I tapped my fingers against the base of my glass while my thumbs traced lazy shapes across the faux marble bar top. Bubbles popped and fizzed with each sip from a mostly empty glass of dark beer. As I tilted my head and drink back for another sip, I reached the point where I could almost see through the murky foam left behind at the bottom, only to have it concealed again when I returned the drink to the counter before me. My mind swam, but I was far from dizzy. Instead I only felt the day’s tension melt away with each passing gulp. It was my third drink of the night, and each one brought me closer to the warm clarity that comes from alcohol before tipping over the edge, often so quickly that you do not realize it until your voice slurs for the first time and you find yourself sending odd texts to people you have not spoken with in weeks.
It was a quiet night for the bar scene, but it was a Thursday. In this town, most of the action happens on Friday and Saturday, but they keep a smattering of karaoke nights through the week. Still, I expected more than myself, the bartender, and a woman across the way. Neon signs hummed to themselves behind the bar as they advertised a wide range of beers, and some courteous person had the sense to turn the music down to a more moderate level with so few of us there. I could hear without being shouted at, and I doubted my ears would ring in the morning.
Over the soft trance music, I would have sworn for a moment that I could hear the rain outside tapping against the entrance’s broad window panes. Lightning flashed, and the thunder really could be heard over the music. People walked by freely, some in a rush as they scrambled to get through the rain. It was far from heavy, but it looked like it would get worse soon.
The bartender paced between myself and a woman in what appeared to be her mid-twenties, wiping glasses behind the counter and asking if he could bring us more drinks. She sat at the other end of the bar, sipping a paler beer and taking moments to sweep the dirty blonde hair out of her face each time she leaned in for another pass. The bartender himself was a man of an age with myself and the young woman, clean cut, well dressed, and with the gusto of someone who loves their job. He stood before me, threw the rag o’er his shoulder like a continental soldier, and rapped his knuckles against the bar. “Doing all right, pal?” he asked. I looked up, and he flashed a cheery smile.
I nodded. “I think so.” I met his eyes and nodded a second time. No slurring. That was a good sign, at least.
Without losing the smile, he leaned onto his elbows and crossed his arms. “Say,” he said, “the two of you are the only ones in here.” He jerked his head toward the blonde at the other end. “Why don’t you go talk to her?” The bartender stood up and laughed. “It’d keep me from having to walk so damn much.”
I grinned. Other times perhaps I would have assumed she wanted to be left alone since we seemed to be enjoying the general silence, but alcohol brings out the confidence in the lucky ones. “You don’t think she’d mind?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Who knows? Man up and take a chance, right?”
I downed the rest of my beer and slid the glass across the bar to him. “I guess so. I’ll order another one of these and one of whatever she’s having.” As he took the glass, I stood and walked the length of the bar. At the halfway mark, she guessed my intentions. Smiled, waved.
I took the stool next to her, and leaned forward a bit with fingers laced. “Barkeep said I needed to come talk to you.”
She laughed and took the final sip of her amber drink. “Good. He was willing to help out, after all.”
I raised an eyebrow, and we both laughed. It felt good, natural. The stress of the day had melted away, and I felt like my truer self. She started to say something, and the bartender was upon us with our drinks, sliding the dark to me and the light to her. “Here you go,” he said. “Guinness for you, and a Blue Moon for you. From the gentleman across the way.” He flashed his award-winning grin again and then was gone to rinse glasses in the neon glow of a Coors sign.
I shrugged when she looked at me. “I thought of buying something more expensive, but I thought I would start out safe with your regular drink.”
She took the orange wedge from the lip of her glass and squeezed a few drops into the drink before setting the fruit itself on a napkin. “A wise decision,” she said. “I swear, it’s nice coming to a bar and not having Vegas Bombs pushed at me all night.” She sipped. “Not that I don’t mind a quicker buzz, but I’m not a shot girl, you know?”
I took a sip of my own and did my best to wipe away the trailing foam. “I’d hoped.”
“You don’t like the shot gals?”
“Not my type. A dime a dozen.”
“And if I’d said I liked shots more than beer?”
I pointed at her drink. “Well, first I would have called you a liar because you’ve been drinking that all night. Then I would have said that shots have fewer calories and carbs than beer. Helps you keep the girlish figure.”
“Is that true?”
“Hell if I know,” I said.
We trailed off and looked out the front window again. Lightning flashed somewhere else in the city, and the thunder soon drowned whatever generic band played over the speakers, if only for a moment. More people hurried by in the rain, and I wondered how many of them regretted living in a time that turned newspapers into dinosaurs. A gust of wind blew a sheet of rain down the street in a visible wave, and lightning crashed again.
“So,” I said. “You come here often?”
She laughed and turned to me. “Jesus, that line? I thought you would do better than that.”
“It’s an honest question!” I said. I went back for another sip. “Not my fault it popped up in every 80’s movie where the bad guy was some jock douchebag. Are you a regular?”
Her eyebrow arched. “You’re sure you’re not on a quest to punish the nerds?”
I raised a hand in what I thought might have been the Scouts’ salute. “I’m not a jock,” I said.
“In that case… No. I’m not a regular, and I don’t come here often. This is my first time.”
“Mine too,” I said. “I don’t get out to drink very often, and this was the first place I saw without drunk sorority girls and Spice Girls karaoke.”
“I would say that not having karaoke would be a better way to boost business, but…” She swept a hand toward the remainder of the otherwise empty bar.
“Looks like we’re the only quality drinkers left tonight.”
She laughed. “Yeah, I guess so.”
We drank in silence for a while until we finished at about the same time. The bartender came back and asked if we needed more. She looked to me, and I looked to him. “One of each,” I said. He retreated and came back shortly with more drinks in hand. We each thanked him, and he went back to rinsing glasses. I would have sworn he had cleaned the same pallet of glasses for the eighth time by then, but I kept it to myself.
She squeezed her orange again and again put the rest of it on a napkin to eat as she neared the bottom of her glass. When she took a sip, she licked her lips, then looked to me. “What do you do for a living?” she asked.
“Bean counter,” I said.
She pursed her lips in confusion.
“Low-grade CPA,” I said. “Accountant. My position is really only busy about once a year, though. April, of course; some of March. November all I’m doing is carrying the one.”
“Sounds like a blast.” She sipped her Blue Moon, then brushed the foam away.
I shrugged. “We can’t all be adventurers. It pays the bills. Keeps me fed, keeps me housed and happy. What about you?”
She thought for a moment, then took a bigger gulp of her drink. “Oh, I work in HR for a factory across town. Don’t look at me like that. If you don’t have to be an adventurer, I don’t have to be either. Pays the bills, keeps me housed and fed.”
At that, she giggled. “Not when I’m sober.”
“Sounds like you need a change of pace.”
“It wouldn’t hurt.”
When I looked at her drink again, it was almost empty while mine was still above the halfway mark. I wanted to follow up on that conversation, but it felt best to let it die. The bartender was washing the same glasses yet again. At times, he would look up to see if someone was coming through the door, but no one ever did. The tip jar sat empty halfway down the bar, but it never seemed to bother him. He snuck a glance toward us, but returned to the glasses when he saw me looking.
“You’re from here?” she asked.
“Nah, Chicago,” I said. I nodded toward the entrance. “This time of year, all that outside would be snow, and the wind would be blowing much harder. Makes me glad to be further south, honestly. How about you?”
“Here,” she said. “Born and raised.”
“You still have family here?”
She frowned before finishing off the rest of her drink. I swore to myself as I looked to my own half-full glass and decided to take another sip in case she felt self conscious. “I, uh…” She closed her eyes and massaged her temples with her right hand. “Sorry,” she said. “Maybe I had more to drink than I thought I did. Ah, yeah, Dad still lives here.”
My mind begged me to stop, but the drinks loosened my mouth. “Your mother?”
She squeezed her eyes shut. “Um… Yeah. Yeah, Mom. She’s not around any more.”
“Moved?” I asked. Quit asking questions, dammit! I thought.
“I, yeah. Yeah, she moved. Ah, listen, I’m not feeling so great.”
I flinched and knew I’d blown it. But no, as soon as I looked away, I felt fingers sliding along my forearm. “It’s nothing you’ve done wrong, and I do hope you’ll see me outside.”
I nodded. “Sure. Yeah. Yeah, I’ll pay up. I’ve got yours.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I know. I’m doing it because I want to.”
“I sure am.”
She patted my shoulder, grabbed her purse, and walked toward the entrance. I hardly noticed while we chatted, but she was taller than I expected. She wore a black spaghetti strap dress that ended in a hem of lace just below her knees. Her hips may have swayed a bit more than I think she intended, but at least she never staggered. I slapped my hands against the bar, then stood, walked to the tip jar, and waited for the bartender to finish rewashing the same damn glass. When he looked up, I said, “I guess we’re heading out, so I’ll settle up.”
He turned to watch her standing at the entrance. “Don’t worry about it. It’s on me, guy.”
I felt my eyes widen. “You’re sure? We must have had at least fifty bucks between us.”
The bartender laughed, then looked up the ceiling. “More like eighty,” he said after a moment’s calculation. He looked back to me and noticed my puzzled expression. “We’re more expensive than we should be. I don’t set the prices, or fifty would have been closer. The point is, don’t worry about it. We didn’t do any business tonight. I came in, cleaned up and did a few chores around the place, then decided to close up shop early. It’s dishonest, but you were good customers. If the boss catches me, I’ll pay it myself.”
I nodded, then asked again, “You’re sure?”
“I sure am.”
“All right. I loved the place. I’m sure I’ll be back soon. As a paying customer next time, though.” I fumbled in my pockets for a moment until I fished out my wallet. Before he could say anything, I withdrew two twenties and tossed them in the tip jar. The bartender shifted as though he meant to empty the tip jar and hand my money back, but I brought up a hand to stop him. “If the boss catches you,” I said.
He nodded. “Gotcha.” As I turned to walk away, he said, “Good luck,” then returned to his glasses.
I met her at the door, and we stepped outside. Rain misted against us, but the bar’s front awning protected us from the encroaching downpour. “Sorry,” she said again. “I guess I must have seemed a wreck in there.”
“Not too bad,” I said. “Nothing that’s going to push me away unless you say so.”
She smiled. “Hardly.” A cellphone appeared in her hands like a magic trick. “Now give me your phone number.”
I had to close my eyes and think for a moment. “722-389-0612,” I said.
Halfway through punching the numbers in, she started laughing. “I just realized I don’t even know your name,” she said.
Had we really gotten through all that without exchanging names? “Scott,” I said. I fumbled for my phone as she gave me her name. When I repeated it, she nodded, but I found myself with vision suddenly blurring and typing in a simple BLONDE FROM BAR before adding the 722-396-3270.
“You’re good to get home on your own?” I asked.
She screwed her face up in thought for a moment before nodding. “Yeah, I can take care of myself. I’m not that drunk, you know. How about you? Are you going to be all right making it back?”
“I think so. If I get tired of walking, I’ll call a cab.” She turned to walk away, and I found myself planting a hand on her shoulder. She spun around and we looked into each other’s eyes. “Say, are you free tomorrow night? I’d like to take you out somewhere. Somewhere classier than this, at least.”
“Classier than the two of us alone in a bar with some terrible music? Sure, I’m fine with that. Just let me know tomorrow, and we’ll work something out.” She leaned forward, brushed her hand against mine, then let her fingers trail against mine as she turned and walked away. I watched her until she rounded the first corner, then I braced myself and ducked out into the chill November rain, wishing for once that I had a newspaper on hand.
I had the next day off, so my alarm did not sound until eleven that morning. Even though I kept things sober last night, I forgot about hydration, and my head felt full of cotton. I scrubbed my hands against my eyes in an effort to rouse myself alert, but sleep resisted letting me go. I stared at the ceiling for a moment before feeling myself drifting away again, so I tossed my legs over the side of the bed and sat up with an exaggerated grunt. I plucked my phone from the nightstand, and the pale blue notification light blinked with a slow, steady pulse. After a few failed attempts, I managed to get my passcode in, then tapped the message box. It was only a single message from Cody, an old friend of mine from when I first moved out of Chicago.
how did last night go? I tried calling to see if you wanted some company, but never got an answer
Odd. My phone did not show any missed calls. Maybe the storm blacked a tower out. I glanced out my bedroom window and saw that a dreary haze still wreathed the city. Rain fell in a lazy drizzle, but I never noticed flashes of lightning. Just a generally miserable looking day
Sorry man, I never got it. Last night went all right. Met a girl, so I’ll call it a win
I stood from the bed and put on some jeans before making my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth and rake a comb through my hair. As I was spitting the last of the toothpaste into the sink, I felt a familiar vibration in my pocket. Again from Cody. lol nice dude. cutey?
I smiled and walked back to the bedroom, throwing on a shirt that did not smell like bar. I think so. Tall, blonde. We seemed to hit it off.
cool man. gonna take her out soon?
I hesitated. We never finalized any plans, but things looked positive enough. I’m going to try to. I told her I’d call her later today, but she seemed like she’d agree
When the phone stayed silent, I thought Cody might have gotten sidetracked at work again. You know, actually doing his job. I left my room and went to the kitchen where I grabbed a bowl of cereal and sat down to watch the midday news. Basic stuff, really. Major crimes in the area, reports saying that the gloomy weather would last until Tuesday, some NFL news. The anchors pretended to talk to each other during the ending credits and even shuffled some papers around, but the phone buzzed again before the next show came on. I flicked the television off and carried my bowl back to the kitchen while checking the message. awesome dude. That was it. Then the phone vibrated again. she from around here?
Yeah, I texted. Lived here her whole life
Rinse the bowl. Put it in the drainer. Phone vibrates. nice. what does she do for a living?
Without thinking, I typed out, Secretary. Doctor’s office, I think. I held my thumb over the Send key and looked at the message. Doctor’s office? Was that right? It would not matter, not to Cody anyway. If I was wrong, I would tell him later. I pressed Send.
I waited for a response, but none came, at least not right away. I thought about calling about the date that night, but I thought she might still be at work. I doubted that she would have Friday off, or at least I told myself I should not assume that she did. Especially if she worked at a doctor’s office. But was that right? Something felt wrong. I grabbed a book and lied down on the couch, flipping through pages for over an hour before I realized I had not been paying attention to what I read. Major events stood out in my mind, but in my budding anxiety, I hardly concentrated. I looked at the PlayStation beneath my television and thought it might help pass the time, but I shrugged it off and flipped a few chapters back in the book to start reading again. Two pages back into it, I had another message. Cody.
I put the book down on my chest and thought for a moment. A little. I think we’ll have a good time, but I did put my foot in my mouth last night
If the girl you’re talking to acts weird when you mention her family, stop mentioning her family
I tried reading again and managed six pages before Cody was back. you shoulda learned that in grade school
I know. I got a little buzzed, that’s all. Still, mouth wouldn’t shut up
lol yeah man. play that shit safe. hey look, I gotta get back to work. text me later and let me know how it worked out, ok?
That was it. I went back to reading and managed to get deeper into the book this time around, and I saw how much I missed earlier when giving it that casual scan. The more I read, though, the more the groggy sleep from earlier returned. Before long, I was blinking to stay awake, and once my arms collapsed enough for the book to fall onto the bridge of my nose and fell to the floor. I cursed as I rolled over to retrieve it, then decided that I would not get anything out of it if I was still so tired. I set my phone’s alarm for five and curled up to sleep on the couch.
The phone went off as planned at five, and I was already angry at myself for setting the alarm that late in the first place. I thought it best to give her time to get home, so I went ahead and got a shower, changed clothes, and brushed my teeth again. Maybe a little excessive, but I thought it better to play it safe. I did a few chores around the apartment, then paused to look outside when I was caught up.
My apartment is some distance away from downtown, but it’s still in a convenient location. Cabs filled the streets here, and it was a short walk to the nearest subway station anyway. Shopping for the fancier things in life was still a hassle, but the surrounding neighborhood had all that I needed for the day-to-day.
I scanned the sidewalks and saw that the pedestrians today thought to bring umbrellas. Sure, the occasional bareheaded person kept a quick stride as they wove between groups of other people, but most people took last night’s light storm as an indicator of things to come. Even then, the storm was returning. Sheets of rain gusted over the city, and lightning flashed again. The corresponding boom was low and dull, almost comforting.
My phone showed it was just after six. I decided to take my chances and give her a call. She might not have been off from work by six, but the night would be wasted if I waited much longer. I scrolled through my contacts for a moment before realizing I’d saved her as BLONDE FROM BAR. Probably best not to let her find out about that. I thumbed the phone icon, and the phone rang a moment later. She picked up on the third ring.
“Hello?” She did not sound especially busy, which I took to be a good sign.
“Hey! It’s Scott. I thought I’d give you a call back.”
There was a long pause, and I thought we might have gotten disconncted.
“Scott from the bar?” I offered.
“Oh! Oh, right. Sorry, it’s been a long day.”
I flinched. “You’re not still at work, are you?”
“Oh, no, no. They let us go early on Fridays, so I got home around four. I was hoping you’d call.”
“Well, here I am,” I said, laughing.
“Great, great. How’s your day been?”
“Lazy,” I said. “I slept until eleven, then took a nap later.”
She laughed, and I finally exhaled a little. Maybe she wasn’t lost to me. “Lazy, I’ll say. Glad to hear someone gets to sleep in on rainy days like this. It’s miserable out there.”
“I saw earlier. I hate to put you in a situation to go back out into it, but would you still want to go out later tonight? My treat.”
“Well, I do mean for it to be a date, after all.”
She laughed again. “Okay, sure. Sounds great. I think I can manage a little more rain. Where to?”
I paused, racing through a list of every restaurant that came to mind. Something close to the bar, right? Surely she lived close to the bar. I did not want to send her cross-city if I could help it. A name popped up. “Vitelli’s,” I said. “Nash and Twenty-second. Italian bistro.”
There was an extended pause, and again I nearly checked to see if we had been disconnected. “Sure, Vitelli’s. I’ve never been there, but I go by it a lot. I’ll meet you at…” Another pause. “Uh. Eight?”
“I can do eight.”
“Great! See you then.”
“Here’s your money,” I said.
The driver gave a start, then turned around and took the fare. He was weathered, but young. His eyes were piercing and serious, more so than I expected. He looked like a soldier, but I guessed many soldiers were returning home to pick up more menial jobs. “Sorry,” he said. “Daydreaming, I guess. You need change?”
“All yours,” I said.
I exited the cab and watched as it drifted back into the rain, making shushing noises along the pavement as it faded into traffic. I decided that the rain was letting up before I left my apartment, so I did not bring the umbrella. Instead, I ducked my head and hunched my shoulders as I crossed the sidewalk to get under the Vitelli’s awning. Several other people milled about, apparently waiting for the rest of their parties. I checked my phone to see that I was still a few minutes early. The groups of people were all standing, so I took a seat on and took a wood chip from the planter at my side, rubbing it between my fingers to pass the time. I was fidgeting–nervous–but that was to be expected for the first date.
As time passed, I did have to scoot over on the bench to make room for an elderly couple. They were engrossed in their own conversation and did not seem like they were interested in meeting new people, so I kept my attention on the wood chip. When the couple left and entered the restaurant, I checked the time on my phone again. 8:15 already. No new notifications. I worried that I had been stood up and considered either calling her to find out where she was or texting Cody for some support from the brotherhood.
I decided against either and that I could give her some more time. I shoved the phone back into my jacket pocket in time for a cab to pull to the curb. She stepped out and onto the sidewalk. She also decided against an umbrella, but she kept a kerchief tied over the top of her head with her hair in a loose bun. As she approached the entrance, the cabbie rolled his window down and shouted. “Hey! You gotta pay!”
I made a move to help her out, but she was ahead of me. “Oh, sorry!” she said. She fished a few bills out of her purse and leaned down to the open window. The cabbie leaned over, took the money, and drove away without asking if she needed change. With him gone, she walked to the entrance, paused, then stood like a sentinel before the front window. She blocked part of the Vitelli’s name from the street, but I thought she would probably do better for their advertising than a pair of L’s.
I stood from my bench and approached her. It took a moment, but her face lit up. “Hey,” I said. “I was getting worried.”
“I’m so sorry!” she said. She started untying the scarf covering the top of her head. “Traffic was bad on the way over, I guess. I think the cabbie was about to let the road rage take over, but I guess keeping the meter running made him happy enough.”
I laughed. “Yeah, I guess so. Are you ready to head in?”
“Starving,” she said.
While Vitelli’s is a more upscale place, it’s not so far gone that you need a suit and tie to get in. In fact, a small blackboard dangling from ropes in front of the cash register said PLEASE SEAT YOURSELVES. That was common from my previous trips; they only assigned one of the servers as hostess if it was a busy night with the staff getting overwhelmed. We opted for a booth next to the window she’d blocked minutes earlier.
I asked her about work but still had the sneaking suspicion that I’d told Cody the wrong job earlier. I strayed from details until she mentioned working HR at a local factory. I would have to text Cody later and tell him that I was an idiot. Things had been busy that morning, but they tapered off around noon, which was common for their Fridays. A waitress came to take our orders, then returned a moment later with two mushroom risottos. We tried continuing the conversation, but I think both of us were hungry enough that it consumed our attention.
I was almost done with mine when I heard the clatter of her spoon against the bowl. I jerked my head up, and she looked back at me with her hand over the shocked O of her mouth. “Sorry,” she said. “Just nerves, I guess.” Her hand trembled as she reached for the spoon.
“You’re sure you’re okay? Have you eaten today?”
She held the spoon in her shaking hand and studied the ceiling in thought. “Oh, I guess I skipped lunch, now that you mention it.”
“Do you have problems with blood sugar?”
She shrugged and spooned more risotto into her mouth. “I’ve never noticed if I do. I’m not diabetic or anything like that. I usually stay well-fed, I guess. Just messed up today.” She kept eating, and the trembling in her hands stopped. We finished our plates at about the same time and leaned back against our respective sides of the booth.
“That was good,” I said.
She nodded. “Yeah, it really was.” Some of her enthusiasm returned, it seemed.
We chatted for a few more minutes before the server returned with our entrees. A big slab of lasagna for me and a mountain of spaghetti with Italian meatballs for her. Conversation slowed a bit once again as it had with the risotto, but we tried to maintain small talk. I told her about waking up late that morning with a swimmy feeling in my head and the slight hangover even though I did not have much to drink and never got drunk the night before. She said she felt the same way but that she probably had more to drink than I did. She was already in the bar by the time I got there, so I thought she was right.
Halfway through her spaghetti, I heard the silverware hit the table again. Again I looked up to see if she felt okay, but she was already sliding out of the booth, excusing herself to dash to the restroom. The waitress returned to the booth to ask if she was feeling ill, but I told her about her skipping lunch. I probably made some unscientific remark about low blood sugar, but whatever I said was enough to console the employee and send her back to the kitchen, making soothing gestures to other employees along the way. It’s okay, you won’t have to sawdust any vom tonight, guys. I thought it best to play it safe and continue eating my lasagna, which was delicious and would have been more enjoyable if not for the blood sugar crash.
When the bathroom door opened, my date took a staggering step into the dining area but managed to stay on her feet. Several other diners looked up at her, but none said anything. She only staggered the one time and otherwise seemed to have it under control. As she crossed the dining room, she passed our booth without stopping. Sensing that something had gone terribly wrong, I spun out of the booth and put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you sure you’re okay?” I asked.
Her brow furrowed in thought and her mouth worked wordlessly before she looked at my eyes and then back to her half-eaten plate of spaghetti. “Yeah. Yeah. Sorry, Steve.”
I laughed. “It’s Scott.”
“Oh!” She rubbed at her temples with both hands. “I’m so sorry. Just… Just having difficulty concentrating.”
“Are you sure you want to go on? We can reschedule if you’re not feeling well.”
“No,” she said. “I think I can go on.”
I helped her back to the booth and made sure she slid in all right. She sat up straight, made a motion to compose herself, and picked the fork up again. She chopped and twirled and made another pass at finishing her meal. “Sorry again,” she said after a moment.
“No need to be,” I said. “We all have our conditions.”
She nodded, but she kept her eyes on her food. Again we finished at about the same time. By then, Vitelli’s was starting to clear out a little as it was a little past nine, and the restaurant had more of a lunch and early supper reputation. The waitress came back to us to ask if we wanted dessert, but we both declined. The server then smiled and told us we could pay whenever we were ready and assured us that there was no rush. We both thanked her and she was off to the kitchen again.
When I turned back to the blonde beauty across the table from me, I saw her staring at me. Not looking; staring. Her eyes bored into the same general spot of me even when I turned and made a motion of looking away. When she did not respond, I leaned forward again. “Are you sure you’re okay?” I knew she would get tired of me asking eventually, but her condition was worsening, and I did not know enough about it to know how to help.
“Yeah!” she said, and her eyes fixated on mine. “Yeah, just daydreaming again. You look familiar,” she said.
“What? From last night?”
“No,” she said. “From some other time. I… I can’t say. Everything’s fuzzy like that.” Her fingers went to her temple again and started massaging.
“I think last night was the first time we met,” I said.
“Yeah.” She sounded increasingly frustrated. “Sorry,” she said again. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know tonight would be like this. I hope you’ll want to… I hope you’ll want to see me again.” She stopped massaging her temple, and I saw her fingers flex. Fingernails bit into her soft skin, and I spied a single bead of blood swelling from the cut. “I…”
I reached a hand across the table and touched her forearm. She withdrew from it as though I’d poked her with a hot iron.
When she looked up to me again, I saw the tears in her eyes. “Who are you?” she whispered.
I brought my hand away from her and leaned forward. I folded both hands in front of me on the table. “I’m Scott,” I said. “Your date. From the bar last night?”
“Right, right. The bar. You’re the guy from the bar. I… I should know that, shouldn’t I?”
“You might need to go to this hospital,” I said.
“No,” she said. “No. No hospitals. I have to… I have to get away from you. Let me leave.”
I was taken aback. I guess that was my cue that the date was over. “I’m sorry?”
But she was already on her feet. She huddled her coat around her and left her purse and jacket in the booth. Still sobbing and rubbing at her temples, she bolted past the register and onto the sidewalk in front of Vitelli’s. I chased after her, partially because I was worried about her health or sanity, and partially because I still did want to see the woman again. Not the one from the date, but the one from last night at the nearly abandoned bar. I made a hasty apology to the employee at the cash register and flung a handful of twenties at him, telling him to give whatever was left to the waitress. I must have left her a sixty dollar tip. When I ran outside into the rain, I saw a shock of blonde hair bobbing away along Nash, heading downtown and almost to Twenty-first Street.
Without thinking, I braced for the rain and dove out from under the awning. People scattered in shock as I charged down the sidewalk after her. She had difficulty holding a straight line and stepped off the sidewalk to weave between parked cars several times. I still had bearings enough to run in a straight line, so I made progress. I flinched as she bolted through a crosswalk to the 2000 block, but none of the honking cars hit her. Frustrated drivers shouted at her, and I saw more than one rude gesture pop up through a hastily rolled-down car window. I braced for the worst as I came to the same intersection, but the red hand across the way became a green man, and I got through unhurt.
I wondered where she was heading, if she was maybe running back home. She never told me exactly where she lived. The only thing up ahead before downtown was Avella Park. Even as I crossed the intersection, I could see the large, arching gate in the concrete perimeter wall two streets ahead.
She screamed as she ran. She was frantic, and people got out of her way without question. She held her hands to her head, no longer massaging but now acting like that was all that held her together. No sooner did the shocked bystanders reassemble into loose groups did I charge through them. I thought someone may call the cops on either one of us, but they only shook their heads in the disbelief of someone who has not seen anything strange in some time. Ahead she caught a green crosswalk. I was not so lucky.
A yellow cab screeched and honked at me. It could not stop in time, but it was slow enough that I managed to jump and land my bottom on the hood. The momentum carried me forward, and I slid over to hit the pavement running again. A series of angry words pursued me, but I would not stop when I was so close to her. I gained on her in her frantic pattern, finally planting a hand around her right shoulder as we staggered through the next green intersection. Nash and Nineteenth. We were close to the park entrance now, but I doubt she would want to go for a stroll.
“We need to get you some help!” I shouted when I finished moving her to the next sidewalk. People saw us and began walking away. No one would want to get involved. Even the traffic lessened. “We have to get you to a hospital!”
“No hospital!” she shrieked. “Who are you? Why are you chasing me?” There were more cuts around her forehead, and I looked down to see more blood trailing from her fingernails. If I did not play it safe, I feared those same nails would be in my neck. She was unstable. There was no way for me to know. I could not have known. I breathed deep in an effort to compose myself.
“At least stop and call your father,” I said. Her lip trembled. “Your mother, whoever you can reach. Someone needs to know.” Even through the rain, I could see that she was crying.
“Mom,” she whispered. “Daddy. Who? Mom?”
I looked around hoping to find someone to help her contact the nearest hospital. It did not matter if that would make her freak out or not; it was where she needed to be. I looked hoping to find someone to help me restrain her if it came to that.
The street was empty. Both of them, Nash and Nineteenth. No one. No pedestrians, no cars. The lights in front of restaurants and shops winked out, and I the only people I saw were planting CLOSED signs in their windows before retreating to deeper rooms away from the streets. “What the hell?” I started, but that was as far as I made it before I was driven to my knees.
She laughed as we fell. The laugh haunts me even now, disjointed and chaotic. It was a lilting, beautiful sound the night before, but at that moment I feared it would drive me insane. She still laughed as she held my head between her hands, and I feared the sharpness I felt in her long, beautiful fingernails. “You. We. Us? We’re. We’re we. Remember?” She shook my head. “Remember? Remember!”
I shook my head as much as I dared. The nails cut into my skin, and I looked above her eyes and saw the long trails of blood that now mixed with the rain and painted a path down her cheeks. “I don’t–” I began. I cut my eyes in all directions, but we were alone.
“Remember!” she said.
When I shook my head, she screamed. As with the laugh, it was something more. I instinctively clapped my hands to my ears, but her hands were in the way. The scream louder than any I had ever heard, something inhuman. My eyes rolled up to the sky as I tried to move her hands away so I could drown the noise out, but her hands would not budge. I slumped forward and saw an expanding web of cracks radiating from us on the sidewalk. The cracks continued off the path and onto the pavement where bursts of gravel jetted up like confetti. I wondered if that would be how I died–watching the world break apart while a mad woman screamed as though she was the first trumpet of the Apocalypse–when a canister landed with a metal pinging sound and rolled in front of us. I saw it, but nothing stopped the screaming. Somewhere, a streetlight shattered.
Smoke spilled from the canister, and I felt the burn as soon as it hit me. I sucked in a deep breath before it would get to my mouth, but I caught some of it anyway. It was inside me, burning like a fire as I sucked air in again trying to breath. It grew worse, but she held me in place. I pushed hands against the pavement to stand and managed to twist in her grip enough to get my feet. The gas still burned. My nose ran, and I turned my head to vomit into an expanding crack on the pavement. The scream stopped after a moment, and thankfully her hands left my head. I scrambled toward the park entrance hoping that the gas had not spread that far yet.
When I exited the cloud, and with the sound of her shriek no longer deafening me, I heard the steady sound of helicopter rotors. A spotlight from the helicopter swerved toward me, then panned as my lovely blonde date fell out from the gas. She was still trying to scream, but the gas had gotten into her worse than it had me. She flailed blindly. Even in her state, she tried to scream. Her mouth was open wide, but now she only made weak gurgling noises. My body still burned like fire, and each breath was laborious and agonizing. I fell again and pushed myself away from the gas until I came to a wide rend left in the concrete. A second spotlight angled down on us from one of the surrounding buildings and was immediately joined by a third. The third focused on me, but the first two were on her.
A Humvee came to a rest at the Eighteenth Street intersection, and a cluster of soldiers spilled from the back. All had gas masks to protect them in case the tear gas wafted their way. More came from around the corner. I had no time to count them all. They all dropped to one knee, and I found myself staring into a wall of assault rifle barrels. More were probably behind at the Twentieth Street intersection as well. I looked to her again and saw a series of red dots cutting jagged lines across her face, and I wondered how many more snipers targeted me as well. When I looked back, I caught a burst of blinding red light and knew there was at least one.
“Clear!” someone shouted. The last of the tear gas dissipated and blew out over the park wall.
Another voice shouted. “On your knees, both of you!” With so many guns pointed at me, I was helpless to say otherwise. I complied without hesitation. “Hands behind your head!” Again, I complied. I looked to my right and saw her still raving, gurgling and clawing at her throat. A quick look behind showed another soldier approaching with a pistol.
“Get down!” I shouted. She stayed on her feet.
There came a dull popping noise, and then she was flat on her chest at my side. Still breathing. I saw the tranquilizer stuck in her neck like she was some sort of exotic animal. Still breathing, still breathing. Her eye rolled up to meet mine. “Who?” she said. “We. Again, we. Away. Get a. Get away. Ah. Guk.”
The soldier that shot her knelt beside her and put a hand to her throat. “Still breathing,” he said into an intercom on his shoulder.
The intercom said, “And the other?”
The black gas mask turned toward me and nodded. “Active,” the soldier said.
“Good. Wait there.”
The swarm of red dots left her body. I could not tell if they were now pointed at me or if the snipers were told to take five.
“What is this?” I muttered. The soldier did not respond. He looked at me for a moment, and I saw the the gas mask shaking side to side at me. No, I gathered.
“You’re sure she’s fine?” the voice asked again. In person this time, not over the intercom.
“Not sure about all that, but she’s breathing,” the soldier said.
The other man came before me and knelt. I recognized him. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
The bartender from the night before turned and considered me for a moment. “I’m afraid I can’t answer that,” he said. He ran his fingers along her neck until he was satisfied she was alive. “Clear,” he said into his intercom. “Bring in the gurney.” He looked to the other soldier and said, “It’s fine now. You can take off your mask. Gas has dispersed.”
The helicopter crept forward, and I saw a medical team inside readying a gurney inside. The helicopter landed at the intersection, and the med team rushed outside. The waitress from Vitelli’s approached the bartender from their midst. “Finally collapsed again, did she?” she asked.
The bartender nodded. “Looks that way. You saw the signs earlier. You knew what was coming.”
The waitress shook her head. “Not like this, I didn’t.” She patted a foot along one of the cracks in the pavement. “This is the most severe I’ve ever seen. What was the time of collapse?”
“9:18,” the bartender said. “The longest she’s made it by at least twelve hours. It’s an improvement.”
The waitress knelt and shone a penlight in my eyes. “You still look good, though,” she said. “Where did you eat tonight?”
“Vitelli’s,” I said. The other members from the helicopter lifted my date on the gurnet and hoisted her inside. They climbed in after, but the helicopter stayed where it was. Part of me knew it would not leave until the waitress left with them.
“Good,” she said. “What is your job?”
“CPA,” I said. “What is–”
“Your best friend’s name?”
“Cory,” I blurted. “No, Cody. His name is Cody.”
“Where were you last night?”
I nodded to the bartender. “He was serving me drinks. Why–”
The waitress leaned in and whispered, “That’s a dangerous question. Don’t ask it. Please.”
I kept my mouth shut, then. I looked to the soldier that fired the tranquilizer gun and saw my cabbie from earlier in the night. He inclined his head, then turned away without a word.
“Are we done here?” the bartender asked.
The waitress looked down at me again and considered for a moment. “For now,” she said, looking back to the pair of soldiers. “Memory failure at 9:18?” she asked. “You’re sure?”
The bartender nodded. “I sure am.”
“Okay,” she said. “327 memory failure at 9:18 followed by an extrasensory episode. We’ll take her back to central. See you around. Good luck.” With that, she climbed back into the helicopter, which then lifted off and left in a direction away from town. The soldiers on Eighteenth Street seemed to have relaxed and some of them started piling into the Humvee while others walked away from Nash Street.
“What is this?” I asked. Even with the soldiers gone, I did not dare stand until ordered.
“Don’t ask. Just… Please don’t ask. Go back to your life and pretend this never happened, okay? She’s gone. That’s all there is.”
“What about the memory failure?” I asked.
“Shhh,” the bartender said. “She never existed. You got it? She wasn’t real. Never was, still isn’t. She’s a ghost.”
He knelt in front of me and put a hand on my shoulder. “Stop,” he said. “Seriously. You’re a target. Play it very carefully.”
I opened my mouth to ask him another question, but he raised an eyebrow. I closed it again, and he smiled and patted my shoulder. “Thanks for the tip,” I muttered.
“As I recall,” he said, standing, “you were the big tipper.”
I woke the next morning with the alarm buzzing at nine. I had a hell of a time sleeping the night before, but exhaustion finally overtook me. I threw the blankets off of me to see that I had passed out in the clothes I wore to the date the night before. With a groan, I rolled over and checked the phone. Entered my passcode in and managed the shut off the alarm.
One new notification, a text from Cody.
hey man, how’d last night go?
I remembered the bartender’s words and wondered how closely I was being monitored. I think it went all right, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing each other anymore. Not a good connection, you know?
A moment passed before the phone buzzed again. sorry to hear that dude. what was her name? I meant to ask yesterday
Six hours have passed, and I’m still lying here. I haven’t moved much, except to put my hands behind my head and stare at the ceiling. I’m hungry, but that can wait. I’m scared. I look at my phone for the thousandth time. I’ve looked at it so many times in six hours that the battery shows thirty-two percent now. I thumb my way back to the list of messages and reread Cody’s last one before he started with, you still there? and hey man, is everything ok?
what was her name? I meant to ask yesterday
I scroll back to my contact list and look. Nothing except BLONDE FROM BAR.
I work my way back to Cody’s text.
what was her name? I meant to ask yesterday
what was her name?
what was her name?
what was her name?
I don’t remember.