Chapter 97

“Sounds like you did a real good thing,” Gerry commented as he chomped into the greasy, cheese-soaked burger before him.

“Sure, it was a great thing. I showed one of the people I live with that there’s more to me than the persona I’ve been rocking all year, I spent the evening with some truly boring people, and I managed to call one of the richest man on the planet an asshole,” Nick summed up. He fiddled with his sunglasses, getting used to them once more. “It was smart choices all around.”

“You called him an asshole while sticking up for his kid,” Gerry pointed out. “There’s thankfully few fathers in the world who can hold a grudge against that.”

“He very well could be one of them,” Nick said. “What’s done is done, though. Alice’s night was a lot better than what it would have been without me.”

“I’m proud of you, Campbell,” Gerry said sincerely.

“Glad to hear it, because I think we both know I didn’t do all that for her,” Nick said.

Gerry simply nodded his head. “So what else is going on this weekend?”

“Tomorrow... well, I guess today now,” Nick said, checking his watch. It was past two in the morning. “Anyway, today they take the parents down to the underground levels and show them their kids’ classrooms. There’s a cute speech by the dean and the opportunity to meet the coaches. For the less trusting of parents I’m sure they can ask for progress reports as well.”

Gerry wrinkled his nose. “Seems more like high school than college.”

“Agreed, which is why we won’t be attending. Honestly, I think they only do it because it’s more palatable for a parent to actually see what their child is going through rather than just know they’re being trained in some mysterious program. Giving them a weekend is the path of least annoyance for the school,” Nick speculated.

“You’re probably dead on with that one,” Gerry agreed. “So if we’re skipping the function, what did you have planned?”

Nick shrugged. “Nothing too exciting. I thought we’d jump in my car and I’d show you the town.”

Gerry laughed. “How about we take mine instead? I got a real nice one from the rental company.”

“You trying to say something about my ride?”

“Not at all, kid, not at all. Did you end up going with the ‘won it on a slot machine’ lie?”

“Yup,” Nick said.

“Why not just tell people you bought it? Tons of kids buy cars, it wouldn’t have made you stand out,” Gerry said.

Nick shook his head. “Too responsible. I’m trying to capture the image of a guy who is irresponsible and flies by the seat of his pants. Planning and saving for a car doesn’t mesh as well as just cheating and winning it.”

“Fair point, I suppose,” Gerry agreed. “Still not sure why you insisted on a Bug, though.”

“I can’t win too much. If I’d brought back a Ferrari or something people would have felt jealousy. Winning a Bug, though, that’s a cute anecdote at best.”

“I see where you’re coming from, but it still makes me chuckle,” Gerry said. “I mean, if I told the girls that Nicholas Campbell was driving around in a Bug, they’d bust a gut laughing.”

“Which is why it will never leave Lander, right?” Nick asked.

Gerry gave a Nick a big smile. “I’m waiting to see your grades before I go making any promises.”

*          *          *

Alice still couldn’t sleep. She’d drifted off from time to time, but the rest was always shallow and the dreams too vivid. She had tried a glass of milk, a warm shower, and even counting sheep, yet sleep was still remaining elusive to her. The most troubling part was she knew exactly why. She couldn’t sleep because of Nick.

Alice had grown up with her only social interactions taking place in the world of high society. She’d met with diplomats, entrepreneurs, and politicians, and had slowly learned to see through the lies in their smiles. They were all two-faced, and eventually Alice was able to penetrate their disguises, noticing the small tics and habits that didn’t go along with the person they were pretending to be. She’d thought herself quite good at it when she arrived at Lander, ready to classify and manipulate everyone in sight. She hadn’t been prepared for what greeted her, an entire mass of people her age who didn’t bother with such pretense. Most of whom couldn’t, actually. It seemed like people were more occupied with finding out who they were than in deciding who they wanted everyone to see them as.

Maybe that was why she had missed it; she’d eventually stopped looking after weeks of seeing no double faces. No, that wasn’t it. Blaming her lax observations didn’t give enough credit where it was due. Sure, she’d stopped trying to see though people, but even if she’d been on top of her game all the time Alice was certain Nick still would have slipped by her.

He’d always been the same guy. Smarting off, acting up, making stupid comments and organizing waste-of-time events. Even the stupid glasses were just him wanting to be noticed. Yet tonight, he’d taken them off and effortlessly been someone else. Someone charming, smart, sophisticated, and amiable. There had been no trace of the old Nick, from the way he moved to something as simple as opening a car door. Everything he did had suited this new persona of his. Had she met him for the first time tonight, she would have never imagined the version she’d known for the last several months could exist.

So now, Alice was laying in her bed staring up at the ceiling, unable to find sleep. Was she that much worse at seeing through people than she thought, or was Nick that much better than she was? Either way, it was curious. Under any other circumstance she would have banged on Mary’s door to compare notes and try and put things together. It didn’t feel quite right, though, not when he had shown Alice this part of himself in order to help her. She wouldn’t go around stirring up trouble for him in response to his kindness. She would keep her curiosity and observations to herself.

One thing was certain, though: Alice was definitely paying attention again.