BY THE TIME THE BUS REACHED THE NEW JERSEY TURNPIKE, Josh realized Nikko had problems deeper than he ever imagined. Nikko kept shivering, short, fast bursts of trembling that would rock Josh awake, then fell back into deep sleep, even though heat blasted through the bus. While Nik shivered and slept, Josh watched the red taillights of cars slide by and worried about his friend, worried the police would pull over the bus, for by now surely Gemma had cracked and the parents knew their plan.They had ditched the car in the bowels of the Union Station parking lot, hoping to fake their parents into thinking they’d taken a train north. Instead, they’d blown fifty bucks on a cab, backtracking to Druid Hill to see Vee’s brother David. Nik’s idea, and not part of the plan. The cab parked in front of a row house whose second-floor windows were shot out. Across the parkway, the reservoir glittered blue.
“Dropping off something for Vee,” Nikko said. “Back in a jif.”
The cabbie grunted. He auto-locked the doors with a loud click and kept the engine idling. Josh kept his eyes glued on the barred door Nik had disappeared into. After a few minutes, Nik emerged, half-walking, half-skipping to the cab, carrying something small in his hand that he stuffed in his back jeans pocket. The cab fled south down the Fallsway, then followed Presidential Street as it twisted through Fells Point and Canton, past industrial-looking warehouses butting up against the murky harbor, until it pulled up a drive in a part of town Josh didn’t know existed.
They unloaded their backpacks and guitar. Somewhere, a highway hummed, the high whir persistent, like a mosquito. A couple of snow-flakes drifted from the grey sky. After Nikko, pad the cabbie, they hurried inside.
The cheapest bus left at five. Nikko said he had to use the can, so Josh piled their packs into a booth. Fluorescent light burned overhead, making the orange tables glow. A row of vending machines took up the wall space between the two bathroom entrances; lockers took up another wall. Most everyone who walked through the waiting room looked pasty and worn. A woman leaned against the glass window near the terminal door in impossibly high sequin heels, a hot pink skirt stretched tight across her thighs. She stared at him, licked her pink-stained lips, and he turned away. He pulled out his guitar, strummed a few lines of Blackbird, and even though he played quietly the music seemed too loud for this place, so he placed the guitar back in the case.
When twenty minutes had passed and Nikko still had not returned, Josh started to worry. He walked over to the men’s room, propped open the door, and whispered, “Nikko. You in there?” all while keeping an eye on their stuff in the booth. No one answered. A man came out as Josh spoke again, louder.
“There’s no one in there,” the man said.
The fluttery feeling in his stomach grew. He returned to the booth, hugging his guitar under his arm. He was about to pull out his phone and call his parents when the glass door opened and Nikko came in from outside. His shoulders slumped, as if very tired, but he smiled.
“Where the hell have you been?” Josh asked.
“Outside. Air,” Nikko said. “I waved when I came outta the john.”
“No you didn't," Josh said, and wondered why his friend’s words slurred.
“You must not have sheen me.”
Nikko slid into the booth across from him. His brown eyes looked black, huge glowing coals that filled his pale face, and he smiled this weird smile, like he couldn’t help himself. They sat there at the chipped Formica table, not talking. Their bus number was called over the PA.
“Go.” Nikko waved his hand. “Go piss.” He closed his eyes, leaned against the back of the booth, still smiling.
Half-way to Boston, Josh could not sleep. His stomach churned, from hunger, from nerves, from the growing certainty his best friend was sick. He placed his hand on Nik’s forehead, but the skin felt cool, damp. Nikko stirred, moaning, no longer smiling.
The 8th installment of THE RUNAWAY. Funny, but I suspect my story starts here. If you wish to read all the earlier throat-clearing, scroll down to the blog post below and follow the bread crumbs. As always, I appreciate you reading my words. Peace...