Ah, I haven't done one of these in a while, and I'd forgotten how much fun I can have when I let myself. 1481 words
"You still like spicy stuff?"
I nodded. June grinned as she gestured for me to take a seat in the cramped wooden booth. No cushions on the seats. The place was dim and smoky. June said they'd been grandfathered to allow smoking, which was part of the reason I'd let her drag me here. If I'm going to get drunk with June, then I'm going to be smoking.
The seat of the booth was uneven, sloping me toward the wall. The wood was finished, but not very well, drips of urethane enshrined on the table and poking my back. I braced myself against the slope and pulled the pack of American Spirits I'd bought at the airport out. I offered one to June.
"Oh my gosh! I haven't smoked one of these in years. I haven't smoked in years, actually, but... because it's you." She took one and put it to her lips, waiting for me to light it, like I always did, back then.
Her eyes looked muddy in the lack of light, rather than the blue I remembered from so many lazy Sunday mornings when we'd ditched Mass with her family to engage in our own form of worship. Her skin wasn't as clear as it used to be, but her beauty had deepened, changed, not faded with the years since I'd seen her last.
I held her gaze while I lit my cigarette, perversely proud that I didn't cough at the first drag, both sweeter and more bitter than I remembered. I put my cherry to the tip of her coffin nail and she drew my fire in.
She gave a delicate cough, and shook her head, smiling.
A young man, looking hardly old enough to work, let along work in a bar, walked up to our table, or maybe danced is the better word for the maneuvers he had to execute to make his way through the awkwardly placed tables, chairs and bodies.
June turned on the charm, or maybe it was natural by now, a practice long since turned to habit. And she certainly had practiced a lot. I shut that thought down before it could sour my mood.
"What'll it be?" he asked.
"Chile shots," June answered. "She'll start with a Level 1. I'll take a 3."
The waiter crossed his arms. "No such thing as 3."
"Oh, come on now, is it Julio at the bar?" She half stood up and craned in the direction that I assumed the bar was hidden behind the clouds of smoke. She waved.
"Tell him it's Juney. He'll give you a 3 for me."
He headed back to the bar.
"Some service," I said.
"You've just forgotten what it's like here. He's not being rude, just, like, playing a part. We're the intruders here, you know."
My skin prickled as a swirling air current revealed a glimpse of the group in the corner booth. Withered skin, sickly pale, limbs and fingers just a little too long. I swallowed.
"You didn't tell me that they would be around."
Her mouth fell open for a moment before she took a drag for comfort.
"There's a lot of them around here. Maybe, more than when you were here, I guess. But it's always been like this, Kris. What's the big deal?"
"They're not human. Not anymore."
Her face shut down. She placed the cigarette in the ash tray and pushed it away. Shit. She hadn't changed at all.
The waiter thumped a tray down on the table between us. Two tall shot glasses, a salt shaker and a glass of what I assumed was milk. One of the shot glasses had a red swizzle in it. Both were almost filled with green liquid.
Before I could react, June passed the kid a twenty and he disappeared again. Her charm turned back on as she began to explain.
"This is the hottest shot you'll ever try - unless you go for a Level 2 or Level 3, of course. Green chiles, specially grown to a specific level of heat, and the rawest tequila you'll ever meet. The salt is for before shooting, just like a regular tequila shot. The milk is for when your mouth is on fire and you think you're going to die. Ready?"
Her smile probably fooled her clients into all manner of actions better for her than for them. I could practically taste how brittle it was. I took a long drag on my cigarette before putting it down.
We each licked and salted a patch of skin. There was a time when we'd have licked each other, but I knew now wasn't that time. Neither of us moved as we stared at each other.
"Come on, Kris, this is your first time. I want to watch the whole show!"
"Will you be putting on a show?"
"Then you go first."
She pouted, rolled her eyes and proceeded to lick her salt and slam her drink. Other than a long, almost orgasmic exhalation, she didn't react to what was supposedly too hot for just anyone to handle. She gave me a smile that made me yearn for those Sundays and took up her cigarette.
I licked my salt. As I brought the shot up, the fumes hit my nose and I coughed. June giggled. I frowned and knocked it back.
Lava. Slimy green lava. Bite of tequila. Every nerve in my mouth, throat and nose burning, flaming. My face broke out in sweat and I grabbed the glass of milk, sloshing some down my face as I gulped half of it down.
"Fuck," I said between gasping in cooling gulps of air. Then I slammed my fists on the table and took hold of myself, looking murder at June. Everything still burned, but I was not going to be such a damn pussy in front of her, not now. I sucked hard on the cigarette. It burned too, but I embraced the pain and lit a new one on the butt of the last.
June raised her eyebrows.
"Why did you bring me here?" My voice came out harsh, but I didn't care anymore. She put on a pose of innocence, and I slammed an open hand on the table. "Don't fucking lie to me."
"Because of them."
A man slid into the booth next to her, putting an arm around her and giving her cheek a quick kiss. Friendly, familiar. She smiled, a real, warm smile that made my heart ache, because it wasn't for me.
"Julio, I was wondering when you'd make your way over. This is my old friend Kris."
"Not that old," I said.
Julio reached a hand across to shake and as soon as I touched him I knew. He was a wick. And June...
"We're both on the new meds, Kris. They say it's not contagious that way."
I looked around the bar. Not everyone looked abnormal.
"Yeah. This is where we hang out."
We. I leaned back and stopped fighting the tilt of the bench. I felt better braced on the wall. There were so many things that I wanted to ask her. How? Why? When? But there were no answers. The best the medical community had was guesses. And I didn't really want to know June's answers, didn't want to hear her sweet voice telling me how and when and why...
Even with the best meds, that she probably couldn't afford, or wouldn't be able to for long, that voice would fade to a creak, that skin would crack and death would refuse to come. Eternal life, at least as far as we can tell. Just not in a way that anyone would want to live. Burning themselves to nothing, wicks without a candle, on and on and on... All because some rich guys didn't want to die.
June took another cigarette from my pack and Julio lit it at her lips. She took a drag and then handed it to him. They may as well have been alone together.
Would they stay together as the years turned, bound together by their common disease, or would they fight about her wasting her potential on sales when she could be doing something more meaningful with her life? Would they argue over whether his job prospects were worth a move to the coast or about whose turn it was to clean the shower?
I reached out and touched her cheek. It felt just like I remembered, soft and warm. But her face, when I touched it, was startled, even a little frightened. Of me.
"I've gotta go."
Julio held her, and I pretended I didn't see the tears spilling silently down her cheeks.
"I'll call you," I said.
"Sure," she said.
Lies. Just like last time. I guess some things never change.