Ava navigated through the crowd slowly, often slowing down or stopping altogether, to avoid touching anyone. She was tall and thin. Heavy bags rested under her eyes and she wore no makeup. Lip gloss was all she could muster that night. Her curly black hair was flat and unkempt. Ava wore a form fitting black dress that hugged her body but it made her feel like she was being touched by a stranger. She was much more comfortable in sweatpants and running shoes than a dress and high heels. She was constantly tugging and adjusting as she moved. To avoid eye contact, her gaze was fixated on the red, pink and teal that danced along the carpet in no particular pattern. She imagined how many drinks and bodily fluids had been spilled on this floor over the years and it made her sick to her stomach. But Ava’s discontent wasn’t only with the carpet, it was in the air. The cocktail of cheap perfume, liquor, cigarettes and lingering body odor overwhelmed her nostrils. A stench so invasive she could taste it.
Bright rings of light from above, the flashing of the slot machines and scrolling of the marquee blinded her as she continued to move through the crowd. In a moment of interrupted progress, as she stopped to let an eager gambler pass, she looked up to see a woman with a micro-skirt dancing on a platform. A drunk man was at the base of the platform smacking it with his hand and catcalling. He was swiftly yanked away by security.
“Where is he?” she whispered to herself with frustration. She thought about yelling out to him, but she knew it would be pointless. The music was so loud that she felt the rumbles of the bass vibrate her rib cage. Merged with the music was the collective chatter of hundreds of people. The incoherent noise of dozens of conversations at once reminded her of Tibetan monks at prayer.
But this was no holy place. To Ava, this was hell. She hated everything about it. With each passing second, Ava was getting increasingly ill by the sights and sounds. Thousands of thoughts splashed around in her head like a pool of piranha devouring a fresh kill. The only thought she could hold onto was to find Brad. If she could just find Brad it would be okay. She needed to feel okay, because intertwined with the thoughts were the voices. The bad voices. The voices whispering to go upstairs to her hotel room and down a bottle of sleeping pills. The voices commanding her to grab the gun of one of the security guards, fire it into the air and wait until a barrage of bullets came flying into her chest from the other guard on duty. The voices she could not silence. She had to keep telling herself, “No! Just find Brad, and everything will be okay.”
A hand on her shoulder startled her and she turned to see an overweight man wearing a loose fitting gray suit holding a beer bottle in his hand.
“Are you okay? I noticed you walking around then I saw you stop and stand here for like, five minutes,” he asked with genuine concern. Time would often escape Ava when her thoughts ran wild.
“I’m fine - fine.” she replied looking down at his feet. As she looked down, Ava noticed that her hands were shaking.
“Would you like a drink or some-”
“No, I’m fine!” she snapped at him. The man took a step back and held his hands up, his left palm showing and his right hand gripping his beer bottle with this thumb and index finger.
“My bad.” he replied, “I just know that this place, as full of energy and movement and people as it is, it can leave folks feeling empty. If you don’t mind me saying, you look a bit empty right now.”
“Why would you be here if you know that?” she inquired.
“It’s part of my job. I host parties for organizations and there is a convention this weekend and this was one of the party destinations. That’s why there are so many people on the casino floor.”
“Oh-” she looked around the room for the first time. She was stretching her neck to peer over the swarm of people.
“If you’re trying to find someone I’d suggest going up the escalator to the mezzanine. It’ll give you a better vantage point.” He pointed just over her left shoulder. She turned to see, turned back to the man and mumbled an incoherent thank you, then headed in that direction. Before she could take her first step toward the escalator the man called out, “You sure you’re ok? I’m not sure who you are looking for but it’s clear to me that they aren’t too concerned if they left you. If you need someone to talk or-”
“I’m fine. Thank you.” she said with obvious pain in her voice. She thought about the offer as she noticed the sincerity in his eyes. Ava hadn’t experienced the kindness of a stranger in quite a long time. But she believed that Brad was all she needed, so she flashed the man a forced smile, and proceeded toward the escalator.
Ava carefully slid through the crowd toward the escalator up to the mezzanine. “I’ll be fine. I just need to find Brad. I just can’t be alone. I can’t be alone. Not right now,” she talked to herself as her breathing became shallow. Once on the second floor, she looked down over the balcony and into the crowd and a gentle, internal voice whispered to her, “If you fall over, head first-” she shook her head and thought, “no, no, I have to find Brad.” She took a step away from the edge and looked out into the crowd hoping to spot him in the chaos. Hoping to find the one person she knew could bring her peace.