Such a Fine Line

I hate that song.

With a sigh, I changed the radio station away from Megadeth’s “Sweating Bullets” as I kept my eyes on the road ahead. It’s easy for people to say they hate themselves. It’s harder to point out a very good reason as to why. For me, it was the fact that I was pretty sure I was losing my mind.

I wouldn’t say you’ve lost it. I’d say you’re just coming to accept that I exist.

The voice in my head had slowly grown more and more annoying over the years, but it wasn’t until six months ago that it finally went from being something like my conscience to something far more terrifying. I went from listening to its advice to arguing with it, and then things only escalated from there.

Why couldn’t we stay later? I want enjoying that game. You had a nice hand, but not a good bluffing face. Maybe you should’ve let me play?

At first I just noticed things moved around in my room after a night of sleep, but after a while I began to have memory lapses that spanned anywhere from ten minutes to a few hours every day. The last time that had occurred was yesterday, and I went from sitting in my third period history class to standing before the bruised figure of Josh Andrews in the parking lot as he kept his back to his truck, astounded at the sight of me standing before him in a fighting stance. Josh was the guy who had bullied me since middle school, and made my life a living hell before my new tenant took up occupancy in my thoughts. I hadn’t done anything to Josh to leave him like that. I know I didn’t. I didn’t even know how to fight.

So you say.

Laughter followed that in my head as I felt a chill crawl over my body. I shook my head and focused on getting home. Today it had gone too far, spewing threats and demanding that I assault my friends around me during our card game. I was tired of this life, always fearing the other me.

I don’t like you referring to me as an it. It’s insulting, honestly.

“Then what the hell do I call you?” I asked in frustration as I pulled into my driveway. It was late, and I knew my dad would be asleep and my mom would be working at the hospital, so I slipped upstairs like a ghost and into bed.

Sleep well.

There was something unnerving about receiving a goodnight from yourself.

 

***

 

“Caleb?” the voice asked in concern. I snapped my head around and saw my friend Lauren staring at me in bewilderment. There’s something painful about seeing someone so close to you look so mortified. I was about to ask why when I looked at what was in my hands. I was holding a handgun, and I had no idea where it had come from. My immediate reaction was to drop it to the floor of the hallway, and that’s when I noticed that I was in school. Glancing about in alarm I realized I was standing next to Josh’s locker, a dent very obvious in the center. The knuckles of my left hand were aching, and when I looked at them I saw blood leaking out of the skin.

“Caleb,” Lauren began, “what are you doing with that gun?”

The better question is why you dropped it? It could’ve gone off, you know?

“I…I don’t know,” I answered in all honesty. Lauren was clutching her books tightly to her chest as she backed away down the hall.

“Caleb, I don’t want to say anything, but I have to know.”

Want me to tell her?

“I want you to keep quiet!” I hissed.

“What?” Lauren asked, her head cocked to the side, terror more evident on her face.

“Not you!” I tried to assure her. “I’m just…I don’t even-”

“Don’t.” she managed to say. “Just…don’t.”

“Lauren,” I said as I fought back tears, “it’s going to be okay. I’m not going to hurt you. I swear!”

Seriously, let me handle this.

“Stop talking!” I shouted. Lauren turned her back and hurried down the hall as I ran after her. “Lauren!”

“Stay away from me, Caleb!” she called back. I slowed to a stop as the weight of guilt pressed me to the floor. I was on my knees, alone and confused.

You’re never alone, Caleb.

Yet here I was, alone and afraid in the hallway of my high school.

Speaking of which, I’d suggest hiding that gun, because classes should be letting out at any moment now.

Rational thought seized me, and I backtracked down the hall and retrieved the weapon before heading out of the exit as the sound of a bell’s ringing haunted my steps.

 

***

 

A brick wall. That’s what I came to next after leaving the school. The transition happened in a literal blink, and here I was in an unknown place yet again. I tried to recall something, anything that would enlighten me as to how I’d gotten here.

You’re back! Good, I was worried I’d be handling this myself. I’ve got a surprise for you!

I never knew that death had a smell, but maybe that was just my brain trying to rationalize my nausea. I hadn’t seen any bodies, but I knew they were on the other side of the brick wall leading into the alley. The trail of blood leading back there was evidence enough for me.

You’ve really got to stop dropping out on me. You might miss something important.

“Mocking bastard,” I grunted. My head felt like railroad spikes had been run through it. The throbbing wouldn’t stop, and my vision started to blur as the voice in my head continued to bark orders.

Get yourself together, because we’ve got work to do. You’ll find some aspirin in your left pocket.

“Where am I?” I asked.

Well, I’d love to say you had a fun night drinking and blacked out, but that would be a lie. I’d never lie to a friend.

“Where the hell am I?!” I demanded. There was silence, followed by humming. I was so confused and scared, but couldn’t decide which was more prominent.

I don’t care what you feel right now. Soon, you’re going to feel good.

“Why? What the hell did you do?” I asked meekly. I didn’t want to try and imagine what horrors awaited around the corner.

You couldn’t picture it if you tried, but I’ll tell you that it’s one of your wildest fantasies.

That got it roaring with laughter. How the hell was it possible for it to sound like it was everywhere at once?

Ready?

“No.”

Too bad. Now go around the corner and take your prize!

I couldn’t deny the curiosity within. I wanted to know what the hell this thing had brought me here for. Besides, if someone was still alive then I could do something.

Well the baseball bat will be useful in that something.

My foot kicked something as I rounded the corner, and I looked down to see exactly what he’d just mentioned. The bat rolled across the ground, and blood covered one side of it. This was beyond what I thought it could do. I had to get help. I had to stop it.

Help? To stop what? The voice in your head?

It laughed again as I closed my eyes and ran down the alley. I nearly tripped over something and finally opened my eyes to see a disfigured Josh broken and beaten on the ground, next to some pallets and trash cans. My heart skipped a few beats as I looked him over, praying to God that he was still alive.

That’s useless. Besides, he’s alive. I made sure to save you the final blow. This is what you wanted, right?

It finally hit me. This was my fault. All of that teasing, all of those assaults this guy had put me through, and everything thing else he did to me had caused me to break. I had always wanted to be better than him. I wanted to be stronger. I wanted to take my life back from the bullies that had tormented me for years.

Hey, do you think his family is smarter than he is?

“What?” I asked, not really caring to hear what absurd statement the monster in me had to say next.

I was just wondering if they’re even literate, because I have something in the works for them to read. It’s called Josh’s obituary.

I cried out in frustration as the sickening laughter flooded my mind. This had to end. I had to get the police, or someone.

What are you going to tell them? That the person living in your head is trying to kill someone? While you’re at it why don’t you tell them about the fat man at the North Pole that’s breaking into houses? I’m sure they’ll believe it all.

“You’re a monster.”

I’m what you made! You wanted your life to get better, and I’m taking the necessary steps that you were too scared to even consider! Man up! Take what I’m offering, and we’ll be unstoppable! Josh is just the first! We have a list of these asses to take down!

I glanced down at Josh’s form. He was barely breathing, but he was definitely still alive. “I’m leaving, and I’m taking him with me.”

Where will you go? The hospital? The second he’s conscious again he’ll tell the authorities that you were the one who beat him within an inch of his life.

He was right. I couldn’t fix this easily.

You can’t fix this. Just end it here. It’s easier to dispose of a lifeless corpse anyway. Less blabbing, and more being quiet six feet under.

“Screw you!” I shouted.

You’re making this difficult. I like it when things are easy, like beating the piss out of Josh here. He just begged and begged. I’m actually sad that you missed it. You would’ve loved it.

“Enough!” I cried. I was done with all of this. Somehow I’d stop this bastard from taking my life from me.

I’m not taking it from you. I’m taking it from the ones who stole it in the first place!

“Stop trying to justify this crap!” Silence followed, and I took that time to attempt to lift Josh up and drag him out of the alley.

You asked for this.

“I didn’t,” I heaved as I struggled with Josh’s form.

That’s not what I’m talking about.

 

***

 

I was driving my car through the city streets, and had just sped through a red light before I caught myself again and snatched the wheel, almost flipping the car as I went on two wheels to try and bring it to a stop. It was night now, and I wasn’t even sure if it was the same day or not. Where did he have me driving to?

Well I can catch you up on that. Josh is unconscious in the trunk, and your good pal Lauren reported you for that weapon on school grounds. Now there’s a warrant for your arrest, and we’re playing hide and seek.

“What the hell have you done?” I asked, completely lost in this situation.

So maybe I made a mistake. I’m not too worried about it. It can be fixed, now do me a favor and give me control again.

“Like hell I will!”

I misspoke. See, that was a formality. I can just easily take this body as I please.

“No, you can’t.”

Oh, but I can.

For a moment, my vision went hazy and a strange noise overtook my hearing. I was about to slip away again, but then I saw Lauren’s upset expression. I saw my parents and the concern in their face when I kept popping Tylenol like it was my life source. I saw the bloody bat, and finally, I saw Josh. This wasn’t me. I never intended for things to go this way, and I would be damned if I let it continue. My vision began to clear.

Well shit. You grew a pair.

Ignoring the voice, I put the car back into drive and started down the road again.

Where do you think you’re going now?

It was too fitting that “Sweating Bullets” was playing on the radio again tonight. You’ve got to love repeats on radio stations.

I hate that song.

“Bite me.”

If I could, I would.

I got onto the interstate highway and focused on finding the right exit. It’s hard to find a place that you’ve never really been to before, but I knew it was close enough by.

Wait, you’re going there?

It was a tough call, but if I wanted to keep from hurting anyone else then it was my best bet.

This is getting interesting. Between the police, your deteriorating mental state, and your desperate idea, I’m curious as to who will win.

I wasn’t going to entertain the sick bastard with anymore words. Still, that didn’t stop it.

I’m in your head, genius. I know what you’re thinking.

The Maia Institute wasn’t too far away. I just had to get there before I lost control again.

The most that they’ll do is sedate you. Guess what? The second you wake up I’ll be here again.

I turned the music up, hoping it would drown the voice out.

I’m still here. I don’t have to shout. I’m in your head. What part of that aren’t you getting?

Traffic was slow ahead, and I could see flashing blue and red lights. It would be my luck that a wreck happened now of all times.

You lose. That officer directing traffic might be in on the hunt. Oh, I hope so.

There was no turning around. Traffic was beginning to build up behind me, and I could just get out and go on foot. This was it for me. Swearing, I slammed my fist on the steering wheel repeatedly as the other half of me continued to mock me.

You should’ve known you’d lose in the end. All you had to do was cooperate and we could’ve set you up for life. Hell, you even lost Lauren, and you had a thing for her, right? Why the hell am I asking; you secretly loved that girl.

“Fuck you!”

I’m not the one who’s about to be screwed in a few minutes. I hope he shoots you with a stun gun. I bet that’ll suck.

It hit me. Desperation was all I had left, and the ambulance wasn’t too far away. I vaguely remembered my mom letting me see inside one a few years back while she was on break. I’d probably take a bullet before I got there if the officer got suspicious, but even that was better than nothing.

What the hell are you doing?

I opened the door and charged through the line of cars. The officer noticed me and pointed a flashlight in my direction, nearly blinding me for a second before I threw my left arm up to block the beam.

“Hey! Stop!”

I ignored him and made for the open back doors of the ambulance. I honestly wouldn’t be mad if he shot me.

Wait. You’re going to…no! You’re insane!

“Yep!” I panted as I reached the vehicle. Only the driver was still inside, but even he couldn’t do anything in time as I began to rummage through the equipment. I had no idea where they would be, but I wasn’t giving up.

On second thought, I’ll stop! Don’t do this! You’ll kill yourself! It doesn’t work like that!

“Oh, so you’re scared now?”

I’m not this stupid! You’re not this stupid!

“Well, we’ll find out,” I shot back as my hands found the satchel. Inside was what I’d been praying for. I didn’t know how to work a defibrillator, so I set everything as high as it would go and accepted that I might die. Grabbing the paddles, I rubbed them together like I’d seen it done on TV, and held them inches from each side of my head.

You’re going to kill us! Stop!

“It’d be better than me hurting anyone else.”

The driver appeared at the back door, red with rage as he began to climb inside. The officer was right behind him, gun drawn and trained on me. Once they realized what I was doing they both backed off, but the gun never dropped.

“Put them down, kid,” the officer said calmly, “I’m only going to ask you once.”

Listen to the officer. Put them down.

“Fuck you.” I wasn’t even sure who I’d said that too. I noticed the officer hit the safety, and realized that it was now or never.

I hope it hurts.

“Same to you, asshole.” Then I slammed the paddles against my head.

 

***

 

The hospital room was white, black, and gray. In fact, everything was. It didn’t really bother me though. Even the bandages over my head weren’t a problem, and the absence of the monster in me didn’t really register. I didn’t care anymore. The doctor asked me questions, but I just didn’t feel like answering him. The police came by and said something about a young man they found nearly dead in the trunk of the car I was driving, yet I wasn’t bothered by their threats of imprisonment. My parents cried next to me, but I didn’t understand why. All of the words they said to each other didn’t draw anything from me, but when my dad finally gave me my MP3 player in the hopes of getting me back to myself, I put the earphones in and played the first song that came to mind. The doctor explained my current state in the background as I stared at the light on the ceiling while listening to “Sweating Bullets.”

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Cinders

Clouds of smoke filled the living room as Mason Anderson’s mind finally settled into a more stable condition. He stabbed the cigarette into the ash tray on the coffee table next to his chair and exhaled another plume that was illuminated by the rays of sunlight seeping through the blinds of the window behind him. He actually managed a smile as he stared at the dancing smoke in the air, stress now at a bearable minimum compared to the past two weeks. Carcinogenic traits aside, he was thankful for nicotine right now. Besides, he didn’t expect to live much longer anyway, which was why he wasn’t surprised by the sudden banging coming from the front door. Mason cracked his neck and stood upon stiff legs as the pounding continued, not in a hurry to greet what was likely his demise. There was no point in running, as guilt kept his feet planted on the floor at the moment. He had to direct some of it towards the source as he willed himself to approach the door while the banging grew in intensity. He could call the police, but that wouldn’t do any good. Odds were that his assailant would kick the door in at any second. The door knob shook from the intruders attempt to check it once more in the hopes that Mason would accept his fate, but then when back to beating on the wooden frame. Mason stood just feet before it and contemplated his options before finally reaching out to unlock it. Not even a second later the door was throw open with a force that sent him tumbling back onto the floor as he stared up to see the intruder’s pistol pointed at his face.

“I should have done this from the start, instead of letting those idiots try and piece it together,” the intruder spoke coldly.

“If you’re going to kill me, then kill me,” Mason said calmly as he stared at the wall to his left, “but you’re not going to fix any of this.”

“There’s nothing to fix anymore,” the intruder responded, “just things to erase.”

Mason nodded and looked back at the man, knowing full well he was about to die. Instead of seeing his life flash before him, he was specifically reliving the incident two weeks prior.

***

Please don’t be too late.

The sirens that were distant a moment ago were now upon him.

Please don’t let me be too late.

The brick wall to Mason’s left was illuminated by the red lights of the passing ambulance. It hung a left around the corner in the direction he was headed. No!

Mason hugged the wall as he turned left and chased after it, headed down the street and running past the front of the drug store on the corner. The red lights reflecting off of the pane windows were blinding him, and the siren deafening. It screamed in his ear, mimicking the sense of failure reverberating through his head, like a voice mocking his actions. All he could think of was that he might have been too late to save a life. The ambulance quickly got ahead of him, but he kept an eye on it as he continued his race. His heart skipped a beat as he saw the brake lights come on near his destination on the right. He slowed to a stop and fought to catch his breath as his fears mounted up. The ambulance slowed to a near stop, and then turned down the left street.

Mason was swept with a warm feeling of relief, but the matter at hand was still waiting for him. He could see Joel Blythe across the road, sitting on the charred front steps of the condemned house.

Mitigated at the sight of his friend, Mason sprinted across the street and stopped in the ravaged front lawn. The deep ruts from the emergency vehicles that had plagued the scene the night before were still quite visible in the ground. He took his first step on the partly green grass and walked towards the blackened front porch as the lawn faded into brown and then black. The police tape was undisturbed, still wrapped around the pillars along the porch behind Joel. Mason stood before his best friend with his hands on his knees, struggling to catch his breath as sweat poured down his face. Asthma was an unforgiving weight in his life. Joel was sitting with his arms wrapped around his legs and his chin resting on his knees, staring at the dark ground before Mason’s feet. Lungs able to hold an adequate amount of oxygen again, Mason sighed and brushed away a spot next to Joel for him to sit. The awkward silence persisted as Mason tried to think of something to say. What did you say to the man who had lost everything the night before?

Mason didn’t expect to see it on the news last night; the fire. He had just gotten home from his factory job and sat down to watch his usual Thursday night sitcoms, but the images of the familiar structure ablaze on the screen had him back on his feet and out the door within seconds. Even with all of the city casting light pollution, he could see the red sky over the scene. By the time he had arrived, the aftermath was all that remained. The smoke bellowed from the crackling frame of the house that protested the elements that had acted so viciously upon it. Then came the grim discovery. The officials said it was smoke inhalation, but there was no comfort to be found. Between the flames and the smoke, there wasn’t a quick and painless way out. Joel lost everything in that fire; his home, his wife, and himself. The cause of the fire was yet to be identified, so an investigation was being conducted. If Mason had to guess they had taken the night off to review some of the evidence, which left an empty crime scene. Now Joel just sat here on the blackened front porch of the house that once was his life. Mason didn’t know what to say. The man looked like he hadn’t showered or slept, which he attributed to his greasy black hair and smell of smoke, but he couldn’t distinguish that from the house or his person. It had only been one day, but Joel had aged years in appearance. His features were all exhausted and somber as he just sat, playing with his thumbs that were bound in thick leather gloves. Mason mentally prepared himself and opened his mouth to speak.

“Thanks for coming,” Joel muttered first.

Mason hadn’t expected Joel to start, but it broke the awkward silence that had clung to the air like a phantom’s presence. He took a deep breath and began, “Hey Joel, I thought you and your son were staying with your brother?”

Joel grunted, “Charlie is there, safe and sound. He still doesn’t know. As for me, well, I’d only be a burden.”

“Joel, that’s not true. Look, come back to my place. We’ll talk about it, or anything else. I just-”

“Cigarette?” Joel asked, brandishing a pack of his favorite brand. Mason looked at the pack in Joel’s gloved hand, bit his lip, and gave a half-hearted laugh. He had given it up since his asthma had come on with a vengeance, but who was he to turn down a kind gesture that demonstrated a sense of humanity still present within his friend?

“Sure.”

Joel handed him the lighter and allowed him to enjoy a smoke before he continued, “I’m not leaving. This is where I belong,” Joel told him, no emotion present in his tone. Mason coughed out a cloud of smoke and wheezed before handing it back to Joel, who refused. Mason shrugged and held the cigarette between his fingers as he thought. Finally, he went to wrap his arm around his friend’s shoulder. Joel took notice, and got to his feet before Mason’s arm had even gotten close to him. Mason watched his back and shook his head before flicking the filter onto the dead grass and watching the embers die. Joel shrugged his jacket up higher on his shoulders and walked up the steps, ducking under the police tape and stopping at the scorched door as he gently pushed it open. The door fell from its hinges and hit the floor with a thud that threw ashes everywhere. The sound startled Mason, but he was more alarmed at what Joel was doing. Joel didn’t seem to care as he walked over it and entered the remains of his house. Mason stood up from his place on the porch and hesitantly followed.

“Joel, come back!” Mason hissed, “I know it’s your house, but it’s not safe! Besides, if someone calls the police on us we’re going to look really suspicious here!”

Joel ignored his plea and took in the sight, with Mason right behind him. The living room was a horrendous scene. The fire had claimed most of the furniture, and the floorboards were weak beneath them. The second floor was inaccessible due to the collapsed roof that had taken out the staircase, but Mason was hoping that Joel had no intentions of going up there anyway. Joel stopped beside the staircase where the piano his son had practiced on for years was now smashed to pieces from the dresser that had fallen through the floor in the master bedroom upstairs. He ran his hand across a piece of it as he trailed through the hallway leading into the kitchen. He stopped as he came across the wall of family portraits on his left. Reaching up, he brushed away the ashes on one picture that the flames seemed to have spared inside of the frame. Mason noticed that he wasn’t smiling as Joel gazed upon a picture of himself, his wife, and their son. He continued to wipe away the debris, revealing more of the picture before beginning to scrub at the glass furiously, gritting his teeth. Finally he raised the portrait above his head and threw it onto the floor where it smashed apart from the weakened frame. Mason hurried to him and grabbed his arm, “Joel! Please, let’s just get out of here!”

Joel looked at him with deadened eyes, “I can’t leave here. Not yet. Not while I still have matters to settle.”

“What? Don’t say that. Look, I can’t even imagine what you’re feeling right now, but it can’t be any better here.”

“This is all I have left; all I have left is this scorched structure. Even still,” he said as he looked around, “it’s a painful reminder.”

“That’s not true, you still have Charlie. He needs you too, and besides Joel, she’s in a better place.”

Joel stared at the smashed portrait at his feet and grinned, which only unnerved Mason, “Better place, huh? How is that ever supposed to be comforting to anyone? Telling someone their loved one is in a better place without them is asinine. Did I not make her happy by my side? Then again,” he chuckled as he studied the picture, “I guess not, huh?”

“What are you talking about?”

Joel shook his head, “Nothing. That flame died a long time ago, so I found a new one to replace it. Now that I think about it, it wasn’t the perfect substitute…”

“Joel, you’re not making any sense. I can help you, but you need to come with me. Let’s get away from here, away from this house.”

“I don’t want to leave. Not yet,” Joel said as he walked towards the kitchen. Mason went after him.

“Joel, wait-”

The floor beneath Mason gave in, and his right leg sank through it up to his waist. He winced as he felt something cutting into his leg, but pulled through the pain and willed himself back up onto the floor. Grabbing the broken piano, he dragged himself to his feet and examined the wound. His pants had a huge tear, and beneath that was a nasty gash that was practically leaking blood. He took a deep breath to keep from passing out and limped onward into the kitchen. The tiled floors that once were of a pure white color now bared the black scars of the pyro. The walls were either burned down to the insulation or covered with stains from the smoke, and the appliances were all disfigured from the extreme heat that had filled the structure just the night before. Mason called out for Joel, but there was no response. He leaned against a countertop for support and listened out for any sign of him. What he heard instead caused him to tense up. The sirens from before were returning. What if they’re not the same? What if the police are on their way? Someone might’ve seen us! I’m in a crime scene!

Mason limped over to the back door at the rear of the kitchen as the sirens carried throughout the house. He swore he heard footsteps stomping on the wooden floor coming from the hallway.

“Joel?!”

There was no answer. Mason panicked and dove out of the back door, landing on his right leg and then immediately falling onto his back as his injury drew a cry of pain and profanity from him. The sirens were threatening to arrive upon the scene any second. He realized that someone could’ve heard him, and if the sirens didn’t belong to the police, they’d be there soon anyway. Slowly and carefully, he rose to his feet and began to hobble back to the house as Joel appeared in the doorway. He was clutching a gas canister in his right hand.

“What are you doing out here?” he asked Mason.

Mason was more befuddled by the object in Joel’s possession, “Why do you have that?”

Joel looked down at the object in question and shrugged, “Found it in the study. Here,” he said as he tossed it to Mason, who fumbled with it before gripping it in his hands.

“Joel, what-”

“No time,” he answered as he disappeared back into the house. Mason followed after him and set the gas can down in the kitchen. He hadn’t noticed how much blood he was losing until he saw the trail across the smudged tiles. The red lights of the ambulance from before illuminated the hallway and kitchen for a brief moment before disappearing once again. Mason let out a sigh of relief, realizing they still had time.

While Mason was distracted by the sight, Joel returned with a pack of cigarettes in his hand. He lit one for himself before offering one to Mason, who knocked his hand aside and scolded him, “This isn’t the time for that crap! This place is dangerous, and the cops are going to be called on us any minute! I’m leaving my damn DNA on the floor, and you’ve got a can of gasoline in here! Why were you even carrying that?!”

“It’s not mine,” Joel said after exhaling a plume of smoke.

“Then whose is it?! Why is it here?!” Joel crossed his arms and stared at the canister. Mason waited anxiously while Joel seemed to be deep in thought about so simple a question, “Joel, what are you trying to do? Burn the rest of the house down and hope it all goes away?”

Joel turned back and smiled. He actually smiled at Mason. Mason didn’t like the look in his eyes. It wasn’t even one of sorrow or loss anymore. It was of wicked joy, “You could say that. I’m going to burn something down, and when I do, it will all go away.”

Mason was growing furious, “Joel, what the hell are you talking about?!”

Joel laughed, “It’s funny, really; you being oblivious. I was that way too, but I figured it all out,” he said, gesturing with his right index and middle fingers to his head, holding the lit cigarette dangerously close to his messy hair, “I guess neither of us did in time, but that’s okay. I’m purging all of our mistakes.”

Mason couldn’t comprehend a single thing the man before him was saying, but something in all of those words finally struck him, “Joel, did you-”

“It doesn’t matter what I have and haven’t done,” Joel interrupted, taking another drag before examining the filter in his hands as if it held the same understanding, “What matters is that my heart burned, but now I’ve found a way to fix it.”

“Joel, you didn’t.”

He glared at Mason, “You’re right. I didn’t do anything. The two of you did; you and her. You both plunged my thoughts…no, my life into an inferno.”

Mason tensed up. How did he…

“I knew I couldn’t trust you, Mason,” he said as he crumpled the filter in his gloves and stuffed the remains into his pocket, “You ruined my life. I figured I’d return the favor.”

Before Mason could respond Joel turned again and was headed for the front door. Mason stumbled after him, but dropped to the floor after trying to apply weight to his injured leg. He eased himself up on his left and called out to him, “You’re a monster! Just take it out on me instead!”

“Is that a confession I hear?” Joel asked mockingly over his shoulder, “I didn’t need one; it wasn’t really a mystery. Besides it’s a little too late for that,” he finished coldly.

“You won’t get away with this,” Mason snarled. Joel continued to walk away without slowing, but just as he reached the door Mason cried out, “What do you think you’re doing?!”

Joel stopped and turned around, “I’m going to find a bar, maybe get drunk, and then when the police come to find me and inform me that they’ve found the arsonist dumb enough to return to the scene of the crime to try and cover up evidence, they’ll understand a man trying to drown his sorrows with vices to keep himself sane.”

“You’re not sane,” Mason uttered, “You’re going to regret this.” Joel laughed.

“With enough time and alcohol, maybe.” He shot one last sneer as he turned to the front steps and dropped the lighter onto the porch before descending onto the singed grass and leaving the scene. Mason was struggling up the hallway when the sirens began to fade in once more. He knew it wasn’t the ambulance again. The blue lights spilled through the gaping doorway as he leaned against the wall beside the piano and slid down onto the floor. Even if he would have escaped, there was proof that he’d been there. Joel had actually won, but at every cost.

“Joel,” he uttered weakly as his vision blurred. The blood loss was taking its toll, “Joel, come back. You…I’m…”

***

“-Sorry,” Mason said to the desperate man before him. Joel Blythe’s hands were shaking as he approached to kneel down and put the muzzle right to Mason’s forehead. Mason didn’t bother to fight it. In Joel’s state, he was either too fixated on the task at hand to properly defend himself if Mason tried to knock his hands up and take him down, or so fixated that any sudden movements would cause him to pull the trigger. Mason wasn’t willing to try his luck.

“How did you get out?” Joel demanded.

“It just happened this morning. Forensics finally finished processing the DNA from a cigarette they found at the scene, on the kitchen floor,” Mason explained, “They didn’t match it to you, but they know someone else was there.”

“I see,” Joel uttered, not seemingly surprised by the revelation, “and that was enough for them?”

“I’m here because my family posted bail, since it was only a trespassing charge, but odds are I’m still going down for your crime.”

“I nearly drank myself to death after seeing you two in an embrace,” Joel spat, “and you claim I committed the crime?”

“You-”

“I made sure that you both will pay for what you did to me, because I can’t put my faith in anything else to get it done,” Joel explained. Mason scowled.

“Killing me won’t make you the victor.”

Joel wheezed a laugh as he wiped his mouth with his left hand, “I’ve been losing since the day she quit loving me; the day I realized you were no longer the best friend I could trust.”

“Go ahead then, Joel,” Mason uttered in defeat, “I’m resigned to my fate. I knew there would be consequences when I did what I did…but not like this,” he shook his head, “not with her dead.”

“Resigned to your fate?” Joel demanded as he pressed the gun into Mason’s skin. Mason swallowed a knot and kept his calm demeanor as he spoke.

“My mind’s made up.”

“So is mine,” Joel hissed as he applied pressure to the trigger, “When you see her, tell her I still miss her.” Before Joel applied the few pounds needed to depress the trigger past the point of no return, the muzzle retreated from Mason’s head.

“No,” Joel said as he stood up and waved the gun around, “I’ll let you suffer before being reunited with that traitor.”

Mason was breathing rapidly, amazed that he was still alive up to this point, “And what about you? This won’t just go away, Joel.”

“You’re right,” Joel agreed, “but you will. That’s a step in the right direction, right?”

“You’re in the fucking army, Joel! They’ll have this investigated!”

“I know what I’m doing; I’ll find a way out. Of course, they’ll suspect I was here, but I won’t make the mistake from last time, so they’ll never prove I was here. I may be the prime suspect, but they’ll find no evidence other than your corpse, and a dead man can’t tell anyone what happened here,” Joel replied as he brought the muzzle back up, “You should be more concerned about yourself.”

“I’m concerned about Charlie!” Mason yelled. Joel just grinned.

“Charlie will be fine.”

“You were his hero,” Mason argued.

“You know that the hero can’t always win,” Joel stated plainly, “that’s why we’re here today. You took my heaven, Mason, and left me in hell. Maybe it won’t burn so bad once you’re gone too.”

“Joel, we went to church together! You’re a man of God!” Mason pleaded. Joel snarled and whipped Mason to the floor with the gun.

“I WAS!!! UNTIL YOU AND HER DESTROYED THAT FAITH!!! THE ONLY FAITH I NEED NOW IS IN FORCE!!!”

“Joel, don’t-”

“It’s too late for regrets, Mason. In the end, you couldn’t even bring yourself to face me; your best friend!”

Those words stung Mason’s heart. He took something from Joel, and there was no denying that, but this…this was inhumane. He never intended for things to end up like this, “Joel…”

“It’s funny,” Joel muttered underneath his breath, “I have you in the same spot twice in a week, but this time, your fate is entirely in my hands.”

“Joel,” Mason reached out and placed a hand on Joel’s pants leg, his final plea for his life, and for his old friend to find some sense in his head, “don’t.”

“Mason,” Joel uttered. Mason looked up into the eyes of his friend, but there was no sympathy in in the irises. All that existed in Joel Blythe’s eyes was hatred, “die.”

***

No evidence was found at the scene to incriminate Joel Blythe, as he was sure to correct his last mistake. He was free to go on with his life, weighed down by the malady of his crime against crime.