He walked around the corner of Fullerton and Clark, and finally, there they were, or at least he hoped, a group of worried-looking women sitting on the curb, their knees locked together, chain-smoking from a single pack of Marlboro Lights 100's in a hard box. He stopped in front of them and gave them a hard look.
"Tom," a plump blonde girl said, throwing down her cigarette. "Tom?"
"Why did you let her drink so much?"
The women looked at each other. Tom could see from their faces that they had no answer.
He sighed. "Where is she?"
"She's..." Linda started, then stopped. She looked behind her, then sort of guiltily pointed over her shoulder. Tom heard unrecognizable sounds in the alley. He shot the women a look and walked back down the alley.
NEO's front door was down the side of a long alley. The bar advertised the door by hanging a large sheet across the alley and projecting slides on it. From the street, Tom could see a picture of some industrial band in the middle of trashing their stage, splayed across the corridor. There was a large red sign above the sheet that had "NEO" spray-painted on it. Tom walked down the alley and got past the sheet before he pinpointed the sound.
He looked in the direction of her voice, and saw a little girl curled up into a fetal position, tucked up into a small alcove of the alleyway. He had never seen her look so vulnerable.
Tom reached to her. "Come on," he said, taking her hand.
"Tom..." She took his hand but didn't get up. "You came."
"Tom..." He was now close enough to see the tears starting to rapidly come from her eyes. "Tom." She was now openly crying. "Take me home."
"Let's get you up..." He bent over and picked up her torso, raising her to her feet.
"Your home." She put her arms around him and wouldn't let go, so he decided to stand for a few minutes and let her hug him and cry for a bit. "Your home," she continued. "Please, take me to your home. Take me home."
"Tom." Her eyeballs rolled in their sockets. "You've saved me. You're my savior. Get me home quick. Quick. I've got to get home quickly."
"Come on..." he said, putting his arm around her waist, practically dragging her through the alley. He got to the curb. "Goodbye, ladies," he curtly said.
The women all snapped to attention. Tom continued, walking away, "She's going to my house. You have the number."
He got all the way to the stoplight a block down before he heard behind him, "No! No, we don't have the number!"
He turned half way around as he went around the corner. "Then you'll just see her tomorrow, won't you?" he yelled back at them. He knew that later he would feel bad about being rude to them, but for right now it felt good to let some steam off for his growing frustration and the sneaking suspicion that he and Megan had made the wrong choice in spending this night away from each other.
Megan was close to passing out. He dragged her into the el stop, gave the attendant two tokens and carried her through the handicapped entrance. He somehow managed to get her up the escalator of the Fullerton el stop and get her on a train. Now sitting down, Megan had gotten a little energy back into her. She was lolling her eyes and explaining what they had all done that night, in a slur so bad that sometimes he couldn't even understand her.
"We wanet to go out," she was recounting in a gravely, drunken whisper, "an' I picked Neo, 'cause..." She gave a weak smile. "Well, you know why, ani had a beer, I hadda milla light, 'z pretty good, actually... an' then I had a zlippery nipple, 'cause Linda said, 'Hey! Let'z 'ave a zlippery nipple!' An' then ihad 'nother beer..."
She had now slumped into a horizontal position, with her head resting on Tom's lap. He stroked her hair as she continued her story.
"So then these guys 'cided to hit on us. Hit on us!" She laughed. "And we whirr like, 'Oh, you're big men, aren't ya!' An' we pissed 'em off, so we got ina drinkin' contest with 'em! Soi had... uh... four! Four Jaegermeister shots. ...four! ...Or five." She frowned. "An' then I wannet to get the licorice taste outta my mouth, so a glass o wine was sounding good..." She paused. "An... and I had too much to drink tonight, and everthin' started spinnin' an' I tol Linda to call you 'cause you're my hero." She stuck her tongue out. "An I smoked too much tonight. My tongue tastes like smoke."
Tom laughed to this, and this caught Megan's attention. She sat up and put her arms around him and nestled her head against his neck. "Oh, Tom. Tom." She was crying again. "God, you're so good to me. I don't mean good to me. I mean good for me."
"We'll get you into bed. You'll feel better."
"Oh, Tom!" She was crying hard but quietly in his ear now. She whispered, "I don' wanna break up with you."
"What are you talking about?"
"She's telling me to break up with you! But I don't wanna! It's different this time! It's different, and she doesn't know it!"
"What... who?" Tom suddenly felt very worried. He remembered that inebriation was a truth serum, and he thought back at all the times he had said things in a drunken stupor that he really shouldn't have said.
"Laura," she sighed, then slumped into his lap again. "I didn't tell you 'cause you'd think I was crazy." She laughed. "Crazy!" She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. "Laura Ingalls comes to me in my dreams."
He didn't say anything, kept stroking her hair. "Remember when we were talking about this in Hannibal? She comes to me and tells me things. She warns me. Joshua. It all started with Joshua. But she was too late, and she vowed never to leave me again. Oh God..."
She stopped talking and Tom wondered what was going through her mind, when he suddenly heard that noise, that terrible, terrible noise, that sound of air going the wrong way through your windpipe, like a horrible, mutated, elongated burp, but different, because the air was mixed with a little liquid, so the sound was guttural and breathy, and, well, you've known for a long time what that sound means, it means 'look out!' , because...
...And it all clicked in Tom's mind just a few seconds too late, as he looked down just in time to see a hot, pinkish concoction flowing down his pants and splashing on his shoes, forming a puddle around his shoes on the floor of the train.
"Oh, Jesus. JESUS!" she said, then threw up again. He grabbed her torso to steady her, and he could feel her muscles contracting as she voided herself of her poison. "Oh god oh god oh god..." She was loudly sobbing now and hiding her face in his lap so that the other passengers couldn't see her.
Thankfully, their stop finally arrived. "Come on," he said, gently tugging her. "We're here. Come on."
"Don't let them see me," she said, and hid her face in the crook of his arm as they stood up and exited.
A soft wind hit them on the platform and mingled with the smells of the charged electricity coming off the tracks. Suddenly, for no reason that he could figure, it all came to Tom, with startling illumination, why that particular smell always got to him so much, that smell of lake air and electricity. He realized that it will always be the smell of Chicago to him. It's the smell of Disneyworld, and the smell of a world's fair; the smell of a urban playground. It's the smell of potential in the air. The smell of a big city. To Tom it would always remain the most beautiful smell in the world, better than the smell of a woman, or freshly used soap, or an incredibly cooked meal when you smelled it at 9 o'clock after skipping dinner and were incredibly hungry. And many years later, when Tom was an old man and living in the country, and had been away from the city for a longer time than he cared to even remember, he would be flipping through the television and he would catch the tail end of some talking head uttering the word, "Chicago", and that smell would immediately be back in his nose, the smell of that el in the spring, jump starting his weary bones, as if it were just yesterday. Or today.
"...I'm sorry, oh God, I'm so sorry..." He realized that time had lapsed. They were now on the sidewalk, working their way to his apartment. The vomiting and the fresh air had brought an amazing clarity back to Megan's self-being; she was walking by herself now, a few steps in front of Tom, clutching her arms around her torso like she could disappear inside herself if she just squeezed hard enough. She was crying and mumbling apologies to him through the tears.
He caught up to her and put his hand on her shoulder. "It'll wash out. God, if I had a nickel for every friend I've thrown up on..."
"No, you don't understand." She turned to face him. "I'm falling in love with you." She put her back against a storefront and slid down the wall until she was sitting. "I'm falling in love with you. There. Great. I said it. It's the whole reason I didn't want to go out with you tonight," she said, pointing at him, "'cause I fucking knew I'd say it."
"What's wrong with saying it?"
"'Cause..." she signed, "I'll drive you away if I say it. You're not supposed to say it, are you? 'I love you'. After six months. The other person will think you're too intense and they'll back away from you.
"I'm so scared. I've never felt this way about someone. Never. I get panicky sometimes when I've been away from you for too long. Like I'm drowning. Like you're my lifejacket. I can't tell you this. If I told this to someone, they could use it against me when I was weak or they wanted to get something from me.
"And the thing is, I can tell you these things. It's not what I'm scared of. It's that Laura doesn't understand these things. All she's there for is to warn me. She doesn't understand. She thinks you're Joshua. ...God, I wish I'd never met him." She stood up. "Fuck you, Joshua." She looked up into the air. "Can you hear me, Joshua? I said... FUCK YOU!" She screamed at the top of her lungs. "FUCK YOU! I WISH YOU WERE FUCKING DEAD!" She was screaming so loud she was making herself hoarse. "I SHOULD HAVE FUCKING KILLED YOU WHEN I HAD THE CHANCE! FUCK... you..." She buckled into long, loud, uncontrollable sobs.
Tom didn't know what to do, so he did the only thing he could - he reached over and held her. He held her and he wouldn't let go when she pounded on his back and made his shirt wet with tears and screamed, "GOD!" and cursed a blue streak.
Finally she calmed down and mumbled, "Let's just go home. I'm sorry. Can we go home?" Tom silently took her by the shoulders and started her walking again.
They got to the front gate of his building. "You really hate me now, don't you?" she said.
Tom fumbled with his keys. "You're going to feel a lot better in the morning."
"Oh God. I've blown it. I always blow it. I'm sorry. I should go home..."
He stopped with the keys and kissed the back of her neck. "You haven't blown it." He put his hand under her chin and lifted her head so that she was looking at him. "I don't hate you. It's just that... well, in the condition you're in right now, I'd never be able to convince you otherwise. And besides, you're not even going to remember any of this tomorrow, anyway."
"I will so!" She looked offended. "I've never had a blackout."
"Well, okay, then." He looked hard into her eyes. "I don't hate you. Do you understand that? I'm being brutally honest here. I'm not trying to calm you down. I... don't... hate... you. I love you also."
"Yes. This isn't the time to talk about this, but, yes. It's a long story." He got out his keys again. "Come on, let's go inside, okay?"
They got to his apartment and she went straight to the bathroom and threw up again, while Tom made some tea. Then he sat her down and washed her face and took off her clothes and put her in some of his boxer shorts and a t-shirt that engulfed her body. Then she went in and threw up again, while he poured the tea, and she came out and he tried to get her to drink some tea but she was feeling too sick and started crying again, so he held her against him close, and rocked her, gently, back and forth, and whispered sweet nothings into her ear, and then she went into the bathroom and dry heaved, while he sat and drank some tea and put on a Chopin CD, and then she cried some more and he held her head and told her everything was going to be all right and she cried that this was it, she had finally drank too much and she was going to die and please take her to the hospital and get her stomach pumped and he laughed and said there was nothing left in her stomach to pump, and she cried some more and then went back into the bathroom and dry heaved again while he made the bed. Then he realized that she had been in the bathroom an awfully long time so he went in and saw that she had quietly passed out on the bathroom floor, so he smiled and picked her up and put her into bed and put the sheets over her and put a damp washcloth on her forehead, then went into the bathroom and took a long, hot shower and then walked naked into the kitchen and had a cigarette and looked at the clock as it turned seven a.m., realized he was a lot more tired than he had thought he was, slipped on some boxer shorts, and quietly crawled into bed with her.
And closed his eyes.
Copyright 1997, Jason Pettus. All rights reserved.