Nikki Malone had arrived in River’s End with everything he owned in a Gold Medal flour sack and enough lies in his back pocket to last him until September. It later turned out he’d over-packed.
In his defense, he hadn’t expected some doctor he’d only met once to have a whole room fixed up for him, complete with a drawer full of new clothes in his size and a shelf full of books. Nor had he expected fifty cents a week for nothing more than helping out in the garden, and not one word about him spending it all on pulp magazines. As for the lies, there just didn’t seem to be much call for them. Not without any bigger boys trying to push him around, and no parade of professional do-gooders clucking over what was to be done with him and saying bad things about his mother.
His shoulders got a workout instead, answering most questions put to him with nothing but a sullen shrug. Even embellished with new details from the latest issues of Dime Detective and Black Mask, his stock of stories started to look shabby next to the outlandish reality of the summer: the fire he’d set and all the ones he hadn’t, the crazy man with the gun, and the even crazier idea that someone he was staying with actually wanted him to stick around for keeps.
He let go of the really big lies somewhere in the middle of all the telephone calls and paperwork that settled the matter of where he was going to stay. The tall tales about the gang he supposedly ran with back in Chicago quietly went out to the ragman along with his worn-out shirts from the children’s home. The imaginary uncle on Frank Nitti’s payroll and the father doing time for murder down in Leavenworth were given away with his outgrown shoes, passed along to some other kid who might need them more than he did.
Still, Nikki was no sap. Doctor Christian’s house might have been the first place in a long time where he could really be himself, but the intervening years had taught him a thing or two. No matter how good you had it, no matter how good you wanted to be, sometimes you had to be a little flexible with the truth.
His bedroom looked out onto River Road, which meant the driver of the car wouldn’t have seen his dark windows. This bought his deception a few crucial seconds. He made the bed while he was still hopping out of it, yanking the covers up and knocking the pillow back into shape as the car’s engine fell silent. From there he launched himself straight into his reading chair, switched on the lamp, and snatched up the nearest book just before the footsteps crunching up the gravel walkway made it to the kitchen door.
The first thirteen years of Nikki’s life had been spent in the parts of Chicago and Center City where the bar and dancehall crowds overlapped with the morning milk trucks. There was no such thing as a quiet night back then, not in a room with five other boys at the children’s home, and not in apartments that had rattled twice an hour from the force of an L train passing by so close you could lose an arm hanging laundry.
It was different here. Everything except the hotel closed up early, and even that was hardly a riot. There were honest to god crickets chirping at night, and nothing else but the shushing of the river and the occasional whistle of a saw-whet owl out in the woods. If you didn’t fall asleep to the sound of someone working in the office downstairs, you would wake up when you heard his car coming home, because it would be the only one on the road.
He listened as the kitchen door opened and closed quietly. The faint noises that followed were familiar enough to paint a picture in his head of Dr. Christian hanging up his coat and hat, putting his bag away, and washing his hands before coming up the stairs. The footsteps paused almost imperceptibly halfway up, just about where you’d notice that a light was on in one of the bedrooms.
Nikki curled up around his book, fidgeting with the kind of impatience usually saved for a long sponsor's spiel before a really good radio program. Skip Kelly at the children’s home had once told him about busting his last foster father’s nose for trying to come tuck him in one night, but there wasn’t any funny business going on here. The doc would just come up to say good night, and he'd ask how Nikki's day was. Then he’d stay to listen to whatever Nikki had on his mind, even if that was only some detective story he was reading or a play-by-play of the after-school baseball game.
There was a soft knock on the door.
“I’m up,” Nikki said, taking pains to sound like it had taken him by surprise.
Dr. Christian came in, looking kind of tired but smiling. “It’s late. That must be a good book.”
Nikki stole a glance down and discerned that it was The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “It’s not bad. Is Mr. Hansen all right?”
“Five stitches and only a little worse for wear.”
The doc sat down on the edge of the bed and absently smoothed down the quilt. His hand paused for an instant as he glanced down. Nikki could have kicked himself. While he’d made the bed passably well in the dark, the blankets were probably still warm.
“You know you don’t have to check up on me, right?” he hurried to say, like no one who had secretly been hoping to get checked up on would have. “I’m not going to run off or anything.”
"I know you aren’t.” The doc gave the quilt another amiable pat before folding his hands in his lap. “But if I don't come in to say good night, some days I would only see you at breakfast."
Nikki didn’t have a ready answer. What could you say to a thing like that, put out there like it was some kind of given that someone would want to see you?
He ducked his head and pretended to mark his page. “You didn’t miss much. I did all right on the geography test, and I hit a triple that would have been a home run if that fence post wasn’t there, and oh, I saw the weirdest frog down by the river—”
The question came unexpectedly in the middle of putting away the grocery delivery. Nikki froze with his hand on the Corn Flakes and then carefully shrugged, unwilling to commit to any answer until he knew what the stakes were.
Dr. Christian was frowning slightly, but it seemed to be over where the soap flakes were supposed to go. "What kind of food did she make at home?"
Nikki nearly shrugged again, but wariness sharpened to something fiercer and he blurted out: “Plenty of things.”
In truth, he remembered a whole lot of bread bought when it was already hard and soaked in canned milk or sugary tea to soften it. Peas and eggs when Ma had money for eggs, and hot corn for a treat if his father had been around, and apples when he could snatch one from the fruit stand. But he didn’t want the doc to get the wrong idea about his mother, so he borrowed from the neighbors instead, casting his mind back to the smells that would fill up the hallways and stairwells on Sundays from the apartments where more than one person got paid and grandmothers started cooking as soon as they got home from early Mass.
“Spaghetti,” he said, “with red sauce and meatballs. She made really good meatballs. And brasato di manzo, kind of like pot roast, you know? We’d have that on top of mashed potatoes with a bunch of vegetables. And porchetta on special occasions, and Easter Pie on Easter.” Then, not wanting to go overboard and arouse suspicion, he added, “And sometimes just sandwiches. Salami and cheese with lettuce and tomato, that kind of thing.”
Just the thought was enough to make his stomach growl. The doc chuckled at the sound and passed him an apple from the fruit bowl.
“I liked Italian sandwiches very much when I lived in Chicago. I was thinking I would write to a friend of mine in the city to see if he could send some recipes—and some salami, now that you mention it.”
“I don’t know if Mrs. Watts would be so hot on making Italian food.” She made the best chocolate chip cookies Nikki had ever tasted, and he would run five miles for her meatloaf, but she would also warn you that something might be too spicy if she’d sprinkled a little paprika on top.
“Well,” Dr. Christian said, “we are two men of science, aren’t we? I’m certain we can follow a recipe ourselves if we put our heads together.”
The bite of apple stuck in his throat a little when he thought about making something his mother would have liked.
"Does Mrs. Watts ever make Danish food?" he asked.
The doc blinked like the idea hadn't ever occurred to him.
“I bet we could figure out how to make some of that too,” Nikki said, grabbing the box of soap flakes and putting them under the sink where Mrs. Watts liked them.
“Who’s worried?” Nikki asked, worrying. “I just thought I heard a car, that’s all.”
He was kneeling up on the sofa in the office, squinting out through the window into the blurry darkness as Judy hammered at the typewriter. The house trembled again as the wind slammed into it, the raindrops sounding like more rock than water as they pelted the siding. The last of the dead leaves had been stripped off the swaying tree branches, and State Street was wet enough to look like the river had changed course to flow straight through the middle of town.
“I’ll bet you a dollar he did something sensible like stop at the Thompson house," Judy said. "That’s where I’d pull over if I was coming home from the hospital when a storm hit.”
“Probably,” Nikki agreed, but he was relieved nonetheless to see Judy sneakily pick up the telephone again to see if the lines were still down. At least she wasn’t pretending that they shouldn’t have heard from him by now.
She was right, Dr. Christian was sensible. He was a pretty tough old guy too, even if you wouldn’t think so from his round face and round glasses, or from the soft way he talked with that funny accent of his. You’d have to see him in a tight spot to know that he talked just as softly and hardly blinked behind his glasses with a gun held on him.
But Nikki couldn’t wallop a storm with a baseball bat the way he could a bad guy. This wasn’t the heart-pounding, blood-rushing kind of worry he’d felt sneaking down the stairs the night of the break-in. It was the lingering kind. The slow, creeping chill of sitting on a hard bench in a hospital waiting room or lying in bed listening to someone crying on the other side of the wall. Sometimes people just went away and didn’t come back, and there was nothing you could—
“Have you had a chance to experiment with the centrifuge yet?”
Nikki tore his gaze away from the empty street. “Huh?”
“I don’t think Dr. Christian would want you playing with it when no one’s here, but it needs to be cleaned and I can show you how it works.”
Nikki looked at the clock on the mantel and then back at Judy. “Aren’t you supposed to be heading home?”
“Are you kidding? I just set my hair last night.” Judy flipped her hand like a model to pose with her pinned-up curls. “You won’t catch me walking home in weather like this.”
She didn’t bat an eye under his skeptical stare, and as he climbed down off the sofa to follow her into the laboratory, he had to admit he could take a pointer or two from her.
It was a quiet, snowy Saturday night and Nikki had taken over the desk in the study while the doc read in the armchair. Outside, everything was still and hushed. In here, the only sounds prior to the comment had been the backdrop of the symphony orchestra playing at low volume on the radio, the crackling of the fire, and the scratch and rustle of pencil and paper.
“We all got extra for acting up,” Nikki said, even though he had actually finished his assigned reading this afternoon and was mostly drawing pictures of the Shadow and writing out the pitch for an experiment he wanted to try for making better sympathetic ink.
He was pretty sure by now that he wasn’t going to catch a licking for getting in trouble at school, but the ‘we’ was playing it safe. Sure enough, the doc just gave him a patient look over his glasses that would have jabbed him in the conscience if he’d actually done something.
Maybe he wouldn’t have even needed the pretense of homework that required the atlas and encyclopedia in order to set himself up in the study after dinner. Dr. Christian could have chased him out anytime or gone to read in his bedroom instead if he really minded having Nikki around. Instead he’d made them each a cup of hot cocoa and shared the room with him, sometimes exclaiming softly to himself as he read and happily telling Nikki all about the latest articles on radiography and anesthesia if Nikki asked what was so interesting.
Still, his positioning was strategic and he couldn’t risk losing it. His coat was on the rack just outside the study for once instead of carelessly flung over his bedpost upstairs. His boots were on the mat, pointed toward the door and ready to be jumped into fireman-style. It was a quiet Saturday night, after all, and he knew what that meant. Any minute now, someone was going to have an emergency.
Dr. Christian stifled a yawn. "I should turn in—"
On cue, the telephone rang.
“Dr. Christian’s office.”
Nikki had already darted out of the study, skidding down the hallway as the doc answered the phone.
“Hank? Hank, slow down and start from the beginning…”
He had kick-cleared a path to the car by the time the call was over and was waiting by the door, dressed and ready to go. He held out the doc’s coat and bag with a grin. No way was he going to be left behind this time.
He could have asked Dr. Christian what time it was, but he was too tired to speak or even to lift his head from his folded arms as he half-sat, half-lay curled up in the passenger seat of the car. The inside of his eyelids felt like sandpaper, but he couldn’t really fall asleep, still keyed up from having witnessed a baby being born.
Well, ‘witnessed’ was maybe pushing it. He had been in the kitchen the whole time, boiling water and sterilizing rags to pass blindly through the door while Mr. Butler paced around smoking outside and Mrs. Butler made noises that raised the hair on the back of his neck as the doc talked soothingly to her. The whole thing had sounded awful, but apparently it had gone as good as it could go, and everyone but the squalling baby girl had been exhaustedly smiling when the matron from the hospital arrived to take over.
Time might have been a blind guess, but place was easier to read. Even with his eyes closed, he could picture where they were. The snow-packed dirt road gave way to smoother pavement that had been more recently plowed. They bumped over the covered bridge that crossed frozen Snake Creek, and he could hear the rushing where the ice broke up and it joined the river. The car slowed down as it entered the town proper. A left, a right, and another left, and soon they were pulling up to the house.
"Nikki? We're home."
He meant to sit up and answer, but he was slow enough that Dr. Christian reached over and touched his hair. This time the lie started out as genuine stupefaction, defensible for all of two seconds before he made the conscious decision to pretend he was asleep.
No one had touched his hair since his mother, save to douse it in kerosene and shear it all off. Why would they? Stroking a kid's hair was a mother's domain, and he was too old for it now anyhow. But somehow the doc knew exactly how she used to wake him up on mornings when there wasn’t any rush: stroking his hair softly so he wouldn’t startle awake, putting a little more pressure on each stroke and then gently squeezing his shoulder.
His stomach clenched. The doc said his name so kindly that he would have felt like a heel pretending any longer. He breathed in all sharp like people did when they were just waking up, and he looked around in feigned confusion as an added touch.
“Thank you for all your help tonight,” the doc said, giving Nikki’s shoulder another squeeze even though he was obviously awake. “I’m very glad you came along.”
In a town that small, there would always be people who remembered that Nikki had come from a children’s home. They would know that he didn’t have any family who wanted to look after him, and that someone somewhere had once considered him incorrigible enough to ship him off to the country. But they also all knew Dr. Christian, and they knew that Nikki lived with him, and knowing the whole story about Nikki meant that they didn’t need an explanation for how the two of them fit together.
That wasn’t the case everywhere, or so he came to suspect on a bright spring day in front of the Creatures of the Deep diorama at the Museum of Natural History in Center City.
“Hey—” he began to say, only to realize that he’d drifted ahead and left the doc back at the African Serengeti.
It was the security guard who heard him instead, a bulky and red-faced man who looked him up and down with suspicion before sweeping his gaze around the room in an obvious attempt to identify who was responsible for him.
He and the doc neither looked one thing alike or shared a pronunciation of any word in the dictionary. This wasn't exactly a revelation to Nikki, who had eyes and ears. Nonetheless, it had never really mattered in River's End, where everyone knew them both by name and on sight. It was different in the city, different in a fancy place like this here. Any natural historian worth his salt would probably look at a dark, skinny kid like Nikki who apparently had trouble written all over him even in a necktie and then look at a stout, respectable, fair-haired guy like Dr. Christian and stick them in two separate exhibits.
If he went up to Dr. Christian now, he had a sneaking suspicion the guard would think he was trying to pick his pocket or sell him a sob story. Well, he'd show him. Indignation got his feet moving, and impulse set the lie on his tongue.
“Hey, Pops,” he called out, loud enough for his voice to carry and begging with his eyebrows for the doc to play along, “you’ve got to come see this.”
Nikki had to hand it to him. For such an honest guy, the doc didn’t miss a beat. He looked up immediately, not a flicker of surprise on his face. He only smiled, broadly, the kind of smile you couldn't fake.
“Lead the way.”