Matthew Thomas Meade

Text of "The Observer Effect"

"The Observer Effect" was published by The Rag in their Winter/Spring 2013 issue.

The Observer Effect

By Matthew Meade

 

Lyla pulled up to the hotel in her silver BMW. The air was cool but Lyla had the top down. The fact that the car was a convertible was the only thing she liked about it. As the car rattled to a halt, she allowed herself a single glance at the sun as it set. The sky reminded her of one her children’s worn-out toys. She looked around the parking lot of the hotel and saw Travis’ car in the lot and his silhouette within. He would wait fifteen minutes and then he would follow her into the room. She wouldn't undress. That's what she had him for. He always wanted to take her to the Starlight Motor Inn, but she told him that stepping one foot into that place would give her a rash, so they always met at the Days Inn off of Exit 5. And she always paid.

Once they were both inside the hotel and nude, his lean body seemed to hover over hers. She rested her hands on his chest and hips. His eyelashes were beautiful.

When they were done she smoked even though the sign in the room warned of a $250 dollar fine for doing so. She eased back into the red dress she liked to wear, the straps weak and tangled like messages from a distant country. She wondered if she was being watched. The deep color of the dress clashed with a pink bruise that was slowly turning purple on her temple.

The wallpaper looked like it had been made out of feathers and torn- up magazines and through it Travis and Lyla could hear the people in the other hotel rooms. The voices they heard were muffled and sad and sounded like creaking furniture. The occupants of the other rooms spoke with purpose, as if they were sure what they said mattered, as if they longed to solve some mystery. Lyla wondered if that was the way she and Travis sounded to them.

“You're not spending the night?” Travis accused, still lying on the bed while she dressed.

She did not answer.  She just reached for the zipper on the back of the dress and tossed her hair. She liked to think of her long hair as if it wasbeing something men longed to touch.

“You're going back to him?” He was shocked and he sat up, but still she did not answer. She looked around the room for something she could use as an ashtray.

“When you called me you were crying and drunk and you begged me to meet you here. You said you wanted to leave him,” Travis said.

Lyla was not even looking at him. Failing to find a receptacle for her cigarette's debris, she finally settled on opening the vertical slatted window and flicking the ash out of the tiny space and into the bushes that lined the perimeter of the hotel. She hated those bushes and secretly hoped they were dry enough to catch the whole place on fire. What a way to go, she thought. Travis stepped toward her and slid his hand onto her shoulder.

“Why would you go back to him? He hits you.”

“Grow up Travis.” She turned calmly and filled his eyes with her gazelooked into his eyes. “Sometimes adults hit each other.” She took another drag of from her cigarette and then flicked the butt out of the window with finality.

“I love you,” he professedsaid, trying not to whine.

“Yeah, I know you do Travis. That's why I'm worried about you. You believe so much in the power of love.,” she swung the window closed and pulled down the metal lever, locking it into place. “I'm sure you also believe in good karma, and being on time, and voting.”

His grip loosened and he caressed her arm sadly. She pulled the arm from him violently, as if she were yanking the top off of a bottle. She walked away. He remained, looking out of the window into the parking lot, examining each car to make sure that no one was out there waiting for them. Then he followed her across the room, reducing the distance between their two bodies with every step. She felt his cock press against her. It was crass and unsolicited like a self-indulgent Christmas newsletter, the likes of which her brother mailed every season. She stared into the mirror as he began to undress her again. He unzipped her dress and exposed her chest, the dark red spots across her body announcing where he had bitten her.

“God damn it Travis,” she mumbled as he sucked on her earlobe. Of course he can fuck again, she thought to herself. And of course he thinks that will make any damn difference, as if screwing a second time would make her want to leave her husband and start a new life by moving to New York Ccity with a college drop out sporting a sailor bird tattoo on his shoulder blade. “Travis,” she breathed out heavily as he subjected her body to deep sucking kisses that she found to be one part erotic and two parts disgusting. He kissed the mark on her face like some concerned parent and that was enough to make her angry. He pushed her onto the bed, crawled on top of her, and she stiffened and pressed her hands against his chest.

“Travis, just stop.”

He rolled off of her and they lay on the bed motionless. She remembered how they used to laugh after they had fucked, like they were thieves who had successfully pulled off a heist. That had stopped at some point. Lyla could not figure out exactly when. What remained was some sort of strange errand that Lyla fit in between volunteering at the gallery and the scheduled maintenance on her BMW.

They lay quietly next to one another and Lyla smoked. Having given up on finding an ash tray, she flicked the ashes onto the night stand. Lyla thought to herself, when you have a “used to be” with the man you are cheating on your husband with, it's time to call it quits.

“Travis,” she said. “We can't keep doing this.” He surprised her by not saying anything. Maybe, she thought, he had been expecting this. Maybe, he wasn't as dumb as she thought. Then she saw his eyes becoming thick with tears and she realized she was wrong. “Things won't change for you,” she insisted said. “You and Carly can still work at the restaurant and go on your auditions and whatever else it is you do.”

By the way he looked up from the carpet when she said the name of the young bartender who followed him around, staring at the side of his head, Lyla could tell he thought he had kept Carly a secret.

“And you and that degenerate. What's his name?” she asked.

“Brad?”

“Yes. You and that degenerate, Brad, can continue to make your little coke deals and I won't come around for a while. Eventually you'll get some acting job, some soap or commercial, and you'll quit the restaurant. And when you’re eventually married to some model you’ll think back on all this fondly because we’ll break things off now before it all goes rotten.”

She stood up and started to reassemble her bra and the straps of her dress.

“Don't go,” he said, beginning the conversation again as soon as she thought she had finished it, like they were singing some song for toddlers that began the same way it ended. She wouldn't respond to him. She continued to perform the business of locating her belongings, adding a theatricality to communicate to him that he was being ignored. He continued to profess his love while she silently dressed.

Finally, mostly out of desperation, he tried a tactic that had once worked.

“Let's get a little coke,” he said, trying to ease some mischief into his voice. “You know, for old time's’ sake.”

"Sweetie," she told him sadly, "you're 22. You don't have old times."

“Just stay until the cocaine gets here?”

She looked at him and sighed, remembering the first time she had caught him selling cocaine to one of the chefs. It was mid- afternoon on a weekday and Lyla could not remember why she had been at the restaurant.  

“Is that cocaine?” she had asked him. Her expression must have communicated anger because Travis looked panicked.

The chef barely looked up from the envelope Travis had been holding. Lyla was supposedly the manager and her husband Gary was the owner, but Gary was at the restaurant seven days a week and Lyla showed up so infrequently that the chef barely recognized her. This arrangement between Lyla and Gary and the kitchen staff, was similar to the arrangement they had with the full-time nanny, the cleaning lady, and their children. After Gary had established a rapport and a routine, Lyla would appear, like a rogue cop in the middle of an interrogation, and she would invalidate any covenant by using verbs like “leverage” and “position” and phrases like “quid pro quo,” and “you think this is a game?”

Travis had only been waiting tables for a month, but he knew to be afraid of her. When caught with the cocaine, he had been pretty sure that he was going to jail, or worse. Lyla had smelled the fear on him and she found it intoxicating. She had advanced on him until she had him backed into the walk-in pantry. The chef seemed to have dissolved into thin air. Jesus, she thought to herself, remembering the perspiration on Travis' face, did I actually wag my finger at him like some school marm?

“It's not that I have a problem with cocaine,” she remembered saying. “I just can't have you selling it in my husband's restaurant.” He nodded ferociously. “I'm not a complete square,” she insisted. She remembered trying to say the word “square” as if it were a term people actually used.

“Ok,” Travis said emphatically, nodding his head to indicate that he understood her, that he agreed with her, and that what she said made sense to him. “I know,” he said, and crossed his arms gravely as if she had just told him something very serious and very important about political parties, or interest rates. “You are absolutely right,” he concluded.

“I even used to do coke when I was young.” The way she said it, it sounded like an accusation.

“I believe you,” he said.

“I must have been your age.” She looked him up and down like he was a train schedule and she was carefully determining which departure got her where she wanted to go. “How old do you think I am?” She smiled, her lipstick smooth and somehow dangerous like a drink brimming hazardously close to the edges of the glass in which it was served.

Later, they met at a hotel where they did an eight ball and fucked three times. She admitted in the post-coital safety that she had known for weeks that he sold coke, and that she just used the coke as an excuse to talk to him because she wanted to get him to a hotel. He had laughed at that and she had laughed too. Their tryst continued and soon had little to do with drugs. Increasingly, however, it was having little to do with sex.

“Alright,” she agreed. “Call your degenerate friend and have some coke delivered.” Then she added, smiling, “for old times’ sake.”

Travis grabbed his phone and dialed, mumbling into it when Brad answered. They bickered loudly as they always did. Lyla could hear Brad's voice booming through the phone. Travis finalized the details and hit the end call button with Brad’s voice still lodging complaints through the tiny speaker of the phone.

“And I am paying for it,” she insisted, as Travis made his way back to the bed. He smiled and shook his head at Lyla, glad that they were back into the familiar routine of fighting over who was going to pay for the drugs.

“What am I?” he asked, pretending to be offended. “Your whore?”

“I am surprised you could get him on the phone. I can never get a signal when I'm here.”

“Cell phone signal?” Travis scoffed. “No matter what, you can always get ahold of Brad.”

 

While they waited for the cocaine they lay on the bed next to one another, staring at the ceiling, sharing a cigarette, and slurping white wine from a bottle that he had stolen from the restaurant.

“Do you remember the one time we tried to go out together?” Travis asked her, laughing.

“God,” she moaned. “Don't remind me.”

“That waitress is probably still on the lam and using a fake name.”

“That bitch. She was flirting with you.”

“She was waitressing.”

“Is that what you call it?” Lyla asked.

“She was just being nice,” Travis insistedsaid.

Nice?” Lyla asked as if it were something with which she was not familiar. “That reminds me of this thing my stepfather used to talk about.”

“What would he say?”

“Oh it's stupid,” Lyla groaned, evading the question like he had asked her what pop tune she was humming along with.

“Come on,” Travis nudged her.

“Ok,” she said as if she were admitting to some unpleasant, but necessary grooming ritual. “He would tell me: ‘Lyla, you are too pretty to trust anything nice anyone ever tells you.’”

“Sounds like a smart guy.”

“He was an asshole,.” Lyla corrected. “But, I guess what he meant was that if you are good looking enough, you can accidentally make a person nice. And then you think they really are nice, but they aren’t. That bitch waitress was only nice, because you were the one talking to her.”

Travis smiled and reached out to stroke her face. She evaded his hand expertly and continued to explain.

“I bet that all you have to do is smile and toss your hair and people just do things for you like give you tickets to shows, and give you discounts on tires, and fuck you in airplane bathrooms. I bet you think the world is just this amazingly generous and magical place where great things happen to everyone all the time. And you’re just wrong. Wrong as shit.”

“Yeah, but isn't the fact that you didn't like her what made her bitchy to you?”

“Travis,” Lyla demanded. “Take this seriously. This should matter to you,” she said. “Because from the time you reached six feet tall until that fateful day when you start to lose your hair, young girls and gay men have, and will continue, to do nice things for you just because you are so lean and tan and sexy and have those god damned, gorgeous eyes.”

“Gay men are really nice to me,” he admitted.

“I am sure they are. So are the young, buxom tramps you work with and the horny, nasty old ladies you work for. Don't make the mistake of thinking that they, and by they, I mean me, treat everyone the way they treat you. It would also be false to assume that you have any redeeming qualities other than how hot you are.”

They were both quiet for a while, listening to the drone of the electricity vibrating through the hotel.

“You learned this from your stepfather?” He asked as if he cared. She could already tell that he would never think about the conversation again.

“No,” she corrected. “I learned it the hard way.”

“It doesn't prove that the waitress was hitting on me. Some people are just very familiar with their hands.”

“Everyone is familiar with their hands. She was getting you familiar with her tits.”

“You are so sensitive.”

“She thought I was your boss.”

“You are my boss,” Travis laughed and reached across the bed to grab at her. “Besides, you know I'm an ass man.” She casually lifted her thigh to avoid his playful grab.

“You're not any kind of a man. You're an ass boy.”

“And what are you?”

“I'm a grown woman,” she decided, sadly.

“You're only as old as you want to be,” Travis offered, mangling the cliché.

Lyla did not answer. She stared past him the way she did when neither of them could bring themselves to keep pretending. In these moments Travis was struck with a sense of desperation with which most men his age were unfamiliar. He could not understand this feeling, he could only react to it.

“Let's get you some of that candy you like,” he Travis nearly shouted, standing up on the bed, suddenly jolted with adolescent abandon by the prospect of filling their stomachs with sugar and artificial flavoring until they ached.

“I hope you mean the cocaine.”

                “Come on. Don't you want some of your gross candy that tastes like it should come with a warning on it?” He was starting to hop, and the springs of the mattress moaned their objections.

“You mean black licorice? One of the most popular candies in the world for centuries?”

“Come on. I can see the gas station from here. It'll take us ten minutes.”

They ran through the lobby. She wore no shoes and he wore no shirt. He wished that it was raining. He wished he'd brought the whiskey. He wished that she would fall and he would have to catch her.

When they got to the gas station they found that it was closed. They both felt the deep hum of disappointment as they yanked ineffectually on the locked glass doors. Travis cupped his hands around his face and surveyed the varied panoply of treats. The brightly colored displays seemed to be dimmed only slightly by the darkness. They made the walk back from the closed gas station, and Travis felt as if he could feel the eyes of every person in the hotel staring from the windows of their rooms.

“I could drive down to the 24- hour Wal-Mart,” Travis offered.

“I don't care about the licorice, Travis. I just wanted it because you wanted to get it for me.”

They walked back in the drab evening, the lights of commercial facades masquerading as civilization. Lyla looked down the avenues of their tiny, worn- out town. She felt like some kind of reluctant royalty and she nearly wretched. The streets were hastily built and seemed to be constructed out of re-purposed canvas tarps and broken furniture. They were the kind of streets where the yellow lines in the middle of the road could suddenly trail off as if the road itself had given up on getting out of town.

The split-level homes and the town houses were built one on top of the other with no consistency to the value of the properties. Every once in a while, squeezed in between a business and a five- bedroom colonial, there would be a bungalow seeming to mingle inappropriately like a chatty bus boy who didn’t see anything wrong with talking up the customers. Lyla never hated the town more than when she was with Travis.

When they re-entered the hotel they passed the desk attendant, daring him to make a comment on their state of undress. Lyla breathed in deeply. The hotel smelled antiseptic, but there was something rotten beneath the smell of sanitizer and cleaning products. She had considered this hotel somehow less contaminated than the Motor Inn, but, upon reflection, she realized that she had been wrong. They turned down the hallway and Travis reached down into his pockets, searching for the card key that unlocked the door to the room.

“I think I dropped it,” he said as he dug into his front pockets, checked his back pocket and then tried his front pockets again. The vein reaching from his groin to his fatless stomach pulsed obscenely while he mimed his search. “Do you still have yours?”

She gave him a hard, cold look. She pulled her card from the small, red bag that matched the color of her dress, and she handed it to him. He didn't know why she was so upset. He regularly spent several days at a time living out of the hotel after she spent an evening fucking him. The replacement cost of the key card could not have been significant compared to the cost of the extra week in the hotel.

“What?” he asked, hopping onto the bed as she slammed the door behind them.

Lyla looked around the room, expectantly. For some reason she had anticipated that there would be someone in the room waiting patiently for them. When she found that they were alone she bit her teeth together hard. Her mouth was like a hand towel, tightly twisted and wrung out next to a sink. She lit a cigarette and she wished she could cry.

“What?” He asked again, smiling and preening.

“Who has to pay for it if it’s lost?” she asked, stiffening and twitching slightly, feeling as if she was acting out a scene that usually included one of her children.

“Is this really something you are worried about?” he asked, reaching for her.

“Would I be standing here bitching at you if I wasn't worried about it?” said through clenched teeth.

He looked up at her and said, “Relax. It's not a big deal. The card is probably in the gas station parking lot. I can just go back and get it.”

He did not get up from the bed.

“I don't like this Travis,” she explained said softly. She shook her head. “I don't like this kind of fight, one bit.”

“You are making this a big deal and it’s not,” he said.

“Travis,” she began as she sat down on the bed and composed herself. “You are a sweet heart, and god knows you are gorgeous, but you are no husband and you are no father.”

“Since when do you give a shit about being a wife or a mother?”

“I give a shit about being provided for.”

She made the statement as if they had both been operating under that supposition all along, as if she was annoyed that she had to state the obvious.  

“Let's just get out of this damn town,” he said calmly.

“Kid,” she said, the way a little league coach talks to his pitcher before he pulls him from the game, “this has been a lot of fun, but it's run its course. We should have done this a while ago.”

“We'll just move to New York,” he said, doubling down. “I'll wait tables and look for acting jobs and you can think about opening an art gallery there and run it the way you want.” He talked as if their problems could be solved with logic and good solid financial planning. Lyla could tell he had slowly been scraping together this argument for some time. It taxed her patience to be made to listen to it. “And Brooke is going to NYU in the fall so you'll still be right by her.”

What Travis did not know and what Lyla did not want to have to begin to explain was that Brooke would not be attending NYU in the fall due to an unfortunate minor psychotic break that involved Oxycontin, six grand worth of property damage, and a two week residence at Poplar Creek, the teen suicide wing of St. Joseph’s Hospital. After she graduated in the spring she would probably spend a year lying around the house complaining before Gary would finally buckle and agree to pay her a grossly inflated salary to hostess at the restaurant.

But deeper than her annoyance at Travis’ ignorance was her surprise to find that she was horrified when Travis talked about her daughter. When she put the two in context of one another, she once again had to face the reality that Brooke and Travis could very well be considered peers.

“You don't need to care what he thinks, or what the neighbors think,” Travis continued as if he was repeating something he had heard in a movie, “or what your husband's investors will say about you if you take half his money in the divorce. You can do it just because you want to do it.”

“It sounds like you've thought long and hard about my divorce and my husband’s money,” she said.

“I've thought long and hard about how to be with you,” he replied.

He is so stupid, she thought, that he doesn't even know to be offended for being called a gold digger.

“Like the time I used his money to make your car payment?” she hurled at him. “Like the time I paid your rent when your account was overdrawn? Like this fucking bottle of wine?” She picked up the bottle and waved it around like it was a flag representing the country of her husband.

“Do you want me to pay you back? I will. I can get the money.”

“No, I don't want you to pay the money back. I want you to drop it and go back to your life so I can go back to mine.”

“Really? You want to find out that I met another woman while you continue living like a prisoner in his house? You want to spend the next twenty years hearing the same flimsy excuse for why he won’t be home tonight? Or do you prefer when he spends the night with some slut because then you can actually get some sleep?”

She blushed realizing that he was able to put together an accurate description of her relationship with her husband. She had not realized that he had been paying that much attention.

“And after you’ve been seeing me for almost a year, using a credit card with his name on it, with everyone in the restaurant probably aware of what is going on? If he really cared he would know where you are. He would want to kill me and probably you too. But he doesn't know where you are and he doesn't care. He doesn't love you anymore and I do.” Travis was breathing heavily now and flailing his arms around, because, for once, he believed he was right.

“He works 80 hours a week and Gary is ...” she began to defend him and then stopped. She started again, “I loved him once.”

“But now you love me.” He pressed against her.

She did not respond.

“Come on Lyla. Don’t do this. I love you because you're different and exciting. Why do you want to be like everyone else and go back to your husband and your shitty kids and your house and your mortgage and your stories that you tell at dinner parties? Don't go back to Normal and Boring. Don't go back to him.”

“See, that's what you don't get.” She caressed his dark hair. “If I got a divorce, then I would be like everyone else. I’d end up becoming artistic, and wise, and spiritual and I would start going to yoga classes and making my own jam. I would get my real estate license and I would hang a bunch of magnets on the fridge that say things like, ‘The future belongs to those who believe in their dreams.’ I’d rather die than live like that.”

It occurred to Travis that they were having the, capital C, Conversation. He was trying to figure out how they had gotten into the middle of it so quickly.

“You don't want to leave your husband because you are afraid getting a divorce will make you like everyone else? Because you’re afraid of what he’ll do and what other people will say and what your kids will think? Fine. Don't get a divorce. There are other ways to get out of a marriage.”

He stopped speaking and clenched his jaw to try to underscore the gravity of what he was saying.

“Travis,” she smiled, surprised that he had finally gotten around to saying it. She knew, now that the topic had been introduced, that she would have to choose her words very carefully. “I am tired and I have a twelve thousand dollar feather bed that I could be sleeping on. Don't waste my time with your fantasies.” She stroked his hair and felt a modicum of pride for him.

“I am serious.” His face became pale and his voice became high-pitched. “You think I don't know how this can be taken care of? And you could establish an alibi. You could be at the restaurant or anywhere where people would see you.”

Lyla gazed past his head of hair, still perfect despite the fucking. She thought, as she often did, about what it would be like to see Gary in a casket, his face like a rubber mask swollen and melted by the sun.

“Well, what about you?” she asked cautiously. “What would your alibi be?”

“Why would I need an alibi?” he asked her.

“Goodbye Travis,” she said with finality as she got up and walked toward the door.

“Wait,” he leaped up and stood between her and the exit. Their bodies knocked against one another violently. He kissed her again and again believing blindly that fucking her would somehow fix things.

“Stop,” she said and pushed his hands away.

 “I could be the one do it,.” he said, finally saying what he knew she wanted to hear.

She looked at him. She wondered if he could. She wondered if he had, what her dad would have called, the “mettle” for that kind of job. Lyla stopped resisting and let him caress and handle her. He was a better fuck than he had been at first. She liked to tell herself that she was helping him to become a man. And what he lacked in skill he made up for in good looks and stamina. She pictured his face over hers in an apartment in Manhattan, the windows open and the light pouring in on the both of them. She pictured their bodies pressed against each other and she pictured the shape of his lips when he came. It all seemed the way things ought to be.

She could not believe he had mentioned the art gallery. He paid attention, but he sure had no idea what he was paying attention to. She was embarrassed for him, really. The poor bastard thought people just moved to New York and opened art galleries like life was some Woody Allen picture. If only stupidity were infectious, or was a commodity that could be bought and traded. She knew she could use some stupid and Travis was absolutely lousy with the stuff. She envied stupid people because they seemed like the only people who ever got anything done. They were the only ones, she decided, who were stupid enough to try anything.

And Manhattan was where she had always expected she would end up. She remembered being there for the first time when she went to visit her dad before he had died. The streets seemed to undulate with a palette of colors that no other place had. Gary had taken her there many times, but never to stay. Never for real. She knew a couple chefs in Chelsea and the Village and there was always someone who needed management. The accounts that Gary did not think she knew about could probably support that lifestyle, as long as she sold the house. 

The aftermath would be complex. That was where Travis' dumb optimism might be useful. Actually putting the plan into action promised a tense year of police inquiry and insurance investigators, funeral arrangements and the reading of the will, Gary's son of a bitch sister and having to explain to Brooke and Joey and Maddox how much daddy loved them and how he would be watching them from heaven.

The act itself, she thought, would be the simplest part. She knew just how it should be done.

She knew where to get a gun. And she knew that home invasions typically occurred in the afternoon when most professional burglars could count on wealthy homes to be unoccupied. Lyla and Gary’s home was no exception. She would tear the house apart all morning and remove all the valuables. She knew that she could easily, with some excuse about a burst pipe or sprinkler system malfunction, get Gary home from the restaurant right before the dinner rush. The moment he walked into the house Travis would shoot him in the chest. It would look like a robbery gone bad. They would do it on a Thursday so she would be at the spa, of course, and for a small fee that degenerate Brad would corroborate Travis' made-up alibi. They would get rid of the gun in the river and the valuables in the recycling. Travis would probably get away with it, she thought, though he’d have to kill the dog.

She guessed Joey would be the one to find Gary's body.

Both lovers were surprised when they heard the knock at the hotel door. Travis stood up and draped a sheet over Lyla's naked body.

“Don't cover my legs,” she said. She was feeling light and happy and she was willing to play the game they used to play when ordering anything to the room. He would answer the door shirtless and she would arch her naked legs like Mrs. Robinson and, with her eyes, she would hint at what was beneath the sheets.

“Are you trying to get me and Brad into a fist fight?”

“That might be interesting,” she intoned lowly.

“If he takes too long a look at you I'm gonna swing on him.”

“You brute,” she smiled.

When Travis opened the door, Brad was not standing on the other side of it.

"Fuck," Travis said. He spoke almost in a whisper and he looked back at Lyla to see if she was the one who was setting him up.

Lyla looked past Travis' shirtless body and she saw her husband standing on the other side of him, holding a gun. She contemplated covering herself, but it seemed there was something beautiful about the way her legs framed the two men and she decided that she did not want to move and ruin the moment.

Gary looked like he had dressed for the occasion, like he put on the clothes thinking, these are the clothes I’ll wear when I murder my wife and her lover. The fabric was bright like it had never been worn before and the creases were so sharp that his jacket looked almost to be made of ceramic.

Gary stepped inside the room and Travis backed up. The door somehow closed. Gary was shorter than Travis, but he seemed to tower over the younger man. Holding a gun will do that, Lyla thought.

“Are you gonna cover up?” Gary asked her once he stood in the center of the room.

“What would be the point?” she asked, looking around for her cigarettes.

Gary turned and took a long look at the shirtless and toned Travis.

“Don't you have something to say to me?” Gary asked him, running his free hand through his sweaty mane of hair, thin on the top, but thick in the back and on the sides. His words stunk of exhaustion, but not anger.           

“I'm sorry?” Travis guessed.

“You know, this isn't the first time this has happened,” Gary said. “Last time I showed up here...” he looked around the room for some unique mark, or telling detail, “I can't tell if it was the same room, but it was this place … and she was fucking some other stupid kid. A black guy actually. I almost feel bad for you dumb kids. You are really just caught in the middle of this shit.”

"He's not dumb, Gary,” Lyla interrupted. “He's just a romantic."

"What's the difference?" Gary asked.

“Don’t you worry Travis,” Lyla cooed. “Last time he didn’t do anything but yell a little bit. Then he even drove Kevin home. Gary's a coward at heart. Would you pass me the cigarettes?”

Travis looked around and saw the cigarettes on the counter. He reached for them and Gary fired. The recoil sent Gary’s arm flying straight up in the air. The sound was loud and unwieldy and made them all suddenly feel exposed.

“Gary,” Lyla chided. “Everyone will hear.” She talked as if the gunshot was a naughty pet that had escaped into the hallway and was about to embarrass them all. “And look what you did to Travis' hand.”

All three looked intently at the end of Travis' arm at where his hand used to be.

“The big difference between this time and the last time,” Gary was explaining to Travis, “is this time the gun is loaded.”

Travis charged at Gary, as Lyla suspected he would. Gary fired twice, dropping Travis to the ground and leaving him motionless. Because he was shirtless, both Gary and Lyla could see the exact shape of the exit wound spread out across the flank of the body. Gary’s arms dangled by his sides, the weight of the gun seemed to be pulling him toward the floor.

“Why are you making me do this?” Gary asked her sadly. “I love you.”

He turned toward her. Her legs still angled nakedly from the bed sheets. She wanted a cigarette. Now that it’s empty, she thought, I could have used the wine bottle as an ash tray. Gary’s face was set into the expression of disappointment and sadness that she had become familiar with. He raised the gun and pointed it at her and she looked at him the way a streetlight looks at the street. She wondered what he was really like.