Make It a Double by Warren Benedetto
Warren is this month’s winner of $447.50 for his story about obsession, responsibility, and cost. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Bio: Warren Benedetto writes short fiction about horrible people doing horrible things. He is a full member of the SFWA and has published stories in publications such as Dark Matter Magazine and The Dread Machine; on podcasts such as The NoSleep Podcast, Tales to Terrify, The Creepy Podcast, and Scare You To Sleep; and in anthologies from Scare Street, Ghost Orchid Press, Eerie River Publishing, and more. For more information, visit www.warrenbenedetto.com and follow @warrenbenedetto on Twitter.
Without further ado, “Make It a Double” by Warren Benedetto.
“What’s eating you?” the bartender asked.
He wiped the bar with a rag, lifting napkin holders and bowls of peanuts so he could clean under them. The neon beer signs hanging overhead cast soft-edged splashes of color down onto the reflective wetness of the bar top. He waved at the last group of patrons as they pulled on their jackets and exited the bar. “G’Night!” he called after them. It was almost closing time.
“Fucking Michaelson, that’s what,” Lewis said. He hunched over a glass of whiskey, watching the ice melt into colorless swirls in the amber liquid. He tapped the base of his ring finger silently against the glass.
Lewis was a short, overweight man with a sullen scowl that carved deep lines from the corners of his mouth down toward where his chin merged with his neck. His crew cut did little to conceal the patchy baldness spreading across his scalp. A roll of skin on the back of his neck prickled with short, stubbly hair. His tie hung loose and crooked around his unbuttoned collar. The weight of his belly pressed against his thighs.
“Him again, huh?” The bartender dried his hands on his apron.
“You bet your ass, him again.” Lewis thumped his fist on the bar, causing the pint glasses stacked in front of him to clink together. The bartender reached out and steadied them.
“What is it this time?”
Lewis groaned and massaged his temples as if trying to crush the memory out of existence. He blew out a sour breath, then opened his eyes. “Okay. You know what the real estate market’s like these days, right?”
“Pretty bad, right?”
“Really fucking bad.” Lewis grabbed a handful of peanuts from the small metal bowl on the bar and swirled them around in his hand. He popped a few in his mouth, then continued as he chewed. “So, there’s this couple. Been working on them forever. Months. They’ve been out to see the house three, four times already. Can’t make up their goddamned minds. But finally, today—finally!—I get them to bite. They say they’ll take it.”
“Hey, that’s great, right? That’s good news.”
“Fuck yeah, it is. Until—” Lewis laughed bitterly, then took a sip of whiskey from his glass. “Fucking Michaelson.”
“What’d he do?”
“I come back to the office. I’ve got the contract in hand, signed, holding it up like this.” Lewis picked up a handful of bar napkins and held them aloft, showing them off to an imaginary crowd. “It’s a big deal. Huge. Seven figures. I slam the papers down on my boss’ desk.” He slapped the napkins down on the bar to illustrate. “I say, ‘Sold! Fuck you, pay me.’"
The bartender raised his eyebrows in surprise. “You said that?”
Lewis shrugged. “Yeah, it’s all good. We’re friends. Besides, there’s this contest. He put out a bounty, to try to break the curse, get us motivated. Next person to sell a unit gets an extra one percent commission. Which, on a six-figure deal…”
“That’s a nice little bonus.”
“Hell yeah, it is.”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“What’s the problem?” Lewis took another sip of his whiskey, wincing as it went down. He sucked in air through his teeth to cool his burning throat. “Fucking Michaelson, that’s the problem.”
He tapped the rim of his mostly-empty glass, signaling for a refill. As the bartender poured another shot, Lewis pressed on with the story. “So, I say, ‘Fuck you, pay me.’ And my boss starts laughing. Everyone else starts laughing too. But, like, at me. I get this feeling in my stomach, like, oh no, here we go again. So, I look around. Spot Michaelson. He holds up a contract like this, in one hand.” Lewis picked up a handful of napkins and held them up. “Then like this, in the other.” He picked up a second pile of napkins in his other hand and held that up too.
“He beat you to it.”
“Not once,” Lewis said, letting one pile of napkins fall from his hand. “But twice.” He let go of the other pile. The napkins fluttered to the floor. “Two deals.”
“Two goddamned deals.”
“On the same day?”
“On the same goddamned day.”
The bartender whistled. “That’s some luck.”
“Isn’t it?” Lewis took a gulp of his whiskey. “Fucking Michaelson.”
Lewis stared into his drink with a faraway look, lost in thought. The bartender busied himself with rinsing some stemware that had been soaking in the sink.
Finally, Lewis looked up. His eyes were glassy. “You know what I don’t get? Why two?” His voice was thick in his throat. “Like, I get it, he beat me to it, good for him. He sells one, no problem. But two? Why’s he need two? The guy’s already got everything.” Lewis tapped his ring finger absently against the glass. He sniffed. “Give me that kind of luck for once, you know? Let me get two. One for him, two for me. Is that too much to ask?”
It was a rhetorical question, but the bartender answered anyway. “Not at all.”
Lewis tossed back the last swallow of his whiskey, then placed the empty glass back on the bar.
The bartender lifted the bottle of whiskey from the well and tilted it towards Lewis. “One more?”
Lewis placed his hand over the glass and shook his head. “Nah. Close my tab. I’m broke until that deal pays out.”
“No worries,” the bartender said. “I got this one.”
Lewis took his hand away from his glass and slid it towards the bartender. “In that case, make it a double.”
The bartender laughed. He filled the glass, then flipped a shot glass out from under the bar and filled that too. After dropping the whiskey bottle into the well, he picked up the shot and held it aloft in a toast.
“To Michaelson,” he proclaimed. “May whatever luck comes to him, come to you, times two.”
“Amen,” Lewis said as he clinked his glass with the bartender. “From your mouth to God’s ears.”
Lewis hung up the phone and angrily scribbled a heavy line through another name on a typed list full of crossed-out names. Then he slammed the pen down on his desk and pushed the list away, disgusted. His chair creaked under his bulk as he leaned back and screwed his fists into his eyes.
After a few seconds, he dropped his hands into his lap and stared at the ceiling. The fire sprinkler overhead peered down at him like a single blood-red eye. He wondered how big of a fire it would take to set the thing off. He pictured the flames licking up the walls, hungrily consuming the bulletin board full of real estate listings, the starburst-shaped SOLD stickers curling and blackening in the heat. He saw the Salesman Of The Month award melting in its cheap acrylic frame, Michaelson’s smug, smiling face bubbling and peeling as his photo disintegrated in the fire.
A knocking sound broke Lewis out of his reverie. He sat up and reached for his pen, instinctively trying to look busy.
One of the other salesmen, Duncan, was leaning into his cubicle. “You up for drinks tonight? Michaelson’s buying.”
A sour bolt of acid shot up the back of Lewis’ throat. He swallowed it down. “Not tonight.” Lewis motioned to the list of names on his desk. “Lots of catching up to do.”
“Come on, who are you kidding? You’re not that busy.” Duncan laughed. “If Michaelson’s got time, anyone does.”
“Funny,” Lewis said humorlessly. His lip curled into what he hoped was a smile. How nice for Michaelson that he was able to take a break from being so goddamned perfect for a minute, to lower himself to the rest of their level. Lewis suppressed the urge to flip his desk over. Instead, he said, “That’s okay. I’m good.”
Duncan looked around furtively, then stepped into Lewis’ cubicle and sat on the squat filing cabinet next to Lewis’ desk. Lewis unconsciously wheeled his chair backward as Duncan leaned towards him and spoke with a lowered voice.
“Listen, I know it’s been hard since Rachel left. I get it. You want to shut down, stay inside, say ‘fuck the world.’ But that’s the worst thing you can do. You need to get out there, have some fun, meet some new people. It’s been, what, six months?”
Lewis looked down at his hands. His thumb was tracing lazy arcs across the smooth skin where his wedding ring used to be. “Seven.”
“Seven months. That’s a long time. And you just made a big sale! You deserve to get out, cut loose a little bit. Put some of that fat commission check to good use.”
“That fat commission check didn’t even make a dent in what I owe.”
“Come on. You can stop working for one night, can’t you?”
“You have any idea how much a divorce costs? I got alimony. My lawyer. Her lawyer—”
“You have to pay for her lawyer?”
Lewis wheeled his chair back up to his desk. He picked up the list of names. “Like I said. I’m busy.” He picked up the phone and prepared to dial.
“Okay.” Duncan stood up. “You want me to make the hard sell? Here’s the hard sell.” He grabbed the back of Lewis’ chair and pulled him away from the desk. Lewis dropped the phone. It dangled off the edge of the desk, spinning at the end of its cord near the floor. “Get your ass up. Now.”
“Duncan, come on—”
“You wanna get wheeled out of here in your chair? Because I’ll do it. You’re fat, but I’ll do it.”
Lewis sighed. Duncan wasn’t going to give up, and he knew it. The guy was relentless. In sales. In life. In everything. “All right,” Lewis said. He slapped his hands on his thighs and reluctantly pressed himself to a standing position. “I’m up. You happy?”
“Good man. Saves me a visit to the chiropractor. Now.” He slung his arm around Lewis’ shoulders. “You and me and the rest of the guys are going to have some drinks. Michaelson is going to pay, because fuck him. Then we’re going to head to the Strip and win some money. And then we’re going to meet some ladies—”
“You mean hookers.”
Duncan shrugged. “You say potato. Point is, we’re gonna have fun, whether you like it or not. Deal?”
Lewis sat at the outside edge of the corner booth, nursing a mostly-empty beer. Duncan was next to him, rambling to the rest of the guys at the table about something or other. Lewis wasn’t listening. He was too busy watching Michaelson while trying not to stare.
Michaelson was Hollywood handsome with an NFL chin, the best salesman on the team by a long shot. He was charming and popular, the kind of guy who needed a snorkel to keep from drowning in pussy. To make matters worse, he was actually a pretty nice guy. He probably saved puppies from burning buildings on his days off, just for fun.
Lewis hated him.
At the moment, Michaelson was leaning on the bar, hitting on a hot blonde in skin-tight leather pants and a teal crop top. Or was she hitting on him? It was hard to tell. She was doing that coy thing where she’d laugh, then look down at the floor and push a strand of hair behind her ear, then look up while biting her lower lip. Classic fuck-me move.
The blonde motioned to the bartender, then held up two fingers. The bartender handed her two bottles of beer. She gave one to Michaelson.
Christ Almighty, Lewis thought. She’s buying him a drink. Unfuckingbelievable.
Lewis never had a woman offer to buy him a drink in his entire life. Not once. And he never would. If it didn’t happen when he was Michaelson’s age—when he was younger and thinner and had plenty of hair—it certainly wasn’t going to happen now, when he was middle-aged, fat, and balding.
Don’t forget broke, his inner voice reminded him. Right, he was broke too.
And yet there was Michaelson, already blessed with every possible advantage in life, having one more thing handed to him. Two, if you counted the blonde. She might as well have a flashing neon FUCK ME sign around her neck.
Lewis drained the rest of his beer, then added his bottle to the growing collection of empties in the center of the table. As if on cue, a waitress arrived at the table with a tray of fresh drinks. She was a pretty brunette, short and perky, with crystal blue eyes. Her name tag read “Shelby.”
“Another round, boys,” she said. “Courtesy of Captain America over there.”
The guys at the table cheered. Michaelson looked over at them and laughed, raising his beer in salute. The waitress distributed the drinks, leaving Lewis for last. She placed a bottle in front of him.
“Thanks,” he mumbled, without looking up.
The waitress put a hand on his shoulder and leaned in close to his ear. “You look like you could use another,” she whispered. She set a second beer in front of him. Her manicured fingernails gently grazed the side of his neck as she drew her hand away. Goosebumps rushed up his forearms and into his rolled shirtsleeves.
Lewis looked up at her, confused. “What?” He looked down at the pair of beers in front of him, then up at her again. “No, I don’t—”
“Shh,” she said. “It’s on me.” She tucked a folded cocktail napkin into Lewis’ front shirt pocket, then turned and walked away without another word. Lewis watched her go.
What the hell was that about? he wondered. He reached into his pocket and unfolded the napkin. Written on it in pink ballpoint pen were the words, “Find me after.” It was signed, “Shelby.” The tail of the “y” looped into a tiny heart at the end.
Lewis looked up again, searching the bar for the waitress, but she was gone.
Lewis slid out of the booth. His co-workers piled out after him. They were all wasted. Duncan fake-punched Lewis in the stomach as he stood. Lewis flinched. Duncan laughed. “Gotcha,” he slurred.
“You know it,” Lewis said, distractedly. He scanned the crowd, looking for the waitress who had slipped him the napkin.
“Let’s go win some money,” Duncan said. “Casino. Go, go, go.” He nudged Lewis towards the exit.
“We got room for one more?” a syrupy voice said from behind. “Amber says she’s feeling lucky.”
Lewis looked over his shoulder. It was Michaelson. He towered over Lewis by a good six inches, maybe seven. More, if you counted his perfectly-coiffed hair. It was thick and lustrous, effortlessly perfect, as if every strand was self-aware and knew exactly where it should be. Even the strands that were out of place looked like they had been carefully positioned there by God himself.
The blonde from the bar was tucked neatly under Michaelson’s arm. Her fingers were laced in his, her bright red nails glistening like liquid under the overhead lights. Her other hand was tucked into the back pocket of his jeans.
“Hell yeah, we do,” Duncan said. He punched Michaelson in the arm.
Michaelson laughed. Amber did too. Lewis felt a fresh surge of disgust coursing through his veins. He hadn’t been with a woman since his wife left. But Michaelson? He could have anyone he wanted, any time he wanted. He didn’t even have to try. They flew at him from all directions, like moths to a street lamp. He probably had to swat them away with a tennis racket.
Michaelson thumped Lewis on the back. “How you doin’, my man?” he asked jovially. “Having fun yet?” Lewis opened his mouth to respond, but Michaelson didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, he leaned close to Amber and said something into her ear, something Lewis couldn’t hear. She laughed.
Bitter bile bubbled up in the back of Lewis’ throat, burning his esophagus. They were talking about him. He knew it. And whatever they were saying, it probably wasn’t nice. Guys like Michaelson didn’t say nice things to pretty girls about guys like him. Lewis had dealt with Michaelson’s type his whole life. Super friendly on the surface, until they decide you’re inferior. Then they’re shoving you in a locker, or stealing your clothes while you’re in the shower, or pantsing you in front of the whole gym class.
“Let’s go! Train’s leaving!” Duncan yelled.
Lewis stepped aside. “You know what? I’m gonna hit the head real quick. I’ll catch up with you.”
Lewis waited until the group was gone, then pulled the waitress’ note out of his shirt pocket. He unfolded it covertly, down by his hip, and read it again. He wanted to reassure himself that he hadn’t misread it. That it was real. It was. The words were clear and unambiguous: “Find me after.”
He refolded the note, then headed to the end of the bar. His pulse was racing. He waved to the bartender. “Shelby?” he shouted over the music. The bartender’s hands were full carrying a rack of clean glasses. He thrust his chin, signaling for Lewis to turn around. He did. Shelby was behind him. She had traded her waitress uniform for casual clothes: low-waisted jeans and a tight white t-shirt that contrasted with her tanned skin. Her dark hair was gathered into two braids, one on each side of her head.
“Want some company?” she asked with a coy smile.
“Um, sure.” Lewis’ mouth suddenly felt like it was full of dry cotton, like his tongue was wearing a sweater. He had no idea what was happening, no frame of reference for a random woman in a bar who was … what? Flirting with him? Is that what she was doing? Sure seemed like it.
“Sweet!” Shelby turned and cupped her hands around her mouth. “Crystal!” she shouted. She waved and beckoned with a “come here” gesture.
Another girl emerged from the crowd. She seemed to be about Shelby’s age—mid-twenties, Lewis thought—and was dressed similarly, in tight jeans and a white halter top. Her auburn hair was pulled into a ponytail at the back of her head.
Shelby took Crystal’s hand, then turned back to Lewis.
“All right, let’s go.”
“You want to do the honors?” Lewis asked. He was sitting on a plush velvet stool in front of a towering slot machine with the words MONEY MADNESS emblazoned on the front. Shelby was sitting on his knee, sipping a bright green drink through a skinny straw. Crystal stood behind him, leaning in close. He could feel her breasts pressed against his back. It felt nice.
“Come on, big money!” Shelby called out. She slammed her palm down on the SPIN button. A too-loud jingle blared from the machine’s speakers, adding to the cacophony of the casino floor. Crystal whooped enthusiastically, then laughed. Lewis laughed too. He was having fun.
The first wheel stopped on cherries.
The second wheel stopped. Cherries again.
“Let’s go let’s go let’s go!” Shelby cheered. She crossed her fingers and closed her eyes.
The third wheel stopped.
Shelby opened her eyes and let out a groan of disappointment. Crystal did too. Shelby pouted out her lower lip. “I suck at this,” she whined. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Lewis said. “It’s fine.”
“But we lost all your money,” Crystal said.
Sure enough, the digital Balance readout on the machine read $00.00.
“It’s not ‘all my money,’” Lewis said. He patted her thigh. “Here. Get up.” Shelby climbed off Lewis’ knee and stepped out of the way as he stood. “You two stay here. I’ll hit the ATM.”
“You sure?” Shelby asked.
“Sure, I’m sure,” Lewis said with easy confidence.
Shelby threw her arms around Lewis’ neck and gave him a peck on the cheek. “You’re the best,” she said.
Lewis blushed. “Be right back.”
He walked down the long aisle of slot machines, then looked back towards Shelby and Crystal. They were both seated on the velvet stool, sharing it half-and-half, looking at their phones and waiting for him to return.
“Shit, shit, shit,” he said under his breath. He had lost way more than he planned—way more than he could afford—first at the blackjack table, then at poker, and now at the slots. He rarely gambled, and this was why: he was really bad at it. In fact, he had never won much of anything, ever. He knew he should call it a night and cut his losses, but the truth was, he didn’t want to. He was having more fun than he’d had in a long, long time. It was worth it.
He got to the ATM, inserted his card, and typed in his PIN. His finger hovered over the Withdrawal button for a moment, before course-correcting to hit the Check Balance button instead. The machine processed the request, then displayed his current balance: $-370.00.
Suddenly, a loud cheer rose from the bank of slot machines nearby. A chorus of bells and chimes started ringing. More voices joined in the cheering. People began to applaud. Lewis froze. His stomach dropped. He didn’t even need to see, to know who it was. Fucking Michaelson. It had to be.
Lewis turned around. Sure enough, Michaelson was standing in front of a slot machine that had JACKPOT flashing across the screen in a dozen different fonts and colors. A red police light on top of the machine was spinning gleefully. Michaelson’s fists were thrust towards the ceiling in celebration. Amber, the blonde from the bar, gave him a two-handed high five, then wrapped her arms around his neck. Her hands entwined in his hair as she kissed him deeply. Meanwhile, the digits on the jackpot counter grew and grew, eventually topping out at $10,000.
Lewis pivoted back to the ATM, away from Michaelson’s celebration. He felt like he was going to throw up. How could one guy be so blessed, while another—himself, specifically—could be so cursed? Was God playing favorites? Is that what it was? Or was it that certain advantages conferred other advantages which conferred still more advantages, and so on, until life was throwing money and pussy at you all day and night? Lewis wondered what his life would have been like if he had been born taller, or thinner, or smarter. Maybe he’d be the one winning all the time. Maybe his bank account would be a positive number. Maybe Rachel wouldn’t have left him for—
“Hey, everything okay?” a sweet voice asked. A hand touched his arm. Lewis turned. Shelby and Crystal were behind him. “You disappeared,” Shelby said.
“We thought you ditched us,” Crystal added with a wink.
“Yeah, no, I’m fine,” Lewis said. “Just got distracted by my friend over there.” He nodded his head towards Michaelson.
“Lucky guy,” Shelby said.
“Yeah. Sure is.” His smile felt like a mouthful of porcelain tiles that might shatter at any moment. “Lemme just …” He indicated the ATM. Shelby got the hint.
“Oh, yeah. Do what you’ve gotta do. We’ll be over here.”
The girls walked away, leaving Lewis alone. He pulled out his wallet, replaced his ATM card, and withdrew a Visa card instead. He inserted it into the ATM, then selected the Cash Advance option. His finger lingered over the number pad as he debated how much to withdraw. Fuck it. He punched in 500.00 and hit Enter. The machine dispensed a pile of twenty-dollar bills. Lewis folded them into a thick wad and shoved them into his front pocket. He walked back over to where Shelby and Crystal were waiting. “All right, where to?”
“Right here.” Shelby pointed to the slot machine she was standing next to. “I have a good feeling about this one.”
The graphic on the front of the machine featured a man in a tuxedo leaning against the side of a limousine. Clinging to each of his arms was a gorgeous woman. One was a pouting Marilyn Monroe type in a tight pink Gentlemen Prefer Blondes gown. The other was a ripoff of Breakfast At Tiffany’s era Audrey Hepburn, complete with sunglasses, cigarette holder, and diamond-studded crown. The man’s eyebrow was arched as if to say, “Ain’t this the life?” Behind him, triple spotlights illuminated hilltop letters that mimicked the Hollywood sign. They spelled out the name of the machine: DOUBLE LUCKY.
Double ripoff if more like it, Lewis thought. He wasn’t going to say that to Shelby though. No point in spoiling a good thing. Instead, he pulled out the bundle of bills from the ATM, peeled off a fresh twenty, and inserted it into the machine. The digital Balance readout updated to read $20.00. “Okay. Who’s turn is it?”
“Yours,” Shelby replied. She gave Lewis a peck on the cheek. In response to his surprised expression, she said, “For good luck.”
Crystal stepped closer and placed a kiss on Lewis’ other cheek. “Make it a double.”
From your mouth to God’s ears, Lewis thought. Then he pressed the SPIN button. A rousing big band tune blasted from the machine. The wheels accelerated into a blur.
The first wheel stopped. Double Jackpot.
The second wheel stopped. Double Jackpot again.
“Come on, come on!” Shelby squealed. Crystal bounced and clapped excitedly. Lewis’ heart was beating like a boxer’s speed bag.
The third wheel kept spinning.
Finally, it stopped.
Pandemonium. Shelby and Crystal started screaming and jumping up and down in celebration. Every light on the slot machine began to flash. The speakers blared a celebratory big band tune. A pair of police sirens began to wail. An artificial ching-ching-ching sound effect blasted from all directions, emulating the sound of a slot machine paying out a fuck-ton of quarters. The hilltop letters flashed on and off in an alternating pattern: DOUBLE! LUCKY! DOUBLE! LUCKY! DOUBLE! LUCKY!
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