Chapter 3 – Bad Party
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Mike preceded Varanelli to the parking lot with the car keys he had begged from her while she flirted with Specialist Smith. He suspected his roommate would not be driving him home that evening as she had promised. While changing in her car, he pulled out his phone and began to text friends from work and the gym. Not a group text -- that would make his plea too easy to ignore. No, each person had to think he was specifically reaching out to them. He copied and pasted the same message to dozens of contacts: "Lots of no-shows at my Army goodbye happy hour. If you can make it out to the Millennium it would mean a lot to me." If anyone showed up, it would be better than watching Varanelli make out with Smith and then being forced to pay for an uber home when she vanished.

For reasons lost over time, company farewell happy hours always happened at a crap-hole karaoke bar where no one ever did karaoke. No one ever suggested some place else because the drinks were cheap and there was always plenty of room for some drunk soldiers on a Saturday night. They had also, somehow, never been kicked out of the place. He didn't have long to wait before Varanelli came out of the Armory in her civilian attire. She gunned the accelerator the moment they reached the main road and didn't slow to a sane pace until they were in the Millennium's parking lot. Varanelli handed him a twenty dollar bill for him to get his first round while she positioned the visor mirror and whipped out her makeup kit. If he knew her, she was about to overdue her makeup to a ridiculous level.

He hesitated before leaving the car. “Varanelli, do me a solid and make sure I actually get home tonight.”

“Of course. I got you, roomie.”

“I know you do. But . . . if at some point tonight you don't, make sure someone is on the hook to drive my ass back to the apartment.”

She flipped him the bird. “I'm a woman of my word, Ski. Go get drunk.”

As he slunk towards the building, he checked his messages. One from Srinivas, who was his lunch buddy, coworker, and supervisor. "Is Kendra going be there?" Mike winced as he sent back a "yes". Another message was from Jimmy, one of his better friends from the gym: "Can't drink, cutting weight for a fight." Then: "Will stop in and buy you one." So two friends who had absolutely nothing to do with his time in the Army would be attending. Come to think of it, he didn't think the two had ever met one another. It would be an odd party. Also, it would probably be over quicker than usual.

As Mike stepped inside, the musty scent and gloomy surroundings called to mind all the previous farewell happy hours he had attended. Whittaker, Blake, Evans, Young, Angers, Pfeiffer, McGreary . . . . There had been a lot of lively nights in this bar. Though at the moment the place was dead. There were only a few patrons in the building, and just the one bartender. A head turned to reveal a familiar face. Specialist Erika Spencer. Who the hell let her know this was happening? He glanced around the room but found no one else he knew. Nothing to do but handle this myself.

Mike stalked up to her bar seat. “What are you doing here?”

“Hi, Ski.”

“I don't want you here.”

She ignored that. “Can I buy you a drink?”

“No.”

“Look, I'm sorry for my part in things. It never should have happened.”

“No shit.”

“I just want to make things all right between us.”

He laughed. “Are you an idiot, Spencer? We're never going to be friends.”

“We don't have to ever see each other again. I just think we should forgive and forget.”

“I don't know how far you drove to get here, but it was a waste of time. The last thing in the world that could convince me to sign off on us being cool is wrecking my happy hour.”

Spencer's face flushed red in anger. “She never even knew.”

“That just makes it worse.”

“Well, it's shitty that you blame me. It takes two to tango.”

Varanelli, suddenly there, interposed herself between them, a solid block of feminine muscle tensed in anger every bit as intense as his. “You fucking bitch. How dare you show your face to us?”

Specialist Spencer took a slow sip from her bottle of cider.

"Who told you to be here? How do you even know where we do our happy hours? Who told you?"

Smith put both hands on Varanelli's shoulders. "Hey, Kendra, let's not get kicked out of here. Sound good?"

Varanelli allowed herself to be pulled away to a seat at the opposite corner of the bar, but she continued to scowl in Smith's direction.

Mike turned to go and paused. "You should leave."

"I'll leave when I'm ready," Spencer said.

"Well, don't talk to me or Varanelli. Once the party gets going, we're not going to be holding back." Mike stalked to where his roomie sat receiving a shoulder rub from Smith. Her momentary beau was a regular in the rotation. Like every man Varanelli went after, Smith fit the mold of an effeminate hipster: thin figure, long lashes, overly maintained haircut, and a sensitive puppy-dog expression. Pretty much the antithesis of Mike, who was a muscle-bound -- if slightly overweight -- beast with a receding hairline, a serious case of cauliflower ear on both sides, the telltale sign of a poorly set broken nose, and a predatory posture he dropped into any time his mood soured.

Mike waved for the bartender. "Three shots of fireball and a glass of whatever beer is on tap." He gestured to his companions. "Well, the first toast is to the First Sergeant. The prick managed to screw me over one last time. No one is going to show tonight."

Varanelli paused while raising her shot glass. "How about we toast to an honorable discharge instead?"

"Yeah, back in Iraq everyone was sure you were going to be kicked out," Smith added.

Mike threw back the spicy cinnamon shot, then drained half of his beer in a single chug. Before he could think of something to say, Smith had whisked Varanelli off to play a flirty game of pool. Mike hunched over his beer and glared across the bar to where Specialist Spencer sat. The door slammed open, revealing the arrival of Sergeant Crane, who was not-so-affectionately referred to as Sergeant Pain. It appeared that all the bad karma he had accumulated throughout his life was coming due at the same time.

Sergeant Pain slapped him hard on the back as he claimed the barstool beside Mike. "Hiya Ski, how you doing? Why did we have to come back to this dump? I can't stand the Millennium. I forgot my wallet in the car, think you could spot me for a round? Promise to get you back. So what about that fighting stuff? Are you going to become a full time cage fighter now that you're done with the National Guard? I was telling one of my buddies the other day about how you bashed up those two marines. It was awesome, man. Ski, you have to invite me to your fights. So what's up with you and Varanelli living together? You hitting that? I would if I was you, if you know what I mean. I even thought up the perfect pickup line for you, just offer to show her some wrestling moves.”

Mike upped his rate of drinking as soon as the man started talking, gesturing for two more drinks. While he didn't care to pay for one of his least favorite brother-in-arms, Mike figured Sergeant Pain wouldn't be able to talk while fluid was pouring down his throat. He let the droning questions and commentary wash over him without taking it in. His half-hearted grunts seemed sufficient response to keep the conversation going. The beers kept coming and soon his mind dulled, all the frustration and anger dwindling to cold echoes of their former selves.

"I am here for your party, Ski," chimed a sing-song voice.

A genuine smile spread across his face. "Srinivas! Thanks for coming out!"

The Indian man bobbed his head. "Of course, I am being good friend for you." Pause. "Is Kendra here also?"

"Uh, she's around," Mike said. "But sit down a minute and have a beer with me."

"Maybe one beer." Srinivas squinted at the single tap handle. "Do they have anything else to drink? Beer in bottles or maybe some wine?"

"Their best beer by far is on that tap."

Sergeant Pain took in the new arrival. "Who are you? You sound like a foreigner."

"Coworker of Ski," Srinivas said. "QA manager."

"Shame they couldn't give an American that job," Pain muttered as he ambled away to bother Smith and Varanelli.

Mike lifted his glass in toast. "Your presence is already improving my night."

"This is not a good party, Ski."

"That is quite the understatement, Sri. I can't believe I scheduled vacation tomorrow so I'd have a recovery day. At this rate I will be in bed early."

The door opened again to admit Jimmy, a tall black man with a whiplike physique and ears every bit as ravaged as Mike's. He sauntered over to Mike and extended a hand for a fistbump. "Hey, Mike, sorry your party sucks." He nodded to Srinivas. "Sup?"

"Hello, I am Srinivas, coworker of Ski."

"Ah, nice. I'm Jimmy from the gym." Pause. "I don't even know what kind of job you have, Ski."

"Quality assurance on semiconductor parts. It's not the most glorious line of work out there." Mike slapped his hands together. "Now who wants a drink?"

"I'm cutting weight for my fight," Jimmy said.

Srinivas shrugged. "I do not like light beer, so not for me."

Mike groaned. "Come on guys, don't be lame."

Jimmy pointed to Mike's empty glass. "How about we buy and you drink?"

Across the bar, a short man engaged Specialist Spencer in intense conversation. The man and Spencer glanced towards Mike at the same moment, then stood and began to walk towards them. Mike's brow drew down. "Guys, I appreciate both of you coming out here, but it is time to go. I'm probably going to get myself into some legal trouble that you don't want any part of."

Jimmy followed the line of his gaze and threw an arm around Mike's neck, which he used as a pin. "No craziness today, Mike. We're just gonna get you back home. I'll even crack a beer with you at your place."

"You are not going to fight someone, I hope," Srinivas said.

The man with Specialist Spencer smiled at them. "Hi, friends. I've been talking to Erica here. She mentioned the group here today is having a party in honor of a guy named Ski getting out of the Army."

Mike squinted at the man. "Who the hell are you?"

"Tyler Marius." The man raised his pointer finger dramatically. "Defector from the Angmari Fleet. I'm recruiting soldiers to save your planet. The pay is non-existent, but the perks include superpowers. Gather the rest of your friends together, I'll buy a round of drinks, and everyone can listen to my pitch. Sound good? Good."

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