Thomas and Niko Ch. 16

Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees - Chapter 16

My legs are pretty tired by the time I get close to home. I've just done so much goddamn walking. Maybe it was the three-hour nap I took in the middle of the day, but I'm having some trouble shaking this surreal feeling. I can hardly remember the end of my conversation with Owen, nor making up my mind to leave the park. I do remember specifically asking him not to tell anyone. If anything about our discussion offended him, it was that. He must not have liked the implication, because his response was to say I know him better than that. I really don't, but whatever. I end up feeling quite a bit of gratitude towards him by the time I'm entering my neighborhood. He's given me some peace of mind, which you can probably guess is something I'm pretty hard-up for at the moment.

"What happened to you?" she says. She's talking about the way I smell and my appearance, which I'm sure has reached a new level of disheveled.

"Well, go clean yourself up."

Her eyes catch mine before I go down the hall. "Are you doing okay, Niko?"

I go and shower, then collapse on my bed. I'm lying there in nothing but a black pair of underwear. I spent plenty of time soaping up, getting myself clean and fresh, but after all that, I don't feel any different. I turn on my side and think about who in this world I could talk to, if I needed to talk to someone right at this moment. It turns out I don't know very many people. Not really. I think about my last year ever of high school, and this fucking wreck of a half-season that has followed.

For at least half an hour, it seems like all I can do is cry. Everyone says you'll feel better if you let yourself do it, and you know what? Everyone's right. I get this strange sense of peace afterwards, even if I'm no less confused than before. Just fuck it all.

The next morning, I'm back in that little coffee shack like none of this bullshit even happened. Not a word from Thomas has landed on my phone. That's fine—I haven't said a word to him, either. I can't speak for him, but here's what I'm thinking: We did a bad thing. We let it go on for too long, and now we're paying for it. It doesn't feel even remotely right to get together and celebrate anything. Shit, it hardly feels right to talk to each other. That's our punishment. We got exactly what we had coming.

When I'm about halfway home, I make up my mind that if I'm so goddamn worried about him, I should just check in. So I send him a text that says, "Are you doing okay today?"

"Could you just come over?" is the first thing out of his mouth.

"Okay, see ya," he says, and then he just fucking ends the call.

"The neighbor died," he says.

"The old man through the wall. He's dead. That's why he never came back."

"It's fine," he says. "None of us knew him that well."

"My dad probably thought everyone was out of the house this morning. I didn't tell him I was skipping work."

"Mostly."

"How is everything?" he says.

"Same here." Finally, he throws his pillow aside. He sits up and looks me in the eyes. "What was it like when you told her?"

He looks at me for a long time. "Did she cry?"

"Madison cried a lot," he says. "It got so bad at one point, I started thinking none of this was worth it. I was just searching around for anything I could say to make it better."

He just nods. Man, he's looking pretty sad. Quite a bit of time passes where neither of us says anything. He only speaks up when I shift in the chair and rest my feet on the bed.

"I know."

"Yeah," I say. "Me too."

I don't know what the hell he wants me to say. I agree. We behaved recklessly, and we shouldn't have. But it's all over now.

"Of course I didn't—don't tell me you said that shit to Madison."

"I can't believe you think it would be appropriate to ask anything of them, after what we've done."

I'm looking at him now. I'm trying to understand. "Why are you bringing it up?"

Jesus Christ, he's out of his mind, I'm telling you. I'm feeling pretty defiant by this point, so I say, "Yeah, well, I told Owen already, so good luck with that."

"He found me in the park yesterday, after I was with Lexie. He kept asking what was wrong, so I just told him. I didn't know what else to do."

I turn away. I'm just looking out his small bedroom window. "I needed to talk to somebody, bad. Besides, he said he wouldn't tell."

He's making a show of being patient with me, which irritates me more than you can believe. "Why not?"

"Like anyone gives a fuck, in this day and age." I'm practically yelling at him now, I'm so annoyed. "Guess what, we're not in high school anymore. All that petty shit isn't going to matter when you're five hundred miles away from the place you grew up."

Here's the thing: Thomas doesn't look angry anymore. He looks scared. I want to tell him his dad will get over it, but to be honest with you, I'm not sure he will. I know even less about the guy's inner workings than Thomas does, which is to say, very little. I calm down, at least to the point that I'm not raising my voice anymore. I say, "We have to accept the reality of people finding out about us. We took that on the second the second we told the girls."

"Don't call it 'this shit'."

"Oh come on," I say. "How many people do you think they're going to tell?"

"Will you fucking get over it? I told one other person. You start living your life a certain way, and guess what? People end up finding out sooner or later. There's just no getting around it."

My mom is up. She's looking pretty put together, even though it's still a long time before her shift starts. She's sitting up on the couch, watching one of her shows. She looks happy to see me, and even pauses her show to say hi. I lean down and kiss her on the top of her head. It's just a little thing I do when she seems like she'll be receptive to it. I can usually tell when she's having a good week, and I figure this must be one.

"I was camping with some friends," I say.

"I will."

The fact that she's asking just makes me so fucking happy, I could cry. "I'm doing fine, Mom."

I guess I'm thinking about a lot. It's crazy to me just how fucked up everything got. I keep trying to reason my way through it, but I get so overwhelmed so quickly that I have to back away, let it fade to static and tell myself everything will turn out all right. I did all this for him, but somehow he's still not someone I really want to see right now. I'm angry at him. I'm angry at both of us, for not even trying to imagine how it was all going to feel afterwards—how he and I would feel about each other. I want to believe it will work out. Life fucking finds a way, and all that. But right now, it feels an awful lot like I've lost everything. That's what gets me crying. I start crying like I haven't in a pretty long time. I'm crying because I might not talk to Lexie ever again. I'm crying because my friendship with Thomas Chu will never be the same, a fact that no longer seems exciting or good.

I work my entire shift holding tight to this mindset, but by the end of it, I'm kind of longing to hear the familiar rumble of that old Lexus pulling into the lot. I'm wondering how it would be if he showed up, what the hell he might come up with to say to me. Personally, I wouldn't feel the need for us to say anything. I'd be happy just to see him smiling and waving from the driver's seat, shoulders bare and tanned brown. He could drive away after that and I wouldn't care. It would be enough just to know he's doing all right.

My phone starts buzzing, which scares the shit out of me for some reason. He's calling. I happen to be walking past an alley and I turn down it because the road I'm on is pretty loud. I pick up the call.

"Sure."

I show up at the Chu household about fifteen minutes later. All it takes is a brief walk up that lush front lawn to get me feeling a little better. I have to use my spare key to open the front door. It looks like no one else is home. I go back to his bedroom and find him in bed with a pillow over his head. He lifts it, takes one look at me and lets it fall back over his face.

"Who?"

"I'm sorry," I say.

I turn his desk chair around so it's facing the bed and sit down. "I had to unlock the door," I say.

"Have you been in bed all day?"

I wish I could see his expression. It's hard to get a read on things through that fucking pillow.

"Shitty."

Damn, he's really putting it to me point-blank. I wish I could give him a clear answer. I really do. It's just that I haven't been letting myself relive that particular moment—not even a little. It just hurts too much. I struggle for a minute before saying, "It felt like it was all coming through a filter."

"Of course she cried."

"There's nothing you can say," I tell him.

"What happened with Driggs—that was fucked up."

"It really made me stop and think about things," he says.

"We've been incredibly reckless with this whole thing. We acted like we could get away with anything. We thought we were untouchable."

"After you told Lexie," he continues slowly, "did you ask her not to tell anyone else?"

He pauses. "No."

"I don't."

"I just don't want everyone finding out."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

Thomas is looking at me like he doesn't know me. "You could've kept your mouth shut, for one thing."

"Niko, listen, we can't just go telling people like that."

"Are you even listening to yourself? Jesus, dude, anyone could find out."

He glares at me, then says quietly, "My dad gives a fuck."

"I don't know what I took on," he says. "I just know I couldn't keep lying to Madison. Every day with her, every fucking second...it all turned into one big lie." He pauses. He's got this occupied look on his face, like he's trying to rationalize through the whole fucking thing all over again. His dark eyes land back on me. "I couldn't stop this shit with you. I couldn't. No matter how hard I tried."

He looks down. "Sorry. You know that's not what I mean. I just don't understand why we have to be out in open about it all of a sudden. I only wanted the girls to know. No one else."

"I don't know," he says. He looks up at me accusingly. "Maybe it's not them I should be worried about."

"I think you misunderstood what's going on here, Niko," he says. He's getting pretty worked up. "You and I can't seem to stop touching each other's dicks. That's all we know. I guess to you that means we're both standing in the closet, just waiting for the right moment to come out. Well maybe that's who you are, but it's not me."