Welcome to Great Falls – A Serial Novel – Part 23

November 7, 2014, Friday

Brandon felt the wetness of drool between his cheek and pillow. He wiped his face with the back of his hand and rolled over to face the ceiling. The fan spun even though it was off. So did the room. He didn’t remember crawling up to stairs from the living room and tried to remember the last thing he did the previous night. Nothing came to mind. But, his head throbbed and he felt each pulse of his heart at his ears. He looked to the nightstand for water but the only thing he saw was an ashtray with the ash skeleton of a burned out cigarette. His promise to not smoke in the sleeping area lasted less than a month.

When the spinning stopped, Brandon rolled out of bed and walked gingerly down the stairs. His legs ached to a warm burn, and he steadied himself by holding onto the railing. He saw a cast iron skillet on the stovetop but didn’t remember cooking. In the fridge was a half-eaten rib-eye steak with leftover scrambled eggs. It reeked of hot sauce, and Brandon almost threw up from the smell as he chugged a bottle of Gatorade before starting a pot of coffee.

Brandon grabbed the empty cans and bottles on the coffee table and tossed them in the recycling bin on the balcony. The sun had already warmed up the morning.

While Brandon cleaned the skillet, someone knocked on the door. He ignored it. Half a minute later the knocking turned into banging. He wiped the skillet clean with a paper towel and hung it on the wall. Even louder banging.

He opened the door to see an angry Elaine.

“If you don’t want to see me anymore, just tell me. Don’t do this bullshit where you don’t answer your phone and don’t answer the door when I knock,” she said.

He stood in silence.

“Fine,” she said and walked away.

He closed the door and went back to the kitchen, where the coffee was ready.

***

As he chopped lettuce, Hector was nervous. So nervous, he made sure to be extra careful with the knife. He knew the conversation was coming and had thought about calling in sick, but he couldn’t run away from the situation forever. Surprisingly, he felt relief when Kao walked in and asked George to run down the street to pick up some coffee.

Kao went behind the bar and poured himself a screwdriver. He made Hector his usual Jack and Coke.

“Why didn’t you talk to Amy or me?” Kao asked.

Hector thought for a second. “Pride, man.”

“How long have you been doing it?”

“Three months or so.”

“How long have you been working with me?”

“Seven years.”

Kao downed his drink and poured another one. He thought of his upbringing and remembered the shabby apartments. The bar was silent.

“Where do you live now?” Kao asked.

“Some apartments by the highway.”

“I have some empty houses around town. I want you and your wife to find one that works for you.”

“Serious?”

“Yes. You’re pretty handy, right?”

“Basic stuff. Some electrical. Are the houses in bad shape?”

“Nah, nothing that serious. Some of them need to be cleaned up a little bit. I already have crews out working on the serious stuff. Find one that works for you and we’ll take it from there. And if you ever need anything in the future, please call me.”

***

Vanessa felt a sense of relief and happiness after deciding she wanted to go to graduate school, but she hadn’t decided what to study and didn’t know what schools provided ROTC programs. Regardless, she deserved a celebration, and whenever Vanessa wanted to really celebrate she did so by herself.

She sat on a barstool at McNally’s during the dead time between happy hour and the late party crowd. There were a few strays at the pool table and bar, but it was slow enough for her to talk about her plans with Linda the bartender.

Kao walked in with Biggie and James in tow and headed straight for the cowbell hanging above the bar. He rang it loudly and the bar quieted before everyone erupted in cheers when they realized they were in line for a free drink.  The three had just returned from the high school football game, where Great Falls finished the regular season undefeated for the second year in a row.

The men settled at a table not too far away from the bar.

When Biggie came up for their second round, he stood a couple stools away from Vanessa.

“You’re ex-military, right?” Vanessa asked.

“Former,” he responded with a stern face before smiling.

“Huh?”

“I parted on good terms. But, yes, I was an Army grunt.”

“How do you feel about ROTC?”

“The paper pushers?” Biggie said. “I’m just kidding. I have no problem with them. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into. You do put yourself out there.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, you’re joining the military, and when you do that, there’s always the chance of being deployed to a warzone.”

Vanessa contemplated the idea while she nursed her bourbon, and when a drunk young man across the bar offered to buy her a drink, she politely declined. No one in her family had a military background, and she hadn’t talked about it with her friends who had the experience. She looked to Biggie, but he was in a deep conversation with his companions.

When Vanessa turned back around, the drunk guy had sidled up next to her.

“You’re too good for my drink?” he slurred.

“No, I just always buy my own drinks.”

“What are you drinking?”

“Bourbon.”

“That kind of night, huh,” he said and put his arms around her.

“Please don’t touch me.”

“Whenever a chick drinks whiskey, she’s out looking for it.”

Vanessa pushed him away, but he returned to his position next to her. She asked him to leave her alone. Instead, he wrapped his arm around her and pulled out a wad of cash. “I got plenty of money. Let me buy you a–”

Biggie had him by collar with his arm twisted behind his back. The cash fell to the ground, and Biggie led the drunk to the front door, where he was handed over to the bouncers, who were setting up the cash register. Biggie went back to where Vanessa was sitting to gather the drunk man’s cash in order to return it.

***

“If you don’t see a way to reach your answer, just move to the next question. But, remember that you’ve skipped a question and make sure you answer it in the correct row on your Scantron,” Saan said to his classmates.

They sat around the dining room table studying for the SAT.

“Is Isabelle taking the test with us tomorrow?” one of guys asked.

“No, she took it in October.”

“What did she score?”

“She’s keeping that a secret, but I’m sure she did fine. She’s much better at reading and writing than me.”

The kids around the table laughed because they knew he got a perfect score.

“I just need to score high enough so I don’t lose my scholarships,” Paul Worrell said.

Paul was Saan’s best friend since elementary school. They played every sport together— football, basketball and baseball—but were on different academic paths. Had it not been for sports, they probably wouldn’t have known each other because they didn’t have any of the same classes. It wasn’t from a lack of effort on Paul’s part. He was dyslexic and had ADHD, and when it came to education, his confidence had been shattered from his parents’ negative influence. He also worked as a waiter and busboy at Ranchers Steakhouse and Grill to help with the bills, so most nights he didn’t have more than a couple hours, if any, for homework. But when it came to anything physical, he was a savant blessed with speed and coordination.

“You’ll be fine, Paul. Just relax and don’t worry about it,” Saan said. “Worst case scenario, you sign a baseball contract in the spring.”

“That’s no sure thing. Besides, I want to go to college even though I suck at taking tests.”

“Think positive. I promise you’ll be fine. Let’s get some rest guys. It’s almost one o’clock and we have to be up at six.”

With everyone retreated to their rooms, Saan took a few pulls off the bottle in his closet. He wanted to make sure to get enough sleep for the morning drive.

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