Written by A.M. Barnett – Instagram: @a.m.barnett

tw: mention of bodily harm

Blood seeps through my shirt, pooling beneath me. Its cold embrace tugs at my soul, pulling it away from my body. Lea wails and beats at my chest, almost strong enough to bruise my ribcage. My eyes drift shut and my breath turns ragged; with every second I am closer to death. I can almost feel the pale lady standing guard with her long scythe dangling above my body, staring at me from the void of her black hood, reveling in the iron scent my blood emanates. Lea can’t see her; she’s too close to the realm of the living.

Is this how death feels? I ask myself as the curtains begin to close and the audience cheers, their roars vibrating through my diaphragm. I don’t get up until Lea taps my shoulder, making sure the dramatic death I acted remains ingrained in the minds of the public. Nothing makes the heart shudder like seeing a woman cry over her lover’s dead body and Lea is the best wailer the acting industry has ever known.

The public roars for us to emerge, and I take Lea’s hand, leading us in front of the curtains, grinning at the audience as fake blood drips on the stage, staining my bare feet. It would take hours of scrubbing to get the paint out, but it would be worth it. 

“Wait till the critics release their thoughts,” Lea whispers in my ear as we bow endlessly, showing off our colleagues and dodging flowers being thrown our way. “We’ll make the front page,” she giggles and places a kiss on my cheek, sending hundreds of spectators into a frenzy.

The woman in my life would kill me when I got home, but surely when she read the newspapers, she would forgive me and welcome me back. I was a loving husband and an expecting father; I would never abandon my wife or my child, not for a prude like Lea. That never stopped my wife from being on my ass every hour of the day, but she was just doing her job. Kayla was a smart woman and, even if I did dare to cheat on her – she’d smell me a mile away. 

People begin filing out of the room as soon as we disappear out of their sight, shuffling, groaning, and whispering about the play, no doubt complaining that my death had been too dramatic. There would always be one who grumbled, but it was up to the critics to make history and get me to the Hall of Fame. Or, at the very least, to a larger theatre.

“They loved it,” my killer slaps me on the back as I undress and points an invisible gun at my head. “Bang.” 

“Oh, Joey,” Lea hugs him, drenching him in kisses. “You were brilliant.”

Joey laughs; there really isn’t anything better than getting Lea’s undivided attention right after a show. She’d be bubbly with excitement for hours and would hug just about anyone provided they came up to her and made a half-decent joke. As a married man, sometimes I wished my wife would do that too. But as the man of the house, I was stuck consoling myself with late-night repetitions and, once in a while, a shot or two of vodka. Kayla wasn’t allowed to drink anymore, which meant she’d glare at me and be angry for no reason.

Could I really be to blame if I didn’t want to go home sometimes? 

“I gotta run, guys,” I wave and leave before anyone can look at me with fake pity in their eyes.

When I told them Kayla was pregnant, they hadn’t cheered. Not even Lea. They had stared at me with pitying eyes, sighing and slapping me on the back, making sure I knew my life would somehow go downhill from there, leaving me to wonder when having a child became such a burden.

Our house is only ten minutes away from the theatre, so I walk home without a care in the world. Or at least I would if my stomach wouldn’t drop when I think of going home. My steps lead me through a dark alleyway, lit only by the sodium bulb of a lamppost and I stop to admire a new art piece which had flourished on the brick building me and Kayla called home.

Boys rule, girls drool, it says and I have to smile, remembering the days when I used to think the same. I check my wristwatch absently, cursing when I note the time. I am late – much later than I should be. So, as much I would have liked to sit and ponder the hidden meanings of the graffiti, I go around the building and let myself in, checking the PO box. Not that we receive any letters anymore. I take my time up the winding staircase, my hands fumbling with the keys.

When I enter  the tiny apartment Kayla is waiting for me, as she often does, reading one of her pregnancy books. She was already showing, even after only three weeks.

“I was wondering when you’d show up,” she smiles as I kiss her on the forehead and urges me to pull up a chair. “How did it go?”

“The audience seemed to like it, but you know how these things go. Everyone is waiting for LeRoux to spit out his amazing critique and, as he always does, he’s waiting for the suspense to build.”

“You know that’s not what I meant,” she chides, closing her book. 

Of course, she knows when I dodge the real meaning of her questions.

“It wasn’t my best work,” I smile sadly, imagining my career crumbling around me as LeRoux points out exactly what I fear most.

“What happened?”

“Well, for one, the paint was bright red, definitely not the color of blood. And I died, despite it not being part of the script.”

Kayla stands up, pulling me into her arms. “You know sometimes life goes off-script,” she mumbles, pointing to her belly. “Like this hot-tub accident.”

“How do you know it was an accident?” I grin and press my lips against hers.

I won’t lie; it felt good to have her support me and my heart skipped a beat when I opened the door, unsure of which Kayla I would find. The woman who loved me, or the one who loathed me and my touch? Some days, I wasn’t sure which Kayla I was dealing with. She would welcome me with a smile, only to scream minutes after because I forgot to take out the trash. It had been like this before the baby too – but I still blamed it on hormones. I know she loves me. Why else would she marry me?

I grunt, feeling a sharp pain in my side. When I look down, tiny droplets of blood pool around our feet and Kayla has me in a tight grip so I can’t put any distance between us and confirm what is going on. My consciousness slips away from me; this time it’s real. My vision blurs and my head swims in dizzy circles as Kayla lets me down.

Figuratively as much as literally.

As I lie on the hardwood floor, heaving, I realize the blade went through my chest. Judging by how much it started to hurt, it had probably touched a vital organ too. I cough and Kayla draws away so the blood gushing out won’t stain her face and clothes.

She strokes my cheek. “It’s okay,” she whispers. “Just let go.”

“Why?” I manage to ask, regretting it when my throat constricts, and I choke on my blood.

I never get an answer.

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