Chapter 23

Chad wasn’t much of one for mulling. He meditated, anticipated, planned, and exercised logic frequently, but the act of allowing a single thought to putter around his brain endlessly was one he very rarely engaged in. On this night, however, he found himself mulling frequently. Twice he nearly forgot to garnish a drink properly. The annoying thought buzzing around his head was growing more adamant to be heard and considered, so much so that eventually Chad caved and asked the advice of the nearest person at hand.

“Roy, you are well-experienced in the art of male and female relations, correct?”

Their bar had slowed to near empty, the cooler was stocked with beer, and the counter had been freshly cleaned. If there was ever a chance to talk, this was going to be it.

“Yes indeed, and the way I do it, it is definitely art,” Roy replied, giving a flirtatious wink to a red-head on the other side of the dance floor. She blushed slightly, then turned her back on him. Roy was nonplussed; he didn’t mind the shy types. Truthfully there were exceptionally few personality types of women Roy minded at all.

“Noted. I have a question for you, but the nature of it is slightly uncomfortable.”

Roy glanced at his fellow bartender with a critical eye. Chad never really showed outward signs of discomfort, but if one knew him long enough there were small things to look for. He stood up straighter, he kept his eyes right on the person he was talking to, and he kept his feet planted even when it was inconvenient. Basically, he overcompensated and did the opposite of all the things uncomfortable people normally did.

“No need to worry,” Roy replied. “Bartender’s code. Whatever is said behind this bar, stays behind this bar.”

Chad gave a nod and inscribed this rule into his brain. He’d need to see if there were any other caveats to this code at some point. As a fellow bartender, he was now obligated to hold to it just as much as Roy.

“Earlier, when Angela mentioned sleeping with one of the other bartenders, I felt a strange sensation in my stomach. I’ve checked every digestive function, and there is nothing to account for it, but still it persists. This leads me to believe it might be psychological in nature. The part I’m having trouble puzzling out is why my mind would conjure phantom pain at those words.”

Roy stared at Chad for a full minute, long enough that Chad had to pause the conversation and hand a customer a beer. He thought long and hard about his next words, because he had a feeling they were going to be very important.

“I’ve got a theory,” Roy said at last. “But I want to be sure before I tell you anything. You mind if I ask a few follow-up questions?”

“By all means, please be thorough.”

“Alright. Just for clarification, your… talent. How does it affect your emotions?”

“Most emotions are caused by chemical shifts in the brain,” Chad replied. “A balance of various amounts of dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, and several others all work together to create what we perceive as feelings. I keep mine regulated to maintain an optimum attitude. You could say that I’m still experiencing the emotions themselves, just not the overpowering effects of them.”

“But sometimes things get through, right? Like at Camille’s party.”

“I can maintain the balance of what I feel, that doesn’t dissipate the causes,” Chad explained. “And since it is my brain we are talking about, this is an area where losing control for a moment means it is very hard to regain it. I have to use the organ that is out of control in order to reestablish control.”

“Gotcha. And what is your relationship with Angela?”

“She is the sister of my best friend, something of a student mentor to me, and someone I regard as a good friend as well.”

“That’s it?”

“I think I covered everything,” Chad reiterated. They paused again to set up an array of shots for a group of girls that had been working their way around the bar all night. Once that was attended to, the conversation resumed.

“Last question. That emotional chemical balance stuff, you’re doing it right now, aren’t you?”

“Of course. I always keep myself in check.”

“Stop,” Roy ordered.

“Stop what?”

“Stop holding yourself together,” Roy explained. “I don’t mean go on a psycho killing spree or anything, just stop mandating what you’re feeling. Let whatever happens, happen.”

“I fail to see what good that will do,” Chad protested.

“Give me a little credit here.”

“Very well,” Chad said begrudgingly. He closed his eyes for a half of a second; anyone watching would have thought it was just a long blink. “It’s done. For now my brain will react to stimulus in the same way as anyone else’s.”

“Glad to hear it,” Roy said. “Now, I want you to look over at Angela. She’s leaning on the far wall by the speaker booth.”

Chad obliged, turning his head to take in the girl he’d seen countless times and could have easily mentally reconstructed using his enhanced memory. This seemed like a pointless exercise, and Chad held onto the sentiment for exactly as long as it took for Angela to enter his field of vision.

The twisting feeling in his stomach vanished, replaced by a sense of it dropping away. He dimly remembered going on roller coasters in his youth, before his power blossomed, that had given him a similar sensation. His skin felt a touch warmer, but when he assessed it he found no change in actual temperature. Oddly, he could feel his heartbeat, as though it was striking against his chest more vigorously.

This was not a normal reaction to looking at a person, Chad was sure of it. He began looking back through his memories of Angela, checking for other instances of this happening. As he replayed each though, the strange feelings only grew stronger. He nearly flushed at one memory of sitting atop her after winning a rough grappling session. The emotional piece of Chad, long accustomed to being silenced, seized the opportunity to be heard and roared with all it had. More memories, more strange sensations, a compounding seizure of emotion that had been bubbling until the surface but unable to crest the shore until now.

“Hey, Chad, you okay man?” Roy asked.

Chad finally yanked his eyes away from Angela and turned them back to his fellow bartender. This helped quell the influx of strange sentiment, but not by as much as he’d hoped it would.

“I… I suspect I have feelings for Angela. A very large amount of them.”

“Yeah, that’s what I figured too. What you were feeling earlier was jealousy at the idea of another dude tapping the girl you like.”

“Oh.” Chad said, turning back to look at her against his better judgment. She noticed him looking and gave him a wave and flirty wink. She did that sort of thing all the time, but now Chad found himself almost paralyzed by the innocuous gesture. He mustered up the will to wave back only thanks to his special ability.

There was no skirting it now, Roy was right. He cared far more for her than he’d realized, than he’d wanted to realize. He admired her, respected her, and desired her. His friend. His mentor.

His best friend’s sister.

“Oh,” Chad repeated, not for the final time that evening.