Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Family Night: A Fort Thomas Short

Okay, So here it is, a little late, but hopefully worth the extra wait. My birthday short story. I hope you enjoy it.

Family Night
A Fort Thomas Short
By: A.J. Bass

Part 1

If I had a heart, it would be fucking pounding right now. But, I don’t. My senses, however, are on high alert as Melissa and I walk toward the restaurant. It’s about 20:00 on a Saturday, and it’s a beautiful spring night. You couldn’t ask for nicer. Clear skies, warm breeze, blooming trees. Yeah, it’s pretty fucking gorgeous. Too bad I can’t enjoy it what with the massive panic attack I’m about to have. I can spot all the passing glances and register the shifts in the temperature outside. I don’t want to, but I’m nervous, and when I’m nervous I notice everything. Right now, specifically, I’m noticing that I’m sweating my ass off in my dress uniform despite it not even being that hot out. Again. I'm just nervous. Of all the things I’ve done in my life, all the missions, all the corruptions I’ve put down, this will be the death of me. I fucking know it. 
We stop in front a small Korean restaurant...aptly named Korea Restaurant, on 4th street. We sit down at one of the outdoor tables. My HUD says it’s 19:55. We’re early. But just a little. A server comes over and I put in a drink order. I can’t get drunk, but it has a nice placebo effect. Melissa does the same. She’s just as nervous as I am. I can tell. She hasn’t stopped fidgeting with the necklace I gave her since I picked her up. As we wait I continue to take in the people around us. Most of them don’t pay us any attention. A few give my uniform the once over, say something to the effect of “ooh, a scrapper” and go on about their business like the good little monkeys they are. Granted, Melissa and I have rarely had issues going out together, at least, not in Bloomington. Every now and then some redneck townie will hassle us but once they realize that not only I but she can kick their ass six ways from Sunday, they back down. I stop surveying the patio when I hear her give a nervous sigh.
“We don’t have to do this,” I tell her and take her hand from across the table.
“No, we do. We should. I want you to meet my family. I want you to be part of my family.”
“That’s all well and good, but…” I trail off trying to decide how to breach the subject. “What exactly have you told them about me?”  
“I told them you work for Section and that you’re a scrapper. That you were one of my students.”
“Did you tell them I’m synthetic?”
Melissa looks away and frowns, “I told them you’re the Omega Squad Captain, that sort of makes it pretty obvious without outright saying it, right?”
“Melissa--” The server cuts me off as he returns with our drinks. She picks hers up-- some kind of technicolor fruity cocktail-- and takes a long pull from the straw, halfway draining the glass. I down my Beam and Coke in one go and hail the server for another before he even exits the patio. “Melissa,” I say again. “You should have told them. It’s not fair to spring it on them like this--”
“Spring what on us?” I hear an unfamiliar male voice behind me and bristle. Here we fucking go. I look at Melissa. She smiles at me and mouths “I love you.” We stand up together. 
“Mom, Dad,” She begins, “I’d like you to meet Fer.” 
I turn around to face her parents. They’re a typical looking couple, dressed for a nice night out. Mrs. Park is wearing bright red lipstick and her gray and black hair is pulled back into a tight kind of twist on her head. Mr. Park is in a suit, his right hand is extended, supported by his left. I know this style of greeting, it’s how Melissa’s students are taught to shake hands in her class. For a split second they’re smiling. Then they realize what I am. Or, more importantly, what I’m not.
“You’ve got to be joking.” Mr. Park retracts his hand. 
“Why would you say that?” Melissa asks. She’s trying to sound casual but I can hear the quiver in her voice and feel the temperature change in her hand as she grips mine like a vise.
“Well, isn’t it obvious?” Mrs. Park says, her voice is shrill. “This can’t be your boyfriend! He’s not Korean, or even human! What is wrong with you?”
“Actually, I was manufactured by American Robotics, and they import a lot. So, I’m pretty sure some part of me is Korean,” I try and joke to shift the mood. It fails miserably. I extend my hand in the same, supported manner as her father did. “It’s nice to meet you?” Both her parents glare at my hand like I’ve just slapped them right in the face. “Right…” I retreat and look down at Melissa for a clue as to what to do next.
“How was your flight?” She tries to shift the conversation and offers them a seat at the patio table. Neither of them move. 
“How on earth could you be so inconsiderate?” Mrs. Park demands and, again, I try and lighten things up. 
“Okay, fine, we hope your flight sucked and you got searched at customs.” This is actually a solid truth at this point, but I play it off like a joke.
“You can’t date a synthetic!” She continues like I’m not even fucking there. “How am I supposed to ever get grandbabies if you don’t have the sense to settle down with someone who can…” she trails off and looks at me with contempt. Then, she opens her purse and begins to dab her eyes with the tissue she pulls from it. Jesus guilt-tripping Christ. 
The server has just returned with my next drink and I slip a fifty dollar bill onto his tray and tell him to just keep ‘em coming. Again, I can’t get drunk, but I’m sure as hell going to try.
“Mom, please, you’re making a scene,” Melissa pleads with her now irate mother. She’s looking frantically at the staring passers by. Hoo-boy are they staring. And talking. The Parks probably can’t hear it, but I can. Most of them are just confused. Some want to step in and offer help. I hope they all just choose to mind their own damn business. “Let’s just sit down and I’m sure once you get to know each other you’ll--”
“No.” Her father snaps. “You have disappointed us on a level I didn’t even think possible and I refuse to accept this as okay! It’s not! I refuse to be okay with my daughter being one of those…” 
I tense. I know where this is going. Don’t say it, I think. 
Don’t say it… 
He fucking said it. Everything inside me is on fire. I squeeze the glass in my hand so hard I can feel it starting to crack. I was prepared for them to not like me. I get it, your only kid being in a relationship with a different species is a bit unnerving. But they’re more than unnerved. I can’t fix this with a conversation over some kimchi jeon and drinks. My very existence in their daughter’s life offends them on a fundamental level… and I don’t know how to react. I know how I want to react. I want to stand up for myself. I want to punch her dad’s teeth in for calling Melissa a dolly, and tell her mom that if her whole life revolves around coercing her daughter into giving her grandchildren, then she deserves to live forever with none. And…
“No, Dad, you’ve disappointed me,” I hear Melissa say. I look down and her fear and anxiety have given way to a staunch resolve. She picks up her drink and downs the rest of it. “I’m going to start this entire conversation over and you can either behave like normal, reasonable people and we can have some drinks, order dinner and get to know Fer. Or you can go back to your hotel. Hell, you can go back to the Coastal Union if it’s that terrible for you to accept us. It’s your choice. I’m proud of us.” She pauses and waits for a response, but none ever comes. They just stand there in offended silence. “I love us and what we have.” She puts her arm around me and holds me close. “And he does too.” She looks up at me and smiles. I want to kiss her right there. She is a warrior goddess right now and I want to say as much but all I can manage in the moment is,
“Yeah…I do.” I hold her close and look at her parents who are huffing and puffing so hard they’re starting to look like pufferfish. “Look, I know I’m not what you expected. I’m sorry. But… and they’re leaving. I…” I look down at Melissa. She has tears in her eyes as she watches her parents go. They don’t look back as they hail a ride and vanish down the street. After a minute, I lead her back to our table and we sit. “I’m so sorry.” And I am. I truly am. The last thing I ever want to do is hurt Melissa or see her hurt. 
“No,” she sniffles. “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to put up with this kind of shit.”
“And neither should you,” I counter and wipe the tears from her eyes. “But, we’re in this together, right?”
She smiles and nods. “Right.”
“You still feeling up for dinner?”
She shakes her head and slurps the final drops from her cocktail. “In all seriousness, I just want to go. I need some alone time.” 
I know that when Melissa says she needs alone time, it usually means she’s going to the TKD studio to put the hurt on the heavy bag. 
“Okay. I think that’s a good idea. We both probably need to blow off steam. I’ll probably head to Jet’s for a bit.” 
I drop her off at her apartment, kiss her goodbye, and make my way to Jet’s place feeling… off. I’m worried this night is going to stick around for a while. While Melissa handled it like the badass she is, I know parental approval is a huge thing for humans. I’m afraid this is going to eat at her. I’m afraid she’s going to start second guessing us. I’m afraid I’m about to hit that fucking kid crossing the street. Wait… what?
I slam on my breaks and roll down my window, “Hey!” I snap then I realize I recognize this dumbass. “Monkey?”

Part 2

I’m sitting on an uncomfortable folding chair inside an old factory. Okay, well, it used to be a factory. These days it’s an event hall, and today, specifically, it’s where my Junior Prom is taking place. Like, right now. As we speak. There are balloons, banners, and fancy holographic projectors that make the ceiling look like a starry night sky, complete with aurora borealis. Not sure where this prom is supposed to take place, because Bloomington sure as shit doesn’t get many auroras. But, whatever, it’s actually pretty neat looking. In the middle of the ceiling, the disco ball dapples me and everyone else around me with little circles of light. 
On the edge of the dance floor I can see Nikki dancing with a few of the girls from her programming club. None of us have dates so we all decided to go to prom as a group. It’s fine. I guess. Still, even as a group of friends, I feel like a fifth wheel. It’s loud, and crowded, and I am regretting this decision more and more with each passing minute. 
What was I thinking? I’ve barely been back in school for a full semester. I still can’t make it through a day without wanting to hide, or cry, or both. 
After Mom and Dad were killed and that whole bullshit custody battle, I wound up moving in with Alpha. It’s not a terrible arrangement. Alpha’s house is pretty nice; bigger than our old apartment at The Cove. My room is twice the size of my old one and I basically have everything I could ever ask for. Alpha’s a great paperdad-- that’s what I call him. Paperdad… as in Dad on Paper. He listens to me, gives me space when I need it, and likes watching old movies with me when I can’t sleep. He gives me everything he possibly can. I have everything… except my Mom and Dad. 
It’s been two years and I still think about them everyday. Every. Day. At night I have dreams of the mall riots where I’m fighting through crowds that are like rivers of mud and I can’t move. Sometimes, I have dreams of running away from CPS agents who are trying to take me back to the Ellison’s house. Every now and then I dream about Nix, though. Those are pretty nice. Sometimes in those dreams we get all makey-outey and it’s pretty fucking awesome. But, then, I wake up and remember that he’s still over in the Confederated Zone doing fuck knows what. Also, he’s not the least bit attracted to me. So… yeah, there’s that.
Suffice it to say, despite Alpha’s trying, the last two years have sucked all the dicks. All of ‘em. All the big ‘ol dirty ding-dongs. I don’t sleep much. I can’t concentrate anymore. Most of the time I just want to lock myself in my room and be a lump. I know that’s not what Mom or Dad would want, but I can’t help it. I miss them and it’s my fault they’re dead. No, I don’t care what Alpha or anyone says-- It’s my fault. I didn’t get to them in time and… well… yeah.  
Alpha took me out of school for my first semester this year. After the previous year of parent teacher meetings and my grades dropping like a lead box of rocks down an empty elevator shaft, he said we needed a break. So, three times a week for the last nine months we’ve both been meeting with a therapist-- me to talk about and process what happened, and Alpha… shit… probably to vent about how much of a pain in the ass I am. Anyway, it’s been helpful, I guess. Dr. Hohenstein got me on some meds, and gave me all kinds of techniques for coping with my situation. It’s been so helpful that I told Alpha I felt up to going back to school. My grades are good, and I’m feeling like less of a lump. It’s been going better than we expected so, a couple months ago I told him I wanted to go to prom.
And now, here I am. In my expensive dress, with my hair a giant curled fire hazard thanks to the gallon of spray the stylist used, wanting to go home.
What? This is so dumb. Everyone’s out there having fun like… well, like they’re normal teenagers. Because they are. I’m… not. I don’t know what I was expecting-- probably some magical evening with a chance meeting that changes my perspective on life forever. You know, like in the movies-- and this is not that.
I reach into my purse, a sparkly silver clutch that is more trouble than it’s worth because it’s a fucking clutch and doesn’t have strap… hence the name, and pull out a little orange pill bottle. I pop one of my anxiety pills and swallow it with whatever the hell kind of punch they’re serving up at the snack table. I know this will do nothing for my current situation. My meds don’t work like that. They’re not an immediate fix. I’m just hoping for some kind of placebo effect that will maybe trick me into thinking I’m capable of a normal night with my friends. 
“Hey, wallflower, are you ever going to get up and dance?” I look up and see Nikki sitting down in the chair next to me. She looks amazing in her bright red, skin tight dress, rocking all her curves like a fucking runway model. She’s got a gigantic, red hibiscus flower tucked behind her ear. It’s so exotic, even though I know it just came from some florist. Her dress is bold and her hair is this glorious, natural, heap of curls. I envy her. Like I said, my curls required two hours at the salon and hazardous amounts of chemicals. Please don’t light any matches near me.       
“I don’t know if I’m up for dancing,” I reply and sip some more of my punch. “You look like you’re having fun with Emma and Chrissy and all them. I don’t want to bring you guys down.”
“You won’t!” She argues. “I promise you won’t!” I stare into my cup like it’s Galadriel’s mirror and sigh. I don’t dance. I’ve never danced. I don’t even know if I know how to dance and I’m not exactly sure that tonight’s the night to find out. 
I look at her and see her put on her best puppy dog face. I’d be lying if I said the last two years hadn’t been hard on her too. I’ve been a pretty shitty friend for a while-- bailing on her all the time, snapping at her because I don’t know how to put my feelings to words. The least I can do is try and have fun. “Okay, I’ll go do the thing,” I smile and find someplace safe to put my purse for the moment. As soon as it’s stashed Nikki grabs my hand and starts dragging me toward the dance floor. With each step the music seems to get louder and the room, smaller. There are so many people out there. It’s this massive sea of bodies all churning to the beat of the music. It smells like people. It looks like people. Iiiit’s people. Tadaa! 
I join the rest of our group and Chrissy says something to me, but I can’t really hear her over the music. I just give her a vague smile and try to pull everything I have on dancing from my filing cabinets, but nothing comes. A cold sweat covers the back of my neck and I try again. The cabinets won’t open. They've never not opened. My pulse quickens and I feel the blood rushing in my ears. Nikki nudges me with her elbow and I make a few, stiff, dance-like movements. It’s too crowded. I can’t move. I’m sweating. I feel my palms go clammy and my face flush. The DJ drops the bass and I shrink. It’s too loud and the constant spinning of the disco ball is nauseating. “I have to go.” I’m not sure how loud I said it or if anyone heard me. All I know is I said it and now I’m beating a path to the exit. 
I slam into the crash bar and push the door open. I’m in the front parking lot. It’s dark outside and so wonderfully cool. I gulp the air like I’m drowning and let the breeze cool me down a bit. I can still hear the music coming from inside but it’s not so loud and oppressive. I take a few more breaths when I hear the doors open behind me. 
“Are you okay?” Nikki asks. “What happened?”
“I’m sorry, Nik,” I reply. “I tried. I thought I could do it but I can’t. This was a bad idea. I’m so sorry. Please don’t be mad at me. I’m sorry I’m still a fucking mess.” I blink back the tears that are obviously surfacing, because yes, let’s panic and cry tonight. Go big or go home, right? 
“Don’t be sorry,” Nikki says to me as she puts an arm around my shoulders and grins, “I’m used to you being a mess by now.” I manage to smile back and my tears relent a bit. “Are you going home?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Do you want me to drive you?”
I shake my head. There is no way I’m  screwing up this night any further. “Nah, you stay. Have fun. There’s a bus stop nearby. I’ll catch a ride.”
“Why don’t you just call Alpha?”
“Because he’ll try and convince me to stay, and I’m not up for that conversation right now.”
“You sure you don’t want me to drive you?” She asks again. 
“I’m sure.” I’m sure I’m sure. “A long, quiet bus ride will actually do me some good right now.
“Okay.” Nikki agrees, but doesn’t go back inside. “I’m sorry tonight sucked for you,” she says. “But you made it out. That’s a big step.”
“I’m still a goddamned train wreck,” I reply. 
“Yeah. You are. But your my train wreck and I like you anyway.” She gives me a big hug and makes me promise to text her when I get home. Then, she goes back inside. 
Once she’s back at the dance, I make my way across the parking lot and down the sidewalk toward the bus stop. It’s a clear night and the moon is bright and almost full. The streets are pretty empty for a Saturday night, granted, I’m not on campus or near downtown where all the usual shenanigans are happening. I cross the street at the end of the  block without looking and am engulfed in headlights. I freeze. Tires screech. A second later the headlights are pulled over at the curb. 
“Hey!” The bright lights switch off and I see Fer leaning out the window of his Jeep beneath the street lamp. “Monkey?” He is, for once, not an unwelcome sight. Ever since Mom and Dad were killed, I’ve sort of understood Fer a bit better than I had before. Out of everyone-- Alpha, Nikki, Master Park, Monarch-- Fer knows. I don’t know how to say it any other way than Fer knows. He gets it. He gets me. And I get him now, too. We’ve both lost our families. We’re both on that struggle bus. I’m actually kind of happy to see him. “Any particular reason you’re roaming the streets at night dressed like a Disney Princess?”
“Nope. Just out here on a whim. Definitely not bailing on my friends after a panic attack,” I tell him with a casual shrug. “What are you doing out here, intercepting me, as I take in this lovely night with full intention of returning to the inexplicable teen ritual known as Prom?”
“Definitely not headed to Jet’s after finding out Melissa’s parents hate my shiny, metal guts on the basis that I merely exist.” He ducks back into the Jeep. “See ya.”
“Wait, wait, wait!” I say rushing toward the driver’s side door as best as I can in these fucking heels. “I’m not going back to prom. I freaked out and bailed and was going to catch a bus home.” I lean forward and smell the familiar cigarette smoke and, suddenly, I feel better. “Tonight’s been a disaster,” I admit. “Can I come with you to Jet’s?” The adrenaline and panic from early has subsided and I’m left starving with a raging headache. I see Fer raise an eyebrow, the one with the scar, and he considers my request. His eyes are warm, amber fires in the dark interior of the Jeep. Finally, after keeping me waiting just long enough to piss me off, he grins and unlocks the passenger door. 
“Get in, Monkey.”
I climb in and buckle up. “Thank you,” I say. The seat is comfortable. I feel like we’re on our way home from one of our nights sparring at the TKD studio. I feel normal. I feel like I don’t have to pretend right now. We sit in silence for a block or so. I watch Fer pull a cigarette from his pocket and light up. Much to my relief, my hair does not ignite into a massive fireball at the lighter’s flame. Fer doesn’t ask me any questions or pick on me. He knows better. He takes a long drag on his cigarette and exhales a dirty gray cloud that’s immediately sucked out the open window. 
“So, rough night?” I venture.  
He smirks and gives a slow nod of agreement. “I met Melissa’s parents tonight. I didn’t want to. I told her it was a bad idea. But she insisted. Her parents only visit once every couple of years and she figured it was time we met.”
“And it went...poorly?”
“Poorly is an understatement. There was crying, yelling, name calling, and it all ended with them leaving.”
“Oh, fuck.” 
“Yeah. ‘Oh, fuck’, indeed.”
“The first thing out of her dad’s mouth when he saw me was ‘you’ve got to be joking.’ He then went on to point out, in great length, that I am neither Korean nor human. So, long story short, the three of them get into this fucking argument outside the restaurant we’re supposed to  be having dinner at. Her mom’s crying that she’ll never have grandbabies, like that’s the end all be all of fucking human existence and her dad’s going on about how he’s not about to have a daughter who’s a dolly.”
I flinch at the term. “He called her that?! Her own dad?!” I’ve been called a dolly plenty of times. I don’t really care. It’s a stupid term used by stupid people. But it’s different to be called that by people like Gwen and her lackies. I hate her guts and she hates mine. She can call me a dolly and I can tell her to go fuck herself with a syphilitic pineapple. Now, if Nikki called me that, I think I’d probably die. “So, dare I ask how this all ended?”
“Melissa and I decided to leave the restaurant and just go our separate ways for the evening and let off some steam. So here I am. Off to let off steam.”
The Jeep pulls into an open spot in front of The Olive Branch, or as we just call it, Jet’s, and we get out-- the pathetic pair that we are. We go inside and a big man in an apron greets us from behind the front counter. I like Jet. He’s so nice and makes the best stromboli in town. 
Fer and I sit down at the counter. He doesn’t even have to order. Shiraz, the server, just sits a glass of bourbon and Coke in front of him and he thanks her. Jet is still staring at us like we’ve both grown extra limbs or are suddenly covered in polka dots. It’s been a long time since I’ve been here. “So...What have you two been up to?” He asks. Fer just shakes his head and waves the question away; I guess he’s reached his sharing limit today. Jet turns to me for my response.
“Well, I had a panic attack and bailed on my prom. Fer met his girlfriend’s parents and it turns out they’re synthophobic assholes.”
“Hmm,” he muses. “That explains the get-ups.”
“Speaking of,” Fer grunts and tugs his tie the rest of the way off, tossing it onto the counter. “That’s better.” He picks up his glass, drains it, and without even asking, Shiraz brings him another.
“Ooh, can I have what he’s having?” I ask hopefully. 
Jet leans across the counter toward me and gives me a big, warm smile. “Ask again in about four years.”
I hang my head in defeat. “Well, it was worth a shot.”
“You keep trying and I keep telling you no. I like you, Paige, but I’m  not getting in trouble with the law for you.”
“That’s fair.”
 “But, I’ll be happy to get your usual going. I’ll even get you a bib so you don’t get that pretty dress of yours dirty.” He punches my order in on his tablet and sends it back to the kitchen.
“Yes to the food, no to the bib,” I reply. I’m not a fucking toddler. 
“So how have you been? It’s been boring around without you to diversify the clientele.” He grins and I look around. As usual, I am the only human in the restaurant. But that’s fine. I don’t mind it and none of Jet’s customers seem to mind me. In fact, I feel more comfortable here, around Janes, than I do around most other humans.
“Oh you know, I’ve just been trying to get through the day,” I reply. 
“I do know. Is it getting better?” 
“Well, I’m here aren’t I?” I smile and reach for my purse to pay for my meal. “Shit. I left my purse at prom.”

Part 3

I’ve been watching, but not watching the TV for about two hours now, waiting on the edge of my seat for my phone to ring. Waiting for some disaster. Any minute now. Any minute.
This is hard-- parenting, that is. It’s especially hard when you’re thrown in head first. Not to mention, the added bonus of your new daughter bring plagued by all the trauma. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve downloaded books, watched lectures and TED talks online, I’ve even called Nikki’s moms on occasion for advice. What must they think of me? One of the most powerful people in the EUS military, calling in the dead of night because Paige and I just spent the last hour screaming at each other, and now she’s locked in her room sobbing. Apparently that’s normal teenage behavior. Who knew? Not me, that’s for helling sure. The school problems, the mood swings, the nightmares...my gods, the nightmares. 
I’m snapped out of my pity party when Kiku, the house AI, announces an incoming call from Nikki. There’s that disaster I was talking about a minute ago. 
“Is everything okay?” I answer without even greeting her. 
“Oh, um, hi to you too, Alpha,” She replies. “Are you okay? You sound tense.”
“Sorry. Hello, Nikki. And… I’m fine.”
“Okay. I’m just calling to check and see if Paige got home. She left her phone at prom and she said she’d text me when she got home.”
I freeze. “What do you mean? Paige isn’t at prom?”
“What do you mean? She’s not at home?”
I’m on my feet now, pacing across my living room, my mind already playing out hundreds of scenarios; all of which end badly. “Of course she’s not at home. She’s supposed to be with you at the prom. What happened?” 
“Well, she sort of freaked out and had a panic attack. She got up to dance, made it to the floor for about five seconds, then noped her ass out the door like it was on fire. I followed her and she said she was going to catch the bus home. And before you give me hell, I offered to drive her but she turned me down. I told her to text me when she got home, and when I didn’t hear anything, I called her cell. But, she left her purse. So I called the house.” She pauses for a moment. “And you’re telling me she’s not home?”
“No.” I blurt out without thinking. “I mean, yes. I mean… she’s not here. Do you have any idea if she might have gone somewhere else?” 
Nikki pauses again, thinking. “Nothing comes to mind.”
“Okay,” I say. “I’m going to go look for her. Call my cell if she comes back to the dance.”
“Screw that! Come pick me up. I’ll search with you.” She says and I agree. I disconnect the call, put on some shoes and bolt out the door. A few minutes later, I’m in my car riding to the dance hall. A few more minutes later and I’m at prom talking to Nikki in the parking lot. 
“So, where do we start?” She asks as she climbs into the passenger seat and buckles up.
“Let’s drive by the TKD studio first,” I suggest. “It’s on the city bus route and if she’s upset, she’ll probably want to hit something.”
“That is a solid truth,” Nikki agrees, and we take off for Park TKD. 
When we pull up to the building we see the lights are on and there’s someone inside. I breathe a sigh of relief, but then I see the figure through the front window. It’s not Paige. I start to feel tense again.
The car parks itself and we go inside where we see Melissa Park vigorously assaulting a large canvas punching bag in the far corner of the studio. The bag swings and the chains squeal each time she lands a hit. She doesn’t even realize we’re here.
“Excuse me, Master Park?” Nikki calls across the room. 
The small woman at the bag throws one more kick, then turns to face us. “Alpha, Nikki,” She greets us. For a split second, she’s smiling. Then, she sees my face, which probably looks like I’ve just ridden a dozen roller coasters with a malfunctioning lap bar, and her smile fades. “Is everything okay?”
“We can’t find Paige,” I blurt out. “Have you heard from her tonight?”
Master Park shakes her head. “No. Why? Did something happen?” 
Nikki goes through the scenario again and I feel even worse at the second telling. I’m waiting for someone to come out of the shadows and hand me the Worst Dad of the Year award. When she finishes up, Master Park crosses the room and pulls out her cellphone. 
“Who are you calling?” I ask, wholly expecting it to be CPS. It’s fine. I probably deserve it.
“Fer. He’s out around town. Maybe he’s bumped into her.” She pauses when he answers. They have a brief exchange then she explains what happened. I’m looking for the nearest hole to crawl into when she perks up and smiles. “Oh! That’s great!” she looks at us. “She’s fine. She’s with Fer at The Olive Branch.”
“How on earth did-- you know what? I don’t care. Oh, thank goodness she’s safe!” I sigh so deep I feel like I’m deflating. Master Park ends the call and everything is right with the world again. We thank her and head back to the car. Except, I can’t bring myself to go home. I need to see for myself that she’s fine. 
I tell the car to drive to The Olive Branch and five minutes later I’m watching her through the restaurant window. She’s smiling. She’s laughing. She’s… happy. Something in me shifts and I begin to feel like less of a failure.
“This looks way better than prom,” Nikki mentions, pushes the door open and steps inside, waving Paige’s purse at her. “Hey, dumbass! You forget something?”

Part 4

“Shit!” I pat my body like this circus tent of a dress has pockets that will magically produce my missing purse. “I left my purse at prom.” I look at Jet apologetically. 
“Don’t worry about it,” He smiles then jabs a thumb at Fer. “I’ll just put it on his tab.”
“What? Fuck that! Give her her own damned tab!” Fer complains as he finishes his third, or possibly fourth, drink tonight. I do some quick mental math and my eyes bug at his estimated weekly tab. 
“Fine then, asshole, it’ll just be on the house tonight.”
I’m about to object when the restaurant door opens. 
“Hey, dumbass! You forget something?”
I shift around on my barstool and see Nikki and Alpha approaching. Nikki’s waving my purse at me and Alpha… Alpha looks like he’s about to start crying or something. I hop down and take my purse from Nikki. “What’s going on? Why are you here?”
“Um, why are you here?” She asks with mock upset. “You were supposed to catch the bus home and then text me. You never did so I called Alpha. He freaked out so he and I have been searching for you.”
“Wow, way to be inconsiderate, Monkey,” Fer snorts from his seat. I turn to glare at him and see Jet talking to Shiraz and another member of the staff. They vanish into the back of the restaurant. I approach Alpha. He looks like a wreck. I guess I’d be too if I were him.
“I’m sorry,” I apologize and hug him. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”
“I thought I told you to call me if things didn’t go well,” he says to me and hugs me tighter.
“I know, but I was afraid you’d try and convince me to stay or something. I just… I just wanted to avoid extra drama.”
“Well, you sure fucked that up,” Fer points out from the peanut gallery.
“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” I groan.
“Happy to help.” 
“No, it’s fine. I understand. I’m just glad you’re safe.” Alpha sighs and looks at me. He’s smiling, but it’s a tired smile and I feel terrible because it’s my fault he looks so tired. “Things have been getting better and I’ve just been so afraid that I’d screw up and we’d be back in the weeds again.”
“Yeah,” I agree. “Me too-- that I’d screw up and ruin our progress-- I mean. Not you.”
“I’m sorry your prom didn’t go well.”
“I’m sorry I ruined your night,” I look past him to Nikki. “And your night. You should be out having fun.”
Nikki shakes her head and waves me off, “Nah. It’s just a dance. I’ve been to a dance before. I’ll survive missing one.”
As we’re talking Shiraz and Jet are behind me stringing holiday lights across the wall and counter top, and a couple of the other patrons are stringing more up above some of the tables and booths. 
“Clear out seven and eight,” Jet says. The two center tables and pulled aside, opening up the restaurant floor. The house lights dim a bit and the strings of lights twinkle. The song on the surround sound switches to some kind of poppy dance music. Jet takes off his apron and approaches me. 
“May I have this dance?” He asks extending his hand. 
“Are you fucking serious?” Fer asks, nearly choking on his drink.
“I didn’t ask you,” Jet retorts, “And yes, I’m serious. This one’s missing her school dance to eat my food and hang out with you. It’s the least I can do.” He looks back at me. “What do you say?”
“I don’t know how to dance,” I reply. 
“It’s okay, neither do I. We’ll figure it out.”
I let Jet lead me to the makeshift dance floor and, once more, try to pull all my files on dancing. This time my cabinets open. Before I know it, I’m spinning and stepping, and looking like a pretty huge dork, but I don’t care. I feel good. I feel happy. A moment later I see Nikki drag Alpha onto the floor to dance with her. He is… not good. But that’s fine. Neither am I and neither is Jet. 
I look around the restaurant at the other customers and the staff. In all there are maybe about a dozen or fifteen other people there. Their eyes are all glowing various shades of brown, green, and blue-- it’s beautiful-- more beautiful than the fancy hologram ceiling at prom. At least it is to me. 
Out of the corner of my eye, the front door opens and Master Park comes in. She looks around, a little confused for a minute, then approaches Fer. I don’t know what they’re talking about but I see him touch her cheek and she smiles. I see them kiss and it’s really sweet… in an ‘ew-gross-she’s-kissing-Fer’ kind of way, but they both look really happy and that makes me happy. After they say whatever it is they need to say. Master Park looks over at me and tries to convince Fer to dance with her. After some coaxing, they join us. More tables move. The dance floor grows to accommodate the others who want to dance too. Soon, it seems like the entire restaurant is dancing and every frightened, angry, sad thing inside me is quiet for once.
I may have lost my parents, but family, I’m learning, doesn’t begin and end with my parents. Yeah, they’re gone and I’ll probably never stop missing them. But, looking out across Jet’s small restaurant reminds me that my family is bigger and better than I could have ever dreamed it could be… and I don’t think I’d have it any other way. 

The End.