ANNO DOMINI ~Allium~
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BOOK 2, CHAPTER 5: THE OYSTER'S WAY
A quick search on Sandra’s smartphone earned her a decently cheap hotel room along The Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s premier, upscale commercial district. The bustling commotion of the vicinity was something she missed about the city, and the constant hubbub around her synchronized well with the chaotic swirls within her brain.
“Enjoy your stay,” the overly cheery hotel receptionist told her. “Your room has one of our better views, so you can experience the city from an exceptional angel!”
“W-what?” Sandra stuttered, clutching her room’s card key with a twitchy hand.
“An exceptional angle!” the receptionist repeated.
“Ha! Yes, of course…” Sandra replied, laughing louder than she had control over.
Moments after entering her room, Sandra immediately stripped down and took a hot shower. Two days-worth of deodorant and perfume were easily washed away, but the anxiety would require a deeper scrub that the cheap, brittle hotel-brand bar soap couldn’t reach.
Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit… With her head pressed against the tiled shower wall, the hot water beating onto her face, she mulled over her situation. Calm down, don’t freak out, calm down, don’t freak out…
Out of the shower, she wrapped a towel around herself, not bothering to put on any clothes. She paced around the small hotel room, playing the day’s events repeatedly in her mind. The job interview, Regal’s odd behavior at the bar, the stalker angel in McKraken’s…
Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit…
She stopped pacing and looked at the closed blinds. Walking over to the window and peeking out, she saw the view of the city below, filled with people, vehicles, shops, restaurants, lights, and everything else she had longed for while away in the quieter countryside for those past few years.
Being anxious and jittery, she couldn’t stay put. With both hands at once, she smacked her cheeks, and the stinging sensation instantly halted the bothersome thoughts.
After a deep breath, which simultaneously brought in a sort of relaxation that filled her chest, Sandra put on some casual clothes, slipped on her sneakers, and headed out of the hotel. In that instant, when walking out the front entrance, when embracing the city face-to-face, she forcefully disbanded her woes as she headed down Michigan Avenue on foot. Eventually, she headed east toward the Lake Michigan coastline.
The overcast clouds remained overhead as Sandra observed Soldier Field from afar. While taking some pictures of the iconic football stadium with her phone, she remembered the 2011 NFC Championship Game in which the Chicago Bears lost against the Green Bay Packers, thereby missing their chance to attend Super Bowl XLV.
Sandra explored more of the busy district, refreshing her memory of the area and taking multiple random pictures with her phone for no reason. After a while, she came across a new bar that had good reviews according to the internet search she did on her phone. Knowing that her funds were tight, she made the whimsical decision to go inside and have a few more drinks.
The place wasn’t too upscale, and seemed aimed toward young adults and pop culture, which was perfect for her casual attire. A fair number of customers were inside, but she was able to find a seat at the bar. She took a look around, seeing the crowd of happy people who were together in groups, then gazed up at the nearby television streaming an episode of Marshall and Mud Flap, a show that Sandra could never understand, despite its huge success lasting over a decade.
Her leg bounced as she drummed her fingers on the bar. Sitting still would be difficult.
The front entrance door opened as a tired-looking young man with messy hair walked in…Bret Taurus. His day of skipping school had turned out to be boring, as his buddies were all busy or weren’t answering their phones. He’d heard about the cheap drinks and addicting curly fries at the new bar, so he wanted to swing by and check it out.
He scanned the room, noticing that most of the seats were taken. However, toward the end of the bar by the wall, close to the TV showing one of his favorite shows from childhood, was an open seat. More importantly, the seat in question was right next to a girl whose prettiness could be seen across the room.
Bret moved in without hesitation.
The voice caught Sandra’s attention, and she turned to see the scruffy boy talking to her. He looked young, but…rugged.
“This seat taken?” Bret asked Sandra.
She shook her head. “No.”
Feeling somewhat accomplished, Bret sat down as the bartender, a blonde young woman, approached them both.
“Hi there,” the bartender greeted. “Are you two together?”
Sandra was about to say no, but Bret was quick to speak.
“Put her on my tab.”
Surprised, Sandra didn’t protest. In fact, the thought of more free drinks made her want to smile, but she held her composure. She even found it humorous that she hadn’t paid for a single drink since arriving in the city, a trend that appeared set to continue.
“Oh…thanks,” she said to Bret.
The bartender asked for their identification. Bret opened his wallet and removed his convincing, well-made fake ID that he had paid a hefty price for. When the bartender checked it and handed it back without suspicion, he smirked to himself.
“Heh, sucker,” he said mockingly under his breath, putting his fake ID back into his wallet. He looked at Sandra and asked, “Whatcha drinking?”
“Uh, Pabst Blue Ribbon.”
“Oh, real classy,” Bret told her sarcastically with a snicker.
Sandra cracked a small smile, requiring much deliberation to do so.
“Don’t flatter me.”
What’s this guy up to? she wondered, eyeing the disheveled young man as he ordered the same for himself. I have a good idea, so better keep my guard up.
“I hear this place has badass curly fries,” Bret said, flipping through a copy of the menu he took from the menu holder.
“Do they?” Sandra glanced at the menu Bret had. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been here.”
“Me neither. I think I’ll try ’em.”
They received their beers. Sandra tried distracting herself by watching the bubbles float up her amber drink to join the ranks of the foamy head at the top of the glass.
“My name’s Bret. What’s yours?”
“Well, Sandra,” Bret held his beer up, “cheers.”
Sandra took a sip, tasting the contrast of its hops, malt, and crisp finish compared to the sweet, citrusy mango-lime margaritas from earlier. Unpleasant at first, another sip reinstated her acceptance that beer was beer.
“You from around here?” Bret asked after taking a drink.
“Originally, yeah,” Sandra replied. There was a nearly unnoticeable, solemn tone in her voice. “I just moved back.”
“Okay. Where’d you come back from?”
Bret thought about Ohio, but didn’t have much to think about. Wasn’t that another Midwest state? Seemed correct.
“What’s in Ohio?” he asked.
After another sip of beer, Sandra chuckled.
“Not what I was looking for, I guess?” she replied with an unsure half-smile and a shrug.
“What are you looking for, then?” Bret asked her, only mildly curious about her answer as he snuck in a quick scan of his bar partner; her clothes weren’t tight-fitting enough to give an accurate sense of her figure, but he imagined it couldn’t be very disappointing.
Sandra considered her answer, and considered it rather deeply. Her train of thought took such a long, precarious route that Bret could see the temporary disappearance of presence from her face—eyes lost, not seeing, reflecting the expanding hollow in her heart as her answer remained elusive.
“Probably nothing,” she said softly.
Without a good response of his own, Bret looked at her with confusion.
“You don’t know what you’re doing here?” he asked flatly.
“That’s not entirely true,” Sandra said, running her finger along the rim of her beer glass. “But…partially true.” She stared at her drink, gripping the glass.
A short silence followed during which Bret felt frustrated.
Damn, she’s gonna play hard to get, he thought distraughtly. Gotta play the charm.
“Well, don’t worry about it too much,” he told her. “You’re young, so the world is…uh, your oyster.” He looked at her, but she continued staring at the beer she was gripping. “What, you don’t like oysters?”
Something inside of Sandra lit up. She couldn’t explain it, but it made her smile and laugh. It was a feeling akin to hearing a good joke, except she didn’t know what was funny…it didn’t matter, though.
Bret wondered why she was suddenly laughing, and it irritated him a little.
Sandra quickly chugged over half her beer, exhaling loudly and robustly. She looked at Bret with a sudden gleam of energy in her eye, which actually made him recoil from shock.
“I hate oysters,” she said with a big smile. “The way they stay stuck inside their shell, and you need to pry them out, like they’re so caught up in themselves! Also, they’re slimy and disgusting.” She chuckled softly. “But you know what? Some curly fries sound good about now.”
Now that Bret had seen the enthusiasm and outgoing demeanor of the young woman named Alessandra Starling, he gave his own delighted grin as he flagged down the bartender.
“Yo, bartender!” he called, waving his hand. “Two orders of curly fries!”
Sandra finished off her beer, quickly adding, “And another round of PBRs!” while holding up her empty glass.
“Hey, whoa, I ain’t finished mine yet,” Bret said.
“Well, you’re gonna fall behind.”
That response seriously delighted Bret, who said, “We’ll see about that,” before putting the glass to his lips.
Two orders of curly fries, several conversation topics, and uncounted beers later, Bret suddenly found himself outmatched by his bar partner. Unprepared for the direction the encounter had taken, he was beginning to have trouble with, and doubts about, his decision to figure out what Sandra was about.
Having lost track of the drinks racking up on his tab, his growing concern mounted as Sandra was actually polishing off beers faster than him.
Little did Bret (and Sandra, for that matter) realize was Sandra’s repressed depression could drink like a fish. Her conversation topics aligned as such:
“It was right then,” Sandra said, her words pompously punctuated and slightly slurred, “when my ex-boyfriend had the gall…the gall to tell me that that slut completed him in ways that I could not! Me! Could not complete.”
“What a prick,” Bret said somewhat monotonously, basically in nod-and-agree mode as the warmth in his face became apparent. He took a sip of his beer—it tasted like water and went down effortlessly…so how was he falling behind in the number of drinks?
“So! So here’s what I did.” She drove her fingers into the lacquered surface of the bar with each syllable. “I said…I said, ‘Fine. Go get herpes, you skank-loving ass-clown!’”
“Ass-clown, eh?” Bret swigged the remainder of his glass, fighting to keep the foam on a one-way track down his gullet.
“I mean, I don’t know if she has herpes, but she might. She should.”
“Damn, you’re harsh,” Bret said before forcing out a bubbly burp.
“I may be harsh…” she pointed a finger a Bret, her hand taking an unnecessarily wide trajectory before stopping inches in front of Bret’s disgruntled face, “but you! You…are…needing another beer.”
“Uh, hey, maybe we should chill out. How many have you had now?”
Sandra took a moment to (probably) count the drinks she had consumed, before grinning goofily with a shrug.
“Pfft! Who’s counting? The real count begins now…with shots.”
Bret was impressed by Sandra’s willingness to continue, but he could almost hear his wallet whimpering from his pocket.
“Eh…I’m serious,” he said gruffly, “we need to slow down.”
“Don’t worry, I got it covered. I’ll pay for the shots. What sounds good? Gin? Whiskey? Irish car bombs? Slambushes? Alaskan shatter smashers?”
“…What were some of those called?”
“What sounds good? The names don’t have meaning. No meaning in names.”
“Well, if you’re paying,” Bret said with a smirk, “then you decide.”
At that moment, Sandra burped, clutching her throat with an unpleasant look that made Bret raise his eyebrows.
“Um, you okay?” Bret asked.
After a wrinkly-faced silence, Sandra asked, perplexed, “Uhhh…how many? How many did I have?”
Bret slapped his forehead.
“I already asked you that! And you ain’t been paying attention.”
The realization knocked on Sandra’s mental door.
Standing up, Bret gestured toward the back exit.
“Let’s take a smoke break,” he told her.
“But…but I don’t smoke.”
“Join me anyway?” Bret said with a shrug.
“Maybe. I gotta use the restroom.”
“I’m sure you gotta about now.”
The walk to the restroom informed Sandra of the quantity of alcohol she had consumed. Though she drank wine from time to time, it was uncommon for her to get as drunk as she was now. She gave the restroom door a jolly ol’ shove, which was much lighter than she had anticipated.
When she returned to the bar, Bret had not come back yet. For no reason, she walked out the back door and found several customers smoking in the alleyway, including Bret.
“You aren’t driving, are you?” Bret asked Sandra through smoky words, watching her walk over with loose legs.
“Nah, I’m walking,” she replied gleefully.
“Hmm, you be careful with that, too.”
Sandra glanced around at the alley and crowd. She seemed to fit right in with the group of people, other than the fact that she was the only person not smoking.
Bret offered her one of his cigarettes, which she declined, saying smoking was bad. After mocking her, Bret placed it back into its pack.
“You remind me of a guy I know,” he told her, thinking about Chris.
“I do?” Sandra asked curiously.
“Yeah. He’s a pampered goody two-shoes.”
“Geez, thanks.” Looking down the alley again, Sandra suddenly felt lethargic. She rubbed her face, realizing she was drunker than she was comfortable with.
“Well,” she said with a sigh, “I…I think I’m gonna get going, actually.”
Slightly panicked that his potential one-night stand was now in jeopardy, Bret said, “Already? What happened to all those shots you wanted to do?”
Sandra smiled faintly.
“The thing is,” Sandra replied, cautiously shifting her weight from one leg to the other, “I really don’t think I need to drink any more tonight.”
“Uh, well, how about getting some food somewhere?”
“No thanks. Those curly fries were enough.”
“Oh, so you gonna call it a night?”
Nodding, Sandra said, “I think so. I’m tired…and just want to go back to my hotel.”
“Where’s your hotel?” Bret asked, throwing his cigarette butt on the ground.
“Um…” Sandra looked around, not quite sure, “it’s, uh…it’s somewhere. It exists.”
She laughed, feeling embarrassed, and said, “I can look it up on my phone.”
“Let me walk you back,” Bret told her. “I have time.”
“Gotta pay the bill first,” he said, nodding toward the back entrance to the bar.
As Bret walked inside, Sandra stood in the alley and contemplated the situation. It was true that she was tired and could easily fall asleep in the hotel room, which was what she really wanted. While it was nice to have someone to talk with, she sensed some obvious ulterior motives behind Bret’s actions.
Guy gets girl drunk, she thought, guy offers girl food, guy walks girl back to hotel, guy gets girl alone…
She immediately felt foolish.
“This could be bad,” she said to herself nervously.
Before she could take a single step away, Bret came back outside.
“How the hell were those fries so expensive?” he grumbled. He looked at Sandra, his expression being eager and even somewhat devious. “You ready to go?” he asked, still looking at her.
Walking out of the alley, it seemed like a good idea to Sandra not to go back to her hotel with Bret, even if he had only claimed to walk with her.
I have a general idea of where my hotel is from here, she thought as they took to the sidewalk. Maybe I shouldn’t lead him straight there.
“Hey,” Bret said, “do you know where the hotel is, or don’t ya?”
“Yeah,” she said, “it’s this way.”
“Cool. I’ll just let you lead.”
“Uh, you know…you don’t need to walk me back. I’ll be fine on my own.”
With a pang of desperation, Bret replied, “I insist.”
With a pang of nervousness, Sandra replied, “Heh.”
“So, you said you’re originally from Chicago?” Bret attempted more small talk while heading down the street. “What part?”
That answer grabbed Bret’s attention.
“Really? That’s where I go to school!”
Sandra stopped walking, and Bret did the same.
“That’s the school I graduated from!” Sandra told him. She smiled, feeling nostalgic. “Four years ago.”
“Heh, small world, huh?” Bret said with a grin, rubbing the back of his head.
“Wait…that means you’re a student there?” Sandra asked.
“Yeah.” When he saw Sandra narrow her eyes and look at him disapprovingly, he added, “W-what?”
“You’re a high schooler,” she said, staring the boy down. “And you were drinking with me.”
“Ack!” Bret had to cover himself up quickly. “Uh, I’m a super senior. Held back, and stuff.”
“Er, like a super-duper-deluxe senior!”
“How old are you?” Sandra’s glare intensified.
“Twenty-one,” the nineteen-year-old replied, sweating.
“Blah, dammit!” Bret grunted, shrugging with defeat. “Okay, I’m nineteen. You busted me.”
Sandra went pale.
“Crap,” she uttered meekly. “I let a minor buy me alcohol.” A swarm of angry butterflies fluttered in her booze-filled stomach. “What are the charges for that? Are there charges for that? Oh man…”
“Eh, I think you’ll be fine,” Bret muttered. “My fake ID is really convincing.”
Grabbing her head with both hands, Sandra groaned.
“I don’t believe this.” She looked at Bret and gritted her teeth. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”
Bret shrugged. “I just don’t care.”
Sandra balled her fists before running her hands through her black hair with frustration.
“Glorious Chicago!” she blurted out, making nearly a dozen people look her way. “What an adventure this is turning out to be!”
“Hey, c’mon,” Bret told her impatiently. “Calm down, okay?”
“Shaddup!” Sandra’s slurred speech was making a comeback. “Just stay away from me! You’re nothing but a troublemaker!”
Bret rolled his eyes.
“So,” he said, “does this mean you don’t want me to walk you back?”
She wrapped her arms around herself. “Of course that’s what this means! I know what you’re after.”
“Sheesh, make it sound so bad, why don’tcha?”
Flabbergasted, Sandra said, “It is bad!” She tightened her hug around herself, unconsciously for security.
With a sneer, the troublemaking teen stepped toward the young woman, making her quiver.
“Yeah, I lied about my age,” he said smoothly, “but what’s the big deal? You didn’t do anything wrong. Let’s just spend one night together.” He leaned in close with a sly smile. “What do ya say, Toots?”
Embarrassment swelled into Sandra’s cheeks.
At the end of her rope, the limitations on Sandra’s temper instantly collapsed. Being lied to by a teenager who wanted into her pants was one thing, but being called “Toots”…unforgivable.
With ninja-like prowess, Sandra thrust her hand out and grabbed Bret by the throat, lifting him into the air. Bret clutched Sandra’s arm with both hands, gasping for breath as he was forced to look the vehement young woman in the face.
He was unable to break free. Despite his recent superhuman strength, he could not break free.
“Jeepers, bitch!” Bret choked while his feet dangled above the sidewalk. “You’re really strong!”
That particular statement had a profound effect on Sandra, and she dropped the boy to his feet while she looked at her hand.
“I am strong,” she said in awe.
“Don’t act surprised,” Bret muttered, rubbing his neck.
Without warning, Sandra grabbed Bret by the throat again, this time with her other hand, and lifted him off the ground once more. Bret gasped and choked, but Sandra merely lifted him up and down like a small dumbbell.
“What’s up with this?” Sandra didn’t know how to respond to her newfound strength. “This isn’t supposed to be!”
Freed again from the death grip, Bret jumped away, putting himself at more than arm’s length from the young woman.
“Whatcha mean it ain’t supposed to be?” he asked croakily, rubbing his neck more.
Sandra looked at him with wide eyes.
“How am I this strong?”
She reached for Bret’s throat again, but he swatted her hand away.
“Cut that out! My windpipe is important.”
“Is there a problem here, you two?”
Sandra and Bret were approached by a police officer who had overheard some of the commotion between them; it was Officer Lars Briggs. Bret scowled at the officer as Sandra put forth effort to sober up as quickly as possible.
“No, sir,” she said with a big smile. “We were just a little rowdy.”
The African American officer looked at both of them, quickly sizing them up as a couple who had been arguing.
“You need to dial it down,” he told them sternly. “You two were making a ruckus in public and making people uncomfortable.”
“Ah, sorry,” Sandra replied.
“Have you two been drinking?” Briggs asked, smelling the alcohol on their breath from three feet away.
Bret looked away with irritation as Sandra continued to explain.
“Yeah, and we were on our way back from the bar.”
“Where are you going?”
Sandra glanced at Bret, who didn’t make eye contact.
“To our…hotel room,” she said slowly, regretting it immediately.
Bret wanted to smirk, but hid it.
“You two should go straight there,” Briggs told them. “If you cause a disturbance, I can fine you for public intoxication.”
“Are you driving?”
“Good. Be safe.”
Briggs walked away, leaving them alone. When the officer was gone, Bret snickered.
“Going to ‘our’ hotel room?” he said.
“You didn’t try to get me busted for sexual harassment?”
“Just leave me alone.”
“You were scared,” Bret mocked. “How much effort did it take not to sway or slur in front of him?”
“Um, a lot.”
They looked at each other, then laughed. Seconds later, Sandra groaned, almost crying.
“What a day,” she whined, slumping over. “What a day.” She grabbed her head, laughing. “Yeah, great times. Real great. Greater than great. Better than best. Haha! Yeah, that’s for sure! More sure than sure-tainly certain…”
“You’re actually a nutcase, ain’t you?” Bret murmured, putting a bent cigarette in his mouth and lighting it.
“You don’t even know the start of it.”
She looked at the overcast sky, relinquishing herself to the infinite vastness far beyond the atmosphere…or maybe it was just the beer.
Sandra wanted to open up herself; there were heavy weights on her mind, and she didn’t want to be like an oyster, closed off and hard to get to.
“Wanna hear something real crazy?” she asked.
“I met somebody today…” she said thoughtfully, ignoring Bret’s answer. “I was eating chicken nuggets…”
Somebody save me, Bret thought despairingly.
“It was an angel. That’s what it looked like. But…I think somebody must’ve spiked my nuggets.” Sandra laughed again, not feeling any comedic relief for herself. “Who the fuck spikes chicken nuggets? That’s why I don’t like fast food.” She gazed down the street, which appeared to swim for a bit in her intoxicated vision. “Meh, whatever. You probably don’t even believe me. You lied to me, so I guess I’m ‘lying’ to you. Now we’re even.”
She looked at Bret, but the expression she was met with was not what she had expected. The delinquent stared at her, eyes big and mouth open just enough to keep his cigarette from falling out. How he stared made Sandra uneasy, and she felt goosebumps run up and down her arms and legs.
Sandra had meant to open an oyster, and had unknowingly given Bret a pearl.
“What?” she asked cautiously, staring at Bret.
“You saw…an angel?”
“Y-yeah. I mean, it’s stupid, right? When I get back to the hotel, I’m gonna do a bunch of research on hallucinations and mental disorders.”
Bret didn’t look away from her.
“What’d he look like?” he asked abruptly, engrossed in Sandra’s tale.
“Huh? What’s up with you all of a sudden?”
“What’d he look like?” Bret asked louder, moving toward Sandra. “It was a man, right? Long hair, blond? A little taller than me? A smug grin that you wanna smack off his pretty-boy face?”
Sandra couldn’t believe it—Bret’s description of the angel was spot on.
“Uh, yeah! Wait, how do you know? Tell me!”
Feeling utterly annoyed and unenthusiastic, Bret looked away from Sandra. He took a deep drag off his bent cigarette and blew the smoke out his nose.
“We’re gonna need more beer,” he told her dully.