Early the following morning, Nick drove to the U-Haul rental. The closest one happened to be located on the same street as Ray’s auto restoration shop. He found Ray inside wiping down an antique coupe.
“Hey, Ray do you mind if leave my Mustang here? The lot at U-Haul doesn’t look very secure.”
“Sure. Pull it into bay three. U-Haul, huh? You moving Katie in with you?”
“No.” Nick scowled. “I’m helping a friend from work move.”
Ray threw the rag down on the workbench. “You need a hand?”
“Seriously? You want to huff boxes around all day?”
“We haven’t hung out much since I got back. I planned to spray the twenty-two coupe today. But the paint I ordered never came in. I thought about going to the gym, but, hell, moving’s a work-out.”
“Yeah, it is. Especially when you see all the boxes this girl’s got.”
The two walked down the street and rented the largest truck available. As Nick pulled out of the rental truck driveway, he told Ray he needed to stop by his family’s apartment. Ray settled into the cushioned seat and adjusted the radio. “No problem.” He bobbed his head and moved his torso in rhythm with the music as they drove.
Nick parked in the alley between the restaurant and the dress shop next door. He laughed at Ray singing along and moving in time to Santana’s Smooth on the radio. “I’ll leave it running for you, Carlos. Just be a minute.”
“Hey, you gotta admit, I got the moves. You might be taller, but you dance like a white boy.”
The restaurant was closed on Mondays. He found his grandmother upstairs in the apartment kitchen mixing bread dough. She wiped her hands on her apron and rushed to hug him when he entered.
“You finally come! Sit, Nickie. We talk.”
“I only have a minute Nonna, I came to ask you a favor. A friend of mine from work needs a place to stay. She’s had some bad luck and has no family or money and nowhere to go. Kind of like some of the girls at the Shelter. I wanted to ask you if she could stay here, just for a little while. Maybe she could help out in the restaurant.”
“I don’t know this girl, Nickie. I don’t like strangers in my house.”
“She’s not a stranger, Nonna. She’s my friend.”
“She’s got no family?”
“No. She was in foster care. I don’t think she’d be any trouble. You’d like her.”
His grandmother scowled. “First, I meet her. Then, I see. I don’t like the people I see you work with on television. We need to talk about this work of yours. How you act. And on the TV, for everyone to see!”
“Hey, Nick.” Sal strolled into the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator door and stood studying the contents.
“You let the cold out!” Nonna chided. “Close the door.”
“But, I’m hungry,” Sal whined.
“You always hungry. Get something and close the door.”
“Sal, what are you doing home today?” Nick asked.
He grinned at his brother. “No work and a teacher’s day at school. Gonna grab a snack and fire up a new video game.”
“Want to help me move a friend?”
“On my day off? No, thanks.”
Nonna scowled and rapped the side of his head with her hand. “Salvatore, how you raised? Your brother ask you for help. You help.”
“I don’t want to spend my day moving, Nonna.”
Nick gripped Sal’s shoulders. “I’ll pay you. C’mon, between you, me and Ray, we can do this in a few hours. You’ll have the rest of the day to yourself plus some extra cash.”
“Salvatore, go help him,” Nonna said.
Sal sighed and rolled his eyes. “Fine. Let me put my shoes on.”
“When are we gonna talk, Nickie? You never come by. Don’t answer your phone. Then I see you on TV acting like a . . .” She threw her hands up the air. “I don’t know what. What does Katie say? Does she know this girl you want to live here?”
Nick wasn’t in the mood to discuss the disastrous book signing with his grandmother. “Yes, she does. And Katie and I are back together, Nonna. Your idea to cook her dinner worked. Thank you.” He leaned and kissed her on the cheek hoping the good news would distract her. Technically, he wasn’t lying. He and Katie were back together, but for how much longer was the true question.
“Of course it work. That’s good Nickie, I’m happy for you both.”
Sal trudged into the kitchen. “Ready.”
Nick opened the front door. “We’ll be back later, Nonna. You can meet Stephanie then.”
“I don’t forget, Nickie. We still need to talk.”
“I gotta go.” He pecked her on the cheek. “Ray’s waiting in the truck.”
Sal leaned against the hallway wall with his hands in his pockets while Nick knocked on Stephanie’s door. Ray stood with a hand cart behind the two.
Stephanie opened the door and looked distressed when she saw Ray and Sal with Nick. “I’ll be right back.” She ran into her bedroom and closed the door
Sal grabbed Nick’s arm. “When you said a friend, I thought you meant some dude. Why didn’t you tell me it was a hot girl?” He pulled a comb from his back jeans pocket and ran it through his hair.
“Mother . . .” Ray looked at the piles of boxes stacked in the living room and hallway. “How many people live here?”
“One,” Nick answered with a grin. “She has a lot of stuff.”
Stephanie weaved through the boxes piled in the hall. She had arranged her hair to hide the bruised left side of her face and put on a bright pink ball cap studded with rhinestones to hold it in place.
“Steph, this is my friend, Ray and my brother, Sal.”
Ray nodded and said hello.
Sal stuck out his hand and stood with his shoulders back and his chest puffed out.
“Nice to meet you, Sal. Thanks for helping,” Stephanie said taking his hand.
“You’re really hot! So, what happened to your face?” Sal asked with a big grin.
Nick elbowed him in the ribs.
“What? She is hot.” He looked at Nick with a hurt expression.
“Start moving stuff,” Nick hissed at him. He turned to Stephanie. “The building manager’s a nice guy. Let me park the truck out front.” He pushed the hand cart at Sal. “Grab some of the boxes by the front door and take them down to the truck.”
“I’m almost done packing up the bedroom.” Stephanie said.
“You’ve done a ton since last night.” Nick said. “Go finish packing. We’ll start loading.”
Stephanie walked back into the bedroom. Sal stepped into the doorway and called out, “You need any help? I can lift any heavy stuff. I’m really strong. I’m a boxer.”
“You’re an idiot,” Nick whispered as he slapped him in the back of the head. “You don’t ask a girl what happened to her face. What the hell’s wrong with you?”
Ray stood with his arms crossed grinning at the two brothers.
“I didn’t mean it bad. I only wanted to know. Hey, does she have a boyfriend? Is he the one who beat her up? Maybe the three of us should go talk to this guy, you know?” Sal smacked his fist into his open hand.
“Mind your own business, Sal. Grab some boxes.”
Sal mumbled under his breath as he hefted four cartons onto the cart. He wheeled it out the door toward the elevator keeping one hand on the teetering top carton to steady it.
Ray secured the other full boxes with tape. “Not that I feel like getting shot by some asshole, but what Sal said wasn’t wrong. If somebody beat up one of my sisters, or Katie, we’d go visit the guy.”
Nick looked at his friend and sighed.
When Sal returned for a second load, Nick pulled him aside in the living room. “Steph doesn’t have a boyfriend. Some guy, not important who, attacked her. Plus, she lost her job and this apartment came with it.”
Sal frowned and looked around the apartment. “Damn, that sucks. This is a nice place.”
Ray called out he was taking a load down on the cart. Sal and Nick each grabbed two boxes and followed.
After five trips, the three were happy to see the living room and hallway emptied of boxes.
“We’re actually making progress,” Ray said.
Stephanie stood in the bedroom doorway. “Everything’s packed. I just need to tape up the boxes.”
“I’ll do it.” Sal grabbed the tape gun and jogged into the bedroom.
“What about the furniture? You’ll need another friggin’ truck,” Ray said.
Nick shook his head. “Nope, the place came furnished. It all stays.”
They walked into the bedroom. Sal kept up his non-stop chatter as he worked. “I know this guy at the gym who got punched in the face. Real hard. Kinda like you. Except his eyeball was hanging out and they had to shove it back in. His face was all black and purple, too, for a long time. Then it turned green and yellow. It went back to normal, eventually. Except his one eye is still kinda jacked-up. You know, if the messed up side of your face heals up and looks as good the right side you’d be super hot.”
Stephanie kept her head down, her face hidden behind a thick curtain of red hair and wrote the contents of each box on the top flaps while Sal talked.
Nick whispered to Ray, “Did we sound that freaking stupid when we were seventeen?”
Ray laughed. “Yeah, we did.”
Stephanie’s vast collection of clothing and shoes took up another twenty-five boxes and several large plastic trash bags. Nick, Ray and Sal made trip after trip hauling as many boxes as they each could carry. They were surprised to see a pizza delivery man standing at the front door when they exited the elevator.
“Steph, you shouldn’t spend your money—” Nick started.
“It’s the least I can do. If it weren’t for you guys, I don’t know what I’d have done.”
Stephanie handed the man money and took the two pizza boxes from him. “Lunch is here.” She put the boxes on the kitchen counter. “There’s beer and wine in the fridge. Help yourselves.”
Nick reached in the refrigerator and handed a bottle of beer to Ray and took out one for himself. Sal stood looking at him with pleading eyes. “C’mon Nick, don’t make me look like a jerk in front of Stephanie. Lemme have a beer,” he murmured.
Nick smiled and poked his brother in the chest. “And explain to Nonna why I let you drink when we get back to the house? No way.”
Sal glanced over his shoulder at Stephanie and then back to his brother. “One beer? How’s Nonna gonna know? C’mon, Nick, please?”
Ray grinned when Nick finally handed his brother a bottle and said, “Just one.”
Sal took the beer, strutted to the counter and sat on the stool next to Stephanie. Nick and Ray each grabbed a slice of pizza, walked into the living room and sat on the couch.
“So, what happened to her?” Ray asked in a low voice.
“Some guy beat her up.”
“She know him?”
“Not really.” Nick took another bite of pizza. He couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten and all the heavy lifting had made him hungry.
“So, is she the reason you’re avoiding Katie?” Ray asked.
“Huh?” Nick asked with his mouth full.
“You and the redhead. Are you two, ya know . . . involved?”
Nick shook his head. “Not at all. Steph’s just a friend. She was in a bad position and I wanted to help her out. That’s all.”
“And this guy that she doesn’t really know, are you afraid he’ll do the same thing to Katie?”
Nick swallowed and then took a long drink of beer. He picked at the label on the bottle with his thumbnail and avoided Ray’s pointed stare.
“All right, I get it.” Ray sighed and bit into his pizza. “I’ll carry my gun when I pick up Katie.”
“Thanks, Ray. I appreciate you looking out for Katie.” Nick turned toward the kitchen when he heard Stephanie giggle. He hadn’t heard her laugh in days. She picked a long thread of melted mozzarella from Sal’s chin.
Stephanie closed the door of the apartment. “I’ll drop my key and security card off at the manager’s office,” she said. “Guess I’ll follow you guys to the storage unit?”
“Okay,” Nick said. “Which one?”
Stephanie stared at him and bit her lower lip out of habit. “Ow!” She touched her fingers to her red, swollen lip. “I forgot to look online. I’ll check now.” She pulled out her phone before they entered the elevator. She swiped the screen for a few moments and then read off the address of a nearby storage facility. When they reached the ground floor, she said, “Give me a minute to get my car and I’ll follow you.”
“I’ll keep you company,” Sal said. He walked with Stephanie toward the parking garage. Ray and Nick climbed into the U-Haul and waited until Stephanie’s yellow bug pulled down the driveway.
The attendant at the storage complex scratched his head and surveyed the huge U-Haul. “You’ll need at least four units, if that truck’s full,” he said. “You want climate-controlled spaces?”
Nick looked at Stephanie and shrugged. “How much?” he asked the man.
“It’s three hundred a month for regular units.”
“Not too bad, I guess,” Nick said when he saw Stephanie frown.
“That’s for one,” the man said. “Times four, is twelve hundred. If you want temp-controlled units, they’re four hundred and fifty each. If it all fits into four, that is.”
Stephanie’s shoulders sagged and her swollen lip trembled. “No. Forget it. Sorry.” She ran back to her Volkswagen and buried her head into her folded arms on the roof.
The man shrugged and returned to his office. Sal and Nick walked over to Stephanie. “This is the first place we tried. There’s got to be cheaper places,” Nick said.
“It’s Thrifty Storage. It’s advertised as the cheapest. And the others are even farther away.” Tears dripped down her face. “Give it all to charity or the city dump. I don’t care anymore.” She opened the door, sank into the driver’s seat and covered her face with her hands.
Ray poked his head out the truck window as it sat idling in the driveway. “We unloading?”
Nick shook his head no.
Sal held his cell phone to his ear and walked away. A few moments later, he motioned to Nick. “Let’s go to Eddie’s.”
“Eddie’s? What for?” Nick asked.
He followed Sal around the car to Stephanie’s open driver’s door.
Sal squatted down beside the car and grinned up at her. “Hey, it’s okay. I found a place. And it’s free. The top floor of Eddie’s Gym is empty. He’s been talking about expanding and making the second floor a women’s workout place. Knowing Eddie, that ain’t gonna happen for a while, if ever. He’s fine with us putting your stuff up there. No charge.”
Stephanie climbed out of her car. “Really?”
Sal stood, beaming at her. “Yeah. It’s safe and close to our house if you need any stuff.”
Stephanie touched Sal’s arm. “Thank you, Sal.”
Old Eddie shuffled out when the U-Haul and Stephanie’s Beetle pulled into his parking lot. He eyed Stephanie as he pressed a key into Sal’s hand. “There’s nuthin’ illegal in the truck, right?”
Sal smiled and shook his head no. “Nope. Just clothes and stuff.”
“I’m holding you responsible,” Eddie said, poking a gnarled finger into Sal’s chest. “You leave the door unlocked and somebody breaks in, I break your head. You lose the key, you pay to get the locks changed.” He turned and walked back into the gym.
For the next three and a half hours they hauled Stephanie’s belongings up the outside metal staircase into the second story. Three quarters of the upstairs space stood empty except for some broken gym equipment at one end. The other side of the huge space housed a small studio apartment.
“It’s a little dusty, but I could clean it up and paint it for you. It could be kinda nice.” Sal said. He led Stephanie by the hand, pointing out the tiny kitchenette area and a bathroom with a shower stall. “Eddie used to let guys from outta town stay here before a match. But he hasn’t used it in years. I could ask him if you can stay here, if you want me to.”
“I can’t live here. I’d have to pay rent and I don’t have a job.” Stephanie said.
“Eddie’s been talking about hiring someone to help with the memberships and bookings. It’s a lot of paperwork and phone calls. He hates that stuff. Maybe you could work here.” He flopped onto the single bed, the head pushed up against the only window in the studio. “Bed’s comfortable.” He grinned at Stephanie, rolled to one side and patted the mattress. “Wanna try it?”
Nick cleared his throat. “We need to get back to the house. I want Nonna to meet Steph.”
“Nick! What’s the matter with you? Give beer to children? Don’t shake your head. I smell it.”
“Just one beer, Nonna.” He glared at Sal who stood smirking next to Stephanie in the doorway between the kitchen and living room.
Ray pretended to cough and covered his smile with his hand.
“It’s no different than drinking a glass of wine, Nonna,” Sal said.
Nick shook his head knowing what was coming next. His grandmother crossed the kitchen and wagged her finger in Sal’s face. “No different than wine, eh? Do they have beer in church? No! They have wine. Jesus drank the wine. Not the beer!”
Sal’s face flushed pink. He asked, “What’re you cooking Nonna? It smells good.”
“Chicken and pasta,” she said. “Don’t tell me, I know. You hungry!”
“It smells amazing,” Stephanie said in a meek voice. She had been staring wide-eyed around the apartment since they arrived.
“You hungry, too?” Nonna asked.
“I’m always hungry,” Stephanie said with a nervous giggle.
“Dinner be ready soon.” Nonna squeezed her arm. “You need to eat. Look how skinny she is!”
Sal gave Nick the thumbs up sign behind his grandmother’s back.
“After dinner, I show you the guest room, okay?” Nonna asked Stephanie.
“Thank you,” Steph said. “I really appreciate you letting me stay here. I promise I’ll look for a job as soon as, um, my face looks better.”
“It’s okay, sweetheart. Everything will be okay.” Nonna patted Stephanie’s unhurt cheek. “Salvatore, take her into the living room until dinner’s ready. Go watch TV. All of you. I can’t cook with a crowd in my kitchen.”
“Hey, you wanna play a video game? Or listen to some music?” Sal asked. “I have a killer gaming and sound system in my room.” He took Stephanie’s hand and led her toward the staircase.
“Keep your door open, Salvatore. You hear me?” Nonna shook a wooden spoon in the air. “Boys!”
Savory aromas of fresh-baked bread, Parmesan and Romano cheeses, tomato sauce, garlic and basil filled the kitchen. Heaping dishes of food covered the table. Stephanie and Sal sat across from Nick at the large oval table chatting and smiling as they ate. Even his father seemed amiable tonight. He talked about his time in the Navy and asked Ray questions about his recent stint in the Army. The cozy dinner scene reminded Nick of when his mother was alive. He missed seeing both her, and Katie, seated at the table.
Nonna made another trip around the table spooning more food onto everyone’s plates.
Ray held up his hands. “No thanks, I’m stuffed, Nonna. I forgot how good your cooking is.” Ray looked at Nick. “We need to take the rental truck back. Katie gets off work in forty-five minutes.”
Nick and Ray walked from the U-Haul rental back to Ray’s shop, moaning about how full they felt from dinner. Ray unlocked and raised the bay door so Nick could pull his Mustang outside. Then Ray backed his old Chevy out and parked it behind Nick’s car on the street.
“Nick, I can’t pick up Katie forever, ya know. She wants you, not me. She’s worried about you, man. So am I.”
Nick stood by his car kicking at the curb. Today had been the first good and sober day he had in a while. Focusing on helping someone else took his mind from his own troubles. He felt relieved knowing Stephanie had a safe place to stay and grateful for an entire day without any bursts of rage or red-tinted vision. But Ray’s words brought reality crashing down on him. He wanted to pick Katie up from work, spend the evening making love to her and then wake holding her in his arms. Thanks to Ruby’s demons, he was terrified to go near her. The thought of returning to his apartment alone, and worse, having to deal with Ruby in the morning, made him feel sick and hopeless.
“I offered to help today so we could talk about this shit. Figure something out. But between Sal and Steph and then your family around . . .” Ray waved his hand in front of Nick’s face. “Nick! You hear me?”
Nick swiped his sleeve across his eyes. “Yeah. I hear you.” He blew out a long breath. “I need more time.” He slid into his driver’s seat, started the car and pulled away.