30. Nick

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Nick gathers the top of the 30 gallon black garbage bag before tying it closed and tossing it over his shoulder. It was full of scraps and needed to be dropped off on the other side of the factory floor for recycling.

He'd been working all summer at the cardboard box factory, and it is just as dull as it sounds. The pay is better than anything else he could find, though, and they are able to give him forty hours a week.

While all of his friends had spent the summer going to parties or trips to the beach, he'd spent it here, on the factory floor, and in the kitchen of DiMaggio's, where he'd worked since he was fifteen.

Working two jobs was what he had to do, though, if he was going to survive the next nine months at school. He was able to get financial aid, and some student loans. He even qualified for the student employment program. But all that money was going toward tuition. He still needed money for books, and food, and gas, and the list goes on.

There were a few weak moments over the last three months when he thought about giving up. Just saying "fuck it", and enjoy his last summer of high school. He could go to community college with the money he'd received, easily, but then he'd talk to Ian and remember why he was doing this in he first place.

Nick has one memory of his father before he died when Nick was six. He was sitting on his dad's lap in the living room of their old house, watching Illinois basketball, and cheering on the Fighting Illini. The only picture he owns of his father and him is in the bleachers of the U of I football stadium.

His dad loved U of I, Nick's mom mentioned it several times before she met Ken. Since he could remember, his plan was to go to U of I and study law. Now that he was so close, he couldn't give up.

His summer days have had one perk, though, it just happened to occur at 6 am everyday.

He was working at DiMaggio's one evening about three weeks into the summer. He was tired, and stressed, and still confused about Bailey. He was upset that she had talked to his mom, but his mom didn't seem too upset by it. What bothered him more was lying to Ian, his best friend who had done so much to help him. Not that they had technically lied, just withheld the truth.

He'd gotten no less than six food orders wrong, when Ricky, the owner, came and talked to him.

"Nick, what's up, man?"

"Nothing, boss, I'll pay more attention. Sorry," Nick said, continuing to plate piles of spaghetti.

"Alright," he said. "I'll help you, though, until we get caught up."

Nick nodded even though it wasn't question.

"You know, Nick, I've known you since I hired you to bus tables here. What was that? Two years ago?"

"Three."

"Yeah, yeah you're right, three years. Anyway, I've never seen you like this before. Everything okay at home?"

"Yep, just fine," Nick replied curtly.

"Okay, okay, you don't have to tell me." He stayed silent while the two of them worked on the ticket orders until the pile was eventually down to one or two. He began to leave the kitchen and turned around suddenly. "But do you know what always helps me when I'm stressed? Running. It would surprise you how it clears your mind, and let's you sort through all your issues."

Nick eyed Ricky's very round torso, and laughed, "You run?"

Ricky looked down and laughed too. "I'm not stressed these days."

So that's how Nick found himself setting his alarm for two hours before his shift at the factory started. He knew he needed to do something, and he was willing to try anything.

What surprised him was seeing Bailey by the front door kneeling down, tying her sneakers. She jumped when she heard. "Fuck! Nick, what are you doing up?" she asked, placing her hand on her chest, trying to steady her heart rate.

"I decided to go for a little run."

"Since when? I've been getting up all summer, and this is the first time I've seen you."

He didn't know that. He really had been distracted lately. "Today's my first day. It can help with stress, supposedly?"

She nodded. "That's why I do it too."

He wondered what she could be stressed about, and then decided to leave it alone. The constant inflow of "Bailey" into his brain was part of what had increased his stress level in the first place. 

"Do you want to go together?" Bailey asked as he passed her on the way to the door.

Ian's graduation speech regarding trust played through his mind and as much as he should say no, he couldn't. He missed her, dammit. Although he'd probably end up making a fool of himself. "I'm going to be slow, and I don't know how far I can go. I don't think I've run when someone wasn't chasing me...ever."

Bailey laughed. "I'll go easy on you."

The first day was the worst. By the time they returned home, Nick was sure he was going to vomit from exhaustion, while he would categorize Bailey as "slightly winded."

She didn't laugh, though, at least not that day. In the coming weeks, she began giving him shit just like old times, and Nick eventually realized that running did help him. Whether it because of the act itself, or the fact that it brought him and Bailey together every morning, Nick didn't know.

Some days they barely spoke to each other, and some days they decided to walk and talked for the next hour. They never discussed anything too heavy. Bailey would talk about who was at the party the night before, or Nick would complain about a rude customer at the restaurant.

And it was kind of perfect because every time they came home, someone was awake and they had no opportunity to be alone. Nick couldn't believe it, but they were actually...friends.

His feelings for her haven't diminished, in fact, they've probably gotten stronger if that was possible. But he knows she doesn't want him, and he's glad that he can be in her life in some way.

Now Nick feels the familiar ache in his chest as he remembers that summer is over. It's his last shift at the factory today. He leaves for college tomorrow.

Ian left today. He and Nick said they're goodbyes after Bailey and he had returned from their run this morning. Nick can't remember not seeing him for more than a week in the entirety of their friendship, and it's becoming clear how much he had depended on Ian this summer to get him through.

They both tried to play it off like him leaving was no big deal, but Nick wasn't exactly sure how he felt about it. They already have plans of Nick going to visit him in California over Thanksgiving, and Ian's already texted him about a drunk asshole that was sitting next to him on the plane. So it's like he's not really gone...yet.

The twins' parents went with him and are staying a couple days to make sure he gets settled in. At first Nick was excited about the idea of Bailey and he having the house to themselves tonight, but then he remembered that he works until midnight and has to leave tomorrow.  He won't even see her.

It hits him again. This is it. He's really going. The idea refuses to settle in his brain.

Nick finally reaches the end of the factory floor and tosses the garbage bag into the large dumpster positioned there.

"Hey, Mike! I'm going to take my break!" He yells to his supervisor twenty feet away.

Mike doesn't respond, however, because at that second, the world goes black.

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