Sunday, October 3, 2010

Chapter 6 (begun)

The Morning

Johnny sat bolt upright and stared wildly around him.  For many long seconds he had no clue where he was or what might be around him.  He flailed about with his hands until he hit something soft; still unsure, he poked it.

Something grabbed his wrist.  He gave a muffled shriek and tried to pull back, but it held him firmly.  Suddenly there was a spark and a flame, and he was looking into Larissa’s eyes.

He gradually got his breathing back under control.  Larissa let go of his wrist and held her dented Zippo aloft, looking around for the source of his fear.  If it even had been fear ... “I think,” he started hesitantly, his voice rough, “I think I must’ve had a bad dream.”  She stared at him.  He shrugged.  She sighed.

Having satisfied herself that there were no immediate threats, she put the lighter away and squatted on her haunches with her back to the alley wall.  Gradually, Johnny’s eyes adjusted to the dim light; it was pretty black in the back of this particular alley, but it was never completely dark in the city.  Johnny could see the dumpster that protected them from prying eyes and the slight autumn breeze.  He could make out some light in the alley beyond it.  And there was a glow in most of the night sky, although they were under an overhang.  He tried to remember how they had come to be here.  Last night was somewhat blurry, but he thought he remembered going out ...

“We’re in Adams Morgan,” Larissa supplied helpfully.

Johnny thought that might sound familiar.  He tried talking again.  “Why?”

“We went out drinking with Jet and Grinch.”

He stared at her blankly for a bit.  “We don’t drink,” he finally contributed.

“Apparently,” Larissa noted, “one of us does.”

Johnny pondered this.  “Let me guess: is it me?”  Larissa nodded.  “I thought so.  Maybe I should go barf now.”

“That could be helpful, if you have any undigested alcohol.  But I doubt that, given how long ago we went to sleep.”

Actually, Johnny didn’t really feel nauseous.  Just ... fuzzy.  “How much did I drink?”

“I would say about 6 fluid ounces of Irish Mist and roughly 18 ounces of Milwaukee’s Best.”

Johnny raised his eyebrows.  “Really?”  He almost felt impressed with himself.  “That sounds like a lot.”  Larissa didn’t respond.  “How did I get liquor?” he asked.

Larissa shrugged.  “Grinch bought it.  He and Jet were drinking it.  You asked if you could have some.  Jet said he didn’t think it was a good idea, but Grinch gave you some anyway.  You drank it.”

That did indeed sound remarkably simple.  “And the beer?”  Larissa just looked at him.  “Same deal, I guess.  Yeah, that would make sense.”

“You’ve been drunk before.”

Johnny decided to take this as a question.  “Once.  I raided the liquor cabinet when my parents were out of town.  I was ... I dunno, ten, eleven?  It was right after ...”  He paused uncomfortably.  This was dangerously close to talking about family.  “Anyway, after that, I just never thought alcohol was that great.  Just something else that makes you sick.  That’s why I haven’t had any since I got here.”  Since he came to live on the streets, he meant.

Larissa didn’t comment.

“I don’t actually feel drunk now, though.  I guess I must’ve been, last night, since I don’t really remember much, but now ... I feel okay.  Just a little disoriented when I woke up.”  He stood up, stretching his cramped muscles.  “Do we need to stay here, or ...?”

Larissa stood as well.  “It’s about 5:30.  The sun’ll be up in an hour and fifteen minutes or so.”  She looked back at him expectantly.

“So I guess we’ll move along then,” Johnny said.  “Where to?”  Larissa just waited.  “Yeah.  Let’s just ... we’ll walk.”

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The alley opened onto Columbia Road.  Traffic was already starting to pick up in the pre-dawn gloom, and many breakfast places were open.  Johnny wasn’t particularly hungry, but he bought a bottle of water for each of them at one of the shops and then they ambled down to Columbia and 18th, the heart of Adams Morgan.  Light was beginning to seep into the sky, and foot traffic was picking up as well.  They ran into Filbey, one of their fellow street urchins, who was planted on a corner of the busy intersection with Dotty.  They exchanged greetings, but it would be considered rude to horn in on his time, so they didn’t linger.  They moved on down 18th, looking for nothing in particular.  Ducking into the network of alleys between 18th and Columbia, they ran into a knot of street folk and spent some time exchanging pleasantries.  They had just missed Whiskey Sally, apparently, but Randall and Sanchez and Marge and several others were still wandering about.  There was a brisk trade going on—cigarettes for clothing for food for liquor—but they didn’t need anything in particular and had nothing in particular to offer.  By the time they emerged back onto 18th Street, morning rush hour was winding down.

Strolling down 18th, Johnny happened to glance to his right and noticed a tiny record shop below street level.  The sign was roughly chest high: Back in the Groove.  Johnny stopped abruptly.  “Hey, isn’t that where the Grinch works?”  Larissa didn’t correct him, so he assumed he must be right.  “What time is it?” he asked.

Larissa looked up at the sky.  “Almost 10,” she decided.  Johnny went down the short flight of stairs to the front door of the store and looked in.  The pink mohawk was unmistakable.  He tried the door, but it was still locked.  He rapped softly on the door and the Grinch turned around and caught sight of him.  He pointed at his wrist; there was no watch there, but Johnny got the message.  He shrugged and spread his hands.  Grinch looked skyward in an exaggerated “why me?” expression, then pointed to the wall to Johnny’s right.  Johnny glanced over and saw a narrow dead-end alley.  He nodded, then turned around and went back up the stairs.  Larissa was waiting.

“Just take a sec,” he told her, then walked over to the alley.  About halfway down, a small door opened and Grinch stepped out and lit up a cigarette.

He puffed briefly then looked over at the two kids.  “Johnny Hellebore,” he half-smiled.  “And his ever-present sidekick.”  Larissa arched an eyebrow at him, but he just chuckled.  “What’s up?”

Johnny was normally a bit intimidated by the Grinch, who was a good two or three inches taller (not even considering the hair) and possibly a hundred pounds heavier, none of which was fat.  But this was the man he’d gotten drunk with last night, right?  “Hey man.  I was just wondering ... I don’t have a real clear memory of last night.”

Grinch gave a rare toothy grin.  “I bet you do not, my friend.  I didn’t think you could actually hold your liquor, but I reluctantly admit: I was wrong.  You were packing it away, street rat.”

Johnny decided to take that as an affectionate nickname.  “Yeah, so she tells me.”  He indicated Larissa with his head.  “I just wanted to make sure I didn’t say anything embarrassing or anything like that.  You know?”

Grinch focused on Larissa briefly, then went back to his cigarette.  “She tells you, eh?  Does ‘she’ actually have a name, as it happens?  It’s not really Alice, is it?”  He waited for a reply to this, but he didn’t seem surprised when he didn’t get one.  “Embarrassing?  Nope, you were solid, small fry.  You were, in fact, rather happy, as I recall.  You kept saying, ‘See? Now I can’t feel it.’”  Another puff.  “Whatever that meant.”  He looked appraisingly at Johnny.

Johnny hoped his face didn’t look as shocked as he felt.  “Hunh.  Welp, no idea what the hell I was talking about there.  As long as I didn’t try to take my clothes off or throw up on anyone, I guess I’m good to go.”

Grinch stubbed out his cigarette on the brick wall.  “Nope, nothing that might have gotten you arrested, jacked, or beat down.”  He stuck out a hand.  “In fact, we’ll have to do it again sometime, eh?”

Johnny was a bit taken aback, but he shook the large hand that was offered.  “Thanks.  I ... yeah, definitely, next time I’m in the neighborhood.”

The Grinch’s grip was firm, but the man didn’t try to crush his hand.  “Take ‘er easy.  I gotta get back to work.  Almost time to open up the shop.”  Johnny nodded, and the pink mohawk disappeared back into the little door.

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