I was standing outside anxiously with a Tupperware container of cheesecake and my laptop when Nikki pulled up to meet me. I might have been excited to see her and to spend time with her friends, but old habits die hard. My heart bounced in relief when I saw her pull up in Ray’s big black truck; a small part of me wasn’t entirely convinced that she would come.
As soon as I pulled myself up into the car, adjusting the container in my hands, I couldn’t help but to ask, “What does your actual car look like if you drive this all the time?”
Nikki laughed. “It’s a little thing that requires a lot less effort to get in to,” she said with an easy smile.
My eyes strayed to her appearance. She was dressed more nicely than the day she took me home in her pajamas, wearing some beautifully tight skinny jeans and a wonderful black turtleneck. I swallowed and averted my eyes, feeling my face flush as I fiddled with my baggy grey sweater and wiped my sweaty hands on my blue jeans. Silently, I wondered if I was supposed to look nicer.
“I’m really glad you’re still okay with coming,” Nikki said kindly, looking behind her to back out.
“Me too,” I responded. “Now I’ll see where you live.”
She chuckled. “Okay, but use your newfound knowledge for good. I now expect flowers to be sent to my house,” she joked good-naturedly, her eyes flicking to me.
I laughed as she turned out of my building’s parking lot, entering the main road. “I’ll send you peanut butter and chocolate chips from Amazon instead. It’s a lot cheaper.”
“Oooo, peanut butter,” she said, licking her lips. “Damn, that sounds good. Why did you have to say that?” Nikki laughed, stepping on the gas slightly.
“Oh, that does sound good…” I mused. “But I do have chocolate chip cookie cheesecake.” I lifted the container in my hands, silently proud of how it turned out. The pieces were misshapen and messy, but I had a feeling Nikki and her friends wouldn’t care much as long as it tasted good.
Nikki’s eyes shot to the container in my hands, her eyebrows raising. “I’m honestly excited to try that. You could have made it at my place if you wanted.”
I blushed. “I, uh, I didn’t know how busy you guys would be, and I didn’t want to get in the way.”
“If there’s anything I’m going to teach you today, it’s that you’re always welcome in my home,” she said sincerely. “Unless you like, burn the place down. Then I won’t have a home so it won’t matter anyway.”
Nikki had a way about her that simply put me at ease on our ride over. I’d been worried about what she would think after I called her yesterday, but she wasn’t treating me any differently than normal. I breathed out a sigh of relief I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in.
When we pulled up to her home, I raised my eyebrows at the size of the place. It was two stories, with a lovely old-fashioned exterior. Leaves sat on the front lawn, indicating the chilling weather, but it hadn’t snowed enough for them to be covered. With no garage, three cars sat jam-packed in the dirt pathway to the left of the house, large trees swaying over them as the wind blew by.
“My car’s the one in the back,” Nikki said, pointing to the silver one backed into the corner. “Mikey’s a medical student, Dom does his music, and Ray’s a cop, so they all leave the house more than I do. My car always gets backed into the corner,” she finished with a pout. “I always have to take one of their cars to go out.”
“I don’t even have a license,” I said with an embarrassed smile. “I, uh, I never needed one since everything is so close and I didn’t have any friends… and everyone was too busy to teach me.”
“Eh, don’t worry about it. I didn’t get mine until I was twenty-two. It was more fun to hole myself up in my room with a game console,” Nikki said as she slowly pulled into the driveway. She’d told me before that she was twenty-four, so four years older than myself. “Besides, maybe I can help you learn sometime. You know, if I can ever get my car out of the driveway.”
I chuckled at her pouty expression, getting out of the car when she parked. It took me a second to grab my cheesecake and laptop, but Nikki took the cheesecake from me to free up my hands. She led me to the front door where she let me in and a burst of warm air hit me.
The inside of the house was just as beautiful as the outside. A living room sat in a lowered area off to the left, while the stairs to the next floor spanned the area on the right. I could see the kitchen in the back. Bedrooms were probably upstairs.
“You have a wonderful home,” I said, feeling nervous.
“Thanks,” Nikki said with a smile. “I’ll tell my landlord that you like it.”
She stepped forward to the kitchen and I followed behind at a slower pace, wanting to stay close to her. I spied a number of gaming consoles stacked up neatly with controllers and discs, all sitting nicely underneath the TV as I walked by.
Nikki led me into the kitchen, a large area with warm red walls and an island in the middle. A circular dining table sat off to the side in front of the sliding glass doors that led outside. I spied another room to the left that looked like a living area and frowned.
Perhaps sensing my confusion, Nikki said, “Since we mostly eat on the couch, because we’re all lazy like that, we don’t have anything besides this table here and a big one we bring out for special stuff. The front room there is supposed to be a formal dining room, but oh well,” she finished with laugh. “We have two living areas instead.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” another voice said. I looked over to see Ray sitting at the counter, sipping a mug of something. He was dressed in casual clothes that looked like something someone would sleep in; maybe he’d just woken up even though it was almost one. He smiled at us when we walked in. “Nice to see you again, Corey. Glad you could make it.”
“Me too,” I said, suddenly nervous and wringing my hands along the strap of my laptop bag.
“Don’t pay attention to him,” Nikki said flippantly, waving him off. “Ray’s harmless.”
He gave her an unimpressed look. “I’m going to take offense to that since I’m supposed to be at least a little intimidating to be a police officer.”
Nikki rolled her eyes. “You are the least intimidating person ever when you start speaking.”
I had to agree despite my limited time with Ray. On the outside, Ray looked a bit frightening with his leather jacket and spiked black hair. But as soon as he smiled and started joking around, he was about as scary as puppy.
“Hey!” Ray said, even though he couldn’t stop the smile that broke out on his face. He snorted into his drink, spilling it on the counter. “Aw, damn.”
Nikki stepped over to the paper towels, tossing Ray a few with a wry smile and a fond look on her face. I could feel some of the tension leave my body. I let out a breath, watching the easy way Nikki and Ray talked, the simple friendship they had. My heart suddenly ached with a deep desire I couldn’t identify. Even with these two here with me, I felt pangs of loneliness hit me. I shifted and Ray turned to me.
“Oh!” he said. “Sorry, we were never formally introduced. I’m Ray. Nice to meet you.” He stepped over to me and held out his hand politely, a warm smile on his face.
“Nice to meet you too. I’m Corey, but I guess you knew that,” I said with a smile of my own.
“How could I not? Nikki talks about you all the time, and she’s on her phone even more than usual now—hey!” Ray jumped when Nikki threw a dish towel at him. Her cheeks looked red, but not redder than mine. I started wringing my hands again, looking at Ray. I had to crane my neck to look up at him.
I heard Nikki snort. “Yeah, he’s freaking tall. They’re all way too tall; you guys are going to hurt my neck.” She busied herself with catching the towel Ray threw back at her and placing his mug in the sink with practiced ease.
Ray laughed into his hand. “You’re just short, Nikki. Even Corey’s taller than you.”
Nikki gave him the finger, but I could tell there was no real malice behind it. She was smiling as she placed the cheesecake I brought in the fridge. “You’d better not eat that, Ray,” she warned. “Corey made that just for us.”
His eyes got a mischievous look in them. “What is it?”
“Chocolate chip cookie cheesecake,” I answered proudly.
Ray raised his eyebrows at me. “Okay, and you expect me not to eat that? That sounds delicious.”
“Eat it and you make us a new one,” Nikki said, stepping past him to stand next to me. “And we all know that you have no idea how to make that.” She patted his chest in a placating gesture. “I’m going to start cooking my dishes before Mikey starts on the turkey, but you come with me, Corey. I’ll show you where you can set your computer down and where the bathrooms and stuff are.” She gave me a smile, directing me to the stairs.
The second floor opened up into a large hallway with a door directly to the left and a hallway to the right. “That’s the master, which is my room. Honestly, the only reason I have the bigger room is because it’s separate from the others and the guys won’t hear me recording at night.” She shrugged and took a right. I could see three other rooms, one directly opposite Nikki’s and the other two on either side of the hallway. “Dom, Mikey, and Ray are over here with the bathroom. I’ve got a bathroom in my room, and then there’s one more downstairs.”
She led me back to her room, opening the door. My eyebrows rose as I took it in. It wasn’t overly large, but she did have at least a queen-sized bed against the wall. A dresser sat next to it, a series of drawers sat near the window, and her clothes must have been in the closet, but my eyes went right to her desk.
It was obvious that she was a gamer. Two computer monitors sat on the desk, a laptop closed in front of them. High-tech headphones rested near an old keyboard, while a microphone for her to speak into sat in front. There were a few other technical things set out too, but the only thing I really recognized was a flash drive and some speakers.
“Wow,” I said, spying another gaming system, a DVD player, and some smaller consoles in the corner.
Nikki smiled shyly. “Ah, yeah, I’ve got lots of technical stuff. I know it looks like a lot, but…” she shrugged, as if she didn’t know what to say. My eyes caught onto the cute figurines set out on her desktops and around the room. Nikki seemed to notice. “O-oh, yeah, I have a bad habit of buying up merchandise. Although, Ray tells me I could be a lot worse.”
She really could have. Besides the computers and the figurines, her room was relatively boring. I stepped over to one of the figures I recognized. “Oh, I’ve been wanting this,” I whined unintentionally, leaning down. Blushing, I turned to face her. “I-I mean, these are great. Seriously, I love all this stuff. And yeah, you could be worse,” I chuckled. “I put drawings up on my wall.”
“Really?” Nikki perked up. She laughed a little nervously. “Even the guys tell me I can go overboard.”
“They just don’t understand the importance of OTPs and fandoms,” I said, wincing as the words slipped out. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of my hobbies, but it was always embarrassing when someone gave me that blank look that told me they didn’t understand one of the nerd terms I used.
Nikki’s eyes lit up as a smile graced her features. “I’m going to guess you’re much more into fanfiction than me, but good god, it’s great to talk to a girl who’s the same amount of dork as me.”
I flushed in embarrassment. Nikki was looking into my eyes with her hazel gaze. There was a warm smile on her face. I swallowed, my heart beating faster all of a sudden. It was hard to look away when Nikki stepped up closer to me, only a few inches away now. I couldn’t think of the right words to say or what to do with the sudden tension between us, so I lowered my laptop and changed the subject. “Um, can I keep this up here?”
Nikki seemed to snap out of whatever trance we’d been in. “Yeah, it’ll be safe here.” She placed it on her bed for me, smoothing out the shiny brown sheets.
Perhaps sensing my gaze, she said, “Whenever I do my live streams, I always make sure not to have too many crazy things in the background. People on the internet get weird, even when all I do is change the sheet color.”
I could only imagine. Nikki told me I could come up to her room at any point in the day if I wanted my laptop or wanted a second alone and led me back downstairs where I spied Ray and Mikey in the kitchen now. Dom was sitting on the couch with an arm over his face, looking exhausted.
I frowned at him and pointed silently. Nikki rolled her eyes. “He’s fine. What happened, Dom?”
“I hate my boss,” he murmured, not moving.
“Then quit,” Nikki suggested, crossing her arms and stepping in front of him.
Dom groaned. “If I quit, I’ll have to find another job. Honestly, that sounds kind of horrible too.”
Nikki shook her head fondly. She turned to me. “Dom here works for a music producer who’s an asshole. He’s been trying to find another job for a while now, but it’s not easy.” Leaning over to me, she said, “Plus, you see how he’s kind of a downer. He doesn’t do well on interviews.”
Dom groaned in response again, obviously having accepted the fact that he wasn’t great in terms of having the cheerful and go-getter personality that employers wanted. Nikki patted his leg comfortingly and stepped back behind me to kick his shoes back to where the others were.
I frowned at him. I didn’t know Dom too well, but my heart always went out to people who were in need of help. “Um, if you’re ever looking to play music or something, I’m sure my boss wouldn’t mind hiring you if you’re any good.”
Dom sat up quickly enough that I jumped back. I would have tripped over my own two feet if Nikki hadn’t grabbed my forearms from behind to keep me up. “Jeez, Dom, she’s only been here for like half an hour. You can’t give her a heart attack yet or she’ll never come back,” she admonished.
I didn’t comment on the “yet” portion of her sentence as Dom asked, “Would he really? The guy with the constant frown, right?”
I nodded, although I was paying a little more attention to the feeling of Nikki’s hands on my arms than the conversation. “Kurosawa might not be able to give you steady work, but Nikki told me you like to play guitar and cello. I’m sure he at least wouldn’t mind meeting you.”
I was suddenly wrapped in a careful hug that felt somewhat uncharacteristic from the gloomy sort of sassy Dom I’d met at the restaurant weeks back. I stiffened, unused to people touching me so casually.
Dom pulled back quickly though. “Oh, sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, his eyes lidded and a small smile on his face. “That was just the best news I’ve heard in a while.”
“U-um, that’s okay…” I murmured, wishing I had my laptop bag to worry in my hands.
Nikki sighed tiredly. “Sorry, Corey. Dom’s not a touchy person, but he’s been complaining about work for a while. Hopefully we haven’t scared you away?” she asked with a wince.
I let out a breath and gave her a smile. “Not yet.” I looked back to Dom. “I’ll give you Kurosawa’s email later. He’s not big on unsolicited phone calls.”
Dom warmed up to me pretty quickly after that. He was still a subdued sort of person, but even I could tell that he was attempting to be optimistic. Ray brought out the sassy side of him too, which consisted of a lot of dry sarcasm and dark humor. Nikki snorted and rolled her eyes at them, but she seemed content as she painstakingly peeled potatoes on the counter.
“I cut my finger once and almost passed out,” she explained to me. “I try to cut slower now.”
“That was not as horrifying as she’s making it sound,” Dom said, reaching to grab the spices they would need from a higher cabinet. “It was a tiny cut with only a little bit of blood.”
“That was a fucking nightmare,” Nikki shot back, waving the knife at him before returning to her meticulous work.
Ray sighed, mixing together dough for biscuits. “Nikki, you’re not even that great of a cook anyway, so you barely handle knives.”
Nikki glared at him, but I was smiling at their easy banter. “Maybe you shouldn’t insult her cooking when she’s holding a knife,” I suggested.
Ray made a tsk sound and shook his head. “I knew Corey was smarter than all of us. What do you think, Mikey? Is she smarter than you?”
I looked to the left where Ray’s gaze was, finding Mikey walking in with a defrosted turkey. He was smiling jovially. “Probably. I’m the one who almost made her fall off of a ladder, so she’s at least got more common sense than me.” He shrugged, waving hello to me as he placed the bird on the counter. “How is your leg by the way?”
“Mikey’s doing med school,” Nikki explained. “He’s the most capable out of all of us. And he took my cut finger seriously,” she emphasized to the other two.
“There was barely anything to take seriously,” Ray taunted. “You just can’t handle blood.”
“And you can’t handle it when other people throw up,” she shot back.
Ray started looking a little green. “No,” he said seriously. “Nope, nope, don’t bring up vomit. I’ll throw up and no one wants to see that.”
I frowned at him. “But… aren’t you a cop? Haven’t you ever seen a drunk throw up?”
There was a pause in the kitchen before Nikki snorted. “Ray’s good at compartmentalizing. And throwing up on the side of the road without making a big deal out of it.”
“Can we stop talking about throwing up?” Dom asked, leaning against the fridge.
Conversation flowed easily after that, but I couldn’t deny that a little over an hour in, I was feeling drained. I wasn’t used to being surrounded by so many people or being engaged with conversation for so long. As an introvert, I felt like my batteries were running low.
I was relieved when Nikki said to me, “You said you had some work to do, right Corey? We’re finishing things up here, so if you want to go up to my room, you can.” She smiled at me as she crimped a pie crust, trying to make it look as neat as possible.
“Um, are you sure that’s alright?” I asked her with a frown.
She gave me a gentle smile, dutifully ignoring the bickering from the other three behind her. “Go relax. Lie down or something if you don’t feel like working.” She rolled her eyes at something Ray was shouting to Mikey about. “These three can be overwhelming. I think I’ll have to join you up there once I finish this. Dinner won’t be done cooking for a while anyway.”
At her imploring gaze, I nodded, slipping out of the kitchen without anyone noticing me.