Sulking on the couch upstairs, Lisa hadn’t bothered to turn on a single light, letting the illumination from the street outside filter in through the drapes and create jagged shadows that matched her mood. Claudette climbed the spiral staircase, her face somber as a funeral, watching her daughter as she sat motionless, brooding.
“I cleaned up the kitchen, sweetheart,” she told her daughter, unrolling the sleeves of her jacket, her voice gentle but cold. “So you don’t have to worry about that.”
Her lips pushed out in a pout, Lisa stood, looking to her mother for advice. “He still won’t come out of the bathroom,” she complained, pleading for guidance.
“Sweetheart, he’s upset,” Claudette told her daughter, stunned by her indifference. “Now, Johnny is a sensible man, he will come out, you will discuss this,” she continued, outlining the proper course of action, “Everything is going to be okay.”
“I just think I should be alone with his right now,” Lisa said, her forehead knitting in faux concern as she tried to convince her mother to leave.
“I understand, sweetheart,” Claudette replied, her hand on Lisa’s cheek. “I’m going to go home now,” she kissed her daughter’s other cheek and tapped her nose. “Bye bye. You call me if you need me.”
“I will,” Lisa nodded. “Thanks, mom.”
“Mmhmm,” Claudette called back, already descending the stairs, satisfied. She knew leaving was the right thing to do, but it wouldn’t have helped unless her daughter had realised it as well. Now that Lisa was being sensible – now that she had said she was going to reassure Johnny and have a serious talk about their future – everything was going to be okay. Claudette knew she didn’t have to worry about it.
After watching her mother go, Lisa turned her gaze to the bathroom door, her lips curling back in a sneer as she thought about her future husband with loathing. Her high heels clicking against the floor in an angry staccato, she stormed over, grasping the knob and tugging, furiously trying to break down the locked door. She gave it another yank, pulling so hard that the mirror on the wall swayed as the thin, poorly constructed wall shuddered.
Giving up, she turned to look at the bedroom, dark and empty, no longer the place of joy and intimacy it had once been. The scented candles were dark, the only light streaming in from outside. It fell in a long ray across the telephone, making the line of communication beam beckoningly in the night.
Trying to ignore the impulse, Lisa paced. She crossed her arms, impatiently whirling back on the bathroom door. “You can come out now, Johnny,” she called. “She’s gone.”
His back against the door, Johnny glowered. “In a few minutes, bitch,” he called back.
“Who are you calling a bitch?” Lisa demanded, not sure how cheating on her future husband, telling all his friends he was abusive and then lying about being pregnant made her a bitch.
“You and your stupid mother,” Johnny told her.
Anger coursing through her, Lisa screwed up her face. All her resolve to do what her mother said and try to salvage her relationship with her future husband disappeared, drowned in her rage. She turned back to the phone, wanting to hurt Johnny as much as she could. It beeped cheerfully as she dialed Mark’s number, her fingers instinctively finding their way.
Mark picked up after half a ring, still on edge from the party and half expecting the call. “Hello?” he asked.
“Hi, Mark,” Lisa answered quickly, both seductive and anxious. “I need to talk to you.”
“What’s going on?” Mark asked, apparently still not getting how this works.
Sparing only one further glance at the bathroom door, Lisa reassured Mark, “Don’t worry about Johnny, he’s just being a baby. You know, I love you very much.”
As she continued murmuring to Mark, wrapping him up once again in her sweet, poisonous words, Johnny pressed his ear to the door. He couldn’t make out anything concrete, but he knew Claudette couldn’t be home yet, so Lisa couldn’t be calling her mother, and from the intimate way she cooed into the phone, sultry and seductive, it was unlikely to be a mere friend. When he had overheard his future wife confide in her mother, telling her she was having an affair, Johnny hadn’t heard any names, but when he had seen Mark and Lisa tonight, he had known. His future wife had been curling up in his best friend’s arms, smiling and content, and he had known.
“I love you,” Lisa told Mark again.
“Why don’t you ditch this creep,” Mark suggested lazily. “I don’t like him anymore.”
“I know,” Lisa agreed, ignoring the bathroom door behind her even as it seemed to watch her with reproach. “He’s not worth it. Why don’t I come up there and be with you?”
“Sure, baby. Come on up,” Mark answered, invitingly. “I want your body.”
“You got it,” Lisa answered. She looked to the bathroom door again, this time with a feeling of triumph instead of defeat, and raised her voice just enough for her future husband to hear. “I’m on my way. Bye.”
There was a short chirp as Lisa hung up and put the phone back into its cradle. Still with his ear pressed to the door, the silence was obvious to Johnny. The conversation was over. He closed his eyes slowly, crushed. But even in the face of overwhelming evidence, Johnny’s faith in his future wife refused to die, and he came outside into the bedroom, ready to believe anything she told him if it let them get back to their idyllic lives.
The bedroom was dark, eerie in the gloom. Johnny focused on Lisa, the one spot of brightness. “Who were you talking to?” he asked her.
“Nobody,” she snapped, picking clothes from her dresser drawer and throwing them onto the bed.
“We’ll see about that,” Johnny answered, stomping downstairs as she packed. Even after that night, even as she packed her things, he couldn’t believe this was for real, that it was anything more than a misunderstanding. Deep inside of him, he knew that if he played the evidence, everything would work itself out.
Or maybe his need to hear it for himself, to have it starkly play out in front of him, was part of a masochistic impulse. Maybe it wasn’t that he believed Lisa, and wanted her to pull the knife out, but instead wanted her to dig it in deeper and twist it, leaving himself helpless before her, as he had always been.
Lisa paid no attention to the heavy footsteps behind her, not when they faded as they tromped downstairs and not when they turned around and thundered back up the spiral staircase. Assuming Johnny was just having a tantrum, one that would die out without attention, she continued packing, grabbing skimpy black lingerie by the handful and throwing it into her bag.
It took a sound she didn’t recognize, a strange rattling, to get her attention. She turned to see Johnny, holding an obsolete cassette tape in his huge hand, waving it triumphantly though his expression was grim. Without a word, he thundered over to their bed and sat. He yanked open the drawer on the night stand and pulled out an old answering machine that had been stashed there when Johnny and Lisa had bought the state-of-the-art machine downstairs.
“We’ll see about that,” he intoned grimly as Lisa watched him with a scowl, continuing to pack her things. Johnny loaded the tape and pressed play.
“Hello?” Mark’s disembodied voice, captured on tape, floated out of the answering machine.
“Hi, Mark?” the Lisa from a few minutes ago replied. Standing next to the bed, the Lisa of Now felt a cold pit open up in her gut as she realised she was caught. Her faked pregnancy, her dance with Mark, the fight downstairs, packing to leave her future husband – all of that had plausible deniability. All of that could be repaired. This though, her voice and Mark’s, unspooling from the tape, making auditory love in front of Johnny, in his own bedroom, this was the point of no return.
She made a grab for the answering machine, wanting – needing – to shut it off, to stop its accusations, but Johnny snatched it away from her as her voice continued. “I need to talk to you.”
“What’s going on?”
As Lisa sighed and turned away, the cassette continued to replay the past. “Don’t worry about Johnny. He’s just being a big baby,” Lisa’s voice announced to the bedroom. At that moment, the Lisa who packed as her future husband glared at her back couldn’t agree more. “You know,” her voice went on, condemning her, “I love you very much.” Lisa punctuated the statement by throwing another handful of clothes onto the bed, scowling at Johnny as she did. “You’re the sparkle of my life,” she cooed, inadvertently telling her future husband all the damning words she’d said while he hid in the bathroom. “I can’t live without you.”
The tape abruptly stopped as Johnny hit pause. Lifting the flap to open her suitcase, Lisa went to toss more clothes inside. Johnny stopped her, grabbing her arm. His fingers tightened, his knuckles whitening as he clamped down on his future wife’s wrist. “You little tramp,” he accused, his voice low and dangerous, almost emotionless, before anger swelled in him, and volume and rage exploded out of him. “How could you do this to me? I gave you seven years of my life!” Lisa remained silent, pouting. “And you betrayed me. Let’s see what else we have on this tape.” He let go of his future wife’s wrist to press play.
“No!” Lisa ordered as she snatched her released hand back. “Stop.” Something about the cold edge to her voice made Johnny listen, watching her warily. “You little prick, I put up with you for seven years,” she hissed. “You think you’re an angel,” she accused, either hinting at imagined abuses or accurately describing the writer/director/star. She shook her head. “You’re just like everybody.”
“I treat you like a princess,” Johnny spat. “And you stabbed me in the back. I love you and I did anything for you,” he continued, mixing and matching verb tenses, “To just please you, and now you betray me. How could you love him?!” he screamed with rage and horror.
When Lisa didn’t respond, unmoved, Johnny pushed play again. “Why don’t you ditch this creep?” Mark’s voice groaned, telling his supposed best friend exactly what he thought. “I don’t like him anymore.”
“I know, he’s not worth it,” Lisa commiserated as Johnny’s black eyes watched her face, watched her reaction to her own words. Her gaze dropped as she mustered the decency to look away, unable to look her future husband in the eye. “Why don’t I come up there and be with you?”
“Sure, baby. Come on up,” Mark replied. “I want your body.”
“You got it,” Lisa consented.
Those three words were the last straw. Johnny let out a guttural scream, the feral road of a wounded animal as he leapt from the bed. Enraged, he flung the offending answering machine away from him, hurling it into the wall. It hit the drywall with a heavy thump and bounced away, the sturdy device undamaged by the fierce throw.
For a long moment, Johnny stood still, watching Lisa, his body tensing. His fists clenched and unclenched, the idea of violence flowing through them. Cautious, Lisa stayed where she was, avoiding sudden movements. Defeating the violent impulse, and defeated by everything else, Johnny sunk back to the bed. He shoved his fingers into his thick black hair, his nails digging into his scalp as he pulled at his locks, trying to drown his sorrow in physical anguish.
“I don’t have a friend in the world,” he slurred, the strength drained out of him.
Picking that moment as the optimal one, Lisa finally told him, “I’m leaving you, Johnny.” She picked her bag up off the bed and slung it over her shoulder before briskly walking to the spiral staircase and disappearing down the stairs.
Dark energy still twisting inside him, knotting his stomach and clouding his vision, Johnny stood, not quite sure what to do. He paced over to the spiral staircase and put his hands on the railing, leaning out over the passage to the first floor so that he could see Lisa’s fleeing frame. “Get out, get out,” he chanted like a mantra, “Get out of my life!”
His shoulders slumped as Lisa disappeared. Both she and Johnny had known what he’d tried to do, trying to command Lisa to get out after she’d already decided to leave, as if it was his decision, as if he had any control over the situation. He let out another scream as he paced the bedroom, flinging his arms up at the ceiling in anger before throwing himself back onto the bed. He let himself fall back to the mattress with a thump.
He wasn’t sure how long he lay like that, motionless, staring at the ceiling as if it had answers, as if it were a clear sky to which he could direct his questions. It felt like hours. At times, questions and accusations swirled through his mind as he wondered where it had gone wrong, how many of his friends had been involved in his betrayal, how many had plotted against him. Revenge scenarios flitted in front of his vision, bloody and unmerciful. The more coherent thoughts were punctuated by seemingly endless stretches of disjointed, rambling, animalistic madness, pure rage and sorrow taking over his entire being, becoming all he was.
Johnny wasn’t sure when he sat up, stood, and started walking, but he was suddenly aware that he was slowly padding down the spiral staircase. His eyes scanned the room for anything that didn’t remind him of Lisa, of the life together that he had thought was perfect, but there was nothing. All of it was infused with their relationship, staring back at him, mocking him.
The room echoed with a loud, angry scream, tinged with sorrow, as Johnny let every breath of air out of his lungs. His throat was already raw from his roars, stinging and inflamed, but he kept sobbing as he stormed through the living room. “Why, Lisa, why, why?!” he demanded as he flung himself into the chair next to the fireplace, slamming his hands into the arm rests. His fingers dug into the fabric like talons, almost tearing the material.
Sobs choked him, wracking his body. He slammed his eyes closed as hard as he could, shutting out the room and its memories, but this only triggered a flood of images, vivid as they day they’d happened. Across from him, Lisa sat on the sofa, drunk and laughing, Johnny’s tie wrapped around her head like a bandanna, the engagement ring on her finger glittering as she muffled her laughter with her hand. Upstairs, she wore her red dress and pulled Johnny close, kissing him in the candlelight and smiling as she led him towards the bed. She stood in front of him, leaning down to bring her lips to his, her blonde hair brushing gently against his forehead. She lay naked on the bed, rose petals scattered all over her body as Johnny caressed her soft skin.
Twin trials of tears ran from Johnny’s eyes, shining as he sobbed and screamed, trying to push his torment out of his body and into the condo he had once shared with his future wife. Lisa’s face still appeared in flashes behind his eyelids, smiling, laughing, taunting. With a sudden burst of energy, Johnny leapt to his feet, propelling himself through the living room. He thundered across the hardwood floor, one long arm smashing into the tasteful bowl of fruit on the coffee table. There was a crash of the ceramic bowl shattering as apples flew everywhere, blots of red rolling across the ground.
Wanting to destroy everything that reminded him of the last seven years, every trace of his and Lisa’s relationship, he rampaged through the living room. The silver candelabra Lisa had once asked Johnny to buy, saying it added the perfect touch of class to the room, tumbled to the ground. The shelf, full of Lisa’s favourite six CDs, fell with a hardwood-denting thump. A sweep of Johnny’s hand cleared the fireplace mantle, sending scented candles and empty champagne flutes flying, shattering into shards as they hit the ground. Not satisfied, Johnny kept attacking the mantle, knocking the paintings above off the wall, their frames splintering as they collided.
With another roar, Johnny stormed over to where the television sat on two elegant pillars made from white plaster. Heaving the huge black box over his head, he yelled, “You bitch!” as he hurled the TV out the window. It sailed through the air, trailing the glass it had broken on its way out, before landing in the alley outside, crumpling as it hit the pavement.
The room destroyed, Johnny’s heavy footsteps pounded up the spiral staircase. The bedroom brought back even more memories, and he tried to silence them with a deafening howl. Random strings of syllables, some seeming to curse the world, some seeming to call out his future wife’s name, tumbled from his mouth in an incoherent babble as the rage surged through him, threatening to drive him mad. He slammed into the tall dressed by the stairs, the one Lisa had emptied of her sexiest clothes, and grabbed drawers, yanking them out so hard they soared behind him. Clothes spilled everywhere, coating the floor like a thick carpet. Still incensed, Johnny shoved the dresser to the side, letting it keel over with a bang.
He rampaged through the bedroom, kicking garments and drawers out of his way, before his eyes fell on the bed. The bed where he and his future wife had slept, side by side. The bed where they had made love so many times. The bed where they had shared their most intimate moments.
Roaring, Johnny grabbed sheets, pillows, blankets with both hands and hurled them to the side, spilling them all over the floor. They fell in an angry swirl of red and white, mussed like a wall splattered with blood.
Johnny flung himself onto the stripped mattress like a teenager having a temper tantrum because their parents cancelled their World of Warcraft account. His destruction hadn’t been enough. He was still all too aware of Lisa’s lingering presence in the room, the way they had made love on the same bed Johnny was laying on. The chaos and ruin of the condo reflected his mood, but he couldn’t see it. All he could see was Lisa.
As he stood, another sweep of his hand threw the scented candle off the end table, along with the collection of smooth stones that complimented it. They fell to the ground with a rattle – like the rattle of a baby. The tall, wrought iron candelabra followed it to the floor as Johnny knocked it over, sobbing.
Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny thought he saw someone in the room with him and whirled on the figure. He recognised wild black hair and an enraged, craggy scowl, before he realised he was looking in the mirror, its sophisticated gilded frame in stark contrast with his feral appearance. His reflection seemed more shadow than human, brimming with dark rage. Unable to stand it, unable to look into the face of such a pitiable creature, one so unjustly unloved by the world, he knelt and picked up one of the large, jagged rocks from the fountain decorating the bedroom and hurled it into the glass.
A spider web of cracks appeared in his face before gravity took over, and silver chards of glass tumbled to the ground, taking Johnny’s reflection with them. The obliteration of himself only soothed him for a moment, however, and he stormed back over to the pile of clothes and sheets, falling to his knees in the bedlam.
The sounds coming from him were quieter, almost calm now, more grunts than the howls and roars of agony he’d screamed. He pawed through the mess, each item bringing up new memories, each a new stab of pain. His gaze fell upon an angry slash of red, and he shifted, reaching for the soft fabric.
The cool silk seemed to flow through his fingers like water, soft and inviting as the day he’d picked it out at the store. That was, he suddenly realised, only a few days ago. Only a few days ago he had proudly presented his future wife with the red dress, the dress she had loved so much. Lisa’s smile when she had seen it, her excitement to try it on, the way she had touched him afterward… That had been real. There was no way it wasn’t. How had it all gone so wrong, so fast? he wondered. How could Lisa have grown to hate him in what seemed like only a few short days?
He fingered the silk, and Lisa was downstairs, twirling for him. He brought the dress to his nose and drank it in. A piece of it brushed against his lips, soft as a lover’s caress, soft as Lisa. Almost experimentally, he brushed the dress across his face again, its texture reminding him of Lisa’s skin. With more force, with more purpose, he dragged the red silk down his neck, letting out a groan as he remembered Lisa’s hands on his chest, helping him undress, their bodies a tangle of limbs as they fell into bed.
Johnny fell back into the pile of bedding as, in his mind’s eye, he was pushed into bed by Lisa. Now existing more in the past than in the present, he brought the silk, balled in his fist, down to his crotch. He groaned as more nights with Lisa came flooding into him, his back arching as he spasmed in angry pleasure. His short grunts of suffering mixed with sorrow echoed off the walls of the bedroom as ripples of gratification surged through him. Soon the waves of pleasure died out, and he was left alone with his anguish.
“You tramp,” he sobbed, spreading the silk over his face, blocking everything out with red. Through the red he saw her, Lisa, smiling on the bed. Trying to destroy his memories, he had destroyed everything around him. Almost.
With a snarl, Johnny sat up and tore at the delicate silk. The thin fabric ripped with a sound like a death rattle, and he pulled at it again. His visions of Lisa changed as the garment was reduced to shreds – downstairs, Lisa danced with Mark, pulling him ever closer, and upstairs, Lisa was telling Johnny that she hadn’t loved him, that she had merely tolerated him for the last seven years. He howled again, slinging scraps of fabric, now so small they were only good as dust rags, into the white bedding.
More sobs wracked Johnny’s frame. The pain was unending, impossible to quench. Nothing would end it, except…
Johnny’s eyes landed on a small box that had fallen from the dresser when he had hurled it to the ground. He had hid it, days ago, in the bottom drawer, not wanting Lisa to find it. He didn’t want to worry her, but he also wanted to be able to protect her, to defend her with his life, if need be. So when he had had the opportunity, when he and Mark had disarmed Chris-R, and when Mark wasn’t looking, Johnny had taken it, hoping he’d never have to use it.
Now, though, it was the only option.
Reaching across the pile of clothes, Johnny grabbed the small wooden box. He opened it, hesitant, almost changing his mind, almost slamming the lid shut again. Finally he flung it open.
In the darkness of the box, the barrel of the gun glinted dangerously, invitingly. Tossing hair out of his eyes, Johnny picked up the weapon, feeling the surprising heft of it in his hands, studying it almost academically. It seemed strange that such a physically small object could do so much damage – and end so much pain.
“Why?” Johnny asked the room. “Why is this happening to me? Why?” He moaned, the cool steel clenched between his fingers promising relief. There was no going back now, he knew. He couldn’t survive, not with his torment swirling through his brain, driving daggers into him at every opportunity. This was a mercy killing, putting down an injured, rabid dog. “It’s over,” Johnny moaned quietly, beaten.
With a flick of his thumb, he turned the safety off. His index finger seemed to nestle next to the trigger perfectly, like the gun had been manufactured with him in mind. It seemed to move of its own volition, inching closer to his face. “God,” he begged, “Forgive me.”
His memory of Lisa seemed to coach him through it, standing above him on the stairs, telling him everything was going to be all right. Reassuring him. Urging him on.
Johnny opened his mouth wide, shoving the thick, rigid steel inside. His lips conformed to the round stiffness, welcoming it in. His finger tensed. He tried to squeeze the trigger, but it took so much more conviction, so much more strength than he thought it would. So much more strength than he had left.
Still standing on the staircase, Johnny’s memory of Lisa watched him. “Good night, Johnny,” she said coldly.
The gun fired, sending hot lead spiralling out the back of Johnny’s skull, taking chunks of grey matter and a spray of blood along for the ride. His dead fingers slack, the weapon fell out of Johnny’s hand as his head was snapped back from the force of the blast.