“I’m saying we need to slow down. That’s all I’m saying.”
I nodded, unhappy.
Abby reached for my arm. “Don’t be mad.”
“It seems like we take one step forward and two steps back, Pidge. Every time I think we’re on the same page, you put up a wall. I don’t get it . . . most girls are hounding their boyfriends to get serious, to talk about their feelings, to take the next step . . .”
“I thought we established that I’m not most girls?”
I dropped my head, frustrated. “I’m tired of guessing. Where do you see this going, Abby?”
She pressed her lips against my shirt. “When I think about my future, I see you.”
I hugged her to my side, every muscle in my body immediately relaxing with her words. We both watched the night clouds move across the starless, black sky. The laughter and humming of the voices below sparked a smile across Abby’s face. I watched the same partygoers she did, huddling together and rushing into the house from the street.
For the first time that day, the ominous feeling hovering over me began to fade away.
“Abby! There you are! I’ve been looking all over for you!” America said, bursting through the door. She held up her cell phone. “I just got off the phone with my dad. Mick called them last night.”
Abby’s nose wrinkled. “Mick? Why would he call them?”
America raised her eyebrows. “Your mother kept hanging up on him.”
“What did he want?”
America pressed her lips together. “To know where you were.”
“They didn’t tell him, did they?”
America’s face fell. “He’s your father, Abby. Dad felt he had a right to know.”
“He’s going to come here,” Abby said, her voice swelling with panic. “He’s going to come here, Mare!”
“I know! I’m sorry!” America said, trying to comfort her friend. Abby pulled away from her and covered her face with her hands.
I wasn’t sure what the hell was going on, but I touched Abby’s shoulders. “He won’t hurt you, Pigeon,” I said. “I won’t let him.”
“He’ll find a way,” America said, watching Abby with heavy eyes. “He always does.”
“I have to get out of here.” Abby pulled her coat tight, and then pulled at the handles of the French doors. She was too upset to slow down long enough to first push down the handles before pulling the doors. As tears fell down her cheeks, I covered her hands with mine. After helping her open the doors, Abby looked at me. I wasn’t sure if her cheeks were flush with embarrassment or from the cold, but all I wanted was to make it go away.
I took Abby under my arm, and together we went through the house, down the stairs and through the crowd to the front door. Abby moved quickly, desperate to get to the safety of the apartment. I had only heard about Mick Abernathy’s accolades as a poker player from my father. Watching Abby run like a frightened little girl made me hate any time my family wasted being in awe of him.
Midstep, America’s hand shot out and grabbed Abby’s coat. “Abby!” she whispered, pointing to a small group of people.
They were crowded around an older, slovenly man, unshaven and dirty to the point where he looked like he smelled. He was pointing to the house, holding a small picture. The couples were nodding, discussing the photo among themselves.
Abby stormed over to the man and pulled the photo from his hands. “What in the hell are you doing here?”
I looked down at the picture in her hand. She couldn’t have been more than fifteen, scrawny, with mousy hair and sunken eyes. She must have been miserable. No wonder she wanted to get away.
The three couples around him backed away. I glanced back at their stunned faces, and then waited for the man to answer. It was Mick fucking Abernathy. I recognized him by the unmistakable sharp eyes nestled in that dirty face.
Shepley and America stood on each side of Abby. I cupped her shoulders from behind.
Mick looked at Abby’s dress and clicked his tongue in disapproval. “Well, well, Cookie. You can take the girl out of Vegas—”
“Shut up. Shut up, Mick. Just turn around,” she pointed behind him, “and go back to wherever you came from. I don’t want you here.”
“I can’t, Cookie. I need your help.”
“What else is new?” America sneered.
Mick narrowed his eyes at America, and then returned his attention to his daughter. “You look awful pretty. You’ve grown up. I wouldn’t’ve recognized you on the street.”
Abby sighed. “What do you want?”
He held up his hands and shrugged. “I seemed to have gotten myself in a pickle, kiddo. Old Dad needs some money.”
Abby’s entire body tensed. “How much?”
“I was doing good, I really was. I just had to borrow a bit to get ahead and . . . you know.”
“I know,” she snapped. “How much do you need?”
“Well, shit, Mick, twenty-five hundred? If you’ll get the hell outta here . . . I’ll give that to you now,” I said, pulling out my wallet.
“He means twenty-five thousand,” Abby said, her voice cold.
Mick’s eyes rolled over me, from my face to my shoes. “Who’s this clown?”
My eyebrows shot up from my wallet, and instinctively, I leaned in toward my prey. The only thing stopping me was feeling Abby’s small frame between us, and knowing that this skeevy little man was her father. “I can see, now, why a smart guy like yourself has been reduced to asking your teenage daughter for an allowance.”
Before Mick could speak, Abby pulled out her cell phone. “Who do you owe this time, Mick?”
Mick scratched his greasy, graying hair. “Well, it’s a funny story, Cookie—”
“Who?” Abby shouted.
Abby leaned into me. “Benny? You owe Benny? What in the hell were you . . .” She paused. “I don’t have that kind of money, Mick.”
He smiled. “Something tells me you do.”
“Well, I don’t! You’ve really done it this time, haven’t you? I knew you wouldn’t stop until you got yourself killed!”
He shifted; the smug grin on his face had vanished. “How much ya got?”
“Eleven thousand. I was saving for a car.”
America’s eyes darted in Abby’s direction. “Where did you get eleven thousand dollars, Abby?”
I tugged on her shoulders until she looked at me. “You made eleven thousand off my fights? When were you betting?”
“Adam and I had an understanding,” she said casually.
Mick’s eyes were suddenly animated. “You can double that in a weekend, Cookie. You could get me the twenty-five by Sunday, and Benny won’t send his thugs for me.”
“It’ll clean me out, Mick. I have to pay for school,” Abby said, a tinge of sadness in her voice.
“Oh, you can make it back in no time,” he said, waving his hand dismissively.
“When is your deadline?” Abby asked.
“Monday mornin’. Midnight,” he said, unapologetically.
“You don’t have to give him a fucking dime, Pigeon,” I said.
Mick grabbed Abby’s wrist. “It’s the least you could do! I wouldn’t be in this mess if it weren’t for you!”
America slapped his hand away and then shoved him. “Don’t you dare start that shit again, Mick! She didn’t make you borrow money from Benny!”
Mick glared at Abby. The light of hatred in his eyes made any connection with her as his daughter disappear. “If it weren’t for her, I woulda had my own money. You took everything from me, Abby. I have nothin’!”
Abby choked back a cry. “I’ll get your money to Benny by Sunday. But when I do, I want you to leave me the hell alone. I won’t do this again, Mick. From now on, you’re on your own, do you hear me? Stay. Away.”
He pressed his lips together and then nodded. “Have it your way, Cookie.”
Abby turned around and headed for the car.
America sighed. “Pack your bags, boys. We’re going to Vegas.” She walked toward the Charger, and Shepley and I stood, frozen.
“Wait. What?” He looked to me. “Like Las Vegas, Vegas? As in Nevada?”
“Looks that way,” I said, shoving my hands in my pockets.
“We’re just going to book a flight to Vegas,” Shepley said, still trying to process the situation.
Shepley walked over to open America’s door to let her and Abby in on the passenger side, and then slammed it shut, blank faced. “I’ve never been to Vegas.”
An impish grin pulled one side of my mouth to the side. “Looks like it’s time to pop that cherry.”
You Win Some, You Lose Some
ABBY BARELY SPOKE WHILE WE PACKED, AND EVEN LESS on the way to the airport. She stared off into space most of the time unless one of us asked her a question. I wasn’t sure if she was drowning in despair, or just focused on the looming challenge ahead.
Checking in to the hotel, America did all the talking, flashing her fake ID, as if she had done it a thousand times before.
It occurred to me, then, that she probably had done it before. Vegas was where they had procured such flawless IDs, and why America never seemed to worry about what Abby could handle. They’d seen it all before, in the bowels of the city of sin.
Shepley was an unmistakable tourist, his head leaned back, gawking at the ostentatious ceiling. We pulled our luggage into the elevator, and I pulled Abby to my side.
“You okay?” I asked, touching my lips to her temple.
“I don’t want to be here,” she choked out.
The doors opened, revealing the intricate pattern of the rug that lined the hallway. America and Shepley went one way, Abby and I the other. Our room was at the end of the hall.
Abby shoved the card key into the slot, and then pushed open the door. The room was large, dwarfing the king-size bed in the middle of the room.
I left the suitcase against the wall, pressing all the switches until the thicker curtain separated to reveal the busy, blinking lights and traffic of the Las Vegas Strip. Another button pulled away a second set of sheer curtains.
Abby didn’t pay attention to the window. She didn’t even bother to look up. The glitter and gold had lost its luster for her years before.
I set our carry-on bags on the floor and looked around the room. “This is nice, right?” Abby glared at me. “What?”
She opened her suitcase in one motion, and shook her head. “This isn’t a vacation, Travis. You shouldn’t be here.”
In two steps, I was behind her, crossing my arms around her middle. She was different here, but I wasn’t. I could still be someone she could count on, someone who could protect her from the ghosts of her past.
“I go where you go,” I said against her ear.
She leaned her head back against my chest and sighed. “I have to get on the floor. You can stay here or check out the Strip. I’ll see you later, okay?”
“I’m going with you.”
She turned to face me. “I don’t want you there, Trav.”
I didn’t expect that from her, especially not the cold tone of her voice.
Abby touched my arm. “If I’m going to win fourteen thousand dollars in one weekend, I have to concentrate. I don’t like who I’m going to be while I’m at those tables, and I don’t want you to see it, okay?”
I brushed her hair from her eyes, and then kissed her cheek. “Okay, Pidge.” I couldn’t pretend to understand what she meant, but I would respect it.
America knocked on the door and then traipsed in wearing the same nude number she wore to the date party. Her heels were sky high, and she had put on two extra layers of makeup. She looked ten years older.
I waved to America, and then grabbed the extra card key off the table. America was already building Abby up for her night, reminding me of a trainer offering a pep talk to his fighter before a big boxing match.
Shepley was standing in the hall, staring at three trays of half-eaten food on the floor left there by guests across the hall.
“What do you want to do first?” I asked.
“I’m definitely not marrying you.”
“You’re fucking hilarious. Let’s go downstairs.”
The elevator door opened, and the hotel came alive. It was like the hallways were the veins, and the people were its lifeblood. Groups of women dressed like porn stars, families, foreigners, the occasional bachelor party, and hotel employees followed each other in organized chaos.
It took a while to get past the stores that lined the exits and reach the boulevard, but we broke out onto the street and walked until we saw a crowd gathered in front of one of the casinos. The fountains were on, performing to some patriotic song. Shepley was mesmerized, seemingly unable to move while he watched the water dance and spray.
We must have caught the last the two minutes, because the lights soon dimmed, the water fizzled, and the crowd immediately dispersed.
“What was that about?” I asked.
Shepley still stared at the now calm pond. “I don’t know, but it was cool.”
The streets were lined with Elvis, Michael Jackson, showgirls, and cartoon characters, all readily available to take a picture for a price. At one point, I kept hearing a flapping noise, and then I pinpointed where it was coming from. Men were standing on the sidewalk, snapping a stack of cards in their hands. They handed one to Shepley. It was a picture of a ridiculously big-breasted woman in a seductive pose. They were selling hookers and strip clubs. Shepley tossed the card to the ground. The sidewalk was covered in them.
A girl walked past, eyeing me with a drunken smile. She carried her heels in her hand. As she ambled by, I noticed her blackened feet. The ground was filthy, the foundation for the glitz and glamour above.