The banner hung above the bar, in front of him: Good Luck Alice!
The party was a bit much: an effigy of Alice’s tendency to overcompensate. The appearance of her newfangled–somewhat legendary–fiance, who was dragging her away to some no-name town in the midwest, was the cherry on top. Raymond hated cherries.
Over the music, over the clinking of the glasses, over the mind-numbing small talk of others, he listened to her laugh from her table behind him. Her voice was distinct and familiar: a favorite song played in the background of a film. His ears threw it–and her–to the forefront of his mind, as if he needed help doing so.
Twelve years of working together–years that convinced him they were soul mates–and one day she casually mentions she’s leaving, as if talking about the weather. It wasn’t enough, all he’d shown her in their twelve years; it wasn’t enough to change her mind.
“Here you go.” The bartender placed a glass of scotch next to him before taking an empty glass away. Another glass still remained in Raymond’s hand. He tipped it, staring at the three black lines that ran from the knuckles of his right hand, down past his black suit sleeve. It was worth it, he reminded himself. Bearing the mark was a thousand times over worth his newfound prize. Besides, he’d be rid of them soon enough.
He finished what little scotch was in the current glass, taking the new one before hearing her voice yet again. This time, it was closer. “Raymond!” she called, her tone warm and genuine.
He turned to her. Her white, tube dress clung below her dark, curly hair. Beneath the blue lights, the white specks that danced across her from the reflection of the mirror ball above, she looked surreal: an angel found on the ocean floor.
She staggered, not from alcohol, nor the heels on her feet. It was undoubtedly from the black lines running down his right cheek. “Oh.” She stammered before recovering, though now overcompensating for it. “You made it!”
His smile, after seeing her reaction, lessened, significantly. It sat below his eyes and poised as if it could pounce at any moment. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
“Sorry, it’s just the,” she waved at her own cheek, “Is that a tattoo, or is that from the crash?”
Raymond let one shoulder shrug. Half his smile faded while his left hand instinctively felt his left breast pocket. “A bit of both.”
She stepped forward, resuming her initial attempt to hug him. “Well, you look great.”
He hugged her with his right arm, careful not to press his left side against her. Still, he savored her touch. His hand wrapped around her, clutching the opposite side of her waist. “I don’t want you to go.”
“You’re sweet.” She broke the hug, as if a thought had occurred to her. “You wanna meet him?”
No, he blinked.
Despite his knee-jerk thought, Raymond nodded and held up a finger. “Gotta hit the bathroom first. I’ll find you on the way back?”
“Deal!” She squeezed his arm, smiled, and turned away.
Before the crash, Raymond would’ve thought the men’s room to be quiet. Now that he knew real silence, he preferred this immensely. White tiles bounced every slight sound his suit made, as he stood in the dark blue stall. He dug into his left breast pocket and pulled out a small, glass ball, which fit neatly in his palm. He placed it against his right cheek and ran it along the black lines.
The glass ball was placed on the tile floor. And despite its shape, it did not roll away. It remained still for a moment, before it began to rock. The rocking turned to violent wobbling before a large protrusion reached from the orb. The form took the shape of a hand that writhed and stretched towards the ceiling. The glass grew wide and tall, nearly to Raymond’s eye-level, before it contracted, snapping into a woman’s figure. She glistened, for a moment, before the shine dulled. The opaquity quickly faded into paper-white skin.
She stood before him, naked and emaciated. Fire-red hair covered her face before her bony fingers parted them. Raymond stumbled backwards at the sight of the flesh-covered sockets beneath her brow.
She smirked at his reaction. As if to ease his fears, she clawed her fingers into the sockets, removing excess flesh, and revealing the greenest eyes Raymond had ever seen. She used them to stare at him, to take him in, before lifting a hand to his right cheek.
Her mouth opened, and a sound escaped her. Sand fell from her mouth, escaped her lungs, and poured onto the floor before her voice followed. “The master’s mark.” Her smile widened. “All who bear it are granted three wishes, be they glorious or terrible.”
She glanced down at his attire before her own hand reached her forehead. A spark fell from her fingers, and she was adorned with a green dress, which matched her eyes perfectly. Her red hair folded on its own, curling itself into a neat coiff.
As she smiled at him, he felt her fingers on his brain, rifling through it like a rolodex. And when she finally arrived at what she was looking for, she found it in a place that wasn’t dark or murderous, nor lustful or jealous. She found it in a place of love and loneliness.
He felt naked as she smiled at him; she now knew him better than anyone. A shiver ran through him, though the newfound coldness did not leave with it. “What?”
“You’re not boring.” She said, decidedly. “I like you.”
“Just don’t,” he stammered, unable to find words that met the demands of all the questions in his mind. “Don’t hurt her.”
The redheaded woman touched Raymond’s unmarked cheek with a hand that was colder than a window on a winter morning. “Name me. And then name her.”
Trembling, he nodded.
At the table, Alice erupted with laughter. And in her recovery, she felt Christian’s hand slide to the small of her back. It was a nice technique, one that he pulled on their first date, and it worked out pretty well for him then too. She shot him a knowing glance, letting him pull her closer. She touched her cheek to his, feeling his blonde stubble graze her.
“But for real,” she insisted, her brows raised with anticipation, “you’re coming to visit.”
“I will!” One of her friends promised, throwing her hand up in a vow. “I’m hopping a plane the second the Jackson account closes.”
“Good.” Alice threw her hip and pouted. “Because I’m gonna miss you.”
“Girl, same!” Her friend declared. The smile she wore quickly faded as something caught her eye, to Alice’s right: something that chilled her.
Alice broke from Christian’s arm to turn. She saw Raymond within a few feet of her, and on his arm, there hung a woman with the skin of a porcelain doll. Alice feigned excitement. “Hey!”
Raymond’s expression softened to see her as he gestured. “Gen, this is Alice. Alice, this is Gen.”
“Oh my god!” Alice exclaimed. “I had no idea you were seeing someone! Hi!” She quickly clasped the pale woman’s hand with both of hers. Frigid. The coldness sprinted from her hands, into her bones, and up to her eyes. And through it, she saw memories of a life that hadn’t happened yet.
She sat beside Christian on the plane, excitedly squeezing his hand as she wiggled in the small seat. And as she rested her head on his shoulder, she felt the runway, and their old lives, leave them behind.
He carried her across the threshold of their rustic, new home. He struggled with the awkwardness of the wedding dress, knocking over a side table in the process.
He dropped her into the crystal clear waves. She kicked and squealed briefly, before having to hold her breath. She stood up on her own, moving her hair out of her eyes to see him.
She brushed her hair from her face as she asked the doctor to repeat herself. She did, confirming Alice was infertile. She looked to Christian, who was staring straight ahead. She reached out and squeezed his hand. He did not squeeze back.
In the dark, she opened the closet and pulled the spare sheets and comforter from it. Red-eyed but not tired, she dragged them down the steps and laid them on the downstairs couch. It wouldn’t matter. The effort, and her thoughts, kept her awake for the rest of the night.
She walked past the kitchen table, his dinner sitting alone upon it. It had grown cold two hours ago. She left it for him to discover, but she discovered him first at the doorway. His suit and hair were disheveled.
Her life was in boxes, packed on a truck that didn’t currently have a destination. She’d spent the last five years leaving everyone behind, and now him as well. She turned to see him leaning in the doorway of their rustic house. And even then, despite everything, she missed his hand on the small of her back.
The music returned to her first, then the noise of the party, then the shapes and shadows of those around her. Alice stood, mouth agape, finally letting go of Gen’s cold hand after what felt like a lifetime. She pulled her hands back, absent-mindedly staring at the floor as she tried to process what had just happened.
Fingers grazed her back, freeing her from the haze with a sudden jolt. She nearly leapt away. She turned to Christian as he retracted his hand. Her eyes and lips readied a tirade that didn’t even know where to start.
A silence would have followed, if the 80’s dance music hadn’t expressly forbidden it. “You okay?”
Yes, she thought. In fact, she was better than ever. She smiled, gave a quick and unconvincing “Yep! Just need some air.”, grabbed her purse from the table, and bolted before Christian could grab her.
She felt the cool night air hit her, as if her eyes needed any more help watering, and walked briskly to her car. She sat in her driver’s seat and let the tears come and go, holding on to the wheel as if the car could start at any moment. The sobs were few and soft, and they were met with anger and helplessness.
A knock on the window. She looked, expecting to see a blue suit. Instead, she saw a black one. Raymond’s tattooed hand–which now carried two black stripes instead of three–remained on the glass as he waited.
After moving her purse to her lap, she unlocked the door and wiped her eyes as she heard him slide into the passenger seat. What followed was the quietest moment she’d ever known.
She could think of nothing to say. How could she explain what she’d just seen, to him or to anyone? Who would believe her? Did she believe herself?
Finally, she started to laugh. Raymond hesitantly joined her in it. “I think I’m fucking crazy.” She admitted.
“I thought his name was Christian.”
She laughed and sniffled before scouring her purse for tissues. She blew her nose less daintily than she would’ve liked. “Sorry,” she huffed.
“Ah, don’t be.” He waited to speak in between blows. “Listen, I am lousy at goodbyes, but uh,” he looked down, and then out the windshield. “I wish you saw me the way I see you.”
Alice didn’t need to trace his eyeline. She could feel Gen staring at them. She looked up to see the pale-skinned woman standing on the curb, holding her wrist and watching the car. Her green dress and red hair stood, stagnant in the distance, against the brown exterior of the bar. Alice licked the back of her teeth, and turned the key in the ignition.
Raymond pushed the seatbelt into its clip, with one black stripe remaining on his hand.