Chapter Four

Three Weeks Earlier (continued)

Sam reflected that nothing in the world makes your butt sweat like the molded plastic chairs they always have in bus station waiting rooms. Terry was wearing her biting-her-lip expression and after a while he sighed and said, "What is it? It's not good to keep things bottled up, you know."

"It's this Nicky business," she said. "How long are you going to let her stay here?"

He shrugged. "That's up to Sarah, I guess."

Terry shoulders slumped. "No, it's not. She's only fifteen. You have to take some responsibility."

"I'm not her parent, she's my sister."

"Sam, you and David are the only family she has. Somebody has to give her some guidance."

Sam squirmed a little. "Nicky seems nice."

Terry poked him in the shoulder. "The only reason you're putting up with this is because it's a girl and God forbid you should look like you disapprove. If Sarah had dragged home some smelly runaway boy she'd met in a bar, you'd say something."

A voice came over the loudspeaker and she paused to listen. "That's my bus," she said, standing up. She made a face. "I'll call you sometime this week."

Sam stood up and started to say something, but she cut him off. "And, if you must know, it pisses me off that she's named Nicky," she said with a wry smile. "I consider it a personal slap in the face."

"As well you should," Sam said piously.

"Oh, shut up," she said. After she'd made it halfway to the gate, she turned around and came back. If he was expecting a kiss, however, he was disappointed. She threw her newspaper at him and said, "And read this before my next visit."

He grinned and grabbed her hand, pulling her to him for a quick kiss. "Will there be a quiz, teach?" he murmured.

"Just shut up," she said she turned to run for the gate.

Sam sat down again, feeling his damp shirt and jeans sticking to the plastic again. Terry's impatience with him about Sarah and Nicky sounded silly when he couldn't even figure out his own life. There were times when Terry made him feel incredibly lucky, and there were other times it was like dating your mother. She was hard on everybody around her, but she was even harder on herself, so it was difficult to get too upset.

He thought sometimes about keeping a diary, a journal of some kind. He usually thought about this when people asked him questions like how long had it been since his parents had died, or exactly when he and Terry had started dating. Of course, he had a pretty good idea, but there was always a little hesitation. Two years or three? Which summer had it been? And people were always amazed that he didn't remember this information as easily as he remembered his birthday, or his shirt size. That's when he thought about keeping a journal.

Of course, the problem is that starting a journal now wouldn't help him remember when those things happened, and he was afraid that a journal of this part of his life would be too repetitious. Eat. Sleep. Proof some pages. Television. Bus to Boston. Bus from Boston. Movie Night. Tension. Fighting. Reading that would be depressing.

One month he'd kept track of how much he spent on bus tickets, then calculated how much of his annual income went to shuttling back and forth to Boston. The figure he'd arrived at wasn't comforting. Which was probably another reason not to keep a journal.

When he'd started dating Terry, he'd thought the relationship might end at any moment. Sometimes he woke up in the middle of the night and found himself in the middle of a fight which had apparently started some time before. Once, she punched him in the arm, waking him up, and announced, "I'm not your girlfriend!" By the time he figured out how to respond to that, she was fast asleep again.

Eventually, he'd realized that this was just what the relationship was going to be like.

He stood up and stretched, pulling on his coat. He was about to throw out the newspaper, but then he felt guilty, and folded it up and stuck it in his coat pocket instead.

Terry was definitely right about one thing. His reaction would have been very different if Sarah had brought home a boy. But that didn't answer the question about which reaction was the right one, if either one was.

He strolled toward the subway, buying a container of coffee and a donut on the way. He had offered to buy Terry a cup while they waited, but she'd taken one look at the grimy little donut shop, which seemed to be built into an unused doorway, wrinkled her nose and shook her head.

Sam certainly knew what his parents would have thought about all this. He could say with great certainty what his parents would have thought about almost anything.

Their daughter in a carnal relationship with a girl no older than she was, their younger son laying down with other men, and their older son having sex out of wedlock and, even worse, condoning his younger siblings' perversions.

He had loved his parents, and he felt his failure to do what he should in their absence, especially with Sarah, but there were times when he thought it was probably just as well they were dead. And they'd died together, in church, which is probably what they would have wanted.

Shot to death, along with the pastor and many of their fellow worshippers, by some crazy white woman who'd apparently just come in to use the bathroom.

Stately, plump Theresa Carbonieri sat at the small, high table in her kitchen, her pudgy forearms resting on the worn Formica, with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. There was a big pot of coffee on the stove, the small black and white TV perched precariously on top of the refrigerator was turned to a news program, and she was within comfortable distance of her ashtray.

T.C. was very fond of her ashtray. It was of a type more often found in the lobbies of hotels than in private homes, about three feet tall with a claw-footed base and a small handle at the top. The actual ashtray was glass, very deep and easily removable. Every morning, she emptied it, washed it carefully and dried it, then she set it back onto its stand.

Then she lit her first cigarette of the day.

The door opened and a thin, sandy-haired man came into the apartment. He was wearing a bathrobe and slippers and shaking his head. "Mail's still not here," he said. "You'd think–"

"You want some joe, Finch?" T.C. said, getting up and moving to the stove.

"Just a half–" he began as she handed him a full cup. She refilled her own mug and climbed back onto her stool, which creaked again in protest.

Finch went to the refrigerator and pulled the door open as T.C. barked," Look at that!" She startled him so that he pulled open the door too abruptly and had to stick up one hand to keep the small TV from falling on his head. He turned to see what she was shouting about, but it was the TV she was pointing at with one stubby finger.

Finch moved to the table, blowing on his coffee. He climbed up on one of the stools, squinting at the TV. "Another protest?" he asked. "Well you have to expect that sort of thing. Why they even issued the checks when they knew–"

The door opened again and a slender Black man in his early twenties came in. "You'll never guess what's happened!" he announced happily.

T.C. peered at him for a moment. "Sarah's got a girlfriend," she said. She sipped her coffee as he slumped onto the remaining stool.

"You would take every little bit of enjoyment out of my life if you could, wouldn't you?" he asked.

"An unattainable goal," Finch began, "but one which does inspire–"

"How did you know?" David asked T.C.

"Simple. You just went down to the lower depths. Little Miss Sunshine went home, so it's just Sam and Sarah down there. You came in here wearing your 'Everybody in the world is really gay' expression. Is Sam gay? No, if Sunshine was going to drive him to that, it would have happened long ago. Is Sarah gay? Well she's been insisting on it for a while, but you've been skeptical. For her to convince you, something tangible must have happened. Therefore . . ."

She waved the hand which held her cigarette.

"And another little bit of mystery and wonder is leeched out of the universe," Finch observed sadly. "I think it was Oscar Wilde who said–"

"What's she like?" T.C. asked David.

"White, blond, blue eyes, about Sarah's height but chesty." He gestured in illustration.

"Thank God for that," T.C. said. "Between Sarah and Sunshine, every time I go down there I think boobs must have been made illegal. So, has this blond babe moved in already?" David nodded, smiling. "Where did Sarah find her?"

"Her name is Nicky, and apparently it all started in a bar. She's a runaway."

"I'd say she's going to rob them blind, but they barely have a pot or a window anyway."

"She's moved in already?" Finch asked, laughing. "I can't say I approve of that. In my day, you know, dating was entirely through the mails. No physical contact was allowed, except under strict ecclesiastical supervision. Well, I remember a time–"

"I'm fucking late again!" came a voice from the other room.

David cupped his hand to his ear. "Hark, can it be–"

"Late for what?" Finch called, clearly not expecting an answer. The door slammed and they all sighed.

"Anytime she leaves without casualties, that's a good day," T.C. said. "In fact, I think this calls for a little celebration." She opened the wooden box in the center of the small table, took out another cigarette and lit it with her lighter, which was in the shape of a small Scottie dog.

She favored David with a rather frightening smile. "So," she purred, "what do you think of your little sister's new playmate?"

Her frowned. "I don't know yet. She's cute and pleasant and all that, but . . . I'm holding back on making up my mind."

"No, you're not."

He laughed. "You're right. She's a runaway, underage, with nothing but the clothes on her back. And she's just fallen into paradise. Free food, a bed, sex, who wouldn't stick around? And how can anybody tell what she really feels about Sarah, or even if she really prefers girls at all? Not me, but I can certainly be suspicious."

"And Sam's obviously not going to say anything," Finch pointed out. "In his situation, how much can he say about anybody else's love life? If this new girl is cute and pleasant, that puts her two up on Sunshine already."

T.C. looked around the room. "Where did you put the mail?" she demanded of Finch. "I'm expecting Nasty's tax refund."

"The mail wasn't there when I went down," he explained patiently. "I think I said–"

"Not here yet? Typical. Makes you wonder why we pay taxes. I've got a good mind–"

"You haven't paid taxes since–"

"And now you know why I don't. Not enough value for my money."

"It's the lack of competition–" Finch muttered.

"It's the lack of competition that makes it . . ." she began, but her voice trailed off. She frowned fiercely at Finch. "Listen, Mr. Smarty-Pants–"

There was a knock at the door and David got up to answer it. Sam's voice came from the hall. "Hey, I forgot to ask you–"

Moving with alarming speed for one of her bulk, T.C. jumped down from her stool and ran over to the door. She reached out into the hall and clamped a pudgy hand around Sam Little's bicep, yanking him into the apartment. "Sam," she said, "you'll have a cup of coffee with us, won't you?" By then she'd hauled him into the kitchen and practically lifted him onto the stool his brother had just vacated.

"Well, perhaps just a quick–" he began as Finch handed him a mug. He looked around at their faces. "So," he said, "I guess you've heard the news?"

"News?" David asked vaguely. "I'm afraid we've been a little too busy this morning to bother with idle gossip . . ."

"That'll be the day," Sam said. "So, what have you been telling them?"

"Young man," Finch said, straightening up on his stool, "we think you're getting a raw deal here. The city is full of men who have magnanimously offered food, shelter and comfort to runaway teenage girls with large chests, but you're the only one who doesn't get to sleep with the girl himself. As my esteemed ex-wife here would say, you're not getting value for your money. In fact, you're not getting much of anything, as far as I can tell."

Sam smiled. "I think Terry would be a little bit upset if I–"

"Speaking of which," T.C put in, "did you ever find out how old she is?"

"Who?" he asked.

"Your girlfriend, Little Miss Sunshine."

Sam had obviously given up long ago on trying to get them to speak about his lover with any respect. "I really don't know. She doesn't like to talk about it. I think she feels bad about her lack of success. You see, she thinks–"

"Make a guess," Finch suggested.

Sam shrugged fatalistically, as if realizing that cooperation was the only way he would escape. "Late thirties, I would guess."

T.C. snorted a laugh. "Very late thirties," she said. "She's forty-five if she's a day."

Sam got to his feet. "Well, that's fine. I really should be–"

David got between him and the door. "There's only one way out," he said with mock ferociousness. "We propose a hostage swap. We'll let you go if you promise to send her up here in your place."

"Who, Terry? She–"

"No, not Terry. Nicky."

Sam pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Well, I might be willing to make a deal . . ."

T.C. leaned forward. "Deal?" she asked.

"I'll send her up, if you promise to fill me in on anything you find out about her."

Finch smiled. "Now that sounds eminently fair, I must say."

chapter five