Back to Red: Prologue

Grey eyes lazily opened allowing Tuesday’s mid-morning sun to sear through the sliver of Sandra’s retinas that her eyelids had reluctantly exposed. A grumble was muffled as she turned her features into the musty, but still technically clean pillow that had been kept warm by the side of her face. Sweet relief washed over her as darkness flooded her sight. Light was the enemy at this point, but it hadn’t always been. In fact, the way the light blossomed into a healthy glow through the open white-painted Plantation shutters within the room was one of the reasons why she had purchased the Hyde Park bungalow in South Tampa. Above was the soft strumming of the large ceiling fan accompanied by the intermittent clink of its pull chain dancing against its frosted glass light fixtures shaped like lilies. Still, her body nagged at her.

Wearing a pair of lightweight cotton drawstring pyjama pants and her favourite oversized Florida State t-shirt, she managed to find the perfect temperature for the bed sheet to be pulled up around her shoulders. With the air conditioning set to seventy-two and the fan going, anything exposed was frosty whilst everything under cover remained slightly toasty. Maybe if she just lay there quietly for a few minutes her body would relent as she drifted back off to sleep. Turning her face so that her cheek could cuddle into the pillow, a lighter shade of darkness now pressed into her covered vision. With her left arm and leg tossed across a large U-shaped pillow that was as long as she was tall, Sandra gripped the comfy cushion and waited for rest to retake her.

The pressure and pains in her lower abdomen persisted and the brunette sighed frustratedly. Sandra had to go to the bathroom. She wasn’t about to lay in her own piss as this would’ve ruined the very lovely mattress that had been serving up cloud nine relaxation for the last few weeks. It was the most plush of jail cells this side of a padded room. The house was silent and still all but for the ceiling fan and the circulating air via the handler hidden in a closet on another floor. She had missed the pleasant melodies of the morning birds hopping along their branches in the massive Oak tree planted just outside in the front yard. Even in the state she was in, the pleasantness of the birds’ songs was still able to touch her heart as her headboard shared a wall with them. Sometimes this was a welcomed moment of brightness. On other days, like this one, she was relieved to have not heard them at all. Something so sweet and free as birds proved to be too painful in certain moments.

Second attempt at sight and within seconds she was glaring at the pale lilac wall that stood between her and the toilet. Her vision drew back to the edge of the mattress nearest to her as she eyed it contemplating whether she had, in fact, waited too long. There was an art to this that she had all but mastered over the last twenty-three days. Tossing back the zebra striped bed linen, Sandra shimmied gingerly toward the side of the bed. This was the most difficult part. In one quick swooping motion, she dropped her legs off the side and swept up into a standing position with her legs together. The dam had not yet burst.

After a moment of acclimatizing to the new position, walking across the dark purple carpeted floor dotted with piles of dirty clothing and empty shipping boxes was no big deal. Padding into the bathroom, fingers were already tugging at the bow of her drawstring pyjama pants. The second hurdle was how to lift the toilet lid to sit on the seat without incident. Her body was rather sensitive at the point to whatever position she might put it in and she compensated for this accordingly.

What was it about the human bladder that it could sense porcelain within a ten foot radius? Urgency was building as she walked tightly over to stand in front of the throne as it were. With a loud clatter of the toilet lid, which caused her to wince, Sandra quickly spun and dropped down for a safe landing. Mission successful. Another form of relief manifested.

Sitting with her elbows on her knees, she held the roll of toilet paper with both hands as if it were a fragile snow globe. Her body long since finished with what she had come there to do, but her thoughts had drifted keeping her in place. She was remembering about the shutters and the day she had finally gotten the owners to let her have a walk through. It hadn’t been for sale, this delicate yellow house with white trim and wrap around porches. But she wanted it. And she was going to have it. In the end, the brunette had paid a hefty price for the property, in more ways than one.

The truth of it was that at the time she had been happily living in a condo on Harbour Island, just a hop over a tiny bridge from downtown Tampa. Quick to get into the courthouse and quick to get out. Even quicker a stop was the law firm the occupied two floors near the top of the Suntrust building. For whatever reason, she decided to take a trip down Bayshore Boulevard on a sunny Sunday afternoon with the windows down in the Aston. It was round about this time of the year, early Fall, when the rain subsided a bit and a chill occasionally drifted southward through the Bay Area. Turning off onto Howard, the rather wide twin supercharged coupe sliced back and forth through the luxury cars parked curbside on the brick neighbourhood streets.

It was at an intersection a few blocks south of swanky Swann Avenue that Cassandra spotted the house. The mossy trees, well-manicured lawns, and soft-yet-bright paint scheme just looked like home. It was the complete opposite of the dark and imposing house she grew up in overseas. And it certainly wasn’t anything like the modern and minimalist high-rise she was currently leasing. Looking back, Sandra might say now that it wasn’t that the house made her happy. Instead, it radiated the happiness the family then living within it enjoyed, a happiness she desperately wanted. All she wanted was some roots, some stability. Stillness even. No more moving. No more living in the aesthetic of another. No more temporary anything.

Pulling herself back into the present, Sandra swiveled her head to look at the large whirlpool tub that took up a whole corner of the bathroom. One step over was the very high-tech looking spa-styled, no-threshold glass shower. In that moment, she couldn’t remember the last time she had used either. A pensive pass of her tongue over the front of her teeth had her noticing their less than smooth feel. Two fingers absent-mindedly scratched at her scalp beneath the mess of chocolate layers piled and pined atop her head as she contemplated a shower. The thought of refreshing water and the restorative power of Elizabeth Arden aromatherapy was rather appealing. A sigh eventually followed as she chased away that possibility after considering all the work that went into disrobing, washing her hair, her body, shaving, towelling off, moisturising and re-dressing. Maybe later. Unwinding a bit of paper around her left hand, Sandra then tossed the roll onto the unused tower still squeezed inside the green and white Angel Soft packaging shoved across the way. Thank the heavens for Amazon.

***

[Are You Gonna Go My Way by Lenny Kravitz]

Anzhelina could have listed half a dozen other ways she’d rather be spending her Tuesday than driving from her home in Northeast Hillsborough county down to the ultra snobby and flood-prone area south of Kennedy Boulevard. The porcelain skinned doll with Russian and Norwegian genes detested the cobblestone lanes and shade granting tree-lined pavements of South Tampa. Those jade green eyes hidden behind a pair of mirror finished aviators narrowed with contempt more and more with each soccer mom mobile she passed. The Khaki Mafia was afoot no doubt soaked in the latest bottle of Pinot or Char they happened to stumble across — as if those bottles randomly materialised and opened themselves like health packs in a survivalist video game. Waste not, want not.

Leaving her left hand to pilot the rather sick looking Honda Ridgeline Black Edition, her other fingers stroked up the topside of her thigh skating across the glossy material of her leggings. There would be nothing more satisfying than pulling back the slide of a freshly oiled Glock 22 and letting a couple of those .40cal rounds fly. Up came that mischievous hand letting the side of her wrist balance at the very top the red stitched steering wheel. Pointer finger took aim at three dog-walking twenty something year old nannies. Thumb flexed firing off those invisible rounds as the Honda pickup sat in the traffic queue. Red light-matching lips twisted into a tilted smirk before Angie happened to glance over at a brunette woman giving her the death glare from inside the leather filled luxury of her forty thousand dollar minivan.

Spotting the rosary hanging from the rearview mirror, Angie brought her aviators down low on the bridge of her nose to get a better look at the tanned tank top wearer. Cheekily, she winked and brought two fingers in a V up to her mouth for that pointed serpent’s tongue to flick vulgarly at the Housefrau. The woman was less than pleased with the display and drove off with a huff. Ruffling the feathers of someone’s mother would have to be enough for today. And with that, Anzhelina reached forward to the center dash’s touchscreen to pump up the volume on the Lenny Kravitz track inside the quad cab’s dark interior. The combination of the deep bass guitar and drum work kept her leather jacket wrapped shoulders shifting back and forth to the rhythm. Nothing beat the tauntingly raucous nature of the layered guitars.

Turning down one of the cozy little neighbourhood streets, the single mother in her all wheel drive utility vehicle played hopscotch left and right passing a myriad of vehicles parked curbside. Audi, Mercedes, Cadillac, and Porsche were all represented in their typical duller than dull palette of black, white, and champagne. Every once in a while a rebel emerged with their cranberry or sapphire coloured luxury car. It was like that one guy who decided to go balls to the wall in changing up his wardrobe and opted to wear white socks instead of black. So daring.

As she pulled up in front of Sandra’s three thousand square foot dream house, she took a gander at the home which was built in the early 1920s. With a passing glance, it looked picture perfect. The romantic vines, jasmine, and magnolias were expertly shaped and the thick lawns rich and vibrant. Take the time and passers-by might notice the dirt and leaves gathered round the front door, the haze on the windows from lack of cleaning, and the stack of papers shoved under the porch swing. The house and its owner were mirrors to each other: a well kept outside concealing the disrepair within. Angie now understood the disconnect Sandra occasionally mentioned when she had had one too many. People expected the outside to match the inside, or was that vice versa?

Movement from a house a few doors down caught her attention. Angie looked up just in time to spot a tall guy with a slim build stroll down his front steps and head her way. With his hands stuffed into the pockets of his tan cargo shorts and the bill of his ball cap tilted just ever so slightly to the side, he looked unencumbered on this beautiful day. White earbuds drew a jarring contrast down the front of his navy blue shirt leaving Anzhelina wondering what he happened to be listening to as he went for his walk.

“… Are you gonna go my way? And I got to, got to know –”

“Your guess is as good as mine, Lenny.” She almost sighed to herself.

Switching off the six cylinder, the five-foot seven blonde hopped out of the truck. Pulling her razor-edged bob up into a short messy pony tail, she casually intercepted the neighbour by stepping up onto the pavement in front of Sandra’s driveway. He stopped suddenly at the sight of her though there had been a decent amount of space in between them. Had she really startled him? Ash brown brows arched up over the top of those mirrored aviators.

“Do you know if she’s home?” Gesturing with her thumb back over her shoulder at the two storey house with tall privacy fencing, she finally peeled off her sunglasses and he began to laugh.

“Wow.”

Cassandra and Anzhelina were two sides of the same coin: one a curvy bombshell rich in her Sicilian heritage and the other younger with the light Swedish colouring and athletic build similar to that of a swimmer. Their facial features were remarkably similar except for the most subtle difference in the contour of their noses. The colour of their eyes was the most noticeable contrast: Sandra’s were grey and Angie’s were green. They even sounded alike save for the subtle Hertfordshire accent tainting the odd word that passed from Sandra’s lips but was absent completely in Angie’s unplaceable American tones.

“Yea,” Out came the broad smile and Angie tilted her head not at all thrown by his reaction to her appearance. People often remarked on their resemblance not just in look but also mannerisms despite having only a mother in common. “My sister, have you seen her?”.

“You’re sisters?” He exaggerated the inflection on his question, but it was becoming clear she wasn’t picking up on his sarcasm. Or if she was, she wasn’t entirely sure how to respond. There was this subtle change in her expression. Under a quick reconsideration, he decided that the shift was behind her expression as if what he was looking at was a mask. He was seeing what she wanted him to see. And a part of him was slowly beginning to wake up to this.

“We are. You couldn’t tell?” With the furrowing of her brow, she folded her arms across her trim tummy genuinely curious.

“Yea guy, I noticed.” Plucking his earbuds out, he left them to rest over his shoulder and nodded up to the house behind her, “Not sure she’s there. I’m not real into hanging outside of windows. Fear of heights.” His thick dark brows shifted as the bemused expression that went with that New England edge spread over his face.

Right about then she happened to glance down noticing the white feline with chocolate and caramel splotches on its coat. Not seeing it when he first appeared, she reflexively jumped back startled by its appearance. The amber eyed cat was staring straight back up at her whilst curling its tail almost possessively around the man’s ankle.

“You’re walking your cat?” She inquired almost incredulously aloud. This was what he was doing?

“Don’t be foolish. Who walks a cat?” A relaxed shrug and he was leaning down to scratch the kitty behind an ear, “She’s not mine. She just likes the attention I give her.”

Angie could hear the creature purr as it indulgently pressed into the man’s touch. “I’ll leave you to it then.”

Again, he chuckled to himself over the similar phrasing and straightened up once again to give her a nod, “Goodbye Sandy’s sister.”

“Angie.”

“Sandy and Angie.” Tucking his earbuds back in, he went on about his way enjoying the warm sun and light breeze of the Florida afternoon.

“What the fuck is up with these neighbourhoods?” Anzhelina whispered whilst standing there watching him drift on down the block to only God knows where.

Turning her attention back to the original mission, she took to the stone pathway, which led from the side drive that disappeared behind a locked hinged gate to around up to the front porch. Though there was no car parked out front, it easily could’ve been stored in the back off the alley access. And if Sandra had planned on not driving for a while, she would’ve secured the car out of the elements. Curious fingers danced over the top of bruised mail sticking up, practically begging to be liberated from its bronzed cell. From the looks of it, her sister hadn’t bothered clearing out the mailbox since the week before. Shaking her head, she took a moment to dig out everything that had been crammed and shoved down into the metal rectangle.

“Why can’t you have a mail slot like a normal person?” The blonde wondered aloud.

With that, she knocked on the wood frame of the frosted glass front door. No response. Looking left and right, green eyes spotted the doorbell and she gave it a couple quick presses. Nothing. Leaning her head closer to the door, she held her breath and listened. Waiting, her eyes shut as she concentrated for any creak or scuff or rattle. Looking down at the couple of pounds of mail she was holding to her chest like a baby, a thought formed in Anzhelina’s head. Leaning back close to the door, albeit somewhat reluctantly, she sniffed near a draft of air. No odor. Without even realizing it, her body had become tense at the possibility she had been considering.

“Don’t they have dogs?” Peering around the distorted glass, she saw no signs of animals and really no furniture. To the right was the living area devoid of couches and shelving she had remembered seeing earlier in the year. The staircase was straight on and to the left was the dining room and kitchen. She couldn’t say for certain, but it looked as though the dining set complete with china cabinet and buffet was still present. There were boxes littered about unmarked and open.

Heaving the bills, letters, magazines, catalogues, and sale fliers to one side, Angie struggled for a moment to fish a flip phone out of the side pocket of her motorcycle jacket. Using her upper teeth to push open the clamshell to reveal the dialing pad, she gingerly typed out Sandra’s number and waited. It rang in her ear and then the echo of the ringtone spread down the staircase. She was on the second floor. Probably in bed. Voicemail. A quick cha-cha of her thumb and she redialed. The ringing resumed and stopped suddenly. Her call was turfed over to voicemail.

***

[Girl from the North Country by The Lions]

Sandra had shuffled her way to the half stripped bed and fell back onto it returning her grey eyes to the very familiar spot on the ceiling. No matter how down she might get, it was never enough to completely suppress the restlessness she often felt within. Rolling over to the very edge of what was once his side of the bed, she reached down under to the dusty floor and began feeling around in the darkness.

Straining a bit, her legs anchored her with the leverage of their weight so that her arm could extend further toward what was the underneath of the middle of the mattress. The truth of it was though she was unwilling to throw out what she was searching for, she had tried to shove it back away from an easy grab. Out of sight, out of mind. But it was always there in the back of hers. Finally, those long nails with their chipped and faded varnish clacked against the sharp corner of wood. Wincing at the pull in her lower back, she made one last snatch for it and managed to successfully drag the nondescript cigar box out into view.

With both sets of fingers now clamped over the edge of the mattress, Sandra hung her chin in between them. She looked quite like a kid peering towards the underneath of her bed. Was there something under there? Danger? Instead of worrying about some monster crawling about unseen, her focus was square on the leather strapped unbranded container. The trepidation was similar however. She needed to feel something, anything. Another pass of her finger around the rusted edging nicked the sensitive skin causing her to draw back from the surface. The stinging pain shot through her nerves.

A few seconds later, Sandra found herself sitting in the center of the bed with the box in front of her crossed legs. Unlatching the lid, it was carefully flipped back to reveal a stack of a dozen or so letters. Some were postmarked and others merely dated, but they were all from the same person. Lifting one of the oldest folded number ten envelopes to her nose, she closed her eyes letting the faint scent of his aftershave waft up into her senses. On the first sniff, it wasn’t detectable and that pained her. It was fading. Another inhale. Maybe, maybe. The ache in her chest materialised and snatched tight round her heart. The analogy cut her like a knife. She took a moment and then tried once more. There it was. Or was it? Was his scent really still there? Or was it just a phantom kindness from her imagination.

And beneath the stack was a book in the back that had a dried flower from him. The first rose he had bought her. It was still a lovely lilac shade. Next to it on the yellowing ivory paper, was the date. They were just kids then. Filling the gap from the shape of the book to the inside of the boxes other edge was a tiny bottle of perfume and a dainty watch. All were the first gifts she had ever received in a relationship. She had kept it all throughout the years. Despite everything, she had kept every item. And if a hurricane spun its way toward her, this little box would be the first thing she’d pack up.

Over a decade of communication was in that archive she had held onto, hidden away, protected. She could feel that wave coming and forced her eyes up to the ceiling. They flooded and blurred. She waited. Cresting and flowing down over the cheekbones, Sandra propped her elbow on the side of a knee and rested her jaw on a folded hand. In the other, her fingers had carefully unfolded and straightened out the oldest one. Sandra remembered the circumstances that precipitated the writing of it, sighing almost dejectedly to the audience that was the empty bedroom.

The one held would be the first of many in the preferred format of communication by the sender. Everything he couldn’t say to her directly, any explanations he wasn’t able to deliver, goals he wanted to share, or deep feelings he tiptoed around went into this collection of texts. Every one was tenderly folded and tucked away from the elements. Try as she might to preserve them, their age was beginning to show. Handling them wasn’t doing her any favours in maintaining them either. Storm-matching irises skimmed the few short paragraphs before both hands were used to return the letter to its respective envelope before unpacking the another.

Paragraphs and paragraphs of his thoughts were in this one from a few years later. Attached to it also had been her reply and his subsequent response. Just like the other, the circumstances were just as vivid to her as if they had happened yesterday and not half a decade ago. The true beginning of the end. It was the start of feeling incapable of helping the man she had loved since those teenage holiday vacations to Florida. Sandra stopped and corrected herself on that thought. More honestly, it was the first time he made it clear to her that he didn’t want it. That was probably the line in the sand that put them on opposite sides, opposing teams. It was the destructive duality of loving each other through their own cold war. The ensuing peace agreements were tense and brittle. The resulting breaks invariably spurred another letter and written exchange after a term of silence and separation.

He looked like the man she loved. Sometimes, he even still sounded like him. But that part of himself he had put away a long time ago much like she had tried to do with the box in front of her. There were still times where it felt like she could feel him lingering somewhere just beyond her grasp. Occasionally, she could reach out and touch him; her fingers gliding lightly across the surface of his heart before he retreated away further. Then came swift the censure usually cold and detached. The silence of his absences were loud in her ears and heavy in her heart.

Before Sandra was able to open up the one most recently received, her mobile began to vibrate across the bedspread. She had purposely muted work contacts as a group leaving only certain family and friends free to ring through. They always had a bit of magic, the two of them. Grabbing the smart phone, the brunette half expected to see the familiar area code on the screen. Maybe she had put more stock in the hope of it than she would’ve admitted. Greeted instead by a local number, she dismissed the call and threw the phone across the room toward the closet. It landed with a muffled thud against the chaise lounge.

Back to reality. Looking down at the dishevelled bedspread covered in ageing mementos, it was then that she realised she was looking at what was effectively a cemetery of their relationship. The dates of the letters marked the deaths of different pieces of them, both as a couple and as individuals. Sandra knew his number was never going to show up on her call list again.

***

Relieved that she had confirmation Sandy was alive, Angie suddenly glared at her phone’s screen, Did she just ignore my call? With that, she began banging the base of her palm high on the door. She did so with such force it would’ve made the SWAT team door knocker look like a limp-wristed wet blanket. In truth, she damn near cracked a glass panel.

After a half-dozen strikes, a mad gallop came down the main staircase accompanied by the fast swoosh of distorted burgundy, gold, and grey. Anzhelina knew that pyjama set anywhere. It sure as hell wasn’t the traditional attire of the Canes stanning motherfucker. Fuming, she stood there expectantly in front of the locked entrance with her arms clutching all of the bills and magazines.

“Oi! What the fuck do you think you’re doing banging on –” Sandra was already half through a rant by the time she threw back open her front door. Angie was the last person she expected to see. In fact, Sandra didn’t even know who she expected to see on her door step. It was clear the blonde was not pleased. “What the hell are you doing here?”

Whatever offense Angie had taken about her call being ignored dissipated once she saw the state of her sister. The stained pyjamas, birds nest of hair. Green eyes fell to the box tucked under Sandra’s arm. Was she smoking again? Cigars, even? She reflexively wrinkled her nose at the thought. At least she was speaking to a live person and not trying to identify a bloated corpse. So there was that. Tilting her head left and right as if to check corners before clearing a room, Angie took a quick survey of the front part of the house’s ground floor. Barely lived in. It was still hard to determine if Sandra was moving out or just preparing for an Angela Bassett Waiting to Exhale Moment in which she would enthusiastically join in, especially if it meant torching any University of Miami memorabilia that had been left behind.

“Invite me in.”

“What the bloody hell are you, a vampire all of a sudden?”

Anzhelina narrowed her gaze and levelled it firmly on the brunette. She wasn’t here for tea and biscuits. Cassandra stood firm in the doorway tapping a set of nails on the door’s siding. Though she and Angie were the closest and managed a functional relationship, Sandy was still very aware of the blonde’s proclivities. Teeth gripped her bottom lip for a few seconds as she considered how to handle her uninvited guest.

Finally, “Is that all mine, then?” A nod to the mail Angie was holding.

“No, I was in the neighbourhood stealing benefit checks from the elderly and thought I’d be a cunt and take their magazines as well.” With that, she shoved the mail toward the Brit and pushed past her. Once inside, she spun round in place and slammed the front door shut. “You. Shower, now.”

Sandra struggled for a moment to maintain control over the uneven pile of mail before side stepping the swinging door. “This is my house. I will shower when I’m damn well ready!”

“Really? That’s your reply?” Up went those ash brows as the blonde stood fast with her hands on her hips. A few seconds ticked by and then: “You smell.”

Stunned by Angie’s declaration about her hygiene, Sandy’s jaw dropped. “I do not.”

“You do.” A short nod before Angie turned her attention to the rooms to the left and right of the entrance hall. “Believe me.”

Balancing the box atop the slippery magazines, Sandra shook her head and walked through the dinning room and round to the left to the kitchen that spanned the length of the house. “Leave then.”

Each section of the house was painted in different pale Key West-themed shades that popped just enough against the bright white moulding and dark wood floors. The living room was blue, the dining room a pink, the kitchen in green. Most furniture was white wicker framed with patterned cushions in whatever colour was on the walls. Every room benefited from nearly floor to ceiling windows that would’ve allowed in heart-warming light had the shutters been raised or folded away. Still, it was bright enough through the kitchen to allow for navigation around the bizarre maze of trash bags, cardboard boxes, and takeaway containers.

Surveying the state of things, Anzhelina leisurely followed behind her sister half expecting a raccoon to hop out or a possum to hiss at her in passing. Sandra placed the cigar box on the kitchen’s center island next to a bowl of half withered fruit before continuing on to the not quite overflowing can of trash. Using her pointer finger, the blonde tilted the bowl toward her to eye the blackened bananas and spongy looking green apples. Again, the bridge of her nose wrinkled.

With her sister off to the side working her way through the backlog of mail, Angie eyed the cigar box Sandra had been carrying around with her. “What’s that?”

“Nothing,” Without so much as looking up, Sandy replied sharply whilst separating out what was stamped as past due and final notice from the rest of the rubbish.

It certainly is more than nothing, Angie thought as she considered how quick the reply came. After all, the brunette didn’t have any real idea what Angie was asking about as she had her back to the blonde. Retreating to the opposite wall, Anzhelina walked her fingers over the handles of different sized pans anchored on iron hooks to her left. A strategy began to form. Picking up a rather deep cast iron skillet, she sprinted past Sandy and pulled the box off the counter stepping into a spin to face her. Noticing the movement from the corner of her eye, Sandra dumped the mail and went to recover the box from her sister’s grab, but was too slow.

Turning to follow the blonde, Sandra spotted the dark frying pan in Angie’s one hand and the box she was now twisting back and forth to taunt her in the other. “What are you doing?!”

“Well, dear sister, I’m going to break things in this house until you go shower. And –” The blonde took a moment to inspect the outside of the cigar box more for effect than anything else, “I figure I should start with this. Since it’s ‘nothing’ after all.” Out came that very wide, shark like smile.

 

[Tattooed in Reverse by Marilyn Manson]

As disconcerting as it normally was to see that expression twist itself across Anzhelina’s doll-like features, the rage of her tampering with something so valuable seared through Sandra. Without thinking she advanced forward reaching for the box with one hand whilst the other went for the blonde’s throat. Angie was already laughing before the brunette’s forearm collided with the top of her younger sister’s rib cage. The graceful and trim sibling with their mother’s Nordic looks huffed as the moulding of the wall she was slammed into thunked into her lower back. Still, she taunted Sandra by holding the box high over their heads occasionally faking as if she were set to pitch it through the window at the sink.

“Don’t try and wind me up, Angie.” Infuriated already by the blonde’s antics, the lack of expected response only served to fan the flames of the brunette’s rage.

The laughing continued as Sandy groped the front of a nearby counter. Finding the handle to a drawer, she jerked it open nearly causing it to fly off the railings spilling its contents to the floor, The wooden handle of a large serrated steak knife was snatched out of a tray section and brought up to the front of Anzhelina’s throat. Giving her chest another shove before pressing the jagged teeth at an angle against the delicate snow white skin of her sister’s throat, Cassandra was not in control.

“Now I know you really are my sister.” Angie relented with the laughing, but still refused to fork over the box.

“The box.”

“Shower.” Up went a blondish brow.

“Do you think I won’t slice your throat in my kitchen?!” Through clenched teeth, Sandra pivoted the blade so that the very menacing tip was angled straight toward the soft flesh over Anzhelina’s jugular.

“Do it.” That rye dark simper crawled over the box-taker’s mouth. At her core, Angie was the best way to measure the mettle and morality of others. Whether the mechanism was to incite or to ignore, her methods were the most successful and often underestimated. She was most amused by this thoughtless display of aggression. If anything, she wanted even more to see what was inside this little box that Sandra felt was worth risking her own life over.

The impulse control was gone. All Cassandra could feel was the primeval push to rush forward again. If asked about it, she’d deny that a major propellant in this outburst was probably the tonnes of smothered hurt and anger she swallowed year after year. Her pride would never allow her to admit openly that someone else had control over her emotions. Or even worse, that she herself was absolutely positively out of control now that the bindings of manipulation had been cut by him. Rather than leading with the knife, she instead grabbed for a handful of blonde hair in an effort to better drive home her request.

“I will ki–” Before she could complete her sentence, Sandra heard a metallic click and spring mechanism. Even a person who had never watched an action film in their life would recognize that sound. The harsh coldness of the stiletto’s blade slipped along her flank coyly beneath the fabric of her top.

“Don’t you just love that sound?” Out slithered one of the sexiest laughs a woman had ever uttered. It was a sound that a vixen might make in the ear of her lover whilst sitting alone with him in the corner of some pub during courtship.

The inappropriateness of its sound cooled Sandra’s blood, which had been boiling at that point, down to what felt like ice water. Where Angie shivered in pleasurable excitement, Sandy shuddered in a fearful startle. Tilting her head back against Sandra’s grip on her hair, Angie’s jade green eyes rolled down to focus on her face with that very familiar predatory grin. The brunette remained perfectly still. Sandra wasn’t ready to look up and face the monster in leather. The blonde pensively washed her tongue over the front of her own veneers, canine to canine. Was the notion of stabbing and tearing Sandra’s flesh really that mouth-watering? Maybe.

“You’re my favourite, Cassandra.” Gone were both the grin and giggles, sadistic or not. In their place was the face of a killer that Sandra suddenly realized was the last thing a select few ever saw. “But don’t make me gut you like a fucking fish.”

The brunette had never seen Anzhelina operate in this capacity. She never asked. She never wanted to know. Their relationship centered around the care and safety of not just Anzhelina’s son, but also their niece, Kandy. In the logic of the blonde, she was no different from military or law enforcement. A man was haled a hero for shooting one of the most notorious terrorists in the world. The person who threw the switch at an execution is just another employee in the government corrupted criminal justice system. If people didn’t spit at them, they had no business discriminating against her for her work. Why is she singled out over the fact that she enjoys the job? What about the pharmaceutical executives who inflate the cost of life-saving drugs just because they want the numbers to look better on paper? How many innocent people have died because of them? And yet she is somehow more heinous in her activities? Private contracts or not, every aspect of life was pay to play. Did Angie bother herself with the background and circumstances that led people to engage her? Not beyond ensuring she wasn’t putting her family at risk by accepting the work. At the end of the day, Anzhelina never showed up to someone’s doorstep without there being a damn good reason.

Though Cassandra had never killed anyone by her own hand, her sister often pushed forward her belief that she was just as guilty. Time and time again, Angie stood by the declaration that Sandra’s actions had resulted in the deaths of others. Just because she didn’t pull the trigger, wield the weapon, or cinch the garrote, didn’t mean Sandra’s hands were clean. After all, what did the brunette think it meant when she would mutter the three magic words: go handle it? A tea party? A bountiful brunch during which the offending party would see the error of their ways and all would be forgiven over Eggs Flourentine? It wasn’t just the deals she made with prosecutors on behalf of her clients that had consequences, but also the alliances and divisions she signed off on in the family business.

And of course their impact was far more than economic. Every time she took those envelopes she was actively changing the value of people’s lives just like some grim mortality stock exchange. Anzhelina preferred to compare it to commodities. Sandra bought and sold people. Maybe not in the most literal form, but their freedom, earning potential, and safety often were negotiated as part of the transaction. The blonde didn’t have the hang-ups on their industry like her sister did. As such, she never needed to craft intricate rules and regulations that could be massaged just enough to let herself live in denial about the nature of things. Who was she to judge though? It wasn’t her business what Sandra needed to tell herself day after day to be able to stand in a court room valiantly defending her clients in front of a judge and jury. On the rare occasion Angie snuck in to watch Cassandra work a case, she couldn’t help but wonder if the brunette was mounting such a heated defense because she subconsciously felt she herself was really the defendant on trial. Whatever head space Cassandra had herself in when at work allowed her to be recognized as one of the best trial attorneys in the country.

Was it upsetting that upon looking up from seeing Angie’s hand on that beautifully carved handle Sandra was met with the no-nonsense business side of her sister? It was shocking really. Staring into those vibrant eyes there was no hint of sentimentality, loyalty, or connection that she could recognize. There was nothing in that gaze that gave any of her victims the smallest hint that something could be uttered or some gesture made to trigger a human response from Angie. They would and did look at her as Sandra was now and understand that there was no chance of a reprieve. Denial could not live in a space devoid of all hope.

In that state, Anzhelina was the embodiment of the abyss written by man once he formed the concept of evil. If asked about the classification, the blonde would simply roll her eyes offended more by the notion that people viewed her as a one-dimensional being rather than an individual with layers and depth. On more than one occasion, her limited affect required Sandra to explain the irony of her position on the matter.

[Sweet Despair by Cher Lloyd]

In contrast, Sandra felt everything, from everyone. She lived in the emotions of those around her to avoid experiencing her own. Operating under the auspices of caring for and healing, the woman consistently gave over her energy to nurture those she loved. There was no cut too deep or burn too severe that would deter her from reaching down to try to rescue someone who owned a partition of her heart. This wasn’t to say that her feelings weren’t genuine. They were. Strong, deliberate, and tangible.

As smart and cunning as she was in business, Cassandra refused to listen to those same instincts when it came to her personal life. The tax she was paying for her recklessness was astronomical. Perhaps that was the point. And when that inevitable kick to the stomach of rejection or stab to her chest of betrayal finally landed, she was dragged closer to the emotional suicide she longed for. Oh, to wake up one morning and feel nothing.

To reinforce the consequences of her actions, Sandra often carried out an emotional necropsy of the relationship. Just as she had done earlier with the cigar box of I’m-Sorry-Letters she was now fighting over, she would dig through the remains of her memories ripping open the scars. Remember what it feels like? Had you really forgotten? Here’s a reminder or two or three or a hundred. All the times they had sold you out, left you behind, sacrificed you. Are you still so stupid to think you’ve settled your accounts and still deserve the light of love in your life? Everyone you have ever loved is gone, buried — some in more ways than one. Your punishment, your hell is thinking the next time will be different. It feels so brand new, so fresh. It could really happen this time. The fun, the joy. It feels like flying, doesn’t it? Spread those wings, tilt your head back under the sun, and feel alive again. Go on. Do it. And right when you think you’ve shed the suffocating skin of grief, he will reach for that heart you’ve served up to him, and crush it. And you. Your hope will crumble between his fingers as the once comforting warmth of his attention will turn into the searing burn of icy indifference.

The blonde Sandra held up against her kitchen wall at knife point had nothing remotely similar to the sorrow her sister punished herself with regularly. Anzhelina knew what loving behaviour was enough to recognize and mimic it. However, her ability to truly access and experience that universe of emotion was questionable at best. The blonde had read the definition of love, studied relationship books, and attended therapy regularly as part of a system she cobbled together after discovering she was pregnant. There was no illusion about the fact she didn’t feel emotions like others. Maybe not as deep or as often. But whatever capacity for love Angie did have was dedicated to her child. She was committed to her son not ever being able to recognize the difference in her versus another more human counter part. That was how she termed it: being a little less human than the rest.

Her attachment to their niece Kandy had grown over the last nine months following the death of their aunt Zoraida, who had taken Kandy in as a child. Sandra excelled in her role of emotional support for the twenty-something by helping her to navigate the ocean of emotions she was experiencing after losing the only mother she had ever known. Angie’s part in the girl’s life was more of watchful protector and entertainment director. Having much more flexibility in her schedule and down time between jobs, she often took the girl on fishing trips and short vacations with her son. Though having only shared the realization with her therapist, Angie felt a connection with the girl rooted in the respective childhoods. Both had mothers who refused to actively participate in the lives of their daughters. Anzhelina’s never acknowledged her and Kandy’s came around only to fill whatever opportunistic need the socialite had scheduled: a magazine photo shoot, a book signing, a charity event. Their fathers both provided food and shelter, and then ruthlessly monetized the girls’ respective talents.

By her father’s design, Anzhelina was at her core a calculator; a beautifully crafted machine with programmed formulas to assess and appraise whatever situation she found herself in. For instance, how likely was it that Sandra was going to step forward and push that blade into her throat? A moment ago, Angie felt the need to act to tilt the odds back in her favour to discourage her sister from doing so by pulling the stiletto knife from a back pocket and holding it to the brunette’s exposed tummy. Life had changed since growing up in the Fatherland, as she liked to call her home country. Her considerations now went beyond just her own survival and preservation of her freedom. Nobody was going to put her son’s life at risk by taking hers, even if it meant destroying the central figure of the only family and support system she ever had.

If asked, disappointment was the first word Angie would use to describe how she felt about this confrontation. Anger was such a useless emotion. And costly. Whether it was a client striking out at her or a victim realizing how their story was going to end, that final act of rage was usually all the opportunity she needed. Just like this one. Cassandra never stopped to consider if Anzhelina was armed. It didn’t even occur to her that the way she had her sister restrained, and that was a very generous description, left her torso vulnerable. If it weren’t for the loyalty and the feelings she did have for the woman, Sandra would be holding her guts in. Though the aggravation of working through this soap opera was beginning to grate on Angie’s nerves, an instructive and superficial slash along the ribs would be enough to teach her a lesson. Perhaps a maiming was in order.

Sandra sure was taking her sweet time stepping back. With the steak knife still held to her throat, Angie kept the slim dagger aimed at an upward angle to her sister’s abdomen whilst watching her expression. As the seconds ticked by, the fingers that had previously snatched her ponytail were beginning to loosen. Where was she? She was adrift. Somewhere in her head.

Gingerly tilting her head down to free the rest of her hair from Sandra’s weakening hold, Anzhelina purposefully softened her tone. “Or maybe that’s what you want?”

There seemed to be a few moments delay from Angie posing the question and Sandra realising what her sister was asking her. The brunette had a decision to make. Even if she weren’t sure, she could still wind up bleeding out on the floor if she spooked the blonde into thinking she wasn’t going to drop the knife. What a relief it would be to feel nothing any more. Standing there, part of her seethed with envy. Sandra suspected that Angie had never lost a single night’s sleep. Certainly not over a spouse or heartache.

Anzhelina didn’t do romance. The only proof that she ever had any intimate dealings with another individual, physical or emotional was the fact that her son existed. Up until a year ago, Sandy wasn’t exactly sold that Angie getting pregnant wasn’t just some way to better pass under the cover as Joan Q. Citizen. A never-married woman her age and of means with no children would be rather suspicious after a while. Whatever the facts were about the child’s conception, seeing Anzhelina’s interactions with him were touching in ways she hadn’t expected.

Would it hurt? It would’ve been better if she had a gun. One right between the eyes. Dead before she hit the ground. A knife to the stomach though? A horrible way to die. No pills, no alcohol to dull the experience. No romanticism in a bathtub surrounded by candles and photos of a previous life. There were enough attorneys at the firm that her case load would be divvied up without too much impact on the clients themselves. The daughter of their older sister, Angie’s son, and Angie herself, were listed in Sandra’s will. Naturally, so was he. She hadn’t changed it. The what-ifs held her back from writing him out of it. Knowing him, he probably wouldn’t even answer the call or the letters. He wouldn’t take any of it. He’d leave it all to rot. Like he did her. No children. All those years that went by waiting for things to come together: the house, a family of their own. What an enthralling mirage of unavailability he turned out to be.

It was so exhausting trying to avoid all the weddings, births, christenings, graduations, all the family milestones that she was hoping to one day enjoy as more than just a spectator. Then there was the awkward back and forth with friends and their invitations to feast day festivities. Would her phone ring at the last minute? This had been the first Christmas that had gone by without so much as well wishes from him. The pair had a habit of getting back together during the holidays as mutual victims of their respective forms of loneliness. They could keep it going for a couple of months through to the New Year and then the drifting would start. Less and less until she was chasing a ghost. At some point, she’d stop and look around the emotional desert she inevitably found herself in once again. And while she often felt as though she was standing at the edge of whatever dark forest he was wandering in, in reality she was the one lost. He knew exactly where he was and always had. He was right where he wanted to be.

Without any warning, a sudden crushing blow was dealt to Cassandra’s midsection sending her to the floor. Collapsing to her knees, her awareness of the pain was short lived as the panic set in from being unable to draw in air. The knife she had been holding to Anzhelina’s throat had fallen from her hand and clattered spinning off somewhere out of sight. Both palms where now pressed into her lower torso covering where the strike had landed as she turned those glassy grey eyes up to the blonde. Angie simply stood there and silently watched as her sister crumpled into a heap just inches from the rounded toes of her designer boots. Breathing raggedly, Sandra slumped onto her side and curled up as a wave of nausea overtook her. The cold darkly varnished wood floor against her cheek was a distinct contrast to the hot tears that finally flowed over her lashes. One ravine ran down and over the bridge of her nose before finally rejoining the other disappearing into the oily roots of her messy hair.

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