Teasers & Deleted Scenes
Las Vegas, NV, October 2008
Chaz leaned his elbows on the black laminate of the bar top, his napkin spread across a glassed-in video poker monitor to hide the jouncing animations. A glass of vodka and tonic, untouched except for the first taste, rested between his hands--rent on the barstool. But he was looking at the keno screen overhead, amusing himself by factoring each number as it came up.
He felt the young woman walk up behind him, the weight of her assessment and expectation--his own mirror reflecting her insides before he caught a glimpse of her outsides in the other mirror behind the bar. Early twenties, blue eyes, sleek dark hair made that way by product, too-pale skin. She wore a tank top, a short skirt, and goosepimples, and she walked like she was wearing heels. The bar was mostly empty, but she slid onto the stool beside Chaz and leaned forward, her elbow brushing his.
The brunette behind the bar, whose nametag read Chrissy, studiously ignored her. In Chaz's ear, Trent Reznor complained that his whole existence was flawed.
"You just get into town?" She raised her hand to flag that bartender down. She ordered a gin and tonic and paid with a crumpled ten. Chaz decided to leave the earbuds in and the iPod on. It was rude, but it would be ruder to waste a working girl's time just to be polite.
"Just leaving," Chaz said. "My flight's in three hours." Selfconsciously, he tugged his sleeve down over the bandage on his right wrist. He didn't want her asking about it. He hadn't wanted Marti asking about it either, which is why he'd waited until she'd gone on shift to do a little internet research and visit The Skin Factory. He'd been surprised at how cheap the ink had been.
He kind of thought people should be able to charge more for their art.
"Here on business?"
He shook his head, and was just about to say "Visiting my girlfriend," even though that would be a little white lie--what was Marti, anyway? Hookup? Friend with benefits? Somebody who might be a girlfriend if they weren't living approximately 2420 miles apart and he--Chaz--was in any shape to be somebody's boyfriend?--because it also wasn't the sort of thing men said to prostitutes when they were looking to get laid. But somebody saved him: a plump woman in casual jeans and sweater appeared on his new friend's left side and said--in a voice that sent a shock along his spine--"Honey, is this man bothering you?"
The girl rolled her eyes and pulled away, leaving her drink on the bar. "How many times have I told you to leave me alone when I'm working?"
Chaz's rescuer held out a new ten-dollar bill. Lip quivering in outrage, the girl snatched it--she obviously needed money too much to stand on principles. As she stalked away, the woman sighed. "Sorry to ruin your plans."
Shaking with recognition and disbelief, Chaz pulled his headphones out and let them hang from his shirt collar. What is it about this bar?
"Actually," he said, "I was trying to figure out how to get rid of her. You did me a favor. You gonna drink that, Shaundra? You paid for it."
She stepped back, eyes wide, and looked from the glass to him as he turned, grinning wildly, and opened his arms. It was a big gesture, for him, and she'd know it. He trusted her to remember.
He'd thought she was probably dead by now, when he'd thought of her at all. He'd certainly never thought he'd feel her dive into his arms like a rubber ball shot from an elastic band, round and firm as she thumped against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her, letting his chin rest on the crown of her head. She smelled like cheap shampoo. When she gave him a squeeze that would have made him flinch if he'd let it and stepped back, her hair--as dry, porous, and multiracial as his own--reflected the dim light through a peacock luster. It had been stripped out and dyed in layers of green and purple that floated around her like a cloud.
"Fuck me for a--" She shook her head. "Chaz Villette. I never would have recognized you until you opened your mouth. What the hell are you doing in Vegas? Or do you still live here?"
"I live in DC now. I was visiting an old friend," he said. "Two old friends, I guess." He was about to nudge the drink towards her and say, "You still drink gin?" when something stopped him.
When he'd known her, she would drink anything she could get--drink it, smoke it, shoot it into her arm. She'd turned tricks for the money. Not down here on the Strip, but up by Boulevard and Boulevard, in the heart of the North Las Vegas slums where they'd been fostered together. She'd given him a cheap, fancy watch for his fifteenth birthday. He'd known she must have stolen it from a john, and he hadn't cared.
It was the thought that counted.
But now she didn't look strung out and she didn't stink of booze. Freaks didn't get chubby, and she wasn't missing any more teeth than she had been at seventeen.
She settled onto the stool beside him and shoved the booze away with the back of her hand. "I got clean. Hey, can I buy you lunch? Late lunch? Early dinner? You still eat, right? I'd like to catch up."
It wasn't a pass, coming from Shaundra. "Sure," he said, reaching between his legs to lift his backpack and duffel from the floor. "I still eat. I don't have to be at McCarran for two hours. Let's go grab a burger."
"I found out I was pos when I was nineteen," she said, pushing mayo around the plate with a fry. "I don't know if it was a dick or a needle, but--it got me."
Chaz started to commiserate, searching for something to say, but she must have read the expression on his face, because she held up her hand. "No, no, Chaz. It was--I mean, this is weird to say? But it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It made me get right with Jesus, and get straight, and get my GED... I'm working on my associate's now. My T-cell counts are great. And I'm seeing somebody."
"Somebody?" He snagged a cold fry off her plate. She swatted at him halfheartedly. Her peacock hair shimmered in the light, and when she grinned, she didn't try to cover her mouth with her hand to hide the missing teeth.
"Her name's Rita," she said. "I wish you were staying longer. She's in class. I'd love to introduce her to my long lost kid brother."
He swallowed and stole another fry. "I'll be back. I have reasons to come here now. And I have a big sister sort-of that you have to meet. Give me your phone number?"
She rattled it off, grinning, and he nodded. She knew he only had to hear it once.
He said, "So how do you know that girl you ran off?"
"Honey?" Shaundra shrugged. "She was a street kid. I used to give her crash space, sometimes. Buy her lunch. You know her money never goes to food."
"You still take in strays?"
Of course, Shaundra changed the subject. "How about you. Are you seeing anybody?"
"Not seriously," he answered, which he supposed was fair. The smell of congealed grease suddenly turned his stomach; he pushed the fries to the far corner of the table.
"Damn." She searched his face. "I would have bet you would get married."
"Are you kidding? I get married three times every morning on the Metro. But it never lasts past their stop."
She laughed, shaking out all that healthy hair. He hoped it stayed that way, thick and curly, for a hundred years.
"It's funny," he said. "To hear you say that. About finding out you were pos. I had--" He shook his head. "I had a blood exposure. I'm still waiting to find out. And here you reappear from the past--"
"I'd say something about the Lord working in mysterious ways, but I don't want to watch you try to slide out of the booth without me noticing." She reached out and pushed his nose like an elevator button. "It'll work out. Whatever happens. It'll work out somehow. Have faith."
"Faith is what I'm scared of," he said, and when she raised her eyebrows, shook his head. "Nevermind. So what are you studying?"
"Social work," she said. She looked down at her plate, then made herself raise her eyes again. "What the hell, right? It's not like we don't know how the game is played."