Story Part II

Another installment in between-novel…Lauperpunk? Neonpunk? I’m still not sure. This one’s shorter and less action-y than the former: kind of an interlude. We will get back to Vampire Cyborg Reagan and Things Blowing Up and Literal Voodoo Economics soon. (For some reason, maybe because of the sequential installment deal, these things feel like they want to be comics, except that I can’t draw at all.)

I’ve also gone back and edited the first part, mostly to remove all the tense errors in the universe.

* * *

Home Again, Home Again

I didn’t have a roommate.

I used to have a roommate. In the two years that I’d been out of college, I’d spent a lot of time talking about how I’d used to have a roommate, and then swearing, and then putting up more ads at the laundromat and in the paper, and not much time actually having roommates of any sort. At least “Roxy”–by which I mean Trudy–had paid a final month’s rent before taking off with her new band. Just as well that she had left, as things turned out: I didn’t need to explain Holly Girl to her, or the severe ickiness of my clothes.

She would’ve freaked. For a would-be punk, Roxy had been pretty ready to shriek about anything dirty that didn’t have killer biceps and beer money.

I fumbled the key around in the lock until I could get enough of my brain back to master basic mechanics, then opened the door by halfway falling against it. Jesus, I was wrecked. Adrenaline’s great when you’re in the moment, but the crash is seven flavors of blue hell. That’s probably true even when you haven’t been climbing out of windows and kicking creepy rats in the head.

“Come in,” I mumbled, just in case either Holly Girl or her tree needed the invite. Some things do: nasties, mostly, but you never know.

She shuffled in after me, fast enough that I couldn’t tell, and then stood in the middle of my floor.

You might think that having nearly gotten killed would make being in a stranger’s apartment, or having a stranger in yours, less awkward. No dice.

“Okay. Put the tree down somewhere, if you want. Anywhere on the floor,” I added, looking around.

My place was never going to make Good Housekeeping, or even Non-Crappy Housekeeping, but there were a couple of places where the carpet showed through the layer of clothes and books. That wasn’t a great improvement decor-wise, the carpet being this intensely hurlworthy shade of gray-green, but at least it was flat. Other than that, there was the couch, which was squishy and cracked, and the TV, which I’d rather not chance. The rabbit ears sucked most of the time anyhow.

Also there was Roxy’s room, but I wanted to check that first. I hadn’t been in there since she’d bailed, but I remembered at least one Slayer poster, the one where the drummer is showing off his fleshwork. I’m no Tipper Gore, but I didn’t think a twelve-year-old needed to see that shit, especially not after the night she’d been through.

So I added, “Sit on the couch if you want,” and then “bathroom’s that way,” and gestured, and finally, finally got to take my boots off. I wrapped them in a plastic bag afterwards and washed my hands for about five minutes.

I’d liked those boots, too. They’d been a Christmas present from my Uncle Stan: just the right balance between trendy and comfortable, and probably way more than I could afford to replace.  Some nights you could just cry.

Holly Girl watched me for a little bit, all silent and big-eyed, and then slipped into the bathroom. When she’d came out, I’d put the teakettle on and dug out a few packets of Swiss Miss. I don’t really do the maternal thing much, but I can sort of fumble for the basics.

I’d also ordered pizza. Naturally.

“I got half pepperoni and mushrooms,” I told Holly Girl, “but also half cheese, in case you don’t like the other stuff.”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“You don’t know,” I repeated, because: the hell? It’s pizza. Every kid in the universe has strong opinions about what they want on pizza. Stronger than they do on the fate of the free world, mostly.

But Holly Girl just shrugged. It wasn’t even a whole shrug: she just twitched a shoulder up and down and kept looking at me.

“Okay,” I said, because where the hell did you come from is not how you talk to a twelve-year-old, and neither is what is wrong with your parents, although I’ve been tempted to ask my nephews that a couple times. “Well. You can try both. Have some hot chocolate. I’ll run a bath and, um, see if I can find you some clothes and stuff.”

She folded her hands around the mug I passed her, raised it to her mouth, and then looked at me all amazed on her first swallow. “This is–this is good.”

“Jesus, kid,” I said.

And that brought up a new problem, because a list that included you have freakish powers, you’ve obviously been raised in a cave, and you ran away from something that makes the Waste look like an option wasn’t long enough. At least I could solve this one.

“What do I call you?” I asked. “I can’t keep saying ‘kid’. I feel like Humphrey Bogart.”

She looked blank, which at the time I thought was part about Bogart and part about the question, and not actually that weird. Like I said, names are powerful. I could see how she might not want to give me hers, and also how she might not have made a fake one up yet.

Then she looked at the tree, sitting on the floor a foot or two away. “Holly’s a name,” she said. “You could call me Holly.”

* * *

Holly had a bath while we waited for the pizza. For a minute, I was worried that she wouldn’t get the concept, that I’d have to stay in with her in case she drowned or introduce her to the whole idea of baths and being cleaned while she freaked out all Eliza Doolittle. (I might’ve been in drama club in high school. Shut up.) But when I handed her towels and pointed out the soap and the bottles of shampoo and conditioner, she went along like she understood.

After I stopped being relieved, I felt dumb. Of course she understood baths. She knew about clothes and money and, you know, talking, so my raised-in-a-cave mental comment was a pretty big exaggeration. She might not have been a normal kid, but she wasn’t completely foreign to being a person.

Although, on the not-normal-at-all side, she did bring her tree into the bathroom with her. She put it on the closed toilet lid, very carefully, and then stood waiting for me to leave.

I did, with my chest feeling all tight. Like, I didn’t know if Holly wanted the tree with her because it was the one thing she was sure would protect her–yeah, me, but I was a person and maybe someone she’d need to be protected from, still–or because it was the one thing that was really hers or both, but either way, holy shit. It’s enough to make you pick up a sign and start marching in front of some government building, or at least to write a cranky letter to a newspaper.

I wished I knew who to be pissed at.

While Holly had her bath, I dug out a t-shirt and sweatpants for her. Then I grabbed my own mug of hot chocolate and added a shot of whiskey. Not two great tastes that taste great together, for the record, but you know what looked like an even worse combination? Me stone sober and everything that had just happened, that’s what. Besides, I barely even tasted the stuff going down.

I thought I’d been scared before, a whole bunch of times. All the normal stuff: did I fail this test, is he gonna dump me, I got on the wrong bus and now I’m trying to walk home at midnight and there are noises over there, it’s four in the morning and I just dreamed about cannibal telephone-repairmen and now my lamp looks like it’s got too many angles. You grow up, you see enough–and do enough–you think you know what scared is, like you can put it in a box and stick a label on it and it won’t be able to surprise you again.

Fucking rat things, man. And those weren’t the worst you could find in the Waste, not by a long shot. We’d both been lucky.

I held onto my empty mug and spent some serious quality time focusing on keeping my lunch where it was. Then the doorbell rang, and I was off my chair before I knew what I was doing, sticking the mug out like a damn shield.

Okay, Jensen. Take a pill.

I paid the pizza guy, who looked at me funny the whole time. Right: I probably looked like hell. At least I’d washed my hands. I didn’t think there was anything worse than dirt on my face, but just thinking about the other possibilities made my whole body itch. I put the pizza down on the kitchen table, without touching it, and tapped on the bathroom door.

Sploosh. “Uh-huh?”

Cautious, that response: kind of wary of me, kind of expecting bad news.

“Pizza’s here,” I said. “When you’re ready.”

More splashing, then gurgling, then wet feet hitting tile. The girl didn’t wait around when there was food at stake. I went back to the kitchen to give her a little privacy.

She came out squeaky-clean, holding her tree in both arms and swimming in my clothes. She’d cuffed the hell out of the sweatpants; the t-shirt hung off her shoulders and came down to her knees. Michael Jackson’s face was kind of peeling off the front, which I’d never noticed when I was wearing it. Maybe Mom had a point about throwing it out.

“Help yourself,” I said, pointing to the pizza box. “Save a couple slices for me.” I went through the rest of the checklist I’d used before when I’d had guests, taking out the bit about the sixpack in the fridge and the ashtray on the windowsill. “I think the remote’s under a sofa cushion. If you can’t find it, I’ll take a look when I’m back. What?”

She was staring at me again.

“You’re okay leaving me alone here?”

Cleaned up, Holly looked even skinnier, and it was easier to see the bruise on her cheek. There were a bunch of scabs on her arms, too: they looked like not-too-old scrapes. You might get that kind of thing if you were squeezing through a gap between buildings, or if you hit a wall and kept going–if you were running from someone and couldn’t look too hard at what was ahead.

I cleared my throat and shrugged. “Yeah, well. If you wanted to run, you wouldn’t have followed me. If you want to rip me off, go ahead–the TV sucks, I’ve got five bucks in the drawer by the phone, and all my jewelry is plastic. Don’t let anyone in and don’t stick any forks in the light sockets. I’m gonna go shower until my skin comes off.”

She reached for the pizza, stopped like it might be a trick, and looked back at me just before I turned away.

“Thanks,” she said.

She didn’t sound sure about saying it. That was okay. I wasn’t sure about hearing it. We didn’t know enough about each other, and neither of us could deal really well, probably, with finding out more just then. I knew I couldn’t. The crash had hit for serious, so had the whiskey, and focusing my eyes was going to be way too much effort soon.

“Hey,” I said, “I wasn’t doing anything tonight.”

And I went off to use the rest of my hot water.