I stood outside the door to our apartment, wondering what I was going to say to Theo. How was I going to explain this to her?
“Listen, Theo, something’s come up and… no. No that’s not going to work. How about… ‘Theo, I need you to run a few errands for me… across the country…’ Okay, that’s stupid too.”
I thought for a little while longer.
“Oh hey, Theo, guess what! I just won an all expenses paid vacation to the Canadian wild, but I can’t go because of work. Why don’t you take Anastasia and-”
“Master Alfonso – I mean, Alfonso?” Theo said, poking her head out the door. “What’s wrong?”
I jumped, nearly falling over. Theo tilted her head quizzically.
“Oh, Theo,” I said, surprised. I tried to regain my cool. “I didn’t know you were listening.”
“It was not hard to hear you, the walls here are very thin. You’re lucky Mistress Anastasia is sleeping…”
Theo looked back through the open door. Sure enough, Anastasia was sleeping soundly on her bed in the living room. The looked at me.
“What seems to be the matter?”
“It’s nothing,” I said.
“I disagree,” she said bluntly. “If it were nothing, we would not be standing here having this conversation, so clearly it is something. Go on. What is it?”
I laughed. “Awfully demanding for a maid, aren’t we?”
“My apologies,” she said. “I am merely concerned for your wellbeing.”
“Yeah, thanks…” I said. I took a deep breath. “Theo, get packed. We’re skipping town for a few days. Or… you are, at least. There’s some shit going down with the Allesandris and you need to leave New York. I’ll come pick you up once the heat dies down, so get everything you think you might need. A change of clothes, a toothbrush, a pillow maybe-“
I paused. “… What do you mean ‘no’? Theo, this is hot button shit. Your life is at stake.”
“I mean ‘no’. I will not go,” she said resolutely. “My life was at stake with Mickey, and I am still here. I will not leave my home.”
“Theo, you don’t-”
“I don’t what? Do you think I cannot defend myself? Perhaps it is not proper of me but may I humbly remind you of how our last fight went?” she said, stone-faced. “Because if I recall correctly, I am the reason you spent all those days in the hospital, not Mickey.”
“It’s not about that-”
“I’m sorry if it hurts your ego Master, but the simple fact is you don’t need to worry about me. I appreciate your help and hospitality but I am no longer that same damsel in distress you saved a month ago.”
“Theo, for godsakes! Would you just listen to me?! And I told you to stop calling me ‘Master’!”
I bit my thumbnail, teeth grinding. I couldn’t tell her. Not now, not when I didn’t know what to say. How would I explain it to her? “Sorry, you can’t stay here because the Allesandris are threatening to take custody away from me and sell you off as a sex slave again”? Because I’m pretty sure that’s just about the worst thing to tell someone recovering from her situation, right behind “You’re adopted and your parents never loved you”.
… Okay, bad example. But what could I say? And at the same time, how else would I convince her?
That’s when I noticed her hands were shaking.
“Theo, what’s wrong with your hands?”
Caught off-guard, she quickly hid her hands behind her back. “There is nothing wrong with my hands. They are completely normal.”
“Bullshit,” I said, and grabbed her hand. She was shaking like an earthquake, and her fist was clenched tighter than a corpse. “Theo…”
She wrenched her hand away, trying to keep the shaking under control. The symptoms of withdrawal were in full bloom. As I’d feared, she’d already been exposed to too much nepenthe, enough to develop an addiction to. Time would only tell whether the shakes were the signs of serious brain damage or if they were just a part of going cold-turkey.
“You’re still taking it, aren’t you?” I asked.
She didn’t look at me, and she wouldn’t say anything.
“Theo,” I said, gently but firmly.
“I… have been having nightmares,” she admitted. “I have been dosing to control them. Sometimes I still hear his voice, and I can see his face every time I close my eyes. Sometimes I cannot focus on work if I do not take it.”
I sighed. “Show me where it is.”
She stared at the floor in shame. Reaching into her chest, she pulled out a small baggie of the sweet-smelling leaves. I held out my hand and she deposited the bag, retreating timidly.
“And the rest?”
One by one Theo lead me quietly through the apartment, digging up all the little bundles of leaves she’d stashed away while she was cleaning. It took a little coaxing, but finally I was convinced she’d given them all up. I nodded in satisfaction.
“Now you know what we’re going to do with these, right?”
She looked downcast. She probably expected me to destroy what was left. Instead, I took a lighter and a piece of paper, and rolled a thin line up into a tube. Twisting off at both ends, I lit up and stuck it in my mouth, taking a whiff of that sweet Olympian kush. I passed the joint off to Theo, who was understandably confused. When she didn’t take it, I pushed it inbetween her lips. She inhaled deeply and took a strong hit, the muscles in her arms immediately relaxing as she stopped shaking.
I took the joint back and had another hit for myself.
“You see,” I said, starting to feel the effects, “this is how you’re supposed to take nepenthe. You don’t chew it, you smoke it. I mean, that’s just fucking stupid. That’s what squirrels do, and we’re not fucking squirrels.”
“Yeah,” Theo said, taking the joint back and blowing some smoke.
I felt posi-lutely abso-tively giddy. I could remember all of my best memories with absolute clarity, like watching a movie. I mean I can do that normally anyway but it’s not the same. It’s like you were there… but you weren’t there. You know?
… No, I guess you probably don’t. It’s hard to explain. But it felt good though, really good.
We both slumped down to the floor in the middle of the kitchen. I put a hand on Theo’s head and rubbed her hair.
“If you ever have problems, you come to me, okay? I’ll help you out. I mean, that’s what family does, y’know? We help each other out, right?” I said, my speech pretty slurred. “I mean, I don’t care what you used to do up until now. If it helped you get by, I mean shit, who am I to say it’s wrong?”
“Thanks, Al,” Theo said, equally toked out of her mind. “I ‘preciate it.”
“But we gotta get you off this stuff too, y’know? So here’s what I’m thinking.” I took the joint back from Theo. “We’re gonna save some of these leaves and grow ‘em, like, in my room or something. And we’ll wean you off of it, how does that sound?”
“Mmmm,” Theo said, nodding.
“I mean it’s not like I’m gonna make you quit or anything,” I said. “I just wanna get you in a better state of mind, right? A better headspace. Then you won’t need this stuff anymore. You won’t need it.”
“You’re right, you’re so right.”
“So just… stay the course, ‘kay? We’re gonna make it through this, Theo. We’re gonna make it through this.”
“We’re gonna make it through this.”
“We’re gonna make it through this…”
Eventually we both got too drowsy to talk and just fell asleep in the kitchen, the two of us propped up against each other in a cloud of skunk smoke, sleeping like babies.
I don’t know if I regret not telling her then what was at stake. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not after everything she’d already been through. If this really was gonna be the end of the short time she’d spent with us, I wanted it to be a happy one. No teary goodbyes. Even if I didn’t know where the future would take her, I wanted to at least give her some good memories to take with. It was the least I could do for her to not to make her worry.
“There’s something fishy about this,” Annie said, pouting as we helped Theo load what few bags she had onto the train.
“I told you, Annie, she needs to go visit her family in Canada for a few days. Think of it as a vacation.”
“Do not fret, Mistress Anastasia,” Theo said, bowing. “I will return shortly.”
“Hrmmmmm…” Annie growled.
Theo smiled. Well that was rare. Certainly a turn-around from last night. Somehow, after the whole thing had settled down and the skunk stank had permanently soaked into the furniture, I’d managed to convince Theo without telling her exactly what was going on here. I still think that was for the best.
We managed to squeeze the last bag into the overhead compartment with only minutes left to spare before the train departed. Annie quickly hobbled through the door and off the train on her crutches while I stayed behind to send off Theo. I wish she would’ve gotten a better goodbye but it couldn’t be helped. It wasn’t easy boarding and disembarking from trains when you were walking with crutches.
Making sure Annie wasn’t looking, I pulled Theo aside into her compartment for a quick chat.
“This is our number,” I said, fishing a small piece of paper out of my shirt pocket and handing it to Theo. “Call it if things get rough, we’ll come to help if we can. I don’t think the goon squad’s wised up to where you’re going yet but if they do, you’ll at least have a headstart. You know where you’re going, right?”
“Montreal,” she said. “If I recall correctly, you said if I’d just stay put you’d return in five days to come pick me up.”
“Right,” I said, nodding. “Here’s some money for a B&B. Make sure to find one that’s a little out of the way and hunker down there for a few days. They’ll provide you with all the food you’ll need, so you don’t need to leave the house.”
I stuck the money in her cleavage. Hey, it’s where she seemed to keep everything else.
“Rest assured, I will not need it,” Theo said, not minding.
Her stomach rumbled, and I smiled.
“Sure you won’t. Oh, and here.” I handed her a tin with some of the cigarettes we’d rolled last night. “Make sure not spend it all in one place.”
“I was not aware cigarettes were legal tender anywhere outside of prison.”
“It’s a figure of speech.”
“Al!” Annie cried from outside. “The train’s about to depart, what are you doing?!”
Shit. I checked my watch just as I felt the train start moving. Last chance to get off now.
“Gotta go. Thanks for trusting me on this.”
She shrugged. “Family helps each other out. Even when they don’t understand why.”
I smiled. “Attagirl.”
I rounded the corner and quickly jumped off the train just as it left the station. Breathing a sigh of relief, I knocked on the metal sheet behind me. If I’d waited any longer to do that I would’ve been pasted against the sides.
I found my way back to Annie and we headed home, only there was one more surprise waiting for us outside.
Marq sat waiting for us in a brand new black Mercedes Benz. He leaned out the side window and waved, smiling. Annie frowned and I smiled, returning the gesture. All of my business was taken care of now. Time for the fun to begin.