James Tate Hill Emoticon

When word spread that he was the artist responsible for the emoticon, the obscene image half the Internet now clicked when they didn’t “like” something, Kelly Vanderbean moved an hour east to Chapel Hill. A college town, with its annual turnover of residents, seemed like an easier place to disappear. Most afternoons he tried to lose himself in a wine bar where the staff knew his name, or the name he gave them. Wary of the line between oenophile and alcoholic, he joined an online community of wine enthusiasts. An introductory e-mail explained the group’s system for rating wines. Beside the word “unquaffable” was that ubiquitous drawing that had made Kelly a millionaire several times over. He never returned to the website.

“My name is Kevin, and I’m an alcoholic,” Kelly found himself saying around the hour he used to arrive at the bar. He didn’t think he was an alcoholic—he hadn’t had a drink in weeks—but he liked being around people with problems.

“I’ll tell you this, Kevin,” said Kelly’s sponsor, an argumentative little person named Zachary. “The program only works if you work it.”

Kelly nodded.

Zachary scowled, reached inside his breast pocket for the embossed card with a picture of the emoticon, which he liked to brandish when expressing his disgust. “Enough with the nodding. Words, friend. What the hell do I even know about you besides that you like wine?”

At the next meeting, when there was a pause between speakers, Zachary’s narrowed eyes turned to Kelly. Kelly took a deep breath, humid with chlorine from the pool on the community center’s first floor. When the college softball coach got up to speak, Kelly stepped into the hall.

He studied his reflection in the smudged glass of the vending machine. Minutes later, a lanky man in a brown suit was standing beside him. He bore a striking resemblance to Bill Murray with red hair in a crew cut. He fed a dollar to the machine and punched the number for pork rinds.

“High in protein, lower in fat than potato chips. I could give you eight more reasons why these are your best option. I’m Julian, by the way.”

“Kevin,” said Kelly.

The man had a glum expression that didn’t entirely disappear when he smiled. “What’s your real name?”

“How do you know it isn’t Kevin?”

“Some twelve-steppers take my seminar from time to time, to see what genuine self-improvement looks like. They always give fake names.”

It might have been that he saw through the lie no one in AA ever had. It might have been Zachary reaching into his breast pocket as soon as his sponsee appeared in the doorway. It might have been the girl with bangs the color of Mountain Dew seated in the front row of Julian’s seminar, beckoning Kelly to come on in. Whatever the reason, instead of returning to his AA meeting, Kelly sat beside the girl, doubling the audience for what sounded like self-help bullshit.

“I’m Lael.” She smiled as effortlessly as anyone he had ever seen; her mouth had trouble containing all her teeth.

“I’m Kelly.”

“Don’t you two look cute,” said Julian, deadpan.

Lael reached under the table for Kelly’s hand.

Her arms were too long for her short torso. Her hair, save the curtain of bangs to her eyebrows, was scarcely longer than their teacher’s crew cut. An orthodontist would have loved a crack at her smile. Despite all of this, or maybe because of it, Kelly could not have been more attracted to her. Lael’s kind eyes would have forgiven Hitler. What they saw in him he wasn’t sure. He hoped it was more than a shared interest in the seminars for which Julian charged five hundred dollars a week after the initial freebie. In three weeks, he and Lael remained the only attendees, not counting the vagrant who enjoyed the introductory lecture slightly less than the introductory pork rinds.

“What is it we have in common exactly?” Kelly found the courage to ask her at the end of their third date. All three had taken place at Applebee’s, her favorite restaurant and the one Kelly had cited in the letter of resignation stapled to the first draft of the emoticon. Mr. Walkish, Kelly’s boss at the publishing company, insisted on this bland franchise every time someone in the art department had a birthday, not once picking up the check for the guest of honor.

Lael looked at him like a puppy who doesn’t know why it’s been scolded. “If you’re going to break up with me,” she said, her voice squeaking against the strain of tears, “just do it, okay?”

All he had wanted was the name of a band, a TV show, a flavor of ice cream, some tiny hook on which they might hang a future. He tried his best to explain.

“I’m sure there are things we don’t have in common,” she said. You’re fifteen years older than me. None of that matters. People search their whole lives to feel like we do. In some countries,” she said, her nervous voice barely a whisper, “arranged marriages work because one person accepts the other no matter what, and the love grows as the couple learns about each other.”

Kelly hopped down from the barstool and dropped to one knee. “Do you want to get married?”

Lael’s smile took up half her face.

At the stop light before her apartment, she said, “You should come inside tonight.”

The possibility of sex filled Kelly with a familiar feeling, or a lack there of. The last time he had tried, with a procession of high-priced escorts a couple of years ago, he experienced the same failure he had with everyone else since college. “Maybe it would be more special if we waited.”

Lael giggled like the nineteen-year-old she was. “Not for that. To tell my dad.”

Panic traveled from Kelly’s groin to the pit of his gut. She led him down cracked steps to a basement apartment that couldn’t have been five hundred square feet. She hadn’t mentioned living with her father, but Kelly hadn’t mentioned his last name or that he had a page on Wikipedia that described him as a reclusive misanthrope (needs citation).

“Don’t be nervous. Daddy knew you were going to ask me.”

Several questions came to mind, none of them necessary when it was Julian who opened the front door. Lael told him the good news, and he pulled the two of them into a single hug.

The wedding would be a small, quiet affair. Julian was Lael’s only family. Most of Kelly’s relatives had disowned him upon learning how he had gotten so wealthy. “We wish,” Kelly’s late father had said, “you had embezzled it. Then you could pay your debt like an honest man.”

A month into their engagement, they continued to see each other only once a week, at Julian’s tutorials and dinner afterward. Their Applebee’s server had just delivered their food when Kelly suggested they spend more time together.

Lael’s face reddened. She bowed her head at a ninety-degree angle. “Why, so you can find something wrong with me?”

“Of course not. How is more time together a bad thing?”

Lael flagged down their waiter and asked him to box up her chicken tenders.

Kelly followed her in his car at five miles per hour, waiting a few minutes after she got home before knocking. No one answered.

An hour later, there was a knock on Kelly’s door. Julian had on a white robe with a black belt. He held no weapons, only keys to the late model Prius with which he had replaced his 1986 Chevelle, thanks to Kelly’s seminar fees. Kelly offered him a seat on the leather sectional of which he was suddenly embarrassed, thinking of the creaky futon in his guest’s studio apartment. If Lael would come home with him just once, she might want to stay. On the other hand, she might ask how he could afford a house adjacent to a country club.

“I love her more than anything, Julian. What is she so afraid of?”

Julian wrapped a hand around his stubbled chin. “It might be more worthwhile to examine your own fear.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m sorry, Kelly, but I see nothing wrong with a young lady wanting to take things slowly on the physical front.”

The physical had nothing to do with it, but Kelly nodded. He was afraid. He had hoped more time together would make it easier to tell her, easier for her to accept, but putting it off would only add to her disappointment. He said this as vaguely as possible in a letter, asking for the wedding’s indefinite postponement, and taped it to her door before the sun came up.

In the morning, he felt no better. At the coffee shop, the college-aged barista employed a fake British accent to tell Kelly he had made “an excellent, excellent choice.” He had ordered a regular coffee, which he considered tossing in the barista’s grinning, unblemished face. Pulling out of the strip mall, he watched a middle-aged woman in a jumper walk a Great Dane into the grassy median between Applebee’s and Best Buy. She smiled at Kelly as her dog dropped a turd the size of a baby’s leg. Kelly sped toward her, braking inches from the concrete, the woman stumbling backward, the dog barking. Spotting a plastic bag in her hand, Kelly rolled up his window and drove away.

“When your anger becomes unmanageable,” a therapist once told him, “make a list of reasons why you’re angry. Then make a list of reasons why you shouldn’t be.”

The first and only such list Kelly ever made involved the creative restrictions at the publishing company. “These are textbooks for young children, Mr. Vanderbean,” Walkish told him whenever Kelly asked why he wasn’t permitted to depict men with facial hair, pirates, pigs, elephants with their trunks raised, cows with udders, tongues of dogs, tongues of children, bracelets, bandanas, backwards ball caps, birthday cakes with candles and, months later, birthday cakes without candles. Never mind that his colleague drew an octopus with seven arms. Kelly was deemed “culturally insensitive” for placing a picture of an airplane in the same workbook as a crossword puzzle that mentioned New York City.

No mixed-race couples. No Latinos on the covers of math books. No parents in the company or close proximity of other parents without corresponding, gender-appropriate spouses in the same picture. Eventually, “the culture of no,” as Kelly referred to it in his letter of resignation, caused his hairline to recede, his skin to exude an unnatural amount of oil. By year two, his stomach rejected fresh fruit. A doctor prescribed sleeping pills to shorten the restless hours spent thinking about slashing his boss’s tires, replacing his hand sanitizer with depilatory cream, waiting for a cold night on which to pour water on the concrete steps to his four hundred thousand dollar home—how the fuck could he afford that when Kelly earned twenty-seven thousand a year without benefits?

Kelly exhaled slowly, another tip from his lone therapy session. “Picture the anger leaving you with every breath.” There was always more he couldn’t reach. His anger lived outside his body, a virus for which there was no vaccine. When he saw it had spread to the window of a computer store, a giant flag bearing the emoticon, Kelly double-parked by the entrance and slammed his car door.

“Help you?” asked the chubby kid with a four-inch ponytail. His T-shirt featured the emoticon rendered by well-known comic book artists.

Kelly shook his head at the stack of keyboards on which his drawing replaced the ^ above the 6 key. No less frightening were the iPhone cases, skull caps, shot glasses and mugs, wall clocks, T-shirts and boxer shorts, none of which he had ever seen in person. Years earlier Kelly had delegated all licensing to a firm in New York with whom he corresponded only by e-mail. He gestured to the flag in the window. “I think you should take that down.”

“One of those, are you?” The kid went back to the laptop he was disassembling. “Buy something or leave.”

Kelly held up an emoticon throw rug in what might have been a threatening manner. “I’ll take everything you have with this picture on it.”

The kid rolled his eyes. “Nathan,” he shouted to a cubicle in the corner. “This guy wants to buy something. I’m going to get a burrito.”

An African American kid in a striped tie stepped around precarious stacks of hard drives. His unassuming handshake and the sight of a hearing aid made Kelly realize, much sooner than usual, the foolishness of what he was about to do. To apologize for his near outburst, Kelly carried to the register a pair of the store’s most expensive laptops. Julian disapproved of computers, but who was to say Lael still wanted to marry him after reading his letter. Either way, he planned to drop these in the donated supplies box at the nearby middle school.

“Nathan, is it?”

The kid looked startled by his own name.

“What do you like to do in your spare time, Nathan?”

A long pause made Kelly wonder if the question was out of line. “I like movies,” he said.

Kelly tried to think of another question, not ready to go home to his empty house. “What’s your favorite movie?”

“I don’t know. I like a lot of them.”

Kelly nodded. “Well, maybe they’ll make a movie about me someday,” Kelly said and forced a laugh. He handed Nathan his credit card, the first time in years he had used it in person.

Nathan held onto the card for a long time before swiping it. He became rather talkative.

A freshman film major, Nathan was still learning how to use his camera. Kelly didn’t care about production values. All he wanted was his story told in his own words, not those of a journalist, whose solicitations for interviews Kelly consistently refused. Since uttering the words in the computer store, it seemed like the only way Kelly would ever be brave enough to tell Lael who he was, what he had done.

“How about a glass of water?” Kelly said, trying to steer Nathan away from his bookcase. The camera seemed to linger on the shelf of R. Crumb and Stephen King.

In the kitchen, Nathan filmed Kelly slicing a lemon in what he hoped was not a violent manner. Before he could get down glasses, Nathan was in the den, heading straight for the drawing table. Kelly offered him a view of his latest sketch, Hopper’s “Night Hawks” featuring characters from the Marvel universe. All his recent drawings were similar take-offs on famous works, fearful as he had become of his own imagination.

“Is this where you drew…” Nathan was too modest or polite to describe the emoticon.

Kelly sat on the stool behind the drawing table and explained how birthday candles and elephants, udders and tongues, ethnicities that did and did not belong on the covers of certain educational textbooks had spawned his infamous drawing.

“A lot of people hate their job,” Nathan said. “They don’t draw a…”

This time Nathan described it, the words like little hammers against the walls of Kelly’s heart. The sound seemed to echo in the vaulted ceiling.

“I think somebody’s at your door.”

Nathan followed him into the living room. Kelly received so few visitors that he once mistook knocking for a woodpecker. He opened the door to find Lael wearing a lot of make-up and a black dress revealing parts he had never seen. Surprised as he was to see her, to say nothing of her attire, Kelly asked where she was going.

“Here.” Her voice was more timid than her dress.

Nathan, perceiving the awkwardness, said good-bye without introducing himself.

“He was from the computer store,” Kelly said.

Lael closed her eyes and pressed her mouth against Kelly’s, her tongue circling his before a quick exit. “I wanted to see more of you. I just got scared.”

Kelly gave her the same tour he had just given Nathan, bringing to two the total number of tours he had given since moving in. Lael opened the French door and took in the backyard. He listed the square footage, showed her the marble countertops and three-car garage, features emphasized by the realtor who had talked him into making an offer five years ago.

In the den, a few feet from the drawing table, Lael kicked off her high heels and lay on the floor with a sigh usually reserved for Applebee’s potato skins. She made snow angels on the floor, the black dress inching up her thighs. “God, I miss carpet.”

Kelly joined her, both of them laughing as their arms and legs collided. Lael grabbed his arm, raising it as if in victory. She laughed more softly as she guided it onto her breast.

Kelly stared at the ceiling. Lael moved his hand onto her other breast, lowering the straps of her dress. Kelly listened to her breathe, his hand frozen. She turned onto her side, slid her hand under his belt. No matter how inexperienced she seemed, she had to know what uselessness felt like. He expected her to get up and leave. She only turned onto her back.

“It’s okay if you’re gay. I don’t care.”

He said that he wasn’t. Then he wondered what she meant by not caring.

“The guy who was here earlier. I thought he might have been…”

“Like I said, he’s from the computer store.”

“What about my dad’s seminar? About the evils of technology?”

“Yeah, well, sometimes your dad’s full of shit.”

Lael showed him that gorgeous, off-center smile. “I know, right?:”

They lay under an afghan on the sofa, Lael ecstatic to find a sitcom she had missed more than carpet. Blue and yellow light danced across her contented face. Kelly asked her again if she would marry him.

“Of course.”

She reached for him beneath the blanket, but his response was the same as before.

“It’s not a medical issue. I’m perfectly capable of, you know…by myself.”

It wasn’t Lael, but Nathan’s camera to whom Kelly spoke of his problem the next day. “I’ve had sex before. In high school, a couple of girls parted company with good judgment long enough to sleep with me.”

They were seated in Nathan’s cubicle an hour before the store opened. Kelly kept a vigilant eye on the entrance.

“I guess the last time was in college.” Kelly paused, not wanting to tell this story. “Friday nights, losers that we were, my roommate and I went to this bowling alley and played video games. These two high school girls with black hair and fingernails sometimes smiled at us. One night we decided to ask them to buy us beer. They were maybe sixteen and we were twenty-one. Ha ha. Perfect icebreaker. Unfortunately, this night they brought along two spindly dudes with rat tails and wallets attached to chains. What were a couple of horny college guys to do?”

Nathan opened the eye not looking into the camera.

“We bowled.” Kelly attempted a jovial laugh that came out, in his own estimation, a little sleazy. “We were pretty good. That’s what I’m thinking when this couple in their forties sits down behind us and starts cheering us on. They’re elbowing each other, laughing at something. Finally, the husband, this red-faced fellow with a spit curl in the center of his forehead, pecks us on the shoulder. ‘We like your style,’ he says. We thank him. He winks at his wife, and she gives my roommate and me a big hug. She smells like cough syrup and hairspray. The man elbows me and my roommate and says, ‘How’d you like to fuck her?’”

The store’s door opened. Nathan’s coworker squinted at Kelly and shook his head. He slapped his chest, indicating the giant emoticon on his hockey jersey. His smirk became open-mouthed confusion when he saw Nathan holding a camera. Kelly handed him his driver’s license.

“What am I supposed to do with this? Nathan, what does this guy want?” His eyes went back and forth between Kelly and his ID. “No way. No fucking way.” He said it several times with different inflections. He introduced himself as Winston. Nathan shushed him, gave a one-sentence explanation, and Winston stood silently out of frame, holding Kelly’s license by the edges like a priceless baseball card.

“So we follow the couple down this long gravel road,” Kelly continued. “My roommate’s pleading with me to turn around, thinking they’re going to rob us. They turn onto a dirt road. A couple of miles later we park between a truck and a minivan outside some sort of barn. The husband is shaking hands with people. It looks friendly enough, so we get out.”

“We’re closed!” Winston shouted to a customer entering the store.

Kelly picked at his cuticles, already bleeding, a habit from his days at the publishing company. “A runner of old carpet leads from the barn door to a mattress and box springs. There’s a flood light above the bed, hanging by an extension cord. The wife starts to do a strip tease. Her husband’s setting up a camera by the wall. My roommate and I realize we’re the only ones who still have clothes on. The others, thirteen or fourteen of them, are all lined up on the carpet. My roommate ducks outside. I take off my clothes and get in line.”

Winston pumped his fist.

“Most of the guys,” Kelly said, “after they’re done, get back in line behind me. Finally, it’s my turn, but I’m not…ready. The wife looks sleepy and mean, like I’ve woken her up in the middle of the night. The guys are cheering me on. I lie down beside her, try to kiss her. She climbs on top of me. She reaches for me. ‘Does it work,’ she asks. The other guys are laughing. She spits on my chest, my neck, my face. I try to get up, but she has me pinned, her knees on either side of me. She gets close like she’s going to kiss me. I close my eyes, part my lips. She spits in my mouth. I wipe my lips. She bites my chin. I get my arm around her waist and flip her over so that I’m on top. I’m ready to grab my clothes and get the hell out of there, but she’s still holding on, you know, between my legs. Slowly she loosens her grip, nothing but fingertips, and there I am. The whole time she’s biting my mouth and chin, spitting in my face, which only made me…” Kelly didn’t say what it made him.

Winston returned Kelly’s driver’s license, freeing his hands for slow applause. “Let me guess: you drew it as soon as you got home.”

That night, during Jay Leno’s monologue, Lael put on her jacket to leave.

“You don’t have to go,” Kelly said. “Take the bed. I’ll sleep on the sofa.”

“Dad told me to be home by midnight. He was really mad when I got home this morning.”

“Let me talk to him.”

Lael shook her head. “He’s mad at you for missing his seminar two weeks in a row.”

“That has nothing to do with you and me. We’re engaged, dammit.” Kelly put on his shoes and undid the Velcro flaps of Lael’s sneakers. “I’ll be back. You’re not going anywhere.”

When it was time to knock, Kelly’s fists were already clenched. Julian came to the door in the same white robe. He stepped aside with an exaggerated “after you.”

An open suitcase rested upside-down on a mound of Lael’s clothes. In front of the efficiency stove lay a half-dozen roses and the remains of a ceramic vase.

“Take the futon,” Julian said. “You’re taking everything else.”

Kelly sat down on a Barbie sleeping bag. “I thought we had your blessing.”

Julian kicked shut a photo album on the floor. He looked as though he hadn’t slept since Kelly last saw him. “To marry her, not hide her away in your castle.”

“She isn’t going anywhere. You’ll still see her.”

“Goddamn right I will.”

Kelly took a deep breath, trying to replace anger with sympathy for this man who didn’t know how to be alone. “Listen, Julian, just because your seminars weren’t for me doesn’t mean they won’t be somebody else’s cup of tea. Maybe I—Lael and I—could help you set up your own business. Website, advertising, the whole nine.”

Julian, who had remained standing, finally sat down on the futon. “If you’re looking for an investment opportunity, Mr. Vanderbean, I might be able to steer you in a direction or two.”

The roar of Kelly’s last name left behind an eerie quiet. The floor seemed to tilt. Kelly clutched the smiling face of Astronaut Barbie.

Julian wiggled his toes in front of Kelly’s face. “How does twenty thousand a week sound?”

Kelly stood up on shaky legs. He eyed the door. “What does that buy me?”

“Seven days of not telling my daughter about that naughty drawing of yours.”

“I’m going to tell her myself. Very soon.”

“My daughter is a delicate girl, Mr. Vanderbean. I can’t imagine how she’d react to seeing such a thing, let alone marrying the man who drew it.”

Kelly turned over the suitcase and filled it with his fiancée’s things. “I’ll bring you a check first thing in the morning.”

Kelly gave Nathan permission to use their project for his film class. Nathan’s professor, Dr. Wilander, mentioned Nathan’s film to a friend who wrote for the alternative weekly. The article caught the eye of a producer for a local morning show.

The pregnant anchor looked stricken by the emoticon, pixelated for viewers.

“And the man who drew this is going to answer questions after tonight’s screening?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Nathan spoke in the whisper he used when his hearing aid was turned up too high. “He’s a nice guy.”

“He sounds like a real peach,” said a man taking a seat beside Nathan.

The anchor introduced the leader of a group planning to protest the film outside the theater. Julian gave the camera a flat smile. He wore a T-shirt bearing the words “Think of the Children.”

Kelly and Lael entered the cinema through the side entrance, avoiding the picketers near the ticket window. Lael wanted to know if they were sneaking in. Inside the theater, Nathan introduced them to Dr. Wilander. At last Kelly explained to his fiancee, with few specifics, what it was he and Nathan had been up to. Lael beamed with relief.

Winston had saved two seats for them in the second row, promising to “rip shit up” if anyone got too close to Kelly. A number of the protesters had bought tickets, but a tall usher with a shaved head and the emoticon tattooed on his throat vowed to eject anyone who disrupted the show.

“I would like to invite all of you to join us again tomorrow night for the rest of our students films, which are all remarkable in their own ways.” Dr. Wilander had a Scandinavian accent and acne scars that looked more like dimples when she smiled, which she did frequently. “These films are early efforts from future masters, so please watch with sympathy for what they do not yet know.”

As soon as the title appeared—“Shift Six”—Kelly’s chest tightened. Closing his eyes didn’t block the sound of his own voice, amplified in the ceiling and walls. He wanted to plug his ears, but couldn’t let go of Lael’s hand. The few times he found the courage to look at her, her mouth hung open in deep interest, or vague indifference.

Directly in front of them, Dr. Wilander suggested to Nathan places where the film might be expanded. With some work, she had told him, it had a chance to be accepted to festivals. Kelly had given his blessing, offered to pay any travel costs or entry fees. Maybe one person could benefit from Kelly’s ignominious artwork.

The crowd laughed when they were supposed to, occasionally when they weren’t. If the usher escorted anyone to the exit, he did so quietly. No one made a sound while Kelly described the couple at the bowling alley. During the story, it wasn’t Kelly’s face on the screen, but a prolonged close-up of the blood pooling in his cuticle. Dr. Wilander nodded her approval.

Lael looked at him for the first time since the film began. Her thumb stroked his knuckles. She swabbed a half-circle under her eyes, and Kelly let out a sob. Two more followed before he buried his face in her shoulder.

“What’s that one going to be?” Nathan asked onscreen.

Kelly sat at his drawing table, making broad strokes with a pen. Nathan stepped around the table for a shot of the sketch pad, and Kelly brought it to his chest with a nervous laugh before the screen went black.

Dr. Wilander stood up to applaud. Many joined her. A man near the back said, “Yeah.” House lights came on, and Dr. Wilander, seeing the film’s subject still composing himself, announced an intermission before the Q & A.

Lael squeezed his hand, said it was okay. “I bet you could use some ice cream.”

Butter Pecan, he thought, but didn’t have to tell her. It was her favorite, too.

Halfway up the ramp, she turned to him and smiled. Her expression turned grave near the door, outside which her father waited in his T-shirt. Lael stepped around him, shaking her head. Julian followed her into the lobby.

“Remember me?” asked a gray-haired, gray-faced man in a powder-blue cardigan. His prim voice and sweater were more familiar than his face, on which gravity and time had taken their toll.

“Mr. Walkish, how have you been?” In the spirit of atonement, Kelly extended a hand to his former boss.

Walkish ignored his hand. His thin lips, a pair of pink toothpicks, came together for a brief smile. “Not long after you left that piece of quote unquote art on my desk, my wife left me. She took our daughter, who shortly thereafter left both of us to run away with her high school health teacher. I tell you this with some hesitation because I know how much enjoyment you derive from other people’s misery, but I want to thank you, Mr. Vanderbean, for showing me tonight that your illustration is a reflection of your character, not mine. Enjoy the remainder of your depraved life.”

Walkish said and turned his back as triumphantly as a back clad in a powder-blue cardigan ever turns. Winston was admiring an emoticon tattoo on the lower back of a girl behind him. Trying to get his attention, Kelly felt a fist in his kidney. A series of punches landed on his thighs and lower back.

“You son of a bitch,” Zachary said. “Holding out on me all that time.”

Kelly turned around to find his old sponsor, grinning wider than his face. Zachary climbed onto the seat beside Kelly for the first hug the two had ever shared. One eye on the lobby, Kelly nodded idly as Zachary asked about getting coffee later.

“I’ve got some ideas, old soak. Draw them up for me and we’ll split the dough. Picture this: a pecker the size of a 747, raining piss all over a cemetery.”

Kelly squeezed past him into the aisle.

“No good? I’ve got others.”

“Sorry. I’ve got to go find my fiancée.”

“That girl who was sitting beside you? I saw her screaming at some old guy in the lobby.” Zachary followed him up the ramp. “Probably one of those protesters. Maybe if they got laid once in a while, you know?”

Kelly scanned the crowd for his future father-in-law. Zachary threaded a path to the wall of video games. Lael sat in the racecar simulator, crying behind her bangs. Kelly put his arm around her.

“Not so tough now, are you?” Zachary wrestled someone to the floor in front of the Mechanical Claw. Kelly glimpsed gray hair and a powder-blue arm. He didn’t correct the mistake.

“I want to go home,” Lael said.

“Did your dad leave?”

Walkish was crawling toward the racecar, Zachary on his back. “Get away from her, Vanderbean.”

Kelly stood up. “Excuse me?”

Walkish spoke with a hand over his bleeding nose. “Come home with me, Laura. Please, sweetheart. I’ll do anything.”

“Look, Walkish. You’ve got the wrong person here. This is my fiancée. Her name is Lael.”

“I’ll call her the name her mother and I gave her, thank you.”

“Her father’s name is Julian, you prick.” Kelly looked for him in the lobby one more time, an ominous nausea rising in his chest.

“Tall fellow with orange hair, penchant for statutory rape?” Walkish managed a patronizing smile like the ones that used to accompany feedback on Kelly’s cover designs. “That would be Laura’s health teacher, Mr. Vanderbean.”

Lael stepped around Kelly and sprinted through the lobby. He went after her, dodging high fives from teenagers in emoticon hoodies. A grinning man pushed a wailing baby into Kelly’s face. In a onesie with the emoticon across the front, the child looked like a tiny super villain.

Lael waited on the passenger side of Kelly’s car. Their eyes met. She mouthed, “I’m sorry.” He unlocked the car, waited for her to buckle her seatbelt.

“It was his idea. I swear. I was supposed to marry you so he could steal your money.” Her words raced with the car, which hit ninety-five. “When he asked me to…sleep with you, I knew it wasn’t right between us. Between me and him. That’s when I chose you. Please slow down. Please?”

The speedometer read one-twenty. Kelly pressed the button that unhooked her seatbelt.

“I’ll never lie to you again. Please slow down.”

She sat with her head between her legs, crying loudly until they were in Kelly’s driveway. He turned off the engine, walked around to the passenger side, and opened the door. She took a few steps toward the street. Kelly placed his hands on her shoulders, turned her toward the house.

The lights were on in the foyer. Kelly turned them off and closed the door.

“I love you,” she said.

He inserted both hands in her blouse between the second and third buttons and ripped it open. She pulled on the sleeves, letting it fall. Kelly seized her arms when she started on her bra. He unhooked it himself and pushed her onto the stairs.

She said his name with question marks and then without. He unbuttoned his pants with a familiar fear, but there he was. He unzipped her jeans. She made high-pitched sounds he didn’t try to interpret.

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