It was the beginning of July- the fourth in fact- when everything hit the fan. I had finished my shift and was in the process of clocking out when Natalie approached me.
"Hey Rachel," she said, swiping her ID badge through the time clock. "A bunch of us are heading over to Navy Pier to watch the fireworks. You want to come?"
"Sure... I need a ride though."
"Yep. Already arranged. Actually, we're leaving right now since it's almost dark."
I shrugged. "OK, cool."
We walked back down the A concourse and out through the doors near the ticket counter. A black SUV that I think was Sadie's was stopped in the loading zone. She honked impatiently; one of the back doors was opened and we slid in next to Jack.
It was a short drive to the pier from the airport. As we drove I pulled my nametag off, stuck it in my pocket, and rolled up the sleeves on my uniform shirt. Sadie actually managed to find a decent spot near one of the parking lot exits and we piled out.
As we walked across the lot someone passed Natalie a bottle of frozen alcohol. She took a swig of it then offered the bottle to me. "It's just vodka... I'm off tomorrow," she explained.
"Me too." I accepted the offer, took a shot , then handed the bottle back to her. She finished it off and tossed the bottle in a trash can.
Sadie stopped everyone near the entrance. "There should be around 20 or so of us... we're supposed to meet near the Ferris wheel, so try and stick together," she explained as we wove our way through the tourists. Eventually we reached the giant wheel and spotted Steve waving his arm around, beckoning us over.
"Hey Steve," Natalie yelled out as we approached the group. There were, in fact, about 20 of us: me, Sadie, Natalie, Jack, Steve, Dan the other CSM, and a handful of rampers.
"Is that everyone?" Sadie asked him.
Steve looked around. "I think... no, wait, we're waiting for someone else." He scanned the crowd of tourists.
"Oh, there she is." Steve pointed across the crowd, and I swear the shot of vodka that had just begun to kick in turned into a knot in my stomach.
"Hey," Steve yelled and waved.
"Hi," Colleen shouted back and made her way through the crowd to where we were standing. I hadn't seen her earlier that day; she must have had it off as she was wearing jeans and a dark windbreaker. A few people greeted her but I chose to take a step back and hide behind Sadie and a few rampers that weren't "in the circle", so to speak. "Cool, we can head over now." Sadie motioned to the crowd and we began moving up the pier en masse. Eventually in the middle we found a spot that would accommodate our rather large group.
What can you say about fireworks? No matter how old someone is, I think fireworks just pan down to "awesome". I tried to enjoy them like everyone else, and joined in on the obligatory round of applause at the end.
As the telltale signs of fireworks smoke drifted along the shores of Lake Michigan and mixed in with the fog that was setting in, our group slowly dispersed. I started to walk off with Natalie and Jack but Sadie caught me by the arm.
"Hey, we offered to give Dan a ride home... sorry, I spaced on you. Can you get home ok?"
"I guess... I've got an el pass, I just have to catch a train in time."
"Cool. See you Thursday, yeah?" She slapped me on the shoulder and jogged to catch up with the others.
I stared for a moment at the smoke drifting across the lake then shrugged it off and decided to take a walk, seeing that I had plenty of time to kill.
I made it out to the end of the pier and stared out at the water. A few wisps of smoke and fog still drifted across the surface of the lake; otherwise, the lights of the pier reflected off the waves. It should have made me happy but instead it just added to the weight of my depression. I couldn't think of going it alone. I was tired of hanging out in places like this, wondering what it would be like if I was accompanied by the right person. It just made me sad.
"Come on now, it can't be that bad." The voice startled me and I stood up from my position on the railing to see Colleen standing behind me.
I managed to smile thinly at her. "You wouldn't believe."
Returning the smile, she cocked her head back towards the middle of the pier. "You should probably walk it off then."
I accepted her offer and we started walking back towards the parking lot. Most of the people had already dispersed; about halfway back Colleen stopped me and waved me over to one of those little overlook thingies that hang off the edge of the pier.
"OK, what's wrong?"
I shied back a little. "What?"
"It has to be something. I can tell." She laid a hand on my shoulder and stared at me for a moment.
"No... it's nothing." I glanced down at the floor.
"Rachel." I took a step back and felt my back hit the railing. "What?"
She just stared at me, and God help me, all I felt like doing was crying.
"You can't, what?" Colleen looked at me inquisitively.
It was dark. The lights from the pier were literally dancing off the water; the shadows played across her face dramatically like something out of an old movie.
I couldn't help it anymore. I shut my eyes, and with a suppressed whimper, leaned in and kissed her.
It only lasted a second. I immediately pulled away abruptly, tears filling my eyes. "I'm sorry," I managed to choke out while trying to pull away.
I shut my eyes again and for some reason I couldn't escape. There was something dark pushing, almost slamming me back against the railing; it whispered in my ear: "How long has it been?"
"Never," I choked out in reply.