issues. You’ll have to ask her about her private life.”
“That just makes you sound guilty. Plus, Lucy’s never around.”
“I imagine she’ll be home from Vegas soon,” he replied tiredly.
“Come on, I have no idea when I’ll ever see her again. I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever see her again.”
“She’s right there.” His voice held a trance-like flatness. Put off, Nell scoffed. “No, look!” He raised his glass towards the TV. Nell turned to look, not understanding. The TV read “Hunka Burnin’ Love” in red letters across the bottom of the screen. Above that was a building on fire and a woman in a wedding dress. The narrator was saying something about a “Vegas chapel fire.”
“That could be anyone,” Nell said. “Hundreds of people—“
“Shut up,” he hissed. Nell clapped her mouth shut, stabbed in the chest.
‘. . .Fire yesterday evening. The blaze began when a truck making a delivery to the chapel started on fire. Although no one was hurt, the incident altered two young romantics’ lives forever.’ The narrator finished. Maybe it was Lucy. Tall, with dark hair. Body of a supermodel. When they cut in for a close-up, Nell choked on the air she was breathing.
“We were about to say ‘I do’ when the fire alarm went off,” Lucy told a reporter. “We didn’t have time to complete the vows. You could feel the heat almost as soon as the alarm went off.” Fucking hell, did she look amazing. Better the second time around! That dress probably cost more than Nell’s car.
“Hearing of this rude awakening, the Paris hotel and casino offered the unlucky couple a chance to finish their big day in their chapel, but the couple politely declined.” The camera cut from a pan of Paris and it’s fake Eiffel tower to Luce again. Cool as a cuke, she continued.
“My fiancée and I took it as a sign,” she said, smiling. “We’ve decided to put the wedding off until we can get our families together.”
The narrator finished up, something about learning what is important in life. Then it was back to the two regular morning schmucks who bantered about it, as if it were any other boring story on the morning news. Nell found herself on her feet.
“Jesus H. Christ on a stick, what are the odds of that? Holy crap. They didn’t get married. Damn! Are you okay? Nick?” he shook his head, snapped out of it.
“No. Yes, yeah. I’m fine, just shocked.”
“Good lord, did you see that dress? I wonder where her fiancée was?”
“She was lying. They canceled it.”
“What, did you talk to her?” Nell bounced over right next to him, hands on her hips and ready to kick ass.
“No, I could tell she was trying to cover something up. I know Lucy. I could tell.” Still, that trance-like tone.
“You can tell? Jesus, I don’t understand. One minute you haven’t talked to Lucy in years and then next you’re sure you know what she’s thinking.” Nell settled into position right above him, looking down into his bloodshot eyes.
“All right, Nell. Lucy and I still see each other. Once in a while. She treats me like I’m another one of her girl friends. It doesn’t mean anything. Ask Lucy. Leave me alone about it.”
Nell opened her mouth. Nothing came out. Lots of things flowed through her brain, but none of it was so bold to come on out. She had nothing.
“Don’t look so shocked,” Nick emptied his batman glass.
“So you did talk to her,” she accused.
“Not recently.” Nick looked away, out the windows.
“Who is she getting married to?”
“I have a headache,” Nick said, swinging his black eyes back to challenge her. Questions pressed against the front of Nell’s skull like a stampede of bulls suddenly coming across a wall. The horns especially hurt banging against her forehead.
“I’ll leave you alone,” Nell promised. How come it was so hard to make her feet go to that door? She hated this more and more. Maybe she should tell Ron. You had the right guy, don’t give him any money. After all, Ron was hurting too. Maybe not physically anymore but Nell was sure along with that flesh she had swallowed a bit of his pride. Nick needed the help, though. Lucy was making everyone suffer. Nell stood, ready to go.
“Well, don’t be a stranger,” Nick said. Nell almost exploded right there, making a new mess for him to clean up.
“Uh, okay,” she uttered, stunned. She shook herself out of it. “Do you want me to get you some more water before I go?”
“That’s all right, I’m good. Thanks, though.”
“Okay,” Nell said. She made her feet move in the direction of the door. Before she knew it she was there with her hand on the doorknob, hesitating. “See you later, then.”
“You bet. Gimme a call or something.”
Nell slammed the door in response to that one. She then slammed her body against the wall out in the dirty hallway, breathing hard. Did this place ever look differently? It could be midnight or noon outside and in here the same smell would waft, the same yellow lights would barely illuminate the spotty off-white walls. Deciding that Nick could come out here any minute for any reason, Nell pushed off the wall and down the hall. She’d slept pretty well in that bed and was ready to go. Good thing, her next class began in an hour and a half. As she exited into the wet spring morning, she wished she had someone to go out to breakfast with.
“Where the hell were you all night?” Sara insisted as Nell came in the door. Nell jumped back a bit, suddenly conscious of the dirty clothes that had been hanging on her body for the past 24 hours. Where had she been? Not in some strange guy’s apartment, that’s for sure. Sara looked more curious with every passing second.
“Parents’ house.” Nell could tell as the words left her mouth that she picked the wrong answer.
“Your mom just called looking for you.”
“Oh,” Nell closed the door and kicked her shoes off, feeling Sara’s eyes follow her every movement. Well, Mom was talking to her again, that could be a good sign. Depending on what she wanted to say.
“Did that cute waiter from Applebees take you home?”
“I was at my parents’ house, I swear,” Nell lied. Her face burned bright red. “I suppose you got back here bright and early and went right to bed?”
“Nell, damn! If something exciting happened, you got to tell me!” Nell froze.Sara fluttered around her as if they were fifteen and Nell had just received her first kiss with a tongue.
“I promise nothing exciting happened at all. I have to call my mom back quick.” Sara’s nose wrinkled. She didn’t have to look so damned disappointed. Sara had Nell pegged for the nunnery a long time ago, but as a friend still held the hope that they would some day have something nice and sexual to gossip about.
“Mom?” Sara stared at her even now.
“Where were you all night? Sara said you never came home.”
“I didn’t. I stayed with a friend. No big deal.” Nell glared as Sara’s eyes grew exponentionally.
“Well, I hope you plan on going to class. I just wanted to tell you that I saw that tramp Lucy on TV this morning. I was going to have you switch it on.”
“Oh? What was Luce doing on TV?” Best to play dumb.
“Getting married in Las Vegas. Can you imagine that? It’s been hardly any time since the divorce. Anyway, the chapel they were at started on fire. There was a little blurb about it on my morning news program. God must have other plans for that woman.” Mom spat. Nell rolled her eyes. She knew what Mom really meant was that Lucy should still be with Ron.
“Wow, that’s crazy. So Lucy’s married again?”
“Not yet. She and this new guy are waiting now. I wonder if she thinks she really loves him. People are becoming more and more heartless these days.”
“Did Ron see the news show with you?”
“Yes. Oh, and he’s doing much better, by the way. He’s touched by your concern.”
“That’s nice,” Nell sighed, ignoring the sarcasm. If she didn’t feel like doing one thing at this moment, it was arguing pointlessly with Mom. “I have to go to class. Say hi to Dad and Ron.” Mom snorted in disgust.
“Fine. You should come visit soon. I love you.”
“Love you too. Bye.” Nell slammed the phone down. She was gonna be late for class. Hopefully no one would notice that she was wearing the same clothes she had on yesterday.
Don’t be a stranger. Gimme a call or something. Nell couldn’t do it. She could hear the words in her mind now, crystal clear, not dulled at all by the two whole days that had gone by. The car in front of her put it’s brakes on and Nell sighed, impatient.
All day during class the same stupid words floated in her head and she hated them. “Don’t be a stranger.” Nice. People said that to you when they just needed something cliché and polite to say. Whatever. Whatever. She would stop thinking about it, about him, period. Well, at least until she found out more about him from Lucy. Lucy who was apparently back from Las Vegas, according to her secretary. But if she was around, she was too busy to pick up a phone and call inconsequential little Nell back.
The mountain would not come to her, so Nell drove herself to the mountain with a list of stupid questions to ask and a million ideas about how to hide them in normal conversation. The sun had left streaks of orange low on the blue horizon, but higher than they had been. The days seemed to slowly be getting longer, brighter.
She felt a bit sleepy as she turned onto Lucy’s street. It seemed a million years since she had been here to discover Ron pouting in Lucy’s dining room. Lucy’s new man better not be in there now. If she had any luck at all, Lucy would be alone and in a mood to reminisce.
Well, Luce was in the mood for something. Damn. Ron’s minivan sat in the driveway, looking as wholesome as a minivan could without a “Proud Parent of an Honor Student” bumper sticker plastered to the back bumper. Nell sat idling in the middle of the street. Son of a bitch. Having Ron over was worse than having the new guy over. Nell growled a bit, stuck. If she really wanted to she could get out of her car and disturb them. No doubt they had about a million issues to work out. Seriously, if only she had reached Lucy first, this could be short and sweet. But now that Ron had her, it would be days before Nell could even poke her head in the door. No wonder Lucy never called back.
Well, instead of idling in the middle of the neighborhood where some concerned citizen might mistake her for a stalker or weirdo of some sort, Nell drove down the road away from Luce and Ron. She knew where she was going, and she hated that the car kept moving in that direction. But she kept going. After all, he told her to call. Or something.