Once Ellis had finished drying his coveralls and shirt– which he had been painstakingly careful to not shrink the ridiculous logo on, the gambler noticed– the mechanic took the device next door for Rochelle and Coach's use. In the brief period of the younger man's absence, Nick took the opportunity to relieve himself in the sink, considering the motel didn't have running water and the toilet was non-operational. His urine was fairly yellow; despite how much water had been pouring down around them, he hadn't had put much down his gullet that day. He hmm'd as he tucked himself back into his boxers.
The door squeaked on its hinges as Ellis stepped back inside the room. The kid must have been on about the same damn track as he was, because he was now holding the six-pack of Budweiser Nick had picked up at the dealership, along with the lockbox.
Nick chuckled. "What are you doing with those?"
The southerner shrugged, a grin tugging across his plump lips. "Figured I'd crack open a cold one."
He laughed a little harder. "You can't really call them 'cold one's if they aren't cold, ace," he pointed out.
Ellis stuck his tongue out at him, sitting down on the bed and quickly kicking off the boots he had put on to go over. "A'right, m'gonna crack open a room-temperature one," he amended as he lost his coveralls as well. Nick watched with interest as Ellis lounged back onto the headboard, removing one of the cans from the plastic rings. He held it out with his tattooed arm. "Ya want one?" he offered.
When it came to alcohol, Nick had never much been one for beer. He lifted a sleek eyebrow, but took the invitation. "Why the hell not," he reasoned, striding forward to accept the can. After all, last time he'd turned down the younger man's offer to share his beverages, way back in Yulee; he'd be remiss to do so again, especially now that they were somewhere safe and not out on the road. He sat down next to the kid, putting his back against the wooden head of the bed before pulling the tab in his fingers. The can gave its signature pssht! as the gas within was released, and Ellis' sounded beside him as the mechanic followed suit.
The gambler lifted the aluminum rim to his lips, taking a couple large swigs to start off before he tilted it away again. His expression soured slightly at the aftertaste. "Ugh," he commented, "this piss-water doesn't taste any better in a can." His taste buds could pick up on the very slight metallic flavor that wouldn't be there had it been bottled instead.
The southerner snorted a laugh. "Tastes fine tuh me," he said as he drank deeply, adam's apple bobbing in his throat.
Nick purred under his breath as he watched him throw the beverage back. In his head, he evaluated the situation. Two men, chilling in their underwear, consuming alcohol together. How could this possibly go wrong?
Or rather... how couldn't it go right?
He shook his head, casting the thought from his mind.
"So, were ya gonna open this, or what?" Ellis asked, nudging the lockbox with his foot.
The conman frowned at it. "Yeah, I guess I could try," he said as he leaned forward to heft it up. He turned it around in his hands a couple times– the hinges of course were all on the inside, the only way to get into it would be to pop the key lock. "Where'd you put that screwdriver?" he asked.
Ellis made a noise, as his lips were currently attached to his drink. He motioned with his other hand at the television set. Nick stood up to go fetch it, sipping his drink and setting it aside for now on the nightstand.
The mechanic watched with keen interest as Nick began toying with the slit meant for the key. He angled the flathead, twisting at almost imperceivably different depths, feeling for the small amount of give that rotated parts of the mechanism at a time. His lips turned downward at the corners; the damn thing was actually being a little obstinate, resisting his adjustments. He paused to take another drink before resuming.
A few more little clicks and turns and the box finally sprung open.
"I ain't got a clue how ya do that," Ellis shook his head with slight awe. "Ya must have magic fingers, man. Little bit of finaglin' an'…" he snapped his middle and thumb. The southerner tipped his head way back to drain the rest of the beer from his can before crushing the aluminum in his hand. He tossed it into the waste bin and yanked a second free from the remaining four.
Nick chuckled and lifted the lid. The first thing that met him was several newspaper clippings, some cut neatly, others haphazardly out of the flimsy newsprint. An eyebrow lifted on his head as he rummaged through them quickly– most were recent stories, detailing attacks and disappearances, or suggested 'survival' preparations, though nothing was more than two months old as the printed dates gave away. Nick scoffed sarcastically as his fingers idled on a particular headline that read: 'What the Coming Zombie Invasion Means and What You Can Do To Protect Your Family'.
"Some good reading material this guy has," Nick commented.
Ellis leaned over his shoulder, blue eyes flickering across the many scattered cut-outs. He picked a different one up, reading from it. "'Life in the Apocalypse: 100 Things You Need to Know'." He frowned. "Man, all'a this sounds like some real bullshit."
"Yeah, and he bought into it, hook line and sinker," the gambler mumbled, pushing the rest of them aside. Underneath it was a polaroid of a woman, which hadn't been taken at a terribly flattering angle, nor was the lighting much good. But the depicted woman was smiling a gap-toothed grin and rooting for some sports team or another from the looks of her numbered jersey. The name 'Martha' had been scribbled in pencil on the bottom margin.
"Wife, ya reckon?" Ellis said a little sadly.
Nick grunted, remorse starting to creep up on him. "Yeah, probably." He set it aside and went for the next thing, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, was one of the CEDA-issued postcards. The mechanic fidgeted noticeably beside him as he lifted it from the lockbox. There was a young man and woman on the front with several young children, but the conman didn't let his gaze linger on the people as he flipped it over to read from the back. 'Pa, I hope you're not planning to do something crazy and hold out with Ma. Zombies will kill you dead. GET TO EVAC. See you soon.' Well, as it turned out, zombies hadn't 'killed him dead', Nick had been the one to do that instead. His gut churned; he chose to reach for his beer and chug the feeling down.
"Guess he wasn't such a good listener, huh…?" the southerner commented, rubbing at his muscular bicep.
The gambler found the bottom of his beverage too soon and grabbed for another. "Idiot is what he was," Nick muttered, casting the piece of mail away irritably as he clicked open the pop-top. His mouth quirked quizzically at the small sheet of Christmas-themed wrapping paper staring up at him, decorated with pine trees and snowmen, but when he lifted it, he finally came upon what he had been expecting to come upon all this time.
A whole shit-ton of bundled bills.
Nick began to shuffle through them with his thumb; they looked to be properly accounted for, secured by the proper ABA currency straps and everything. There were a couple $10,000 stacks of Benjamins and several $2,000 stacks of Jacksons, accounting for over thirty-two thousand dollars in total, as a few bills floated around loose in the bottom of the box.
The gambler sat back. Wow. He'd had his hands on more a few times in his line of work as a croupier in Vegas, of course, but still. Damn. The guy must have been really making bank with his little impromptu gasoline scam. Too bad none of it meant anything any more.
Ellis' eyes looked nearly ready to pop out of his skull at the wads of cash. "What was he hopin' tuh do with it, I wonder?"
Nick chuckled. "Well, what would you do with it?" he asked offhandedly as he began to stack everything back inside the lockbox the way it had been arranged originally, though a little more neatly.
"Oh, tha's easy," the younger male responded, shaking his head before taking a swig out of his beer can.
He paused, looking back at him as he shut the lid; he was honestly pretty curious about the southerner's answer to the question. A new truck? Backstage passes to a Midnight Riders concert? Several new tattoos? "Well… what?"
Ellis settled back, scratching the scruff protruding from his chin. "Put it in Emma's college fund." He motioned at the box. "Reckon that would'a doubled what I had in there, easy."
"Wait, you were saving up for your sister?" he said with some slight incredulity.
The mechanic blushed and wrung at the back of his neck. "Yeah, I was. Put a little in e'ery paycheck. Figured eventually it might amount tuh somethin'. Y'know, by the time she was eighteen an' lookin' at art school." He shrugged his shoulders; Nick let him continue, sipping his drink in place of speaking. "She didn't know about it though– none'a mah family did. Was s'posed tuh be a surprise fer her… y'know, tha' she actually could go an' all. Cuz she figured she couldn't, tha' she'd be startin' work jus' like the rest'a us, movin' out an' all." He paused; the blue eyes glimmered with determination. "But I didn't want tha' for her. I wanted her tuh make more'a herself than the rest'a us were, tuh take her talent an' really soar, ya know what I mean?"
The man sat in quiet contemplation, Ellis' selflessness shining through yet again. "She must have been really good, huh?"
"Good don't even come close tuh describin' it. I wish I could show ya some'a the stuff she done. Was absolutely amazin'…" he marveled as he drank. "After school sometimes she'd walk tuh mah shop an' sketch the different cars tha' done came in in her binder. She drew lotsa other stuff too, like horses an' dogs. But man, did she ever have an eye for it, I tell ya." The mechanic issued a little sigh as he sucked the second can dry, looking a little more somber for it.
Nick lifted the remaining two, dangling them from the loose plastic rings. Ellis turned his head to the side with a chagrinned chuckle, but he recovered and plucked his third from the loops. "Thanks," he said, cracking it open to begin drinking.
The gambler nodded, looking down at the last one that was presumably his. He sipped at his current one, which he was reaching the bottom of. Thanks to his lack of anything to eat for the past several hours, he could actually feel a small amount of fuzziness invading the back of his head. It was a fairly welcome feeling, dulling out his previous compunction about shooting the assfuck at the dealership. Ellis, meanwhile, seemed to be drowning out his old recollections of his family and sister, consigning himself to the bitter liquid.
So it seemed the alcohol was serving its purpose.
A few minutes later Ellis was tossing his third can at the trashcan on the other side of the room– and he missed even more horribly the third time than he had the second. Nick meanwhile had collected his on the bedside table, standing upright, pristine and uncrumpled like trophies. The southerner sagged against his shoulder sleepily, mumbling under his breath. Nick felt himself put an arm around the broad shoulders, and without thinking about it much, his other hand settled on the mechanic's thigh, stroking it softly up and down, moving the thin fabric of the boxers with the motion. Ellis didn't seem to mind much, if at all, his calloused fingers seeking out the gap in his dress shirt so they could weave into his chest hair.
The older man's brow furrowed, but he didn't get too much time to wonder at the motivation of Ellis' chosen action as unconsciousness crept up on him and slowly swallowed him up in the darkness of his inner eyelids.