Outside, the patio was festooned with Christmas lights, each glowing white like stars. Flickering candles dotted the outside edge of the large area. A few tables had been set out for the party, each draped with clean white linens and surrounded by chairs. The guest milled around, drinking and chatting, as Lisa stepped outside, stalking through the party like a shark slicing through calm waters, searching for prey.
Ahead of her, Johnny broke off the conversation he’d been having and separated himself from the group, finding a place from which he could orate. “Hey, everybody, I have an announcement to make,” he announced. His eyes shone with joy. “We are expecting!”
The patio was filled with shouts and laughs of joy. A scattered applause went up from a few of the guests, and they crowded around Johnny, voicing their congratulations. Mark clapped his best friend on the back while replacement Peter shook Johnny’s hand, all overjoyed at the new addition to their close-knit group. Michelle gave Johnny a small peck on the cheek before quickly backing away, quietly slipping over to where Lisa stood, arms crossed and face sullen.
“Lisa, I have to talk to you,” she whispered, dragging her a few feet away, to a spot where a string of Christmas lights sagged overhead, and Johnny, preoccupied with the attention of everyone else, couldn’t hear them. Michelle clasped both her friend’s hands in her own as replacement Peter sidled up behind them, anxiously staring down at the two women. “You have got to be honest with Johnny,” she told Lisa.
“I agree with that,” replacement Peter nodded.
Feeling backed into a corner, Lisa snatched her hands away. Her eyes flashed between her two friends, and she held her hands up in appeasement. “Look, I’m going to tell him,” she started. “Just… I don’t want to ruin his birthday.” Nervous, she fingered her engagement ring.
Replacement Peter searched his memory banks, looking for an appropriate thing to say in this situation, but this appeared to be a total aberration. All he had was suggestions for pregnancies and suggestions for adultery. “When is the baby due?” he asked slowly, opting to focus on the former.
Her shoulders slumping, Lisa flicked the huge diamond on her finger back and forth. “There is no baby,” she confessed.
“What?” replacement Peter asked at the same time as Michelle. “But… What are you talking about?” he continued.
Lisa stepped away, leading them to a nearby table, and sat. Intent on Lisa’s explanation, Michelle sat and leaned in while replacement Peter crouched next to her, his hands on his knees. The revelation that she had simply lied about her pregnancy seemed impossible. The lie gave her nothing, and only served to make the discovery of her deception even more unavoidable – and the fallout so much worse. Her only possible motive was spite. She would either have to be stupid or insane – or some combination of the two – to have done this.
“I told him that to make it interesting,” Lisa explained. In unison, Michelle and replacement Peter leaned back, their foreheads knitted with confusion at the bizarre justification. When her friend and replacement friend failed to give her the support she had expected, she continued, rationalising defensively. “We’re probably going to have a baby eventually, anyway,” she asserted, despite the fact that she was supposedly desperate to get out of her relationship with her future husband, not to mention the fact that she was so evil, her womb was probably a barren wasteland. “You’re not going to tell Johnny, are you?” she pleaded, now unsure of herself.
“Lisa, are you feeling okay?” Michelle leaned forward, putting a hand to Lisa’s forehead to check her friend’s temperature, assuming Lisa would have to be deathly ill to have decided on such a peculiar course of action. “Because this is just getting worse and worse,” she pointed out, finding Lisa’s skin as icy cold as her heart.
Desperate for relief from the judgement, Lisa grabbed the nearest champagne flute and drained it, forgetting her pregnancy ruse precluded such activities.
“I feel like I’m sitting on an atomic bomb,” replacement Peter exclaimed, “Waiting for it to go off.” In truth, he wished there was an atomic bomb located directly under where his hologram was projected, ready to cleanse Sol-3 of such evil.
“Me too!” Michelle agreed. “There’s no simple solution to this.” There would be though, she added mentally, if Lisa hadn’t needlessly complicated the situation, apparently for shits and giggles.
“Don’t worry,” Lisa urged her friends as usual. “You guys worry entirely too much about me.”
“Lisa, we’re not worried about you, we’re worried about Johnny,” Michelle scolded, no longer sympathising her friend, justifiably. “You don’t understand the psychological impact of what you’re doing here. You’re hurting yourself, you’re…” She motioned at herself and replacement Peter. “You’re hurting our friendship,” she finished.
“I’m not,” Lisa sneered slowly, “Responsibly for Johnny. I’m through with that. I’m changing. I have the right, don’t I? People are changing all the time,” she continued, perhaps referring to San Francisco’s infamous werewolf epidemic. She thrust a finger into her chest. “I have to think about my future,” she asserted. “What’s it to you?”
Trying to find some shred of humanity within the woman before him, replacement Peter reached out and gently took her hand. “This is going to pull us all down,” he reasoned with her, trying and failing to find words that could impress upon her the gravity of her actions. “It’s going to shake up our group of friends. It’s going to destroy our friendship, Lisa.” When Lisa rolled her eyes, replacement Peter decided to change tack. “I don’t think Mark really loves you,” he told her.
Lisa’s heavily shadowed eyes went wide and angry as she glared at replacement Peter. She stood. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she snarled.
“Lisa, you’re going to have to face it,” Michelle snapped, leaving just what Lisa had to face vague. “I, for one, am going to have a hard time forgiving you if you don’t.”
Her entire posture instantly changing, her features snapping from furious to sweet and happy, as if to prove to her friend and replacement friend how much control she had over the situation, Lisa addressed the patio. “Hey, everybody,” she called out, “Let’s go inside and eat some cake.”
The reaction was exactly what Lisa wanted, what she needed to soothe her wounded ego. The guests immediately stood, enthusiastically following Lisa’s commands, doing exactly what she wanted. As it was meant to be, Lisa thought smugly. Within moments the patio was clear, a line of people shuffling back inside the condo. As Lisa glided over to usher her sheep inside, Michelle watched her friend in shock and dismay, unable to believe her monstrous deeds.
“I don’t understand you, Lisa,” she called after her. When there was no response, all she could do was sigh.
“Lisa looks hot tonight,” one of Johnny’s previously unseen friends observed as he ate a morsel of cake off a plastic fork. His girlfriend, equally unestablished, looked at him like he had lost his mind.
Next to them, Johnny sat with Claudette, chuckling as they spoke. He leaned in and gave her a quick peck on the cheek, wanting his future mother-in-law to know how much he appreciated her, before they went back to their briefly interrupted conversation.
“Come on,” Mark urged Lisa, standing in the center of the living room, “Whose baby is it? Is it mine?”
“No, of course not,” Lisa spat, although if she were pregnant she would have no way of knowing either way. She turned to storm away, but Mark grabbed her wrist, whirling her around to face him.
“How can you be sure?” he demanded. “Come on, Lisa.”
“Stop asking me stupid questions,” she snarled.
“Who the hell do you think you are?”
“Just shut up!” Lisa yelled as she slapped Mark across the cheek. Rage surging through her, the blow had been so hard that her palm stung.
Mark recoiled, surprised at the force of the hit. Still recovering, he made a grab for Lisa’s arms, totally forgetting where he was and the number of people watching. Johnny shot out of his chair, racing to his future wife’s side.
“What are you doing?” he demanded, trying to hold Lisa with hands meant to be comforting even as she glared at Mark, her eyes burning with the promise of greater retribution. “What’s going on here?” His future wife pulled away from him.
“You really don’t know, do you?” Mark scoffed, his eyes flitting to Lisa, standing between him and his best friend.
“Maybe I know more than you think I do, Mark,” Johnny shot back, punctuating his words with a strong shove to Mark’s chest.
Mark stumbled back, but quickly recovered, sauntering forward as he challenged his best friend. “Shit, alright?” he said cryptically.
“What do you want from me, huh?” Johnny demanded, thrusting his palm into Mark’s chest again, this time harder. “Huh?” Staggering, Mark fell back a few feet, lurching into an end table and upsetting a lamp and breaking empty champagne flutes.
Picking himself up, Mark dropped into an aggressive, hostile stance. He thundered forward, slamming into Johnny and grappling with him, trying to wrestle him down to the hardwood floor of the condo.
“Stop! Stop it!” Lisa screamed as they fought, although she must have been expecting something like this to happen. Throwing herself into the fray, she tried to pry her future husband and her lover apart even as they battled, viciously assaulting each other and hurtling brutal blows.
Shocked out of their stupor by Lisa’s shrieks, the room seemed to surge forward as a few other guests threw themselves onto the two men. Replacement Peter grabbed Mark around his chest and pulled him away as Mike did the same to Johnny, separating them.
“Alright,” Johnny murmured, throwing his hands up in the air, before loudly repeating, “Alright!” His hands dropped to his sides. “Okay, folks, everything is fine,” he said, trying to reassure himself more than the guests. “Fight is over, folks.” Relaxing, he extended a hand to his best friend in a gesture of peace, or at least a truce. “I’m sorry, Mark.”
Stalking forward, his eyes full of suspicion and reproach, Mark hesitated before taking the offered hand. “Yeah,” he agreed, “Me too.”
“Lisa, can you clean up here, please,” Johnny asked softly, trying to regain some dignity before slowly trudging away.
A cold, sick feeling rising in his stomach as he thought about his actions, Mark dropped like a load of bricks into the seat Johnny had just vacated.