Chapter Six

Three Weeks Earlier (continued)

Sam and Nicky were frozen for a moment as Sarah's voice filled the apartment. Then, hearing the crash from the kitchen, Nicky ran out of the living room with Sam a step behind.

Sarah was in the center of the kitchen, smashing plates and glasses. She was a frightening sight, her face streaked with tears, her hands shaking uncontrollably. When Sam and Nicky came in, she whirled like a cornered animal. Then she punched the refrigerator door with all her might. Nicky threw her arms around her and, with Sarah's arms pinned to her side, they fell to the floor. Sarah's eyes were clenched shut, tears streaming out.

They lay frozen for a moment. Nicky was crying, too, by then, her breath coming in huge, gulping sobs. Sarah just lay motionless, her eyes shut. Sam went over quickly and knelt next to them.

He touched his sister's arm and they both turned towards him and opened their eyes. "Can't you girls do this sort of thing in your room?" he asked peevishly, and both he and Nicky watched Sarah to see if she cracked a smile.

She did.

Ten minutes later they were sitting in the living room. The mess was swept up in the kitchen. Sarah had insisted on doing it herself, before she even allowed Nicky to look at her hand. Then Nicky had made an ice pack for her and tied it on. The skin wasn't broken, though they didn't know what else might be.

They were silent for a moment, then Nicky said, "Fudge, you want to tell us about it?"

Sarah was starting to look more like herself. She shook her head. Her arm was around Nicky as they sat close together on the couch. Nicky looked more upset at that moment than Sarah did.

"I got fired," Sarah said slowly. "The bastard said he was closing this store. He's afraid of riots or something. But he said he'd move me to the other store with him . . ." No one spoke. "Of course, it wasn't going to be something for nothing." She sighed and looked around the room. "I tried to ease out of it, told him I had someone already, but the goddamn son of a bitch said . . . he said all I needed was one good time with a man and I'd forget all this other stuff."

"Had you told him?" Sam asked.

She shrugged. "I never mentioned it, but I didn't try to hide it either. I didn't think it mattered." She shook her head. "Just another asshole guy, I know. I'm used to that. But we need the money."

She suddenly started to cry again and, realizing what was bothering her, Sam stood up and quietly left the room. Nicky held Sarah for a while, thinking.

She knew there were about three different things going on here at the same time. The first was Sarah being upset that her boss was such a prick, and that she'd just lost her job. The second was Sarah being furious with herself for losing control so badly in front of her new lover, which is the kind of thing that the worse you feel about it, the more frustrated you get with yourself, and then the worse you act. Nicky knew all about that.

She thought there was a third thing, too, but she had to get Sarah to talk about it. It wasn't the kind of thing Nicky could mention first.

"Smidge," she said quietly, "why did you start crying again when you said how much we need the money? Things can't be that bad, can they?"

Sarah sniffed and then blew her nose, making such a sound that they both had to laugh. Nicky pulled the end of her sleeve over her hand and wiped Sarah's eyes. Sarah sighed. "I . . . I was talking to Sam yesterday. He was sort of wondering if you were thinking of getting a job." She wasn't meeting Nicky's eyes. "I guess he's thinking it looks like you're planning on staying. I told him I didn't have any idea if you were staying or not. We haven't talked about it . . ." her voice drifted off. Nicky wondered how long Sarah would have put off bringing this up if she hadn't lost her own job.

Feeling more than usually rat-like, Nicky squeezed Sarah's hand. "Don't ask me how long I'm staying," she said quietly. "That's up to you. As for getting a job, I'd love to, but I don't think I can. I'm only fifteen, and I ran away from my folks. If I try to get a job . . ."

Sarah grinned, obviously so relieved that the question had been brought up and nothing awful had happened that she didn't care at all if Nicky ever get a job in her life.

One of these days, Nicky thought, I'm going to wake up with a pointy snout, whiskers and a long, hairless tail.

Nicky was sitting cross-legged on their bed, leaning back against the wall. Sarah was lying down with her head in Nicky's lap. "It's too bad I can't get unemployment," Sarah said as Nicky stroked her short hair. "But I was off the books and under the table, so there's no unemployment for . . . What's funny?"

Nicky's smile had been very small and fleeting, and she was surprised that Sarah had noticed it. "Under the table," she said, and Sarah nodded.

"I guess if I'd been willing to do that, I'd still have a job."

Nicky shook her head. "It's a good thing you didn't. If you had, I'd have to go down and try to beat up your boss, and he's probably bigger than I am."

This was right on the border of what Sarah could laugh about at that moment, but Nicky beeped her on the nose. "Oh, look at it this way," she said. "You're going to have all kinds of rotten bosses in your life, he's only the first one, and now he's in the past. Why worry about him?"

"You sure have a funny way of cheering a person up," Sarah said, frowning.

Nicky shrugged. "Besides, you probably couldn't get unemployment anyway. Haven't you read the papers?"

"Not recently, Terry," Sarah said and they both laughed. "I did hear something at work yesterday about unemployment, but I didn't ask what they were talking about. I knew it didn't mean anything to me. Do you know what it's all about?"

Nicky nodded. "A little. I read a bunch of stuff in the paper this afternoon, while you were out. It was kind of weird, really. I mean, it was all the same kind of thing we have back home, payoffs, deals and trading favors, but here it's all very hard to pin down and nobody agrees on any of it. Back home, we have all that stuff, but everybody knows all about who's doing what with who.

"The mayor's brother-in-law gets a contract to build a fancy new post office way out at the edge of town where nobody can get to it, on a piece of land that belongs to another local big shot. The guy who owns the bank is having a red-hot affair with the town librarian, so suddenly there's a fancy new library, in the building where the old post office was. And the house next door to that building has been condemned as unsafe for fifteen years, but suddenly the family has to move out so it can be torn down and turned into a big new parking lot for the new library." She shrugged.

"Where do you come from, Peyton Place?" Sarah asked.

Nicky laughed. "Any small town is Peyton Place, I guess. But everybody who lives in the town knows all about it, and it's all being done by people you see on the street every day. In fact, they're usually the people who go out of their way to say Hi and remember your name."

"Or maybe it's only you who gets that kind of treatment," Sarah suggested. "Do skinny little Black girls get the same big smile as–"

"Don't say it," Nicky put in. "And I don't really know what treatment skinny little Black girls get on Main Street, since I don't remember ever seeing any."

Sarah smiled. "And your first night in the big city, a skinny little Black girl comes along and picks you up. You're pretty broad-minded, aren't you, for somebody who grew up in the house next to Ozzie and Harriet?"

Nicky made a noncommittal grunt and then asked "So, how's your hand, Gadget?"

Sarah flexed it and shrugged. "It hurts a little," she admitted.

Nicky frowned, looking as pained as if it was her own hand which had been damaged. "And I guess the day you lose your job isn't the day we can afford to pay for you to see a doctor, huh?" Nicky was amazed to find herself trying to remember if she had any money still hidden in the lining of her jacket.

Sarah looked up. "I think Finch was once a doctor or something. Maybe we could have him look at it."

"That's it," Nicky said. "Come on." She nudged Sarah's shoulders with her knees.

But Sarah didn't move. "Actually," she said, "I think he was a pharmacist," but Nicky pushed her up into a sitting position.

"Come on," Nicky said, getting to her feet. "I don't want a damaged sweetie."

Sarah flopped back down onto the bed. "As I think about it, I think he was a veterinarian," she said. "I'm sure I'll be okay."

Nicky climbed back onto the bed and kneeled beside her. "I'm not taking no for an answer," she said, leaning forward and looking down at the other girl. "I don't care if he was an insect doctor, he's– Hey, none of that," she said as Sarah reached for her left breast. She stood up and picked up her bra from the floor. "You can't distract me that easily. Finch is the closest thing we have to a doctor, and you're going to see him if I have to carry you."

Sarah slid to the edge of the bed, rolled over on her stomach and reached down to the floor to poke through the clothes scattered around. "You get so fierce," she said.

Nicky was already halfway dressed. "I'm as ferocious as a tiger when I have to be," she said. "I don't want you to have a withered hand."

Sarah looked up. "What's a withered hand?" she asked.

Nicky shrugged. "I have no idea. I read it in a book once. Now, come on. You don't need socks, we're only going upstairs."

"This place is a mess," David observed, looking around. "Doesn't anybody ever vacuum?"

"You know, that's the funny thing about divorce," T.C. said thoughtfully. "When you're getting married–combining two households into one, so you've got two of a lot of things anyway–people fall all over each other to give you stuff."

"Damn," David said cheerfully, "maybe I should get married."

"On the other hand," T.C. went on, "when you get divorced and you have to make two households out of one, dividing everything into two piles, nobody gives you shit. You know, I haven't had a decent vacuum cleaner since I got divorced. Sometimes I wonder–"

"What, did Finch end up with your vacuum cleaner?" David asked. "I haven't seen it around."

"Not him," she said. "Justice."

"Oh. You know, I always did wonder what you saw in him–"

"What we need," T.C. continued, "is someone to move in here who's independently wealthy. Preferably with their own vacuum cleaner."

There was a knock at the door.

"See if they look wealthy," T.C. said as David went over and looked through the peephole.

David shook his head. "No chance. It's Fred and Ethel from downstairs." He opened the door. "Come on in," he said, "though we were hoping it was somebody with more money."

"That's why we're here," Nicky said. "We're in need of free medical assistance."

T.C. winced at the word "free," but she motioned them in. "Finch is down getting the mail, but he should be back in a minute."

"I lost my job," Sarah explained. "That's why–"

"Sounds damn careless to me," T.C. said. "What happened?"

"Her boss was a slug," Nicky said firmly. "He wanted her to–"

"Oh, please," David said, "no lurid details."

"He wanted you to put out?" T.C. demanded. "For what he was paying you? For that money, he was lucky you showed up at all. Nuts to him."

The door opened and Finch came in. He was wearing his bathrobe and slippers, with a battered fedora on the back of his head. "I've got the mail–" he began, then he saw Nicky and Sarah. "Well, greetings," he said, waving the envelopes cheerily. He took off his hat and bowed. "I'll have to brew up a fresh pot of strong coffee and start tuning my banjo–"

"Sarah needs medical help," T.C. said. "For which she is not prepared to pay at the present time."

Finch shrugged, rubbing his hands together briskly as he came into the kitchen. "Well, that's no problem," he said. "Take your shirt off."

"It's her hand," Nicky said firmly.

He looked distracted. "What?"

"Her hand," Nicky said, flexing her fingers into a fist and gesturing with it. "She doesn't have to take her shirt off."

Finch nodded. "That's reasonable. Okay, roll up your sleeve."

"Uh," said Sarah, whose T-shirt didn't have any sleeves. T.C. took a shoebox from the small shelf over the table and started rummaging through it.

Finch leaned over and looked at Sarah's hand. "What seems to be the problem?" he asked.

"It hurts when I do this," she said, holding it up and flexing her fingers.

He shrugged. "So, don't–"

"Here," T.C. said wearily. "Put your glasses on." She held them out.

"Ah," Finch said, putting on the glasses and looking at Sarah's hand again. He pressed his finger into her palm. "Does this hurt?"

"Shit, yes," Sarah said, trying to get her hand back.

As the examination went on, T.C. started humming idly, looking at a far corner of the ceiling, and casually nudging the open cigarette box across the table towards Nicky.

Nicky saw this and, glancing guiltily at Sarah, who wasn't paying attention, she started to push it back towards T.C. David, who was leaning in the doorway, was idly humming "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

"So," Sarah said, "will I ever play the violin again?"

"Keep your straight lines to yourself," Finch muttered. He looked up. "I think you should get an X-ray."

Sarah shrugged. "Can't afford it. I guess I'll have to end up with a withered hand."

"Well," Finch said, "I think a heating pad would be a good idea."

"Nicky told me said to put some ice on it," Sarah said.

Finch nodded. "Ice is good, too."

"You see?" T.C. said. "Free medical advice is worth what you pay for it. Say, is this job-related? You could get workers comp."

"I punched the refrigerator downstairs when my boss fired me," Sarah explained.

"That may be stretching the definition of 'job-related,'" David admitted.

"Okay, so much for health," T.C. said. "Now, on to more important things. Is Sunshine going to be visiting this weekend or not?"

Nicky grinned again, climbing up onto one of the stools. "Does Sam know you call Terry 'Little Miss Sunshine'?"

T.C. laughed. "I think he likes it," Finch said, smiling. "It means he can feel a little tiny bit naughty, and I think he enjoys that."

T.C. nodded, sipping her coffee. "Get a couple of beers into him and I'll bet he calls her worse than that."

"What does he see in her?" Nicky asked.

David laughed. "I'm sorry, that question won't be taken up this semester. That's for the advanced class."

T.C. nodded. "What we need to know now is if she's coming down this weekend to spread joy and glad tidings." She lit another cigarette.

"Sam's trying to get her to come down," Sarah said, coughing rather pointedly, which T.C. ignored.

"He didn't say anything about joy and glad tidings, though," Nicky added. She looked around. "So, why do you guys care if she's coming or not? You going to take her out to dinner in a big fancy restaurant?"

"Lord, no," T.C. said, getting up and moving to the stove to refill her mug. "We're planning Movie Night, and we wanted to do it when she's not here so Sam can come."

Nicky looked as thought she was having trouble following this, compounded by her confusion at the mug of coffee T.C. placed in her hand. She tried to remember if she'd asked for coffee.

"She doesn't let Sam come to Movie Night?" she asked hesitantly. "And what is Movie Night?" She looked into the mug and held it out. "I take it with coffee. I mean with milk," she said, holding it out. T.C. took it from her.

"Well, I don't think it's quite a blatant as her forbidding him to come," T.C. said, holding the mug. "It's more that she exudes strange gasses that make people think that having fun is somehow suspect. Are you following the news? Any news?"

"What? No, I just got into–"

"That's the strange gas my brother and sister give off," David explained as T.C. handed the mug back to Nicky. "It's like living in a little bubble where the outside world doesn't enter. How's the coffee?"

Nicky sipped it, then looked into the mug in puzzlement. "I–"

"Cigarette?" T.C. asked, taking the wooden box and holding it out.

"What? Oh, no, I don't–"

"Oh, go ahead," Sarah said, leaning back between Nicky's legs and draping her arms over her thighs. "I'll expire, coughing dramatically, but at least I'll never grow old."

"Or fat," T.C. added.

"Or disillusioned," Finch put in.

"Or with a withered hand," finished David.

T.C. shrugged. "See, what more could anybody ask?" She blew a smoke ring. "So, if we do have Movie Night on Saturday, what can we see?"

"Two good ones," David said. "'The Brain Eaters' and 'Busty Ninjas go to Hawaii.'"

"You're making those up," Nicky said.

He shrugged. "You'll have to come up on Saturday if you want to know for sure."

chapter seven