I had dried the last of the dishes and was about to dust my collection of perfume bottles when the doorbell rang. Belle’s bark cut through what had been a soothing afternoon alone, with only the occasional tink of a dish from the kitchen or Dido’s voice faintly drifting through my open bedroom door to break the silence. I dodged the large Labrador retriever bolting past me to be first at the door.
Mildly annoyed, I stopped at the living room window to survey the unexpected visitor. She was slightly taller than me, with thin black hair hanging nearly to her waist. Most notable was her clothing, which was all black, from knee-high boots to trench coat. I rolled my eyes, muttered about high school kids and their door-to-door fundraisers, and closed the blinds.
She knocked again, launching Belle into another bark-and-bounce frenzy. I groaned at her persistence and decided that telling her I wasn’t interested was preferable to continuing to have Dido drowned out by the yelping beast in the doorway. Grabbing Belle by the collar, I opened the door just wide enough to toss my voice through.
“I’m not interested, thank you.”
Her voice was barely audible just as the door closed. “Claire?”
“What the–” I heard my own voice and had reopened the door before I realized it was probably not the wisest response, especially given the glimpse I’d gotten of the girl’s heavy black makeup and bizarre expression through the tiny window in the door. By the time I regained my wits and grabbed the doorknob, she spoke again.
“Claire, it’s me. Niko. I mean, Nicole,” she stammered. “Nikki. It’s me, Nikki. Please, can I come in?”
I must have stood there in shock longer than I realized. Belle tugged against my grasp and brought the awareness that she was lunging toward the door. Uncertain of what to do next, I reined her in and nudged the door open further. “Nikki?” I swallowed hard. “God, Nikki…what happened to you?”
She looked slightly embarrassed, almost smiling in her discomfiture. “Well, hello to you, too.”
It was my turn to be embarrassed. “Geez, I’m sorry. Hey, sure, come in.” I yanked Belle’s collar backward and snapped my fingers in a “down!” command. I could see doubt reflected in her huge brown eyes, but she obeyed. I ushered Nikki into the living room and gestured toward the sofa. She sank into the leather and ran her hand over a nearby throw pillow. She pulled the pillow inward and hugged it to her chest. I waited for her to speak. I certainly didn’t know what to say, especially since the last time we’d spoken it had been anything but pleasant. I cringed inwardly at the memory.
“I guess you’re wondering why I’m here.”
I assume my expression didn’t change, so she continued. “I had to talk to you. To tell you I’m sorry.”
I didn’t like the memories that suddenly began to flood through my head. I almost felt guilty that her apology had only sent me hurdling back in time to memories I only wanted to forget. I gulped, trying to manage a response. “Uh…wow. I…”
“I know it’s been a long time. What? Six years? But anyway, I just wanted to tell you I’m sorry…you know, for lying to you.”
“Which time?” The bitter retort was out before I could stop it. Her expression reflected injury.
“I guess I had that coming.”
I sighed and bit my lip. “Sorry. I guess even after all this time, it still hurts.”
“I know it must, and that is why I came. I hope you’ll forgive me. Things are different now, Claire.” She flashed a grin in my direction. “I know by the looks of me, you’re probably thinking I’ve gone completely nuts, but the
way I dress doesn’t show how I’ve changed for the better. Really. It’s truth all the way with me now. I learned my lesson, believe me.”
I managed a smile. “I’m glad, Nikki, truly. Those were some really rough times, and I can’t imagine going through that again.”
She shook her head, the ring in her eyebrow glinting in the light. “Nope, that’s the old me. This is the new me. The clothes will change next, but I have to get a job and get a paycheck first, right?” The odd familiarity of her nervous laugh sent a chill down my back. “I’m drug-free and looking forward to getting everything in my life back on track.”
“I didn’t know you’d gotten into drugs.”
“Oh, well, a little. But not for a long time now. Seriously.”
I stared blankly across the room. The silence took on an awkwardness that forced her to continue. “Hey, I don’t s’pose I could crash here for a couple of days…just so I can look for a job and a permanent place to live…?”
“Nikki, I don’t think that’s a good idea. If Sam knew you were here, he’d freak. You know that.”
“I know, I know. But I’m different now, Claire. You could make him believe it, couldn’t you?”
“Oh, I probably could. But I don’t even know if I believe it. Come on, Nikki. You know what we went through–”
“Yes, I know!” With obvious effort, she breathed deeply and calmed herself. Her voiced softened. “I remember what we went through, but like I told you, it’s truth all the way with me now. No drugs, no lies, I swear. You have to believe me, Claire.”
Her expression was pleading and I felt my resolve beginning to weaken. Her smile indicated that she had sensed as much. “See, you believe me. I knew you would.” She leapt from the couch and threw her arms around me. I choked
on the smell of cigarette smoke and something unknown but equally acrid, reminded all too vividly of days gone by when I had felt the urge to bathe after every time I’d been near her. “Hey, it’s okay…really…” It took concentrated effort not to audibly cough.
“I promise you, Claire, I will never lie to you again. Honest.”
I heard a scuffling sound, and Belle was at the door before I could even turn in that general direction. This time she wasn’t barking. Her low growl seemed to eerily match the tuft of hair standing up on her back. Then came a heavy banging on the door, sending Belle into a fit of frantic barking and leaping at the door.
A raspy voice bellowed from the front porch. “Niko, I know you’re in there! Get out here now! If you don’t, you’re gonna pay! And so will whoever lives here!”
I turned to find her cowering in the corner of the sofa. “Who is that, Nikki, and why is he here?” She sat there shaking her head, as though unable to voice a response. I fought to maintain my composure. “You need to tell me what is going on. Now would be the time to do that.”
“I…I don’t know. I mean, he…um…he’s lying! He’s lying, Claire, don’t believe him!” She seemed desperate.
“Why is he here, Nikki?” I repeated.
“I don’t know, some guy…who…followed me from…from the bus, or something.” Her search for words was as visible as that of a hungry urchin scrounging for bits of food. I found myself feeling sorry for her.
The porch voice bellowed again. “Don’t push me, Niko, I mean it!”
“He’s calling you Niko. You used that name for yourself when you arrived. Who is that man?”
“I swear I don’t know. I’ve never seen him before, you have to believe me. I told you I only tell the truth now. Make him go away, Claire, please?”
There was a familiarity to the way she implored with sad eyes and pouting lips. The feeling in my stomach was a mix of nausea, anger, and fear. Still, I wondered if I was being unfair to her now, allowing such unpleasant memories to haunt my mind while she was in such an apparently difficult predicament with the stranger at the door.
The voice came again, strangely calmer but no less resolute. “Niko, the dealers won’t be so kind. You know that. They’re garbage heads and they’ll bust yours if you don’t pay up. If you don’t get out here now, I won’t be able to keep them from getting to you.” Nikki didn’t move. The voice was angry but controlled. “You’ve been running for two days and they are hot on your trail. You said you could get food and money from this woman, so I assume you know her. Now, are you ready to go, or are you prepared to put her in danger, too?”
I turned to Nikki, expecting to find her tearful and terrified. Her expression instead was one of annoyance. Stiffly, she rose from the sofa and strode toward the door. “I’m out. You always were a sucker, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to try. I didn’t count on Frank showing up and blowing my cover. Have a nice, perfect, Pollyanna life, Claire.” She slammed the door shut behind her, rattling the window and sending a perfume bottle toppling to the floor.
I lost track of how long I stood there trembling after Belle had stopped barking. I reached down and picked up the faintly scented bottle. The name on the label caught my eye. Sweet Honesty. I dropped it into the wastebasket and headed for the shower.