“What’s eating you?” the bartender asked.
He wiped the bar with a rag, lifting napkin holders and bowls of peanuts so he could clean under them. The neon beer signs hanging overhead cast soft-edged splashes of color down onto the reflective wetness of the bar top. He waved at the last group of patrons as they pulled on their jackets and exited the bar. “G’Night!” he called after them. It was almost closing time.
“Fucking Michaelson, that’s what,” Lewis said. He hunched over a glass of whiskey, watching the ice melt into colorless swirls in the amber liquid. He tapped the base of his ring finger silently against the glass.
Lewis was a short, overweight man with a sullen scowl that carved deep lines from the corners of his mouth down toward where his chin merged with his neck. His crew cut did little to conceal the patchy baldness spreading across his scalp. A roll of skin on the back of his neck prickled with short, stubbly hair. His tie hung loose and crooked around his unbuttoned collar. The weight of his belly pressed against his thighs.
“Him again, huh?” The bartender dried his hands on his apron.
“You bet your ass, him again.” Lewis thumped his fist on the bar, causing the pint glasses stacked in front of him to clink together. The bartender reached out and steadied them.
“What is it this time?”
Lewis groaned and massaged his temples as if trying to crush the memory out of existence. He blew out a sour breath, then opened his eyes. “Okay. You know what the real estate market’s like these days, right?”
“Pretty bad, right?”
“Really fucking bad.” Lewis grabbed a handful of peanuts from the small metal bowl on the bar and swirled them around in his hand. He popped a few in his mouth, then continued as he chewed. “So, there’s this couple. Been working on them forever. Months. They’ve been out to see the unit three, four times already. Can’t make up their goddamned minds. But finally, today—finally!—I get them to bite. They say they’ll take it.”
“Hey, that’s great, right? That’s good news.”
“Fuck yeah, it is. Until—” Lewis laughed bitterly, then took a sip of whiskey from his glass. “Fucking Michaelson.”
“What’d he do?”
“I come back to the office. I’ve got the contract in hand, signed, holding it up like this.” Lewis picked up a handful of bar napkins and held them aloft, showing them off to an imaginary crowd. “It’s a big deal. Huge. Seven figures. I slam the papers down on my boss’ desk.” He slapped the napkins down on the bar to illustrate. “I say, ‘Sold! Fuck you, pay me.’”
The bartender raised his eyebrows in surprise. “You said that?”
Lewis shrugged. “Yeah, it’s all good. We’re friends. Besides, there’s this contest. He put out a bounty, to try to break the curse, get us motivated. Next person to sell a unit gets an extra one percent commission. Which, on a seven-figure deal…”
“That’s a nice little bonus.”
“Hell yeah, it is.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“What’s the problem?” Lewis took another sip of his whiskey, wincing as it went down. He sucked in air through his teeth to cool his burning throat. “Fucking Michaelson, that’s the problem.”
He tapped the rim of his mostly-empty glass, signaling for a refill. As the bartender poured another shot, Lewis pressed on with the story. “So, I say, ‘Fuck you, pay me.’ And my boss starts laughing. Everyone else starts laughing too. But, like, at me. I get this feeling in my stomach, like, oh no, here we go again. So, I look around. Spot Michaelson. He holds up a contract like this, in one hand.” Lewis picked up a handful of napkins and held them up. “Then like this, in the other.” He picked up a second pile of napkins in his other hand and held that up too.
“He beat you to it.”
“Not once,” Lewis said, letting one pile of napkins fall from his hand. “But twice.” He let go of the other pile. The napkins fluttered to the floor. “Two units.”
“Two goddamned units.”
“On the same day?”
“On the same goddamned day.”
The bartender whistled. “That’s some luck.”
“Isn’t it?” Lewis took a gulp of his whiskey. “Fucking Michaelson.”
Lewis stared into his drink with a faraway look, lost in thought. The bartender busied himself with rinsing some stemware that had been soaking in the sink.
Finally, Lewis looked up. His eyes were glassy. “You know what I don’t get? Why two?” His voice was thick in his throat. “Like, I get it, he beat me to it, good for him. He sells one, no problem. But two? Why’s he need two? The guy’s already got everything.” Lewis tapped his ring finger absently against the glass. He sniffed. “Give me that kind of luck for once, you know? Let me get two. One for him, two for me. Is that too much to ask?”
It was a rhetorical question, but the bartender answered anyway. “Not at all.”
Lewis tossed back the last swallow of his whiskey, then placed the empty glass back on the bar.
The bartender lifted the bottle of whiskey from the well and tilted it towards Lewis. “One more?”
Lewis placed his hand over the glass and shook his head. “Nah. Close my tab. I’m broke.”
“No worries,” the bartender said. “I got this one.”
Lewis took his hand away from his glass and slid it towards the bartender. “In that case, make it a double.”
The bartender laughed. He filled the glass, then flipped a shot glass out from under the bar and filled that too. After dropping the whiskey bottle into the well, he picked up the shot and held it aloft in a toast.
“To Michaelson,” he proclaimed. “May whatever luck comes to him, come to you, times two.”
“Amen,” Lewis said as he clinked his glass with the bartender. “From your mouth to God’s ears.”
Lewis hung up the phone and angrily scribbled a heavy line through another name on a typed list full of crossed-out names. Then he slammed the pen down on his desk and pushed the list away, disgusted. His chair creaked under his bulk as he leaned back and screwed his fists into his eyes.
After a few seconds, he dropped his hands into his lap and stared at the ceiling. The fire sprinkler overhead peered down at him like a single blood-red eye. He wondered how big of a fire it would take to set the thing off. He pictured the flames licking up the walls, hungrily consuming the bulletin board full of real estate listings, the starburst-shaped SOLD stickers curling and blackening in the heat. He saw the Salesman Of The Month award melting in its cheap acrylic frame, Dan Michaelson’s smug, smiling face bubbling and peeling as his photo disintegrated in the fire.
A knocking sound broke Lewis out of his reverie. He sat up and reached for his pen, instinctively trying to look busy.
One of the other salesmen, Duncan, was leaning into his cubicle. “You up for drinks tonight? Michaelson’s buying.”
A sour bolt of acid shot up the back of Lewis’ throat. He swallowed it down. Fucking Michaelson.
“Not tonight.” Lewis motioned to the list of names on his desk. “Lots of catching up to do.”
“Come on, who are you kidding? You’re not that busy.” Duncan laughed. “If Michaelson’s got time, anyone does.”
“Funny,” Lewis said humorlessly. His lip curled into what he hoped was a smile. How nice for Michaelson that he was able to take a break from being so goddamned perfect for a minute, to lower himself to the rest of their level. Lewis suppressed the urge to flip his desk over. Instead, he said, “That’s okay. I’m good.”
Duncan looked around furtively, then stepped into Lewis’ cubicle and sat on the squat filing cabinet next to Lewis’ desk. Lewis unconsciously wheeled his chair backward as Duncan leaned towards him and spoke with a lowered voice.
“Listen, I know it’s been hard since Rachel left. I get it. You want to shut down, stay inside, say ‘fuck the world.’ But that’s the worst thing you can do. You need to get out there, have some fun, meet some new people. It’s been, what, six months?”
Lewis looked down at his hands. His thumb was tracing lazy arcs across the smooth skin where his wedding ring used to be. “Seven.”
“Seven months. That’s a long time. And you just made a big sale! You deserve to get out, cut loose a little bit. Put some of that fat commission check to good use.”
“That fat commission check didn’t even make a dent in what I owe. You know how much a divorce lawyer costs?” Lewis wheeled his chair back up to his desk. He picked up the list of names. “Like I said. I’m busy.” He picked up the phone and prepared to dial.
“Okay.” Duncan stood up. “You want me to make the hard sell? Here’s the hard sell.” He grabbed the back of Lewis’ chair and pulled him away from the desk. Lewis dropped the phone. It dangled off the edge of the desk, spinning at the end of its cord near the floor. “Get your ass up. Now.”
“Duncan, come on—”
“You wanna get wheeled out of here in your chair? Because I’ll do it. You’re fat, but I’ll do it.”
Lewis sighed. Duncan wasn’t going to give up, and he knew it. The guy was relentless. In sales. In life. In everything. “All right,” Lewis said. He slapped his hands on his thighs and reluctantly pressed himself to a standing position. “I’m up. You happy?”
“Good man. Saves me a visit to the chiropractor. Now.” He slung his arm around Lewis’ shoulders. “You and me and the rest of the guys are going to have some drinks. Michaelson is going to pay, because fuck him. Then we’re going to head to the Strip and win some money. And then we’re going to meet some ladies—”
“You mean hookers.”
Duncan shrugged. “You say potato. Point is, we’re gonna have fun, whether you like it or not. Deal?”
Lewis sat at the outside edge of the corner booth, nursing a mostly-empty beer. Duncan was next to him, rambling to the rest of the guys at the table about something-or-other. Lewis wasn’t listening. He was too busy watching Michaelson while trying not to stare.
Dan Michaelson was Hollywood handsome with an NFL chin, the best salesman on the team by a long shot. He was charming and popular, the kind of guy who needed a snorkel to keep from drowning in pussy. To make matters worse, he was actually a pretty nice guy. He probably saved puppies from burning buildings on his days off, just for fun.
Lewis hated him.
At the moment, Michaelson was leaning on the bar, hitting on a hot blonde in skin-tight leather pants and a teal crop top. Or was she hitting on him? It was hard to tell. She was doing that coy thing where she’d laugh, then look down at the floor and push a strand of hair behind her ear, then look up while biting her lower lip. Classic fuck-me move.
The blonde motioned to the bartender, then held up two fingers. The bartender handed her two bottles of beer. She gave one to Michaelson.
Christ Almighty, Lewis thought. She’s buying him a drink. Unfuckingbelievable.
Lewis never had a woman offer to buy him a drink in his entire life. Not once. And he never would. If it didn’t happen when he was Michaelson’s age—when he was younger and thinner and had plenty of hair—it certainly wasn’t going to happen now, when he was middle-aged, fat, and balding.
Don’t forget broke, his inner voice reminded him. Right, he was broke too.
And yet there was Michaelson, already blessed with every possible advantage in life, having one more thing handed to him. Two, if you counted the blonde. She might as well have a flashing neon FUCK ME sign around her neck.
Lewis drained the rest of his beer, then added his bottle to the growing collection of empties in the center of the table. As if on cue, a waitress arrived at the table with a tray of fresh drinks. She was a pretty brunette, short and perky, with crystal blue eyes. Her name tag read Shelby.
“Another round, boys,” she said. “Courtesy of Captain America over there.”
The guys at the table cheered. Michaelson looked over at them and laughed, raising his beer in salute. The waitress distributed the drinks, leaving Lewis for last. She placed a bottle in front of him.
“Thanks,” he mumbled, without looking up.
The waitress put a hand on his shoulder and leaned in close to his ear. “You look like you could use another,” she whispered. She set a second beer in front of him. Her manicured fingernails gently grazed the side of his neck as she drew her hand away. Goosebumps rushed up his forearms and into his rolled shirtsleeves.
Lewis looked up at her, confused. “What?” He looked down at the pair of beers in front of him, then up at her again. “No, I don’t—”
“Shh,” she said. “It’s on me.” She tucked a folded cocktail napkin into Lewis’ front shirt pocket, then turned and walked away without another word. Lewis watched her go.
What the hell was that about? he wondered. He reached into his pocket and unfolded the napkin. Written on it in pink ballpoint pen were the words, “Find me after.” It was signed, “Shelby.” The tail of the “y” looped into a tiny heart at the end.
Lewis looked up again, searching the bar for the waitress, but she was gone.
Lewis slid out of the booth. His co-workers piled out after him. They were all wasted. Duncan fake-punched Lewis in the stomach as he stood. Lewis flinched. Duncan laughed. “Gotcha,” he slurred.
“You know it,” Lewis said, distractedly. He scanned the crowd, looking for the waitress who had slipped him the napkin.
“Let’s go win some money,” Duncan said. “Casino. Go, go, go.” He nudged Lewis towards the exit.
“We got room for one more?” a syrupy voice said from behind. “Amber says she’s feeling lucky.”
Lewis looked over his shoulder. It was Michaelson. He towered over Lewis by a good six inches, maybe seven. More, if you counted his perfectly-coiffed hair. It was thick and lustrous, effortlessly perfect, as if every strand was self-aware and knew exactly where it should be. Even the strands that were out of place looked like they had been carefully positioned there by God himself.
The blonde from the bar was tucked neatly under Michaelson’s arm. Her fingers were laced in his, her bright red nails glistening like liquid under the overhead lights. Her other hand was tucked into the back pocket of his jeans.
“Hell yeah, we do,” Duncan said. He punched Michaelson in the arm.
Michaelson laughed. Amber did too. Lewis felt a fresh surge of disgust coursing through his veins. He hadn’t been with a woman since his wife left. But Michaelson? He could have anyone he wanted, any time he wanted. He didn’t even have to try. They flew at him from all directions, like moths to a streetlamp. He probably had to swat them away with a tennis racket.
Michaelson thumped Lewis on the back. “How you doin’, my man?” he asked jovially. “Having fun yet?” Lewis opened his mouth to respond, but Michaelson didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, he leaned close to Amber and said something into her ear, something Lewis couldn’t hear. She laughed.
Bitter bile bubbled up in the back of Lewis’ throat, burning his esophagus. They were talking about him. He knew it. And whatever they were saying, it probably wasn’t nice. Guys like Michaelson didn’t say nice things to pretty girls about guys like him. Lewis had dealt with Michaelson’s type his whole life. Super friendly on the surface, until they decide you’re inferior. Then they’re shoving you in a locker, or stealing your clothes while you’re in the shower, or pantsing you in front of the whole gym class.
“Let’s go! Train’s leaving!” Duncan yelled.
Lewis stepped aside. “You know what? I’m gonna hit the head real quick. I’ll catch up with you.”
Lewis waited until the group was gone, then pulled the waitress’ note out of his shirt pocket. He unfolded it covertly, down by his hip, and read it again. He wanted to reassure himself that he hadn’t misread it. That it was real. It was. The words were clear and unambiguous: “Find me after.”
He refolded the note, then headed to the end of the bar. His pulse was racing. He waved to the bartender. “Shelby?” he shouted over the music. The bartender’s hands were full carrying a rack of clean glasses. He thrust his chin, signaling for Lewis to turn around. He did. Shelby was behind him. She had traded her waitress uniform for civilian clothes: low-waisted jeans and a tight white t-shirt that contrasted with her tanned skin. Her dark hair was gathered into two braids, one on each side of her head.
“Want some company?” she asked with a coy smile.
“Um, sure.” Lewis’ mouth suddenly felt like it was full of dry cotton, like his tongue was wearing a sweater. He had no idea what was happening, no frame of reference for a random woman in a bar who was … what? Flirting with him? Is that what she was doing? Sure seemed like it.
“Sweet!” Shelby turned and cupped her hands around her mouth. “Crystal!” she shouted. She waved and beckoned with a “come here” gesture.
Another girl emerged from the crowd. She seemed to be about Shelby’s age—mid-twenties, Lewis thought—and was dressed similarly, in tight jeans and a white halter top. Her auburn hair was pulled into a ponytail at the back of her head.
Shelby took Crystal’s hand, then turned back to Lewis.
“All right, let’s go.”
“You want to do the honors?” Lewis asked. He was sitting on a plush velvet stool in front of a towering slot machine with the words MONEY MADNESS emblazoned on the front. Shelby was sitting on his knee, sipping a bright green drink through a skinny straw. Crystal stood behind him, leaning in close. He could feel her breasts pressed against his back. It felt nice.
“Come on, big money!” Shelby called out. She slammed her palm down on the SPIN button. A too-loud jingle blared from the machine’s speakers, adding to the cacophony of the casino floor. Crystal whooped enthusiastically, then laughed. Lewis laughed too. He was having fun.
The first wheel stopped on cherries.
The second wheel stopped. Cherries again.
“Let’s go let’s go let’s go!” Shelby cheered. She crossed her fingers and closed her eyes.
The third wheel stopped.
Shelby opened her eyes and let out a groan of disappointment. Crystal did too. Shelby pouted out her lower lip. “I suck at this,” she whined. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Lewis said. “It’s fine.”
“But we lost all your money,” Crystal said.
Sure enough, the digital Balance readout on the machine read $00.00.
“It’s not ‘all my money,’” Lewis said. He patted her thigh. “Here. Get up.” Shelby climbed off Lewis’ knee and stepped out of the way as he stood. “You two stay here. I’ll hit the ATM.”
“You sure?” Shelby asked.
“Sure, I’m sure,” Lewis said with easy confidence.
Shelby threw her arms around Lewis’ neck and gave him a peck on the cheek. “You’re the best,” she said.
Lewis blushed. “Be right back.”
He walked down the long aisle of slot machines, then looked back towards Shelby and Crystal. They were both seated on the velvet stool, sharing it half-and-half, looking at their phones and waiting for him to return.
“Shit, shit, shit,” he said under his breath. He had lost way more than he planned—way more than he could afford—first at the blackjack table, then at poker, and now at the slots. He rarely gambled, and this was why: he was really bad at it. In fact, he had never won much of anything, ever. He knew he should call it a night and cut his losses, but the truth was, he didn’t want to. He was having more fun than he’d had in a long, long time. It was worth it.
He got to the ATM, inserted his card, and typed in his PIN. His finger hovered over the Withdrawal button for a moment, before course-correcting to hit the Check Balance button instead. The machine processed the request, then displayed his current balance: $-370.00.
Suddenly, a loud cheer rose from the bank of slot machines nearby. A chorus of bells and chimes started ringing. More voices joined in the cheering. People began to applaud. Lewis froze. His stomach dropped. He didn’t even need to see, to know who it was. Fucking Michaelson. It had to be.
Lewis turned around. Sure enough, Michaelson was standing in front of a slot machine that had JACKPOT flashing across the screen in a dozen different fonts and colors. A red police light on top of the machine was spinning gleefully. Michaelson’s fists were thrust towards the ceiling in celebration. Amber, the blonde from the bar, gave him a two-handed high five, then wrapped her arms around his neck. Her hands entwined in his hair as she kissed him deeply. Meanwhile, the digits on the jackpot counter grew and grew, eventually topping out at $10,000.
Lewis pivoted back to the ATM, away from Michaelson’s celebration. He felt like he was going to throw up. How could one guy be so blessed, while another—himself, specifically—could be so cursed? Was God playing favorites? Is that what it was? Or was it that certain advantages conferred other advantages which conferred still more advantages, and so on, until life was throwing money and pussy at you all day and night? Lewis wondered what his life would have been like if he had been born taller, or thinner, or smarter. Maybe he’d be the one winning all the time. Maybe his bank account would be a positive number. Maybe Rachel wouldn’t have left him for—
“Hey, everything okay?” a sweet voice asked. A hand touched his arm. Lewis turned. Shelby and Crystal were behind him. “You disappeared,” Shelby said.
“We thought you ditched us,” Crystal added with a wink.
“Yeah, no, I’m fine,” Lewis said. “Just got distracted by my friend over there.” He nodded his head towards Michaelson.
“Lucky guy,” Shelby said.
“Yeah. Sure is.” His smile felt like a mouthful of porcelain tiles that might shatter at any moment. “Lemme just …” He indicated the ATM. Shelby got the hint.
“Oh, yeah. Do what you’ve gotta do. We’ll be over here.”
The girls walked away, leaving Lewis alone. He pulled out his wallet, replaced his ATM card, and withdrew a Visa card instead. He inserted it into the ATM, then selected the Cash Advance option. His finger lingered over the number pad as he debated how much to withdraw. Fuck it. He punched in 500.00 and hit Enter. The machine dispensed a pile of twenty-dollar bills. Lewis folded them into a thick wad and shoved them into his front pocket. He walked back over to where Shelby and Crystal were waiting. “All right, where to?”
“Right here.” Shelby pointed to the slot machine she was standing next to. “I have a good feeling about this one.”
The graphic on the front of the machine featured a man in a tuxedo leaning against the side of a limousine. Clinging to each of his arms was a gorgeous woman. One was a pouting Marilyn Monroe type in a tight pink Gentlemen Prefer Blondes gown. The other was a ripoff of Breakfast At Tiffany’s era Audrey Hepburn, complete with sunglasses, cigarette holder, and diamond-studded crown. The man’s eyebrow was arched as if to say, “Ain’t this the life?” Behind him, triple spotlights illuminated hilltop letters that mimicked the Hollywood sign. They spelled out the name of the machine: DOUBLE LUCKY.
Double ripoff if more like it, Lewis thought. He wasn’t going to say that to Shelby though. No point in spoiling a good thing. Instead, he pulled out the bundle of bills from the ATM, peeled off a fresh twenty, and inserted it into the machine. The digital Balance readout updated to read $20.00. “Okay. Who’s turn is it?”
“Yours,” Shelby replied. She gave Lewis a peck on the cheek. In response to his surprised expression, she said, “For good luck.”
Crystal stepped closer and placed a kiss on Lewis’ other cheek. “Make it a double.”
From your mouth to God’s ears, Lewis thought. Then he pressed the SPIN button. A rousing big band tune blasted from the machine. The wheels accelerated into a blur.
The first wheel stopped. Double Jackpot.
The second wheel stopped. Double Jackpot again.
“Come on, come on!” Shelby squealed. Crystal bounced and clapped excitedly. Lewis’ heart was beating like a boxer’s speed bag.
The third wheel kept spinning.
Finally, it stopped.
Pandemonium. Shelby and Crystal started screaming and jumping up and down in celebration. Every light on the slot machine began to flash. The speakers blared a celebratory big band tune. A pair of police sirens began to wail. An artificial ching-ching-ching sound effect blasted from all directions, emulating the sound of a slot machine paying out a fuck-ton of quarters. The hilltop letters flashed on and off in an alternating pattern: DOUBLE! LUCKY! DOUBLE! LUCKY! DOUBLE! LUCKY!
“You won!” Shelby threw her arms around Lewis’ shoulders. Crystal embraced him too. Lewis just stared dumbly at the screen.
“I won?” he asked, in a distant voice. His face was blank, unbelieving.
“Yes, you won!” Crystal said. “Look!”
She pointed at the digital jackpot counter as the numbers grew and grew: $10,000 … $15,000 … $20,000. That’s where they stopped. Double jackpot.
Twice what Michaelson had just won.
For a brief moment, the words of the bartender from last night drifted through Lewis’ mind like a wisp of smoke. May whatever luck comes to him, come to you, times two. Then it was gone.
“I won,” Lewis said again, more sure this time. Then, with growing enthusiasm: “I won!” A burst of delirious laughter escaped from his lips. It sounded something like happiness. Felt a little like it too.
The crowd that had previously surrounded Michaelson surged towards Lewis. They clapped and cheered and high-fived each other. Duncan pushed through the crowd and yelled in Lewis’ face. “Woooooo!” He grabbed Lewis’ shoulders and shook him back and forth. Lewis’ head bobbed on his neck. “Yes, baby, yes!” Duncan pounded a fist on Lewis’ chest. “That’s what I’m talking about!” Then he threw an arm around Lewis’ shoulder and hollered to the crowd. “This is my man, right here!” The crowd cheered even louder. He put Lewis in a friendly headlock and said into his ear, “There’s your ‘Fuck you, pay me.’ Am I right?”
Lewis ran his hand over his stubbly hair, wiping away a slick of perspiration that had appeared on his scalp. He felt a swell of emotion rising in his chest. The muscles in his face felt taut. He exhaled a shuddering breath. It felt good to win for once; it had been so long. He made a mental note to thank Duncan for forcing him to go out. Duncan was right: he needed it.
Lewis scanned the crowd. He wanted Michaelson to see him, to know that he could be a winner too. That not everything in life always went to the quarterback or the class president. That the guy from the math club could get the girl too. Or girls, Lewis thought as he looked at Shelby and Crystal. Plural.
Unfortunately, Michaelson wasn’t in the crowd. Instead, Lewis spotted him across the casino lobby, walking away with his arm around Amber’s waist. She clutched his tanned, muscled bicep, her head leaning against his shoulder.
Lewis felt a sudden panic. Michaelson wasn’t even looking. He wasn’t going to see. The whole moment would be lost. It would all be for nothing.
“Hey!” Lewis called over the din. “Hey, Michaelson!”
Michaelson stopped. He looked around, vaguely aware that someone had called his name.
Lewis waved his arms. “Over here!”
Michaelson spotted Lewis. He crinkled his brow and gave a little nod as if to say, “What’s up?”
“Check it out!” Lewis shouted. “I won! Double jackpot!”
Michaelson’s lips said, “Wow.” He gave Lewis a thumbs up. Then he pointed at the top of Amber’s head, then towards the elevators. He mouthed, “I’m gonna go.”
Lewis made an OK sign, then watched as Michaelson escorted Amber into the elevator.
As the doors slid shut, Lewis was suddenly filled with an almost unbearable sense of self-loathing. So he won? So what? Winning didn’t take any skill. It was luck, pure and simple. Some random number generator in a computer somewhere spit out the right combination, and he was the dumb fuck who was lucky enough to be sitting in front of the machine when it happened. Tomorrow, he’d go right back to being Ron Lewis, Loser For Life. It didn’t matter how much money he won. He was worthless.
That’s not true, another voice in his head countered. What about Shelby? And Crystal? That wasn’t just dumb luck. No computer made Shelby slip him that note. She and Crystal could have bailed hours ago, but they didn’t. That had to mean something.
It had to.
“You’ll still be here when I get out?” Lewis asked.
To claim his winnings, he had to go with a casino manager to fill out some paperwork in an office somewhere. The casino was authorized to pay out up to $10,000 in cash, which is why Michaelson was able to just walk away with his prize. But the size of Lewis’ jackpot meant the casino had to cut him a check instead. And that would take time.
Shelby looked at Crystal. Crystal shrugged and nodded. “Fine with me.”
Shelby replied, “Sure. We’ve got nowhere else to be. Where should we meet you?”
Lewis looked around for a good meeting spot. There was a piano lounge on the other side of the lobby. “How about in there?”
“We’ll be there,” Shelby said.
Lewis watched them glide across the lobby and disappear into the lounge. God, they’re beautiful, he thought. Then he walked over to the casino manager waiting nearby.
“They’re with you?” the manager asked.
“Both of them?”
“Nice,” the manager said, with a knowing nod and a sly smile. “Very nice.”
Lewis felt a little bump of something unfamiliar jolt through his bloodstream. He wasn’t used to another guy reacting to him with … what, exactly? Was it envy? Or at least admiration? Something like that. It was probably just a tiny, coffee-creamer-sized serving of how Michaelson felt all the time, but it was nice.
I could get used to this, Lewis thought.
He hustled to the casino office and rushed through the paperwork as quickly as he could, trying desperately to hang onto the rapidly evaporating contrails of happiness left behind from his win. His leg jittered and bounced while he waited for his check to be cut. He looked at his watch so many times that his shoulder started to ache. It took almost an hour. It felt like forever.
By the time he was done, Lewis’ thin veneer of confidence had worn off, leaving a dull, rusted panic in its place. He took the check without even looking at it, stuffed it in his pocket, then tore out of the casino office and made a beeline for the piano lounge.
The lounge was a tiny space with a short curved bar and a few cocktail tables arranged around a large piano. It was dimly lit with blue light that spilled out from under the edge of the bar.
Aside from the bartender, the place was empty.
Lewis’ stomach fell off a cliff, turning over and over as it plunged into darkness. The girls had ditched him. They had promised to stay, and they were gone. Just like his wife, like his dad, like everyone who fucking mattered in his life. And yet he kept falling for it, over and over, every goddamned time. He felt so stupid.
“Hey!” The bartender waved his towel to get Lewis’ attention. “You Lewis?”
Lewis pointed at his chest. “Me? Yeah. I’m Lewis.”
“They’ll be right back. They went to the bathroom.”
Lewis’ stomach bounced off the floor and up into his throat. He laughed a little, relieved. “Okay, great. Thought I lost ’em.”
He took a seat at one of the cocktail tables. A minute later, Shelby and Crystal returned. They saw him and walked over to where he sat.
“Hey! Did the bartender…?” Shelby started.
“Yeah, he told me.”
“Okay, good.” She pulled out a chair and sat down. Crystal did too. “We didn’t want you to think we bailed.”
“No, of course not,” Lewis lied. “I would never think that.”
“So, now what?” Shelby asked. She looked at Crystal.
“Up to you,” Crystal said.
Lewis rubbed his palms back and forth along the tops of his thighs. His hands were freezing, but sweating. He was more nervous than he had ever been about anything in his life.
He had an idea. It came to him while he was waiting in the casino office, and he spent the rest of the time trying to decide what to do about it. It was something he had never thought about before—never even considered as a possibility for someone like him—but what the hell … he was feeling lucky. Maybe tonight would be the night.
“Yeah, so I was thinking …” His voice seemed to be disconnected from his brain. It was like he was floating outside his body, watching himself talk. He couldn’t believe what he was saying. “The casino comped me a room for the night, so I thought maybe you two might want to come up and hang out or something.”
Shelby and Crystal exchanged glances. Shelby shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “Um, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”
Lewis’ stomach tightened. He felt the overwhelming urge to retreat, to just curl up into a ball and roll out of the bar in shame. But then he pictured Michaelson, so confident, heading to the elevators with Amber—a girl he had met only hours before—wrapped around his finger. Michaelson wouldn’t give up that easily, would he? Fuck no, he wouldn’t.
“Why not?” Lewis asked. “We’ve been having a good time, right? Let’s keep it going.”
“Yeah, we have, but …” Shelby struggled to find the right words. “But we’re not, like …” She looked at Crystal with a help me expression.
“It’s just a no, okay?” Crystal said. She started to stand, looking at Shelby with a pointed glare. “We should go.”
“Yeah.” Shelby stood up too. She slung her purse over her shoulder. “Yeah, it’s getting late.” She extended her hand to Lewis. “It was nice meeting you though.”
Lewis sat back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. “So that’s it, then?” he said, looking from Shelby to Crystal and back to Shelby. Shelby awkwardly lowered her hand.
Crystal spoke up. “Look, your friend didn’t say anything about—” Shelby bumped Crystal with her elbow. Crystal rolled her eyes. “Can we just go?” she said to Shelby. “It’s enough already.”
Lewis sat up straight in his chair. “Friend? What friend?”
“Nothing,” Shelby said. “Don’t listen to her.”
“No, tell me. What friend? What did he say? Was it Duncan?” Lewis’ heart was trying to kick its way out of his rib cage. His face felt hot. His eyes burned. What did Duncan tell her? And why?
“He paid us, alright?” Crystal tugged Shelby’s arm. “I told you this guy’s a creep. Let’s go.”
Shelby ignored Crystal. “I’m sorry,” Shelby said to Lewis. “I’m just a waitress. I’m not a … you know. I don’t do those kinds of things. Not for money. And Crystal’s just my friend. I asked her to come.” Lewis was staring past her, into space. She tried to make eye contact with him. “I really did have a nice time though.”
“So, what do you do for money?” Lewis asked coldly. His eyes narrowed and connected with Shelby’s. She took a step backward as if pushed by an unseen hand. The expression on her face turned from one of sympathy to one of fear. Good, Lewis thought.
“Hey, it’s not our fault you can’t get girls on your own,” Crystal sneered.
“Crystal!” Shelby spun at her, mortified. She pointed out of the lounge, at the lobby. “Wait out there, please,” she snapped. “You’re not helping.”
Crystal snatched her jacket off the back of the chair and stormed away. “This is so stupid.”
Shelby watched her friend leave, then turned back to Lewis. His elbows were on the cocktail table. His face was in his hands.
“Hey, listen,” Shelby said. “I’m sorry, okay? That was out of line.”
“Who paid you?” Lewis asked quietly. His voice was muffled by his hands. He dragged his hands down his face. They fell in his lap, limp. He tilted his head back, his face towards the ceiling. His eyes were closed. “Was it Duncan?”
“Duncan?” Shelby’s eyes rolled upwards, as she tried to remember the name. “No, it was … your friend, you know, the guy who— Captain America, who bought your drinks. Michael-something.”
Lewis opened his eyes. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Fucking Michaelson?! That motherfucker. He tried to speak, but his voice was just a whisper. “Michaelson,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s it. He said he felt bad. Something about a bonus you didn’t get? He wanted you to have a good time, asked if we would help. Said you’ve had a tough run of it lately, that you deserved some fun.” She tried to catch Lewis’ eyes again. “He was trying to help you.”
Lewis leaned forward and glared at Shelby. His eyes looked like two black marbles, cold and lifeless. His voice was a low growl. “How much did he pay you?”
Shelby looked at the floor. Her cheeks were damp. “A thousand.”
Lewis laughed bitterly. “A thousand,” he repeated.
“Each,” Shelby finished.
Lewis looked down at his hands. They were clenched into fists. His knuckles were white. “Get out.”
Shelby wiped her eyes with the heel of her hands, smearing her makeup. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“Get! Out!” Lewis yelled. He pounded both fists down on the cocktail table. The heavy mirrored tabletop shattered under the blow, disintegrating into a shower of broken glass. Shelby recoiled, then ran from the piano lounge. She didn’t look back.
Lewis held his hands up in front of his face. Shards of glass were embedded in his flesh. Dark rivers of blood ran down his wrists and dripped onto the floor. He felt no pain, only rage. He was angry at the girls for deceiving him, for making him think they were there for him, instead of the money. He was angry at himself for falling for it. And he was angry at Michaelson for, well, everything.
A blur of motion drew Lewis’ attention toward the bar. The bartender had picked up a phone on the wall. He kept one eye on Lewis as he started to dial. Lewis saw him. “Hey!” he shouted. He jumped up, sending the chair tumbling backward. He pushed the remains of the broken table out of his way. It crashed to the floor. Lewis’ shoes crunched on the broken glass. He strode towards the bar, plunging one of his bloodied hands deep into his pocket as he went.
The bartender dropped the phone and raised his hands in front of his chest, palms out. “Please, don’t—”
Lewis pulled out the thick wad of twenties he had withdrawn from the ATM earlier. He flung them at the bartender. The bartender flinched, shielding his face with his hands. A spray of blood droplets flew through the air with the money, peppering the bartender’s white shirt as the cash hit him in the chest and dropped to the floor.
When the bartender lowered his hands away from his face, Lewis was gone.
Lewis sat in his car with the engine running. His headlights were off. The roof of the casino parking garage was dotted with pools of light surrounded by wide spans of inky darkness. Lewis’ car was in the shadows. His was one of only two vehicles remaining on the roof level. The other was a Tesla.
It was parked at the opposite end of the parking garage, near a large assembly of massive industrial fans that provided ventilation for the casino. The roar of the fans was loud, loud enough for Lewis to hear them even with his windows closed. They made a droning hum that seemed to pulse in time with his heartbeat.
Lewis’ hands were on the steering wheel. His breathing was calm. Steady. The blood on his forearms had dried into twisted brown smears. Tiny shards of glass still poked from his skin. He ignored them. His eyes were fixed on a single spot across the garage: a blue metal door, under a glowing green sign that read EXIT.
Lewis wasn’t sure how long he had been sitting there. It seemed like hours. The sky to the east was a filthy, grayish-yellow color that reminded Lewis of his father’s tobacco-stained teeth. It was the beginnings of a sunrise, he supposed. He’d be expected to be in the office in a few short hours. He didn’t care. He would never be going to work again.
The blue metal door opened. Lewis sat forward in his seat, suddenly alert. A figure was silhouetted in the doorway, backlit against the light from the stairwell. Lewis couldn’t tell who it was. But then he heard the chirp-chirp of a car alarm being deactivated. The tail lights on Michaelson’s Tesla blinked twice.
It was him.
Lewis watched as Michaelson strolled towards the Tesla, spinning the key fob around his index finger as he walked. His stride was casual, confident, the walk of a man on an unbroken path, whose perfect life was unfolding perfectly before him, every day proceeding exactly as planned. Everything was right for him. Everything worked to his advantage. There was nothing out of place. Nothing incomplete. No desire unfulfilled. Every pitch was a strike. Every at-bat, a home run. Every game a perfect game. A life unspoiled by defeat, or disappointment, or loss.
As Michaelson passed in front of Lewis’ car, Lewis flipped on his high beams.
Michaelson froze, suddenly blinded by the searing light. He threw up his forearm in front of his face to shield his eyes from the glare. His expression was confused, uncomprehending.
Lewis slammed his foot down on the gas pedal, smashing it to the floor. His tires squealed. Black smoke poured out from under his rear bumper. The car lurched forward, accelerating towards Michaelson.
Michaelson’s reaction was delayed. Maybe he was still buzzed from a long night of drinking, or maybe his brain just couldn’t quite fathom what was happening. By the time his legs started moving, Lewis’ car was already closing in on him.
He sprinted straight at first. Then he zigzagged to the left, then to the right. Lewis tracked his every move, keeping him dead center between his headlights. Michaelson threw a look over his shoulder. His face was a mask of abject terror. He was going to die, and he knew it.
Just as Lewis’ car was upon him, Michaelson dove to his right. The car hit him while he was airborne, throwing him up over the hood. His shoulder collided with the windshield, shattering it into a spiderweb of fractured glass. The impact sent him over the roof, his body cartwheeling sideways into the bank of industrial fans. A horrible grinding sound echoed through the parking garage as his unconscious body smashed through the fans’ protective grating and into the powerful blades inside.
Lewis’ car continued straight, heading for the edge of the parking garage roof.
He never slowed down.
Lewis was awake.
There hadn’t been any feeling of waking up or coming to. No gradual transition from unconscious to conscious. It was like someone had just flipped a switch. There was nothing, and then there was something. He realized he could hear noises: beeps and hisses and the gentle drone of an air conditioner or a fan. But he couldn’t see anything. Everything was black.
He heard a voice. A man’s voice. It was muffled and distorted, like it was being played on toy speakers from a vinyl record that had warped in the heat. He didn’t recognize the voice, but he understood the words.
“Mr. Lewis? Can you hear me?”
Lewis tried to speak, but his throat felt like he had swallowed a bale of barbed wire. He suddenly realized that he was choking. Something seemed to be in his throat, gagging him. He panicked, trying to lift his hand to pull out whatever it was, so he could breathe. But he couldn’t move. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t lift his arms. Either of them. He didn’t understand. What was happening? Was he tied down? Or…
With dawning horror, Lewis tried to move his legs. He couldn’t feel them either. Oh my God, Lewis thought. I’m paralyzed. He tried to sit up, but a strong pair of hands pressed on his shoulders, holding him down.
“Hey, now. Take it easy. Just relax,” a different voice said, closer to his face. This one belonged to a woman. Its tone was firm but kind.
Who are you? Lewis wanted to scream. Where am I?
He lifted his head and tried to sit up again, but the hands held him down. Then he realized: he could feel the hands on his shoulders. If he was paralyzed, he wouldn’t be able to feel them touching him, right? Lewis relaxed. He settled back into the mattress. Maybe he wasn’t paralyzed after all.
As he stopped struggling, the hands released their pressure on his shoulders.
The man’s voice spoke again. “Mr. Lewis, I’m Doctor Grace. If you can hear me, can you nod?”
“Great,” the doctor said. “Do you know where you are?”
Lewis shook his head. “No,” he croaked. His throat felt like it was full of broken glass.
“Okay. You’re in Our Lady of Mercy hospital. We just removed a tube from your throat, so it’s best if you don’t try to talk just yet. It’s going to be pretty raw for a while.”
Lewis nodded again. He swallowed, then winced. It hurt like hell.
“Do you remember anything about what happened?”
Lewis shook his head again. But as soon as he did, a series of memories flickered across his mind like still frames from an old-time flipbook. The casino. The girls. The double jackpot. The cocktail table, shattered. The car. Michaelson.
Now a different voice spoke. Another man. One he recognized.
“Hey, Lewis. It’s Mike Duncan, from work. You remember me?”
Lewis nodded. He remembered Duncan. He sat in the next cubicle over, at the office.
“I just stopped by to see how you were doing, and … well, I guess I got lucky. The doctor says this is the first time you’ve been awake since the accident.”
The accident? Lewis thought. So they thought it was an accident. That was good.
“Water,” Lewis whispered.
The woman’s voice spoke. Maybe a nurse? “It’s too soon to give you water, but I can get you some ice if you’d like.”
Lewis nodded. “Please.”
“Coming right up.” He heard the woman walking away, her footsteps muted on the tile floor.
“I’ll give you a few minutes with your friend,” the doctor said.
“Thanks, Doctor,” Duncan responded. Heavier footsteps. Then a door closed and latched with a click.
“Can you talk?” Duncan asked.
Lewis opened his jaw and moved his tongue around. It felt foreign to him, like a piece of raw meat in his mouth. He swallowed again. Flames tore at his esophagus. “Hey,” he managed to whisper. His voice sounded like a handful of crinkling straw. “What happened?”
“Oh, man,” Duncan said. His voice was shaky. “Well … there was an accident. But you’re okay. You made it through.”
“Michaelson,” Lewis croaked.
“He made it too,” Duncan said. “He—” His voice cut out, choked by a sob. “I’m sorry. I just … Man, this is so fucked up.”
“He’s okay?” Lewis asked.
Duncan coughed out a mortified laugh, in spite of himself. “Not really. He got chewed up pretty bad. Lost an arm. A leg. An eye. His whole right side is just … it’s bad. He barely made it. And he’s not out of the woods yet. Has a long way to go. Years, they said.”
Lewis felt a wave of familiar anger boiling inside him. Of course, Michaelson survived, Lewis thought with bitter sarcasm. Of course, he did.
Lewis was such a loser that he couldn’t even murder someone without fucking it up.
But then a different thought occurred to him. Dying was easy. Almost too easy. But surviving? Surviving was a bitch. Surviving meant Michaelson would have to live the rest of his life handicapped, disfigured, partially blind, while the whole time knowing what he used to be. What he had lost. What he could never be again. The more Lewis thought about it, the better the whole thing sounded.
Then Duncan spoke again, interrupting Lewis’ internal monologue. “Rachel came to see you.”
The words hit Lewis head-on, crushing him like a car in one of those crash tests where someone drives a Hyundai into a brick wall. His heart seemed to stop for a second, suspended in mid-air, before tripping over itself to regain its rhythm.
Rachel? His Rachel? He felt a sob rising in his throat. The very idea that she was there for him, that she came back after everything that had happened between them, after everything he had said, everything he had done … it was overwhelming.
Maybe she still loved him.
Maybe there was still a chance for them after all.
“She’s here?” Lewis asked, his voice wavering on the edge of tears. Duncan was silent. Lewis asked again, more clearly this time. “Duncan? Is she here?”
“No,” he said quietly. “Not today. She came when she heard what happened but, she, uh … she left. She didn’t want to see you like this.”
There was another long silence. Finally, Duncan spoke. “Maybe I should get the doctor.” Lewis heard a chair creak as Duncan stood.
“Duncan, wait. Like what?” Lewis asked again. “What’s happening? Am I paralyzed?”
Duncan didn’t answer. Lewis heard the door open, followed by the soft footsteps of the nurse’s sneakers and the louder clacks of the doctor’s loafers.
Duncan put his hand on Lewis’ shoulder. “I’m gonna run. It was good to see you. Stay strong, brother.”
Lewis tried to reach up and pat Duncan’s hand, but he still couldn’t move his arm. He settled for a nod. “Thanks for coming, Mike.”
Duncan’s footsteps receded out of the room. Then Lewis felt the cold wetness of ice on his lips.
“Here you go,” the nurse said softly. “Some ice for you.” Lewis opened his mouth. The nurse spooned a small portion of soft, tasteless ice chips into his mouth. They dissolved on his tongue, sending a trickle of freezing water down his shredded throat. It felt good.
“Thanks,” he whispered.
Lewis heard the sound of a wheeled stool being rolled closer. It squeaked as the doctor sat. “Mr. Lewis, we need to talk—”
“Am I paralyzed?” Lewis asked.
“No,” the doctor confirmed. “You’re not paralyzed. Luckily, the damage from the crash didn’t affect your spine. You did have a severe concussion, and some pretty serious swelling in your brain, but we were able to manage that effectively. There should be no permanent brain damage.”
Lewis felt a wave of relief. No permanent damage. Good, good.
The doctor continued. “The accident was very serious, but between the airbags, the seat belt, and the other safety features, you made it out relatively unscathed, considering.” Lewis heard paper turning, as if the doctor was flipping through his chart. “Concussion, severe contusions and lacerations, stitches and staples in your scalp, a few broken ribs, broken tibias, left and right … I know this sounds like a lot, but given the severity of the accident, it’s incredible that you survived it at all. You’re a very lucky man, Mr. Lewis.” He heard the doctor close his file. “Do you remember anything about what happened?”
“Not much.” Lewis’ thoughts turned inwards as he tried to remember. The longer he was awake, the more his memory started to fill in, like a roll of film developing in a chemical bath. There was still a thin gauze over the whole night, a milky cataract that obscured some of the details, but he began to remember more distinctly the events that preceded the crash. The waitress giving him the extra beer. The note in his pocket. Her and her friend coming with him to the casino. Winning the double jackpot.
Then, the piano lounge.
Michaelson had paid them. He thought Lewis was so pathetic that the only way that a girl would hang out with him was if she was paid to do it.
Fucking Michaelson, he thought for the thousandth time.
“… we did everything we could, but—”
Lewis realized that the doctor was still talking. He hadn’t been listening. All of his mental energy had gone to piecing together the memories of that night.
“Sorry, can you repeat that?” Lewis said. “I was … it’s hard to focus …”
“Yes, of course,” the doctor said. “I understand this is a lot to process. I can come back later when you’re feeling stronger—”
“No, no, it’s all right. Just say that again? Before ‘we did everything we could’ …?”
“Okay.” The doctor took a deep breath and exhaled. “I was saying that you were lucky to survive the accident. You and Mr. Michaelson both: very, very lucky. But after …” The doctor’s voice wavered as if he was on the edge of tears. “Mr. Lewis, I am so sorry. We did everything—” There was a click in his throat as he swallowed a hitching breath. “We did everything we could. But the infection was just too aggressive. It was resistant to antibiotics, to every intervention we tried.”
A heavy veil of dread draped over Lewis like a lead blanket. He could feel it pressing on his chest, compressing his lungs, collapsing his rib cage. Terror tightened around his throat like a noose, threatening to strangle him.
“The infection was pervasive, and … and extensive,” the doctor continued. “We fought it with everything we had. But in the end, we had no choice but to …” The doctor took another shaky breath. “But to amputate.”
Amputate. The word shot through Lewis’ head like a hollow-point bullet, shredding his mind into jagged ribbons of horror as it exploded through his skull.
“My arms,” he managed to say.
“Yes,” the doctor replied. “I’m sorry. Your arms. And your legs. And … and your eyes.”
An animal groan started building in Lewis’ throat, the sound of incomprehensible grief, and terror, and regret, and every one of the darkest emotions of human existence, of any existence, all combined into a single horrible wail.
The beeping from Lewis’ heart monitor grew faster. His breath came in short, choppy gasps. He couldn’t breathe. He was suffocating. The sounds of the room grew elastic, elongating and contracting, the volume rising and falling.
The doctor’s voice broke through the swells of static pulsing in Lewis’ ears. “I understand how difficult … sssssssshhhhhhh … if there’s someone we can call … sssssssshhhhhhh … a spouse, or significant other … sssssssshhhhhhh …”
The sounds of the room receded into silence, the way a passing police siren trails off into the distance. All that was left was the sound of Lewis’ own heartbeat. His own breathing.
And then, a voice. His own.
“Give me that kind of luck for once, you know? Let me get two. One for him, two for me. Is that too much to ask?”
“Not at all,” the disembodied voice of the bartender said.
Lewis heard the gurgling sound of whiskey pouring into a glass.
“To Michaelson,” the bartender proclaimed. “May whatever luck comes to him, come to you, times two.”
“Amen,” Lewis said. The clink of their glasses resonated like a chime in a cathedral. “From your mouth to God’s ears.”
As Lewis drifted away into unconsciousness, one last thought slipped through the darkness.
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