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Every friendship has to start somewhere, and there was a time in the early years when Brian and Nick weren't buddies - in fact, not even close. A story inspired by one sleepless night, and a peek into how the endearing friendship of "Frick and Frack" may have begun, long ago on a lonely night in New York City.
It must have been around midnight when I first heard the sound – a weak cry, pricking the darkness with fear and drawing me up into a drowsy soup of half-wakefulness. I knew I couldn’t have been asleep long; the world around me was hazy, detached; exhaustion still lay heavy in my bones, and very little mattered to me outside of the delicious comfort of my bed. Since the noise was gone before I could even begin to grasp what it was, I shrugged it off and sank deeply, blissfully, into sleep’s embrace. Probably just part of a dream anyway, I reasoned as coherent thought faded. Just a dream…
But it was exactly ten minutes past midnight when I opened my eyes to reality again, lured this time by a voice that was edgy and frightened and undeniably real.
I scowled and burrowed a bit deeper into the sheets, gathering scraps of sleep into my arms. Of course, it didn’t matter that I was eighteen and hardly a baby-sitter. Of course, it wasn’t enough that I already had to deal with this kid attached to my leg every waking moment of every day. Now, thanks to Kevin’s insistence I had to share a room with him too, and of course he would want to have a conversation in the middle of the night.
Mattress springs squeaked abruptly, and when he spoke again his voice was edged with fear. “Brian? You’re not asleep, are you?”
Didn’t I wish.
“What?” I muttered into the pillow, and none too kindly either.
“I can’t sleep.”
“Try.” Darkness beckoned. I followed.
“Brian? Brian, don’t!” he yelped, startling me from any hope of rest; startling me straight back into the tiny New York City hotel room we shared, where Nick sat wide-eyed on the bed next to mine and watery light spilled across the thin carpet from where the bathroom door stood ajar.
“Nick, what?” I groaned, shifting and squinting over at the clock. I caught a glimpse of a twelve and a ten in blurred red, the numbers swimming in front of my eyes.
“Stay awake, okay?”
“Mmph.” Sleep lapped at my consciousness.
“Brian, don’t fall back asleep. Brian, please?”
I would’ve ignored him – I did more often than not anyhow – but something in that worried little voice drew me back. And I cursed, viciously, in my head before flopping onto my back and glaring up into the darkness. “Why not?”
He paused, no doubt recoiling from my annoyance. “Why not, Nick?” I persisted. “Are you scared or something?”
Darkness moved against darkness, sharply, and I realized that he was sitting straight up in bed and now backing fiercely towards the headboard. “You snore.”
My jaw dropped, and sleep fled my sudden indignation. “What?”
“You heard me. You sound like a dump truck.”
“I do not.”
“I don’t snore!”
“Nick, listen, it’s…” I had to check again. “It’s after midnight, okay? We only got in an hour ago and we’ve got to get up pretty early tomorrow too, so why don’t you just—”
“Yes, we do.”
“We have to be up in less than five hours, Nick!”
“It’s today,” he replied coolly. “We don’t have to get up tomorrow, Brian, we have to get up today. It’s after midnight.”
I ground my teeth into my lower lip. “Don’t I know it. Go to sleep.”
“Do you want me to call your mother?” I demanded, reaching over to grope blindly for the phone. Such threats were normally more than sufficient to snap Nick back into line. “I will.”
I struck the clock with my wrist, nearly knocking it to the floor, and gave up on my search. It wasn’t as if Nick could see me, and besides, I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d intended to do with the phone once I found it anyway. “Because you promised her that you wouldn’t cause any trouble during this trip. You remember that?”
“I’m not causing trouble.”
“What do you call this?”
“We’re just talking,” he replied softly.
“We can talk in the morning. I’m exhausted, I need to sleep, and so do you.”
“But I can’t.”
I threw an arm over my eyes. My cousin was going to pay, and pay dearly for this. “Stop acting like an idiot,” I said distractedly, envisioning a variety of embarrassing ways to express my displeasure to Kevin. “Just close your eyes and relax.”
“Don’t call me stupid,” he whispered woundedly.
“I didn’t call you stupid!”
“Yes you did.”
I clenched the sheets in my fists; prayed for strength. “Nick…”
“You never have trouble going to sleep,” he sighed, and when I looked back at him again I could just see his silhouette, leaning back against the headboard, knees drawn up to his chest beneath the blanket. “It must be nice.”
“Everybody has trouble sometimes.”
I shifted and pressed my face into the cool pillow. “Right now,” I mumbled.
He sighed shakily, and I lifted my head up, peering at him with a narrowed gaze. “Have you slept at all?”
“I thought you always slept like a rock. Did you have a nightmare?”
The air conditioner kicked on, filling the room with an underscore of low sound.
“If you’re asleep right now, then by God I’m going to sleep too,” I threatened.
“No,” he huffed.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Nick,” I said, propping myself up on one elbow. “Talk.”
He sighed. “You fell asleep.”
“Yeah, well… we went to bed, Nick. Sleep is what you’re supposed to do.”
He was silent for a moment, then slumped down in the sheets, burying himself under the blankets. “Never mind,” he said, voice muffled and flat and quite effectively ending our conversation.
I stared openly for a moment, then muttered a handful of choice words under my breath before allowing my elbow to cave underneath me, tugging the scratchy blanket up over my shoulders and trying to get comfortable once again. Sleep was shying away from me now, of course, and after a fit of restlessness I ended up on my back, staring up into the black spot where I knew the ceiling was. My mind was wide-open and empty, waiting for sleep to creep close enough to where I could leap upon it and wrestle it to the ground, but instead of sleep inching into my trap…
…memories of a day just past, vivid against the backdrop of black.
Sitting in the backseat of a taxi, staring absently out the window at the brilliance and bustle of downtown New York, locals in power suits holding court with the street vendor and tourist, all of them nimbly dashing through cars and past one another, moving, moving, to who knew where. The dance became hypnotic after a while, and that, coupled with the jetlag I still hadn’t quite managed to shake, drew me into a pleasant stupor that would have quickly led to sleep had Kevin not nudged me in the ribs. “Brian. Do me a favor.”
“What?” I didn’t bother to open my eyes.
“Room with Nicky tonight, would you?”
“Huh?” Full attention now captured, I turned and saw Kevin favoring me with a reassuring, even knowing smile. “What for? I thought you told his mom you would do it.”
“I promised her we would look after him,” he shrugged. “But I think you should share with him.”
“No way,” I grumbled, pushing my shoulder hard into the door and resting my cheek flush against the glass. “Thanks but no thanks.”
I could feel his heavy scowl; my skin crawled where it touched me. “Nice attitude.”
“Kev, he never leaves me alone as it is.”
“Ever wonder why?”
“I’m too tired to care.”
“He adores you.”
“He does not. I’m just the only one that’ll put up with him.”
“Brian,” he sighed. “You’re the only one he wants to be around. You’re his hero.”
I blinked. “What?”
“You’re his hero,” Kevin said again.
He ignored my incredulity. “It would really mean the world to him if you'd do it, Brian. He would love it.”
“But I wouldn’t.” I didn’t bother to open my eyes, knowing I sounded like a jerk but not caring all that much. This was my sanity we were discussing, after all. “I’ve got to have a break from him sometime.”
“Is it that much of a burden to have him around?”
“No,” I groaned. “No, no; Kevin, I like Nick. That’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
I turned around to look at him then; saw the calm, steady beat he tapped out against the backpack that rested in his lap. I had words, sure, but they withered under Kevin’s quiet gaze. “…I don’t know.”
“Brian, you know he would do anything for you. Won’t you do this for him?”
“Good.” He smiled, a wink of triumph in the corner of his mouth.
“You’ll have to room with A.J. and Howie, you know.”
“I know. I just want Nick to have somebody he likes close to him tonight. He’s just a kid, Brian; it’s hard to be so far away from home.”
“He likes you well enough.”
“I think he’s still a little scared of me,” Kevin admitted.
“Aren’t we all.”
He laughed, and I promptly forgot the conversation until hours later in the hotel lobby, holding my room card in one hand and my suitcase in the other; hearing a sudden shriek of excitement behind me, and knowing without looking that Kevin had just told Nick who his roomie was for the night. My suspicions were confirmed moments later when a whirl of blond hair crashed into me and fell laughing at my feet, his shoelaces untied and drawing pads spilling out of his backpack. The grin on his face was rivaled only by the merry ones that Kevin and the others wore, watching from a short distance away.
And at the time, as I dug for a smile myself and tried so hard not to resent the disheveled figure on the floor in front of me, I had been sure that I detected hints of relief in my friends' smiles. Relief that it was my waist Nick’s wiry arms had wrapped themselves around, and not theirs; that I was the designated babysitter, and not them; that Nick was one burden they wouldn’t have to bear.
But was it true?
Nah, not really. They were happy because they liked seeing Nick happy. He was just a kid, after all.
A kid who thought of me as his hero.
Guilt trapped me between its paws and began gnawing at the side of my head. “Nick,” I groaned. “Nick.”
When he didn’t reply, I sat up, pulling the blanket with me. Surely after all this, he hadn’t fallen asleep. “Nicky?”
“What?” he snapped, voice muffled beneath the layer of covers.
“Tell me what’s bothering you.”
After a moment, he spoke. “You fell asleep,” he whispered. “And… when I woke up I was alone.”
“You weren’t alone,” I protested, keeping my gaze fixed on him. My eyes had adjusted to the dark, and I could see Nick curled up on his side, just about as tight as a person could get. “I was always here.”
“You were asleep.”
“I was here, though.”
“Not really.” He shifted, a miserable lump under the covers. “You didn’t answer me, and I thought I was alone. You said you would stay awake.”
“No I didn’t,” I replied automatically, and when he didn’t respond my brain batted that thought around a little. Had I? Maybe… it was possible that somewhere in the endless stream of chatter that came out of Nick’s mouth during the course of a day, I’d agreed to stay up. I never really listened to a lot of what Nick said anyway.
Guilt dug its teeth in just a little deeper at that.
“Was it a bad dream, Nick? Is that what woke you up?”
Could he sound more pathetic? My heart twisted. “Nick… I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry I wouldn’t let you sleep. And you don’t snore; I made that up,” he whispered. His voice had thickened with a threat of tears.
I wanted to sigh but I didn’t; instead, I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood, pulling the covers along with me. After looking down at Nick for a moment, I turned and sank to the floor, bracing my back against his mattress. “It’s okay, buddy. Just relax. I’m right here; I’m not going anyplace.”
“Down on the floor?”
“Yeah.” If there was a better option, I couldn’t think of it. “I won’t go to sleep.”
I heard him emerging from beneath his blanket, and turned my head slightly to see him better. He tugged one pillow beneath his head and another to his chest, then lay there and just watched me.
I guess he had every right to be suspicious. “You want to talk?”
“Okay.” I shifted back a little, leaning my head back. His knee promptly connected with the back of my skull. “Ouch, Nick.”
“Don’t go to sleep.”
“Promise this time?”
“What if you do anyway?”
“If you do, can I get my markers and draw on your face?”
I closed my eyes. “Like I said… I won’t.”
The silence between us was comfortable, and as beautiful as sleep really would have been, I pushed it away and reached up to toy with the edge of his blanket. “Dreams can be scary sometimes, you know.”
“Do… did you ever have bad ones?”
“I don’t know… I usually don’t remember them at all. For a long time I thought I didn’t even dream.”
“But you do.”
“We all do.”
“I wish I couldn’t remember mine.”
“Usually dreams are good. You want to remember the good ones.”
“Mine wasn’t good,” he sighed. “It was dark. And I was by myself; there was nobody at all.”
“Kinda like when you woke up, huh?” I asked quietly. “Someplace weird, with your family far away?”
He made a noncommittal sound.
I sought his eyes again. “Do you feel safe with me?”
“Then go to sleep,” I said gently. “I told you, I’ll be here. Trust me.”
“I’m not tired now, though.”
“You are. I can tell.”
“I can, Nicky.”
“Can not infinity.”
“Can too infinity plus one,” I fired back, and blew a raspberry as an afterthought.
He hid his face in the pillow, but I saw the hint of a smile crinkling his eyes. “Go to sleep,” I whispered.
“You’ll stay awake?”
He reached out and captured my hand in the dark, linking his fingers with mine. I could almost feel the tension draining from his body. “Someday I’ll put you in one of my comic books,” he said, voice slurred with sleep. “You can be a superhero like me if you want.”
“You’ll have to think up your own name, though.”
“I’ll do that.”
I squeezed his limp hand. This was going to be one long night.
But this was what heroes did, right?
“Sleep, Nicky. I’ll be here.”
His smile was sleepy, but genuine.
So was mine.