“Man,” Victor said. “This place is cool, huh?”

He spun around, a dancer in a music box, taken in by the Plexiglas walls and strands of LED lights falling from the ceiling like fireworks frozen in time.

Gabby caught his eye and smiled. Victor offered a wide smile in return.

“Who said Tinder was dead?” He raised his arms, as if claiming victory over the universe. “I’m glad I didn’t listen to the masses.”

“Me too,” Gabby said. Her smile was less open than Victor’s, more practiced due to an incident in junior high school. A picture of a donkey with cartoon gums had been taped to her locker.

“Follow me,” the hostess said. Her dimples were so long and deep they looked like paste on accessories from a Halloween costume.

“Do you suppose those are real?” Gabby whispered.

Victor put his hands over his pecs.

“No, the dimples.” She ran her fingers down either side of her mouth.

Victor shrugged. “I’m not a dimple guy.” Then the smile. Gabby ducked her head, charmed.

The spell was broken the minute they got to their table and the hostess turned to Gabby: “Out or in?”

Gabby looked at Victor. He shrugged again. “You decide.”

“Out,” she said, carefully considering the question before taking the chair facing out into the restaurant. Victor sat across from her.

“Is it okay that you’re not facing the door?” Gabby asked. “I’m never sure if it’s good to face the door or not.”

“Either way,” Victor waved his hand like the decision could just float away to another group of diners. “They did a good job with this space.”

“They did, although all restaurants look the same to me these days. Glass, lots of light, nowhere to hide anything.”

He pointed up at the LED lights. “I’ve never seen lights like these before.”

“No. Me either.” Gabby wondered if there were cameras at the end of the lights, but she reached for her napkin instead of saying anything else.

The waitress brought water and menus to the table. She had on a shiny silver jumpsuit.

“Are they going for a space-age look?” Gabby asked, after the waitress walked away.

“Vest,” Victor said, patting his chest down to his stomach. “The whole outfit is bullet proof.”


“Sure,” he said. “Right up to the Kevlar hoodie and down to the silver booties.”

“I wouldn’t have known.”

“Hey, they do what they have to these days. I’m wearing a vest too. I’m sure we all.”

“No,” she said. “I’m not.” Gabby had intended to wear her new vest, but when she pulled her sweater over it, her roommate said she looked lumpy.

“Come on,” Victor said, not smiling. “Just so you know, I’d rather you think I’m a little chubby than see me dead.”

Gabby sat lower in her chair and picked up a menu.

“Hey,” he said. “I shouldn’t have said that. You don’t even know me yet. That was an attempt at a joke, Gabby. If you aren’t a wearer, I get it. I’m sorry.”

“No,” she said. “I mean, I bought a vest and, you know, they take time to get here, but it finally arrived in the mail a few days ago. It just messed up my clothes tonight. I’m not making a statement by not wearing a vest. Stupid vanity – that’s all.”

“Well, you look great, for the record. No detectable messiness of any kind on your person.”

Gabby gave him the same look she might give a student who suddenly became “ill” two minutes after a test was handed out. Victor held up his hands as if giving in to a play sheriff. Gabby thought it might be okay now. Maybe they could move past the vest.

“Seriously, the first time I wore my vest in public was during the Gallup Stadium shooting last February,” Victor said. “Were you there? I got hit twice but only the wound on my arm needed attention. And I was lucky, actually. That bullet only grazed my skin. The bullet that hit my chest was stopped cold by the vest. It’s a weird feeling having a bullet hit your chest though. It kind of bounces back like I was a soccer net catching a goal. I was bruised for weeks though.”

“Oh wow. That sounds awful.”

“I have this brand-new Polyethylene vest on tonight. I’ve wore it once before, at the Embassy Theater shooting last week. It’s lighter and not nearly as hot as the Kevlar vest, but I don’t have the armor plates in right now, so who knows how it’ll feel when I do. At the Embassy, a bullet never really got near me, so I don’t even know if the hype about this new vest is true. The Polyethylene is supposedly ten times stronger than Kevlar. By the time this is all over I’m going to end up spending a fortune on the latest and greatest vests.”

“I’m glad,” Gabby said, reading through the menu. “I’m mean, I’m glad you didn’t get hit last week.”

“Which ones were you at?”

“Which what?”

“Shootings. It’s like the new vacation talk. Which shootings have you been in? Me, I’ve been in eight so far this year. All four of the theatre shootings, the two stadium shootings, the one at the fair, and the parade downtown. I’ve worn a vest every day since February, even when I take out the garbage. Why push my luck?”

The waitress returned and placed a basket of bread at the table.

“Need more time?” she said.

Victor and Gabby nodded.

“So, shootings?”

Gabby shook her head. She tried to make her hair wave slowly back and forth as she moved her head.

“What?” Victor said so loudly that the older couple sitting next to them said “what” too. “None?”

“No. None.” Gabby looked toward the older couple, stretching her neck in a way someone had once told her was elegant.

“Huh,” Victor said, looking behind him toward the door.

Gabby tried to concentrate on the menu. She leaned forward a bit, hoping her cleavage was visible.

“Seriously?” Victor said, putting his menu down. “Not one shooting?”

Gabby had been in this situation before. People hated to think someone had broken the law of averages. Everyone, she included, knew her luck would run out sooner or later. She’d had dates before where this had been a deal breaker. Just last week she’d met an architect for coffee. After small talk, the conversation turned to shootings. It always did. “If you don’t mind,” he said, “I’d just as soon not be at your first.”

“You can leave, if you want,” she said to Victor. “I understand. I mean, I haven’t done anything differently from anyone else. Just lucky, I guess.”

“Lucky. You think not being at a shooting is a matter of luck.”

“I didn’t mean it that way. I just don’t know how to talk about it. It’s terrible imagining being shot, but it’s awful waiting too. I always feel on edge, like the second I relax the universe will explode into a thousand bullets.”

“She’s never been in a shooting,” Victor whispered to the older couple.

“What?” the older man said. “How can that be? Everyone has been in a shooting. Do you leave your house?” His tone toward Gabby was more than slightly accusatory.

“Yes,” Gabby said. “I leave my house every day.”

“You’re a pretty girl,” the woman said as her husband stood to leave. “You shouldn’t share that information with people. It makes you seem cursed somehow.”

When the waitress returned, Victor waved her away.

“Okay,” Victor said. “I need to ask you this. You’ve never been in a shooting before, and you know that means it’s a matter of time, but you still aren’t wearing a vest. How is that? I’m trying to understand. You said you’re not an unwearer, but are you a member of some government organization?”

“No,” Gabby said. “I’m a fifth-grade teacher. And I was at the Parade before the shooting happened, but I left before dark because I wasn’t feeling well. My roommate was shot in the leg that night. She had to have surgery. I sat with her until her parents flew in the next day. I get it.”

“You don’t,” Victor said, his hands forming fists, involuntarily, she hoped. “No way can you get it until a bullet has grazed your body with a heat that feels like a thousand flames, or you’ve heard screams like the ones you hear in nightmares. No, ma’am. You do not get it.”

Victor relaxed his fists and began scratching his cheek while looking behind him toward the door. His left leg pumped up and down beneath the table like he was waiting to take a polygraph test.

“You can leave,” Gabby said. “I’ll call a Lyft.”

Victor moved his neck back and forth in a way that either meant fine or that he was working out a crick.

“No. I’ll drop you off at your house. My Kevlar vest is in my truck. You can wear it until you’re safe inside. I’d hate myself if something happened to you while you weren’t wearing a vest. Listen, we don’t really know each other at all, but hear me out. Please wear a vest. It’s every day now. Sometimes more than once a day. They make vests that will fit you right. You just have to give up wanting to look better than everybody else. We all look better alive.”

“That could be a perfect commercial for the vests.”

He smiled. He had dimples, but not as deep as the ones the waitress had. “Let’s try this another night.”

“After I’ve been in a shooting?”

“Maybe. Since you haven’t been I just feel like a sitting duck. I wish you’d told me before we came out.”

“I will tell everyone from now on. Maybe I’ll get it printed on a t-shirt.”

Victor’s head, which had been looking back toward the door again, turned to Gabby quickly. “Why did you say that?”

“Say what?”

“About the t-shirt. I knew it. Are you a target?”

“A target of what?” Gabby said.

“A target. Those NRA people who wear t-shirts with targets on them then come to every gathering and sit around the crowd in a circle. I’m not even sure what their point is to tell you the truth, but they are always there now – taunting, daring. It’s like they have a death-wish.”

“I don’t know anything about those people. I was just making a lame joke after you said I should tell everyone I haven’t been in a shooting.”

“Maybe you should call that Lyft,” Victor said.

Gabby reached into her purse for her phone.

“Oh shit!” Victor yelled, standing up so quickly his chair fell back. “You’re a lurer. Did you lure me here? Is that what this is all about? Are you getting a gun?”

“Victor,” Gabby said. “You made the date with me. And we have mutual friends. Lindsey and Jose?”

“I hardly know them really,” Victor said.

“Okay,” Gabby said, putting her hands on the table. “Just go. I’ll be fine.”

“No way,” Victor said. “You think I’m falling for that? As soon as I turn around, you’ll get that gun out of your purse. That’s the lurer way.”

“I’m not a lurer. Stop calling me that.”

“Is there a problem?” the waitress said, holding her silver jumpsuit tightly across her chest.

“She’s never been in a shooting,” Victor said, jerking his thumb Gabby’s way as if he was trying to hitchhike out of her sight.  

The waitress took a step back and drew a long breath.  

“I just want out,” Victor said.

“Go ahead,” the waitress said. “I’ll watch your back.”

“You can search my purse,” Gabby said. “I do not have a gun. I’ve never even held a gun. Ever.”

The waitress leaned over, pretending to rummage through Gabby’s purse.

‘Run,’ the waitress mouthed to Victor. He ran clumsily, like a kid who wore hand-me-down shoes from his big brother’s closet.

“You should get out of here now,” the waitress said to Gabby. “Maybe consider staying home until you’re ready to be part of the community.”

“I am part of the community,” Gabby said. “I’m just not much of a concert going, outdoor sports, movie-watching kind of girl.”

“I’ve got your number,” the waitress said. “You’re a mole. You’re one of those people who are just going to hide in the ground until it’s safe to come up, aren’t you? That exposes the rest of us, you know. Mole.”

“I’m not a mole,” Gabby said. “I haven’t changed how I live. I’m a homebody. I always have been.” Gabby took her purse off the table, put the strap across her shoulder, and walked quickly through the restaurant, feeling the weight of every person at each table watching her walk out. Was it possible that even now someone was pointing a gun at her back?

At the hostess station, the front door was already open.

“Keep walking, mole,” the waitress said.

Gabby heard the heavy door close behind her.

Outside it was dark; a purposeful dark instead of the messy nights of porch lights and streetlights from years gone by. She remembered when she was a teenager and her father had flicked the porch light on and on off and on to stop a make-out session. Now her parents had a steel door and an electric fence. The porch light was long gone. Lost to another time.

Gabby walked toward the sidewalk keeping her mouth closed, suddenly aware that the effort she’d put into making sure her teeth were white made her an easier target in the dark. She dimmed her phone’s screen and looked through her contacts to call a Lyft. Her teeth, the screen, the buckles on her boots all seemed like enemies now.

In the dark, she waited for the noise, the heat, the pinpricks of light to reach her and either harm her, kill her, or legitimize her.

There were nights she’d thought about buying her own gun. Shooting her own toe, maybe? Was that a way to control the anticipation of the inevitable?

From the corner of her eye, Gabby saw dim headlights coming down the street toward the restaurant.

“Hey,” a voice said. “It’s me. Victor. I’ll take you home.”

She could barely make out his face in the driver’s seat; his old Kevlar vest on the seat beside him.

“Why’d you change your mind?” Gabby said, reaching for the handle.

“Because I knew you weren’t wearing a vest. You can’t make it that easy for people, Gabby.”

Gabby felt a chill, but whatever happened next, she vowed to keep her eyes open. If this was her generation’s common ground, she refused to plant her soul in the soil willingly. When it was her turn to tell a story, she wanted to make it count. When it was her turn, she intended to feel it.

Photo by Dan Wayman on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Denise Tolan

Denise Tolan's work has been included in places such as The Penn Review, Atlas and Alice, Hobart, Lunch Ticket, and The Best Small Fictions. Denise was a finalist for Best of the Net 2022 and both the 2019 and 2018 International Literary Awards: Penelope Niven Prize in Nonfiction. She has a memoir, Italian Blood, scheduled for publication in Fall 2023. You can find out more about Denise at www.denisetolan.com