The timer beeped. Their chairs screeched along the concrete floor.
She swore this would be the last time.
“You ever heard of the Ramones?”
Henry glanced at her companion out the corner of her eye. His breath frosted in the air of the old garage, frothing out from under an unshaven lip as he spoke. Nikolai hadn’t looked at her since they’d sat down in the flimsy lawn chairs and set up their vigil, but he’d barely stopped chattering. She let the question hang suspended for a moment before replying blithely.
“They were my first concert. I was seventeen”
The timer beeped again. They shuffled forwards. Nikolai shifted in his chair and rolled a crick out of his neck like a cat. They’d already been at it for a half hour—the timing and the scuffling forwards and the aimless, one-sided chatter. It had taken twenty minutes for them to meet the halfway point of the garage, and another ten to even enter the vicinity of the crumpled blue truck looming dangerously in the back corner.
The goddamn truck—
“That’s partly how I learned English. That, and Mork and Mindy,” Nikolai raised a hand suddenly and made an awkward gesture. “Nanu nanu,” he said.
Henry stared at him.
“Not a fan, I guess” he said.
The timer beeped.
A sickly chill was beginning to creep over her as the shadow of Clay Boone’s truck arced just beyond her toes. The familiar edges of fear and weakness sluiced into her blood turning her movements stony and slow. It had been months ago, and yet the wall was still there—an impassable fortress building up in her chest every time she heard his name, every time someone asked what had happened that afternoon in the lot.
Henry glanced at Nikolai again. Though his mouth was set in a hard line, something gentler was stirring behind his grey eyes. She set her attention back on the truck and took a stuttering breath.
“Foo Fighters,” she said.
“My first concert, I was in grade five. Foo Fighters.”
He was quiet for a moment before a small smile broke out across his features. Henry ignored it, pulling her hat further over her ears. There was a ringing now—something far off and piercing like a tiny bell being violently rung. It twanged off the tinny exterior of the truck and struck her ears at an odd angle, making her cringe. Nikolai kept talking.
“Are you close with your family?” he asked. The beep of the timer was distant now, but Henry scooted her chair forwards anyway as though sensing the interval by heart.
“With my mom, yeah. Jenna is…complicated” she said.
“She’s your step-sister?”
The truck was shaking now. Henry gripped the sides of her chair and closed her eyes as her breath misted before her face. The urge to run was strong now, almost lifting her from her seat but she fought to stay where she was. She could feel Nikolai leaning over to her, but she couldn’t raise her eyes to meet his.
“Tell me about your mom, Henry”
The timer rang. She was gasping now but she stood anyway, taking a few steady steps towards the truck. Her fists clenched and unclenched at her sides and she answered him as evenly as she could.
“We always moved around a lot. Since dad disappeared, we’ve been staying with mom’s boyfriends…”
Her voice trailed off, but Nikolai pressed on.
“You feel safe with her, right? Focus on that safety, Henry. Breathe”
With a start, she opened her eyes and got in the truck.
The first sensation was heat.
Her coat was suddenly too heavy, her clothes too tight. The seat was burning under her palms and the roof pressed in over her like a tightening vice. She breathed hard, trying to cool off, trying to remember the bite of winter, trying not to feel the ghostlike hand loosen the buckle of her pants, trying to ignore the butt of the joint they’d smoked. Nikolai was in the driver’s seat. He was saying something about breathing, about control. He was telling her she was safe, cared for, but the doors were pressing in and the air was hot and the hand felt real—
She got out.
The ringing was dull in her ears and she braced herself with her hands on her knees. Nikolai was walking over to her from around the truck.
“How long?” she asked.
“A minute forty-five,” he said. “You’re doing well”
She exhaled and laughed darkly, “Doesn’t feel like it”
Nikolai gestured to the garage, “You’re still here”
Henry shot him a scathing look.
“Well, I’m just saying. It’s better than last time” he said, smiling slightly.
Henry stood up straight and fell back into her lawn chair with a huff, “I’d rather be anywhere else than here right now” she said. Nikolai watched her extract a joint from her coat and seemed to consider this.
“Where would you want to go?” he asked.
Henry paused and slowly exhaled a ring of smoke.
He didn’t meet her eyes.
“You said you would rather be anywhere than here,” he said. “Where do you want to be?”
Henry drew in another breath of smoke and let his question fill the air. She thought about her dad travelling without his family. She thought of herself, the places she could go with her power.
“Probably Barcelona,” she answered.
Nikolai nodded, and then smiled again slightly. Henry frowned and put out her joint on the chair as she rose to stand with him.
“Stop smiling like that. I’m gonna puke” she said. Nikolai laughed an put a hand on her shoulder.
In an instant, the garage was gone, and heat bore down on them. Sunlight filtered in through a canopy of leaves overhead and the gentle murmur of conversation over coffee sounded not too far away. Henry shook herself and found her companion’s eyes as he padded away, factor already sealed in his coat pocket.
“Come on” he said, rounding the corner.
She followed him into what seemed to be a coffee shop. It was midmorning, and business seemed to just be picking up. They sat near the edge of the throng, sipping espresso and shedding layers of winter clothing.
“Why did you take me here?” Henry asked. Nikolai shrugged and sipped his coffee.
“A reward for making progress” he said simply. Henry scoffed.
“So what, I’m like, a dog or something? I don’t fucking think so” she said, though there was no bite in her voice. The heat had seeped into her bones and a sense of ease flooded her again—Clay and his truck had retreated to the shadows of her mind.
“My mom and I always used to say we were from here,” she said. “Y’know, it was easier than saying we were running or whatever, or that we hadn’t called anywhere home in ten years.” Henry laughed.
“She always said the Shirley temples were better in Barcelona whenever people asked. It was like a game”
Nikolai nodded and smiled a little, “she sounds like a great mom.”
They were quiet for a while, both lost in their own thoughts. Henry stared up at the canopy and imagined her mom here with her, smiling in the sun and drinking a real Shirley temple. She wondered if her dad had ever made it as far as Barcelona, if she would ever come back on her own someday. She glanced at Nikolai who was staring after a family on the street.
“What’s your family like?” Henry asked suddenly. Nikolai fixed her with a blank expression. “I mean, you’ve talked about your sister and your friend Wesley…what about your parents?”
He hesitated. Grey eyes searched for the answer in the street again as he struggled to find the words.
“My parents…died in a shooting in a church. I was taken in by my uncle who turned out to be corrupt,” he said simply. “My brother Milos died with them.” His voice choked at the end, and he looked away.
Henry gave him a moment to gather himself and stirred her coffee.
“Yeah I.. kinda looked into it a little. I mean, the church where I’ve met you before—I put two and two together”
Nikolai nodded and stared down at his hands. “That was my…place. Where I discovered what I was” he said. Henry watched his face, looked at the deep lines on his forehead and between his eyebrows. She thought he must not have been much older than her own dad.
“Do you think it’s because of the pain? Like..we’re not born this way. We’re made to be like this” she asked, changing the subject.
“Fuck if I know” he said chuckling a little.
They finished their coffees in relative silence, both coming to some understanding, some kind of respect. When they returned, it was night. Henry had brought them home.
Nikolai was a shadow in her driveway, “I’ll see you soon, kid” he said, turning to leave.
She watched him turn and disappear into the night. To her surprise, she called out after him.
“Thanks for that, by the way. The…travel thing”
She wasn’t sure if he’d heard, and it might have been the wind, but Henry was sure she’d heard a distant you’re welcome.