The first of the videos go viral a few days later—several months after Nik’s death. Max brings the first to our attention after media calls to the West’s publicist for comment drop nonstop. We go in oblivious. There are no warnings and Max doesn’t elaborate on what we’re about to watch. Not that anything could have prepared us.
Muffled voices, obscured and shaky video.
“Is this a butt video,” Ali laughs smiling.
Max looks at her with the rare anguished expression: “I’m sorry,” she says gently.
Niky’s face looms large on screen. His smile, and that laugh—like a melody.
Ali’s hitch in breath; the tick in Gray’s jaw; the break of Parker’s face; and, Grace—solid as stone. We sit around the large screen in the den as Niky emerges larger than life in front of us. There’s music—one of Ali’s favorites: Edge of Desire by John Mayer. They dance slow and deliberate dressed flirty and casually after a long day on the beach in the sun, shower then dinner. Zooming in on their faces, I recorded the video on Nik’s phone as he whispers something in Ali’s ear then smiles.
He looks directly at the camera: “She’s shy,” he says to me and winks.
“Never,” Ali says giving me and the camera an exaggerated fishlips pose.
“You can be,” I say low.
I hear the smile in my voice.
“No one’s as shy as Willa,” he says spinning Ali and bringing her back close to him smiling down at her. Both equally skilled on their feet.
“You mean anti-social, don’t you?” Ali says dispensing me and the camera with her trademark direct dry stare.
Nik and I laugh. “No. It’s shyness disguised as misanthropy to hide her vulnerability,” he says gently but emphatically and affectionately. And he gives me that look—his look; my look. I feel the catch and flutter and swallow it for fear of escape; the one that hovers right below the surface like a large lump ever ready to rupture.
This is one of the many intimate moments we captured on video. There are hundreds, if not thousands. All private. Viewed by no one. Some not even by us. He holds her close as they continue to dance and whisper. On the roof of the loft in Venice, the ambient light from a high moon, candles, and torches float on the air like the music soft in the background. The city crawls around us. I remember it clearly. No one else was there. It was just us—drinking wine, smoking pot, talking, listening to music, and dancing. Nik, back from filming in New Zealand and between projects, has the next month off. I close my eyes and I’m there. I smell the flatness of the city with the occasional hint of jasmine and sea. I’m tingly and hot, dressed in a casual short multi-colored swing dress with spaghetti straps, and a hoodie—Nik’s dark grey hoodie. An isolated breeze off the ocean blasts then stirs restlessly. An earlier slight sunburn makes me chilled, thus the hoodie.
At the end of the song, Niky dips Ali then kisses her softly on the lips.
The screen goes blank.
Bold white letters flash across a black backdrop at the end: WHO KILLED NIKOLAS WEST?
“This has been authenticated,” Max says
“That’s because it is,” says Ali who looks at me.
I nod silently.
“Do you remember where this video resided?”
After a long pause: “On Nik’s phone,” I say quietly.
“The one that was with him. On the plane,” Ali adds. “He has cloud storage, but I don’t have the password. It’s in our loft. Do you have it with you, Willa?”
Stunted, I shake my head no. My eyes remain fixated on the screen where Max replayed and paused: Nik smiling down at Ali and Ali looking up at him in adoration.
Grace stares. Hard and unflinching. I look at Gray, also focused on the screen; tears fall freely down his face. He wipes them away then glances at Grace and Parker. Parker has his hand over his mouth; his eyes bloodshot and glassy.
“Social media and the tabloids are going crazy with this. The conspiracies are—well, there are many. No need to elaborate. Megan is getting inundated with calls for all of your comments. I told her to handle it best she could. We have no clue who posted it.”
“I can access it,” Ali says quietly. “The videos. His cloud. I just—I need to—” The break in her voice catches in my chest.
“I’m wondering how this got out?” Max asks.
I study Ali. She avoids direct eye contact.
“I made sure he had 2-step verification on all his accounts, but I haven’t—” she trails off. “I haven’t checked on any of them since—” Another catch in her voice. “I’ll go work on it.”
“Are you sure? I can get someone else to?” Max asks.
“No. I’ll do it.” She disappears into the estate down one of the many long halls.
“Can you play it again, please?” I ask softly.
“Yes, of course,” says Max.
When it plays through, I ask her to play it again. And again. She hands me the remote and squeezes my shoulder walking out of the room leaving us without comment. I curl up in the chair and watch it over and over again. Grace, Gray, and Parker stay and watch with me. It’s several hours before we leave.
There is no family dinner that night or the subsequent nights.
Two days later, another video posts. This one is me and Nik with Ali recording. Nik sings to me. The song? I Love You by Climax Blues Band.
This one sends me running. I lock myself in my room refusing entry to anyone—even Ali. I cannot bear the intrusion of memories or emotions or anything other than the flat benign blankness of oblivion. I need this vacuum—or else I’ll die. The world and everything in it is an infection and to inhale even a hint of any sensation would destroy me. I’m numb, and I like it. I demand it. It’s a corrective—an antidote to the pain of grief and life and everything in it. It’s hard, hushed, and unyielding. To be anything but is to die.
The videos shake the Wests. They seem—unsure. I feel—lost and Ali? She goes home to Cali. Alone. I follow shortly after.
© 2020 Pamela Gay Mullins