Chapter Three

Three Weeks Earlier

The girl sitting at the end of the bar was, if anybody had cared enough to look closely, obviously underage.

In fact, she was fifteen, though she could pass for eighteen as long as she didn't move or speak too much. Her face and body were older than her mannerisms and conversation. She was short and had long, dirty-blond hair, parted in the middle and cascading down her back.

She was obviously underage, but it was the kind of a bar where they would let that slide so long as you were white and fairly presentable. In fact, she barely qualified as presentable, since she hadn't had a bath or a change of clothes in two days, but so far she was succeeding in making this look like a fashion statement. She was wearing jeans, a blue T-shirt and a man's tweed jacket, all giving evidence of heavy use and no recent cleaning. These were all the clothes she owned in the world, at least all the clothes she had with her, and she was very far from home.

There were three people at a small table near the bar, and the girl was trying not to look like she was watching them. Two of the people at the table were Black, and one of them was a girl probably very close to her own age, but they were nicely dressed and obviously respectable.

The girl shifted on her stool, taking another small sip of her beer. Every time she moved she was uncomfortably aware that she'd been wearing these clothes for two days, since that guy had swiped her bag, and it had been even longer since she'd bathed.

The guy she'd been planning on staying with the previous night had thrown her out after they'd had sex, and at that point she had started to wonder if this project was really going to work out after all. It's hard to follow somebody who's traveling when they have money and you don't. She didn't really have enough cash left to rent any kind of a room, and the prospect of going into yet another bar and finding yet another guy to go home with at that point was more than she could bear. She had been just about to risk sleeping on a park bench when she'd found the church.

The big doors had been closed against the cold, but something had made her try them and they were unlocked. Several other people were sleeping in the dark, eerie building already, and she found a corner where the smell was bearable and sat on one of the benches, wondering what right she had to feel superior about anybody else's stench.

She amused herself as she dozed off by imagining this as the big religious conversion scene in the movie of her life. That improved her spirits somewhat.

The girl at the end of the bar had very little cash left, but she tipped the bartender when she paid for each drink. This was partly in the hope that he'd overlook her age, and partly in the hope that he wouldn't mind how long she was nursing each beer. Even so, she was on her third one and it was hitting her pretty hard. She hadn't slept very well on the hard wooden bench in the cold church, and she hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. And, as she thought about it, she remembered that the guy she'd stayed with the previous night had snored all night in short, explosive bursts.

He had been relatively nice, buying her breakfast in the morning and sensing enough to know not to ask her a lot of questions. In fact, he was probably still waiting for her to call him. She put that out of her mind. If she wasn't going to think about her family, who were probably also wondering where she was, she wasn't going to think about the guys she was staying with.

The three people at the table were very familiar to her, since she had been watching them for several days. The man was named Sam Little. He was Black and somewhat plump, with short hair, wearing a sweater and corduroy pants. She knew that he made his living as a proofreader, working through a temp agency.

The girl was his younger sister, Sarah. She was thin, with short hair, dyed dark red, her face owlish behind black-rimmed glasses. She probably wasn't old enough to drink or hold a job, but she did both anyway, working part-time in a neighborhood record store.

The woman with them was Sam's girlfriend, Terry Nelson, and she was the reason the girl sitting at the bar was there. She'd been following Terry for a week. Terry Nelson was tall and angular, a couple of inches taller than Sam. She wore large wire-rim glasses and had straight, ash-blond hair which hung rather limply around her face. She wore a yellow sweater over a cream-colored shirt and tan slacks.

The girl at the bar had never been able to figure out how old Terry Nelson was. She was definitely older than Sam, who appeared to be in his late twenties, but there were times when she appeared to be around thirty and other times, especially under harsher lights than in this bar, when she looked much older.

Then, suddenly, there was an argument, ending with Terry standing up and throwing on her coat, knocking over her chair in the process, and storming out. Sam went after her, trying to soothe her, but it was like trying to soothe a tidal wave.

This left the girl at the bar in a quandary. Should she follow them, or start trying to find someone to give her a bed for the night? It was already late, and it didn't seem as though the person she was waiting for was going to show up tonight. But she cringed at the thought of having to find yet another conquest. Not that it was difficult, it was really all too easy. But she'd better–

"Hi," said a soft voice from right next to her. She looked up, startled, to see Sarah, Sam's young sister, smiling at her. She sat down on the next stool and put her beer on the bar.

"I noticed you staring," she said conversationally, leaning forward, "so I tried staring back, but then my brother and his girlfriend had one of their usual fights and you looked like you might be about to leave, so I decided I'd better be more direct. My name is Sarah."

She held out her hand and the blond girl, her mind reeling, heard herself say, "Nicky. My name is Nicole, but call me Nicky," which wasn't her name.

Sarah smiled. "Nicole. That's a nice name. It's also kind of a coincidence, but I don't want to talk about that. I'd rather talk about you. Do you often sit in bars and stare at girls you don't know?"

"No," said Nicky, forcing her brain to work, "and I didn't mean for you to see me doing it tonight either."

Sarah laughed and took a sip of her beer, and then Nicky laughed, too. And so they started talking, two underage girls in a lenient bar. Sarah told Nicky about her two brothers, their dead parents, her brother's girlfriend. Nicky already knew most of the story, but of course she didn't mention this.

And Nicky told Sarah about her family life, mostly sticking to the facts, just leaving out why she was in the city and everything about who she was looking for and why. She did manage to mention her lack of funds, her lack of a place to stay, and her embarrassment about the state of her clothing and her personal hygiene. This allowed Sarah to propose that Nicky come home with her so she could take a shower, borrow some clothes and sleep on the sofa.

They both knew this was a lie, except for the shower. Nicky certainly wasn't going to fit into any clothes of Sarah's, and nobody was going to end up on the sofa.

Nicky woke up with a sleeping form beside her and a friendly arm across her stomach. This wasn't an unfamiliar sensation, she'd been trading sex for shelter for a while. But something was different this morning, something even more fundamental than the fact that the arm was black and the person attached to it was female.

Then, as she shifted slightly under the warm comforter, eliciting a friendly mumble from her bed-mate, she realized what it was. She was clean. She was clean, her hair was clean, the sheets were clean, and the girl beside her was clean. She stretched with the pure joy of it. In the past weeks she had learned enough to say that, in general, single guys who picked up girls in bars changed their sheets approximately never.

She and Sarah had shared a long, giggly and ultimately erotic bath when they'd arrived at the apartment, the entire experience made even more delicious by the fact that either Sam or Terry could have walked in on them at any moment.

Nicky knew she'd better think things through before Sarah woke up, though. Was this really going to be as easy as it seemed? Would she be able to stay here, or was this a one-night stand? Had she made her mission easier or more difficult?

She immediately fell asleep again.

The next thing she knew the door was open and a head was poking in.

"Wake up, sleepyhead," Sam said, squinting as his eyes adjusted to the dark. "Breakfast . . ." his voice trailed off as he saw Nicky looking back at him, and she clutched the sheet up over her breasts.

Sam shrugged. "Well, you can have breakfast, too, whoever you are." He withdrew his head, closing the door softly.

Terry was reading the morning newspaper at the kitchen counter, wearing the purple bathrobe she always left at Sam's apartment. Sam came back in, saying, "I'd better make some more pancake batter."

"Sarah hungry?" Terry asked absently, sipping her coffee.

He shook his head, assembling ingredients. "No, she's plural. There's a girl in bed with her."

Terry looked up, her interest engaged. "A girl?" she asked.

Sam nodded. "White, blond, with long wavy hair and," he coughed, "attributes, which she covered up when she saw I was looking at them."

Terry rolled her eyes and went back to her reading. "Well, you can console yourself with dreams about her attributes until my next visit." She picked up the paper and turned a page, snapping it flat and laying it down again. "You following this local news?" she asked. "It's not getting into the papers at home, I can tell you that. You'd think it would be national news that the city's economy is about to collapse."

Sam shrugged, lifting the mixing bowl to stir the batter. "Well, my economy collapsed a while ago. I guess I'm ahead of my time again."

Terry made a face and tucked her bathrobe tighter around her long legs. Then she looked up as Sam poured more batter into the pan, watching him for a couple of minutes.

"Hey," she said hesitantly, taking off her glasses.

He shook his head, not looking at her. "Don't worry about last night," he said, waving it aside with his spatula. "Don't worry about it."

Sarah poked her head into the kitchen. "Is everybody decent?" she asked cheerfully.

"No," Terry said, not looking up from her newspaper. "I'm taking a bath."

Sarah stuck out her tongue and then stepped all the way into the room, pulling Nicky in after her. Sarah was wearing a bathrobe but Nicky was fully dressed except for her bare feet. "Hi," she said, waving.

"This is Nicky," Sarah said, gesturing as though she had just produced a rabbit from a hat.

"Hello, Nicky," Sam said, hastily wiping off his hand and sticking it out. "I'm Sam, as you probably already know."

Nicky nodded, shaking his hand. "Pleased to meet you," she said.

"And this is Terry," Sarah said, gesturing at the tall woman.

Terry looked up from her paper and stuck out her hand. "Terry Nelson," she said. "I don't live here."

Nicky shook her hand, obviously becoming uneasy as she realized that Terry was looking intently at her chest. "Isn't that Sam's T-shirt?" Terry asked.

"I lent it to her," Sarah said quickly. "Sam doesn't mind."

Sam turned his attention back to his pancakes. "Do you drink coffee?" he asked over his shoulder, "or should I put up water for tea?"

"Coffee would be fine," Nicky said quickly. "Can I do anything?"

"Well, it would be helpful if somebody set the table in the dining room. It'll be too crowded for all four of us to eat at the counter in here."

The girls both ran out of the room and Sam looked thoughtfully at Terry. After a moment of this, she glanced up from her paper. "What?" she demanded.

He went over to her and put his arms around her shoulders. "What in the world do I see in you?" he asked.

"I'm a shrewd judge of human nature, and you're not," she explained patiently. "Also, your personality defects happen to mesh with mine in a way that pleases you."

He nodded. "That must be it."

Suddenly she raised one hand and whacked him on the arm. "And the next time I try to apologize for something, don't brush me off," she said, twisting in his arms to face him. "You know you only do it to make me feel worse. I made a spectacle of myself last night, and I'm going to apologize. Whether you like it or not."

He nodded. "You're right, of course. You may apologize when ready." He pulled back a little so he could see her face, with his arms still around her shoulders.

She shook her head. "Not now. You're all braced for it. I'd rather catch you when your defenses are down."

At breakfast, it was obvious to Nicky that Sarah was trying to be all grown-up and mature, but she was about as blase as a kid on Christmas morning. Sam was very gentle and polite with his sister's giddiness, but Terry was so calm it seemed to Nicky as if she was mocking the girl.

"So," said Terry to Nicky, putting down her mug, "how did you happen to wash up on our shore?"

"That's–" Sarah began, but Nicky interrupted her.

"Things at home are kind of screwed up," she said. "I ran away." She paused for what seemed like an appropriate amount of time to indicate reluctance, then continued. "I don't like to talk about my family. Let's just say that I figured there had to be something better."

Sarah looked in agony to have her new lover quizzed like this, but Terry looked unexpectedly sympathetic. "Siblings or parents?" she asked.

Nicky sighed. "Both, I guess. You sound like you know all about it."

Terry nodded. "Yes, especially the siblings. Let's talk about something else."

Sarah looked relieved, but Nicky was very happy with how it had gone. She knew that her staying here for more than a night or two depended at least as much on Sam as it did on Sarah, and Sam was obviously strongly influenced by Terry's opinions. Sam and Sarah both wore the baffled expression of people who have heard about bad families but haven't actually been in one, but Nicky knew that she and Terry now had the very tenuous beginnings of a bond.

After breakfast, the girls did the dishes and then went out, with Sarah announcing she was going to "lend" Nicky money to buy some clothes.

"I wonder how long this is going to last," Terry said as she and Sam sat on the sofa together.

Sam shrugged and looked at her. "So, you're going home?" he asked.

She nodded. "I have a job, you know. And I trust you're not offering to support me, especially since you already have one new mouth to feed."

He ignored this blatant attempt to distract him. "And are you coming down next weekend?"

She shook her head patiently. "No, because Perry is coming to visit me. It wouldn't be very nice for me to sneak out of town right before he arrives."

"Oh, I'm sure he's used to it by now. The .  ." His voice trailed off at her expression, and he shrugged. "Bring him along."

"It seems to me," Terry said sharply, "that a brother and sister ought to be able to spend two days together without needing to have a bunch of other people around every minute."

Sam shrugged. "That's one view of family life. You seemed to have another when you were talking with Nicky at breakfast." She made a face as he leaned over and kissed her cheek. "You want me to go to the bus station with you?"

She shook herself, halfheartedly trying to squirm out of his embrace. "I know where it is," she said.

chapter four