I imagine the splatter of blood the bullet will create as it invades my mind, blasting through the bone and flesh, creating a painting on the other side. What gets me — now that I sit in an abandoned warehouse with a gun in my hand — is that I’ll never see that painting. My life will shatter against the wall, leaving a mark in red.
I scrutinize the wall, haunted by everything. Colin crouches as he scrubs the bricks with a rag. His disheveled blond hair looks damp and his brown eyes glisten with tears. I convince myself that he’s here, wiping away a remnant of my life and death. The chipping white paint, brittle and dingy in its old age, makes a fitting canvas for my last work of art. The thought makes me sick and I revel in the idea of death, feeling each moment as if I’m waking from a dream. A delirium grips me as my mind conjures images of fools. They don't understand. Time stops here -- in this moment -- because it's the final moment. Even the chaos melts away.
“Fools, all of you.” I whisper, seeing the blood. The gun trembles in my hands as I rest them in my lap. “You don’t understand. How could you?” lifting the gun to my temple, I open my eyes. Memories cut through the delirium like bursting lightbulbs. “I wonder when it all fell apart.”
“What are you doing, Jude? And why are you still wearing that suit?” Colin looks over at me from the table with glassy eyes. For some time he hasn’t been complete without a drink in his hand. He downs a glass of liquor and looks at me with a distant, pained gaze.
“Why aren’t you still wearing a suit?” I throw gallons of paint against a wall of the warehouse, splashing the white bricks and windows with a plethora of color. Each drop covers over my reflection in the glass, blotting out my pale brown face and dark, weary eyes. Charcoal hair sticks to my forehead with sweat. Paint drips, pooling on the concrete floor, and I fight the urge to lay in it until it dries, stuck forever.
"I wore the suit because you're my friend and you asked me to wear the suit, not because I'm the kind of guy who just likes to wear a suit around all the time. I prefer the classic t-shirt and jeans combo." He gestures to his clothing with a smug expression.
I ignore it and shake my head. “It’s about time we added a little color to this place.” I shout as I splatter more paint against the wall, relishing the act and its result. After dipping my fingertips in it, I set down the can of crimson paint and walk over to Colin, coming up behind him. “Don’t you agree?” I mark his cheek with paint, creating red smudges on his pale skin.
Colin whips around and decks me in the jaw, pushing his chair over in the process and knocking his cup to the floor. The sound of shattering glass sticks in my mind like a splinter as I stumble backwards. My body collides with something hard and flat behind me. Everything in front of me is dark and blurry and for a moment I wonder if this is what the end looks like.
“Jude,” Colin says, and it sounds like we’re underwater. He wipes his face with his sleeve to remove the paint.
My head throbs as if my heart has replaced my mind. When I open my eyes devastation that rips through me, as though I expected to see a different version of my life; one where I still had dreams instead of nightmares. Colin pins me to the wall to keep me from collapsing. He studies my face, waiting for me speak.
“Don’t feel bad,” I murmur. “I knew you’d do it.” A smile ghosts across my face as he lets go of me and I stagger over to the couch.
"It was just a reflex." He sits beside me and sighs. We sink into the sagging cushions like an act of surrender. “If you thought I’d do it then why’d you want me to?”
Chuckling at the left-over paint still on his cheek, I stare at the bottle of liquor left on the table. "I just wanted to feel it, Colin. What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, I guess. I just don’t know why you’d choose to get hurt.”
“Maybe you will understand -- someday.” I leap up from the couch, the fog lifting from my mind, and rifle through the seemingly endless stacks of paper strewn all over the floor. Stopping for a moment, I think of all the words I wrote that went to waste. These stacks of pages used to be my life. Now they just sit, gathering dust, residue from the past and constant reminders of who I used to be.
Colin watches me with a calculating gaze. “Why do you do that to yourself? I would have thrown all those papers out --”
“Stop.” It comes out with a sharpness that I don’t anticipate, but it feels good. “I know what you’d do, Colin. You’d go bottoms up and try to pretend that it’s not real.” I pause, still rummaging through the stacks. “When are you going to wake up and realize that your life is worthless?” relief washes over me as each word leaves my lips. Letting the pages go, I turn around and study him. My eyes yearn to wander. “Everyday you get up hoping that something has changed overnight, and when it hasn’t, you’ll do anything to be numb. If you haven’t realized how pointless it is, Colin, you’re a fucking idiot.” I wait for him to say something, anything, but he gazes off, looking through me. “I just don’t know if I can do it anymore.” I stare at the paint-splattered window until my vision blurs and all the blotches seem to become one. I long to jump into the ocean of colors and float away, away from all the waste and loss and suffering. Drawing in a shaky breath, I lock eyes with Colin. “I can’t stand here for one more second knowing that we’re just letting ourselves waste away.” I flee the warehouse, sliding the door shut with a loud screech as it protests my escape.
I wake up on the couch the next morning, convinced that the previous day was just another nightmare. I sit up, still a bit disoriented, and look over at the table, expecting Colin to be downing another drink. The table is bare and for a moment I feel a guilty kind of relief. I jump up from the couch, almost running into Colin. He stands, frozen in his reverie, marveling at the paint. The longer I look at him the more my heart breaks.
“Colin — ”
“It really is beautiful, Jude.”
“It happened, then. So it wasn’t a nightmare.”
“Not a dream, not a nightmare, but something else altogether.”
A knock at the door rips through our thoughts, making us flinch. Colin and I exchange a look of fear and confusion.
“A knock at the door?” Colin turns to me and winks. He strolls toward the door with an undeniable swagger, reminding me of our college days. At first I feel morose as I realize that those days only ended a year or two ago, but the longer I watch him, the more I long to forget — to follow blindly and blissfully in a warped state of mind.
I fall into step behind him, attempting to imitate his strut as I follow him around the space. “Colin, do you still remember our characters from drama at the university?”
“Way ahead of you, Jude. Way ahead.” The velvety British accent of Ross Wembley seems to infect my mind, blurring the present and reviving the past. Colin stops, forcing me to grind to a halt behind him, and spins around to face me. His grin would frighten me if I wasn't so taken with rekindling the past. “And where is Charles Wembley?” he whispers with a kind of seduction I thought he’d lost. “Where’s that brother of mine?” he struts again, backwards this time, until we reach the door. “You know I can’t do it without him.” He wrenches the door open.
“You could always do it without me, Ross. You never needed me to get the ladies — ” I break off, noticing the young woman at our door.
“I’m not so sure,” Colin says, sizing her up. “I think the lipstick’s a bit much. Doesn’t suit her. Don’t you agree, Charles?”
“Now that you mention it, brother, I do agree. I do agree.” We nod to each other as if forgetting her altogether.
The woman stares at us with bewitching black eyes, more shocked than offended. Her dress is the color of blood, tight and lacy with a scandalous neckline. “Excuse me, gentlemen. My car broke down and I’m just looking for a place to get out of the rain and -- this place is interesting, especially the sign on the door.”
"Oh, yes, that." I stare off into the dusk behind her, mumbling the message on the sign absentmindedly. "Those who wish to enter must promise to offer intrigue."
"Quite something, isn't it?" Colin says, smirking.
"Sure." She looks over us and studies the interior of the warehouse. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to come in now.”
“Rain, you said?” Colin holds a hand out as if to escort her inside, but as her fingertips touch his he jerks his hand away, repositioning it to feel for rain drops. “Charles,” he scolds me, and the change in his voice makes me flinch. “Stop ogling the poor girl and help her inside.”
With a weak look of contempt at Colin, I wait for her to take my hand.
"And here I was thinking that all the gentlemen had gone extinct." She quickly looks me over and takes my hand.
"We don't get many visitors," I say. "Why not go all out?"
"I see," she says as I lead her inside.
“If you’re going to stay here you’ll have to wipe that lipstick off,” Colin says, still in character.
“Don’t let Ross bother you too much,” I tell her. “He’s a little rusty — hasn’t interacted with any women in a while.”
"I'm not surprised." She sits at the table and we join her, relishing her company, though not yet inclined to show it.
“My God,” she exclaims. “Don't you two ever get cold in here?"
“No, and careful about mentioning the Lord’s name in front of Charles, dear. He’s what you’d call an Atheist, and a fiery one at that.”
“If she’s mentioning it in vain — well — ”
“I didn't — ”
“Oh, it’s quite alright, dear. Pay no mind — ”
“Excuse me.” Her voice has a chilling hint of venom in it. “I'd like a favor?”
“Anything,” Colin and I say in sync.
“I’m sure that a conversation with the two of you would be just riveting,” she says with false enthusiasm, “but right now I need both of you to shut the fuck up.”
We stare at her, unsure if our silence is out of shock or scorn, and then burst out laughing.
“Can either of you get me drink?” as she fetches a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from her bag, Colin and I appear to be fixed in place. Even her movements have an allure that captivates us entirely.
Colin's eyes shift from the woman to me as he fetches her a glass, making his desire obvious while he walks behind her.
“Damn it,” I mouth.
We watch her light up with a bizarre kind of fascination. Smoke envelops her, feathery and foul, like ruin itself. She takes a sip of liquor from Colin’s extra glass, leaving behind crimson residue. Eyeing the trace of lipstick with an abstracted sense of lust, I’m reminded of sex and decay.
“I don’t smoke in private,” she says. “I like to do it around people — strangers especially.” Exhaling, she blankets us in smoke.
“Nasty habit.” Colin takes a drag from her cigarette and hands it back to her.
“I’ve only done it once before.” I blurt, forgetting my character. They stare at me, sipping on their liquor, and the silence lingers before I realize that I must’ve said it aloud. “It’s been ages since I’ve taken a drag.” I nearly shout, returning to character. “Yes, yes.” My eyes dart, catching glimpses of baffled expressions. A terrible mix of panic and confusion seems to control my movements as I rise from the table and pace around the area. “We’re going to die anyway, aren’t we? Why not enjoy a smoke or two or ten-bloody-thousand?” backtracking to the table, I slam a hand down on its surface and chuckle. “Miss,” I compose myself, “I’d love a smoke.”
She examines me and takes the cigarette out of her mouth. “You’re a disaster,” she whispers. “I bet if I gave you one of these you’d burn the whole damn world down.”
A frail laugh escapes my lips and part of me wishes to melt away. Equal parts of fear and relief wash over me as I realize that she can see through me. “I’m afraid,” I say, sitting down. “Only by accident.”