‘You’ll be home an hour late?’
‘I’ll be home an hour late,’ she mocks.
‘Good, I’ve got a surprise for you that’s not ready yet.’
‘Good, I’ve got a surprise for you that’s not ready yet,’ and she hangs up before I can tell her she’s silly. The brushstrokes were awkward with the phone jammed between my ear and shoulder, so I’m both relieved and disappointed with her voice’s absence. She gave me some cash to fill the void the departed Xbox left, so I bought canvas and brushes and paint, and one of those things I can’t remember the name of to hold the canvas. Not a chair though—I used one from the dining table—which left money for cigarettes. I take a deep drag and blow it at my feeble attempt to recreate her beauty. She’ll love it, I think.
‘What’s the surprise?’ Jess asks.
‘This!’ I remove a sheet from the canvas with a magician’s flourish.
‘Nice,’ she appraises unconvincingly, and I deflate.
‘What’s your surprise?’ I say with the voice of a petulant child.
‘This!’ she declares, whipping the KFC bucket from its plastic entrapment, parodying me.
‘Oh,’ I brood.
‘But . . . I made dinner.’
‘And I made this.’
‘So?’ she stares at her canvas-self.
‘Well . . .’
‘Shuddup and kiss me.’
And we lie in each others’ arms for the duration of the winter evening. Her food goes cold, my food goes cold; her painted face watches us, dries and hardens into my brain along with irrational pleasure, existing just like any erupting volcano I might choose to be ignorant of.
They kick down the doors as the fading light of the evening bathes my twisted face and four strong pairs of hands grip my arms and legs and I scream at them:
‘You bastards what are you fucking doing!? Jess will be home any minute you bastards you can’t do this to me she’ll come home and drop her bag and the emptiness of this house will be her only greeting and I won’t be there to shield her from the cold heartless world outside these walls! You bastards!’
My last memories are of spittle flecked faces through tear-blurred eyes then I’m standing with the aid of two unseen persons as a man in a white coat which looks like it’s never seen dirt tells me ‘Jim, you’ve got a long way to go, but I’ll tell you this for starters even though you won’t believe me: Jess never existed, and they’re dead, Jim. They’re dead.’
And he departs with the unseen men. I sit I stare and the clarity of the white walls confirms to me that I’m 50-years-old my wife Elenor and my kids Rusty and Julie died 10-years ago in that head-on-collision and I never met a wonderful woman named Jess in anything other than a fantasy world which has no, time, left.