Chapter Thirteen: Alcohol

As it turns out, Wolf is in a decent enough mood by the time we find him. He has plans to meet with the Queen later that night to discuss trading, but tells us we're welcome to help ourselves to some alcohol in the meantime; the cost will be subtracted from whatever deal he works out with the Queen.

"None of the ladies, though," Wolf says, pointing a finger at Pretty Boy. "They're expensive as shit, and we can't afford it right now."

"Seriously?" Pretty Boy asks, looking pained.

"You can find something in the next town we get to for a hell of a lot cheaper."

"Yeah, if I want diseased hags with missing teeth…"

"I mean it. No women you have to pay for. We need the credit for big-ass explosives."

Pretty Boy throws up his hands in exasperation. Tank, I can't help but notice, looks similarly disappointed. I look away from both of them, reddening.

Everyone cheers up soon enough when we break out the booze. It's a big, plastic container with a sloppy label I can't read. The liquid inside is a deep red-brown like wood.

"Ahh, cheap as shit whiskey, just the way I like it," Tank says. He takes a hearty drink and passes it to me. Just a whiff of it is enough to make my eyes water.

"Woah. Smells just like my papa used to," I say, which makes everyone laugh for some reason. I quickly pass it on to Pretty Boy, who plugs his nose and takes a swig. As soon as he swallows he starts coughing.

"Holy shit," he chokes out, and hands the bottle to Wolf with a grimace.

"As tempting as that is," Wolf says, giving the bottle a sniff, "I'm about to meet with the Queen, so…"

"Sounds like a good excuse to drink," Tank says.

"Yeah, actually." Wolf grins, raises the bottle in a cheers, and takes a long gulp. "That's fucking disgusting," he says, still grinning, and hands it back to Tank.

"You drinking, Kid?" Tank asks.

"Um, I don't think so." From what I've seen, drunkenness almost never leads to anything good.

"Aw, why not?" Wolf walks over and claps me on the back. "Loosen up, little one."

"I've never really drunk before." The bottle ends up in my hands again, and I stare into it uneasily.

"I bet you'd never eaten people before you met us, either," says Wolf. "And look how far you've come!"

"Well, if you put it like that…" No, actually, it still doesn't sound appealing at all. But everyone is staring at me, so I figure it's worth a try. I raise the bottle to my mouth and take a small sip.

The taste hits me like a truck. It's god-awful, and the burn in my throat is worse. I start choking as soon as it goes down, and nearly drop the bottle. Pretty Boy grabs it out of my hand while Wolf slaps me on the back heartily.

"Good girl, taking it like a champ," Wolf says. I'm coughing too hard to answer. Eyes tearing up and throat burning, I wonder why the hell anyone would put themselves through this torture. Even when the burning recedes, I'm left with a nasty aftertaste. The warmth in my belly is nice, though.

"Well, I better be off," Wolf says. He snatches the bottle out of Pretty Boy's hands and takes another long swig, and pats me on the head. "Have fun, guys. But not too much fun." He flicks me on the nose in what might be meant as an affectionate gesture before heading to the door. He pauses only to whisper something in Dolly's ear, and he's gone.

"So now what?" Pretty Boy asks. He holds on to the bottle greedily, taking tiny sips.

"Now we have fun," Tank says, putting an arm around his shoulders and stealing the bottle from his hand.

We wander the Queen's mansion until we find a promising room. It's a big dining hall, but not a luxurious and stiflingly fancy one like the one we ate in with the Queen. This one is more understated, with fewer decorations and a plain wooden table covered in crude carvings and stains. It smells like sweat and dust. The room is full of traders and raiders and other wasteland wanderers, many of them carrying bottles of liquor like us. It seems this is the place everyone comes to mingle. Some sit in small groups and speak in lowered voices, always hushing their conversation when someone passes close enough to overhear them. Others, though, seem much more relaxed. Cards and dice are strewn over the table, with rowdy groups playing games and shouting at each other.

We join one of the groups, which is playing some sort of card game I can't even begin to understand. The guys play while I watch and try my best to follow. Dolly stands behind us. One obviously drunk trader attempts to speak with her, and she responds with utter silence and a devastatingly cold glare. No one else attempts to be friendly.

A storm of noise surrounds my seat. I watch the game go by without knowing what's happening, and listen to Pretty Boy chat with the other players. He has a gift for striking up conversations, talking with strangers as if they're old friends.

With nothing else to do, I take small drinks from the bottle whenever it's passed my way. It never tastes good, exactly, but it seems a little less awful with each sip. A good feeling comes over me, too. Before too long I feel all the aches and pains fade away, replaced by a numbness and almost floaty feeling. I almost forgot how good it felt not to have a constant, throbbing pain in my hand.

So I drink, and keep mostly to myself. It's interesting to listen and watch what's happening around me. There's such a strange variety of people in the room. There are traders trying to sell their goods to whoever will listen, men selling their services as bodyguards or bounty hunters, raiders like us enjoying a danger-free day. Among them all slip the Queen's women selling their wares, and from what I see, they seem to be having the most luck of anyone. And it's no surprise; they are beautiful, really beautiful, as well as clean and well-dressed. That's not something you can find easily in the wastelands. I've always considered myself lucky to not be pretty. Beauty is short-lived in the wastes; everything eats it up so fast.

And while the idea of prostitution still makes me uncomfortable, I'm in no place to judge. Everyone is trying to get by. And it's nice to see how everyone from different paths can get along in a place like this.

I'm startled out of my content little bubble when one of the men playing suddenly slams his fists on the table. The illusion of peace shatters like glass. Conversation ceases as he stands up, towering above everyone. He's a big, thick, scarred man covered in ragged scraps of clothing. He must be either a bodyguard or a raider, and I'd guess the latter.

He points a beefy and accusatory finger in Pretty Boy's direction.

"Cheater!" he shouts, causing heads all around the room to turn in this direction. The circle of card-players is tense and motionless aside from him.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Pretty Boy says. He doesn't cower away like I'd expect; the liquor seems to have lent him some courage. The raider stares down at him, scowling, his face purple with anger.

Behind us, I notice Dolly has pulled out a knife and is holding it casually. She doesn't even raise her eyes to the standing man, but the threat is clear. He notices it, and slowly sinks back into his seat.

And then there's a gun in his hand. I can't even tell where he pulled it from. As my head jerks towards him, the world takes a few seconds to catch up, making me realize I may have had a bit more to drink than I originally thought. It's hard to keep up with the sudden commotion around me. All I know is within a few seconds, literally everyone at the table has a gun in hand… except me.

I clutch the bottle I'm holding and shrink down in my seat, wondering if I should slip under the table and hide.

"I didn't cheat," Pretty Boy insists. Though he has a revolver, he's halfway out of his chair, as if he has yet to decide whether he wants to fight or run. He teeters slightly, eyes flicking nervously around the circle. "And even if I did, what would it matter? We're just playing for fun, aren't we?"

Even with alcohol slurring his words and a gun in his hand, he sounds calm, collected, and coaxing. I glance around to see if anyone is convinced, and find only blank, unreadable faces. Aside from my friends, the other four men playing cards don't even seem to be together, and nobody seems quite sure where to point their guns. One of them rapidly switches between keeping his gun on Pretty Boy and pointing it at the man across from him. He looks completely baffled by the situation.

The humor in the situation strikes me and, to my horror, I feel laughter starting to bubble up within me. I can't fight it; no matter how serious the situation may be, it still looks pretty ridiculous. I let out a loud laugh before I can stop myself, and then slap a hand over my mouth.

Everyone's eyes move to me. Again I wish I could disappear.

There's a tense silence. The man who started it all starts to grin, and then to guffaw. He slides his gun into the back of his pants, still laughing, and sits down again. He gestures for the game to continue. Everybody relaxes, and the weapons disappear. The card playing resumes. Tank reaches over and ruffles my hair, giving me his big, good-natured smile as he takes the bottle from my hands.

"Well, this feels lighter… how much you been drinking, Kid?"

"Enough," I say with a grin, and he laughs.

After about a half hour longer, I start to think perhaps it was more than enough. I feel myself growing more and more nauseous as the alcohol creeps up on me. I find it hard to focus on anything or talk to anyone; my vision blurs, and I feel like I'm viewing everything through a haze. The nice, numb feeling has been replaced with one of disorientation and the distinct sense I'm going to be sick soon.

"I think I'm gonna go to bed," I say eventually, not even sure who I'm speaking to. If I'm going to upchuck, I don't want to do it here.

I push out my chair and stand up, only to immediately stagger as the world tries to slide out from beneath my feet.

"Whoa." I grab onto the nearest solid object for support. It turns out to be Dolly, who shoots me a confused look. "Ah… sorry."

"You alright, Kid?" Tank asks. He reaches over to grab my arm and steady me.

"I'm fine. Just, uh…"

"Drunk," Tank supplies.

"Yeah, maybe that."

"How many fingers am I holding up?" he asks, holding up a hand. I squint as my vision blurs.

"Is that a trick question?"

Tank laughs.

"Really though, Kid, you can't just wander around here alone. It's not safe."

I wave him away, shaking my head.

"I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine." My nausea hasn't receded, and the thought of spewing out my stomach here seems like more and more of a threat. "I really gotta go, though." I shake off his grip on my arm and slip away from the others, making my unsteady way through the crowd filling the room. I accidentally bump into several people. Unfamiliar faces swim in the air around me, some hostile and some amused. I wander through a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke that almost makes me gag. I'm pretty sure someone slaps my ass at some point, with enough force to nearly knock me over. It feels like I'll never find my way to the door; the whole room tilts and spins and it's suddenly hard to remember which direction I'm heading and where I came from.

Finally, though, I find my way to the door — or, rather, stumble right into it. I fumble with the doorknob before swinging it open and bursting into the open hallway outside.

As the door swings shut behind me, it has the effect of turning off all the sound with a switch. The quiet is instantly relieving. I pause to take a few deep breaths of air that isn't laden with the smell of sweat and alcohol and smoke. I want to stop and curl up on the floor here, but the thought of a bed to slip into keeps me going. I stare down at my feet as I walk, putting all of my concentration into putting one foot in front of the other. I cover ground with frustrating slowness. I only make it halfway down the hall.

"Hey Kid, wait up!"

I turn toward the voice sluggishly, trying to figure out its source as the hallway lurches and shifts in my vision. I try to stand steady as the figure approaches. To my surprise, it's Pretty Boy. His feet seem almost as unsteady as mine as he makes his way over.

"Hi?" I say uncertainly.

"Hi," he replies, stepping closer. He rests a hand on my back, standing too close to me. I don't understand. My mouth opens and hangs there uncertainly as I try to figure what to say.

I don't realize I'm moving backward until I hit the wall. I think maybe I stumbled, but then understand he must have pushed me there. His hands are on my hips all of a sudden, his face very close, his breath warm and heavy with liquor.

"What-" I start to say, and then his mouth covers mine.

It's not at all like I thought it would be. I've never been much for romance, but still, I know this is wrong. It feels wrong. It's too much, his tongue in my mouth and his hands all over, his touch sloppy in his drunkenness. He tastes like that awful booze and it makes me nauseous all over again. His body presses hard against me, but it doesn't make me excited like I'd expect. Instead I feel nervous, constricted, and on the verge of throwing up.

I stand there stiffly for a few moments, not sure how to react, and push him away.

"What's wrong?" he asks, hands catching my wrists.

"Umm," I say. I try to form words to express an answer properly, but it's hard to even form thoughts. It just feels wrong. Not now, not here, not like this. Normally I'd love to be kissing him like this, but right now I'm busy trying not to throw up.

"I've seen the way you look at me," he says, slurring his words. "I know you want this."

"I don't feel… so…" I try to turn away, but his hold on my wrists prevents me from escaping. I can feel nausea bubbling up through my stomach and into my throat. He leans close again, letting go of my wrists and putting his hands on my body again.

With no other options, I abruptly vomit on him.

He releases me instantly.

"Fucking sick!" he says, taking a step back and looking horrified.

"I'm sorry," I say. I just want to sit down and maybe cry. I turn away from him and start walking in the direction I hope my room is in, but Pretty Boy grabs my shoulder and spins me around. It nearly makes me fall over.

"I just want to go to bed," I say, trying to break free of his grip, which doesn't prove easy to do. "Please, I don't-"

He shoves me back against the wall with a frightening force, knocking the wind out of me.

"S-Stop it, Pretty Boy!"

"You little-"

Then there's a knife at his throat. Pretty Boy freezes for a second. Then, very slowly, he takes his hands off of me. He raises them in the air and the knife retracts.

It's Dolly. I'm not even sure when she got here, but I'm relieved she did.

"Don't touch her," Dolly says, giving Pretty Boy an icy look.

"I wasn't-" He gestures wildly, taking a step back. "She was coming on to me-"

"Don't. Touch. Her."

Dolly slashes at the air in front of him with her knife, and he stumbles backwards and falls to the ground.

"This is bullshit," he says. "I didn't do anything."

Dolly takes a step toward him and he scrambles backwards, still on the floor. She turns to me next, and I try not to flinch under the coldness of her gaze even though she seems to be trying to protect me.

"T-Thanks," I say, rather confused by the whole sequence of events. "I'm… going to go to bed now." I resume walking. After a moment Dolly falls in step beside me and puts a hand on my shoulder, gently turning me around. She jerks a thumb in the opposite direction without saying anything. I nod and start walking that way. Dolly follows me, and neither of us so much as glance at Pretty Boy as we head to our room.

As soon as we arrive, I beeline for the bed. I collapse there with a groan and bury my face in a pillow. I still feel sick and confused and upset, but I try to stifle it knowing Dolly's in the room. When I look up, I find her staring at me from a chair beside the bed.

"Are you okay?" she asks.

"Yeah," I say. "Better since throwing up." It's true; the world isn't spinning quite so much.

"That's not what I meant," she says quietly.

"I'm fine."

She blinks at me.


"Okay," I repeat, and then rest my head on the pillow again with a sigh. Soon exhaustion outweighs my whirring thoughts, and I fall asleep.