The Bad Guy
Katie Edkins Milligan
Reading Time: about 9 minutes
"The Bad Guy" originally appeared in Issue 22 of Tahoma Literary Review. There's something surreal about the premise of this story: sitting in a salon with a bobcat running around outside. Yet it was the "realness" of the characters interactions with each other that pulled me into this piece.
It otherwise seems like a regular day at the salon. Reese has just arrived for her appointment. She and Lacey usually hug before Reese settles herself into the chair at Lacey’s station—Reese usually crosses her legs and says, You’re not going to believe it, and Lacey says, Don’t tell me, and Reese launches into updates about her latest, crazy romantic disappointments while Lacey applies the sour dye. But they don’t hug this time. They’ve been recently, and unfortunately, mixed up in each other’s real-world circles, and Reese is quiet as she takes her seat. They look at each other in the mirror, seeing the same thing from two faraway places.
Reese pinches a piece of invisible lint from the knee of her jeans. She says, slowly, cocking her head, “Well. You’ve heard.” So superior, and predictable. Lacey unties Reese’s ponytail and tries to focus on holding the hair in her hands.
“I did hear the breakup was bad.”
Reese narrows her eyes. “Spencer said that?”
Lacey flicks her thumbnail on the band of her engagement ring.
“And what about the bartender? I’d say for Spencer it wasn’t that bad at all.”
The afternoon sun cuts through the salon window, glinting across the planes of Lacey’s diamond, casting a freckling of tiny, trapezoidal rainbows onto the mirror glass. Lacey wants to be professional. And she promised Charlie this morning she wouldn’t make things worse. She lifts her finger, tilting the ring to reposition the field of sun dots beside Reese’s reflected face. She says, “Why don’t I go mix your color.” But Reese straightens in her chair and pulls her shoulders back, and when she announces, “I didn’t even have to come here today, you know,” Lacey almost laughs. Lacey’s spent years watching Reese revel in the drama she carefully creates. If anything, Reese has been looking forward to this appointment, checkmarking days on her calendar.
On reflex, Lacey leans forward and whispers, sarcastically, “Please.” And then she turns and walks fast away from the station, past the row of windows that look out onto the salon parking lot.
The salon building is set back from the road, in the hollowed-out core of a small wooded area, and the far edge of the parking lot asphalt borders a narrow grassy lawn and a face of trees. Earlier this afternoon, beyond this patch of woods, across the river in Vermont, unbeknownst to both Lacey and Reese, a bobcat attacked a man in his car. The man spotted the animal slinking along a driveway on a residential street and pulled up close to take a picture. When he rolled down his window for an unobstructed shot, the bobcat launched herself into the open space of his driver’s seat, gnashing at his forearms before retreating into the neighborhood. The man was transported to St. Cloud’s for emergency care, and news of the incident has spread.
On one local radio station, a debate flares up. One commentator lays the blame on the man—“Why roll down the window?” Another asks, “Wouldn’t you?” A third party, a local vet who’s been called in as an expert guest, guesses the bobcat is infected, based on her atypically aggressive behavior. No consensus is reached.
Lacey has a podcast she listens to. Each episode explores a specific psychology theory of romance—being attracted to people who look like your dad, or the seven-year itch idea. Et cetera. Even if Lacey tends to judge self-help women, the podcast has some smart ideas about why you do the things you do when you’re dating, or engaged, or, finally, married. Lacey plays it when there’s no one around to catch her. She finds it helpful, to have outside, expert frames of reference for when Charlie behaves in ways she doesn’t immediately like.
Six months ago, Reese complained to Lacey about having to move. Lacey remembers it was right after Charlie proposed, and that Reese squealed, “I hate it! Make me feel worse about myself, why don’t you!” Reese said she kept running into her latest ex in the courtyard of their shared building—“So now I’m househunting on top of everything else”—and Lacey mentioned her fiancé’s cousin was renting a townhouse down by the roundabout. Mostly so she could lean into the word fiancé. When Charlie told her that Spencer, his landlord cousin, his close friend, had started sleeping with the client Lacey sent over, Lacey said, “I can’t believe he’s into her,” and Charlie was like, “Come on. She’s got the exact build as Valerie.” This reminded Lacey of a particular podcast theory, the episode explaining the idea of types, how people carry over learned affinities for specific traits or behaviors from one relationship to the next. (As in, you date a blond man with a beard in January, and then a redheaded man with a beard in February, and then a redhead with no beard in March.) I call it a Relationship Holdover, the host had said. People are usually glad when I suggest their exes hold on to some little piece of them.
Charlie acted like the theory made sense in an obvious way. AA to AB to BC, he called it. He said Lacey’s secret podcast was cute, and Lacey told him she was serious, tried to make the danger of Reese shared knowledge—“This woman is terrible. She was cheated on, like, twice, and now she makes drama just to prove herself right”—but Charlie didn’t believe her until he came home a few months later and said, accusingly, “She set him up.” Spencer and Reese had dinner plans, and Reese picked a fight and never showed. Spencer happened to know one of the restaurant bartenders from high school, and the woman was nice enough to give him a sober ride home, and Reese must have been waiting in the parking lot—“The psycho,” said Charlie—and tailed them in her car. Spencer let the bartender come in for the bathroom when she dropped him off, and Reese just assumed the worst. “She has the nerve to call him this morning and just come out with it. And then she breaks up with him! Even if he had slept with the girl from JJ’s!” Charlie leaned back in his seat at the kitchen table and slung a brotherly arm across an empty chairback, like Spencer was sitting there beside him. Lacey said, “I told you she was crazy,” but Charlie said, “You never said crazy crazy,” and he’s kept bringing it up since. When he called last minute to say he couldn’t make a tasting: “I’m pulling a Reese.” When they were mapping out the seating chart: “Spencer’s allowed to bring whatever date he wants. I’m serious.” When the podcast came on in the car: “You know, if she was crazy crazy and she looked like Valerie, you definitely should have seen it coming.”
Lacey’s relieved to find the salon staff room empty. She braces herself against the beam of a windowsill. Her cell phone buzzes in her pocket and she flinches, because she knows what it’s going to be—a message from Charlie, Is she there yet—who only omits punctuation when he’s mad. She types back, She’s here. It’s fine! and it’s Reese’s fault, this compensating feeling, this texting him on eggshells like he’s some chancy new hookup. There’s a shout from the main room and Lacey looks up just in time to see something step out from between two far off trees, encroaching, shoulders slinging, paws first, across the strip of lawn and onto the asphalt slab.
Lacey watches the bobcat snake through the parking lot. It’s fairly small, but it moves like it’s big. She’s too far away to tell the pattern of colors in its coat, can only see that it passes by her own sedan and drags its haunches against the door metal, and it’s like, Hey! That’s my car! The animal’s claws kick up gravel, and Lacey thinks, impulsively, of her clean white wedding dress, waiting in a protective gusset bag at home.
Reese sees the bobcat at the same time Lacey sees it, from the position of her different window. She’s alone and uncomfortable at Lacey’s station, thinking how usually it’s more cute, the way the salon parodies itself, steel fixtures and exposed woods, yearning so obviously for a trendy, city ambiance. Usually, it’s all unoriginal enough to feel more like the idea of a place. And the other hairdressers—so unlike her, with their tattoos and their balayage. And quiet, anonymous Lacey. An easy listener, unintimidating in her unresponsiveness. That’s how your hair salon is supposed to make you feel, right? Therapeutic, in its separateness from your life?
Reese draws her sweater across her chest, mulling over Lacey’s sarcastic “please.” If Reese heard her right, is that something Lacey can say? That sounds bad. Reese resents the train of thought—and Lacey, by association—for making her feel unfairly elitist. For making her feel like the bad guy here. She spins to face her reflection, and for a familiar moment she resents that too. Full hair. Flicked eyes. Pretty enough to draw the Spencers in, but then, that’s always it. Framed behind her, beyond a glass window wall, is the salon parking lot and a picture sky. The kind of day Reese tends not to trust anymore. Maybe coming back to see Lacey was a mistake after all. Should Reese leave? She should leave, before Lacey comes back.
So, she’s leaning over, grabbing for her purse handle, when she sees in the mirror a reflected flash of movement at the edge of the outside woods. Someone calls out, “Look! By that truck!” In all likelihood, if Reese had heard about the bobcat attack beforehand, she’d have thought mostly about the man who took the picture, been irritated—amazed—by the people who still allow themselves to be surprised by and unprepared for the dangers in the world around them. Instead, Reese watches, transfixed, as the figure glides between cars and dips her furred forehead below rearview mirrors. She won’t admit to doing it later, but she walks over to the window and presses her hand to the warm glass. She thinks, What a beautiful way to walk.
The bobcat ensconces herself below the undercarriage of a double cab pickup and stays there. She watches the salon building and swishes her tail across the ground. She looks poised for movement, a triple-threat crouch, but she’s still waiting under the truck fourteen minutes later when the cars descend upon the parking lot. Whether it seems like she stuck around because she didn’t know any better or because she was looking for a fight—that depends on who you ask.
The Animal Control troopers tumble out of their vehicles like a citizen’s militia, keyed up and disorganized. Ten or fifteen of them in hand-me-down cruisers and one boxy van. They loop a caution tape tightrope across the head of the driveway, between two trees. They gather at the asphalt edges, squinting in the bobcat’s direction, fumbling with Velcro vests and area maps. A senior-looking AC officer lopes up to the salon doors and asks, out of breath, for whoever’s in charge. Lacey hears him instruct the owner, No one in or out. The owner protests, tells him she has a business to run, but the man puts his hands on his hips. A younger trooper jogs over to the building and sets a battered orange cone just outside the door.
To some extent, the excitement of the up-close show in the parking lot levels the social strata inside the salon: customers with airdrying, half-cut hair snack on crackers from the staff room; stylists shed their barber’s aprons and slip out of their shoes; people line up at the wall of windows, captive and captivated, taking pictures with their phones. But other tendencies are only reinforced by the strange turn of events. Customers still stand near their stylists, and stylists still talk to their clients. Even Lacey and Reese are only separated by Zada, a small, spindly stylist who was between appointments when the bobcat arrived. Lacey has rolled her swivel stool to the window, sitting with one bare foot propped up on the seat, hugging her leg to her chest. Reese keeps glancing over at her, turning her whole head each time. Of course this happened when Lacey had Reese here. With everyone all buddy buddy. Of all the clients on all the days.
Zada is young—early twenties—with a necklace of black calligraphy peeking from beneath her tee collar. She always reminds Lacey of a bird, the way she jerks her skinny arms. Zada pokes her finger to the windowpane glass, in the direction of the bobcat, and strokes it tinily. She says, “She’s smaller than I thought a bobcat would be. I pictured a cougar or a mountain lion or something, but she’s almost more like a fox. Or a dog.”
“She’s more striking than a dog,” Reese says. “But maybe I’m just more of a cat person.”
Lacey has sent Charlie two more messages: You won’t believe it, and, Hear about the bobcat from the news? She checks her phone again, and the timestamp on the empty screen tells her she’s supposed to be on the onward side of this appointment and all the dumb, distracting drama. One of the slow troopers—a thin, blond, pink-skinned boy—keeps hiking up his pants, and Lacey can just picture him going home tonight to brag to his family about the big, exciting day. Is that bitchy? There are people like Reese who would probably never stop to consider these AC people having lives outside the parking lot at all. As if she’s talking to Zada, but loud enough for Reese to hear, Lacey points at the bobcat under the truck and says, “They should just drag her out from under there already.”
Zada says, “It’s hard though.” She shifts her weight from foot to foot and the wood floors creak. “On the one hand, totally. They said on the news the guy from this morning went in for surgery. But then, since bobcats usually keep to themselves, maybe she’s rabid. And scared. Who are you supposed to feel bad for, you know?” This kind of greenness in girls like Zada feels so faraway to Lacey anymore. Stylists fresh out of beauty school so quick to tell you they went into cosmetology because they’re people people. Who watch online tutorials, and say they don’t need dating apps, yet. The receptionist calls Zada’s name, and the girl flits off toward the desk.
For a long minute, neither Lacey nor Reese speaks. The salon owner is behind them, talking on the phone with what sounds like a journalist, trying to drum up some dramatic press—“She hasn’t moved toward them yet, but she looks ready to.” Out on the pavement, a group of troopers assembles behind the trunk of their van, nodding and gesturing at something inside of it.
Reese says quietly, “You know you haven’t even asked to hear my side.”
A ray of late day sun bends through some cloud, bouncing off the screen of Lacey’s phone on the windowsill, lighting it up, mimicking a notification. Lacey starts. She hates this desperate, familiar feeling—unlike Reese, who gives up so easily, Lacey has tried too hard for too long with too many men who shut down at rough patches. Lacey watches the bobcat poke her paw out from under the car and claw the concrete in the troopers’ direction. She’s toying with them. Enjoying this. Lacey speaks carefully, like she shouldn’t say anything, and plainly, like she shouldn’t have to say anything. “He’s about to be a groomsman in my wedding. If anything, did you ever think about how there’s my side too?”
Reese reaches over and touches Lacey’s arm where it’s warm from baking in the window sun. “You’re seeing what you want to see,” she whispers. “He was unfaithful.”
“According to you, so were a lot of guys.” Lacey pretends to say it under her breath, but she knows it’s plenty loud. “Because apparently he didn’t. Cheat. You just think he did, and after you went off on him he just said to hell with it.”
The owner, on the phone behind Lacey and Reese: “Would a picture help? She has her arm out. It looks like she’s starting to get worked up.”
...Read the rest in Issue 22.