"You're him, aren't you? You are." Her fingers rested softly on his shoulder, familiar but respectful, and she was standing close enough that he could smell her perfume: expensive and subtle.
She pointed to the ceiling. The part of him that used to look up when they did that was long dead. "From the meteor thing. I recognize you from television."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," he said, pleasantly, finishing his scotch and set the empty tumbler back down on the bar.
He felt her considering him with her eyes, making a decision. She said, "My mistake," but she slid onto the bar stool next to him, brushing against his arm. She gestured to the bartender, who seemed to know her, because he brought her a drink she never ordered aloud.
"I've always liked this hotel. Nice rooms. Nice bar. Quiet. I like a quiet bar without football games on the television. And when the conventioneers start to get lousy drunk, they send them upstairs before it gets out of hand."
He'd seen it happen, here. "It's just good policy."
"Cheers to that." She held out her drink, and he clinked his empty against it as a matter of form. The bartender, seeing this, stepped over and poured another two fingers of scotch into his glass; when Mike reached for his wallet, the man waved him off and retreated back to the end of the bar.
"I suppose," she said conspiratorially, "It's been a while since you actually had to pay for a drink."
"A couple years." He nodded. "A couple years."
"Easy to let it get out of hand with that kind of free pass."
"I've never been a big drinker. Wife doesn't really let me drink at home. Only on the road, and not much then."
"I remember her being pretty. From the television."
He hadn't really looked at her, before, but now he managed to catch an impression in his peripheral vision: little black cocktail dress; blonde hair; lips a gash of red, too red, a red that drew the eye; maybe a little older than she wanted to be thought.
She put a name to the impression. "I'm Greta."
"Mike." There was no sense giving her a fake name that she would know to be fake.
"You're not here for the convention." It was rhetorical, she was trying to read him. "Oh, you're speaking, aren't you? You go around giving speeches. I bet there's a slide show and everything."
"There's even music." He downed the second scotch. "It's from that movie with the four guys on the river. The little guy dies? That one. I asked them if I could use it, and they said 'sure, no charge'. They like having the bragging rights."
"I'll bet. What's the speech about? Saving the world?"
He didn't answer, just shrugged.
"I'll bet you have ten speeches and they only ever want to hear the one."
"There's only two other speeches."
"But they only ever want to hear the one."
"Well, in fairness, it is a corker."
She laughed and flipped her hair in a way that told him everything a woman talking to a stranger in a bar needed to say. He feigned not to notice. About this time Kristen would be putting the boys to bed, then she would fix herself dinner, and then she would call. Half an hour?
Greta was talking. "I was at the beach with two girlfriends. We all thought it was over. We got wasted and cried a lot. Watched the whole thing on television, all the way to the end. We passed out after that. I don't think I really even believed it until I woke up the next afternoon and everything was all right."
"Still sounds like it was still a better weekend for you."
She laughed. "What are they about, the other speeches?"
"One's the war, the other's applying for the Program and getting in and the training."
"You should write a book."
"Bill already wrote the book."
"You should write yours."
"He didn't get anything wrong. I wouldn't want to compete."
Her eyebrows crunched up and her forehead furrowed. "Why not?"
"He's the skipper."
"You've been back for years; why does that still matter? Why not get yours?"
He shrugged: free drinks, free music, women at hotel bars who never would have noticed him before the Shot and who would go upstairs without hesitation if artlessly asked afterward. He didn't say any of that.
"What was it like?"
"Come listen to the speech."
"I'll probably be working."
"Are you working now?" He regretted it immediately.
She didn't say anything, just looked at the drink in her hand.
"I'm sorry. That was rude. I never did learn how to talk to girls. Forgive me? Maybe I am a little drunk—"
"Don't worry about it. What does your wife do?"
"She writes for a magazine. She can do it from home, so she can be with the boys when I'm out of town."
"You're out of town a lot." She didn't bother framing it as a question.
"Often enough. You live here?"
"Born and raised. Never even been to the coast. Either coast. Windy city girl."
"Nothing wrong with that."
She smiled. They let the bartender pour them one more. Mike didn't reach for his wallet this time.
"So, you love your wife, and you're not going to ask me upstairs, and that's OK. Don't feel like you're being rude. You're just sick of freebies."
"That's very understanding of you."
"But, I think you're sad."
"I do. I think you're sad. Not pathetic sad, just sad." She waited, didn't continue. She was inviting him to feign indifference, and not ask.
He couldn't help it. "Why am I sad?"
"I think you were one of the best and the brightest, you busted your ass to get up there, you drew the straw that meant 'save the world, or not', and now it's over. I think the whole time you were just afraid of screwing it up, and when it worked you just felt relief, and then it was over. And now you're drinking free drinks and giving the same speech forty times a year—"
"—and wondering if everything you'll ever do that will ever matter to anyone has already happened. You're that grad student with the cancer cure."
The science part of his brain switched on instinctively. "Rabanipol. It's not really a cure, per sé, but it—"
"You know what I mean. He's in rehab now, did you know that? It was on TMZ. Tried to drink himself to death. And he's only what, two years out from his thing? You've been back five years."
"You might be right."
"You going to call your wife when you get upstairs?"
"She'll be calling me in about twenty minutes."
Greta smiled. "You know when she's going to be calling you? You know her schedule. OK. So when she calls, you ask her... what's her name? I remember what she looks like, but I don't remember her name."
"So you say, 'Kristen, do you think I'm sad?' And see what she says. And if she says, 'yes, honey, I think you're a little, sad, maybe', because she wants to soften the blow, then you ask her what she thinks you should do about it."
He finished his scotch and turned and looked at her. "So why the head shrink? I'm not saying you're wrong, I'm just asking. You're not from the agency..."
She got up from the stool, brushing against him again as she slid away from the bar. "People are always giving you free stuff for saving the world, but it's never the stuff you actually need, is it? Figuring people out is at least half of what I do. And since you weren't going to be interested in the other half," she grinned, "I figured a little analysis might do the trick."
"No problem. Tell Kristen hello for me."
"I'll do that." He probably would: Kristen's sense of humor bordered on the perverse, though it didn't come out as often since her days had become filled with bottles and diapers and bereft of sleep.
Greta walked gracefully out of the bar. She'd sat with him too long to approach someone else, maybe. Maybe she'd had an appointment upstairs all along and was just killing time. It didn't really matter.
The bartender returned, but Mike put his palm over the glass. "I think I'm done, chief."
"That Greta, she's a hell of a number, isn't she? I'll bet that if—"
"She seems very nice." Mike laid a tip on the bar, pretended not to notice the bartender wave refusal. "But I'm married. Have a good night."
The bartender was effusive. "You too, man. A real honor having you in here."
Mike headed unsteadily out into the more brightly-lit lobby, found his way to the elevator bank. Greta was already long gone, if she had even come that way.
He'd be in his room, relaxing on the bed in his Christmas pajamas, before Kristen called. She'd know. She'd know if he was sad. She'd have been waiting for him to say something, because that was their dynamic after eleven years. Maybe she'd even know what to do about it.
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