Pen and spiral notebook in hand, I wandered out to the backyard. It was usually the most communal area of the building, but today it was almost deserted… just Martin at one of the tables, talking to Axis in low and serious tones. Axis spotted me across the yard, though, and his face lit up – “Hey, C’mere!”
I looked to Martin – he nodded, smiling, and I ventured over, sitting across from Axis. It was impossible not to respond to his smile. I looked from him to Martin, at a loss, and Martin nodded. “I don’t think you’ve officially met yet – Axis, this is Sara.”
“Doodle’s girlfriend, huh? Lucky dog…”
I laughed. “No, no! We’re not dating.”
Axis had one of those faces that was simply maskless, that responded to every passing thought. Sort of childlike. Right now, he looked puzzled. “Why not?”
I bit my lip, shrugged. “Well – we tried once, when I first moved here. Didn’t work out.”
“Wow. Did it blow up all crazy-like?”
“No! No. We just – we’re just really good friends, and we’re better as friends. And we realized that, and, well… we’re friends,” I finished lamely.
“Too bad for Doodle, man.”
I grinned. “Better this way.”
He leaned in. “You seeing anyone?”
He grinned devilishly. “You interested in anyone?”
“You’re a very pretty girl, Sara.” Crooked smile aside, there was an intensity in him. Just – he was pretty direct, which threw me off. And… Griffin.
But the thought of Griffin didn’t crowd the newly-instilled thought of Axis out of my head. Strange, that. And frustrating…
Martin leaned forward, amused. “Stop hitting on the girl, Axis. You’re making her blush.”
“I was being good,” Axis protested. “I wasn’t being rude or inappropriate, was I?” He looked from Martin to me. “Was I?”
I was blushing. “No. No, you weren’t. It’s cool.”
Martin looked at me apologetically. “He’s a lot better than he used to be. You don’t even want to know how he’d have greeted you, back in the old days…”
“She might want to know.”
“She does not want to know.”
“Well, now I’m curious.”
Martin looked pained. “Here I am, trying to shield you, and you invite him in…”
I laughed. “I am curious!”
“Griffin thinks you’re pretty, too,” Axis teased.
That stopped me in my tracks. “Um. He – does?”
“He gets verrry quiet when I ask about you.”
Martin cleared his throat. “Axis – I need to talk to Sara alone for a moment.”
“Just a minute, okay?”
Axis heaved a dramatic sigh that reminded me of Kaylin, and stalked off to sit on another of the tables, resting his feet on a bench. Martin lowered his voice. “Sara – I just want you to be careful, okay? I know Doodle doesn’t like Griffin and Axis. He has his own reasons for that. Me, I‘m telling you that they are good people, and that I trust them. However, there’s a lot of history between the two of them, and between them and everyone else in this town, Doodle included.”
“And Kellen and Crystal?”
“Especially Kellen and Crystal.”
“Martin – what can you tell me about them? And about Axis and Griffin?”
He sighed. “Nothing right now. Long, long stories. Tell you what, though – come by my apartment tomorrow night for a cup of tea, and we can talk at length, okay?”
“Just – for the time being, just be aware of that, okay? Try to avoid getting too attached to… to any of this.”
I threw him a small salute. “Will do!”
“Excellent.” And with a nod, he turned and went inside.
Jamming my hands into my pockets, I walked over to Axis’s table. He looked back over his shoulder and smiled, less manic than before, and patted the table next to him. I perched beside him, watching the sun begin to set. We were quiet for a long moment – not looking at each other. Just watching colors shift in the sky.
His hair brushed against my bare arm as he gave me a sidelong look. “It would probably have been something very crude,” he said apologetically.
How had I ended up sitting this close to him? I felt the warmth from his arm beside mine, exposed in a wife-beater tank top. “What would?”
“My first words to you. Back in the old days.”
He grinned. “I was a dirty young man. Now I’m a dirty old man. I’ve just learned to be more discreet in my old age… so the pretty girls don’t find me creepy.”
“I’d hardly call you old!”
“I’m over 40, pretty Sara.”
“That’s not old.”
And then, for just a moment, he did look older. “For people like me, it is.” His smile looked a little pained. “Never expected to live this long… so I never planned for it, y’know? Don’t know what to do with myself.”
“So you went to Australia?”
“What? No, man. That was just Griffin. I went to LA.”
I studied his profile as he looked out at his desert. “Are you from there? “
He shook his head. “From here. Yeah, I know – no one’s from Vegas. I am, though.”
“Because I did not want to be in Vegas anymore,” he replied quietly, still not looking at me. “Because all the shit that went down… changed everything. Made everything hurt. I needed to not be here.”
“Why’d you come back?”
He looked at me, eyebrow raised. “Curious kitty.”
I blushed again, looked away. “You don’t have to answer. I’m just nosy as hell. I mean, you guys are obviously a huge part of Doodle’s past, of Martin’s past…”
He tipped my chin up with his fingertips, turning me to look at him… his deep brown eyes luminous in the fading light. I bit my lip, very acutely aware of that hand, and of his face so very close to mine. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t answer.” He released my chin and placed his hand on mine. “Griffin came for me. Tracked me down. I’d managed to lose track of time… hell, I’d tried really hard to lose track of time! But along came Griffin, and he hauled me home. Reminded me that I have… responsibilities.”
“And you’ve been gone the whole seven years, the whole time?”
“Yeah. Shit, a lot’s changed around here. It’s fucking DisneyLand down on the Strip now. They put a roof on Fremont Street. A roof!” he gestured wildly. “That used to be so seedy, man. We were so at home there. Now they put a fuckin’ roof on it. They play commercials on it. What the hell.”
“And people still don’t go.”
“No, man. They ruined the whole street, and still no tourists are gonna go there. They got all these new places on the Strip now. New York New York, for fuck’s sake. You want New York, go to fuckin’ New York!” He caught himself in mid-rant and glanced back down at me, slightly sheepish. “Heh. Sorry. I’m just – it’s changed a lot. But back here, away from the tourists… time moves slow. I’ve been walking around these past few days. Recon. And back here… sure, things’ve changed, but the memories from before are so strong that that doesn’t matter as much. And hell, Martin hasn’t changed. Martin never changes. My man Arthur – he hasn’t changed. Doodle, though – Doodle’s changed. He’s bitter as hell at us. And I… I can’t really blame him, y’know? But I’ve seen him with Kaylin.” He smiled, shaking his head slightly. “He loves that kid. She chose well.”
“Better than you or Griffin? From what little I’ve gathered, it seems like you were a lot closer to her than Doodle was.”
He laughed richly. “Dude, I would be the worst dad ever! And Griffin… well, Griffin fell apart. I was already apart, mind you. But Griffin fell apart after we lost Kellen. Griffin couldn’t take care of a fuckin’ goldfish. No… it surprised me that she didn’t pick Martin. But she was smart to not pick us.”
He paused, then looked over again, suddenly vulnerable. “What’s she like?”
I frowned. How do you describe a person? “She’s a happy kid. Really smart – gifted. She makes friends easily, too. Mmm…. She likes to draw, just like her Doodle-daddy. She dances a lot… she can’t sit still for the life of her!”
“I wanna get to know her,” he mused. “I hope Doodle lets me.”
“Of course he will!”
Axis laughed again. “Sara, I’m a broken-down old junkie, has-been shaman, occasional – frequent – drug dealer. I’m not a role model.”
“I… forgot. About the drug stuff. I didn’t know you were a shaman.”
“Was. I shut all that down a while back.”
“Is that the kind of thing you can shut down?”
“Probably not, but I did it anyway,” he grinned. “Don’t forget about that, Sara. The drug stuff, as you put it. I am not a nice man.”
“You seem nice.”
“You. You are nice. And sweet, and pure.”
I laughed at that – “I’m hardly pure!”
He did a mock-bow. “Pure of heart, dear. Pure of heart. In a place where many are rotten to the core.” Looking suddenly serious, he tucked my hair behind my ear… and leaned in and kissed my cheek. “I like you,” he whispered.
I was frozen, not wanting to move, not wanting him to move – not knowing what I wanted, if I wanted him to leave or to kiss me again. He squeezed my hand gently as he pulled back, and I found that I was disappointed. “I…”
He looked away, face unreadable for once. “I gotta go. I’ll… see you around the house, Sara.” He slipped off the table, set off for the house.
“But wait, I-“
He glanced back, but it was too dark for me to see his eyes. “Don’t worry. I will see you around the house. You’ll get to ask me more questions. I just – I gotta go.”
He ducked inside the house. I found that I’d been reaching out toward him, and let my hand drop – right onto my forgotten notebook. Too dark to write out here now.
He’d long since disappeared when I got into the house.
But my cheek was still warm where he’d kissed me.