The clock wound down. I watched Marq and Nayeli dance, feeling kinda bored and drinking until I lost count of how many I’d had. Eventually I clocked out for a few hours. When I woke up, I was the only one still hanging around Marq’s private car. Even Figaro and Leo, bless their piece-of-crap souls, had left after moving me to the couch and draping a blanket over me.
I groaned. Well, sure enough, was going to have a hangover sooner or later. I could feel it, kinda like how you know when you’re gonna throw up. Or maybe I just really did need to throw up, who knows?
Recalling an old recipe the spriggan taught me, I rounded up some potted plants and made a tincture of skullcap and St. John’s wort in the bar sink by mashing it all together with everclear and vodka. Normally tinctures are supposed to seep, but right then, that didn’t seem pressing. As long as I could get at those natural pain-relievers, it was good enough for me. Besides, mashing them up was a good enough substitute for soaking in solvent for a few weeks, right?
Taking a big gulp of leaf juice, I pocketed the rest in empty beer bottles and left, rubbing my head the whole way back to our compartment.
“Ah, back in the land of the living, I see,” Marq said snidely. “You really should’ve thought twice before loading up before you even got to dinner, Al.”
“Bite me,” I said, giving Marq the bird.
“What did you just say?!” Nayeli yelled as she stood up, but Marq gently tugged on her arm and brought her back down.
“Go get ready, Al. We’ll be waiting for you here.”
I nodded and left, trying to find our compartment at the end of the hall. Our room number was 1804, but I hadn’t been paying much attention to the layout of the train. Even if I could remember all the separate details like catalogued frames from a camera, putting it all together was still hard. Yet another way super-memory isn’t what people think it is.
“GET OUT!” I heard a voice that sounded like Felicity scream, and all of a sudden Annie was kicked out of our room, the door slamming behind her as she stumbled out.
I ran, or rather hobbled quickly at a moderate pace to catch up to her, and helped carry her.
“You told her, didn’t you?” I asked.
“I don’t know what it was I did,” Annie said, looking like she was about to burst into tears. “I just told her that the Marquis was seeing someone else and that she should find someone better than him to marry and then she told me that I was a lying rat and to never talk to her again and to keep my big fat nose out of her business and then she kicked me out of the room and-”
“Okay, I think I get it,” I said, stopping her. She sniffed, burying her face in my shoulder to cry and let off some steam. I let her.
“It’s okay, Annie,” I said, hugging her. “Let me go and talk to her.”
“Really? You’d do that for me, Al?”
“Yeah, of course. I’m sure it was all just a misunderstanding. If I tell her what’s going on, maybe she’ll apologize.”
Shutting the door behind me, I approached Felicity from behind.
“What the hell was that all about?” I said, putting a firm hand on her shoulder. “Who told you it was okay to talk like that to my baby sister?”
Felicity whipped around like she hadn’t realized I was there, knocking my arm away, and I took a step back. Her body was lighter and more fragile than I was expecting. When she tried to shake me off, it felt like I was wrestling with someone who was all just skin and bones. That’s not why I let go.
I let go because of her eyes.
The way she stared at me was cold and vicious, like an insect, slowly examining me, trying to find out who I was and why I was here. There was nothing but seething, calculating contempt behind those eyes. Finally, it looked like she recognized me.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said. Turning her back to me again, she continued what she’d been doing without a second thought. She clearly thought of me as being beneath her. I suppose I expected the mayor’s daughter to think that way. I might’ve been shocked if she didn’t. Picking up the strength that had been knocked out of me by her icy stare, I confronted her again.
“I want you to go outside and apologize to my sister,” I said, pointing at the door. “Right now.”
She didn’t do anything except continue pushing aside various dresses she’d stored in the closet. I grit my teeth.
“I mean it. I don’t care if you are the mayor’s daughter, or Marq’s fiancee, or whatever. You don’t get to talk to my sister like that. Go out there and apologize to her. She adores you, it’s the least you can do to make it up to her after all the things you said to her.”
I waited, but I still wasn’t getting any reaction.
“Are you even listening to me?!”
“… Andre, was it?”
I frowned. “Alfonso.”
“Alfonso, right. Sorry, I usually don’t bother remembering the names of the help. I find it’s uneconomical, like adding extra baggage. The reason I’m not going to apologize to your sister is because there’s nothing for me to apologize for.”
“What did you say?”
“I said there’s nothing for me to apologize for. I did nothing wrong. I just defended my reputation and the reputation of my future husband,” she said, picking out a dress. “In fact, I’d say that she should be the one apologizing, for defamation of character.”
I snorted. “You’ve got some fucking nerve. Well take it from someone who knows. She’s right. Marq is seeing someone else. In fact, he’s screwing her in brains out every day. I’ve seen it.”
“And?” I repeated, confused.
“What does any of that have to do with me?” she asked. Then she started taking off her business suit.
“W-What the hell are you doing?!” I asked, shocked by the suddenness of her behavior.
“Isn’t it obvious?” she said. “I’m taking my clothes off. I can’t wear a dress over my suit.”
“Yeah, but I’m still here! Don’t you wanna save the show for Marq or something?”
Sighing, she said, “Like I care about what that drooling simian thinks of my body. Whether he’s entranced by my beauty or disgusted to the point of sickness, I couldn’t care less.”
By now I could see everything, and she didn’t seem to care. The cup of her shapely breasts, not too big and not too small, perfectly proportioned in every way and artfully symmetrical. The curves of her hips, full and ready to both give and receive life, the ideal child-bearing hips. It was all visible. As we used to say back in med school anatomy class, she was definitely a “smokin’ hot momma”.
Any ordinary man would’ve fallen for a beauty like her instantly. It was only her bad luck that Marq didn’t have eyes for her. After all, her opposition didn’t exactly play by the rules. No matter how beautiful a human being you were, a human could never be as attractive as a demigod. That was just a fact. Marq had been claimed by someone else a long time ago. No matter what she did, she could never catch Marq’s eye like Nayeli did. But she certainly could catch mine.
I swallowed, not sure what to make of the situation. “Ms. Felicity, are you trying to seduce me?”
“What? No. Why would I ever try to seduce you, you worthless pile of human garbage?” she said without pity.
“Then why are you… I thought maybe you were trying to get back at Marq for…”
“How many times do I have to keep telling you I don’t care?”
“Then why did you freak out at my sister?” I said, remembering why I was angry in the first place.
“Because she was trying to interfere with my business, as are you. You’re trying to spread dangerous rumors that my husband to be is sleeping with another woman.”
“They’re not rumors,” I said. “He really is! Get over it!”
“There’s nothing to get over. Like I said, I don’t care. I don’t expect him to love me, he can do what he wants. And he shouldn’t expect me to love him back.”
“Because spreading rumors like that is bad for business,” she said, slipping one leg into a large feminine formal dress. “Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant. What matters is whether or not people believe it. That gets them started talking about it, which affects approval ratings, which affect sales and poll results, which affect the balance of local politics for which I and my father are responsible. Projecting the image of a happy, successful nuclear family with a house and two point five children is what’s best for our business, and as long as he can keep people believing that, I don’t care if he nestles up next to a goat at night. But as soon as your sister, and you for that matter, start opening your big fat mouths and spreading rumors about how my husband is sleeping with another woman, you’ve officially overstepped the boundaries of what I will tolerate.”
She snapped her shoulder straps in place and fit her hands snugly inside a pair of opera house gloves before turning to face me.
“Is that understood, Alonso?”
I frowned. “Understood, ma’am.”
Walking past me with a click-clack noise, she stopped to grab her purse on the way out and opened the door. No words were exchanged between her and Annie as she left to go to the dining cart, and when she was gone, Annie poked her head into the room.
“H-How did it go, Al?”
She tried to talk to me but I was still a little too shocked to speak. What I’d just met was a person who treated love like a tool. Less than a passion, less than even a sport, she treated it like it was something to be used. She was a machine, I’m sure of it.
“Al…?” Annie said.
Snapping out of it, I said, “Sorry Annie, I was kinda lost in thought there. Listen, you shouldn’t talk to her anymore, okay?”
“You mean she didn’t forgive me?” Annie said, looking like she was about to cry again.
“No,” I said sadly. “No she didn’t.”
I wanted to say something more than that, tell her something comforting like “she’s just a bad person” or “she’s really just incredibly lonely and bitter”. But after the words “no she didn’t”, I couldn’t think of anything like that. What I’d seen in there I’d never seen before. I mean, I know evil. I’ve seen it, and I’ve done it. What I’d seen in there was cold pragmatism, without an inkling of what right and wrong or any kind of human emotion felt like because it had never experienced it. Someone who knows only the feeling of cold contempt and to whom the feelings of normal people are as alien to them as they are to others. How are you supposed to explain something like that?
Instead, I just held her, and let her sniffle softly into my shoulder. I knew what it felt like. Losing a hero. It feels a lot like a sucker punch, and it catches you off guard. If I gave her some time to adjust and let off some steam, she’d regain her balance emotionally.
“Come on, Annie,” I said, lifting her up and trying to be comforting. “It’s not that bad. Tell you what. Let’s skip out on the dining cart and just buy some snacks from the food cart. Then we can take ’em down to the reefer and eat with Sostene. How does that sound?”
She sniffed. “Okay…”
And you know what? That’s exactly what we did. We bought a bunch of potato chips, candy bars, crackers, Tootsie pops and caramel and we shared ’em with Sostene, along with some ice cold brewskies (root beer for Annie). We sat there covered in blankets and we just chatted it up and had a good time until Annie and I both fell asleep. I wondered if I should ask Sostene about his father again, but it seemed like a bad time. Call me what you will, but I know when everybody’s having a good time. Far from me to ruin that.
The next day, in the early hours of the morning, the train finally pulled into the station in Arizona. For better or for worse, our “vacation” had ended.