27. Tequila Worm

2055, November 7th
Collapse + 6 years

“Ready?”

Winnie nodded.

“Okay then,” said Helena. “On three. One. Two. Three.”

Helena and Winnie threw back a shot of tequila. It seared Winnie’s mouth despite her attempt to taste as little as possible. She knew to swallow the shot in one go, but it took her three swallows nonetheless. The last one malfunctioned as her throat rebelled, and tequila went down her trachea.

Helena slammed her shot glass onto the floor, threw her hands above her head, and whooped. She laughed when Winnie coughed. “You’re such a lightweight. I can’t believe you’ve never had liquor before.”

Inhaling alcohol had nothing to do with being a lightweight, but Winnie didn’t correct Helena. Instead, she shrugged apologetically as she coughed.

Helena sat against her bed and picked up the tequila bottle they’d stolen from a corporate bar on the fifteenth floor. Breaking in had been simple enough since no one was in there on the weekends. Helena had skulked about like a cat burglar in a museum while ordering Winnie to scout ahead with her power. She’d even dressed in dark clothes and had demanded Winnie do the same.

The clandestine mission had been thrilling, until the bar door had opened quite simply with a swipe of Helena’s pass card. Either that was a gross security oversight, or the adults figured stealing liquor was a harmless rebellion for a princess. 

Helena had clearly selected this tequila because it looked expensive. The bottle was hand-crafted glass. The cap had a wax-cover, and floating around inside was what looked like a bloated caterpillar. She’d asked Helena about this. Helena merely made fun of her naivety.

The two had snuck the bottle back to Helena’s suite to lounge at the base of her gargantuan, frilled bed. This was her idea of a midnight break after an evening spent preparing for the charity in two days.

“You ready for another?” Helena shook the bottle playfully.

“I think I need a few minutes.”

“Oh come on, this is smooth. Might be one of the better vintages I’ve had.” She swirled the bottle, studying the bloated corpse within. “Danny Torres had a party at his dad’s house a couple months ago. He was so proud of his Black Label liquor. It was so gross.” She poured another shot into each glass. “Come on. We’re never going to get drunk at this rate. Ready?”

Winnie wasn’t, but she held up the glass anyway. Helena counted away, licked salt from her wrist, then swallowed the shot in one go. Winnie tried swallowing hers slowly, thinking it might be easier that way. She was wrong. Fortunately, Helena was too busy biting a lime slice to notice Winnie gagging.

Helena whooped again. She laughed at Winnie’s scrunched expression. Although Winnie noticed, with a bit of satisfaction, that Helena’s eyes were watering.

“You’re such a light weight,” Helena said again—the phrase of the night apparently. “You’re already red.”

Winnie felt her cheeks. She hadn’t noticed how warm her face felt. Her head seemed improperly weighted too, not too light or too heavy, but something off.

“I’ve never drank before,” Winnie said. “I’m not sure I should have any more.”

“Seriously? You’re already done? One more.”

“What if we watch some more and do another shot later?”

Projected on Helena’s wall was a paused image of an old pre-Collapse show about high school students. It had a weird name that Winnie couldn’t recall right now. For days, Helena had been catching Winnie up, showing her the pilot and several “good” episodes while narrating her own thoughts along the way. Winnie tried to be interested. She’d certainly watch right now if it saved her from another shot.

“We’re not even drunk yet, and you just want to watch television?” Helena studied the tequila bottle. After a pause, she pushed it aside. “Fine. If you want to.” She tapped a button on her tablet, and the show resumed.

As Winnie watched, nausea set in. She was constantly swallowing caustic burps. Her head was heavier every time she thought about it. Beside her, Helena sat placidly, watching the show, not narrating as she usually did. Getting drunk struck Winnie as an unnecessary addition to the night. Though it was nice to finally know what getting drunk felt like, even if it felt wretched.

“This is dumb,” Helena said. “We’re just sitting around. Let’s do something else.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Anything.”

“We could invite more people over.”

“Have you forgotten? No one can come onto the campus this late.”

“We could go to them?”

“Don’t be stupid. I can’t leave. Even if my mom let me, I’d have to bring my bodyguards, who are the biggest buzzkills in the world. Nobody else wants to drink when my guards are standing there eyeballing everyone. Seriously. I’m a prisoner. It’s like the only fun I have these days is the basketball outings, and I’m only playing basketball because my mom makes me. It sucks being the princess.”

“Yeah, but what about when you’re queen? Think about what kind of parties you’ll have then. You could order your guards to look the other way.”

“I guess so. Sometimes I think that’s never going to happen. I’m going to spend my whole life as the heir to the throne and never actually get it.” Helena studied her shot glass. Normally talking about her future lifted her mood.

“What about when you turn eighteen?” Winnie asked. “You’ll have more freedom then, right?”

“Why would I? I’ll still be here. Do you know my mom has already decided where I’m going to college? Guess where? The Lakiran Institute. Just a couple of blocks away. I’ll still be living here.”

“Wow. Your mom is really protective.”

Helena scoffed. “She doesn’t give a shit. She hasn’t talked to me in over two weeks now. You see her more than I do. I’m just another of her endangered pets. Lock me up and don’t touch.” Helena poured herself and Winnie another shot. “Even when I try to spend time with her, she just brushes me off. One time, I talked Melanie into letting me come along with my mom for some summit meeting in China or whatever. My mom threw a fit. She bitched out Melanie about going behind her back. And this was during a school break. I wouldn’t miss school or anything. I had a hotel room booked and everything. But my mom made Melanie cancel it all.”

Helena held up her shot glass and looked at Winnie to do the same. Winnie didn’t argue it. After the shot, Helena did not bother whooping.

“She cares more about her fucking animals than she does me. At least she visits them once in a while.”

“Willow and Marzipan?”

“All of them. Haven’t you seen the thirty first floor?”

“No.” Winnie recalled Madeline mentioning that floor when she first visited—four floors dedicated to environmental restoration. She never did take Madeline up on the tour. “Does your mom go there a lot?”

“At least once a week. It’s supposed to be a restricted area. The trainers are trying to make the animals ready to go in the wild. Whenever I go there, they tell me I’m acclimating them to humans and kick me out. But then my mom goes there and plays with them like they’re a bunch of toy poodles.”

“Weird.”

“Fucking stupid is what it is.”

Helena flopped back against her bed, nearly knocking over the bottle. They watched the show in silence.

“Hey,” Helena sat up and grinned. “You want to go check it out?”

“I thought you said you weren’t allowed in there.”

“I’m not, but who cares? Come on. Bring the tequila.”

Helena was already headed toward the door, so Winnie collected the drinks, waited for the room to stop spinning, and followed. Helena was boarding the elevator when Winnie caught up. Inside, Helena swiped her security card and pressed the button for floor 31. The button panel replied with an angry beep.

“What the fuck? Come on.” Helena banged the panel. It took the beating stubbornly.

Winnie decided to let this play out before suggesting they head back, but then Helena pressed the button for floor 38. The elevator closed.

“Where are we going?” Winnie asked.

“We need to steal one of the caretaker’s cards. Make sure they’re all asleep.”

Winnie mentally dove down to the thirty-eighth floor. It was a residential floor, complete with a common area and a kitchenette. The cleaning staff clearly didn’t visit there. Crumbs covered the sofas and a television set had a mess of gaming consoles nested beneath it. The coffee table between the two had scattered papers and bowls of finished cereal that no one had bothered moving to the sink. The dorms connecting to the common area had personalized doors, either with posters or clippings. One had a small whiteboard on it with a marker attached by velcro so visitors could leave notes. Winnie didn’t look in any of the rooms. She was already breaking one of Victoria’s cardinal rules: no looking in the tower.

“I think they are,” she said.

“Look around. See if any of them have left for the weekend.”

Reluctantly, Winnie did so. Of the twelve rooms, nine were occupied. Of those nine, eight were sleeping. Another was sitting on his bed in his underwear playing a game on a computer.

She wished Helena wouldn’t make her do this.

The remaining three rooms had messy beds and laundry scattered about. Two had passcards that she saw: one attached to a retractable belt wire resting on a desk, the other on a lanyard hanging on the backside of the door. She checked the locks of each door, looking at the pins to see if they were unlocked. One was.

Violating privacy with her power was far too easy. She only hoped Victoria wouldn’t care too much.

The elevator opened on that floor. Helena crept down the hall to the caretaker’s common room. “Did you see any?”

“Are you sure you want to do this? We’re going to get in trouble.”

“So?”

“I mean, even if we get away with it. Your mom will see it in my head.”

“What’s she going to do about it? Ground me? I’m already stuck here. And you’re a flair. You could murder someone and she’d forgive you.So don’t be lame. You see one, don’t you?”

Reluctantly, she nodded.

“Then go get it.”

Solemnly, Winnie opened the door to the common room, walked to to the unlocked door, and opened it just long enough to snake her hand around and grab the lanyard. That was that, the point of no return. She was going to get in trouble sooner or later.

They snuck out. Helena bumped into her and giggled. Despite herself, Winnie giggled too.

Back at the elevator, Helena swiped the stolen card and punched the floor for the garden. This time, the elevator obliged.

When the door opened, it was as though the elevator transported them outside. A blast of warm, damp air struck them. It smelled of musk and manure. Ahead was a cobbled path leading through grass into shadowed woods. There were no walls, only a deep darkness from which glowing eyes might look out. A canopy of foliage took the place of a ceiling, and in some places, stars peeked through. Only through her flair could Winnie see rafters and skylights far overhead. The place was larger than a stadium, and it had trees—full grown trees that had no right being indoors.

“Follow me.” Helena skipped along a path into the woods. Winnie followed. Behind her, the elevator closed, cutting away the small haven of light Winnie had been relying on. She was left in pitch black, with no sound but the chirring of crickets. Fortunately, her flair didn’t need light anymore. She could pretend there were lights, and that was good enough. Victoria’s would disapprove of this crutch. According to her, Winnie shouldn’t need any light at all, real or imaginary.

Helena was ahead, drunkenly feeling her way along the path. Winnie caught up and took the lead while Helena held her shoulder.

“How are you not bumping into everything?” Helena asked.

“My flair.”

“Oh. Right.”

They arrived at an enclosure of sleeping pig-like creatures. The plaque before the enclosing wall said “Tapirs”, whatever those were. Winnie scanned further. There were enclosures for everything from jaguars to crocodiles. One enclosed section even contained birds.

Helena looked into the enclosure. The tapirs were sleeping behind a fake rock wall.

“Well, this was a waste of time,” she said. “You can’t see any of them.”

I can.”

Helena snorted. “It’s not really the same though, is it.”

“It’s better, kind of. I think if I were blind, I’d be okay.”

“Well, look at you. I guess I’ll just sit here and drink while you imagine the animals.”

“You could see the reptiles.”

“Oh yeeaah. Take me to the reptiles. Let’s see those little purses.” Helena draped her arms over Winnie’s shoulders, and they stumbled their way through the dark like a haphazard conga line.

The reptile section had paths meandering between islands of exhibits. A nitrate, reptile smell filled the air.

Winnie took Helena to the first enclosure. It had a sleeping tortoise, a slightly larger breed than Marzipan upstairs—nearly football sized. Its shell was spiked. Winnie checked the other enclosures.

“Your mom has a lot of tortoises,” Winnie said.

“Because they’re morons. Animals come here when they’re too sick or dumb to make it on their own. These guys just want to go extinct, but my mom won’t let them. I don’t know why anyone cares.” Helena straddled an enclosure barrier and took the tequila from Winnie. She talked as she poured another pair of shots. “She should be saving more tigers or something. At least they’re on the LakiraLabs logo. But nope, she saves the suitcase lizards.”

Winnie sat across from her. The tortoise inside the enclosure awoke and peeked out at them. Helena ignored it as she handed Winnie her shot. “To my mother’s little preciouses.” She threw back her shot.

Winnie set hers behind her. “This place is amazing,” She said, looking around. Between the poor lighting, the crickets, and the warm air, it was just like a climate that existed only before the Collapse.

“Yeah. Fucking fantastic. Isn’t it? She spends way too much time down here.”

“Maybe it’s like a hobby to her,” suggested Winnie, “like stamps.”

“No. It’s an obsession. You’ve seen those animals in her office, right? The ones that make the place smell like a pet store? They’re like her other children. She’ll go on trips all over the world. I’ll ask to go along, and she’ll say no. But she’ll take them with her all the fucking time.”

“Weird.”

“Yeah. Conference in England? Why not bring a bird? And she even cleans their cages herself. One time she left the tortoise behind and its feeder broke. Since the caretakers aren’t allowed up there, they asked me to feed the tortoise. I called my mom up about how to unlock the stupid cage and she yelled at me about respecting her personal boundaries.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Whatever. I don’t I care. My mom rules the world, and I’ll go to college and do whatever. When she dies, I’ll take over and I won’t have to deal with her shit anymore.” She poured another shot. “Cheers.” Holding it up, she nearly took the shot when she noticed the nearby tortoise watching her. “Cheers to you too. First thing I’ll do when I’m in charge is throw you back in the jungle. She poured some tequila over the shell of the tortoise. It’s eyes tightened, and it retreated.

As the reptile plodded to its miniature pond, Winnie considered telling Helena that the alcohol might make them sick, but she could guess Helena’s response to that.

While Winnie was watching the tortoise, Helena took her shot. When she threw her head back, she nearly toppled from her perch. Winnie lunged to catch Helena, and nearly toppled right along with her. In regaining their balance, they knocked the tequila bottle over. It shattered against the pathway. Tequila stench overpowered the zoo smell.

 Leaning against each other, Helena and Winnie burst out giggling. Straddling the enclosure wall, gripping one another like two exhausted boxers, they laughed until their sides hurt.

Settling down, Helena smiled at Winnie. Something about the smile was lopsided, but Winnie couldn’t decide what. Helena leaned forward. Winnie’s heart clenched in panic at what she thought was about to happen, but Helena merely grabbed the shot glass behind Winnie.

“You never finished your shot.” Helena held it up.

Winnie took the shot glass. She held it beneath her lips and steeled herself. She really didn’t need any more. But she wasn’t taking this shot for herself.

Finished, she set down the glass. Helena still had her lopsided smile. Winnie’s stomach churned.

A flash of light passed over them. Glancing behind Winnie, Helena sneered and straightened. Winnie visualized behind herself.

Tower security. A man with a flashlight, a blue cap, and a belt of devices approached. His flashlight beam bounced between Winnie to Helena, to the broken tequila bottle. “You know you’re not supposed to be here, Your Highness. How did you get in?”

Helena held her arms out in a pose. “Skills.”

“Your mother’s not going to be happy when she hears about this.”

“My mother can go fuck herself.”

The guard flashed his light in Winnie’s face. “And you. You’re security pass expired at midnight. It’s time for you to go back to your dorm.”

“Would you leave us alone already,” Helena said. “Nobody wants you here. Go away.”

The guard turned his light back on her. “Your mother doesn’t want you here either. So, let’s get moving, ladies. Time to go.”

“Are you giving me an order?”

“I’m carrying out your mother’s orders. So you can leave now, or I can call more guards up here and we can make a scene.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

In answer, the guard pinched a communicator pinned to his uniform. He spoke into it in Portuguese, but Winnie got the gist.

Helena stormed to her feet. “You know what? Whatever. Let’s fucking go. I don’t even care anymore.”

The guard belayed his last order over the comm.

Helena stumbled. She grabbed Winnie for support, though Winnie wasn’t much of a pillar herself. They staggered to the elevator while the guard followed.

A part of her wished she could go back to Helena’s room and sleep over. Helena had opened up to her tonight, and it seem wrong to leave her alone now. On the other hand, she couldn’t wait to get back to her bed. At some point tonight, she was going to vomit.

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