“How long?” Jared asked, holding the phone where he had discovered the vile messages. The question left behind a rancid taste in his mouth. He really didn’t want to know.
“Four months.” Lisa whispered solemnly, hot tears rolling down her pale cheeks.
The confession slammed Jared like a sledgehammer. He couldn't feel his hands. His brain became a raging bonfire.
“Oh my god you've been going around doing this for four whole months?” He rasped, choking on the sentence.
The room was filled with silence. Lisa couldn’t even muster the strength to look Jared in the eyes. Blue waves of shame engulfed her body.
“You lied to me for four months about where you were, what you were doing, who you were with, when you were really cheating on me.” The taste grew more putrid. “I LOVED YOU AND YOU DIDN'T CARE!” Jared bellowed, his burning rage fueled by bitter betrayal.
Lisa wiped her eyes on her sleeve. It left a wet stain of smudged mascara.
“I never meant for it to happen like that Jared, you’re always at work and he was just there for me every time and one thing led to anoth-.”
“I got that job so we could live happily.” Jared interrupted shaking his head. His brain refused to believe what was happening. The whole thing was a cruel joke. A nasty trick the cruel universe played on fools like himself.
“We can still live happily.” Lisa shivered, trying to clamp Jared's numb hands into her own. “We can move past all this, there’s still time.”
The acrid taste grew so vile it threatened to induce vomit. He snatched his hands away from Lisa’s cold palms.
“So you can lie to me again?” He asked, trying very hard to keep the contents of his stomach down.
“No, please, we can still fix this.”
Jared shook his head. He had witnessed the same thing happen to his friends who had tried to repair their broken relationships. Ultimately all that remained was a blue heart, full of sorrow and regret.
“No Lisa, you and I are done,” The words echoed in Jared’s head. The words felt bold and decisive on his lips, but they needed to be said. “You can come back and pack your things another day, but I don’t want you sleeping here tonight.”
Lisa suddenly stopped crying. A cynical sneer forming on her lips. “Jared, no girl is ever going to give you a chance, I’m the best you will ever have and you know it.”
Jared laughed at how fast she switched to attack mode.
Lisa blinked rapidly, taken aback. She was not expecting this.
Jared opened the door and gestured for her to leave.
“Bye Lisa.” As soon as the words left his mouth the taste began to die down.
Lisa threw the keys on the carpeted floor and walked out the apartment, her expression a mix of hot anger and Jared closed the door to both his apartment and his relationship. He was all alone now. Alone with his thoughts. He could not decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
He jumped in the shower, hoping to wash himself clean of his inner turmoil. He loosened up as the warm stream flowed against his body.
He finally stepped out and wiped the steam from the mirror with his pruned hands. A cold stranger stared back at him. The smell of Lisa’s Victoria’s Secret perfume hung in the bathroom, a ghost of the past wafting through the air. Jared spat into the sink and walked past the bedroom to the couch. He would have to throw out the mattress, he could not stand sleep in the bed he had once shared with Lisa.
Jared’s body sunk wearily into the couch. He listened to the rain pattering against the windows. The sound soothed him. It always had even as a child. Jared and his older brother Steve would set up camp in the tree house their father had built for them and listen to the rain as they read comics. Their mother would constantly worry about the two boys catching a cold. “Don’t stay up there all night boys,” she would say in a concerned tone only a mother could have. “You boys are going to be sick like dogs tomorrow.” The two would stay up there anyway and sure enough, the next day was nothing but blue noses and wet sniffles. They never learned their lesson though. The next time the sky looked cloudy they were already setting their sleeping bags in the their sanctuary among the leaves.
Jared didn’t know why he had started thinking of his brother. He hadn’t thought of him in years. His brother Steve was like a father figure to him, their father had died on a hit and run. He taught Jared how to drive a car, letting him practice with his plush purple 1986 Cutlass supreme. Instead of punishing Jared’s high school bullies, he bought a punching bag for his little brother and showed him how to throw a punch and stand up for himself. When the winter ball was slowly creeping on the calendar, Steve delved deep into the art of the chase between male and female and revealed to his brother the secrets of romancing. “you might have missed the mark on that one Steve.” Jared thought, chuckling softly. Once Steve went away to college, Jared only saw him during holidays and family events, if Steve even had time to attend that is. Things gradually grew silent between the two brothers. Jared realized he missed that bond. He told himself to give Steve a call tomorrow. He needed help figuring out what to do next and if anyone could give him guidance it was Steve.
His stomach roared for food. His bare feet curled with each step on the white kitchen tile. Jared's picked his phone out his pocket and was greeted with a picture of him and Lisa on the trip to Disney World they had taken 2 months prior. They were both grinning ear to ear, wearing Mickey hats. He changed the screensaver to the factory default.
Jared set his phone face down and heated up some ramen in the microwave. The artificial beef flavoring was nothing to shout about, but Jared didn’t care about the flavor, as long as the soft noodles drowned out the taste of resentment and heartbreak.
Jared woke up to the alarm on his phone. He wiped bits and pieces of dry noodles from his stained t-shirt. He punched digits into his phone, praying Steve still had the same number, and pressed call. The phone rang on the other end for a few seconds before the call was picked up.
The only sound Jared could hear was the low breathing of the other caller.
Jared heard shuffling on the other end like the caller was moving. After a few more seconds of silence the caller spoke.
“Jared, is that you?” His brother Steve asked.
“Steve, you don’t know how good it is to hear your voice,” Jared smiled. “ Haven’t heard from you since Uncle Richards wedding.”
“Which one, the third or the fourth.” Steve joked.
”Oh man, how could I forget, he was drunk for all of them too,” Jared said a hearty laugh. “We should catch up next time your in town. I sure could use some advice and it would be cool to catch up.”
“Oh you didn't hear, I got a place right here in town. Here, I’ll send you the address,” A message chirped on Jared’s phone. “Yeah come on by today and we can catch up, it was good talking to you little brother.”
The phone clicked. Jared was glad he called. Maybe this was the spark to the rekindling of their bond.
Jared jumped into a change of clothes and walked to his car. After a few tries the stubborn engine began to rumble into submission. The car groaned as it pulled out the lot.
Jared pulled to the side of the curb. He gathered a deep breath and stepped out of the car and into the apartment complex. The hallway leading to Steve’s apartment seemed to have to end. The pattern of the rug was orange and black stripes. The hallway was like a violent tiger, threatening to devour him if he dared the venture into its hungry jaws. He realized he was nervous.
He walked down the dim hallway for what felt like an eternity. His feet became weary. He was a convict walking to the electric chair. He was walking to confront his personal demons, to forfeit what was left of his soul. He tried to summon up the strength he had stored up the night before, but it began to dwindle with each and every step he took. The walls began to close in on him. The tiger was beginning to swallow him whole. The doorknobs on the apartment doors became eyes as he passed, stalking his every move. His chest began to rise and fall rapidly. The hair on the back on his neck were spiky quills.
“Calm down Jared. It's all in your head. Get a grip.” He thought.
He popped a mint in his mouth and the eyes on the doors closed. The walls began to soften. The tiger released him from its grip.
He finally made it to apartment room 117. Steve’s apartment. He raised his hand to knock on the door and stopped his hand midair.
“What am I doing here?” he thought. The words echoed in his mind, ricocheting against the corners of his brain. “What am I doing here, what am I doing here, what am I doing here?” The taste became bitter. His lips curled in disgust. Why was he so nervous? He had wanted to see his brother, but what if he changed. What if he wasn’t the same person that he grew up with? Would the two Just go back to being silent after this? He turned to walk away, but the sound of the lock being turned from the other side stopped him dead in his tracks. The door swung open.
“Jared, what are you doing here?”
Lisa was standing in the doorway, clutching her pink bathrobe close to her body. Her auburn hair was wet as if she had just stepped out the shower.
Brilliant colors flashed in his head. His hands became numb.
“Lisa?” He said, as if he had encountered a ghost. A hallucination that wasn’t supposed to be there. Steve walked behind her, his hair dripping water on the wood floor.
“Oh shit,” Steve whispered under his breath. “I can explain.”
The colors in his head sharpened. The only color he could see now was crimson red. His hands were now hardened balls of cold steel.
He lunged onto Steve, slamming a fist into his face. A fountain of blood gushed from his nose. Steve threw Jared off of him and tried to grab him, but Jared darted out of the way and landed blow after devastating blow, reconstructing his brothers once handsome face.
Lisa screamed at the top of her lungs, “GET OFF HIM, KICK HIS ASS STEVE!” Rivers of salty panic flowed from her eyes. She tried jumping on Jared and dug her nails into his back. He shrugged her off and kept hammering.
She continued to wail, but Jared couldn’t hear her though, nor could he hear Steve’s pleas for him to calm down. All he knew was that Steve had betrayed him, Led him into a trap. His own brother.
He aimed another punch but Steve was ready this time. He grabbed Jared’s arm and whipped him around. He exerted all his weight and held Jared on the ground, pinning his arm behind his back.
“LET ME GO DAMN IT!” Jared howled and flailed like a wild animal, refusing to die. It was no use though. Steve had him pinned.
“It doesn’t have to be like this Jared. Just calm down so we can talk about this like adults.” Steve burbled, spitting out blood. Jared continued to struggle, so he applied more pressure. “Don’t make me break your arm Jared.”
“ALRIGHT FINE!” Jared gasped in surrender. Steve loosened his grip. Lisa was sobbing quietly in the corner of the doorway.
Both Steve and Jared sat on his white sofa. Lisa was in the bathroom, her sniffles faintly audible. Steve held an ice pack to his puffy right cheek. His upper lift had a grotesque rift. Steve was pretty sure a tooth was loose.
“Hell of a left hook you got little brother,” He said, chuckling softly. “I didn’t want Lisa to be here for this. She showed up right after I called you.”
Jared had his eyes focused on a tiny red dot that was stained on the couch. It was a drop of blood that had trickled from Steve’s nose. A spot of red in an ocean of white. It took every molecule of his entire being not to grab whatever he could find and beat Steve‘s face in until it looked like a hamburger helper meal.
“I didn’t want you to find out about Lisa and I like this,” he continued, laying a hand on his little brother’s shoulder. “I’m sorry you found out the way you did Jared. I was going to tell you Jared, you have to believe me.”
Jared didn’t try to shove the hand away nor did he shift his gaze from the red spot. The revolting taste in his mouth spread through his entire body. The words Steve had said on the phone earlier pounded in his head. “good talking to you little brother.”
Jared raised his head and stared at the stranger in his swollen face.
“I forgive you Steve.” Jared lied. It was the easiest lie he ever told.
He rose from the couch and walked out the door, turning the knob with his bloodstained hand’s. He closing the door on his relationship with Lisa and Steve.
The journey down the hallway was a lot shorter this time. The walls were no longer trying to chew him up. The hall was now bright and warm. He was no longer walking the green mile, he was walking right out of the prison gates.
The putrid taste that had lingered in his mouth was gone and had been replaced with the taste of sweet closure.