Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 9

It’s past three in the morning and the party is starting to quiet down. Maybe Madison finally convinced Thomas to come down out of that tree, or maybe he made up his mind to come down on his own. Either way we all sort of reconvene in the living room. Thomas turns down the stereo and people start to leave.

Garrett and Driggs are both passed out on the floor by the kitchen. I see one or two more people just stumbling around on the grass in the backyard.

I’m amazed the four of us aren’t a little more fucked up, all things considered. Especially Thomas. He might actually be the least fucked up among us. I don’t know what’s gotten into him. He goes into Alfred’s room to check on him and reports back that he’s just sleeping peacefully in bed. The kid’s friends must have left at some point. A lot of people were booking cars to come pick them up, so maybe they got into one of those. Lexie’s makeup is smeared a little and she’s going around like a zombie dumping bottles and cans into a black trash bag. I step around collecting a few more and she holds the bag open for me. In that moment, I’m feeling very grown up. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know.

“We’ll clean up the rest in the morning,” says Thomas.

Madison has fallen asleep on the couch. Thomas picks her up and carries her to his bed. I watch the whole thing unfold, from the way he gently hooks one forearm under her legs and the other under her back, to the way her long blond hair just spills over his shoulder. He lifts her like she weighs nothing. As he’s passing by me, his eyes just sort of fixate on mine. They’re saying, “What the fuck am I supposed to do?”

Lexie and I sleep on Thomas’s dad’s bed. We’re really careful not to disturb anything. We even bring in sleeping bags and lay them on top.

“I kept thinking the cops would come,” she says.

I’m lying there next to her. Our sleeping bags open up toward each other. “I’m pretty amazed they never did,” I say.

“Were you planning to run if they did?”

“Yeah.”

“Would you have taken me with you?”

“Of course,” I say.

She smiles. “Well, it never came to that. I guess you get a free pass sometimes.”

I guess you do. She reaches for me in a suggestive way a couple times and I tell her I’m just too exhausted. I tell her I’m not feeling well. In a way, I guess it’s true.

I wake up at ten in the morning. I feel like I haven’t slept enough, but I can’t seem to get back to sleep. I get out of bed slowly so I don’t wake up Lexie. I walk past the open doorway to Thomas’s room and am surprised to see his bed empty.

I got out into the kitchen and survey the place. Somebody already did some cleaning up. Anyone who stuck around to sleep on the floor or the lawn or wherever else is long gone. I’m kind of wondering where the hell Thomas and Madison went. I go over to the garage door at the edge of the kitchen and open it.

There he is, lying flat on his bench. He’s in the middle of a set. I let him finish and then I say, “You shouldn’t do that without a spotter.”

He sits up and stretches out his fingers. “Get the fuck over here, then.”

“Where did Madison go?”

“She had to go home and sweet-talk her mom. Turns out she never got permission to stay over.”

“Wow,” I say. “Who is this person?”

“I know.” Thomas is looking pretty energized from the workout. “She really mellowed out once school ended.”

“I’m starting to think we all did,” I say.

Thomas doesn’t answer me. He’s just staring off into space for a while. “Your turn,” he finally says.

“Are you fucking kidding me? I’m not doing that shit right now.”

He makes way for me to lie down on the bench. “Come on,” he says. “It’ll make you feel better.”

“That’s a lie.”

“I promise.” He’s just looking at me.

In all honestly, those dark eyes have a way of convincing me to do just about anything sometimes. Fine, you win Thomas. I’ll just do whatever the hell you want. I lie down on the bench and he helps me get going. It’s too much weight for me, so we have to remove some. I do what I can and he’s just encouraging me through the whole thing. Anyway I finish up in good form and set the barbell back on the rack. I sit up and take a moment to breath in and out a few times. I decide I’m not going to focus on anything else but my breathing.

But then Thomas says, “I kind of thought something might happen again last night.”

“Excuse me?” I say.

“We were both pretty drunk, right?”

“I guess,” I say. Classic Thomas, bring this shit up out of left field. “I mean, didn’t something kind of happen?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “Did it?”

“We told each other. We found out we’re both…” I literally stop talking right there. I’m not trying to get all dramatic, it’s just that I can’t see any good way of finishing that sentence.

He’s quiet about the whole thing for a minute. Then he says, “I thought we already knew that.”

“I guess we did,” I say.

It’s got to be the most useless conversation I’ve ever been a part of—I don’t know what else to tell you. We’re both kind of sitting there, a little sad, and more than a little confused about where to go next. I’m not moving an inch. I’m completely still. I don’t want to be the one to say it, but at this point I guess that’s just how it has to be. “What ever happened to going back to how things were before?”

“No, you’re right, that’s what we said.” And just like that, he flips a switch, and he’s back to all-business Thomas again. He lies down on the bench and I go over to spot for him.

We continue on with the workout, although I’m feeling quite a bit weaker than usual. Lexie opens the garage door a short time later, just as we’re finishing.

“What the fuck got into you two?” she says. “You’re choosing now to work out?”

“It’s Thomas’s fault,” I say. “He made me.”

“I didn’t make you do shit,” says Thomas.

She’s looking back and forth between us like we’re the two dumbest people she’s ever laid eyes on. “Anyway, I’m out of here. My mom’s probably thinking I’m dead or something.”

“Want me to walk you to your car?” I say.

“I’m sure I can manage,” she says. And then she’s gone.

Thomas and I stack his weights neatly in the corner of the garage so his dad doesn’t get pissed. We go into the kitchen I let him push his supplements on me.

“Here, drink this first,” he says. He’s handing me a full cup of water. “We’re probably both dehydrated.”

I take it from him and drink it down. “When does your dad get back?” I say.

“Tomorrow.”

“Are you ready to start work?”

He nods. “I’m actually pretty excited about it.”

“You were so sick of it by the end of last summer.”

“I know,” he says.

“What’s old is new again,” I say. Man, I am just full of the clever phrases lately.

“I’m sure I’ll get sick of it again. But not now.”

I help him get the place in order. I’m surprised there’s not more cleaning up to do, though we do offload two full black trash bags into Thomas’s trunk and heave the empty keg into the back seat.

Thomas goes into Alfred’s room and says, “Freddie, if you don’t get yourself the fuck up in five seconds I’m going to fucking end you.”

Alfred takes the threat half-seriously, groaning and rolling on his side.

“Get up,” Thomas shouts.

Alfred gets out of bed fully clothed and heads straight to the bathroom without a word to either of us.

A few minutes later, we’re all just sitting in the living room. Thomas looks over at his little brother. “Good party?”

Alfred slowly gets this big grin on his face. “Yeah.”

“If Dad finds out, you know we won’t be doing that shit anymore, so I want you to keep an eye out for anything out of place. Anything he might notice.”

Alfred nods.

I don’t stay much longer because I plan to check in with my mom. I figure it wouldn’t kill me to clean up a little over there, too. She can only do so much on her own. Anyway, I go back there, and she’s fast asleep, so I’m just going around the house cleaning up as quietly as I can. Then I fall onto my bed and sleep for a good three hours.

I wake up and I still feel exhausted somehow. I don’t know what the hell is making me so tired. Anyway, I can’t seem to sleep anymore, so I go out into the living room because I can hear the TV. It’s late in the afternoon and my mom is out there. I tell her I’m sorry for leaving the day before.

“I wasn’t being fair,” she says. She’s being much kinder than I expected about the whole thing. “In two months you’ll be gone,” she says. “If I keep scaring you away like that, you might never come back.”

“Stop it, Ma, of course I’ll come back.”

She motions me over and I sit on the edge of the couch where she’s lying. She pulls me down into a hug. She’s crying a little. “You have to promise,” she says.

“I will, Mom.”

“How often?”

“Between semesters, at least.”

“More than that,” she says.

“I don’t know if I can,” I say.

She lets me go. “There’s an airport here and an airport there, Nikola.”

“Yeah? And how am I going to pay for all those plane tickets, Ma?

“I’ll help you pay for them,” she says.

“Yeah,” I say.

“You know I’ll help you pay for them, Niko.”

“I know, Ma,” I say. “I know. Thank you.”

For an hour or two before bed I’m just on my phone flicking through social media and texting Lexie and Thomas in separate chats.

“Just let her say it,” Lexie’s saying. “Just smile and nod. It makes her feel good about herself.”

“I just wish she would get real about things sometimes,” I type back. “She can’t afford that shit and she knows it.”

“You know how I feel about all the way she treats you,” Thomas says. “It’s not normal. I wish you didn’t have to deal with it.”

“Not every mom can be like yours was,” I type. My finger hovers above the send button. Then I send it.

Thirty seconds laters, his reply shows up: “I was thinking about her today.”

“She’s never going to be what you want,” says Lexie.

I reply to Thomas: “I think about her all the time.”

“You were her favorite,” he says.

“No,” I say. “Alfred was.”

“That’s true.”

He’s calling me now. We do this sometimes.

“Hey,” he says. He doesn’t wait for me to answer. “Remember that time we got stuck in the bathroom? Remember, the door was stuck and we couldn’t figure out what the fuck was wrong with it?”

“I remember,” I say.

“What were we doing in there?”

“Filling water balloons,” I say.

“Oh, fuck,” he says. “How could I forget that part?”

Man, I can just picture the grin spreading across his face like he’s right here in front of me. “You fell in the tub with all of them,” I tell him. “We were shoving each other around because you got pissed about something, and you fell in, remember?”

“I was pissed because I was stuck in the bathroom,” he says. “They fucking popped all over me, remember that?” He’s laughing now. “I was fucking soaked. God, how long ago was that?”

“I think we were probably twelve or thirteen,” I say. “Your mom was pissed too, remember? She was standing outside the whole time. She thought we were doing it on purpose. She kept yelling at us to unlock the door.”

There’s just the shortest pause after I bring up his mom. Thomas says, “And remember how she couldn’t stop laughing once she figured out what was wrong? She said she was going to leave us in there forever.”

“Yeah,” I say. “She always saw the funny side of those things, in the end.”

We’re both really quiet for a while, after I say that. I’m lying there with my phone wedged between my ear and pillow, just listening to Thomas breathing.

“I wish you were here right now,” he says.

“Yeah?” I say. “What for?”

“What do you mean what for? Fuck, dude, it’s better when we talk about this stuff in person.”

“I know,” I say. “I wish I was there, too.”

A couple minutes later I say his name, just kind of softly. But I can already tell from the change in his breathing that he’s asleep. I don’t pay for minutes at night, so I just leave the call on like that. I can feel myself fading.

The next day, I’m just slaving away in the coffee shack. Traffic’s been heavy, but I don’t mind it. I haven’t been thinking about too much in particular. During the slow periods I text back and forth with Lexie. She was pissed that I bailed on our conversation from the night before. I didn’t even realize I had until she brought it up the next morning. Anyway, she’s over it now. She’s saying how she and Madison are planning to go shopping after their shifts.

“You going to the mall?” I say.

“Yeah,” she says. “Wanna come?”

“Sure.”

“Need a ride?”

“Nah,” I say. “I’ll walk.”

It’s getting on towards three-thirty when Thomas roars up out of nowhere in that noisy Lexus and chirps to a stop in front of the order window. He turns off the engine. He’s just looking at the menu for a second. “What the fuck’s a sidewinder?”

“It’s a medium roast mixed with a dark roast and cinnamon,” I say.

“That sounds like a bullshit drink,” he says.

“It is,” I tell him. “I’ll make you one.”

Anyway, I make him the drink and we’re just talking and laughing about nothing. I didn’t turn on the window unit today because it wasn’t hot enough. But now the heat is catching up with me and I’m leaning halfway out of the booth because the breeze outside feels nice.

A truck pulls in behind Thomas. I’m about to tell him he should move, but before I can the truck honks its horn. The guy behind the wheel looks pissed that we’re even talking. This is the kind of behavior I was talking about. People need to chill sometimes. He honks a second time and gestures out his window to hurry up. Thomas stands up out of his car and goes back to the guy. I’m holding my breath. I seriously doubt this dude was expecting to be confronted.

“Fuck, man,” Thomas yells into the guy’s window. “Can’t you tell when you’re not wanted? Fuck off.”

The guy banks his tires to the right and screeches away. He comes pretty close to clipping Thomas’s car as he does so. Anyway, Thomas comes back over to me and I can barely handle my shit, I’m laughing so hard.

“Better not tell Marlon about that one,” he says. Thomas has met my boss a few times. Marlon is a devout follower of the church of The Customer Is Always Right, and I think even Thomas has a sense of the grave infraction he’s just committed.

“Jesus Christ,” I say. “I’m throwing you under the bus if he ever finds out.”

“Go right ahead. That guy was an ass. Feels so good to tell people off sometimes.”

I close up ten minutes early because no one else shows up. I’m allowed to do that.

I get in Thomas’s car and recline my seat. I settle into the heat as he drives us down Milwaukee towards the mall. His right hand is dangling from the bottom of the steering wheel and his arm is resting up on the windowsill. He turns up some rapper whose music I vaguely recognize. I know it sounds kind of dumb, but it’s moments like these I look forward to all year, when I’m just stuck in a desk in school. It’s especially true when the weather’s shitty, but even when it’s not, I’m just longing for these summer days when the daily work is done, and there’s nothing on the agenda. If I’m honest, there’s absolutely no one else in the world I want to be sitting next to more. My left hand rests on my knee. His right hand moves to the shifter, a couple inches away. The sun and the wind are just pouring in and the music pounds through my chest.

“Think they’re here yet?” he says as he pulls into the complex.

I put on my sunglasses. “Doubt it. Park by J.C. Penney. There’s always a ton of spots over there.”

“Fuck off,” he says. But he does what I say. He makes a hard right back onto the circuit. Thomas just loves steering his car around like it’s a goddamn tractor. You could turn that wheel with your pinky if you wanted to. He’ll place him palm up at twelve o’clock and just whip it around like it’s nothing.

We drive halfway around the mall and park up on the second level by the front of the store. He turns off the engine. Some swallows are flying around making little noises here and there. The sun’s beating down on us through the sunroof, so he closes it.

“Madison’s not even off her shift until four-thirty,” Thomas says.

“Lexie, too,” I say.

He reclines his seat. He looks over at me. He’s got his dad’s Ray-Bans on. “Time to kill time,” he says.

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