“This is....nice,” Nick said with an ill-concealed wrinkle of the nose.
“It’s awful,” Judy looked around the closet of a room, trying to see her apartment through his eyes. “But it’s my awful.”
“Uh huh,” Nick was already at the window, trying to pry it upwards. He gave a grunt and gave up, stepping backwards. “The view is okay.”
“Yeah,” she agreed, gesturing him into her chair as she turned on her small wardrobe. “Just concentrate on the pretty lights and I’ll get myself together.”
“Nothing plaid,” he warned. “There is nothing intimidating about pink plaid.”
“Right,” she stared into her off duty shirts disparagingly. “What are you feelings on paisley?”
“We’re going to a dive bar, Carrots. Paisley isn’t going to cut it either.”
“Remind me why we’re going to this bar again?”
“Because our source is a sad sack, who likes to pretend he’s in a bad film noir setting twenty-four setting,” she could hear him rifling through the few things she kept out. “Do I want to know why you don’t have a computer?”
“The internet is out more than it’s on here, so I just use my phone for everything anyway,” at the bottom of a drawer she unearthed a black t-shirt. It had once had a bright neon green logo on it from someone’s sweet sixteen, but she had washed it so many times the logo was long gone. Usually she slept in it. “Don’t turn around.”
“Uh huh,” he said distractedly. From the corner of her eye, she saw him pick up the picture of her parents. She switched shirts and traded her uniform pants for jeans.
“What do I do with my badge?”
“Huh,” he put the photo down and gave her his full attention. “Aw, Carrots, you still look like a cop.”
“How?” She demanded.
“It’s the posture,” he shook his head. “Ah well, we’re not exactly undercover material either of us. Faces plastered on half the recruitment posters in the city.”
“Yeah, I know you’re really upset about that,” she rolled her eyes. “Badge, Nick. What do I do with my badge?”
“Still got those busted headphones.”
“Don’t remind me. I still haven’t picked up a new pair,” she fished the broken ones from the pile of stuff by the door. “Why?”
She stood patiently while he messed around behind her, handing over her badge when his hand appeared in her line of vision. It would always make her nervous to have someone standing behind her, breathing in her ear, but she had become good at smoothing down that feeling. She could stand still while he laid a white cord around her neck, badge affixed in the middle.
“There,” he pat the back of her neck where she could feel the lump of a knot, “tuck in your shirt and you’re good to go.”
“What about you?” She asked, closing her eyes for a brief breath. Her heartbeat was, by nature, fast. Faster than his. Faster than most. But just now, she thought it might finally jitter loose from it’s moorings and escape.
“I’ll keep it it in my pocket. Mine are deeper than yours. Ready?”
She locked the door behind her for all the good it would do. Her badge shifted between cloth and fur. Nick was already halfway down the hall, eager for the next thing. She loved that about him. No one had ever matched her enthusiasm before, even if he did hide it better.
They walked to the bar, neither of them equipped with a personal vehicle of any reliability. It was a nice night, clear and warm.
“The first greens are coming up at home,” she told him. “Little slivers of life pushing up through the dirt.”
“Mm. Weeding season. It’s always weeding season, but it’s the hardest right around now. You have to be careful not pull the crop up with the weeds. I used to spend hours with my sibs, just pulling up clover.”
“It was,” she laughed. “I hated it. But I miss it too. Is that weird?”
“My mother was a terrible cook,” he shoved his hands into his pockets and Judy could imagine he was running his fingers over the edges of his badge. He did it all the time when they did long stints in the squad car as if his fingers were magnetized to it, “She stopped even trying by the time I was old enough to figure out that dinner wasn’t supposed to taste like charcoal. But sometimes I get a burnt fry or something in a meal and it makes me think about her. So maybe it’s like that?”
“Yeah,” she bumped her shoulder into his arm companionably. “I think it’s exactly like that.”
Their informant was a moist-eyed koala, who wore a battered fedora. He didn’t have much information to give them, but he was clearly excited to be of any use at all. They let him talk himself out. Judy could pinpoint the second when Nick stopped listening and started eyeing up a game of darts in the corner.
“Thank you for time, Mr. Olan,” Judy said solemnly. “Stay safe.”
“I will, I will,” he attempted to fade from view and knocked over a chair at a neighboring table. When he was finally gone, she dropped her face to the table.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Nick advised. “Unless you want it to stick there.”
“Gross,” she whipped back up. “Darts?”
“Do you know how?” He asked, but he was already licking his lips and picking up his drink.
“I think I can figure it out.”
They waited for a rough looking group of hyenas to finish out their game, then took up the marks. The weight on the darts was a little off and took some getting used to, but soon they were in close competition. Which of course, meant Nick had to start playing dirty.
“She holds it aloft, contemplating her next move,” he said in the same exact voice as a golf tournament announcer, “should she keep drawing out the anticipation? Will the target suddenly sprout legs and move if she doesn’t-”
“You can try to distract me all you want,” she huffed. “I’m still going to beat you.”
“Oh?” He sniffed. “Want to make that a bet?”
“Depends, what are the stakes?”
“What do you want?” and he meant it to be flip, but Judy couldn’t help take stock. She wanted a lot of things. Dreams were funny like that. You pinned one down and another five sprang up in it’s wake.
“An entire day where I pick the music,” she decided because some dreams were smaller and more attainable than others.
“Hm, fine. Then if I win, we get coffee at Beanz instead of the Donut Palace. For two days.”
“Not sure how that’s fair,” she walked to the board and retrieved the darts.
“I think the suffering will be about even,” he muttered darkly.
“It’s sad how you lie to yourself,” she pat his chest casually and held up a dart to him. “You know all the words to every top 40 song we hear on the radio.”
“Knowing isn’t enjoying,” he plucked the dart from her and let it fly. It sank into the bullseye. “Sweet, sweet lattes here I come.”
They jostled each other, timed sneezes and spilled drinks. Judy was particularly proud when she got him to miss the board entirely by burping the first half of the alphabet.
“Brothers,” she explained when he whirled on her.
“That,” he pointed at her with an oddly proud smile, “was disgusting.”
He won by a point and gloated over their food with gusto.
“You realize that means I have to pick you up ten minutes earlier, right?” She nibbled at a piece of cauliflower that was so sad and old, she wondered if she could sue for mistreatment of produce. “Beanz always has a line.”
“Good things come to those wait,” he sing-songed and pushed his extra ranch dressing in her direction.
“Thanks,” she dipped the cauliflower into it. “Always thought that was a terrible saying though.”
“Of course, you did,” his smile softened. “You hate waiting. Bet you’ve never done it a minute more than you were made too.”
“Yeah,” she agreed and shoved another piece of cauliflower into her mouth before she could betray herself. “Not a single second. Remember that the next time you want to sleep in. Like tomorrow. When I pick you up ten minutes early.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he waved her off. “You break the alarm clock one time...”
They split up outside the bar. He waved and she waved back and then began the walk back on her own. The city was never quiet, but it was late on a weeknight and most people had better things to do than loiter on the sidewalk. She felt weirdly alone in the bustling city, surrounded by people.
By the time she reached her apartment, she was seriously considering calling her parents, despite the late hour. They would talk to her. It would drive her crazy, but they would. She got as far as slumping into her chair and taking out the phone before she noticed the note on her desk. She remembered Nick messing around and picking things up, but she didn’t think he had time to write anything. But it was his handwriting.
Pick me up early tomorrow. There’s a place for rent on my side of town that’ll be in your budget. This place is too sad for a happy dumb bunny. -N
“You jerk,” she pressed her hand over the words and smiled.
She took off her badge slowly, glancing over the knotted cord. It was surprisingly complicated and when she tugged at it, it only got tighter. He’d taken real care to do it the right way. The badge she removed and clipped it onto her fresh uniform shirt for the morning. The chord she considered, before laying it next to the note. It had been useful after all. No point in throwing out something useful.
The next morning, she had the squad car to their meeting spot fifteen minutes early. He was already waiting on the bridge, sunglasses squarely in place against the early morning light. When they’d first partnered up, she’d asked him if he’d want to do the night shift once and awhile.
“Been working days long as I can remember,” he’d shrugged. “Why mess it all up now?”
She hadn’t pressed, but she did wonder if he was really comfortable in the harsh noon sun. If he would prefer the cool nights when his vision was sharper or least required less protection. Then again, he did look good with the reflective lenses, projecting an easy cool that she envied as much as coveted.
“No wonder you wanted two days,” she said as he climbed into the passenger seat. “Equal pain my tail.”
“Want to see the place or not?” He strapped himself in.
“My apartment is fine.”
“If you like dirty closets.”
“No fair. I’ve never seen your place, so I’ve got no ammo.”
“It’s....not ideal,” he pointed outward. “Straight on now. Coffee. Then the joint.”
“We’ll be late,” she sighed.
“Even the Chief doesn’t get in as early as us, Carrots. Stuff the compulsive behavior for one morning. Promise it’ll be worth it.”
Beanz had the promised long line, but Judy could agree that her cappuccino was far tastier than usual.
“See? Do it my way and quality goes up.”
“Less talking more drinking.”
He gave her directions from the shop and the road led them away from taller buildings, but not quite into the quasi-industrial area he hung out in. There was a wide green patch, grass left unattended for a little too long. A mailbox stuck out proudly from the road. Nick hopped out and opened the box. He pulled out an envelope and from the envelope, he fished out a key.
“I know the realtor,” he explained.
“Of course you do,” she frowned. “So where is this place?”
“We’re standing on it,” he took a few steps and pushed a wide sheaf of grass out of the way. A pretty white door was behind it, apparently leading into the knoll itself. “Some local hippies built the place a while back. Something about a return to the earth or what have you. They foreclosed and moved off. Maude’s been using it as a rental property ever since.”
The door gave into this fumbling with the key. A light switch revealed a neat staircase.
“Underground?” She looked back the bright summer day, then into the darkness. “Really?”
“Just come and look, huh?”
So she followed him down into what should’ve been a basement. Instead, it led into a very nice living room. It was already furnished, simple and plain colors that could be punched up with a few touches. There wasn’t any sunlight, no view, but it was almost cozier without all that. The kitchen existed, already an improvement on her current location. It was large enough to cook for two or three people and the countertops gleamed with care. There were two bedrooms, each a decent size. A bathroom with a bathtub and shower.
Everything was at a decent height for her. Not perfect, but nothing much in the city was. Despite herself, she was already planning little modifications that would make life easier in the place.
“So how much is the rent?” she finally dared to ask.
“It’s fifteen hundred a month,” he said hesitantly.
“Ah,” she tried not to feel let down. The place was really nice. Why had he even showed it to her if he knew it was out of her price range.
“If you were to live alone.”
“Who else would I live with?”
“Me?” he gave her a sheepish smile. “I’ve always kind of liked the place and my lease is up and...”
“That’s a lot of together time,” she managed to say. “I mean...a lot. We already spend all day together, eat dinner together most nights. Won’t we get on each other’s nerves?”
“If we haven’t by now, not sure how tacking on a few more hours would make a difference.”
He was right. And if she refused, she’d either have to explain which would make things...awful. Or she could refuse and make something up that would hurt his feelings and make her feel terrible for lying.
“Let’s do it,” she summoned up a smile.
How bad could it be?
The answer was very bad.
She would have stopped immediately if hadn’t also been so great. Judy had never minded sharing her space, forced into it it by the dozens of siblings she still had at home. If anything, she’d missed having someone else cluttering up the place and Nick was good at clutter without tipping into heinous mess.
They would come home together and figure out dinner over takeout menus or the freezer unless her parents had sent a care package. Then they just ate whatever was fresh over the sink, sticky fingered and guilty as children.
After dinner, Judy would pretend to read a book while Nick watched one of the terrible dramas that always sucked her in despite herself. They even got into Bake It, a mellow cooking competition that escalated into whirlpools of angst among the contestants as the season went on.
Once the last of the bakers had melted down in the confessional booth, Judy would say goodnight and go to bed. In the perfect dark of her cozy room, she could hear Nick lowering the volume of the television as he watched a late night show. If she stayed up long enough, he’d head to bed. She could predict each step to the bathroom, how long the water would run so he could brush his teeth and then his careful walk to his own room, trying to avoid the squawking plank in the hall.
Their bedrooms shared a wall. She could hear the springs of his mattress creak as he settled in.
Judy tried not to stay awake for it. It was too hard to listen to all the things happening ten feet away that she wanted to happen beside her.
“You really are the dumbest bunny,” she told herself, curling around the second fat pillow she’d added to her bed for that purpose.