LATE NIGHT TACO BELL RUN
Jade, Vincent, Stella, Nala
Another air quality warning lit up Jade’s phone as she pressed down the darkened streets of Northwest Portland. Smoke from the Eagle Creek fire blew into town faster than people could blow it back out their windows. It didn’t help that it was already the most humid day of the year.
Good thing the quaint condo she shared with girlfriend Stella had awesome air conditioning. Jade was content to seal the windows shut and enjoy the blast of cool air and worry about the smoke later. Well, wildfire smoke, anyway. There was no ignoring the other kind of smoke Stella blew through a tiny crack in the living room window because her shoulder pain had come back with bitter vengeance.
Jade was used to medical marijuana being the norm. She was from southern Oregon, the original home of Mary-Jane and all things pain-killing. Her girlfriend’s relationship with such things didn’t faze her. What did, however, was the new strain Stella insisted on trying that night.
Yeah. The strain that made her higher than the red moon in the sky.
Stella needed food. Fast food. Salt, sugar, all of it. She wanted it all, and she wanted it now. Good thing there was a Taco Bell not too far way. Oh, and Jade was volunteered to go get the food. Stella even went to her purse and put a nice stack of dimes and dollar bills in Jade’s hand. A whopping $3.40.
Think I’ll just use my debit card.
Jade turned onto the main boulevard and began the descent. Cars honked at her for daring to cross the street when the light turned green. The usual camp of homeless men and women asked her for some change. Jade only had the pile of dimes for them.
She tightened the hood of her sweatshirt around her face as she went on her way. The night had barely cooled off enough to warrant a sweatshirt, but it helped keep the smoke out of her nose.
“All this for a chalupa.” Jade loved her girlfriend, she really did, but sometimes crunked up Stella was a pain in the ass.
She supposed she should get something for herself, too. Yet it appeared that Jade had plenty of time to figure out what she wanted, for when she opened the glass door to the restaurant, she found a hefty line in front of the counter. Apparently, half of Northwest Portland had the same idea at eleven on a weeknight.
“Great,” Jade muttered. She lined up behind a tall man in a gray sweatshirt. “Party time at the Taco Bell.”
Her hood came down as she texted her girlfriend. “Gonna be a few extra minutes. There’s a line.”
“Hrrrngggj jsljoao odjfoi 334.”
“I know, hon.”
Jade put her phone away. The man in front of her happened to look over his shoulder and make eye contact with her.
Did he instantly recognize her? Fuck. Jade wasn’t in the mood to entertain men this late at night. Let alone alone. In a fast food restaurant.
“Fancy meeting you here.”
It took Jade a few moments to place where she recognized that masculine profile. Probably because she was used to seeing Vincent Lane in more formal circumstances, like at the parties, fundraisers, and occasional club Stella attended. The image Jade had of Vincent, a man Stella knew from her Portland police department days, usually included a business suit or tuxedo. Seeing the tech billionaire in his jeans and sweatshirt at the local Taco Bell wasn’t something Jade ever thought she would see. Let alone on a Wednesday night…
“What brings you here?”
Jade looked around. Was he seriously talking to her? Was he that hard up for someone to talk to? He had a cell phone the mass market didn’t even have access to yet. Couldn’t he call one of his friends in China and bust out the Mandarin if he was that bored? I barely know this guy. All she knew about Vincent Lane on a personal level was that he was Stella’s ex-boyfriend’s friend from an undercover investigation that brought down some pharmaceutical giant. Whatever.
He also was a huge Timbers fan, which explained the faded soccer sweatshirt.
“My girlfriend tried a new strain of medical marijuana from the local dispensary, and, well…”
“If you’re at Taco Bell, I can guess what happened.” Vincent chuckled. “Stella, right? Your girlfriend.”
“Can’t say I ever saw her when she was high, but I’ve seen her drunk.”
“It’s about the same, honestly. Only with more hallucinations.”
The line moved up one. The cashier, a teenager who looked like he had no idea how he was going to process so many people in a decent amount of time, grimaced when an elderly gentleman demanded five crunchy tacos. Not six. Five.
Jade’s phone buzzed. “I need those cinnamon twisty things. Get five. No, better make it 8. I gave u some $$ for it.”
Sighing, Jade shoved her phone back into her sweatshirt pocket. “Is your girlfriend high too?”
“Only on ibuprofen. I’m here for hormonal reasons.”
“So how about that smoke, huh?”
Jade crossed her arms. “Not getting enough socializing at home, huh?”
“Sorry. You don’t really know me.”
“All I know is that Stella knows you from that… thing.’
“Ah.” Vincent scooted farther up the line. Jade took her time covering the distance between them. “The thing. Yeah. You missed out on that whole drama.”
“I hear you and your girlfriend are bored to tears these days without something to fuck up.”
“You weren’t complaining when we helped save your ass a few months ago.”
“Don’t remind me, please.” Bullets flying. Breaking her knuckles on a former coworker’s face. Watching a police raid rain down around her. Just little relationship things.
That was the first time Jade met Vincent and his girlfriend Nala, but she had been a bit too frazzled to commit them to memory. It wasn’t until they were at the same fundraiser a few weeks later that they had a real conversation. This line at Taco Bell held more substance that night.
Partly because Jade was always awkward around men she barely knew. And partly because she didn’t know just what kind of relationship he and Stella once had. After all, they had gone undercover in a swinger’s ring, and Stella had been open about sleeping with other men in the club as part of her cover. “Oh, yeah, those two. They totally watched me and Joseph do it one night.” How was Jade supposed to cope with facts like that? With the man in question right in front of her?
“I’ve never known Stella well.” Was he reading her mind? “But she seems like a fun character.”
Vincent was called to place his order. Jade remained two feet behind him, chewing on his words. What a night. First Stella was on another planet, and now she had to receive coded messages that absolved Vincent Lane from Jade’s girlfriend’s sexual history.
Not what she wanted to think about right before midnight while the world burned outside.
The torture didn’t end once her order was placed. Now she had to stand beside Vincent and wait for the bag to appear.
“You were at the Green For Life Rally, right?”
God, he was still talking? Jade just wanted to get her food and go.
“Yup. We both were. Don’t tell me you were there, too.”
“It’s easy to blend into crowds after I take off the suits.”
“Let me guess. You’re not a suit guy.”
“Nope. I’ve tried starting up a casual every fucking day at my office, but everyone tells me to keep it to business casual Friday. You?”
“What? Do I like dressing up?” Jade scoffed. “No. That’s more my girlfriend’s thing.”
Vincent stepped forward to grab his food. Jade checked her phone for more messages, but there was nothing.
Probably because the woman stumbling through the doors was too busy to text anyone.
“Baaaabe!” Stella screeched above the rabble of the midnight Taco Bell lobby. “I’m here to help!”
Jade’s jaw dropped. Vincent stopped halfway to the door.
Of course Stella saw him first.
“Oh my God, Vinny!” She stumbled into the restaurant, her fluffy white coat falling off her shoulders and arms while one shoe flew off her foot.
She looked like one of Dali’s melting paintings.
“Hi, Stella. Long time no see.” Vincent expertly dodged her flailing hug. He looked over Stella’s tangled blond hair and to Jade, a countenance of “Holy shit she reeks” crossing his face. “See you’re enjoying your Wednesday night.”
“I’m getting Taco Bell!”
“You sure are. Tell Joseph hi for me next time you see him.”
She almost followed him out of the restaurant. A few other diners and those grabbing their meals to go glanced at her with the usual bored Portlander demeanor. This was tame compared to what most people saw around town.
“Uh.” Jade slammed her hand upon Stella’s shoulder. “What the fuck are you doing? Did you walk all the way down here dressed like this?”
“Dressed like what?”
Stella was in her PJs, no bra, and a baggy coat she usually wore with cocktail dresses. Half of her hair was clamped on top of her head while the rest dusted her bare shoulders. Her eyes were red and watery from the smoke – or from being too high to live. Either one.
“Never mind. I got us our food.” No way was Jade letting Stella have it. She’d eat the whole bag – including her girlfriend’s share – before they turned onto their street. “Let’s get out of here before they call your old coworkers on us.”
“Oh my God! We should totally do that!” Stella held her cell phone up to her head. “911? This is Stella. I need assis… assista… ass.”
They stepped out into the warm night. Jade pulled her hood back up and held her breath against the smoke blanketing the world. She was so focused on getting Stella home in one piece that she didn’t notice the black car pulling up alongside them in the parking lot.
“Get in. I’ll give you guys a ride home.” Vincent opened the back doors of his car with a touch of a button. “You really shouldn’t be walking with this shit air quality.”
Stella climbed in, laughing, before Jade had the chance to realize what was happening.
Oh, well. Instead of ten minutes, they’d be home in two, and she wouldn’t have to worry about Stella wandering into the busy streets or breathing in more crap air. Besides, Vincent had a pretty nice car that was way more comfortable than walking uphill.
Someone else’s head perked up from the front row passenger seat. “What the…”
“Bumped into some old friends in the Taco Bell,” Vincent told his girlfriend Nala once he was back in the driver’s seat. “We’re giving them a ride home before going back to the Pearl.”
Stella launched into the space between headrests. “Hi, Nala!”
“Oh my God. She smells like…”
“Costa Rican Wildflowers,” Jade mumbled.
“What did you get? I got a chalupa and two cinnamon twists.”
Nala, who looked like she had the damn flu, smacked her head against the rest. Vincent waited for a red light to turn before heading down 23rd Street. “I don’t know. What did you get me?”
“You also got a chalupa and a couple of burritos. Because you told me to spend all seven dollars, and that was still with me getting something for myself.”
“Nala!” Stella was halfway into the front seat. She would’ve stolen Homeplate if it weren’t for Jade pulling her back into her seat. “You should trade me that chalupa for one of my cinnamon twists!”
By the time they reached the condominium, Stella had amassed another chalupa and half of a burrito. She shoved both in Jade’s face. I’m never eating again at this rate.
“Thanks for the ride…” She tried to get out of the car, but her girlfriend was still in her lap, face plastered on the window. “Think I’ve got it from here.”
“No, she needs ass!”
Both Vincent and Nala turned their heads in Stella’s direction.
“You heard the woman. I need ass.” Jade yanked Stella out of the car, Taco Bell bag back in hand. “Assistance. She means assistance.”
“Have a good night, you two. Stay safe and keep those windows closed.”
“We gotta go, babe,” Nala groaned. “I need more ibuprofen.”
Jade kept her hand locked on Stella’s. It was only a short elevator ride up to their home. “Hope you enjoyed yourself, Stell. ‘Cause that was the worst late night Taco Bell run ever.”
“I did have fun! Think I’ll order some Chinese. You think anywhere’s open this late?”
“I just got you… know what? Never mind.” Jade would lock her girlfriend in their bedroom and let her have her way with the chalupas and burritos. Within ten minutes, Chinese food would be a faraway idea.
She would also hide the Costa Rican Wildflower. Assuming she didn’t take a hit of it herself to get through the rest of the night.
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