It had been a year since his world had crashed into a Parisian wall, and Max Baker had taken his sorrows to a dingy, hole in the wall bar in downtown LA. Old men sat silently at the worn wooden counter, glasses of scotch constantly being refilled and emptied. The hanging lamps, dull and scratched, attracted the cigarette smoke lurking in the air. It was unairconditioned and stiflingly hot, the polyester covering on the barstools sticky and cracking. It was usually crowded and noisy, but that night it was fairly empty and quiet; Max could hear the jazz music trilling through the small, vintage radio perched atop the liquor cabinet.
Had it not served alcohol to minors, Max would have never set foot in the place. But it did, so he was there almost every night, regardless of school.
He shoved a white Apple earbud into his ear, turning on Frick Park Market by Mac Miller. He was tired of smooth jazz.
/The name's Mac Miller...who the fuck are you?/
Max ordered another drink, tossing it back. The amber liquid slid down his throat like rubbing alcohol, burning his esophagus as it made its way to his stomach. He heard a muffled voice and turned slowly to his left. "What?" he asked.
The girl who had spoken gave him a wry smile and picked a cigarette from her small leather purse. She put it between her lips and lifted the candle in front of them to the end of it, lighting it with the small flame. She took a deep drag and spoke again: "Mac Miller. Nice choice."
Max nodded sullenly, putting his earbud back in his ear. He finished his drink and ordered another. The bartender came back and, before setting the drink down, said, "take it easy, Max."
"Bite me, Al," Max spat, chugging half the scotch. The smoking girl tapped him on the arm and he turned back to her.
She blew smoke in his face and smiled. "Max Baker. It's been a while."
This girl knew him? He took in her long, dark hair, blue eyes, and over all messy appearance. She didn't look familiar. "Do I know you?"
"Ella Sallinger, from boarding school in New York," she said, taking another drag. The smoke she exhaled floated up to the light, gathering around the dim bulb. Max waved it out of his face, coughing a little. Even though he liked to drink now, he still wasn't a fan of smoking.
"Ella? As in, little blonde Ella who was afraid of my motorcycle Ella?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. Ella snickered and ordered a gin and tonic, plus a shot of tequila. Her cigarette continued to disappear as she sucked in once more, letting out a puff of smoke.
"The one and only." She leaned back in her chair, crossing her legs. For a moment, her old face flashed before his eyes: long blonde hair, a sweet, makeupless face dotted with freckles, and small floral print dresses every day. She looked nothing like her old self now; dark hair, tons of makeup, and monochromatic clothing. Not to mention she was smoking and drinking.
He took another sip of his drink, actually pacing himself now. "Well then. It's nice to see you again, Ella Sallinger. What are you doing so far away from New York?" His glass clinked as he set it back down on the countertop.
"I've come to live with my cousin for a while," she said, the British accent dripping off her words. "I got kicked out of school for..." she trailed off, "things that weren't school appropriate, to say the least." She chuckled and patted out her cigarette. The embers flickered in every which way, glowing bright orange before burning out.
"Your cousin, eh? Think I know him?" Max asked, finishing off his drink. His words were still fairly in tact, but he could feel them getting away from him. Maybe the sounded right to him, but not right to her. He didn't really care.
Ella shrugged. "Maybe you do, maybe you don't. LA's a big town," she said, blinking a few times. Now that Max listened to her, he could hear a thick British accent tinting her words. After he'd been kicked out of boarding school, he'd basically forgotten everyone he'd been acquainted with. Even Ella, a little bit. After having this much to drink every night, he was beginning to forget his own name.
And that's what he wanted.
"Well," he began, swishing the ice in his empty glass to signal for one last refill. He was ready to go back to his house. "Are you going to go to school here?"
She took a long gulp of her gin and tonic and the bartender brought her her tequila shot. She downed it with a small smile, licking her lips clean afterwards. "Yeah," she said, chasing her words with a drink. "Adams Academy."
Max gave her a sly smile; the alcohol began to creep into his brain, stabbing at his cognitive abilities. "That's where I go!"
"No way," she said, slamming her glass onto the countertop. She motioned for Al to bring her another shot and he did so, refilling Max's scotch glass at the same time. He shook his head at the two teenagers before going to wipe down the other end of the counter.
"Way," Max replied, feeling like a bubbly teenage girl. Somewhere inside his head, a voice screamed at him to stop drinking, but he shut it up with another gulp. He chewed on a bit of ice. The taste of water felt funny on his tongue.
Ella leaned forward onto the bar, plucking another cigarette from her cigarette case and lighting it with the candle. She inhaled deeply and sent more smoke rising to the ceiling. "Well at least I'll know someone. Eat lunch with me?"
Max winked. "You bet."
Ella downed her other shot and finished off her gin and tonic, rattling the ice in the glass. Al came back over, his hands crossed over his arms. "Can I get one more tequila shot," Al shook his head disapprovingly, "and two glasses of water?"
Al smiled a little at this and brought the water first, and then her last shot. Max rolled his eyes at the water, but took a small sip. It still tasted weird, so he set it down. He'd catch a cab.
Ella knocked back her last shot and then chugged her water down. She still looked fine and dandy, despite a gin and tonic and three tall tequila shots. "So, Maximillion," she smiled. "Need a ride back to the Baker barn?"
Max sat for a moment in complete silence, and then nodded, getting up from the bar. He stumbled a bit as the world in front of him swirled. She hopped up behind him, steadying him by the shoulders. He giggled a little and she pushed him to the door after setting $100 bill and a $50 bill on the counter. Al looked at her, his eyebrow raised.
"He's a wreck, Al. I don't know why, but he is. This won't last forever, but, until it does, don't judge," she said quietly as Max babbled on about something. Al smiled and took the money from the counter.
"Goodbye, Miss Ella," he said, waving a little.
Ella nodded after him and then quietly added, "thanks for filling two of my shots with apple juice, Al."
Al chuckled. "No problem."
"I know, Ella!"
Ella steered Max to her car, ducking his head as she pushed him inside. He fiddled with the knobs near the stereo, still talking absentmindedly about summer and valentines. She reached over him and plucked his phone from his pocket, scrolling through until she found the number she was looking for.
"Max? Where are you?"
"This is a girl. Who is this?"
"Ella Sallinger. I'm a friend of Max's from boarding school a while back. I have him very inebriated in my car; what's your address so I can bring him home safely?" Ella asked, starting up her car and starting down the road. Prudence gave her the address and she mapped it out in her mind, nodding as Prudence gave her step by step directions. "Okay, I think I've got it."
"Thanks for bringing him home," Prudence said quietly, hanging up the phone. Ella plopped the phone in her cup holder and, at a red light, buckled Max into the car.
She didn't know why she was taking care of him; their history, maybe. She'd really loved him, and, when he'd gotten kicked out of school, she was a wreck. But she'd coped. Not well, of course. She'd resorted to drugs, drinking, and picked up her horrendous smoking habit. But she'd coped, just like he was.
Maybe it was because she didn't want him to end up like her.
She pulled up next to his house and gave a short honk of her horn, getting out of the car and going to take Max out. He smiled goofily up at her and draped an arm around her shoulders. She nearly collapsed under his weight, but struggled through and got him to the door. It swung open to reveal Prudence, who shook her head.
"Really drank himself into a stupor tonight. Just give him to me," she said, sighing. Her eyes were red and puffy, as if she'd been crying. A voice came from behind her, and Ella raised her eyebrows.
"Danny?" she asked, peering into the dark living room behind Prudence. A tall, disheveled person came out from behind the tall blonde girl in front of her, shaking a hand through his hair. He looked confused.
"Ella? Why aren't you at home?" he asked, crossing his arms over his chest.
"It's only midnight. Why would I be at home?" she asked, chuckling. Danny rolled his eyes and Prudence looked between the two.
"You know each other?" she asked.
"She's my cousin," Danny said, blinking sleepily. He had been crying too. What was this, some cheesy movie? Who went to someone else's house to cry?
"Your cousin?" Prudence asked, looking from Danny to Ella and then down to Max, who groaned. Ella wrinkled her nose at him and then stepped back. She took another cigarette from its metal case and lit up. She blew smoke at the trio and then smiled.
"Well this was a lovely meeting, but I'm going to go. Have Max call me. I wrote my number on his hand," she said, picking up his limp hand and showing the two. Danny shook his head and turned around, going back into the house. Prudence looked after Ella as she listened to a voicemail.
"Ells, go downtown, and then past a few blocks. There's a bring green traffic cone on top of a manhole. Climb down the ladder, I'll be there. Welcome to Wonderland, Alice."
Ella smiled and took another drag. She turned, blowing the smoke away from Prudence. "Nice seeing you again, Prudence."
Prudence said nothing and dragged Max inside, shutting the door behind her and turning off the porch light. Ella laughed a little to herself and went back to her car, rolling down the window as she started the engine to avoid having to extinguish her cigarette.
It was time for the real party to begin.