Alena picked out a nice jean skirt, not too short, not too long, a white peasant blouse and new white shoes that were only a hair shorter than that red pair. She put the outfit on and looked at herself in the mirror. Favorite blouse, favorite skirt, brand new shoes. The date would suck enough. At least she could feel comfortable in her favorite clothes.
The door bell rang and then Mother's voice called, “Alena!”
She sighed and emerged into the foyer. Chad had arrived with two dozen blood-red roses in one hand and a bottle of expensive vodka in another. Flowers went to her mother, while vodka went to her father. Thurmans were an Old Town family, after all. They did things properly.
“You have fun,” Mother said pleasantly.
A sinking feeling claimed Alena's stomach. She didn't get premonitions often but in that moment she realized with absolute certainty that this date wouldn't end well.
Outside Chad paused for moment, his face deadly serious. She'd seen that look before, usually when he plotted some sort of battle strategy. “You look very nice,” he said quietly, his gaze pausing on her breasts.
“Thank you.” Alena smiled. “You too.”
He did look nice in jeans and a black T-shirt.
They stared awkwardly each other.
“I thought we'd go and see a movie,” he said.
“That sounds great. What kind of a movie?”
“It's fighting flick from Kitai Empire. Gonzo the Spear Carrier.” Chad glanced at her as if expecting a hysterical fit.
“I love historical dramas,” she said and forced and smile.
“Good.” He offered her his elbow.
Alena rested her hands on his forearm and realized that it was the first time she actually touched a guy on a date. The thought almost made her sigh in regret, but she killed the sigh before it had a chance to start.
They strode down the street heading toward the theater. Chad stared straight ahead, his jaw set.
After about five minutes, the silence had become strained. “So what books have you read lately?” she asked to say something.
“Don't read much,” Chad said.
“I liked Marauder III,” he said. “Good movie.”
Like pulling teeth. “What did you like about it?”
“Not sure,” Chad said.
What do I say now?
“Hold on a second.” Chad stepped away from her and barked at the guy across the street, “Hey! Hey, who the hell are you?”
The guy stopped. “I'm here to deliver a package to my uncle. Who the hell are you?”
Chad strode across the street. “Who's your uncle?”
It took them a good five minutes to straighten out who was who and who had a right to be where. For the first minute Alena had looked at her feet, then she looked at the sky, then she counted the fence posts on the long iron fence that guarded the slope of the hills. The whole city was one hill after another with the River Street at the bottom of it all.
Chad trotted up. “Don't worry,” he said. “We won't be late.”
She just nodded. The sooner they got done, the better.
They didn't speak on the way to the theater.
Just before they reached the old theater building, skinny, dark-eyed Marky stopped them again. Chad and he spoke in hushed tones, until Chad cut him off. “Screw this shit, I'll do it myself.” Marky paled and took off. Chad turned to her as if nothing happened and led her inside. He offered to buy her popcorn and coke, but she declined.
The movie was awful. Long, tedious, odd, it didn't make a bit of sense. After the first half she had grown numb to its monotony and simply tuned out. She thought about the book of plays she wanted to finish reading that afternoon and mentally rewrote a couple of them in her head to bring them to a much happier conclusion.
Finally the credits rolled on the screen. She got up and quietly followed Chad out of the theater.
Outside Chad's face took on the look of serious concentration again. The movie had been an utter failure and now he had to do some damage control. She wondered what his next move would be.
He steered her toward Lion Park, where marble statues of lions guarded a huge three-tier fountain. Of course. The ice-cream stand. Chad followed the Old Town manual of dating to a T: having done the movie, no matter how awful, he would now buy her ice cream.
They walked in silence.
“That movie sucked,” he said.
More silence. This was so not working out.
Chad came to a sudden halt. She glanced in the direction of his stare and saw the ice cream shop. A big CLOSED sign hung up front.
Chad looked almost pained. For a moment she actually felt sorry for him. Chad realized that verbal seduction was quite beyond him and her family name prevented him from simply grabbing her and giving her breasts a squeeze, as he obviously wanted to do. What was more, thirteen years of childhood made for a lot of memories and these memories sat between them like an impenetrable barrier.
“Do you remember a couple of years ago, you pushed me off the pontoon?” she said suddenly.
Chad glanced at her.
“My mother forbade me to go swimming because of the factory dumping waste upstream from the pontoon, but I came anyway. I was wearing a black dress with red and yellow dots on it. You pushed me off the pontoon, and I felt something odd with my foot, but I climbed out. And then you pushed my friend Sveta in. The blonde? She wore a white T-shirt. You pushed her in, and when she surfaced, a dead body came up behind her.”
She vividly remembered a pale body rising through the murky water the color of tea. Sveta had screamed and screamed. Even when the cops wrapped her in a blanket, she still made these tiny squealing noises, like something was broken in her chest.
Light gleamed in Chad's eyes. “I remember that. He was a wizard from the local academy. He'd gotten drunk, tried to swim the river at night, and got cut by a propeller.”
Alena nodded. “You probably made me step on the dead body.”
She stared at his grin in disbelief and took a deep breath. “Look, the movie was bad, the ice cream is absent, and we won't even count the broken sleigh or the dead guy. Thank you for taking me out, but I'd like to go home.”
A dark shadow passed over Chad's face. He squared his shoulders. “Okay,” he said finally.
They headed down the sloping street toward the river. She did try. She gave it her best shot. No doubt everybody would be very disappointed that she failed to hit it off with Chad. But to sit in the park next to him, while he figured out what would be the fastest way to feel her up really was beyond her. Especially after that self-satisfied smile.
They turned the corner and stepped onto the River Street. Three blocks, then up the slope and she would be home.
A hoarse howl of outrage rolled down River Street. Alena stopped.
With a loud squeal something small dashed from behind the stone warehouse. A second later Marky and Pol, two of Chad's finest, whipped around the corner and chased after it.
The thing veered left and bolted toward them. Alena squinted. A pig! A small brown furry pig. What in the world…
“I'm going to kill that fucker,” Chad snarled.
She glared at him, sure she misheard.
He charged at the pig. The little beast dodged right, and Chad collided with Marky. The smaller guy bounced off Chad like dry peas from the wall. Chad whirled around, his face contorted with rage.
Oh God, he really is going to kill the pig, flashed in Alena's head. Oh no. No, you don't. A date was fine, but if he thought she'd stand by and let him murder small animals, he was in for a big surprise. She had to catch that beast before he did.
The pig headed straight for her, all but flying above the asphalt.
She lunged for it. The pig swerved left. Her fingertips brushed its bristles and then it was off, running for its life down the street.
There was no way she could catch it in her heels.
Shoes or the life of a little pig? It took her less than a second to decide and then she was running after the beast in her stockings. Behind her heavy thudding of boots announced the three guys giving chase.
Three blocks flew by. The pig made a rough left turn and charged into the old soccer field being remodeled into a tennis court. Ha! Nowhere to go: twelve foot high chain fence enclosed the field to keep the soccer balls from flying in to the neighboring apartment house. Alena squeezed out a burst of speed and shot out into the soccer field.
Where did he go?
A hint of movement caught her eye. There he was. The beast had scrambled up the pile of red clay the construction crew was using to smooth out the field and perched there, covered in orange dust.
She jogged to the pile on her toes, trying to appear friendly and non-threatening. The pig watched her advance with a weary look. Carefully Alena began to climb the pile.
“Here little beast.” The powdery clay smooshed between her toes, her stockings shredded by her run. “I won't hurt you.”
The pig glared at her but stayed put. Almost there. A-a-almost.
She reached for it, moving as slowly as she could manage.
Behind her Chad's deep voice warned, “Easy…”
Easy my foot, he wouldn't be getting his hands on the pig. Alena leaned until she was almost on all fours, her face level with the pig's nose. Sad brown eyes looked at her from the fuzzy muzzle. “Don't worry,” she whispered. “I won't let Chad get you.”
She inched forward, hair by hair, her outstretched hands reaching for the small brown body.
The beast squeaked and darted down the pile.
“Shoot!” Alena straightened in a sharp jerk. The momentum pitched her off balance. She teetered on the apex of a pile, waving her arms like an overgrown stork about to take flight.
Clay crumbled under her feet. She clawed the air, trying to hold on to something, but the sky rolled back, replaced by the view of the apartment house, and Alena plunged down, sliding down the slope until the green soccer field grass slapped her face.
The world swam. She shook her head and pulled herself upright. A wide smudge of orange clay marked her side: from the remnants of her stockings across her blouse all the way up to hair hairline.