Shit. Colin swiped a drop of condensation from his empty glass and wiped it on his soggy cardboard coaster. He knew this bar was a bad idea. “Yeah?”
“Hey, I thought it was you. You probably don’t remember me, but we went to high school together. Mary, how’ve you been?”
He forced a smile and turned to face her. He owed her that much at least. Time was beyond kind to her. It took all of her gangly teenaged potential and turned her into a woman. She looked unreal, powerful in a white blouse and white creased pants, out of place in this dingy bar on a Thursday night. She was his opposite now, or she always was. She was the star student and athlete and he was, barely hanging on, scrabbling to be considered for the bottom rungs of the high school hierarchy. They both left the school around the same time. Clearly it worked out better for her. Then again, something happened to her to make her leave. Another thing he’d never forgive himself for. He needed a drink.
“Of course I remember you, Mary. How have you been? You need a drink?” He raised a hand to get the bartenders attention.
The bartender ignored him in favor of wiping the already spotless bar with a rag.
“No, thank, I don’t really drink much.” Mary scoffed at herself. “Anymore.”
“You sure? Not even soda? Virgin Mary, Shirley Temple, uh... Arnold Palmer?” Colin looked down at his hands, caught a glimpse of hers on the bar. Smooth skin and a trendy manicure. No ring. “I’m all out of nonalcoholic drink names.”
“Cranberry juice?” The bartender nearly tripped over himself to get to her when she raised a finger.
“Yeah, that’s one,” Colin said. “Cranberry juice for the lady and I’ll have another.”
The bartender nodded, apparently seeing Colin unfit for a verbal response. Colin pushed his glass off of the coaster, leaving a wet trail and bits of coaster pulp behind. The bartender winced like Colin had just spit in his face and glared like Colin would run off without paying. Asshole. Colin knew the look. He’d seen it enough times, often before he snuck out without paying.
“Thanks,” Mary said. “So how have you been? What happened to you, man? You know, there was a serious betting pool after you disappeared. A lot of people thought you died or went nuts or ran off to join the military.”
He should have stood up at some point, shook her hand or something. What was the window of opportunity on that sort of thing? And what right did he have to ask her to touch him? He stood and pulled his stool aside so she could fit into the crammed seat beside him. There, chivalry accomplished. He sat back down. “What did you think?”
She looked away for a second, pushed a braid away from her face, bit her full bottom lip. “I was a different person back then.”
This was a mistake. She was too close, too beautiful. He smiled. “That bad, huh?”
She displayed a bright white smile. “Oh, I thought you went full serial killer for sure.”
All the blood fell out of his face and she exploded with laughter.
“I’m sorry, Colin. I’m kidding!” She rocked back in her chair and put a friendly hand on his shoulder. A spark jumped between them.
Colin turned back to his new glass. Day drinking, probably sweating, huddled up nervously behind his beer glass. No wonder the bartender was such a prick.
“No, but really, I thought they were all idiots and your parents probably just changed jobs or something.” Mary sipped her juice, dark gray nails against pink juice. “I was actually really surprised when I got back and you weren’t there. So what happened, really?”
Curtis gulped the rest of his beer and tossed a wad of cash on the counter. He suppressed a burp when he stood and raised a hand to the bartender. “Hey, look, it was really good seeing you. I just remembered I’m late meeting someone, but I’ll be in town for a few days. Maybe I’ll see you again, huh?”
Between the gas rising in his gut, the squeak of the chairs, the rustling of the bartender counting the cash, Colin couldn’t be sure what Mary said as he left. Whatever it was sounded a hell of a lot like, “You will.”
He let the burp out when he made it across the street, startling an innocent bystander in running pants and holding the largest cup of coffee Colin had ever seen. He shouldn’t be out in the daytime around these people.
He should be in a church, staring at the pictures and the coffins of the only two people who’d ever loved him. No, he didn’t belong there, either. He didn’t even know the people who organized the whole thing. How could he face the people who were there, the people who actually knew his parents, and not feel like the piece of shit he was? How could he go to the funeral, knowing that he didn’t even know they were dying until it was too late? He didn’t deserve to show his face there. He deserved to hide out, in some dark corner of some shitty bar. He didn’t deserve to go back to that house.
A dive bar was usually a great option, dark and loud, with other people who went there to disappear in a cloud of smoke and a dirty glass. Not that he’d find a bar around here with smoking allowed. And what the hell was Mary doing in a bar in the middle of the day? A strip club would work. He often went to those places to practice his self control. Or punish himself. Whichever. When he first got to town, he was worried about who he’d see there, on stage or off. Now he realized they’d just be on equal footing. They’d have to pretend they didn’t recognize each other, or they’d both have to explain why they were there. The thought of who he might see on stage sent a jolt of electricity up his spine. Who else had fallen from grace in the years since high school?
He would sit in a corner, open a tab and keep the drinks coming.
No. He couldn’t use his father’s credit card at a strip club on the day of his father’s funeral. Even he wasn’t that much of a scumbag.
Armed with more cash than he could possibly spend on drinks and emboldened with the three beers already in his system, he walked.
Music throbbed through the dusty curtained entrance and pounded from the speaker near Colin’s chosen corner table. He sat with his body aimed at the stage, but tried not to notice the bodies writhing on it.
“You want a dance?” A girl, too young to have known him before asked. He looked at her thin body, barely concealed in white fishnet glowing in the UV light.
She sailed off to the next table, apparently unperturbed. Like he wasn’t the first loser who came to a strip club to think.
Or maybe she just thought he couldn’t afford the dance.
“What are you drinking and do you need another?” A girl, also too young, but with impressive cleavage barely held in a tattered shirt and huge feathered wings strapped to her back. He didn’t bother looking up at her face. He pushed his empty glass away. “Yeah.”
Why did he have to come here? There had to be a way to settle it all from a distance. He couldn’t really have to sit in a room and listen to the last will and testament of his parents like his life was some old-timey murder mystery. Would cousin Gretchen be there and threaten to kill everyone ahead of her in line for the family fortune? He didn’t have a cousin Gretchen that he knew of, but if he had any cousins, they would probably be right to get mad if he inherited anything. Especially if they were there when he wasn’t. He hadn’t seen his parent’s since high school, only called to tell them he loved them and to wish them happy birthdays and happy new years. He never stayed on the line long enough to explain why he left or where he was. He thought he was protecting them. What a joke.
More drinks appeared and he paid and tipped and more drinks appeared. He stacked his empty glasses as high as he could without them toppling, built a little wall between his face and the stage. No one took the glasses away, but full ones kept appearing. How many glasses did this place have? He tried to do the math to see if they would run out soon. If they expected two drinks per seat, and there were so many seats, there were still too many glasses on his damn table. He tried to ask someone to clear them, but no one seemed to hear that. He was slipping into a nightmare where he spoke, but nothing came out. And for some reason there were a lot of naked women.
The stage took a break and the wing girl cleaned the pole while the real dancers prowled the floor.
“Want a dance?” Finally, someone who looked old enough to drink. Tall, curvy, too much eyeliner. He did want a dance. He wanted this beautiful creature to pretend to love him, to want him, for two minutes and fire up everything he fought to keep under control. Did he want a dance? Did she want to die? Of course, a response like that wouldn’t go over well with management. She touched his sleeve, batted her fake lashes at him. “Handsome guy like you off in a corner. You need a little personal attention. Let me take a load off your mind.”
“No thanks.” He handed her a pair of twenties anyway. She tried to take his hand to bring him to the little private dance stalls but he shook his head.
“I’ll come back later in case you change your mind.”
He kicked himself for not asking her to clear the table.
Dancers flooded the floor.
“Want a dance?”
“Hey handsome, how about a dance?”
“Fuck off. Shit, sorry.” He raised a fistful of cash as way of apology, misjudged the space in front of him and punched a stack of glasses off the table.
The dancer screamed.
Colin’s ass left the seat and his feet left the floor in a hurry. Damn, that fat bouncer moved quick.
“I’m gonna have to ask you to leave.”
Colin cringed away from the smell of menthol cigarettes on the bouncer’s breath, poorly covered by an overdose of body spray. “Yeah, pal, I’m leaving.”
“I’m not your pal,” the bouncer growled.
Colin clenched his fists, fighting the response creeping up his spine. Too many drinks, he couldn’t win. Sparks leapt across his knuckled. “Oh, fuck.”
“No, fuck you.”
Everyone stared at them- dancers, the few patrons who came in as the night went on, even the fallen angel at the bar.
The single dim bulb over the table shattered. Hot glass rained onto Colin and his captor.
The bouncer dropped Colin, who somehow landed on his feet and bolted. He crashed into the speaker and got himself tangled in the heavy curtain before spilling out into the night. His heart felt like it would burst out of his chest but he ran until he knew they wouldn’t chase him. Every time he entered the circle of light from a street lamp, it went out. The trail of darkness gripped his heart, squeezing until he could hardly breathe.
He walked, vaguely trying to get home, or to some place where a guy like him could curl up and die until morning traffic or someone who wanted the spot more than he did woke him. Vaguely, he tried to get home, to cry and confess to his parents. Even if they turned away, even if they didn’t hug him immediately, they would make everything better.
But they were dead. And he didn’t even go to the funeral.
His face met concrete, or asphalt, or hardened dirt. Whatever it was hurt like hell and a warm trickle of blood turned cold on his face. His gut wrenched and heaved.
A faraway voice said, “Is that him?”
Another responded, “That’s our guy.”
Shadows approached, long alien legs, come to abduct him and take him back to his home planet. He laughed, or tried to, but only beer came out.
“I think I can say with some degree of accuracy that we’re fucked,” one said.
“What? You’ve never spent a night in a pool of your own vomit before? I knew you book typed were boring.”
“Gross. Help me get him up.”
“Wash him off first.”
“I did not sign up for this.”
A sigh, a groan and a splash of warm water hit Colin in the face. Solid arms lifted him.
“Put him in the kennel. I don’t want his fluids all over my car.”
“Sure. I don’t think anyone will give a shit, least of all him.”
A trunk opened, a gate shut, and everything went dark.