“Never.” She spat the words out, her eyes daggers that dug into him as she gripped the table cloth.
There was the click of the hammer behind her and her heart froze. Antonio returned the glare, silent.
“Anything… please. Anything but that.” She tried not to sound pleading but her voice wavered, feeling as though the world was slipping from under her feet.
“I already established my terms, darling. Either you take it or they’ll find your mother’s body washing up on the shore next week. She’s a complete nobody… won’t get back to us.”
Time crawled to a stand still, every feature on his smooth face sharpening to a harsh clarity. She gripped the tablecloth until her knuckles were white.
“What’s it gonna be, Veronica?”
Axel felt his phone rumble in his pocket. It was a new message.
“No jobs tonight. Where R U?”
“At my place. Wanna hang?”
The dull glow of her phone painted her face a sickly blue. There was the image of a knife on her forearm.
In an almost deliberate contrast to his usual black three piece suit, Axel was wearing a simple white t-shirt and jeans as she walked into his apartment. No long flowing dress – a simple t-shirt and jeans, a small shopping bag hanging under her shoulder.
“Hey! I haven’t seen ya’ in a while.” He shut the door after her, slowly walking after her. “Ya’ got a lot of work lately, don’t ya’?”
“I do.” Her smile, so radiant it seemed to fill the room with the light, shining his direction. She walked into the kitchen, setting the bag down on the counter. “It pays well. And yourself?”
Walking after her, he opened the bag and got the microwave ready. “Can’t complain. Ya’ go and get yourself comfortable, a’ight? There’s beer in the fridge.”
There was. Veronica opened the fridge, taking out two cans and walking to the couch. Immediately, she took a long swig of one, slamming the now half-empty can onto the table. She would need it.
A few minutes later, Axel walked into the living room with a big bowl of popcorn in his hands. He flipped a switch as he walked in, the room only illuminated by the dull glow of the television screen.
“The man of the hour.” She softly spoke as he joined her, the bowl of popcorn sitting between them.
“Hardly. How has your mother been, Veronica?” He grabbed the can from the table and pulled the tab, soft fizz in the darkness.
“Just fine. I told her about you.” She took another sip, closing her eyes as the comforting buzz of alcohol hit her head.
“Oh, ye’? What did she say? And… what did ya’ tell her?” With one hand he worked the controller, the room filling with flickering colors as a movie started to play. The other brought the can to his lips.
“That you worked in construction. That we met at the orphanage and we’ve been friends ever since… she’d love to meet you.” There was no change in her expression, as if she were watching paint dry.
“Won’t she be disappointed?” A soft chuckle as more beer passed between his lips, absentmindedly working away at the pile of popcorn.
“I doubt it… union delegate or not, you’re still a good man. A great… friend.” Slowly, she scooted closer, a few inches between them.
“Union delegate? Jesus, Vero. That’s straight outta Goodfellas…”
“I know. You’ve quoted the movie at me… perhaps a thousand times, now?”
“Not nearly enough for a movie that good.” He chuckled, glancing at her with a grin.
His smile resonated in a pang of guilt in her heart. She could kill him this very moment. But not yet. Her heart wouldn’t allow her to. It yearned for more.
Their surroundings started to blur. Two cans, three cans. She was leaning against her shoulder, eyes half-lidded.
Four cans, five cans. He wrapped his arm around her, not around her shoulders but slung around her waist.
Six cans, seven cans. They weren’t watching the movie anymore. The floor isn’t a good angle to watch a movie from, not with someone else on top of you.
Nine, ten. All inhibitions were off, and so were their clothes.
“…this is your first, isn’t it?” Her voice, calling out from the darkness.
“It… is.” A confession.
“It’s mine, too… but I’ll guide you. Don’t worry.”
“…I trust ya’.”
His words tore at her heart.
That night she tossed the mask away.
He was in a drunken haze when he heard her voice, floating to his ears from the other half of the bed.
“Axel… Axel.” She pushed at his bare shoulder, leaning against the headboard. “The night is beautiful… let’s go out on the balcony, please?”
“Please, Veronica… I’m sore as hell. Anotha’ time…” He turned away from her, folding the pillow over his ear.
“Please…” She ran a finger up his back, whispering into his ear. “You’ll thank me, when you see it…” Her heart shook, feeling on the verge of tears.
“A’ight, a’ight…” He rolled out of bed, his clothes somewhere else in the room.
“Go on. I’ll catch up with you in a second. I’m lighting a cigarette.”
“Don’t get ashes on the bed, if ya’ can.” Rubbing his eyes, he made towards the balcony.
Watching his naked figure walk with his back turned to her was like a signal. Her heart almost skipped a beat.
This was it. Ink siphoned out of her skin that transformed into a knife, soon to be driven into the skin of her friend – no, her lover. He would understand. He would do the same, wouldn’t he?
When no answer came to her, her hands started to shake. Her very being shook as he watched him reach the balcony, hands on the railing.
Her mother was innocent. But so was he. She felt nauseous with this decision thrust upon her, her heart screaming against her brain.
And so she shut her heart off.
Like in a dream she walked towards him, knife in her hands. Hands as steady as they had ever been.
“Vero?” He called without turning, propped slightly against the railing. “I don’t see nothin’. What do you want me ta’…”
She grabbed him from behind, hand closing around his mouth. The knife slid in and out of his skin like a fine instrument. One, two, three stabs. Time stood still once more, their sorrowful silhouettes painted against the wall by the light of the moon.
And as the blood began to pour, so did her tears. The mask had failed.
He fell backwards, onto a puddle of his own blood, eyes wide in disbelief. Only vaguely registering the sound of her running away.
As the darkness swallowed him, her words rung in her ears.
“I had no choice…”
A sharp contrast. From darkness to light. Too sharp. No choice but to cover his eyes.
After a while his senses came into focus. It smelled of formaldehyde. White walls, a green gown he was clad in, a bed that felt like it was made of rock…
There was a man in the room, sitting on a chair against the wall. Axel turned to him, lying on his stomach.
“…who the hell are ya’…?” He managed in a hoarse whisper.
“Oh, no one special. A guardian angel, of sorts… Axel Dillinger, I presume?”
A weak nod.
“A pleasure. My name is Antonio Fortunato.”