Episode Seven: The New Normal
The Red was a time machine. Stepping through the front door, my heels clicking against the sticky floor and holding tight onto Travis's hand as he weaved through the crowded club made me feel like we'd gone back in time, before the investigation, before the wedding, before the fire. Co-eds were barely covered in metallic rompers and micro minis, twirling their hair as they talked to whatever silly boy was going to buy them a drink.
The Red was a meat market, everyone voluntarily on display to catch the eye of someone, anyone, or for couples to announce or reestablish their claim to one another. There was the occasional patron who just loved to dance, or drink, or play pool, but humans needed other humans, and The Red was just crowded and dark and loud enough to see and be seen without judgement.
The speakers vibrated with music, beating like blood through a heart. With my free hand, I pressed my fingertips against my chest to try to lessen the sound pounding through my ribcage. Mouths were moving, but the only sound was the music, everyone speaking the same language; singing the same song.
As we approached the bar, Travis waved to Camille, and she shooed a couple of guys from the stools directly in front of her. She grinned as we sat down, wiping down the wooden bar in front of us. "I was wondering if you two would be back here."
"Why wouldn't we be?" I asked, watching her pop the top off two domestic beers and then place them in front of Travis and me.
Camille crossed her arms. "I dunno. You're married now. I figured that would magically change you somehow, I guess."
"We still like to drink and see our friends," Travis said, clicking the neck of his beer bottle to mine. He kissed the corner of my mouth before taking a quick swig and surveying the room. "Where's Trent?"
Camille glanced at her watch, and then answered as she walked away. "Should be on his way now."
I watched Camille work the line, taking two or three orders at a time, making them, taking the money, and then starting over. The bar was crowded--three rows deep. If we didn't know Camille, we could have waited all night for a seat. The tables were full, too, as were the pool tables, and the dance floor.
Two cold hands cupped my shoulders, and I turned into a hug from America. Gigantic earrings were dangling from her ears, her hair up in a messy bun. Her top exposed one shoulder. She had the effortlessly glamorous look down pat.
Camille returned. "You guys want a table? I can have Raegan clear one for you." She winked. "She loves being a bitch."
"Nah, we're good," Shepley said, shaking hands with his cousin.
America wasted no time dragging me into the dance floor. I locked eyes with my husband a few times, watching him watching me, and ignoring the four women who tried to flirt with him.
When I returned to my stool, Travis ran his finger down my arm, enjoying the slickness of the sweat on my skin. He leaned over to kiss my shoulder, flicking his tongue with each peck.
I stood up and leaned into him. "We're not going to stay long if you keep that up."
Travis looked up at me with a wry smile. "Promise?"
I kissed the top of his head, and he slid his hand around me, cupping my ass. He was people watching again, amused at the games people were playing, the assessment, the flirting, the push and pull and manipulation ... everything we'd been doing all year right up until our wedding.
Travis patted my backside and stood. "Heading to the john. Need anything?"
I arched an eyebrow. "From the men's room? No."
Travis chuckled and set his empty beer bottle on the bar. "Would you mind ordering me another one?"
"Not at all," I said, pressing my lips against his when he leaned down for a quick peck.
Shepley handed America his beer.
She shook her head. "I don't know everyone says girls go to the bathroom in groups. Guys are just as guilty."
Shepley shrugged. "I'm just making sure he doesn't get into a fight while he's in there."
"He doesn't need babysat," America said.
Shepley made a face, as if America should know better. "He kinda does."
The boys disappeared into the crowd, and America turned to me. "So," she said, raking her fingers through her hair. "Does this place feel different now?"
"Why does everyone keep asking me that?" I said. "I got married, not a lobotomy."
America laughed out loud, and took a sip of her cocktail, blinking when she noticed two college kids approaching. "Oh, shit."
"What?" I asked.
"They're not gone five fucking seconds and we already have to fend someone off," she complained.
"They're not coming over here," I said. "Besides, Travis isn't going to start shit with someone just for talking to me. He's over that."
America stared at me, unimpressed and unconvinced. "You're right. Before you were his girlfriend. Now you're just his wife."
"Hey," the first guy said. His head was shaved bald, he was about my height, with a thick neck and malformed ears. Definitely a wrestler. "You look--"
"Not lonely," America said, interrupting. "I have a boyfriend and she's married." She pointed to me.
The wrestler smirked, looking up at his much taller friend and then back at us. Great. He was one of those guys who thought taken women were a challenge. "Hi married, I'm Ricky."
America snarled at him. "Hilarious. Are you also from nineteen eighty-four? Who names their kid Ricky anymore?"
"Mare!" I hissed. She was being unnecessarily rude.
Ricky wasn't fazed. "This is Joel. Nice to meet you both."
"We haven't given you our names, so technically we haven't met," I said.
"I'm sorry," Joel said. "Have we offended you somehow?"
I looked down, ashamed. "Sorry. No, you haven't. We're just trying to help you out. Our boyfrien... my husband and her boyfriend are here, and they'll be back in a minute."
"So?" Ricky said.
I sighed. "My husband doesn't appreciate strange men talking to me."
"Oh, he's jealous?" Joel said. "That must get old."
"Not really," I said. "Thanks for saying hi, but you should get going."
"I'm good," Ricky said with a smirk.
I rolled my eyes. America was right. The moment Travis got back, there would be a confrontation and our fun night out would be over. Neither of these guys seemed smart enough to walk away when Travis told them to move along.
Ricky put one hand in his pocket, glancing around while he sipped his beer. I quickly recognized that he wasn't really trying to flirt with us, or even trying to talk to us. He seemed to be waiting for Travis and Shepley to return. I watched him intently, growing more suspicious with every passing second.
"Are you a cop?" I asked.
Both men turned to face me, surprised. "What?" Ricky asked.
"If you're a cop, you have to tell me," I said.
America craned her neck at me, confusion on her face.
Joel chuckled. "No. Not a cop."
"What about you?" I asked, lowering my chin and glaring at Ricky.
Ricky gave me a once over, from my eyes to my knees, and then back up. He wasn't interested in me at all. He was assessing me, trying to figure out how a nineteen year old girl could figure him out. He was there for Travis.
He didn't answer, so I took a step toward him. "Get the fuck outta here. If you want to talk to him, you're going to have to arrest him."
Ricky leaned in. "Which could be arranged. He's not even twenty yet, drinking in a bar. I bet you all have fake IDs."
I narrowed my eyes and leaned closer. "Then what are you waiting for?"
"What's going on?" America asked, alarmed. "What do you want?"
Joel stood tall and looked around, finally looking the part. He wasn't a college kid at all. He was likely a rookie, young-looking enough to be assigned to try to fool us.
A strong arm hooked around my neck, and Travis kissed my temple. "Hey, baby." As predicted, he glared at the two men standing in front of us. "Who's this?"
"Who?" America asked, playing dumb.
Travis wasn't amused. He pointed to Joel and Ricky--if that were even their names. "These clowns."
Ricky laughed once. "Clowns? We're not talking to your bitches. Calm down."
"Oh, you're fucking brilliant," Shepley said, already pulling off his jacket.
Before I could yell stop, Travis had already let me go and lunged for Ricky, taking him to the ground. As usual, the rest of the bar joined in; drunken idiots who were walking around looking for a fight had just found one.
America held me back from the growing mountain of swinging fists. As I tried to find my husband, I couldn't help but wonder what would be the purpose into goading him into a fight. Ricky had already admitted that they could have arrested him for being underage.
As the brawl spread, America and I were pinned against the bar. Camille reached for us, trying to help us over the bar before we were crushed.
"Shep!" America yelled as I pushed her over while Camille pulled. "Shepley!"
Once America was over and standing safely next to Camille, I hopped over, too. Travis was nowhere, and the longer he was out of my line of sight, the more I worried. I wasn't sure what the men wanted. They could be cops, or FBI, or worse...sent from Vegas. Benny was still unhappy about Travis turning him down.
"Travis!" I yelled.
The bouncers pushed through the crowd, pulling apart humans who were acting like animals, Travis included.
Travis stood up, wiping blood from his lip with the back of his hand, smiling down at the men still on the floor. His face was smug, his eyes bright. He missed fighting. Shepley tugged on his shirt, and Travis walked backward, and then turned at the bar, reaching for me. He helped me over, and then set me down on my feet.
"You okay?" Travis asked.
I frowned at him, but he wasn't sorry. Fighting would always be in his blood, and that made me nervous. The crowd jostled, and Travis turned away from me, standing in a protective stance as if the men writhing in pain on the floor were still a threat. The bouncers led them out, signaling to Travis and Shepley that they had to leave, too.
Camille came over, leaning in to speak to Travis. "You keep this shit up, Trav, and Jorie will ban you from this place for good."
"She says that every time," Travis said with a grin, wiping his mouth again.
"Are you ... are you bleeding?" I said, turning him to face me. Travis didn't get hit unless he allowed it. That was sort of his thing. I wasn't used to seeing him bloody, and that made my paranoia even worse.
"Yeah," Shepley said. "I might have elbowed him on accident."
I raised an eyebrow. "Didn't see that coming, huh?"
Travis made a face. "I did, but I was in a great position and mid-punch at that little maggot who called you and Mare bitches ... so I didn't bother to dodge."
"Come on, guys. Don't make the bouncers escort you out," Camille said, patting Travis on the shoulder.
I sighed. I couldn't blame Travis, but I was also disappointed. We walked out with Shepley and America to our vehicles parked side-by-side in the parking lot.
"Did you figure it out?" America asked.
I shook my head. "No, but I will."
"What are you talking about?" Shepley asked, straightening his shirt.
"Those guys were weird," America said. "They came over to talk to us, but after we told them you were coming back, they hung around. Almost like they were waiting for you."
Travis and Shepley traded glances.
"Have you seen them before?" I asked.
Travis made a face. "No. And I better not see them again."
"What he said," America said. "He knew it would set Travis off. The whole thing is just weird. Something is up."
"You two need to stop watching those crime shows on Netflix. You're getting paranoid as fuck," Travis said, looking at me.
I frowned. "Mare's right. Something is up. We need to find out what it is."
Travis looked to Shepley, who shrugged. "One of them had a Parkland College keyring. They're just a couple of cocky lint lickers from Champagne who had never met a Maddox."
I arched my eyebrow at Shepley. I thought I was the observant one.
Travis took off his jacket and draped it over my shoulders. I hadn't noticed until that moment that I was shivering. "You know what we need to do?" he asked, kissing my cheek. "We need to move on. I'm not going to spend my life looking over my shoulder, Abby. I don't want you to, either. I'm going to call on that job next week, and you're going to start tutoring. They'll finish the investigation and it will all be over."
I nodded, waving to America when Travis opened the passenger door. I slid in, annoyed that I was still shivering. I wasn't that cold--I was nervous. Joel and Ricky had come to pick a fight with Travis. I needed to know why.
Travis stood outside my door and lit a cigarette, holding his other hand flat against my window. I pressed my palm against his, and he winked at me, blowing out a puff of smoke. He took a few puffs and then pinched off the cherry, mashing the lit ash into the gravel with his boot. He stuffed the butt into his pocket, and just as he walked around the back of the car, Joel and Ricky came into view. They were standing in the far shadows of the parking lot, staring at the Camry. Ricky and I locked eyes, and he mentioned it to Joel, but didn't look away. I lowered my chin and lifted my hand, prominently displaying my middle finger.
Travis opened the door and I put my fuck you away, smiling at him as he turned the ignition and then placed his hand on my knee while he drove to the road. The men stepped back into the darkness, out of Travis's eyesight, but I knew they were there.
"Everything okay, baby?" Travis said. "I'm sorry. I know you were looking forward to tonight."
"I'm not upset," I said, letting the suspicion and concern fall from my face as I turned to face my husband. "I'm fine. Really."
"You still think those guys are rogue FBI or something?" he teased.
Travis's birthday was in a few days, and I knew he was already teetering on turning himself in. There were plenty of reasons to lie. I looked out the window to the side mirror, noting that a pair of headlights were hanging back almost a mile behind us. "No. I don't think they're anyone. False alarm."
Travis patted my knee and drove toward the apartment, smiling like everything hadn't changed--and I smiled with him.