Jim took the boy back outside to help on the farm after dinner. Despite the emotionally shaking experience, the boy picked himself up like a champ and appeared to be right as rain in a matter of minutes. Nick, as much as he hated to admit it, had spent enough time with the kid to recognize when he was putting up a front. But the young man also felt no need to call out Ellis's performance.
Let him pretend to be dense for at least a little while longer.
So, while Jim and Ellis went back out to the barn to tend to the animals and ensure they too were well fed, Nick was left to his own devices. Becca shooed him out of the kitchen, insisting that he'd done enough to help and she could handle the cleaning on her own.
He wandered through the halls at first, examining the photos on the wall with a somewhat heavy heart as he reflected on the thoughts behind the subjects in each picture. They were mostly of Becca and Jim, captured with matching smiles. With each picture, the couple got older and older, but the smiles never changed.
Admittedly, that was something of a problem.
Nick couldn't help but to notice how those matching grins lacked true feeling. He was adept at reading people, and even in photos he could put those skills to use; that expression of happiness never truly reached the eyes.
Maybe a normal person wouldn't have noticed it, but to Nick it was painfully clear. They aged, they smiled, but that cheerful light was more absent in each photo he passed.
We tried - by golly we tried and we prayed and we did everything we could. But Jim and I...we weren't meant to be parents.
Nick paused at what looked to be the most recent photo. Jim and Becca sat across from one another at the kitchen table, perched by the bay window with the rolling green fields of their lands colouring the horizon. They sat sideways in their chairs, facing the camera with their backs to the scenery, smiling the smile that had evolved through the years. Their hands linked over the table, and someone with less of an obsessive attention to detail might have missed the way they squeezed.
They looked happy, but the years were evident in their eyes, and there lingered such a sad acceptance that Nick couldn't bring himself to stare at long. He lowered his gaze and moved along into the living room, hating the empathy this aged couple had afflicted him with.
He cursed quietly to himself and collapsed all at once onto the couch. He buried his face in the pillow and breathed an annoyed sigh with effort into the fabric.
He lay still there for a moment, before shifting to grab the pillow and pull it over his head.
What bothered him so much was the knowledge that he shouldn't care. He'd seen his fair share of tragedy, both in his own case and in the stories of others. Normally, he wouldn't care. He would feign sympathy for the sake of maintaining a trustworthy appearance, but when he turned his back his expression would fall with a huff and a roll of his eyes. He would give his apologies, his condolences, but never would he mean them.
But not now.
Now he couldn't help the terrible feeling that had settled in the pit of his stomach. His heart ached for the kindly couple who had everything but the thing they wanted most. He wished their circumstances had been different, he wished that their problem could have been solved. He wished he didn't have to feel their sadness in his gut, he wished he could ignore them as he did everyone else.
He couldn't, no matter how he tried to push them out, and he knew it was Ellis's fault.
He knew it because he ached more for that boy down on his luck than he had for anyone else. The stupid little kid, with his stories and his jokes and his smile-for-others attitude, had a vice grip on Nick's heart. He cared. He cared though he knew he shouldn't. He wanted the kid to be alright, wanted things to work out for him. He didn't want to see the bright-eyed boy saddened by the situation with his parents, he didn't want to hear him crying while attempting to reassure his mother, he didn't want to care about these things though it was getting harder and harder to deny that he did.
The man screwed his eyes shut, feeling incredibly old in that moment. But Ellis, with all his contradictory ways, suddenly settled himself on the forefront of the man's mind with a memory that crept on him quite suddenly.
They call ya a kid, Nick. The world don't care how far apart we are in age, we're both kids to 'em.
How he knew it now.
That boy proved that the budding con artist wasn't as hardened and mature and in control of himself as he would like others to believe. He still had weaknesses, and damn if this boy didn't know exactly how to draw them out.
Nick cursed again, louder, into the cushion below him.
It wasn't okay. This wasn't a good thing. This sort of thing was a death sentence in his line of work. It would get him killed. It would get... It would get others killed. It had to stop.
But how? There was no way he could just stop Ellis from being himself – and thereby stopping whatever infectious innocence he carried with him.
Nick lay in silence, face down, on the old musty couch. One arm hung over the side, his knuckles scraping against the hardwood floors, while his other hand pushed the pillow into the back of his head. Pushing the kid out didn't work. He was an emotional powerhouse that effortlessly knocked down the walls anyone around him put up – how quickly he'd wormed his way into the hearts of Jim and Becca was just further proof of that. Even with Ben and that thug in San Francisco, tugging on heartstrings came as naturally to the good natured southerner as breathing.
At the end of a long breath out, Nick clenched his fists.
The answer was simple. He'd known it all along, but in an effort to appear indifferent to the child he'd been doing all the wrong things. Point A to Point B. That had always been the plan. Nick swore he'd take his time, he'd do the things he wanted to do in the cities they passed, but that was doing more harm than good. The more time he spent around this kid, the fonder he grew. He needed to get his shit together and get this trip over with. Get the kid home where he belonged, and where he was free to trample on the lives of other strangers as much as he pleased – far away from where Nick would be around to experience it himself.
He just had to go.
Nick felt himself relax, then becoming aware of how tense he'd been that entire time he'd cocooned himself in worrying thoughts. He lay there, still and silent, drifting off into an uneasy sleep repeating that one line to himself.
He just had to go.
He just had to go.
He awoke to a dark house. The sun had probably set hours ago, and Nick had no doubt Jim and Becca were the kind of people to take strangers in, especially if they'd seen Nick napping on the couch and decided he needed the rest. The man muttered annoyances under his breath and sat up, pushing his hair back with a hand and rising from the couch. As he crossed towards the kitchen he smoothed out the creases in his suit.
The kitchen was illuminated by the cold glow of the moon. The man searched for a note, something to confirm his suspicions, but found none and resigned to finding out the good-old-fashioned way. He quietly crept up the stairs, leaving the lights untouched in fear of breaking the peace of the little farm house.
The first door he tried was the bathroom door, and he scolded himself for not remembering as he continued to the next room. This second room looked to be a guest room, but the single bed pushed up against the wall was empty. Nick quelled his suspicions and decided Ellis was probably just in another room, and carried on his way down the hall.
When he stumbled upon an empty master bedroom, he began to panic. He called out, his throat dry and his voice hoarse from hours of silence.
He cleared his throat and tried a second time, but got no response. The door at the end of the hall brought no better news. It was an office, just as bereft of human presence as the rest of the floor had been.
His heart slowly coming alive with a panic he hated, he thundered down the steps, his previous care to keep the peace forgotten.
"Ellis?" he called into the dark, unable to find a light switch along the wall of the foyer. "Ellis, where are you?!"
Silence answered his call all too absolutely, and Nick felt a chill creep up his spine. With a quiet growl, the man banished his concern and swept the first floor with professional efficiency, confirming his suspicions: no one was home.
He stormed next for the door, picturing a hillbilly campfire out in the yard where Jim played guitar along to Ellis's hoots and hollers while Becca roasted a pig on a spit. He was met with no such image, just a long field of grass that looked almost metallic in the moonlight, stopped only by a wall of dark trees.
His heart leaped to his throat and began hammering away there at a rate that probably wasn't healthy. He clutched at his chest as he gasped, scanning the empty fields all while trying to dismiss his panic.
Somewhere out in the darkness, a coyote let loose a lonely howl.
Nick screamed out into the night, silencing the wild dog but drawing no other response.
The man stumbled down the stairs, still clutching his heart and knowing that he was not supposed to be hurting this much. He staggered out into the grass, gasping, calling out to a boy who would not answer, and was vaguely reminded of the panic attacks he would have as a child.
Then, just when he felt his heart would burst it was beating so fast, he heard it.
The conman whirled, staring down at the boy who looked up at him with wide, confused eyes. Nick sighed far too loudly with releif, but he didn't care to mask his concern.
"Fuck, kid! Answer me when I call you!"
Ellis looked baffled.
"But Nick," he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, "I gotta go."
"Go?" echoed the man. "Go where?"
The boy shrugged.
"Y'know, I just gotta go."
Nick narrowed his eyes, watching as the boy hid his own behind the bill of his hat. Nick studied the boy quickly, taking in his clenched fists and tense shoulders and knowing that Ellis was upset.
"Cut the crap, Ellis. What are you on about?"
Suddenly, the man was blinded by the flash of headlights. He shielded his eyes from the harsh light, only to find it surrounded him now. The light bathed their surroundings – coming not from the truck sitting in the drive but from the sun which now blazed bright above him.
"Oh," Nick said suddenly as his eyes adjusted to the new scene. "I'm dreaming."
Ellis was standing on the end of the driveway, in front of a house the man had no recollection of ever seeing before. It looked normal enough, one-story with a quaint little garden and a beat-up pickup in front of the garage. Nick stood in the middle of the street, surrounded by trashier looking houses and shacks at the end of dirt paths.
"I'm dreaming, Ellis," Nick said to the boy, as if he would understand. Unsurprisingly the kid just made a face and shrugged, then turned on his heel and started up the drive. Nick went to follow, but found his legs stopped cooperating after a few steps.
"Where you going?" he asked. Ellis stopped, but did not turn, his fists still clenched and his head now bowed.
"I'm just goin'" he muttered. "I gotta, righ'? 'm home now, after all."
Nick looked again to the house before him, and then realized that his legs would not carry him past the curb – would not let him cross onto the property. He couldn't follow Ellis where he went, plain and simple.
"This is your home?" Nick raised an eyebrow. He expected...different.
Ellis shrugged, and then continued towards the door. Before he could stop himself, Nick was calling out again.
The boy stopped once more, his shoulders slumped like he'd been walking for miles, then turned to face the young man. He looked heartbroken, his blue eyes brimming with tears he fought fiercely to contain.
"Jus' like that, righ'? I gotta go," his voice cracked. "You gotta go, too, righ'? You got yer own life to get back to, an' I gotta go."
"Well, yeah, what else did you expect?" Nick felt that familiar ache in his chest at the broken expression the boy wore on his face. "I can't hang around you forever."
"Naw, 's not that. I jus'...yer not comin' back, are ya?"
"It's not likely." The man was honest, just as honest as he would be were this not a dream, a fact he had to remind himself of now and again. Everything seemed so real.
"Again, it's not likely."
Nick made a face at the dejected expression the boy returned to him.
"What'd you expect?" he repeated.
"I'unno, I jus'...I'unno...Do you gotta go?"
"I know you're just gonna up 'n go. I've always known. But I don' want you to. How're we s'posed to go through all o' this crap together 'n then how 'm I s'posed to be okay with you jus' droppin' me off like a sack 'o shit 'n speedin' off into the sunset?"
"Ellis, you can't honestly expect me to just hang around Savannah for the rest of my life."
- just for you, Nick had to stop himself from adding.
"Naw...I dinn't...well I don'...I jus'..." the dam holding back those tears began to break, and Nick felt an awful guilt settle over him. "You can't jus' up 'n go like that...'s not fair."
"I'm sorry, Ellis."
"I'm sure you are," the boy said bitterly, "I'm sure you 'aint jus' gonna go 'n forget 'bout me like you do everyone else."
"'s not fair. Yer gonna go 'n forget 'n I'm gonna have to remember. An' yer gonna jus' expect me t'be okay with that!"
The kid made no effort to hide his angry tears as he pointed an accusing finger at Nick.
"I won't forget," Nick said, though entirely unintentionally he sounded impatient.
"That's bullshit! Total bullshit! You 'aint gonna remember me! Not like I'll remember you! You'll jus' up 'n move on!"
"Everyone does, Ellis, that's life."
"Naw don' even try it, man! People visit! People keep in touch! People don' jus' up 'n vanish 'cause they think it's easier!"
"It is easier, Ellis."
"It 'aint righ'!"
"It doesn't have to be."
"Yer jus' scared! Yer a coward!"
This made Nick go rigid, his eyes narrowing quickly. He tried to advance on the kid, but that invisible wall prevented him from crossing the threshold to the property.
"I'm not a coward, Ellis."
"You are 'n you know it! I know you know it! Yer scared of 'nyone messin' up yer image, or fuckin' with yer picture-perfect lifestyle, where fancy-suit Nick gets all the booze 'n the money 'n the girls 'n none of the strings attached!"
Nick dragged his fingers through his hair, propping a hand on his hip as he turned away from the boy and blew out air from between his teeth.
"I'm not having this conversation with you, Ellis," he grumbled, "I'm dreaming."
"O' course, 'cause the only reason you kin talk to me at all righ' now is cause yer dreamin'! Yer too much of a coward to face me in the real world, 'aint ya, Nicky?"
If Nick had frozen at the boy's earlier comment, this one made him burn. He whirled on the boy, leaning over the curb and willing his legs to move so he could go smack the shit out of Ellis for calling him that, for pulling up those memories.
"What the fuck did you just call me, kid?"
The boy straightened out, and with a composure that did not suit him at all, he repeated in a voice clean of his usual southern drawl.
The word knocked him flat on his ass and kicked the wind from his lungs. He wheezed, and in the instant where his eyes had closed from the impact, the scene had changed. Nick sat in a room all too familiar. The room was in a house he knew to be of generous size, filled with expensive things, bought with inheritance and an overpaid salary. Maybe all of eight feet away from him sat a sleek black grand piano. Ellis sat at the keys, his fingers playing a quiet, familiar and somber tune with more skill than he knew the child to possess.
"Alright, I don't want to do this shit anymore. I want to wake up."
Nick smacked himself upside the head a couple times, but the pain didn't register, and the young man was left staring at the back of the boy who played on the piano from his childhood. In another blink, it wasn't Ellis anymore. It was a slight, lankly-looking child with dark hair combed to part on the right, dressed in a small suit tailored to fit him alone.
"Fuck," Nick picked himself up off the floor, coughed a few times at the irritation in his lungs, then turned away from the scene. The music continued, and though the notes weren't clear and sometimes he wasn't sure he could hear music at all, he recognized the tune all the same. Even if he couldn't hear it clearly, he remembered how it was supposed to sound.
"Nicky, no, Nicky, you- ugh, stop, stop. Just stop."
Nick turned, stuffing his hands in his pockets and putting on a mask of indifference as he watched a faceless woman pace back and fourth behind the boy. She crossed her arms beneath her breasts and huffed. The music had stopped a while ago, but only now did the boy lift his fingers away from the keys.
"It sounds...ugh...I sounds wrong, Nicky. You're doing it wrong."
"Wrong, how, mother?" asked the boy in monotone.
"It just...It doesn't sound nice."
"It doesn't." It was intended as a question, but there was no raise in intonation to indicate that it was.
"No. You must be doing it wrong. Try again, from the top."
The boy began again, and the woman kept pacing, slower now.
"You know," hissed the woman, "if your father was here, I'm sure he'd know exactly how to fix this mess."
"But he's not, mother."
"Oh, don't I know it, Nicky. That good for nothing man. He's never done a single good thing in his life."
"You're doing it wrong, Nicky, do it over."
The boy heaved a sigh and started over. This time, the woman wandered off before the song even reached its halfway mark. By the time it did, a faceless man stumbled past Nick on the way to the piano, a bottle in his hand. He sat beside the boy, listened for a while, then rose and simply left without a word.
The boy quietly finished the song, alone. When it trickled into silence, the faceless duo were back.
They screamed at one another, but their words were an unintelligible gibberish. Their voices were garbled and distorted, but their hostility towards each other was obvious. The woman picked up an expensive vase and threw it, the man screamed and hollered and smashed the bottle in his hand against the wall.
The boy started playing again, and only the man remained. He now paced behind the child in a manner very similar to that of the woman.
"You're not doing it right, Nicolas. Fuck, can you even do anything right?" The boy kept playing through the man's rant. "What happened? You used to be so good, now you just sound like trash. What a waste of potential – waste of talent. What is a kid like you going to amount to in life? Do you think you'll just get by on your mother's fortune? On the money I work every day to bring home? You won't, and at the rate you're going, you'll end up on the street. You won't get anything from us – or me." The words were angry and harsh, a direct contrast to the sad, quiet tune the boy played in response to the faceless man's insults.
By the end of the tune, the man had stormed off. No one else rejoined the boy, but still he sat silently at the bench, as if waiting. Nick turned to face him completely, withdrawing his clenched fists from his pockets. The boy's shoulders began to shake. He lowered his head, and then the silence was broken with hushed sobs, the boy's long fingers curling into fists against the polished wood of the bench.
"Hey," Nick called, approaching the boy from behind. "Don't, kid. He isn't worth it."
The child continued to sob, so Nick sat beside the boy on the bench. He tried to put a hand on his shoulder, by the kid turned away. So instead, Nick lifted his hands to rest his fingers lightly on the keys. He then began to play, and though the notes made no sound, he played the instrument by memory to the tune of the somber song in his head.
Eventually the boy stopped crying. He turned back to the keys and watched the man play with his green eyes narrowed thoughtfully. After a moment, the child seemed to find his voice.
"I guess it's just easier to forget it all," whispered the boy, poising his fingers to start playing again.
"Mmhmm," agreed Nick, waiting for the accompaniment to start.
"I'll just forget all this when I grow up, right? So it doesn't matter what happens now. Nothing will matter."
Nick said nothing, and the green-eyed child began to play again.
"It's just easier to forget."
Nick stopped, but the boy kept playing. He kept playing as he and the piano on which he played faded into darkness. Then Nick stood alone in the dark, his hands in his suit jacket pockets, his eyes on the ground.
"If only it was," he breathed. "If only, if only."
Nick was awake before he found the will to open his eyes, and as a result he was shaken lightly by a gentle hand and his name was repeated, louder.
"I'm awake." The man lifted his head and directed his gaze up to the kind face of Becca. She smiled a warm smile down at him, then stood straight.
"We do have an extra room if you'd prefer a bed, dear."
The man took a moment to sit up, yawn and roll his shoulders. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and gave his head a quick shake to help wake himself up.
"Thanks, but I think we should head out soon."
"It's late, Nick, and Ellis is already in bed."
Biting his cheek thoughtfully, the conman cast his gaze down the hall.
"I think I might get him up. I'm well rested, and he can sleep in the car, but we really better get going. I don't want to overstay our welcome."
"Oh that's impossible, dear. I'd love for you two to stay the night."
"Again, thank you, but I know a mother who's really looking forward to seeing her son again."
Becca pursed her lips and nodded in understanding. She patted the young man on the shoulder.
"I'll go wake him up and help him gather his things. Take all the time you need."
With that, Becca quietly left to climb the stairs. Nick watched her go, then rose himself. He would have to make sure nothing was missing from his car, and maybe check up on the kid before they left. He really hoped Ellis would just sleep for a few hours, because then he could drive for most of the night and get that much closer to Savannah. He could stop early in the morning and grab a couple hours rest before starting up again in the day.
But as he'd learned, Ellis had a way of ruining his plans.
By the time he'd made sure everything was in order where his car was concerned and Becca had brought him out a "care package" of snacks and treats for the road, Ellis and Jim appeared at the front door. He took a long drag of his cigarette as he studied the Georgian. This was the first time Nick had ever seen the boy look so exhausted. He had bags under his eyes and could barely keep them open. He was still in his Oceanside pyjamas with the bag full of his few belongings slung over his shoulder.
With a yawn, the southerner clopped down the steps and stumbled towards the car where Nick leaned, waiting. He was stopped by Jim, who had been following the boy from the door.
"Here, kiddo," he heard the man say as he turned Ellis around by the shoulder. He passed the boy a small stack of cards, "to remember us by."
Nick couldn't see it, but he was sure the boy's smile was ear-to-ear as he threw himself at the old farmer and trapped his torso in a hug.
"Thanks a million, Jim," Ellis pulled away, only to fly back up the stairs to where Becca leaned against the doorjamb. She was almost floored by the force behind the child's hug, but returned it nevertheless.
Nick tried not to notice the way her eyes watered, and wished his car had been parked further away so he wouldn't have had to see it in the first place. He cast a bitter stare to the ground on his right, flicking the butt of his cigarette into the dirt.
"Nick!" called Ellis, and the man lifted his head to see the boy gesturing urgently for him to come over. The conman sighed, rolled his eyes and pushed off his car, approaching the three who stood on the porch, only to wish he'd brushed off the boy's summons when he continued. "Ya gotta say thank you ta Jim 'n Becca. They done a lot fer us."
Nick felt his insides churn bitterly: Ellis was lecturing him on good manners? He would've smacked the kid upside the head had Jim not the foresight to hold out his hand before the conman could. Nick swallowed his irritation and gave Jim's hand a firm shake. The old farmer clapped his opposite hand over theirs.
"You're a good kid, Nick."
"Thanks," Nick returned, putting on a smile and meeting his elder's warm stare.
"You be sure to stop by any time you're around, y'hear? Becca 'n I would love to hear how everything worked out."
"I'll keep that in mind."
The young man was careful not to make any promises. He had a feeling he'd feel guilty for not keeping them, thanks to Ellis.
As Jim pulled back, Becca stepped forward. Nick's doubts on what to do must have shown in his face, because the little old woman smiled brightly and closed the distance between them. She wrapped her arms around Nick and pulled him into a hug, one he found himself returning.
"Good luck, boys," she said. When Nick went to release her, she squeezed tighter and added: "It'll all work out, Nick. Have Faith."
The gambler swallowed the instinct to scoff, and settled for nodding as he was released.
Ellis gave the friendly couple another big hug each, then followed on Nick's heels as they walked back out to the car. The elder of the two stood and waited while the little southerner circled the car and ducked into the passenger seat. Nick opened his door, hesitating as he glanced back at the farmhouse and the elderly couple who stood embracing on the porch. They waved to him and he returned it, though his gesture was sheepish and uncertain.
He pursed his lips and ducked into his car. The corvette roared to life, and Nick honked the horn twice as they pulled away. His tires kicked up dust and dirt as they departed, but not nearly enough debris to shroud the pleasant couple who still stood waving. Nick had to avert his eyes before they turned onto the main road, unable to explain or quell the feeling of guilt and regret settling into the pit of his stomach.
He would never see them again.
Ellis seemed to have found some hidden reserve of energy as they merged onto the I-40. Traffic was sparse, so Nick felt comfortable going far faster than the law allowed, all the while trying to find the right mental frequency to tune out the babbling southerner at his side.
"-probably let me come out 'n visit if I told her what went down an' all. Hell she'd probably even come wit' me! Hey do you think Jim 'n Becca would mind if ma and I dropped in, or should we call an' ask first? Aw hell, gettin' their number is what I should'a done. Did you catch their last names? Might be able to find their number in the phone books if I looked real careful-like. Do you think we could stop an' pick up a New Mexico phone book? I wanna-"
"Ellis, why are you awake?" Nick propped his elbow against the window and held his head on his knuckles, giving the windshield and apathetic look. The man watched in his peripheral vision as Ellis's expression turned confused.
"Well, 'cause I 'aint tired is why," the boy said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
"You looked half-asleep stumbling out of that house, where did all this fucking energy come from?"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, Nick! No need ta drop the F-bomb!"
Nick rolled his eyes.
"Ellis, it's almost midnight. Isn't that way past your bed time?"
"Well I was sleepin', then someone decided they just couldn't wait 'till mornin' ta get back on the road. Now 'm awake."
Nick let out a long breath, trying to keep his cool in the small confines of the car. Meanwhile, Ellis shuffled restlessly in his chair. After a short period of silence, he spoke again.
"Hey, Nick, I bin' meanin' to ask ya somethin'."
"If it involves horses, phone books or some shit-for-brains kid named Keith: No."
Ellis made a face like he was trying to be offended, but couldn't muster up the focus for it. However, he didn't let Nick's abrasive negativity trip him up this time, he was learning to work around that.
"Earlier today, after my ma called..."
Nick fought off a wave of embarrassment and deployed his poker face.
"Ya said you were sorry to me, but ya never explained why."
Nick could feel Ellis's stare, though he did not turn to meet it and sat in silence until the boy pressed for an answer.
"What were ya sorry fer?"
Nick kept all his emotional reactions in check. He did not narrow his eyes, he did not clench his jaw. He did not grip the steering wheel any tighter, nor did he tear his gaze from the stretch of road his headlights illuminated in front of them. He knew Ellis was watching for a reaction – studying the little ticks he now knew to look for.
The kid's careful observation was just another reminder that they were too close. No one was supposed to know what to look for, he wasn't supposed to have any "tells" - and certainly none that could be identified by a twelve-year-old.
"I was sorry about what you're going through."
It wasn't a total lie, but Ellis doubted it all the same. He puffed out his cheeks in an odd expression of thoughtfulness, then shrugged and turned back to the window.
"I juss thought maybe you were apologizin' fer summin' else."
"I'unno what, but I juss...I got this feelin', y'know?"
Ellis gave a huff, but couldn't have honestly been surprised by Nick's lack of cooperation.
"I thought that maybe you were talkin' 'bout-"
"Ellis, why don't we play the quiet game? Starting now."
Ellis's answering frown was genuinely disappointed, but he pushed no further. He let out a defeated sigh – one Nick put all his focus into forgetting – and then propped his bag against the window and used it as a pillow to rest his head. Miraculously, he managed to spend the rest of his time conscious completely silent. Nick wasn't even sure when exactly the boy had drifted off to sleep, but he carried on driving all the same, as one by one the cars drifted away to their exits and left the duo completely alone.
The two didn't stop often after the distraction at Jim's farm, and if they did it wasn't for very long. Nick stopped that first morning at a truck stop to catch a quick nap in his car with Ellis out cold beside him. When Ellis awoke with a 'Damn I'm hungry!' he stirred the gambler and they carried on their way.
The stops they did make were mostly for bathroom breaks or a bite to eat. Sometimes Nick unsympathetically told Ellis to 'hold it,' because of the habit the kid had formed. He would insist he needed to pee only to get out at the rest stop and take off. He wouldn't go far, and more often than not he would just be satisfied doing a few running laps of the building. Afterwards he would stumble red-faced and sweaty back into the sleek corvette to an unamused Nick.
"I just had ta stretch my legs, man! 'M goin' stir crazy!" he would insist, grinning that cheeky grin even in the face of Nick's annoyance.
But even so, 22 hours was a long time to drive and almost impossible to do all in one stretch. Nick chipped away at however much he could manage in one sitting, trapped in a confined space with a squirming southerner, but could rarely push more than eight hours. The first night, they stopped in a relatively inexpensive motel a couple dozen miles east of Oklahoma City.
It was the first place outside of the farmhouse that Ellis didn't feel under dressed or self-conscious, and he was more than content to mill around the gravel parking lot kicking stones while Nick sorted through "private business" on the phone in their room.
He paused only for a moment in his impromptu game of sport to lean against the door and listen for the sound of Nick's voice. He could hear the man talking, but he spoke in a hushed tone and there was only the familiar drone of his voice – Ellis could distinguish no words.
Only feeling somewhat disappointed – aided by the knowledge that he just wasn't meant to hear – the boy returned to the gravel lot. It reminded him a lot of the motel where he'd first met the elder man, a beat up and quiet location that didn't see too much traffic. There were two other cars in the lot, and neither of them were as nice as Nick's. They were beat-up and old, and their drivers locked away in their own rooms.
Ellis passed by one briefly, only to put a rush in his step when he heard sounds coming from beyond the room door that made his face flush with a guilty heat. He crossed the lot, trying to get as far away from that room as he could manage without leaving the property. Once he was satisfied, the boy sat himself down on the curb and began throwing stones, trying to skip them against the ground in a desperate attempt to distract himself – from what he had heard and what he still couldn't.
He paused in his game thoughtfully, biting his cheek as the cogs in his brain began to turn. He leaned back and stretched out a leg to dig into the deep pockets of his coveralls. He felt his fingertips press into the straight edge of card, and when he adjusted his grip he felt the skin on his finger split open.
"Fuck," he hissed, withdrawing his hand like he'd been bit. "Fuckin' hate papercuts." The boy grumbled to himself and sucked on his fingertip with a pout, but only after a few minutes did he forget the pain and reach into his pocket again. This time, the act of pulling out the stack of glossy cards was far less painful.
He'd kept them in his wide pockets since receiving them from Jim. Part of him didn't want Nick to see them. He was afraid the man would call him childish or mock his sentiment. The old farmer had taken pictures while they were out in the barn with his old camera – the kind he'd seen photographers in malls use to photograph people with celebrities or Santa at Christmas. Ellis had known Jim had the camera the entire time – hell he'd taken a few himself. But they'd taken time to develop and Ellis had already forgotten about them by the time Becca helped him wash up for bed.
Jim had trimmed them down so they were smaller squares, and the hick was glad for it because they fit in his pocket less conspicuously. He'd also sorted through a few of them and picked out what Ellis agreed to be the best ones. There was one of him on Sara-Jean again, and another of him walking carefully across the backs of heavy pigs. In one, Jim chased chickens around the corner of the barn, and in another Ellis posed heroically, standing atop a fence post with the backdrop of Jim's fields. There was another where Ellis had caught Becca looking contemplative out the window, and another where Jim and Becca danced together outside on the porch. Ellis had even grabbed one of Nick, who slept soundly on the couch with the pillow pulled over his head. The last in the stack was the three of them, Ellis between them, smiling frozen smiles at the camera in front of the farmhouse.
Ellis had thrown his arms up in a grandiose manner, while Jim and Becca leaned away to avoid having his hands in their faces, but they smiled so happily the boy felt a surge of joy. He felt like those two needed a good laugh – the kind that made your belly hurt – and he could remember hearing them laugh that laugh in this picture. They were nice people, but Ellis had got the feeling that sometimes he was hurting them by being there, he often saw a melancholic look in their faces when they thought he was distracted. Hell, he'd even caught Becca on camera with that expression, and Jim had decided to pass it on to him.
He wondered if they knew he knew. Well, he didn't really know what he knew. He just had a feeling there was some memory he was kicking up, a memory that made them sad. But for the most part, he seemed to be able to distract them and they looked to be having the time of their lives – Ellis knew he sure did.
The ringing of a little bell brought Ellis's attention to the motel office, where a young man was stepping out into the daylight. The boy shoved the photos in his pocket quickly and turned to study the man. He looked maybe a little older than Nick, but the boy was never a real good judge of age. Acting on instinct, the little southerner gave a quick wave in greeting, surprised when the man returned it and then began to approach.
Ellis twisted his body to face the man a little more and called a welcoming: "Hello!"
The man smiled, shoving his hands in his pockets like Ellis had seen Nick do so many times.
"Hello there, bud!" He spoke with a northerner's accent, and looked directly at Ellis when he spoke. The boy decided he liked that. "What're you doing out here on your own?"
"Juss killin' some time, is all. My friend's in the room takin' care of some 'private business' 'n whatnot. Told me to stay out fer a lil' while."
"Ah, I see. All by yourself?"
Ellis shrugged, hearing the concern in the man's voice.
"I 'aint no baby, I kin take care o' myself fer a couple o' minutes."
"Oh no, that's not what I meant by that...I just..." the man let his stare roll up to the sky as he reconsidered his words. When he'd sorted them out mentally, he looked right back at Ellis. "I figured hanging out on your own would be boring."
Again, Ellis shrugged.
"It 'aint so bad, I s'ppose."
The boy turned and picked up a small stone, throwing it lazily into the air and watching it clatter to the ground again but a few feet away. The northerner watched for a moment in an uneasy silence, then cleared his throat.
"Mind if I sit with you?"
The child's response was quick.
"O'course not!" He shuffled over as if to be further welcoming, and felt his face light up as the stranger settled into the empty space at his side.
The man lowered himself down and let out a long breath as if he'd been standing for quite a while. He arched his back until it cracked, then leaned back on his palms, digging his heels into the dusty earth beneath them.
"Where you from?" asked Ellis, eager to be part of a conversation.
"Ohio," said the stranger, "you?"
"And what brings you to Oklahoma?"
"'m on like a...road trip with a friend 'o mine." Ellis had paused when he realized he wasn't quite sure what to call this cross-country excursion. The man didn't seem to notice, and nodded.
"Ah, cool. I'm down here on business. I'm something of a contractor, and I've got a client who wants me to get a job done for him."
The boy felt overjoyed that the man had continued – had contributed to the conversation and not just left it hanging in an awkward silence that Ellis would feel compelled to fill.
"Tha's cool, whatchu buildin'?"
The man gave the sky a contemplative look.
"Nothing too exciting, just a custom house."
"Still sounds cool." Ellis adjusted his hat on his head, then leaned forward onto his thighs and did his best to look cool and mature – he pictured Nick's indifferent stance to help him do it. "M'name's Ellis," he said.
The boy's spirits soared. After spending so much time in a confined space with Nick, he'd almost forgotten what it was like to have a normal conversation with someone.
"Tha's cool, s'cool," he repeated, grinning dumbly at nothing. He happily twiddled his thumbs while Jack shifted uncomfortably beside him.
"So, your friend, he's older, right?"
"Yeah, he's drivin', after all."
"Oh good. Are you on the leg of coming from or going back to Georgia?"
"Goin' back home," Ellis supplied almost dreamily, "'m lookin' forward to seein' my ma again."
"I'll bet," Jack sat up to brush some gravel out of the palms of his hands. "How long have you been away?
"Pro'aly around a couple o' weeks, I think. I 'aint bin keepin' track, really."
There was another silence, and in it the boy registered Jack's discomfort, though he did not understand it. He decided not to dwell, and carried on doing what he did best.
"'S bin real cool so far – like a movie. I saved my bud's life, got to work on a gen-u-ine race car, got ta ride some horses, man I wouldn't change none o' this for nothin'!"
Jack smiled, and Ellis decided the expression looked tired.
"Sounds pretty cool, you're lucky."
Ellis beamed, pleased to see his energy was somewhat infectious because the man didn't look as tired when he amped up his smile in return.
Ellis began happily babbling, telling some stories of his childhood friend Keith to an audience who didn't seem to loath every word involved in them. It was refreshing, talking to someone other than Nick – someone who didn't mind listening.
It was like the boy had been holding his breath for a really long time, and this was the first chance he'd had to let it all out and breathe in again. Jack was patient, and a very good listener. He smiled and nodded and asked questions – genuine, interested questions that were not at all sarcastic. At first Ellis thought it was odd that someone would want to chat with him, until he decided that it wasn't all that odd, and it was just Nick. Just because Nick was sarcastic and bitter and impatient, that didn't mean everybody was.
The southern boy was just so used to the negativity that anything different from a stranger seemed so unusual.
He remembered when he frequently bothered strangers for conversation, and wouldn't feel self-conscious about what he was saying or if they would want to listen. But Nick avoided strangers as much as he avoided lighthearted conversation. It was something Ellis didn't realize he had missed until it happened again for the first time in a while.
Jack provide much in terms of his own stories to share, but the boy decided that was just because the man was more of a listener.
After a few moments, the door to Ellis's room opened and Nick stepped out. He had a pair of sunglasses on and didn't immediately look to the boy. He focused instead on withdrawing a cigarette and lighting it.
Jack followed the boy's stare until he too spotted the suited man trying to get his lighter to work against a dry breeze. He was still for a moment, then pushed himself to his feet and turned his back on the gambler, looking down to the boy.
"I better go," he said, "I've got a lot of things to do today."
Ellis nodded quickly, never without his smile.
"T'was good ta meetcha, Jack, good luck on yer job."
"Thank you, Ellis. I hope you get home soon – and don't let Nick bother you too much."
The man called back a farewell, but was already in the process of walking around the motel office, probably to a car parked on the other side. Ellis smiled as he watched him go, only to feel the expression die on his face a little as he thought through those final moments. Nick had lit his cigarette and was crossing the parking lot to where the little southerner sat.
"Who was that?" Nick called, sounding as indifferent as ever. His eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, so Ellis was even less sure than usual how to interpret the man's tone.
"His name was Jack 'n he's a contractor. Juss passin' through, he says."
Nick nodded and drew in a long breath while Ellis turned back to stare at the corner the man had vanished behind. The man noticed Ellis's thoughtful stare and spoke.
"Got yourself a new crush, do you?"
There was no questioning the mockery in the man's tone this time.
"Shuddap, I don', juss curious is all." Ellis pulled the bill of his hat down his face to hide his childish pout, though he had a feeling Nick would know it was there all the same.
"Well come on, we'll go grab a bite to eat and then turn in for the night."
Nick trapped the cigarette between his lips and stuffed his hands in his pockets. Ellis rose to his feet.
"But it's still so early!"
"And when you're driving, you can go to bed as late as you want." Nick strode right by him, continuing down the lot to where his corvette gleamed in the sunlight. Ellis followed, but couldn't help another puzzled stare back to where Jack had disappeared. He repeated their conversation over and over again in his mind, trying to remember everything he'd said to the stranger in their short time together.
But no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't draw up the moment in question, which left him curious:
When did he tell the man Nick's name?
Oh my god I missed you guys so much!
And I come with good news!
As I'm sure you all know, I have a bad habit of forgetting to finish stories. But my belated New Year's revolution was to finish the projects I care most about. I've finished one already, and now I'm turning to this one. I hope you guys can forgive the long wait, and I thank you for returning to read this if you did. Feel free to yell at me in a review, I know I deserve it.
Now, let's proceed into the home stretch together and see this through (finally!)
It was all of your reviews that keep me going, so please, send me a review - we have a lot to catch up on! I promise to respond to as many as I can (maybe over PM, maybe in the footnotes, I don't know. You tell me what to do!)
Thanks so much for reading this far.
So happy to be here again (: