When the lights came on at 6AM, like they always did, Nicky groaned. Whatever blah feeling she went to sleep with had not subsided, increasing ten-fold overnight. She barely slept, abdominal pain keeping her awake. Her guts clenched and released, a flush of heat coming over her, as she took off her blanket and rose from her bed.
Heading for the shower, toilet paper in-hand, Nicky paused, her stomach gurgling. “Ugh.”
Nicky prayed for hot water as she claimed her place in line for the Suburb bathroom.
"You're awfully quiet this morning, Nichols," CO Maxwell remarked, used to hearing the copper blonde's lustful observations and dark, crude jokes toward her fellow inmates.
"Yeah, I've been thinking about just that, taking a pause, before blurting things out, you know. Don’t tell me you miss my smart mouth.” Nicky smiled, pleased with herself.
Maxwell smirked. “Just head for the shower, Inmate.”
Stripping down made Nicky shiver; this didn’t improve, even with a lucky break of just-above-lukewarm spray that matted down her hair. She made quick work of washing before she grabbed her towel and pulled back the curtain to go to the sinks.
Something was different about Nicky today, and Red spotted it almost immediately. From behind the food line, where Norma, Gina, and Miss Claudette were serving breakfast, she could see that the young woman's sleeves were completely rolled down, unusually long. Nicky looked downright sullen, a contrast from the chatter box she was, even in the early hours. She looked up to the ceiling, stirring her oatmeal, not eating it.
“Something wrong with the gourmet slop? Sometimes, Red will sneak me a sugar packet. That always helps.”
Lorna’s question pulled Nicky out of her own head for a second, which was throbbing incessantly.
“No. No, it’s fine. It’s great,” she insisted, unconvincing to her own ears. “And don’t let Red hear that. You know better.”
“Are you sure? You really don’t look so good,” Lorna noticed, taking in her friend’s pasty complexion and uneaten meal. “Some concealer for those dark circles, a bit of blush...”
Nicky looked away from the Italian’s observant glare. “For your information, Morello, I’m just peachy. Though, I can’t say the same for the gymnastics meet that is going on in my stomach right now. Oh...” Fist to her mouth, she exhaled a belch, tasting sour acid.
“Hey, Trish. Cover for me with Luschek, will ya?” She and the younger blonde both shared work duty in Electrical.
“I owe ya one.”
Nicky took her tray and dumped its contents in the trash, turning to exit, making a beeline for the bathroom.
She found an unoccupied sink, gripping it tightly, ignoring the others still bathing and getting ready for the day.
‘Don’t puke, don’t puke.’
“You just gonna stand there, or what?” a skinny brunette wondered from behind her.
“It’s all yours,” Nicky said hurriedly, diving into the nearest stall and heaving up last night’s dinner.
‘Sorry, Red. The beef and noodles was actually decent,’ she thought regretfully as she coughed, knowing the Russian took great pride in her cooking, making do with what she had.
With no toilet paper to wipe her mouth, her sleeve did the job just as well. She sat there for a moment to make sure there wasn’t going to be a repeat performance, pushing herself up on wobbly legs, and left for her cube.
“Fuckin’ junkies, man...” Nicky heard someone scoff on her way out.
Her bed was a welcome sight, lying down and closing her eyes. Norma would be in the kitchen for awhile; breakfast was still going. Clean-up and prepping for lunch always took a couple hours, at least. The quiet was what she needed.
Nicky wasn’t sure how long she lay there, shivering, wishing she had more than a thin, prison-issued blanket to keep warm with. She turned over slightly when she heard approaching footsteps, pushing her frizzy hair out of her face.
“Taking a sick day, Nichols? Or is it the junkie jitters in disguise?” CO ‘Pornstache’ Mendez mocked, mirroring her shakes, before stepping into her cube.
Returning to her previous position, Nicky rolled her eyes, in no mood for the sadistic guard’s shit.
“Hey, I saw that! I asked you a question, Inmate!” Pornstache yelled, reaching for her side, forcing Nicky on her back.
“Whoa! Take it easy...” Any sudden movement made the room spin. She swallowed, eyes closed. “The first one, I swear.”
Mendez bent down to her ear. “I hope so, for your sake. Your Russian mommy may get wind of this, and that wouldn’t be good for you, now, would it? News travels fast around here.” He stood, chuckling.
“Rest up, Nichols. A long day ahead of us, yet.”
Grateful to be alone with her thoughts, she again faced the cinder block wall.
‘God, that fucking asshole...he thinks he has something on me.’
Nicky had been clean from heroin for the last eight months, since she arrived at Litchfield, her longest stretch of sobriety.
Galina Reznikov was the one who helped her through the withdrawals when she first arrived, keeping her mane of hair back while she threw her guts up, wiping her sweaty face, holding her when she thought she would never feel warm again.
“What I'll do to you if you use again will hurt a lot more than this.”
Nicky reminded herself of the red-haired woman's words frequently. It was all too easy to cop in minimum security. Hell, a mule was two cubes over, available any time she wanted.
“Remember what I’m saying.”
The woman from the Upper West Side was no stranger to mind-altering chemicals when Benji tied her off for the first time.
That was all she wrote. The most wonderful, warm, euphoric feeling she’d ever experienced in her twenty-one years.
She spent the next six years chasing that high, which all came crashing down when she was convicted of heroin possession and burglary.
This was the longest eight months of her life.
‘Only eighty-four to go...’
Having dozed off at some point, Nicky awoke to Norma shaking her shoulder, figuring it must be time for count before everyone went off to work. Her blockmates were going to the outside of their cubes, as the guards walked around, clicking their counters.
CO O’Neill counted herself and Norma. “Where’s Nichols?” he wondered, and quickly spotted her on her cot. “Oh, there you are. You’re a sight for sore eyes, Inmate. Don’t get up.”
“Appreciate it,” Nicky replied with a rough, sleepy voice. She lay back down and kicked off her blanket, feeling a hot flash coming on.
“Norma, I’m alright,” she protested, pushing her bunkie’s hand off of her forehead.
The largely mute woman wrote something on her notepad before showing it to Nicky.
“No, you don’t need to get Red. I’m f—”
“Did I hear my name?” Red asked as she was walking by. She paused in the threshold of the cube, looking to Norma, before her eyes settled on the ashy-faced, young woman.
“You look like shit, Nicky.”
“Way to butter me up, Ma.”
“What’s wrong?” Red felt her prison daughter’s forehead and cheek. “You’re running a fever.”
“Jesus...” A wave of nausea hit again, with Nicky closing her eyes, willing it to pass.
“More withdrawals?” Red questioned, her blue eyes squinting and accusatory.
“God, no, Red! I’m clean, I swear to you! This is just your average, garden-variety stomach bug, promise,” the New Yorker pleaded sincerely. “It’s the truth, I swear. I never wanna go through that hell again, this is bad enough.”
Red glanced at Norma, who nodded, vouching for Nicky.
“Okay. What was the last thing you ate?”
“Dinner last night. It was fine going in, delicious, even,” she interjected quickly, “it just didn’t...settle well.”
“Do you need anything?”
"Here. Water and Tylenol,” Marka announced, placing them on her nightstand.
Nicky rolled her eyes. “Gee, thanks.”
‘And a D- for effort,’ she added, in her head.
“Now, I have to get to work.”
“But, Mom, I’m sick. Can’t you stay home? I need you,” the fourteen year-old said, her feverish, doe eyes hopeful for her mother’s care and attention. She coughed harshly into her elbow.
“Nicole, don’t be dramatic,” Marka chastised, “you’re not dying.”
“What? You want me to miss a day of work to be your servant? No, thank you. That’s what Paloma was for, and you’ve long outgrown her. Sleep, you’ll be fine. I’d kiss you, but, you know how Paolo is about germs. I’ll probably be late tonight.”
With that, Marka left, leaving Nicky by herself.
“Bitch didn’t even call me off from school,” she realized aloud to the empty room, before turning over to go to sleep.
Back in the present, Nicky shook her head. “I’m good, Red. Really. Go on about your day. Read a book, stew in your angry-Russianess, whatever.”
Red smoothed Nicky’s hair. “Norma, keep an eye on her. Come get me if her fever gets worse.”
“I don’t need a babysit—and she’s gone,” Nicky sighed, looking to her cubemate. “You can go. It’s okay.”
Instead, Norma ignored her and pulled a chair over, before retrieving her book of crossword puzzles.
Resigned to the pair of eyes watching her every move, Nicky slept fitfully, her insides still churning.
Norma covered her back up when she noticed the chills returned, and the copper blonde, who was larger than life when awake, stilled, her breaths evened out.
Some two hours later, Nicky awakened with a jolt, quickly overcome with the urge to vomit. There was no way in hell she would make it to a bathroom.
The next thing she knew, someone shoved a bucket in front of her face and pushed her hair back, allowing her to expel what was left in her stomach with a shred of dignity.
"There you go, Nicky. Get it all out, honey."
It took a second for her to register the thick, Russian accent attempting to soothe her, coupled with circular motions along her back.
"Why are you here?" Nicky wondered, accepting the cold washcloth that Red was holding out, and wiping her mouth. “I’d hate to keep you from your latest plot of revenge.”
"You're sick, I'm helping," the red-haired woman replied simply.
"I didn't ask for your help," Nicky pouted.
"I saved you from tossing your cookies on the floor. You should be thanking me for helping you avoid a mess."
"Whatever," Nicky exhaled, closing her eyes, feeling lightheaded.
In the next second, her head was in the bucket again, retching, this time with nothing left to throw up. Nicky sputtered and coughed, dry-heaves shaking her.
"Son of a bitch," the ailing New Yorker breathed, swaying slightly, her energy all but spent.
"Ne lozhis’. Here. Rinse and spit," Red instructed, passing her a cup of water.
Nicky did so before returning her head to her pillow. "You don't have to do this, you know."
"I would be neglecting my duty as a mother if I didn't. You'll understand one day."
Red stroked Nicky's cheek, looking into her eyes, glazed from fever, remorse filling them.
"I don't wish that on you, being my mom. God knows I've put Marka through hell."
"That's the thing. There's nothing you could do that would drive me away. I promise you that."
"Funny, I seem to remember a 'two strikes, and you're out’ policy? Could just be the fever talking."
"You must have forgotten why you're here, Nichols. Rules are made to be broken, clearly."
“Heh,” Nicky smirked, her lips turning upward. “Right. Ugh, my head is pounding,” she conceded, forehead wrinkled in pain.
“I’d let you take something if I thought you could keep it down.”
“Definitely not possible at the moment,” Nicky agreed. Her stomach still hurt. She rolled over to her left side, more comfortable. “What time is it?”
“About eleven-thirty. I need to get back to the kitchen,” Red said quietly. Lunch was to be served soon.
“Duty calls, right?” Nicky mumbled.
“Sleep, malyshka.” The prison mom ran a comforting, supportive hand along her side, then, her own back as she stood from her chair to exit the cell block.
Nicky figured she must have slept through afternoon count, based on what she could see through the slit window across from her, the angle of the sun, and shadows. Late afternoon, if she had to guess.
“Gina said you slept like the dead.”
Nicky turned her head to the sound of Red’s voice. “You keeping tabs on me?”
“I’m not sorry for caring,” the Russian informed her in a ‘get used to it’ tone. “How are you feeling, hm?”
The copper blonde took stock of her current symptoms: tired, headache still lingering, though, less menacing, stomach pain reduced to a dull ache. “A little better, I think.”
Red checked her temperature again, knowing that such information would paint a better picture of Nicky’s recovery. “Much cooler, good.” She brushed hair out of her face.
“Is there any water?” Nicky wondered, her body like a wrung-out dishrag, devoid of fluids. Her mouth was bone dry.
Red handed her some. "Small sips, huh? Don't need to go about upsetting your stomach again."
Nicky sat up, tempted to guzzle the cup's contents in one go, though, she refrained. "I never thought water would taste so good," she remarked in relief.
"If you can handle that, later, we'll add some salt, get your electrolytes back in order."
"Just like old times, right, Red? Except, I'm only shooting fire out of one end this time. Christ, I don't know how you kept up with all of my bodily functions."
"Ah, what raising three boys prepares you for..." Red thought, chuckling.
Nothing could prepare her for the endearing crazy that was Nicky Nichols. The Russian was sure the wild-haired girl knew that she helped her open her heart again, after guarding it so carefully for so long. Their relationship was just different from others in Red’s circle; everyone could see it. The two of them proved that family was a choice.
The younger woman fidgeted with her blanket, gazing down at her fingers. "Thanks for helping me out. I know I don't say it enough."
"Nicky, you're my dochenka. I'd do it for you, or any of my girls."
Red smoothed her thumb over Nicky’s hand, sensing the vulnerability she did not often see, and her preference to deflect with humor, like she herself did with a tough exterior. It was how they survived in here.
"Yeah," the New Yorker nodded. "I know."
She truly did.