I dried off, brushed my teeth, and slipped on a T-shirt and shorts, and then my Nikes. Ready. Damn, it was good to be a man. I couldn’t imagine having to blow-dry my hair for half an hour, and then burn it with whatever handheld metal hot iron I could find, and then spend fifteen to twenty minutes getting my makeup just right before finally getting dressed. Key. Wallet. Phone. Out the door. Abby had said there were shops downstairs, but she hinted strongly that we shouldn’t see each other until the wedding, so I headed for the Strip.
Even when in a hurry, if the Bellagio fountains are dancing to the music, it is un-American not to stop and stand in awe. I lit a cigarette and puffed on it, resting my arms on a large, concrete ledge that lined the viewing platform. Watching the water sway and spray to the music reminded me of the last time I was there, standing with Shepley while Abby efficiently kicked the asses of four or five poker veterans.
Shepley. Damn, I was so glad he wasn’t at that fight. If I’d have lost him, or if he’d lost America, I’m not sure Abby and I would have been here. A loss like that would change the whole dynamic of our friendships. Shepley couldn’t be around Abby and me without America, and America couldn’t be around us without Shepley. Abby couldn’t not be around America. If they hadn’t decided to stay with his parents over spring break, I could be suffering the loss of Shepley instead of preparing for our wedding. Thoughts of calling Uncle Jack and Aunt Deana with news of their only son’s death made a cold shiver crawl down my spine.
I shook the thought away as I remembered the moment before I called my dad’s phone, standing in front of Keaton, the smoke billowing out of the windows. Some of the firefighters were holding the hose to pour water inside, others were bringing out survivors. I remembered what it felt like: knowing that I was going to have to tell my dad that Trent was missing and probably dead. How my brother had run the wrong way in the confusion, and Abby and I were standing outside without him. Thoughts of what that would have done to my dad, to our entire family, made me feel sick to my stomach. Dad was the strongest man I knew, but he couldn’t take losing anyone else.
My dad and Jack ran our town when they were in high school. They were the first generation of badass Maddox brothers. In college towns, the locals either started fights or were picked on. Jim and Jack Maddox never experienced the latter, and even met and married the only two girls at their college that could handle them: Deana and Diane Hempfling. Yes, sisters, making Shepley and me double cousins. It was probably just as well that Jack and Deana stopped at one, with Mom having five unruly boys. Statistically, our family was due for a girl, and I’m not sure the world could handle a female Maddox. All the fight and anger, plus estrogen? Everyone would die.
When Shepley was born, Uncle Jack settled down. Shepley was a Maddox, but he had his mother’s temperament. Thomas, Tyler, Taylor, Trenton, and I all had short fuses like our dad, but Shepley was calm. We were the best of friends. He was a brother who lived in a different house. He pretty much was, but he looked more like Thomas than the rest of us. We all shared the same DNA.
The fountain died down and I walked away, seeing the sign for Crystals. If I could get in and out of there quick, maybe Abby would still be in the Bellagio shops and wouldn’t see me.
I picked up the pace, dodging the extremely drunk and tired tourists. One short escalator ride and a bridge later, I was inside the stories-tall shopping center. It had glass rectangles displaying colorful water tornados, high-end shops, and the same odd range of people. Families to strippers. Only in Vegas.
I popped in and out of one suit shop without any luck, and then walked until I hit a Tom Ford store. In ten minutes, I’d found and tried on the perfect gray suit but had trouble finding a tie. “Fuck it,” I said, taking the suit and a white button-up to the register. Who said a groom had to wear a tie?
Walking out of the shopping center, I saw a pair of black Converse in the window. I went in, asked for my size, tried them on, and smiled. “I’ll take them,” I said to the woman helping me. She smiled with a look in her eyes that would have turned me on just six months ago. A woman looking at me that way usually meant any attempts I made to get in her pants had just been made a thousand times easier. That look meant: take me home.
“Great choice,” she said in a smooth, flirtatious voice. Her dark hair was long, thick, and shiny. Probably half of her five feet. She was a sophisticated, Asian beauty, wrapped in a tight dress and sky-high heels. Her eyes were sharp, calculating. She was exactly the kind of challenge my old self would have happily taken on. “Are you staying in Vegas long?”
“Just a few days.”
“Is this your first time here?”
“Oh. I was going to offer to show you around.”
“I’m getting married in these shoes in a couple of hours.”
“Thanks,” I said, taking my receipt and bag with the shoe box inside.
I left, feeling much better about myself than I would have had I been here on a guys’ trip and leading her back to my hotel room. I didn’t know about love back then. It was fanfuckingtastic to go home to Abby every night, and see the welcoming, loving look in her eyes. Nothing was better than coming up with new ways to make her fall in love with me all over again. I lived for that shit now, and it was way more satisfying.
Within an hour of leaving the Bellagio, I had picked up a suit and a gold band for Abby, and was right back where I started: in our hotel room. I sat on the end of the bed and grabbed the remote, clicking on the power to the TV before bending over to untie my sneakers. A familiar scene lit up the screen. It was Keaton, quartered off with yellow tape, and still smoking. The brick around the windows were charred, and the ground surrounding was saturated with water.
The reporter was interviewing a tearful girl, describing how her roommate had never returned to the dorm, and she was still waiting to hear if she was among the dead. I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I covered my face with my hands and rested my elbows on my knees. My body shook as I mourned my friends and all the people I didn’t know who’d lost their lives, as I apologized over and over for being the reason why they were there, and being too much of a fucking bastard for choosing Abby over turning myself in. When I couldn’t cry anymore, I retreated to the shower, standing under the steaming water until I got back into the frame of mind Abby needed me to be in.
She didn’t want to see me until just before the wedding, so I got my shit straight in my head, got dressed, slapped on some cologne, tied my new kicks, and headed out. Before letting the door close, I took one long, last look at the room. The next time I came through this door, I’d be Abby’s husband. That was the only thing that made the guilt bearable. My heart began to pound. The rest of my life was just hours away.
The elevator opened, and I followed the loudly patterned carpet through the casino. The suit made me feel like a million bucks, and people were staring, wondering where the fine-looking asshole sporting Converse was off to. When I was about halfway through the casino, I noticed a woman sitting on the floor with shopping bags, crying into her cell phone. I stopped dead in my tracks. It was Abby.
Instinctively, I stepped to the side, partially hiding myself at the end of a row of slot machines. With the music, the beeping, and the chatter, I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but my blood ran cold. Why was she crying? Who was she crying to? Didn’t she want to marry me? Should I confront her? Should I just wait it out and hope to God she doesn’t call it off?
Abby picked herself off the floor, struggling with her bags. Everything in me wanted to run to her and help, but I was afraid. I was fucking terrified that if I approached her in that moment, she might tell me the truth, and I was afraid to hear it. The selfish bastard in me took over, and I let her walk away.
Once she was out of sight, I sat on an empty slot machine stool and pulled the pack of cigarettes out of my inside pocket. Flicking the lighter, the end of my cigarette sizzled before it glowed red while I pulled in a long drag of smoke. What was I going to do if Abby changed her mind? Could we come back from something like that? Regardless of the answer, I was going to have to figure out a way. Even if she couldn’t go through with the wedding, I couldn’t lose her.
I sat there for a long time, smoking, slipping dollar bills into the slot machine while a waitress brought me free drinks. After four, I waved her away. Getting drunk before the wedding wouldn’t solve a damn thing. Maybe that’s why Abby was having second thoughts. Loving her wasn’t enough. I needed to grow the fuck up, get a real job, quit drinking, fighting, and control my goddamn anger. I sat alone in the casino, silently vowing that I would make all of those changes, and they would start right then.
I miss u
I smiled at the phone display, seeing the text was from Travis. I clicked a response, knowing that words couldn’t convey what I was feeling.
I miss u too
T-minus one hour. U ready yet?
Not yet. U?
Hells yes. I look ducking amazing. When u c me u will want 2 marry me 4 sure.
Fucking* goddamn auto correct. Pic?
No! It’s bad luck!
Ur lucky 13. You have good luck.
Love u baby.
Love u too. See u soon.
Of course. Aren’t you?
Only about ur cold feet.
Feet r toasty warm.
I wish I could explain to u how happy I am right now.
U don’t have to. I can relate.
I sat the phone on the bathroom counter and looked into the mirror, touching the end of the lip gloss wand to my bottom lip. After pinning one last piece of my hair back, I went over to the bed, where I’d laid the dress. It wasn’t what my ten-year-old self would have chosen, but it was beautiful, and what we were about to do was beautiful. Even why I was doing it was beautiful. I could think of much less noble reasons to get married. And, besides that, we loved each other. Was getting married this young so awful? People used to do this all the time.
I shook my head, trying to shake off the dozens of conflicting emotions swirling around my mind. Why go back and forth? This was happening, and we were in love. Crazy? Yes. Wrong? No.
I stepped into the dress and then pulled up the zipper, standing in front of the mirror. “Much better,” I said. In the store, as lovely as the dress was, without hair and makeup done, the dress didn’t look right. With my red lips and painted lashes, the look was complete.
I pinned the diamond butterfly into the base of the messy curls that made up my side bun, and slipped my feet into the new strappy pumps. Purse. Phone. Trav’s ring. The chapel would have everything else. The taxi was waiting.
Even though thousands of women were married in Las Vegas every year, it didn’t keep everyone from staring at me as I walked across the casino floor in my wedding dress. Some smiled, some just watched, but it all made me uncomfortable. When my father lost his last professional match after four in a row, and he announced publicly that it was my fault, I’d received enough attention to last two lifetimes. Because of a few words spoken in frustration, he’d created “Lucky Thirteen” and given me an unbelievable burden to bear. Even when my mother finally decided to leave Mick and we moved to Wichita three years later, starting over seemed impossible. I enjoyed two whole weeks of being an unknown before the first local reporter figured out who I was and approached me on the front lawn of my high school. All it took was one hateful girl a single hour of Friday Night Googling to figure out why anyone in the press cared enough to try to get a “Where Is She Now?” headline. The second half of my high school experience was ruined. Even with a mouthy, scrappy best friend.
When America and I left for college, I wanted to be invisible. Until the day I’d met Travis, I was enjoying my newfound anonymity immensely.
I looked down from the hundredth pair of eyes watching me intently, and I wondered if being with Travis would always make me feel conspicuous.