“Lucy” Part 4

“You,” he said, leaning hard on the door frame. “You know where your brother is? Because I do.”

“How do you know?” Nell pushed past him, noticing the soft scrape of his shirt against her skin.

“I know,” he answered as he pushed the door shut. Nell wheeled to face him, rallying her courage.

“Come on and stop all this vague crap. I don’t even know why I come over here to listen to you dodge my questions.”

“Why do you come over here?” The question stabbed Nell hard, forcing her back a step.

“Because I want to.” To her own ears, she didn’t sound like she wanted to. But then here she was.

“Why? What can I do for you? Really?”

“I want to know about you and Lucy. Just for my own information.”

“Why? What do we have to do with you?” His eyes were hard and red. Nell swallowed. The TV was on to the Simpsons, and cartoony voices floated around in the awkward silence.

“I don’t know,” she said, embarrassed. Her face turned red and she felt like an idiot again in front of him. Maybe the only time she didn’t annoy the hell out of him is when he was drunk. “Do you want to have anything to do with me?”

Nick snorted, followed by a sharp little laugh that bounced off his glassy eyes. He looked at her intensely. She felt her lip quiver, began to look away when his expression suddenly changed. He laughed a fake laugh. “Do I have a choice?” He sounded softer. Nell shivered. She hadn’t remembered it being cold.

“Yeah, you do.” Time stopped and angled around her waiting for his reply. Why the hell she should care was a good question. What did she want from this guy—this drunk? Ron could already be gone from Lucy’s. Nell could be sitting at Lucy’s kitchen table right now laughing about the whole thing, congratulating Luce on her new move and being a normal girl with nice benign things to talk about. Looking back up, she found Nick staring at her with a sobriety she hadn’t imagined he was capable of. He sighed and flopped down into the couch. Its overstuffed cushions dwarfed his skinny frame. He looked from the TV and then back to her.

“You can sit down, you know,” Nick said. He looked back to the TV. Everything went too slowly. Nell passed by the chair Nick had passed out in and sat next to him on the couch, looking straight ahead. The pictures on the TV moved in front of her eyes making absolutely no sense. She was too tense to pay attention. “You like this show?” Nick asked. He held something in her face. Nell drew back, relieved to see it was the remote. Nick’s eyebrows angled down in utter confusion as she just stared.

“Sure,” she answered, a little distant. Her brain screamed at her, banging around in her skull like a mental patient in a padded room. There was no need to act crazy. It was just Nick, and he didn’t even want her here. Yet Nell could not relax. She had to stop, breathe deeply and force herself to act like a normal human being. Instead her heart beat too hard, her back sat stiff and rigid, and the simple uttering of the TV seemed alien.

“Are you okay?” Nick asked, pulling the remote back slowly. Nell dug her fingernails into her palm. Act normal, not psycho.

“Yeah, I’m fine. So, what were you saying about my brother?” Nick’s expression instantly soured.

“He’s with Lucy.”

“Well, I know because I was there earlier. I saw his van. Somehow I ended up here.”

Nick shook his head slowly. “I don’t know how you accidentally end up here.”

“Me either,” Nell scowled. This was beginning to be offensive. “It wouldn’t be too hard to accidentally leave.”

“Don’t do that,” he sighed. “I really don’t mind hanging out with you.”

How sweet. “At least you don’t when you’re drunk.” Oops. She knew suddenly that that should have stayed a thought and only a thought.

“Oh, are you asking for a beer?” He leaned forward. He better not get himself one.

“No. I wanna know about Lucy. I can’t believe she never called me.”

“Lucy isn’t exactly the most reliable person. Don’t take it personally.”

”Well I do take it personally. She never called me back when I’ve been put in the middle of all this bullshit. My mom’s pissed that I bit Ron, and Ron doesn’t give a darn that I’ve been trying to protect him from jail or anything. Lucy won’t even talk to me about it. And she probably won’t tell Ron to give you your money, either.”

“Nell, I hate to say this, but none of this really concerns you. We can take care of ourselves.”

“Oh really? If I hadn’t been there to bite Ron, you could be dead right now. He wasn’t stopping, and you sure as hell weren’t defending yourself.”

“Chill out. I don’t mean it like that. I don’t mean that the fight isn’t your business, but there’s more to it than that and you know it. You ask a lot of questions that have nothing to do with that night.”

“Just tell me now while you’re sober if you’re the one that broke up Ron’s marriage, please? I just want to know that one thing.”

Nick sighed, trying hard to resist. Nell could tell that she was softening him, although very slowly, and even though a part of her knew that it was truly none of her business.

“This might come as a shock to you Nell, but Lucy is very important to me. She always has been.“

“That’s a vague answer,” Nell grumbled. Looking at Nick’s eyes, she saw sadness and it dawned on her. “You’re still in love with her, aren’t you?”

“What if I am? What if I did have sex with her when she was married to your brother? I don’t think any of that matters very much when she’s getting married to some other guy. Think about it, if I caused the divorce, wouldn’t I be marrying Lucy right now?” His eyebrows rose over deep black eyes.

“Yeah,” Nell said quietly. Nick wanted to be the one. He did. He had turned back to the TV now. Nell thought it couldn’t hurt to make sure. “If you love Lucy, maybe you should tell her that.”

Nick turned slowly to face her, neck rigid so that sinewy veins stood out. His eyes turned even blacker than before, big orbs of endless darkness. Nick looked at her with those eyes for a minute, maybe more until she felt like she would explode. He grunted and turned back to the Simpsons, arms crossed.

Phew. Nell relaxed. The rest of the apartment came back into focus. Nick’s stare had made her feel like she was the only thing on earth, let alone in this dingy place. And now it all came rushing in around her, stiflingly huge and vacant. She felt badly for saying anything to him about it.

“Lucy isn’t a slut,” Nick sounded like he was talking to himself.

“What?” Nell gulped down the shock that he would even be talking to her.

“Lucy isn’t a slut.”

“I never said she was.”

“She should have never married your brother. Who knows what she was thinking.”

“Ron’s not so bad, you know.”

“She just isn’t the kind of person to be married. To anyone.”

“Or stay married, you mean.”

Nick laughed. “I hope that’s right,” he said.

“Do you know this guy? The one she’s marrying now?”

“She mentioned him. His name is David and he’s a lawyer. That is all I know.”

“You think they’ll stay together?”

“I don’t think there is such a thing as staying together with Lucy.”

Nell looked at him hard. She knew what he meant though. “She doesn’t know what she wants,” Nell mused.

“No, that isn’t true. She just wants everything.”

“I don’t know how she gets it,” said Nell. But of course she did.

“Either do I,” Nick smiled slightly, so that the black holes of his missing teeth made the space between his lips into a checkerboard. Nell felt something for a second, not sure why she suddenly couldn’t breathe, she laughed nervously. Fear. She was afraid, but what was there to be afraid of? Nick’s crooked, trailer-park smile?

“I’m going to be nosy again,” she recovered, feeling her breath squeeze uncomfortably into tense lungs.

“You don’t say,” Nick teased.

“What did you major in in college?”

“Computer science,” he sighed.

“And you don’t have a steady job?”

“Not right now, at least not a forty-hour-a-week office job. I have a friend who owns a small company and he sends small programming jobs my way.”

“And you can survive on that?”

“I’m here, aren’t I? Anyway, what about you? What do you do?”

“Well, I work at the college library part time. I’m an English major.”

“What are you going to do? Teach?”

“Maybe. I don’t exactly have a plan.”

“You live with your parents?”

“No, off-campus in an apartment with a friend.”

“Oh, that’s nice.” Nell felt the strain. This was the type of conversation you have with people you’re forced to sit next to on an airplane, or an acquaintance you haven’t seen in five years. Nick nodded hies head up and down, up and down, obviously totally out of things to say.

“Well,” said Nell, red heat flooding into her cheeks.

“Well?” He mimicked, smiling a tiny bit of a smile. Nell dug fingernails into her palm. Think fast.

“I’m hungry, do you want to go get something to eat? On me?”

“What was that? You want to take me out on a date?”

“Date?” Oh crap, now her face really had the blood rushing right to it. “No date. Just a friendly dinner.”

“Sounds like a date to me,” Nick grinned, enjoying her pain as she squirmed in front of him.

“Whatever you want to call it, I’m starving. Let’s go.” Nell stood and watched him slowly find the remote and switch the TV off. What was she doing? Where would she take him? He wasn’t exactly dressed to go out in another dingy t-shirt and jeans that hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine in ages.

“Okay,” he got up. Standing next to her, he seemed like a sick thin tree. “Let me clean up a little bit.” He went off towards the bathroom. Nell smiled. A date. Well, even if it wasn’t the scandal Sara would’ve liked, she was proud of herself for hanging out with a boy.

<>

“So you were at the wedding. I don’t remember you,” Nell said between bites.

“I don’t know why you should. I don’t remember you.”

“Well, I wasn’t a bridesmaid or anything.”

“I don’t remember any of them, either.”

“Do you remember anything about it? Except Lucy?”

Nick glared. “No. Just Lucy and your brother.”

“You sure didn’t look like you recognized Ron when he was beating you,” Nell cringed. She had to stop bringing up these painful, unpleasant memories. Find something benign and normal to talk about.

“I didn’t recognize him. I didn’t pay much attention to him other than he was in a tux, he was smiling, and I gave him six months.”

“Six months? Jesus, my mom gave them the rest of their lives.”

Nick laughed. “It could’ve happened if Ron contracted a terminal illness.” He laughed again.

“What the hell is so funny?”

“Nothing,” he couldn’t wipe a stupid grin off his face. Nothing her ass.

“You knew Lucy before college, didn’t you?”

“I feel like I’ve known Lucy since before I was born.” His face changed quickly. “I mean, we went to high school together.” Chewing slowly, he turned away.

“Did you date in high school?”

“Sort of.” He played in his salad. For the hundredth time, Nell looked from the greens to him and back to the rabbit food. He was not the salad type.

“Sort of? I hate that, knock it off. What do you mean ‘sort of’?” Under the table, she delivered a swift kick to his shin. Nell froze. It was involuntary—she didn’t mean it. Nick’s head snapped up, a scowl plastered on his lips. He couldn’t be mad, though. His eyes looked like they did when he smiled, which was rare enough she should be able to recognize it.

“That hurt,” he purred, scowl slowly morphing into a smile. Nell felt a shiver begin on the back of her neck.

“Well? Did you date in high school?” Nick shoved lettuce into his face, past the missing teeth.

“What about you? We always have to talk about me—you ask and I answer. Why don’t you tell me all about your past boyfriends?”

“There’s not much to tell. You’re changing the subject.”

“I can tell you’re a virgin,” he grinned. “Ow, stop kicking me.”

“Well, stop with the rude comments,” Nell hissed. Asshole!

“I didn’t mean to piss you off.” He ate more salad in silence, dabbing at his moustache with his napkin like he cared how he looked. Nell sent daggers across the table into his forehead that bounced right off when he looked up, a goofy half-smile on his lips. “Seriously, girly, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings.” Nell grunted.

“It’s all right.”

“I can tell it isn’t. Typical woman stuff.”

“Jesus,” Nell cocked her leg back and fired as hard as she could. Nick’s fork bounced off his plate with a restaurant-silencing clang.

“Ouch, Nell, christ.” He bent to rub the sore spot. “What I mean is I don’t want you to sit there and lie. What a fucking waste of time. If I piss you off, I piss you off. I’m not into playing head games.”

“Then why do you love Lucy?” Nell felt the venom of her voice bitter and caustic on her lips.

“Touche,” he whispered.

Nell turned to her food and ate slowly, looking for hidden pictures in her ketchup. She hoped his leg hurt like a son of a bitch. Maybe she should hit him once again, right on the bone and make sure he remembered that bruise. On the other hand, looking out of the corner of her eye seeing his sorry face chewing on rabbit food, she wanted to get on her knees and kiss the spot. Make it better.

“I’m sorry for kicking you,” Nell sighed.

“I deserve it.”

“You sort of do.”

“Well, anyway, I can take a beating. You know that about me.”

“Yeah.” Why did it feel like he was flirting? Maybe she just wanted it to feel that way. Nell decided she was finished with dinner. She lay her napkin over her barely-eaten food as Nick shoved the last traces of green into his face.

“Do you trust me?” Nick asked. Nell gave him a look she was sure screamed “no.”

“What for?”

“I’ll be right back,” he winked. Winked! Nell’s gut clenched. She watched him stand up, a bit shaky, and go on over to the bar. Fuck. He did not need to be drinking. Either did she.

“What the hell are you doing?” He set a shot in front of her. A shot!

“Maybe you should ask what the hell you’re going to do.” He gestured to hers with his own glass, then set it down on the table. The waitress came by, setting a big big beer right in front of her. Nick thanked the girl, then looked back to Nell. “That’s your chaser.”

“You are an alcoholic.”

“This is just my way of apologizing. I can’t afford diamonds, and flowers insinuate something I just can’t back up.”

“I am not going to drink this.”

“Sure you are. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do on our first date? Get you drunk?”

“I need to drive.”

“I’ll drive. You know it takes more than a little shot to mess me up.”

“Jesus Christ.” It was all she could think to say. She didn’t know if she meant it as a curse or prayer, because she found herself bringing the cup to her lips. “I’m not a big drinker,” she lamented. And swallowed.

Disgusting. Dis. Gus. Ting! Nick pushed the beer across the table and she grabbed it with both hands, letting foul yellow liquid attempt to wash away some alcoholic, thick flavor she could not describe or place.

“Slow down, Nell. I’m sorry. I didn’t think you were that much of a non-drunk.” His hands put gentle pressure on the big beer glass, pulling it away. A lot was gone, almost a third.

“What the hell is that?” Her voice sounded sanded down with steel wool.

“Crown Royal. It’s whiskey. I’m sorry about that, really.” Nell coughed with saliva creeping into the corners of her mouth. She covered her lips with a napkin.

“Ugh, it’s worse tasting than beer,” Nell could still taste it under the beer. Nick reached for her glass, laughing.

“I didn’t realize you weren’t a drinker at all. I’ll take this.”

“No way, it’s mine. I’m finishing it and then you’re taking me home.” Nell gripped the beer glass handle, taking deep breaths. The last thing to do in this situation would be to barf her relatively expensive dinner back over the table. She needed that whiskey taste gone. Without any pop left, she had no choice and went for the yellow foamy piss.

“Come on, slow down. You’re worrying me.” This time as she set it down she could feel the cold beer swimming around her forehead.

“I’m okay. Where’s the waitress? I’ll pay and we’ll split.”

“I already paid.”

“No you did not.”

“Yeah I did. It’s my way of apologizing. Plus, I can’t be taken on a date by some young girl.”

“Jesus Christ,” Nell reached back for the beer, which was almost gone, to her surprise.

“You take the lord’s name in vain a lot.” Nick stood, disapproving of her gulping down that last bit of beer.

“You stress me out. Jesus understands.” She tossed five bucks on the table for a tip.

“Car keys?” Nick held out a thin hand with long fingers. Nell fished for them, and pulled them in front of her face, swinging and swinging. Nick reached up and snatched them away. “You drank way too fast.”

“I know. Just take me home and I’ll be all right.”

“My place or yours?” Through the fog, she didn’t comprehend whether or not it was a joke. Nell answered by kicking him hard, right in the shin.

><<>><<>><

Sobriety. Nell sat dead still and tasted it. Nick chose his place. She had known almost right away by the route they took. City streets dotted with blurry lights. Now she sat on the couch, slumped into the armrest, and he lay back in his chair dozing.

It hadn’t taken all that long, three glasses of water and most of some action movie on TV to arrive here at the place she started. Nell sighed, afraid that if she moved, Nick would awaken. She liked him asleep. She decided it somewhere in her drunkenness and now the thought reoccurred in her mind in waves of mantra. He took on a very innocent look with the subtle moving of his lips, the breath breezing past his shaggy facial hair.

He snapped up, startling her. Nell sat still and hoped he hadn’t noticed her jump.

“Sorry I fell asleep. You doing alright?”

“Yeah, I’ve sobered up a bit.” She gulped. Nick rubbed his eyes like a sleepy child.

“I really didn’t mean to get you drunk.”

“It’s all right. I don’t think I can watch Steven Segal unless I am.”

“I see,” he yawned big and slow like a jungle cat. Nell watched him bend over in slow motion to rub his shin.

“Sorry about kicking you,” she said. He yawned again.

“I’ll live.” He leaned back into a reclining position and closed his eyes again.

“Are you going back to sleep?”

“Just resting my eyes,” he purred.

“It’s not that late for you to be so tired,” she said. He yawned yet again, pink tongue and epiglottis visible and huge from the angle she saw him at.

“You really take it out of me.” He stretched and crossed his legs at the ankle, eyes still shut. “If you want to stay longer, though, that’s fine. I think there’s another good movie on after this.”

“What, like Die Hard or something?” To answer that question, Nick gave a small grunt. Nell settled softly back in to the groove her body had carved in the massive couch. She really did not look forward to a punching, kicking, killing and explosion festival. Stronger was the fact that she did not want to leave. Nick would be asleep in five minutes. That much seemed obvious, but Nell did not mind. This couch came close to being the most comfortable she had ever curled up in, and letting her mind wander up down and sideways along a bad action movie was not unpleasant. Nell glanced over again. Nick’s mouth lay gently open. Above the pepper of his beard, she noticed that he had a nice full lower lip, even when it wasn’t swollen. The thought pushed her back to the TV and the benign movie.

What about class? There were projects, worksheets, not two but three books to be read. Exams looming in the future. she could only think about them from a distance. Who really cared about that stuff? Well, of course she did. When she got home, sometime, she would read a few pages no matter what. Tomorrow was her long shift at the library, Saturday afternoon, four hours. Then between checking out books she could finish her history work. Stupid general ed courses. There weren’t many left for her to take though, and that, well, was good, of course.

Nell’s jaw clenched. Nick looked at her groggily. This time he saw her jump. The phone rang. and now it did again, shrilly. Nell hadn’t even noticed a phone. Nick lumbered over to it, sitting on the end table over on her other side.

“Hello?” He rasped. He sounded like he just woke up from a coma, not a snooze. “Oh, hey, hey, how are you doin’?” Nick blushed. Nell caught his black eyes as the jumped to her and then darted off like a nervous horse. ”Yeah, yeah, just a minute, alright, can you hold on for a sec? What? No! Just hold on, one sec. Okay.” Nell knew who it was. Who else could create that deer-in-the-headlights look on Nick in less than one second?

He brought his hand over the mouthpiece gently, eyes holding Nell in stunned silence. With a slow tongue, he licked that lower lip that was quite nice, but not too pouty or movie star-like.

“Nell, this is kind of a private call, uh. . .” He fought for the words in a low, trembling voice. Nell nodded.

“All right,” she gulped, feeling like he was pushing her towards the door with those eyes.

“Sorry. I had a good time tonight. I’ll see you later, okay?”

“Okay,” Nell replied. Man, she overdid it with a fake sugary sweet voice that attempted to eclipse her severe disappointment. She stood on shaky legs, grabbing her keys on the other end table, the one nearest the door. Shoving her shoes on, Nick’s eyes burned into her back, waiting impatiently. “Good night,” she said quietly, swinging open the door.

“’Night,” he replied. As the door slowly drifted after her heels. Nell could hear his voice. “All right, Lucy,” he said, “sorry about that.”

Nell felt her own face grow hot. She bit into her lip and began moving. If she stopped her head might explode, splashing brains all over the already dirty wall. Now she felt true sobriety, the slap-in-the face kind. Damn it.

She drove fast, erratic, trying with all her might not to think. His face kept popping up in her mind, catching her eye and then diverting his glance as he cooed to Lucy on the phone. In no time, her apartment sat before her, windows dark thank god. She stalked up the stairs, face locked solid in a frown. If she relaxed she might burst into tears, stupidly, and she didn’t feel like explaining anything to Sara.

Sara occupied the bathroom, no doubt getting ready for bed. After all, there were classes to go to tomorrow, jobs to work. Nell shut her door gently and flopped immediately across her unmade bed. Tears came, silent and steady, leaking out onto her yellow and blue checkered comforter. Nell squeezed her eyes to them, concentrating on her breath, staying silent, pretending she was only laying down, not leaking salty excretions on to her bed for no good reason. No good reason.

It could be easy as PMS. That it could be. If only she could sit down with Lucy! That would make her feel better. She wanted to sit at Lucy’s kitchen table, be offered something to drink, laugh about old times, laugh about the welt on Ron’s back. She wanted to know if Lucy loved Nick and what it was about him that made her still call him back, even when she planned on marrying for the second time to someone else. Damn, Lucy, why be so unreliable, unreachable? Lucy, Lucy, Lucy! Nell wondered if their friendship, their sisterhood had all been faked, phony, a mask that Lucy put on for everyone. She could be so sparkling, so supportive, make you feel like you were the only person in the entire world. Or make you feel like the most unimportant piece of dust floating in the universe. Nell wanted to feel like a star, but mostly she wanted to talk to someone so carefree and non-judgmental. Lucy. But Nick had her now, and no doubt about it Lucy had Nick. Fuck him anyway. If a phone call could be more important than hanging out with her, Nell never wanted to see him again. Oh, but there was a lie that could hardly be topped. Nell moved her nose to a dry spot on the bed to leak more silent tears down into the covers. Damn that Nick. Damn that Lucy.

Sunlight. Fuck sunlight. Nell’s face hurt pressed into the hard mattress. She felt stiff still dressed in her clothes. She’d missed class. The clock was behind her, but she knew it by the extreme brightness of the late morning sun. Her heart jump started and stomach soured. Nothing she could do now. Maybe an e-mail to the professor would help. She could say she was sick. It was true, anyone who would be offended by a mostly-stranger receiving a phone call must be sick.

She had been tired, probably tipsy and it wouldn’t happen again. Nell sat up. Her eyes felt coated in sand, puffy and slow. Well, despite its botched start, it was a new day, and Sara should be gone by now. Time for a shower and breakfast.

Nell stepped out into the kitchen, wrinkling her nose at its disarray. Plates and cups and an empty pizza box dotted the counter like a crooked skyline. Sara would clean later, nothing to worry about. Nell sat herself on a stool at the kitchen island with a glass of water. Across from her, the phone on the wall caught her attention. There was a note taped across the receiver.

Nell stood, groaning. The note was simple. Nell, there are messages on the machine for you. Interesting. A red “2” glowed faintly from under the note. Nell tore it off and listened.

“Hi Nell, it’s your mother. Tomorrow we’re having a family dinner. Let me know when you get this.”

Okay. Thanks, Sara, but that’s not very important. The machine beeped.

“Nell, this is Lucy.” Her heart beat faster. “Ron and I had a nice long talk tonight, and of course it involved you in part. I’m really sorry about Ron’s behavior, and I made him sorry for it, too.” She chuckled, making Nell smile in spite of herself. “I know that Nick has been bugging you too, and Ron will make it right for him. It sounds like you just had a crazy misunderstanding, wow. Anyway, I just called to talk to you about that, and some other stuff. I almost got married last week again, as you probably know. Give me a call, I’d love to know what’s going on with you. All right, Nelly. Bye.” Nell found herself smiling, note crinkled up in her sweaty palm. Suddenly the bright sunlight invading the apartment felt comforting and warm. She decided it would be wrong to call Luce at work now, even though she wanted to finally hear the answers to everything right now.

Nell picked up the phone anyway and unconsciously her fingers flew to familiar numbers. Home. Family dinner. Nice how Mom told her about it. It would never occur to Mom to ask if she was free, let lone what she’d like to eat. It was either one of two things, anyway. Turkey or pot roast. Mom was not one of those who liked to make a home-cooked dinner every day or every weekend or anything like that, but on “family dinner” nights, she always fed them like she did. Hopefully tonight it would be turkey. No doubt Mom wanted her there as soon as possible to help with things. It would be a nice step towards getting back into Mom’s good graces.

>><<>><<>><<

Ron looked better. Color in his face, something of a new awareness in his eyes. He must be screwing Lucy. Or being screwed, which to Nell seemed a bit more accurate.

“How are you feeling?” Nell asked. He wrinkled his nose at her.

“I’ve been fine for a while. How are you?”

“I’m good.”

“Been hanging out with that Nick guy a lot, eh?” Mom’s birds squawked in stereo. Hello, hello, hello mom, they said.

“Who told you that? Lucy?”

“Yeah. You have to do me a favor.”

“What?”

Ron looked around making sure Mom wasn’t in earshot. “I have a check for him. You can bring it to him.”

“Why can’t you do it? Why can’t Lucy?”

“Lucy’s busy.”

“Oh for the love of God. Lucy’s busy doing what? You?”

“Shh. Come on, knock it off. Just do this for me. You owe me.” Nell snorted.

“Yeah, right. Okay, I’ll do it.” She looked at him, smug, arms crossed. He was having sex with Lucy, she’d bet on it.

“Thank you. What are you doing over with that guy, anyway, huh? I get it, you’re attracted to greasy losers.”

“None of your business. He’s not a bad guy after all. Ask Lucy.”

Predictably enough that made Ron’s face bright red. He asked for it, though. “Here,” he dug in his back pocket and produced a folded white envelope. “Give it to him soon. I want to be done with all this.”

“All right. I want it to be over with, too.” Nell wished she could sit down. The clatter in the kitchen had quieted, and Mom could be out here any second to rope her into potato-peeling. “You know Lucy was almost married last week, right?”

“Yeah, almost.” He sighed.

“So, aren’t you going to go after this David guy now?”

“No need. He’s long gone.”

“What does that mean? You didn’t kill him, did you?”

“Not that it’s any of your business, but he freaked out after the fire. Lucy won’t be marrying that pussy anytime soon.” So self-confident, what a freak. Nell let it go. She concentrated on all of the easy, spiteful things she could say to Ron at the present moment flying out of her head out away from conflict. Lucy could re-kick Ron in the nuts on her own time.

“That’s too bad. I mean, all that way for nothing.”

“Yep,” Ron agreed as the shadow of Mom with spatula in hand crept from the kitchen doorway. she seemed to be giving Ron a most disapproving look.

“Nell, honey, could you come peel some potatoes for me?” She asked in a totally non-venomous voice. Nell smiled as she turned around, ready to skin spuds if that’s what could bring her mother’s forgiveness.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” Ron half-whispered.

“What’s wrong with Mom?”

“She’s too concerned with things that are none of her business,” Ron grumbled.

Like Lucy? Nell bit her tongue. “Yeah, it’s hard to keep anything from her.”

“Or those birds,” Ron shot them the evil eye.

><<><><>><

Nell looked from Mom, to Dad, to Ron, all oblivious to her glance. What a successful family dinner; no one had said a word more than the obligatory “pass the salt” or “can I have the corn?” Nice. Nell could hear her heart beat when the damned birds weren’t tweeting and warbling to one another. The turkey had turned out dry, but the potatoes didn’t even have a trace of a lump in them. Forks tinkled on porcelain in stereo to Nell’s pats on her own back.

In the silence between bites of corn and stuffing, two words drifted in from the living room. “Hello, Lucy! Hello, Lucy!” The bird practically screamed it. Nell looked over to Ron who refused to look up from his plate. The edges of his face glowed bright red. Nell looked over to Mom, who’s glare across the table at Ron made a visible laser beam above the table setting.

“So,” Dad finally said, swallowing a lump of desert-like poultry, “Nell, how is school going?”

“Good. Good.” What else to say? School had seemed far-removed for ages now. A bit of worry streaked through her stomach and she swallowed some potatoes to shove it down. “School is school, you know.” Whatever the hell that means. Oh well, it seemed to satisfy Dad. Out in the living room, birds screeched.

“It’s a nice meal, Mom,” Ron said, only a little unconvincingly.

“Turkey’s a bit dry,” Dad added. Mom replied with a grunt and a glare.

“It’s good,” Nell wavered. “It’s good to have a totally home-cooked meal once in a while.”

“You could come home more often,” Mom jabbed.

“I’m busy.” Ron chuckled. Nell shot him a glare and thought as loudly as she could that she could bite, and she would. “But it is nice to be home. Once school is out, I’ll have more time.” Mom shrugged and dragged her fork through mashed potatoes. Ron went back to eating. Nell noticed Dad had pushed all of his turkey to one lonely edge of the plate. Yep, must get back here more often.

><><<<>><>><><>

Predictable, that’s what she was. Nell had never rinsed dishes so fast, never been so helpful and quick about it. Hell, the birds and their never ending chorus of “hello, Lucy”s had put her in a good mood. Funny what those stupid animals picked up on.

She pulled in to Nick’s apartment complex, heart throbbing against all the turkey and potatoes jammed in there. A foggy sleepiness had descended upon her shoulders from the meal. What she could use was a nice long nap.

A chill in the air lifted the sleepy fog for a moment. Looking above herself, Nell noticed the big dipper faintly struggling to assert itself through the city lights. Ron had sealed his check in a security envelope. Nell wondered how much it was. None of her business and no cents, probably.

Nell pressed the button, rocking back and forth from her heels to her cold toes.

“Howdy?”

“It’s Nell.”

“Nell, let’s save us some time here. The code for the door is one-four-three-four. So you don’t have to buzz and make me run to the intercom all the time.”

Nell pressed the button again. “Okay.” Crap. He better not be drunk. Nell stood looking at the intercom, now chilly. He must mean for her to buzz herself in now. One, four, three, four. The lock of the smudgy glass clicked open. Nell hurried through the hallways, trying not to hold the envelope too tightly. At Nick’s door, she realized a stupid smile sat plastered on her face. She scrunched it off and tried the doorknob. Open.

“Hey,” she greeted, pushing the door closed behind her. Nick was nowhere to be seen in the living room. The TV was even off and silent grey. “Hello-o?”

“Sorry, hey,” Nick popped out from the kitchen, sending Nell back against the door. “How’re you doing?”

“I’m good. How are you?” Teeth pushed against her tongue, holding down a shiver.

“Great. Take your coat off, come on in,” he gestured with something dark—a beer bottle?

“I have something for you,” she reached out with the envelope that remained pristine, unwrinkled.

“What is it? The check? Thanks, Lucy said you might be bringing it over.” He took it and turned back into the kitchen. Nell followed. That thing in his hand looked like a scrub brush of some kind. He set it on the table and tore at the envelope. Nell gasped. The kitchen that had been clean was now spotless. She could barely believe her eyes, but she had caught him cleaning.

“Ron gave it to me earlier tonight. I hope it’s enough.”

“It’s enough,” Nick looked up from the small piece of paper, grinning.

“If it doesn’t bounce.”

“He wouldn’t. Would he?”

“Not as long as Lucy’s around.”

“True,” Nick shoved the check for “enough” back in the envelope and set it down. Nell wished she had x-ray vision. “Have you talked to her yet?”

“No, I really want to, though. Maybe tomorrow I’ll call her again.”

“Not tonight?”

“No, I’ll bug her tomorrow. In fact, I can’t believe you’re cleaning right now. Isn’t it a little late?”

“What can I say? I’m a night person.” He tossed the brush into a bucket of black liquid and hefted it into the sink. “I suppose it would be rude to keep cleaning with company over.” Nell shivered. Nick’s eyes sparkled, lightened from their usual black to a lively brown. He looked good for the first time ever, the traces of his bruises gone, his hair shiny in a tight ponytail and his facial hair shaved neatly.

“Don’t let me stop you,” she looked down fast. The floor sparkled so brightly Nell swore she saw Mr. Clean winking over by the refrigerator.

“I don’t mind stopping.” He breezed right past back into the living room.

“Are you all right?” Nell asked, at his heels.

“Yeah, fine, why?”

“You seem a little hyper.”

“Oh, yeah. I’m in a good mood.”

“A good mood, huh? What happened to you?”

“Cocaine. Just kidding. I love the look on your face, though.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“Come on, take your coat off. What are you waiting for?” Nick jumped onto the couch.

“You really are hyper. It’s kind of freaking me out.”

“I’m sorry. Hey, is it cold out?”

“Yeah, cold and dark.”

“Lets go on a walk.”

“What!? So you can dump me in a dark alley somewhere, or what?”

“I wouldn’t do that. Dump you under a highway overpass, maybe. Let’s go.”

“All right.” His mood was contagious. What could it hurt, anyhow? He disappeared, smiling back into the bedroom and came back out in a very fitting black leather jacket that looked as old as Nick.

“You said it’s cold?”

“Yeah,” Nell squinted at him. It would probably be inappropriate to ask if he suffered from manic depression, so she’d have to figure it out for herself. Maybe he was just happy. His eyes sparkled.

“All right, let’s go.” He jiggled keys in his hands and opened the door. Nell stepped out, heart pounding. Nick locked up. His soft leather jacket rubbed against her cheek as he stumbled back. “Sorry,” he said, popping down the hall.

“Damn, you walk fast,” Nell jogged to keep up.

“I can walk slowly.” He stopped and waited. Nell had to consciously push the crazy smile down off her face.

“Thanks. So where we going?”

“We are going to walk around. There’s nowhere to go.”

“Is it safe to walk around here in the dark? No offence, but I’ve seen your defense skills. I don’t want to have to bite some thugs who want your wallet.”

“Hey, now. Be gentle. This isn’t really that bad of a neighborhood.” The cold stole Nell’s breath. She got it back quickly and watched it float around frozen in front of her. “You weren’t lying. It’s effin’ cold.”

“Yeah it is. Still want to do this?”

“Yeah, I gotta burn off some energy. You gonna be okay?”

“Sure, until you dump me under the highway.”

“I don’t think we can make it that far, it’s too cold.” He began moving out towards the street. Nell shivered and fell in with his even footsteps. He tossed his head back and sighed, looking for the stars and exhaling frozen breath.

“So you’ve talked to Lucy. I want to know something. Why the hell did she leave that letter out on the table in the first place?”

“Wow, you don’t waste time bringing up Luce. Well, I didn’t ask her about that and she didn’t tell me.”

“What did she say about the whole incident?”

“Man, all we talk about is Lucy.”

“I don’t know if we have much else in common.”

Nick laughed. A smile burst across Nell’s face. He had a nice laugh. “You’re brutal. Damn.”

“I’m just honest.”

“Yes, yes you are. Well, Lucy thought it was pretty sad your brother’s still hung up on her, you know.”

“I’m a bit worried about him. He still loves her. I think they’ve been having sex.”

“Good God. I don’t need to know that.”

“True, I guess. Sorry.”

“That’s fine.” Nick sighed. “You and Lucy are pretty good friends, huh?”

“Sometimes I think so. I mean she’s a great person, but it’s weird now. I don’t see her much.”

“Right. She likes you, though. I can tell.”

“Well that’s nice to know.”

“You’re a damn likeable person.”

“Wow. Thank you. You’re not so bad yourself.” Buzzing, Nell walked in silence alongside Nick, feeling him like electricity beside her. She wanted to touch him. She wanted to reach over and take his fidgety long fingers in her small ones. Or even better, she imagined him reaching over and putting his soft leather-clad arm across her shoulders. She looked over at him, at his hands in his pockets.

“Lucy is likeable, too. That’s her damn problem.” Shit. Why did he have to talk about Lucy? It was true they had not much else in common. Except for a Steven Segal movie and this walk. Nell slowed down, just a bit.

“It’s cold out here.”

“You want to head back? Already?”

“No. I’m just complaining.”

“Okay. Fine with me.” Nell skipped a step, trying to make her footfalls fall into line with his. Anything to keep thoughts of the cold away from her frozen toes.

“This is nice. The cold feels good.”

“Settling you down?” Nick laughed.

“I’ll sleep like the proverbial baby tonight.”

“Good.”

“Let’s turn around. You’re shivering.”

“I’m all right. We can keep going.”

“Naw. Come on.” Nick stopped and turned around, hand on her back guiding her. It felt wonderful, shamefully so. He quickly let his hand drop, stuck it back into the pocket of his ancient jacket. Her arms wanted to reach out to him, but she wouldn’t let them. She shoved her own cold hands into her pockets.

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