cinnamon and sugary and softly spoken lies Who: Mercy & Nate. What: The siblings go out for lunch to celebrate a semi-successful close living quarters, but things do not go as planned. Where:Chong Qing Mei Wei Chuan Cai. When: Midday Oct. 4.
Mercy almost vibrated in her seat, one hand held aloft to hold a firmly-planted chin as she scrolled through her phone while waiting for her brother; every five scrolls brought her eyes up, looking toward the door for Nate's appearance. The restaurant she was seated in bustled around her, waiters carrying trays of good-smelling food hither and thither. Spices made Mercy's mouth water, but she had to content herself with glasses of water and Sangria, both of which were drained to their halfway points by her impatience.
A waiter suddenly appeared to refill her water glass; Mercy tucked her phone into an elbow, grinning up at her. "Aw, thanks. Do you guys do... I don't know what the Chinese equivalent of bread would be."
"No, sorry, we don't have anything like that. But I could put in an order for an appetizer, if you want?" The young black woman looked hopeful as Mercy chewed her bottom lip.
"Uh... you know what, OK. Can you bring me some of the wasabi shrimp rolls?"
The woman nodded, and disappeared from the table. Mercy resumed looking at her phone, her foot starting to beat a tattoo on the floor.
Nate noticed Mercy the moment he strode into the restaurant. She looked impatient—no real surprise—and he chastised himself for being even a few minutes late. Things had been going well so far, and he hoped his small carelessness now would not spiral things out of control. He bypassed the hostess and went straight to Mercy's table, sliding into the seat across from her.
"Ooh." Nate reached across and wrapped his fingers around the stem of her Sangria glass. "Did you order one for me?"
"Nope," Mercy replied, reaching forward to pluck her glass back as she swapped her phone to her other hand. It went down on the table, screen up, which quickly faded to black via her lack of attention. She brought it to her mouth, a long, slow sip to rub the fact of his want in his face. He frowned, almost cartoonishly. "I don't know what planet you're from, but here we don't reward tardiness. But I have wasabi shrimp rolls coming, and you can order a glass yourself." She switched legs, her foot now vibrating against one leg of the table, making it quietly bounce with each strike.
"I bet you don't keep your parishioners waiting, huh?" Mercy winced as she couldn't stop herself from the snide comment, and she bit her tongue the moment the words were in the air. Between a sibling viewing of the Fox TV show The Exorcist and Nate's own poorly made chili dinner a few nights later, they'd been doing all right so far living in much closer quarters than they had in years. Mercy knew she'd have to push herself harder to not fall into old habits. "It doesn't matter. Sorry. I was distracted, I didn't think to order you one. But I think the waitress should be right back; I got a raspberry one, you can try it?" Her hand extended, holding the wine glass out to him. "I think they have a couple different flavors."
"Raspberry sounds good," he said, accepting the glass as the peace offering it was. Then, true to sibling form, he took far more than a simple taste. He handed the nearly-empty glass back to her, grinning impishly. Such taunts were far easier than addressing her barbs; Mercy made an irritated noise as she accepted her glass back, but, perhaps wisely, made no comment. "Yeah, I'll definitely get one of those. Probably go really well with wasabi shrimp rolls. And that spicy fish, which is really calling my name…"
He cast a glance over the restaurant as though he wasn't laser focused on his sister. He felt the table vibrating with each of her impatient little motions. "So… what's this about?" he asked gesturing down to the jittering table. "You OK?" He quirked a brow. "Taking your meds?"
"Huh?" Mercy instantly put her foot to the floor, allowing the table to go silent. "Of course I am, Nathaniel," she retorted, setting the glass back down next to her plate. "It's not something you have to be worried about." Immediately one hand started drumming on the table, right next to her phone. She picked the hand up, sliding it into her loose-falling hair. Nate found himself watching her every motion, his eyes darting from her face to her busy hands and back again.
"I take it you read the menu before showing up, then?" She grinned, reaching forward to shove the menu laid over his plate in his direction. "I thought this place might be too spicy for you. It's definitely going to be loads better than your chili, but then again, that's setting the bar pretty low." The teasing, initially meant to be gentle, came out a little harsher than intended. Mercy settled her chin into her hand again, leaning into her brother's presence like a magnet.
"Listen, now," Nate said, "that chili was good. Sure, OK, maybe not the best it could've been, but it's a work in progress. Cut me some slack."
He picked up the menu and gave it a cursory glance. "Yeah, I looked it up on Yelp on the drive over. I like fish, and I like spicy, and that got a lot of comments on their page, so…" He shrugged, setting the menu down again. He watched her nervous motions for a minute, in his concern perhaps reading too much in each twitchy gesture. To his credit he tried to keep the conversation light, at least for the moment. "Seems like a good idea. What are you getting? And can I have a couple bites, just, you know, to see."
Mercy groaned softly, indulgently, as she teasingly rolled her eyes to the ceiling. She flipped the menu open to the second page inside, pointing to a picture. "Gan guo," she read out, turning the menu so he could browse just what was in the mysterious dish. "Chicken, probably, because beef is just kinda... ew, plus some broccoli and other stuff. And yes, you can have a bite, but just so I can get a piece of yours," she returned, jerking the menu back with a sudden movement that sent her water glass flying. She swore, scrambling to pick the glass up; two waiters descended on the table, one with a towel in hand to start mopping up the spill.
"Sorry, sorry," she mumbled, using her own napkin even as she was assured it happened more often than not. Mercy glanced at Nate, her fingers drumming on the table again as the second waiter departed, the first lingering to take their order. He feigned total ignorance, calmly watching the waitress instead.
"Two glasses of the raspberry Sangria, and I'll have the Gan guo? And what happened to my wasabi shrimp rolls?"
"They'll be right out, ma'am, we're just a little backed up in the kitchen right now. And for you, sir?" The waitress turned a beaming smile at Nate.
Nate hoped his answering smile was bright enough to make up for his sister's irritability. He leaned forward, elbows on the still-damp table. "The fish in spicy sauce," he said, "and a cup with a lid for her." He tipped his head toward Mercy and the pair of them could not resist a conspiratorial laugh; Mercy grimaced, sitting back in her chair. The waitress, menus in hand, wisely walked away before his comment spurred a response.
"OK." Hands resting on the table before him, he laced his fingers together; a patient, actively listening sort of posture, one reserved for parishioners and siblings alike. "So what's going on, Mercy? You seem a little… I dunno. Something. Today."
"Nothing is going on, Nate; do you always have to suspect me of something?" She leaned forward again, her napkin between worrying fingers that plucked and pulled at it seemingly without her notice. She abruptly changed the subject in an effort to dissuade his questions. It was excellent timing: His mouth was already open, fixed and ready to answer her hypothetical question."
"So, you got a mask too, right? I mean, nice of the place to welcome us to the building," Mercy commented, rolling her shoulders as she arched a brow in her brother's direction. "But a sugar skull mask, just...yeesh. You'd think someone would learn it's not OK to commercialize another culture's holidays. It's not just Mexican Halloween."
"Oh, I didn't think mine was a sugar skull, really." He shook his head, teeth crunching on an ice cube. "Did you? I don't know… I just thought it was a nice little welcome gift. Just a plain ol' skull like at Mardis Gras or Carnival. And a party, that's nice. Reminds me of the block parties back home." He tipped his chin toward her. "Are you going? To the party, I mean. Might be a good way to meet a few more neighbors. I've already tried mine on. I'm thinking a black suit and a gold tie with it…"
Their Sangria arrived, two transparent glasses holding dark red liquid, ice, and oranges deposited in front of their plates. With it came the wasabi shrimp rolls, two of which Mercy quickly and greedily helped onto her own plate. She offered their waitress a grateful smile as the woman turned away to return to her other duties.
"Ugh, maybe," she replied, wrinkling her nose a little. "It depends on work that day. No one takes time off to not die around my birthday, you know." Mercy grimaced, her mouth tightening. She sipped her Sangria and then took a bite of the shrimp roll, her throat expelling a generous sound to imply her approval.
"Definitely have one," she added, semi-gently brushing the appetizer plate toward Nate; it struck his wine glass, but not more than enough to make it shiver.
He reached for one before she could push the plate again. "Take the time off anyway," he said, his free hand reaching for his disturbed glass. He took a sip, nodded appreciatively, and set it aside—this time a little farther from her. He took a sizable bite from the roll and returned to talking even as he chewed. "At least for a couple hours. You never know, you might drum up some business at an event like that. And it'd give you a real reason to wear some of that gothy shit you love so much."
Mercy made a face, but—for once—didn't rise to his bait.
"Are you trying to imply someone's going to die inside our new apartment complex, Nate? And here I thought I was the dark one." She took another bite of roll, at least having the grace to chew and swallow unlike some before speaking again. "I don't know, maybe I want to have fun on my birthday for once, and not have to think about work for just a couple of hours. Not everything is trying to recruit people into a cult..."
The words slipped out haphazardly, and she attempted a sloppy job to cover them up. "Also, I don't need an excuse to wear my gothy shit. I don't know if you noticed, but I wear it all the time," she replied, a hand waving down to the lacy, black dress she was wearing; it matched the black eyeliner and lipstick on her face, along with the shoes that were currently hidden beneath the table.
Nate rolled his eyes and polished off the rest of his roll. "OK," he conceded, "an excuse to wear it and look like you actually fit in somewhere."
Some small part of him regretted the words as soon as they were spoken. The larger part of him did not, still stung as he was by her snide remarks on his faith. When he thought longer on it, he realized the only part of this that surprised him was that they had lasted so long before trading barbs. "Whatever. Have fun on your birthday, then. Dress up and come get some free food and drinks. It'll be nice, and it really won't kill you to make a little effort."
Mercy's eyes went wide, her hurt visible in every line of her face. She glanced down as the server arrived with their food, the smile on her face either undetecting the dramatic dip in the mood of the table or a simple attempt at pretending nothing was amiss. Mercy remained leaned back in her chair until the woman was gone (though not after wishing them a good meal); she pushed back and excused herself for the bathroom.
She made a quick beeline for the bathroom, skirting around other waiters and accidentally shoulder checking another patron, to whom she did not apologize; and then she was gone, without glancing back to see if her departure had any effect on her brother. A moment turned into a handful of minutes, her hot plate of food steaming across the table from Nate.
At first he waited, picking carefully at his food, his appetite almost entirely gone. He finished his Sangria. He sipped at his water. And when his sister had still not returned, Nate rose from the table and made his way to the restrooms. Her mood had been no more off than it had ever been, but he could not help but replay the last moments of their conversation in his mind. He had been harsh, he knew; he had wounded her at least as much as she had done him. He drew a deep breath, exhaling on a sigh, and rehearsed in his head the words he hoped would gain her forgiveness.
He rapped at the bathroom door, leaning in as he quietly called her name again.
"I'm sorry, Mercy. OK? Just come out here and we can talk."
An annoyed sigh answered his calls, and a moment later Mercy's face—red-tinged around the eyes— peered through the slightly open door of the women's restroom.
"Can't let anything go, can you?" She murmured, absolving herself of the fact that she'd started the small fight to begin with. A paper towel in one hand came up to dab at her eyes, and she finally made her way out into the hallway. "I was coming back to the table, you know." Even with her comments, she gravitated toward him, even in some small increment pleased that she'd managed to get him to chase after her. She passed the paper towel into her other hand, and reached for his own, entwining their fingers.
"Let's just... I promise to be civil if you do, OK?" She tugged him toward the exit and back to their table, intent on finishing the afternoon with some semblance of peace. It seemed almost as though it would be, with them halfway through a room of seated diners working their way through their own plates. Waiters streamed around them, one man smiling at Mercy as he let her pass while holding a jug of ice water. Mercy started to, but then stopped; a hand went to her face, the other caught up with Nate's holding his fingers tighter.
The waiter who had been stopped in his own tracks looked at her with puzzlement, leaning forward a little.
"Miss? Are you—"
"I can't see," Mercy muttered, feeling her face. "Nate, I can't see, I can't see." She started to stoop toward the ground a little, the diners at the tables closest to them going silent as Mercy patted over her face and down her front. "My eyes?"
"Your—" Nate closed his mouth with an audible snap. He cursed himself for even glancing at the floor, at once knowing this incident for what it was. They had a long conversation ahead of them, provided he could get her safely home. "You're OK, Mercy. She's OK." He looked up to the waiter, waving him away from them. "She's OK. Just get the check and some boxes."
The waiter darted off to comply, his earlier tasks forgotten. Nate slipped his arm around Mercy and gently guided her up to stand. "I'm gonna walk you to the table. Just move slow. One foot at a time." He lowered his voice, earnestly afraid someone would overhear. Every healthy pair of eyes in the restaurant was upon them, and he keenly felt each one. "Your eyes are fine. Just stay calm and I'm gonna get you out of here."
"No, no, they're not... my eyes, Nate, they fell out," she cried, refusing to be moved. "We have to find them, they're on the floor." She tried to kneel down, visibly sobbing from eyes that were still very much embedded in her head. "Nate, I'm bleeding, I can feel it," she added. She groped downward, reaching out and brushing a table. A woman seated there pushed herself back, standing up as she glanced from the evolving scene to a nearby restaurant employee.
A manager in a black shirt wearing a headset appeared, glancing from Nate to Mercy and back again.
"Sir, is there... How can we help?" The man clearly wanted to get whatever was happening here dealt with and removed before it upset more diners from their meals. "Do we need an ambulance? Should we call 911?"
"No," Nate snapped. "No. Just… here." Nate rose from the floor, grabbing his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans. He pulled a couple of bills from within it and shoved them at the manager. "Just settle the bill and let me get her home."
He let go of the bills before the manager had fully wrapped his hands around them. He had overpaid by a great deal; he cared very little. The man started grabbing at the green pieces of paper wafting through the air, and waved for the rest of his staff to focus on the remaining diners. Immediately he knelt back beside Mercy again, his arm around her shoulders, his hand on her arm. His voice fell again, a whisper directly into her ear. "Mercy listen to me. It's just an episode. It's gonna pass. Just… get up with me. OK? I've got you."
She nodded, her wide, unfocused eyes searching for some point of contact that wouldn't come. Her hands moved to his shirt, clutching thick handfuls of cloth to ground herself; slowly, she let herself be led from the restaurant, out the front door just as a deep, creeping sensation of embarrassment began to settle in.
Once they were back outside, Mercy loosed her grip on Nate's shirt, her eyes blinking in the midday sun. Her hands went back to her face, coming away clean aside from the moisture from a few tears. She blinked, the reality of Nate's earlier words settling in hard and fast. She looked at her brother, her shoulders slightly rising in a defensive posture as she feared the reprimand to come.
"Nate, I can, I can explain—"
He sounded more tired than anything, but that did nothing to lessen the sting of his words. He took her hand and led her to his car. He kept his dark eyes on her as he helped her into the passenger's seat, as though concerned another episode might follow closely on the heels of this one. He helped her with her seatbelt, and this was where Mercy's patience snapped; she slapped his hands away, doing her own buckle, just before crossing her arms over her chest. It was all she could do to keep a pout off of her face. After a few moments, once the car was moving, fingers went to her face to draw lines around her eyes, pads catching up teardrops. He said nothing until they had turned onto the road, and were safely headed for home.
"How long have you been off your meds?"
"A month." Hearing it out loud seemed so much worse than simply thinking it. She thought she'd been doing so well; she'd had energy, she'd been getting things done. Now that she thought back on it, there were more cautions to slow down, that things didn't need to be rushed, that it was all right to be a little more patient.
"It made me feel fat, OK? And stupid. Just... I don't understand why I have to feel like a zombie to get everyone's stamp of approval." She leaned back in her seat, staring out the window away from Nate.
"So you'd rather feel like your fucking eyes are falling out? Jesus, Mercy." Nate gripped the steering wheel so tight his knuckles ached. "Get back on the meds. I'll start working out with you. There's a gym in Pax, right? So we'll do that, and you'll feel better, you won't feel fat or stupid, and you won't freak out and scare the shit out of us both."
He cut his eyes over to her, staring her down as best he could while still safely driving. The stop-and-go of traffic made it a relatively easy proposition. "If you need to get your meds adjusted, fine. We can talk about that. But what we're not gonna do is act like this cold turkey shit is working for you. Because it is obviously not."
"You don't know—" Mercy started, pulling her gaze away from the window to pin it directly on Nate, stopping herself before the thought was fully formed. She huffed, folding her arms over her chest once more as she attempted a foreign concept called 'thinking before speaking.' "Just for your information, brother dearest, that was the first time anything that weird happened, OK? And how do you know it wasn't... I don't know, some kind of side effect of just going off the meds, like... a little too fast?" She frowned. He was vigorously rolling his eyes, though he could not be sure she had seen him. "And I don't want to work out, you know I hate getting all sweaty..."
She slid a little further into her seat, looking sulky. Then she arched one brow. "Unless you'd do Zumba with me."
"Zumba?" He clicked his tongue, shaking his head. "I'm trying to meet women my age, not forty-something soccer moms…" He stared firmly out the windscreen for a few seconds more, feigning an indifference he did not truly feel. But concern for her won out in short order, and he caught himself glancing over to her once again. "You're really gonna make me do this, aren't you. Does it have to be Zumba? Can't it be, like, Crossfit or P90X or something a little more manly?"
Mercy grinned, wide and toothy and just a tinge of maliciousness worked in for a particular cocktail that screamed danger, and shook her head.
"Crossfit is a—" cult, she'd almost added, though she had enough awareness to skirt that particular topic, considering what it had led to before. "Zumba is fun, Nate, it's dancing. How can anyone hate dancing? Besides, if you're going to work out with me that means you have to pay attention to me, and that means you won't have time for other women, forty something or soccer mom or whatever. So you really put yourself between a rock and a hard place allllll on your own." Her arms unthreaded, a hand reaching out to squeeze his shoulder. His posture softened at this; as ever, he found it impossible to deny her for long.
"We can practice at your apartment, first, so you don't look like a complete idiot on the first day of class, how about that? Only peace offering I can manage."
"I really cannot believe you," he muttered. He was silent for a moment. Then, grudgingly: "Fine." He looked back to her, pointing with an outstretched index finger. "But only as long as you keep taking your meds. You come off of them for one day, I jump off the Zumba train. Those are my terms, and they are non-negotiable."
His hands returned to the steering wheel. His dark muttering continued. "Think I'm gonna look like an idiot. I can dance. Rude as hell, that's what you are…"
Mercy only grinned wider, her mouth seemingly taking up the rest of her face. Having to continue taking her meds was a small price to pay to watch her brother make a fool of himself in front of a whole room full of people—she pulled her hand back to her lap, settling into her chair. Her grin fizzled a little as she thought back to the hallucination she'd suffered in the restaurant; it was something completely new, and it would be awhile before the thought didn't send a shiver down her spine.