Falling Leaves Ch 6

((Credit to fichell for certain ideas and helping this chapter along))
 
Swirled and distorted on the face of the spinning record was, “Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6.” A fragment of time passed every time I closed my eyes, only to blink them open every time the orchestra reached the peak of a crescendo. Motes of dust whirled in the corner as I kicked my feet over the armrest, blanketed in strings, tympani, and brass. Wasting time. Less than half of the records on the shelf sported my fingerprints on the dust.
 
At least Jun seemed to like listening, too.
 
My lips curled upward at the thought of her company. With a grunt I dug my phone from the depths of my pocket and opened my contacts. Before long, a blast of background noise hit my ear.
 
Among the din came Jun’s voice. “H-hello?”
 
“Hey! It’s Lennard.” She probably already knew that. Awkward.
 
 “Oh, hi! What’s up?” Or not. Nice. Someone in the background called out to her. “I know! Just a second! Ahem. Sorry, Lennard. Did you need something?”
 
“I’m free today. You wanna hang out?”
 
Clashes of metal and muffled voices sounded from the other end. “Oh, sorry! I’m pretty busy right now, actually. Can’t talk that much. I-I’ll, uh, call you back later, okay? Sorry!”
 
“Haha. It’s fine, Jun. What’re you—” Something in the background of the call crashed loud enough to hurt my ear. “Uh, actually, you can tell me later.”
 
“I’m coming! Just a sec! Sorry, yeah! I’ll tell you about it at work. Uh, I’ll see you tomorrow! Bye!” The dial tone sounded loud into my ear.
 
Letting my phone bounce onto the couch, my head naturally craned backwards.
 
“Oh well.”
 
Checking the time, noon sailed by several minutes prior. A growl in my stomach told me to consume something nutritious. Joke’s on you, stomach, I didn’t buy groceries last week. Hopping from my seat and heading for the kitchen, I found a lone box of pop-tarts sat in my freezer. S’mores flavor; the best flavor.
 
Pastry in hand, my fingers tapped to the notes of the violins of the music until the muscles tired. By the time I finished the first pop-tart, Tchaikovsky ended the symphony.
 
Before I stood up to change the record, my phone vibrated.
 
It was probably Jun calling me back. Maybe she had a break from whatever she was doing and wanted to hear my voice? Yeah, that sounded like something she would do. No reason to keep her waiting.
 
I swiped the screen without looking at the caller ID. “Hey! What’s up?”
 
White noise muffled the sing-song voice on the other end. “Hi! Remember me, Lenn?” A familiar voice despite the static.
 
I felt the blood drain from my face, my heart punching my sternum from the inside. I muttered, “Georgia?” as if I just got caught doing something wrong.
 
“Yep! How’ve you been? Oh God, it’s been ages, right?”
 
“Y-yeah. Ages.” Cold creeped up my legs and before I knew it I sat down on my bed.
 
“So. I’ll be in town for a few days on a business for, guess what, my new job! Ah! Isn’t that exciting?”
 
“Uh. Sure. Yeah, that’s— that’s exciting.” Did she not remember? More than that, how did she get my number? The words lingered on my lips but never left.
 
“So hey! What’re you doing these days?”
 
“I-I got a job, too. Actually.”
 
“Oh, congrats! Doing what?” Trouble. Big, big trouble.
 
I cleared my throat. “It’s in, uh, marketing.”
 
“Nice! Are you liking it?”
 
A chill encrusted my shoulders with icy rigidity. “Yeah.”
 
“So anyway, I was thinking, since I’m in town, we should get together! It’ll be just like old times!”
 
I wrapped an arm around my stomach and pulled in my legs, choking on air and lies. “Sorry, Georgia. I-I’m not feeling good. Don’t think I’ll be doing much today.”
 
The static scratched at my ears, her silence telling me all I needed to know. “Pff. Seriously? ‘Not feeling good?’” A weight dropped into my gut, pulling all the blood from my face. “You know I’m trying to hook up with you, right? Come on, you loser, it’ll be—”
 
“Bye, Georgia.”
 
My quivering thumb tapped End Call before the device tumbled to the floor with a clatter. The breath in my lungs felt contaminated, the brief conversation having poisoned the air I used to speak. With a start I pulled myself off my bed and washed my face in the bathroom. Tremors wracked my body, the cold water shocked me back to reality.
 
“Hah-ah! Fuck.” If only to raise my arms and make it easier to breathe I grasped at my hair. Curses under my breath sounded with every step back to my phone. Picking it up, I checked her number. It was different from what she had in school.
 
The first two numbers on my auto-reject list already held the moniker, “Georgia.” This one became the third.
 
I crashed onto my bed, drenched in sweat and lassitude.
 
* * *
 
What kind of job did she have? How did she change since graduation? Did she keep that shirt I left at her place? These questions ran through my mind at regular intervals as I stared at my monitors. Text flitted across my monitor without comprehension.
 
“Oh, Mr. Cash!” I squinted through the fluorescent lights to see a smiling Sylvia peek over the top of my cubicle wall.
 
“Hey. Need something?” The tightness in my chest relieved somewhat. Silly tanuki.
 
“Just checking on you. You’re usually more— how do I put it— rambunctious than this.” That probably wasn’t the right word for it. “Is everything alright?”
 
Sick thoughts scratched inside my skull. “Yeah, I’m good. Just a bit hungry.”
 
Her eyebrows shot up. “Ah! That reminds me. Angela and I are going to that Italian place. Would you like to—”
 
“I’m okay, actually.” I blew some air out with pursed lips. “Might go for something else today.”
 
“Oh.” She tilted her head. “If you say so. One more thing.”
 
“Yeah?”
 
“Someone has been sticking gum on the vending machine. There have been several complaints, and I was asked to tell everyone on the team about it. Hopefully it will stop soon.”
 
“I don’t even chew gum, but yeah. I’ll keep it in mind.”
 
Sylvia left it at that and fetched Angela.
 
My gut had long since stopped growling, as if giving up on convincing me to eat. The last thing to grace my stomach was the second half of the pack of pastry I ate the day before. First half Sunday, second half Monday. If I ate anything, that feeling of wrongness inside came back. Needed something to overlap it, overpower it, and help me forget it was there.
 
Lunch came and went, without a scrap of food in my belly.
 
I might have edited a proposal, or it could’ve been a tag line. Everything I did, I forgot in the next minute.
 
“Excuse me, Mr. Cash.” Sylvia, as before, leaned over the cubicle wall.
 
“What’s up?”
 
“Well, this document you just sent me. It’s full of errors. Would you please go through it again?”
 
That constant feeling of being in trouble dug itself inside me and multiplied. “Ah, I’m sorry! I’ll, uh, do it right now.”
 
She shook her head and went back to her desk while I reopened the document and hunched over my keyboard. A sweat-drenched quiver of anxiety mistyped the first word I tried to edit. Tension in my face added nausea to the equation.
 
Sometime between then and when I finished the corrections, the girls came back from lunch and finished a meeting on top of it.
 
Ctrl+S. Forward Document to: sylviamercer@falling.com.
 
My head rolled to peer at the clock on my screen. 3:30 PM. One and a half hours left. Gravity pulled at the bags under my eyes like threads attached to the skin. Screw waiting for the bell.
 
Lifting myself from my seat, I trudged to Sylvia’s desk. “Hey.”
 
“Hello. Did you need something Mr. Cash?” She just opened the email.
 
“If that thing’s good to go, do you mind if I leave early today?”
 
Her brow furrowed with concern. “Oh. Are you not feeling well?”
 
“No.” A deep breath, and I was still drowning. “Not at all.”
 
With a quick skim of the document, she gave me the okay. Scott and Angela called after me, demanding I get better “by the next business day.” I hoped it would be so simple.
 
Unfortunately, going home wasn’t an option. Every little smell and feel of my apartment reminded me of the phone call. That was the last thing I wanted. Rush hour just started, making downtown crowded and loud enough to distract me. Walking through the streets in the heat and noise kept me on my toes. People pushed past me, cars blared their horns, and bleeps of crosswalk signals echoed among the buildings.
 
Back at school I took similar walks to clear my head. I just hoped the method still worked. The longer I walked, sometimes in circles just to extend my travel time, the more my day felt like a nocturne than a dirge. An improvement.
 
Noticing the nearby street signs, I followed the familiar ones and made my way to Starshine Vinyl. Minutes later and the vivid yellows and reds of the sign came into view. A few people went inside as I made my way down the sidewalk, but most passed it. Some gave it a raised eyebrow or a suppressed chuckle. Philistines.
 
The little bell on the door jingled as I went inside.
 
As usual, Manni manned the register with headphones and a tie-dye shirt. “Hey, man! How’re you doin’?” He waved with a limp wrist.
 
I gave him a small wave and moved on to the first display table I saw.
 
Before I could flip past the first record sleeve in the stack, the dreadlocked musician stood next to me. “Hey, what’s wrong, man?”
 
Seriously? “How did you get from the counter to here so quick?”
 
“Practice. But yeah, what’s goin’ on?”
 
“Come on, I’m just browsing.”
 
He leaned in and whispered, “Did you fuck up with that girl you’re kinda sorta with, in that really half-assed backwards unsure kinda way?”
 
My eyes rolled. He probably noticed. Then, a deep breath. “I got a call from Georgia.”
 
The man’s once-slack demeanor grew rigid. Noticing other customers milling around our area, he motioned for me to follow him behind the register counter at the back of the store.
 
Once there, he sat me down in a folding chair that felt flimsy under my weight. “Man, take a seat and take as long’s you need.”
 
 
 
Some time passed and I ended up resting my elbows atop my knees. Manni worked the store, never going too far away unless he had to. My eyes closed for a long time, but I never fell into sleep. A black and purple whirlpool of dark danced behind my eyelids. It was just enough to spellbind me for however long it took for the next noise or touch to rouse me back to proper awareness.
 
The store filled with the errant chatter, between the hipster college kids trying not to fit in and the older patrons looking for a way to bring back the magic of their youth. I would’ve given my shoes for silence, but my feet wouldn’t leave the floor. All the things dredged up from my memory banks made me think too hard. I tried to shut off, keep myself from thinking.
 
Someone tapped my shoulder. “Hey, man.” Manni.
 
I breathed in deep through my nose. “What’s up?”
 
“Your phone’s buzzin’.”
 
Sure enough, my pocket vibrated on and off with a steady rhythm. “Thanks.” As he went back to his customers, I swiped and answered. “Hello?”
 
“Lennard! Hi! I, uh, I’m just called to see if you’re okay.” Jun. Her voice came in loud and clear among the chatter and noise of the store.
 
My mouth moved, but I couldn’t bring myself to speak.
 
“Lennard? You there?”
 
I quashed the lump in my throat. “Yeah. Sorry, I was distracted.”
 
“Jeez, you’re really out of it, huh? Do you need anything? I’m off work now, so I thought I’d check on you. I mean, not that it’s my job to do that after leaving work or anything, I-I just thought it’d be a nice, uh, gesture? To ask how you’re feeling. Or something.”
 
“Well, I’m. Huh. I’m feeling a little better, actually.”
 
“Oh!” She cleared her throat. “That’s good! I’m glad you’re feeling better. Let’s meet up.”
 
“I— what?”
 
“Are you still downtown?”
 
“Uh. Yeah, I am.”
 
“Where are you right now?”
 
“I’m at a place called Starshine Vinyl.”
 
Jun tapping her fingers against the side of her phone brought static jolts to my ear. “I might know where that place is. I can be there in a few.”
 
“Um. Okay. See you in a bit.”
 
“Bye!”
 
She hung up first, and I let my hand fall to my side. Only then did I notice how much I hunched over. My head dangled above my knees, my shoulder blades pushed into the air above me. With a grunt I sat back and straightened my back.
 
“So hey, what was that about?” Manni asked, ducking away from a customer.
 
I smiled. “You know that girl I’m kinda-sorta with?”
 
“Yeah?”
 
“She’s coming here. I guess she wants to hang out.”
 
His smile brightened his unshaven face. “Awesome, man! Nothin’ like a girl to make you feel better after a tough time, huh?” I nodded in agreement. Some of the mental grime from the past few days seemed to wash away.
 
As we waited, I picked myself up and walk around the store. Finding things to add to my stack of reserved vinyl, I watched Manni mill about the place. He showed new artists to an older patron, introduced some oldies to local college kids, and put on a new record to play on the speakers. His big smile never left his lips.
 
Looking back upon myself, one word echoed: “Loser.” I felt if I looked up “Loser” in a dictionary, there’d be a picture of me.
 
With a jingle, I turned my head to see a short girl with a bushy tail stood in the doorway. She leaned through the frame to check out the inside of the store, looking a little lost. The instant she saw me she hopped inside with averted eyes and suppressed smile. My heart might’ve soared a bit, as stupid as that might sound. Hearts don’t soar.
 
Manni shoved my shoulder. “I wanna meet ‘er, man. Bring ‘er over.”
 
“Yeah, I know.” I pushed off the wall and met Jun among the aisles of record sleeves. She wore a pink cardigan atop a white tank top, and her jeans must have had a hole for her tail along the belt line. Unless I was mistaken, she wore a little makeup to keep the darker skin around her eyes from being so pronounced. But really, the “bandit mask” was growing on me.
 
“Hey!” she said, looking around the store. “I’ve definitely been here before, a long time ago. Forgot it was here.” Pushing a lock of hair out of her face she looked at me funny. “You sure don’t look sick. Were you just pretending to be sick to get off work early?”
 
“Ha. No, I really was feeling sick. A bit better now, though. Anyway, my friend said he wants to meet you.”
 
“Oh! Okay.”
 
I lead her toward the back while Manni hopped over the counter.
 
“Hell-o, miss,” he said, both hands tucked behind him.
 
“This is my friend Manfred O’Connell.” I said. “Always call him by his full name.”  
 
“Man, shut up. Just call me Manni.”
 
Jun chuckled and extended a hand. “I’m Jun. It’s, uh, nice to meet you.”
 
“Likewise.” With that, he grasped her by the hand and leaned down to kiss her knuckles.
 
The tanuki let out some sort of confused noise and pulled her hand back.
 
I couldn’t hold it in. “Pfff, you deserved that.”
 
Manni pouted. “What, man? I was being polite!”
 
Jun shuffled behind me, keeping me between her and Manni’s dreadlocks. “Is that how people into music say ‘hello’ these days?”
 
“No, no. He might have a hipster fashion sense and white knight tendencies, but he’s a cool guy.” I turned to Manni. “Come on, shake hands like a normal person.”
 
He sighed. “Yeah, fine.” And so they shook hands, with me still standing between them. Not as “normal” as I expected, but it would have to do. “So what’s it like being with a guy who only eats pop-tarts?” Oh, for fuck’s sake.
 
She froze. “Uh. I wasn’t aware of that, actually. I’ve seen him eat other things, though.”
 
“Heh. Yeah, I bet you have.”
 
A moment passed before Jun’s perplexed face turned a shade of red I didn’t know existed. “No! No no no, that’s, uh. I mean it’d be— uh.”
 
I put my hands on her shoulders and steered her away from Manni. “Okay, that’s enough of him for today.”
 
“I-it was nice to meet you!”
 
“Don’t encourage him, just keep walking.”
 
Manni gave us a wave, the bell on the door jingling on our way out. The rush of warm evening air washed away the smell of cigarette smoke, letting me take a deep breath.
 
“So, what did you want to do?”
 
Jun craned her head all the way back to look at me upside down. “Didn’t really think about that part.”
 
I pulled my hands from her shoulders and shoved them into my pockets.
 
Teetering back and forth, Jun pondered to herself for a moment. “Want to get some food?”
 
“You have somewhere in mind?”
 
“Where I usually go to ‘drown my sorrows.’”
 
* * *
 
“You know it’s only Tuesday, right?” I asked. Ever the gentleman, I pulled her chair out for her at our table. In the meantime, a variety of drinkers and rabble rousers made merry at the bar of The Pub. We sat in the back, far out of range of any errant beer bottles or oni punches. Behind the bar, Sally went about her work without a single bead of sweat on her brow.
 
“What’s wrong with Tuesdays?” She watched me sit down on the other side of the table of deep red wood and leaned onto her elbows.
 
“Nothing, I guess. Do you plan to drink tonight, though?”
 
“I don’t know. Maybe a little.”
 
“And you say I’m the one who drinks a lot?”
 
She stuck her tongue out at me. “It’s not really that I want to drink, you just seemed down at work. I just thought I’d, I dunno, cheer you up a bit?”
 
“Oh yeah?”
 
“Heh heh. Yeah. Do, uh, do you want to talk about it?”
 
My heart skipped a beat, the rebounding thump hitting my ribs hard and kicking the air out of my chest. “That can wait.” I couldn’t look directly at her. To me, the best case scenario was her thinking I was playing hard-to-get or something.
 
“Well, okay. Then I’ll order us some food.”
 
Jun went to the bar to order some snacks and, after a few minutes, an order of nachos arrived at our table, courtesy of one of the bartenders. He looked closer to high school age than college age, but I wasn’t about to complain to the guy who brought us a pile of goodness. The tanuki across from me had the first bite.
 
“This doesn’t look too healthy,” I said as I took a bite. Melting cheese, beans, and pulled pork melted among the crunch of the chips. My first real bite of food in two days. It fell heavy into my stomach like a wad of gum on wet tissue, stretching around and letting me feel every shift until I took the second bite.
 
“It’s fine. Nothing wrong with indulging sometimes.” She didn’t bother wiping a spot of sour cream from her lips.
 
“Hmm. You trying to fatten me up?”
 
“Pff. It’d take more than a plate of nachos to do that.”
 
“True. I do work out when I can.” Swirling a chip around in all the different ingredients, and making sure to get a good chunk of pulled pork on top, I shoved it in my mouth. “So, what’ve you been up to?”
 
“Hm?” Her cheeks puffed up a bit from the food.
 
“Careful with that, I hear it can make you look funny.”
 
The tanuki covered her mouth with a hand to keep a laugh from firing the food at me. After a moment of chewing she said, “Shut up. But yeah, what do you mean?”
 
“That thing you were doing on Sunday.”
 
Her ears perked up. “Oh, that! I was at a soup kitchen for extra-species.”
 
I raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t know you were that poor.”
 
A lightning strike of pain fired up my shin. “I was helping out.”
 
“Uh, ow. Jeez, you kick hard.”
 
Her brow furrowed. “Only when people call me poor.”
 
“Ha. Alright, I’ll keep that to myself from now on. But, now that I think about it, you did say you’ve been doing stuff for mon— uh, extra-species. Is that part of it?”
 
“Yes. That’s just one thing, really. For the last few years I’ve been suggesting outreach programs for extra-species to PR. Besides that I’ve helped with company-paid case-by-case counseling and therapy in case of mental and physical health issues, integration classes, language classes, and company picnics.”
 
“Huh. You could’ve ended that on a higher note.” An olive slice flicked onto my cheek from the pile of nachos. “What about Scott?”
 
“Hm? What about him?”
 
“I thought you said something a while ago about getting him and his wife together?”
 
“Mm! That’s right. Wasn’t much to that, actually. I just asked Scott what kind of woman he tended to go for, and he told me. A quick visit to a dating site and an account in his name and a little peer pressure, and he started dating her. One whirlwind romance later and they now have a beautiful one-eyed cocoa baby.”
 
“That’s a bit, uh, super-manipulative of you.” There was probably more to it than that, but I didn’t dare ask what kind of background work she must’ve done to get that to work for them.
 
Her eyes darted around me. “Uh, well. Ahem. I didn’t do anything after their first date. Except suggesting that he keep an open mind. Thankfully, he did.”
 
“Huh. I guess that’s all it takes sometimes.”
 
“Mhm.”
 
Various drunks milled about The Pub, soaking the air with the smell of spilled beer. Sally barked orders to some of the other bartenders and wait staff. In the end, I wondered why so many people already started drinking so early in the evening on a Tuesday.
 
I spoke again first. “Who teaches the language classes? Someone from ASU?”
 
“Oh. Uh, I do, actually.”
 
“What?”
 
“Yeah, we have some foreign employees and my mom taught me a few languages when I was still living with her.”
 
“Wait, ‘a few?’” I leaned back and crossed my arms. “Like what?”
 
A confident change in her posture, and she grabbed her bottle of Pellegrino. “I know Spanish and Italian. Here, read from the label.”
 
She tossed the bottle of fizzy water to me, which I caught with football technique. “Alright, let’s see.” With wet hands I looked over the label. “Pff. Uh, you might have to show me another way.”
 
“What for?”
 
“Ha. The label’s in English.”
 
“What?” Jun lunged across the table and snatched it from me. Looking over the incredibly English label, she raised it above her head and looked over at the bar. “Sally! Sono disgustato!”
 
Wiping the sweat from her brow, Sally found Jun and I and raised her arms in confusion. “Che cosa?”
 
A butterfly in my stomach tickled my stomach. “Haha, come on, don’t bug her.”
 
She put the bottle down and rested her head on a hand. “Hmm. Are you sure you’re okay, though?”
 
I froze, eyes plummeting toward the plate in front of me. She didn’t need to know what kind of stupid crap I had to deal with. Not only that, she didn’t need to cheer me up.
 
Her hand waved in front of me. “It’s like, whenever you’re not talking, you look like you’re scared or something.”
 
“I’m scared of you.”
 
Hot sweat slid down my nape. I never meant to answer her question, much less say that. As the fore of my thoughts scrambled to find something to say, I knew in the back of my mind that there was no salvaging it.
 
“Why?” Jun asked. “Because I have a tail and funny ears?”
 
I sighed. No going back. “Because I just remembered how easy someone can screw me over.”
 
“Wha-” She sighed. “What? Lennard, can’t you just tell me what’s up? You’re acting weird.”
 
That fear again tucked itself under my skin. “I got a call from an ex the other day.” Deep breaths. “She kind of ruined me for relationships.”
 
Jun’s ears curled downward. “I don’t understand.”
 
While I stayed silent, taking time to look around our table, some of the nearby drunks got up and left. Probably as good a time as any to tell that little tale.
 
Deep breaths. “Here is the short version.” Jun adjusted herself in her seat and motioned for me to continue. Deeper breaths, start slow. “I dated this girl, G-Georgia, back in school. Fourth year. We met at a house party. Because, that’s what you do in college, you fuck people you meet at house parties. Haha.” Jun just nodded. “Uh. Ahem. We, uh, were pretty much ‘that couple.’ Always together, always talking, and always kicking out roommates so we could fuck.”
 
The tanuki’s eyes shifted a little, but she didn’t once break her attention except to aim her ears in the direction of the occasional shout from the bar.
 
“S-so, anyway. We were pretty, uh, ‘active,’ and weren’t careful enough.” I settled my arms on the table to keep steady. “I got her pregnant.” No more eye contact for me; I didn’t want to see her reaction. “We both, you know, agreed that, since we were going to graduate soon, we could totally be just-out-of-school parents! It was our decision. We wanted to raise a kid. We were in it together. We might not’ve been ready for that kind of thing, but we both had this awesome image in our heads about parenthood and— well, I guess only I did.”
 
A glance in her direction told me of her confusion at the statement. “What happened?”
 
“Well, uh. One time, I was cleaning up our place— we moved in together, of course— and I found a piece of paper in her bag.” Ever deeper breaths. “One from a local abortion clinic.”
 
Jun’s hands opened and closed into fists on the tabletop. Over and over, shaking harder every time I looked at them.
 
“I approached her about it. Her only response? She ‘changed her mind.’” My arms turned to noodles and slid off the table into my lap. There. All said and done. No more to the story.
 
Jun sat across from me, eyes half-closed and fists clenched. With a screech of wood, she pushed her chair out from the table and stood up. Shoving out of her way a pair of drinkers at the bar, she caught Sally’s attention. Moments later she returned and slammed onto the table what looked like a pitcher of alcohol. In the fingers of her other hand hung two shot glasses.
 
I stared at the pitcher, and then at her. “Uh, Jun? It’s a work night.”
 
“Nope. Don’t care. This date calls for more booze.” Dragging her chair over to my side of the table, a big puff of air blew from her lips. “You are going to have fun whether you like it or not.”
 
“‘Date?’” Some of people nearby let out little cheers for her while I covered my face with a hand. “Come on, just—” A full shot glass slid in front of me, spilling much of it in the process.
 
“Shut up and drink.” Pinching her nose, she knocked back her shot and immediately reached for another nacho. “I am fucking livid after hearing that. Ugh. Disgusting.”
 
Did she, even for a second, think I might’ve made it up? If she told me a similar story I at least would’ve asked for some proof. She placed an almost-alien amount of trust in my words.
 
“Jun. I’m not going to pay for all this when I won’t even—”
 
“I’ll take care of it, Lennard.” Scooting herself even closer, her arm touched mine, hot to the touch through the sleeve of my dress shirt. She added, “The tab’s in my name, anyway.”
 
Looking from her to the half-spilled shot glass in front of me, I sighed. “Then you’d better keep up.”
 
* * *
 
Street lamps and headlights glared at us with every step. I considered wearing sunglasses, but realized that would’ve been silly so late at night. Although my phone ran out of battery a while ago, leaving it cold in my pocket seemed to halve the weight. We both wobbled with every step toward my place.
 
“Ugh. Shorry, Len. Couldn’t keep up.” She groaned. A few steps later she tripped over her own feet with a scrape of sidewalk.
 
I caught her with an arm across her chest. “Come on, be careful.” Her weight pressed my arm against her breasts as she stabilized, her arms hanging over mine like a kid going limp.
 
“Mhm. I know.”
 
I held on. “You good?”
 
“Yeah.” The moment I released her, she wrapped her arms around mine before I could step away. “There. This’ll beee~ easier.”
 
The warmth of her skin and chest sunk into me, every bodily function letting out a collective sigh of relief. “Yeah.”
 
We shuffled along, my apartment just a couple streets away. The bustle of downtown, as well as the multitude of leering eyes, faded with every step.
 
“You know,” I said.
 
“Hm?” Her breath tickled my arm.
 
“I think I’d be willing to talk about more, uh, important stuff, but only as long as you talk, too.” Tension returned. “It’ll probably be hard, though.”
 
“Hmmm~” The scrape of her shoes against the concrete slowed to a stop.
 
“What’s up? Feeling sick?”
 
Folding her arms, she swung her head left and right in thought. “When I was a li’l kid, I was in love with Mega Man.”
 
I blinked. “What.”
 
“I told my mom I wan’ed to marry the shit outta that guy.”
 
“Jun, what the hell?”
 
“In my spare time, I look in the mirror and use my stupid magic to dress up as celebrities.”
 
“Khhahaha! Come on, how drunk are you?”
 
Taking steps towards me, I noticed in the streetlight the red in her face. “Ah’m givin’ you blackmail material. So, in caysh I ever go to th’ Dark Side, you c’n rip me a new one.”
 
The laughter bubbled up as short breathless chuckles. “Okay, that’s fine. You don’t have to do it in public.”
 
“I still wet the bed wh’n I was twelve.”
 
“Holy shit stop.”
 
Sticking her tongue at me between her teeth, she pranced ahead. “When I wuz sixteen I threw up on my first date. With a strapping young man!”
 
“Hey! Jun, please. It’s okay, you can stop.”
 
“M-mm!” Spinning around with arms outstretched she called into the sky, “I’m the one sticking gum on the vending machine at work!”
 
“That was you?”
 
“It’s how I get my kicks! And another thing—!”
 
I caught up to her and bear-hugged the tanuki from behind, suppressing her confessions with laughter as I lifted her off her feet. Feeling her ruffled clothes press against my chest and catching the scent of vanilla from her neck, I squeezed her tight and rested my cheek against her hair. The smell of shampoo inundated my consciousness with flowery cream.
 
“Embarrassing yourself won’t make me feel better.”
 
Her fingers, skittish in their approach, slid between locks of my hair. “But it makes you laugh.”
 
“Haha. Yeah. And, uh, let’s talk more next time.” We rocked back and forth. “A lot more.”
 
Leaning against me, she pulled my arms tighter around her. “Mm. Yeah. That sounds nice.”
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