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Another bad ending. And it just had to rain, didn't it?
There's no better excuse to end a tedious phone call than Friday night in Vegas. Friday night blurs into Saturday morning, sometimes into Sunday: it's like treading water to stay that one drink ahead of a hangover. Billy had a liver like a refrigerator, his boyish looks pickled at age thirty, now creeping towards forty.
Nothing lasts forever.
A hundred words. A thousand. Pictures spoken text and message. “I miss you,” Billy said.
“I still love you,” she replied. And after so many years, so much distance.
Was she still beautiful?
She messaged a picture and yeah, she was still beautiful.
“Would you like to come up to my room?” the woman said. Eyes flashing in the lights and a boob-job so perfect, so understated, only her lovers knew for sure, she smiled from perpetually glossy lips…gloss on her beer glass, her shot glass, her napkin and teeth.
“Okay,” Billy grinned. “After this song.”
She called herself a tease. She called herself a witch too. She told him that much flat-out, but Billy met all kinds of funky tourists in Vegas lounges. He took none of them seriously, just hoped for an especially kinky session alone or with others. Maybe something that would surprise him again, the way things used to. A night to remember – a li’l secret to keep before getting on with his life.
Done. Just one more time and – done.
Done with hangovers. Done with tourists who faked it like porn stars. Done with greasing palms or dipping inside the purses of wealthy wives. Done with the free lunch and something – not quite guilt – but something black growing inside him.
Too much Caipirinha. Disturbing house guests. Three in a tub. Three hours of daylight. Three items stolen from his home.
Done. Just once more, and then Billy was done.
The fact that he’d soon see the girl he’d loved most of his life didn’t so much plague Billy as it did energize him. A purely male attribute, and women hold a similar strength but in the opposite direction. Billy tipped the bartender he knew. He knew the waitress, and he knew the band. He said goodbye to them all, mostly to show off for one last time. The girl with her hand coaxing him at the small of his back his must’ve been pushing forty herself. Still so goddamn head-to-toe attractive that only the weak or the fearful would resist. Red hair past her shoulders and a tight dress to her ankles, not the slightest trace of hesitance. The swirling-patterned carpet ’round the craps tables and slot machines played tricks on Billy’s eyes though he’d seen them a thousand times.
“Stop for vodka,” she said. “For the room.”
Billy ducked in for vodka, cranberry juice, and limes available at all hours.
Wendy, as she called herself, misbehaved in the elevator to the thirty-sixth floor.
Love like a dis-ease. A contagion. Shame spreads likes boredom until extreme measures are taken to stop it.
“Remember the time we—?” Jessica said over the phone, laughter in her voice. Luxurious black hair, lips of innocence. They’d gone ice-fishing, of all things, back in college. She told him her toes felt numb, and so he rubbed at his uncle’s lodge. He kissed them, brought them back life like Lazarus would have done. Ten li’l piggies, soft and but frozen at his lips.
“You were the only one who caught anything,” Billy said, remembering the day.
“Yeah, a cold!”
“I never stopped thinking about you.” And it was true. Even inside Wendy’s room, inside Wendy’s tub, and inside Wendy, it was true.
“I told you,” she said, the lights of the Vegas Strip flashing from the window. “I told you that they were real!”
“You must be proud,” he replied, prodding like a scientist.
She ignored his hands and stared. “I also told you I’m a witch, didn’t I?”
“Something to that effect.”
“Watch my eyes, Billy. No, look into them.” She pushed held his face back to make him see. “Unusual, wouldn’t you say?”
A moment before he arrived – and, yes.
Yes, in fact they were.
Sagebrush and dusty arroyos gave way to oak forests and ice water creeks – Billy arrived to reacquaint himself with the love of his like in a some imaginary small town. People there saw right through him. Saw what he’d been, the things he’d done. Saw it in his eyes. With their children in hand, they’d turn away. Jessica saw it too. Try as she might, she couldn’t ignore the mark upon him.
“You’re not the same anymore,” Jessica confessed in the rain outside her door. Water dripped from her hair into her eyes, but she would not blink. Unlike her friends, she would not look away. She stared straight into it, the mark left upon him. “I thought I’d still love you, Billy. I’m sorry.”
At three in the morning in a room in Vegas, Wendy’s eyes shook. Back and forth like some inner workings of wristwatch, and Billy would later remember hearing the rattle of snake. Transfixed, he saw everything in those eyes. The people he’d used without a second thought. The ones he’d hurt. All the women, and every fifty he’d slipped a floor manager for a hot tip. Like a fast-forward movie – or a slideshow – his shame played in her quivering eyes. Filling his. Flashing from them still, for all the good people to see. He’d once known how to read people. Now they read him.
Billy had heard that witches leave the mark of the devil upon their victims. Wendy exposed his debt, and he couldn’t hide anymore. His pain…his anger and his sin: she drew back the mask and revealed it for all the good people to see. Saints and sinners alike would see it, forever flashing from his eyes that always felt like they were twitching.
“I see what you are now,” Jessica told him as she shielded herself behind her door. “And it ain’t cool by me.”
“Marked” originally appeared in Sounds of the Night, February 2009, edited by L.A. Story