It was between him and her, and her and her, and like always I was caught in between, a bottle of bourbon trapped between my thighs while I nursed the glass—the alcohol burned fresh paths down my throat, drawing parallels with the scars that ran down my arms.
This was the way things would always be and the clock constantly ticked at the back of my mind, because this was it—this was my last chance.
"I love you."
To my whiskey on the rocks, it was easy enough to say, but the couch refused to let go of me and the drink had me slipping back into the familiar comfort of not being the life of the party.
From here, I was able to watch them—two hazy figures tangled up in each other and the music, illuminated by a limelight only afforded by politics and fame. They were perfect for each other; I didn't know why they invited me or if they still remembered I was here.
As I rose, I stumbled, too drunk to be only tipsy. "I need to get out of here," I said to no one in particular, and the whiskey tumbled to the ground, the bourbon gushing out of the bottle like blood let from a severed artery.
I drained the rest and crushed the ice cubes until my molars tingled and my jaw ached with numbness. The door called to me, so I answered, the weight of my car keys heavy in my pocket.
This is my last chance, I thought, pouring salt on my own wounds, before it all ends. I could have stayed, waited until the priest called for objections and ended it all, but before my mind could waver my body was already out the door. Walking down the parking garage. Sitting in my car.
And maybe that was the reason I drove off, piss drunk, into the approaching midnight. I was avoiding the clock strike that would seal the deal, turning away in the process and telling myself that they never kissed or said, "I do."
That was why I kept my foot on the gas and kept going, knowing that no one would call me back or look for me when it was all over. They were too happy being together, in love in their lies.
She was an angel in their eyes and a specter in mine: supernatural; inhuman; transcendent in all ways but one. Her sister and her lover and me, trapped in limbo and culled by her every word. I didn't know why I imagined myself surviving when it was clear that there was no winning for me. I didn't know why I thought I'd end up unscathed. I'd never get the last laugh because I was always the one with the most to lose.
The expressway blurred on either side of me then dipped in clarity with each tear I failed to blinked back. Flashing headlights burned bright spots behind my eyelids and with a gasp I opened my eyes, yanking the steering to the right to avoid a truck racing down the oncoming lane. Behind me, angry horns blared, drawing me back to the present—the falling snow and slippery asphalt: the purr of my air conditioning replacing the smoke fogging up my windshield with fresh air. When I looked down at the ashtray, I found the butts of a dozen cigarettes I didn't remember lighting.
I felt reality slip away from me, one minute at a time until my thoughts began to drift again. I forced myself to stare at the clock. 23:00. I could still make it back if I turned back now and resisting the temptation drained me.
I flexed my fingers around the steering wheel and watched the speedometer, pulled ahead of traffic until there was nothing but a clear stretch of road in front of me. With enough space to feel alone, I eased off on the accelerator, giving in to the fear urging me to slow down.
Any moment now… I hung my head and felt around for my spare pack of cigarettes but that only made me think about her. Her name couldn't leave my mind. I couldn't just erase her smile like I did his, but even now I don't know where I would have chosen to stand tonight—beside her, beside him, or by the side of the real loser who hadn't even gotten an invitation. Any moment now and he'll remember that I'm the one who gave me his happy ending. Any moment now and he'll call to thank me.
I slipped my hand out of my clothes and tried not to think about anything else—because he and I wore the same colors; because I designed her wedding gown; because we went shopping for wedding rings together three years ago. Back then, I had never imagined that things could have ended up this way.
The persistent buzz in my breast pocket delivered the dose of clarity I had been waiting for.
I pulled over to the curb and rolled down the windows to let the smoke out. In the end, it wasn't quick enough for my tastes and I got out of the car myself, taking my first breath of fresh air in what felt like hours.
I dried my eyes on my sleeve and got my phone out, staring at the missed call in confusion.
I looked away and stared at it again as fireworks exploded above me and made the sky alive with light and sound. When I tried to call back, the screen went blank and the notification was replaced with a prompt asking me to reboot the phone. The hell?
All my attempts to click off the ad duplicated it until I was left with no other choice but to hold down the power button and do as it said.
Happy New Year, the words scrolled in from the right and settled in the spot where the logo should have been, would you like to send New Year's wishes to your contacts?
There was no button to click, no space to type, just some white text on a black background. "Uh… Yeah?
A set of directions replaced the New Year message, and all it took was one glance to realize where the destination was. "You've got to be kidding me."
The low battery warning flashed three times and the phone went dead—for real this time. Whatever Cora wanted to say was now lost to me. Any voicemail she left would be useless by the time I heard it. The hopelessness of my situation made me laugh.
I needed a drink, badly. I needed to forget everything, get high and blackout into the new year so that I could pretend to be happy long enough to convince myself that it was true.
"That's right… There are so many parties going on all around the city." I got back into the car and made a U-turn. "Why do I have to care about that one?"
My destination was a club I used to own. Now a stylized version of his name hung at the entrance—Levi's Paradise. It used to be ours, a little oasis in the sea of trouble we liked to stir up for ourselves, but I guessed it was mine for the night and for however long their honeymoon lasts.
The bouncer let me in without a word and I made my way past familiar faces to sit at the bar, shrugging off greetings like an umbrella shrugs off rain. Their presence only reminded me of the reason why a lot of people didn't actually go to the wedding and that was the last thing I wanted to think about. I wondered if the happy couple felt their absence at all or if they had just invited strangers to fill in the gap and finish the food.
I rested my head on the heel of my palm and nodded, pushing my phone towards the bartender with one finger. "Give this some life, will you?"
Charlie smiled and set a Long Island in front of me. "You're not attending the wedding?"
I mulled over the question while stirring the drink with its straw. The ice cubes tinkled pleasantly and I shrugged, not really ready to explain the weird mix of heartbreak, longing and self-destructiveness I felt. "The party here is good enough. You?"
"It'd be disrespectful to Janice if I did."
"Right." Both our smiles fell and the bits and pieces of the elephant in the room coalesced into this massive, unavoidable thing. Just like that. Just like magic. Somehow, we continued to avoid it. "Thanks for the drink."
"Thank me when you order a real drink."
I ignored the barb and took the time to savor the artificial flavor of the sour. The alcohol went right through me and despite feeling absolutely wasted after the first glass, I ordered another one when Charlie came back with a power bank.
I thanked her again and this time she said nothing in response. I tried not to seem too frazzled after turning on the phone and finding a bombardment of messages from Levi, asking where I was. The heart by his name angered me so much that I answered his call when it arrived a moment later, ready to give him a piece of my mind
It was Cora's excited scream that greeted me. "Where are you?! We were looking for the best man to take pictures with and we discovered that you had disappeared!"
"Hm." I held the speaker away from my ear and tried to keep my voice from slurring. "So did you find him?"
"Ah. Yeah. He either has a stomach bug or he drank a little too much. Or both…"
I didn't have time for small talk at ten minutes to New Year's. Not when I was trying to forget both Cora and the man she'd be kissing when the clock struck twelve. "Why did you call me? Where's Levi?"
"What? Where are you?" she asked back. "Why is it so noisy?"
"I'm at a club."
"You left the best club in town, on my wedding night, to go where—"
"What do you want, Cora?"
"What?" Her surprise mellowed out my anger. "Are you upset?"
"You two were having a swell time without me so—"
"C'mon. We had so many guests to attend to and when we went to get you, you were already gone. You can't blame us for being good hosts."
"So I'm just a guest, uh?"
"I didn't say that." I imagined her rolling her eyes. "Can you stop being so unreasonable?"
"I'm being unreasonable? Why don't you—"
She pretended not to hear me. "I bet if you walked out of that club right now, no one would even look for you. You know why? Because all your friends, our friends, are over here, being happy for me."
"Are we friends?"
"At least, I looked for you. Levi didn't even bother—"
The anger came back, sarcasm falling off my tongue like lighter fluid on a quest to be incendiary. "Wow. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule—that I planned—to look for me in the venue—that I booked—among the many friends you care so deeply about."
"Wait. I didn't mean—"
"You shouldn't have called me." I cut the call and turned on airplane mode, finally feeling the exhaustion of this week's sleepless nights pile up on me. She was right though, if no one cared about me fifty minutes ago, they weren't going to start now. I was better off crossing over into the new year in the comfort of my own bed. "Charlie! Bring the bill! I'm—"
"Leaving before the bell rings? Don't be that asshole," she shouted back, from all the way on the other end of the counter, leaving me with no other choice but to sit down and avoid the smoldering looks other patrons leveled on me.
I hadn't noticed anyone else sitting beside me but there he was, looking years younger than I had ever felt.
I straightened up, a little embarrassed that he had heard the chaos that had been my conversation with Cora. "Hey."
"A Long Island, uh?"
"Yeah," I was prepared to defend myself, "why?"
"You don't look like that type of person?"
"And what sort of person is that?" I asked, despite already knowing the answer.
"Cheap." He let out a nervous laugh. "No offense."
"It's fine." I ran my fingers round the glass's rim. "I see myself in it, that's all."
The alcohol loosened my tongue enough to let some truth slip out. "Pretending to be what I'm not to be palatable to others… You know?"
The moment the words left my mouth, I regretted it. No one came to a club to hear about other people's problems. But to my surprise he smiled and said, "I do."
"I'm actually here because," he jabbed a thumb over his shoulder to a group of jeering youths, "my friends found out that I haven't had my first kiss yet and they think you're hot, so…"
"They think I'm hot?" My sleep-deprived and intoxicated brain had trouble processing the words themselves, much less his intent.
He blushed and ran his hand through his hair in a way I would have considered cute if I hadn't been so confused.
"I also think you're hot," he said. "I mean, you are hot… I'm being weird, aren't I?"
"No," I replied, because I couldn't leave now, and I didn't want him to leave either. I didn't want to drink into the New Year on my own with a pissed Charlie glowering at me after I ordered my third Long Island.
"Oh good," he tugged down his sleeves till they covered his fingers, "because it's my birthday."
"Happy birthday," I told him when our gazes met, with all the sincerity I could muster.
The green in his eyes brightened, shimmering like the purest emerald you'd see at a jewelry store. He beamed at me and closed the distance between us. "Thank you!"
He dug into his pockets and brought out a candle. One of those little ones with spirals of color running up its length.
"What's that for?"
"It's my birthday candle…" He explained, his gaze dropping down to my hands. Suddenly self-conscious, I let go of my drink and set my fingers flat on the counter. "My dumbass friends didn't even get me a cake but I wanted to make a wish, you know? So I got myself a candle… It's stupid but I didn't want you to do it for nothing… Kiss me, I mean."
"You want to pay me… to kiss you?" I hadn't even agreed yet but he didn't seem to remember that. Watching him fumble to explain himself made me giddy with disbelief. Hot? Me?
"It's just a wish… Not money." He tripped over his words. "I'm not saying that I think you're cheap. I'll pay if you want... but—"
I nodded and pushed my drink aside. "I'm sure you heard." I pointed to my phone. "I'm having a shitty day.
"Yeah… I wasn't eavesdropping though, but I thought you'd need this more than me. You can wish for anything... You can wish for a million Long Islands. Or that the call never happened… Or—" He smiled sheepishly and held out the candle. "Do you have a match?"
I had a lighter. I took it out and lit the wick, not in the mood to burst his optimistic, wish-making bubble. "You should use that wish yourself. It'd be wasted on me… Are you gay?"
He blinked slowly and spoke even slower. "Why do you ask?"
I gestured to the space around us. "This is a gay bar."
"Ah." With an innocent grin, he looked around, gasping like he just noticed. "I'm bi. You?"
"Me too." I reached out and touched him for the first time, shocked by how cool his skin felt against mine. His eyes widened, like a deer caught in headlights, when he felt my hand on his cheek. I caught him by the chin when he tried to pull away, overcome by an impulse I couldn't name. "Let me make a wish then."
I couldn't have seen it coming even if life played it out for me again, in slow motion. I really didn't expect him to kiss me, but he did and I let him because even the heartbroken deserved to be kissed on New Year's day to the sound of hoots and cheers erupting all around them.
I would have forgotten to make a wish if he didn't remind me afterwards, flushed, out of breath, with half of his body leaned against mine.
I wish I never made that mistake, I thought, and we blew the candle out together. This time I was the one who kissed him, because why not?
I deserved it.
I woke up in my bed, but it was also not my bed because it should have been ripped and slashed and eviscerated, its stuffing strewn all over my rugs. Destroyed, like the rest of this home that was not my home should have been.
The feeling of wrongness continued all during my journey from my bedroom to the kitchen then to my study and back. I didn't have a hangover despite drinking my weight's worth in alcohol, and Janice was slumped over my desk, snorting a line of cocaine.
I backtracked and looked into the study again. Janice was supposed to be dead.
"Yo. Blake," she called out to me and beckoned me with her free hand. Except, it wasn't really free. In it, she held my revolver and I knew it was loaded. I knew because she had done this before… No, that wasn't right. I knew because she only got to do this once in her life and if this wasn't that moment then nothing else could be.
"Aren't you coming?" The ghost of her laughed, but she wasn't quite a ghost, not if ghosts could be more real than nightmares and dreams.
I resisted the urge to hold her, run my hands through her hair, put my mouth on her skin and kiss a path to the bullethole that didn't exist yet, and somehow I walked to her side, steady as a rock. The me from before had tried to grab the gun. That me from before could no longer hear her laugh or see her smiles.
Why am I here? How am I here? She threw an arm around my neck and kissed my cheek. With her heels on, we were the same height. Barefoot, we were not. She hopped onto my chair to tower over me then pressed another kiss into my hair, giggling all the while.
"What are you doing?" I asked, but all I could think was: Do you know that your sister drove you to death? But I couldn't stop loving her. Do you know that your fiance married her soon after? But I couldn't stop loving him. You asked me to love them, so I did. I asked you to stay alive and you lied to me.
"I was waiting for you, Sleepyhead."
"He cheated," she wailed, burying her face in the crook of my neck, "with Cora. With Cora! Why would he…"
"I know." I stroked her back and cupped her neck. "I know."
"You know? H-How? Did he tell you? Why didn't you tell me?"
"You just told me."
"What am I going to do? Cora wouldn't do this to me, would she? Maybe I saw wrong… Maybe he thought I was her… Maybe…"
"Maybe," it's all a misunderstanding, was what that me had said, "you're right. Maybe he cheated."
"Oh, what will I do?" she cried, hysterical. "I can't live without him."
I believed her, so I told her something I had never gotten the chance to, something I had spent a year wishing I could say in this exact moment. "I can't live without you either, you know?"
I took a step back and wiped away her tears. She leaned into my palm and closed her eyes, humming a lullaby under her breath. "When did you get here?" I asked.
"Midnight… I didn't want to wake you, so I just stayed here and drank a little… A lot. I was being quiet."
"Okay." I wiped the powder from her nose, tucked stray strands of hair back behind her ear and carried her off the chair. "You should get some sleep."
I got her a change of clothes and tucked her into bed, taking the gun out of her hand to hold in mine. But before I could keep it back in my safe, the doorbell rang. I tried not to think about the fact that she had been playing Russian Roulette just before I woke up and focused on the more important thing: Levi.
I opened the door for him and he stepped in, in the weariest state he possessed. He glanced at the gun and gnawed on his lip. "I can explain."
I said nothing, still thinking. Somehow, I was here, back to where things started, back to when I had innocently played the peacemaker and inevitably subjected Janice to a slow and painful death.
He won't do it again, I had convinced her.
Never do it again, I had warned him.
And to Cora, I said nothing. Because Cora was dynamite and an explosion didn't take no for an answer, especially when she had us all walking on eggshells to please her
This time, I considered just killing him but my smile remained because it was still just a fantasy. Janice couldn't live without him, so I asked, "Why did you do it?"
"I just…" He glanced at the door behind me. That was Levi for you, all looks, glances and a face that couldn't hide a lie. He wanted to talk to Janice but I would never let him near again, no matter what he said or how sorry he was. "It was a mistake. A horrible, horrible mistake."
"I was drunk," he added, as though it mattered, and when he saw that I wasn't budging, he tried to push past me. "Janice? Janice, darling?"
I held him back and shoved the barrel of the revolver into his side. That made him pause. "She can't hear you."
He stiffened and looked down at me, whispering, "What did you do to her?"
As though I would ever hurt her. "Nothing worse than what you've done."
His expression changed rapidly, shifting from kind to furious to calm and collected. "You know you can't have her. She loves me. And I love her. We're getting married next month. This was just a mistake. Cora came onto me, you know what it's like."
"Of course." I couldn't deny it even if I wanted to. Cora was a force of nature. "But I didn't sleep with her. I walked away. You could have done the same."
"It's not the same." He grabbed me by the collar. "You and Janice can never be together. Her family would never approve of her being with… someone like you."
"Someone like me?" I whittled my voice down to a dangerous edge and held my head up high. "Someone like us, you mean."
"What watch you say," he hissed, and glanced around like there was anyone around to hear him. "There'll be none of that here."
"Oh? You don't want the world to know that you like men?" I laughed. "I like men too, there's nothing to be ashamed of. But what will the family say… I wonder."
"Don't test me. I've been your best friend for years. I know about all your hookups and trysts. After all, I was just one of your many conquests, wasn't I? Another tick in your scorebook?"
"Blake, for the sake of our friendship… No, our relationship, please…"
I shoved him away from me and aimed the gun at his head. I was a good shot and he knew it. "I'm trying to solve this without violence. Don't make me hurt you."
Finally, he realized how serious I was. "Why are you doing this? You didn't used to be like this. Just tell Janice—"
"You could say that I've had an awakening, Levi. I went to the future and I saw how all this ends. Now that I have this chance, I can't sit back and make the same mistakes. I'm ending it here."
"You've gone mad." He took one step away from me, then another and another until there was nowhere left for him to go but out. "You're insane. She'll never love you if you do this," he said, but we both knew that they were just empty words. He had already realized that there was only one option left for him.
"Do what?" I let my hand fall, at peace for the first time in months. "Kill you? Are you worth it?"
"You and Cora can scheme together all you want. I won't expose you if you leave Janice out of this."
"I love her," he whispered.
"No, you don't." I walked past him and opened the door, "And you never have. I'll let Janice know you stopped by. If she wants to see you, you'll know."
He gritted his teeth and stepped outside the building. "You'll regret this."
I've regretted too many things but this won't be one of them. With a sigh, I went to the study and took the cartridges out of the gun.
"Were you really going to shoot him?"
I turned around and found Janice standing in the hallway, pale and shaking like a leaf. "Did you hear everything?"
"I heard enough…" She cupped her face in her hands then looked up again. "Does he love her? Should I be happy for them…"
"Why…" I locked the gun up again and changed the passcode. "Why are you asking me?"
"Because you're the only one who loves all three of us broken people," she said quietly. "Should I forgive him? It was just a mistake…."
"If you want to," I told her, before I could change my mind, giving her the freedom that me had denied her. "But you have to keep your promise." I think back to her bleeding body splayed out on my bed, a memory that I will never let happen again. "Don't ever lie to me."
She nodded, as serious as she had been the first time, and walked to my side. "I promise."
I pulled her into a hug and wove my fingers into her hair, pushing all thoughts of Cora and Levi from my mind. From now on, I'm not going to make any more mistakes.
From now on, it would just be me and her. Forever.