John screamed for all of us to “fuck off,” downing the last of his vodka. He stumbled, fell, and smacked his head on the glass coffee table, which shattered. Everyone left.
Janie and I hauled John into a chair. He was only bleeding a little from a small cut on his forehead. We didn’t bother to bandage it. Instead, we vacuumed up most of the glass from the coffee table.
“Christ, I hope the bastard dies of alcohol poisoning,” Janie blurted, shoving the vacuum into the closet. She threw a hand over her mouth. “I didn’t mean that.”
“Should we take him to a hospital?” Janie asked, leaning in closer to her husband, pressing two fingers against his neck. John’s mouth hung open at an odd angle. His breathing was strange, irregular, like he was drowning on all the alcohol he’d managed to consume that night: a half a bottle of wine and a fifth of vodka. I didn’t know it was possible to drink that much. “His heart’s still beating, at least.”
“Fuck him,” I said. “Fuck him! Goddammit. Seriously, Janie, let’s go.”
Away from here, away from this goddamn town and John and all the rest.
“The roof,” I suggested.
She looked at John for another couple seconds. I wondered if she, like I, was contemplating the ways she could do him in quietly, without any fuss. Then, he would be out of her life. Out of our life. “Yeah,” she said, straightening. “Let’s go.”
The roof was three stories up. Janie and John lived on the fifth floor of their apartment complex, which had a back stairway that gave everyone in the complex access to the small roof. There was a loose step on the stairs that led to it. I could never remember which one, and nearly fell through when it tilted vertically, catching myself at the last second. The door to the roof was stuck; Janie managed to shove it open. It gave a long moan, but it was worth it to come up because the stars were brilliant, little pin points, like stitches in the sky, patternless, but beautiful all the same.
We had brought up the last bottle of wine, which we uncorked and passed back and forth, as we sat on the flat roof.
“He could die down there,” Janie murmured, looking up. She straightened abruptly and sat up, pointing, “Natalie, see that little cluster…there! See it?”
“It’s the Seven Sisters,” she said. “The Pleiades, the daughters of Atlas.”
“The one that had to carry heaven on his shoulders?”
“Yeah, and the Seven Sisters were turned into stars to comfort him. First, Zeus turned them to doves. Then stars.”
I took another swig off the bottle and passed it back to Janie.
“John lost his job today,” she said, before taking a drink.
“Oh…shit. That explains a lot. What happened?”
Janie shrugged. “Too many days not showing up, showing up late or drunk even.” She paused, sighed, “We went ahead and had the party anyway. Didn’t want people to think something was up.”
“What’re you guys gonna do?”
“I don’t know what he’s gonna do. Me, I’m gone. This is the last straw.”
She nodded, and we laughed. I hoped that her laugh had the same secret glee that bit through mine, sharp and desperate. I leaned back. She rested her head on my shoulder. I didn’t dare to breathe, didn’t dare disturb the quiet, careful balance.
“Shit, he was so drunk!” she said, sitting up abruptly.
“You’re a little drunk, too.”
“Maybe I should check on him.” She started to get up.I grabbed her hand.
“Stay,” I said.
“I should check on him,” she said again, pulling away from me and heading toward the door.
“Be careful,” I said, thinking of the missing step, then, thinking of John, “Wait! I’m coming with you.”
We made our way back down the stairs. This time, I remembered the faulty step and skipped it.
John looked the same as when we’d left him, still sprawled on his easy chair, his legs up on an ottoman. His mouth was still open at that odd angle. Janie bent down over him, her ear to his mouth. She straightened and looked at me, her eyes big and her teeth clenched down on her lower lip.
“He’s not breathing.”
“Natalie, I don’t think he’s breathing.”
“Hang on,” I said, and put my hand to his neck. It felt slippery with sweat. And cold. Too cold.
“Is he ok?”
“I can’t feel a pulse,” I said. And then I giggled because it was so absurd. This bastard had no pulse.
She didn’t say anything.
I stopped laughing. “Janie, I can’t—”
She was shaking him. She had her hands on his shoulders and she was throttling him, screaming, “You goddamn bastard! Wake up! Do you hear me? Don’t do this to me, you fucking bastard!”
I grabbed her with both arms and pulled her off of him. She was shaking, her shoulders heaving and her hands trembling, still screaming, “You bastard!” I held her for a moment, stroking her hair until she calmed down.
“What do we do, Nat?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“We have to do something. Should we call the police?” She reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone.
“No!” I felt a hot panic, like needle-pricks, moving along my arms and legs.
“We didn’t kill him!”
“Just…let me think!”
“We have to do something!”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say. I remembered what Janie had said, earlier: “Christ, I hope the bastard dies.” I vowed never to pray or wish for anything again. “Nat, are you listening to me?”
“They’ll call it negligence,” I said. “Manslaughter.”
She started to dial.
“No!” I exclaimed, grabbing her phone.
“We’ll go to jail! Nat, I can’t go to jail. I can’t.”
“What, and you think I can?” I shouted. “Christ, Janie, you are so selfish.”
“Fuck you. What the hell are we gonna do?”
“Let me think,” I said, sitting down. It felt good to sit. I was drunker than I had thought.
“We don’t have time for this!” Janie cried.
“Don’t have time? Christ, we have all the time in the world. He’s dead, so what does he care? You’re sure he’s dead, right?”
“Oh god!” she exhaled. “What do you mean by that? You sound like you want him to be dead or something!”
“Hey, I never said anything like that. That was you.”
“Jesus Christ.” She put her head in her hands.
John let out a snort. We stood there for a few minutes, staring at him and watching his chest move up and down. I remembered Janie once complaining about John’s sleep apnea and wondered if this had been a case of it.
“Well, good thing we’re not nurses or we’d be in trouble.” I realized I must be really drunk to not even feel a perfectly good heartbeat. Janie too.
She got up then and slapped him, hard. “You fucking bastard! I’m gonna kill you for that!”
I laughed. “You probably shouldn’t joke about that anymore.” We both started laughing uncontrollably, like we’d been given our lives back or something. It was so funny; wanting John dead, then him dead and suddenly, resurrected. It was too much.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“We probably should take him to the hospital.” She threw a blanket over him. His mouth wasn’t hanging at such an odd angle anymore. He looked peaceful.
We went back to the roof; it was starting to get light out. We had the remainder of the bottle of wine with us. In the distance, I heard the gentle coo of a dove.
I opened the bottle, took a swig, and handed it to Janie.
“Do you think he’ll do it?” she asked.
“Zeus,” she said. “Do you think he’ll make me a star?”
I rolled my eyes at her. “I don’t know.”
“It’d be nice,” she said. “To be a star. To not have to worry about any of this anymore.” She made a swooping gesture, as if to encompass the entire globe. Or maybe just her apartment. Maybe just John.
She jumped up on the cement ledge and stood at the very edge of the roof, looking down. I looked up. The Pleiades were gone, vanished in the graying dawn. Janie put her arms out.
“Zeus,” she summoned. “I want to be a star!” And she threw her hands out like she was flying.
“Make me a star, Zeus, so I can fly away! Up!” She did a half-skip, half-jump. “Up!Up!Up!”
I laughed some more. “Get down from there. Seriously, Janie.” But I couldn’t stop laughing.
“Make me a star!Make me a star!” She wobbled a little as her foot hit a crack in the cement.
“Are you crazy? Are you out of your goddamn mind?”
She turned to face me.
“We could do it, you know,” I said. I could feel the color draining from my face, the blood rushing out of it, cloying around my heart. “We could leave town.”
“Where would we go?” She backed up so that her heels were hanging over the edge. “Stop it. It’s not funny anymore.”
“Answer me!” She lifted one foot off the ledge, held it over the eight-story drop.
“Anywhere. I’ll go anywhere with you,” I said.
She put her foot back down.
“We could go to Chicago,” I pleaded. Please, God, I would do anything for you.
“What would I do there?” she laughed. Her eyes were down.
“Whatever you want. Jesus, Janie. Just get down!”
“Make me a star,” she repeated, still not looking up at Zeus or the Seven Sisters or whatever God she believed in. Her arms flapped a couple times. She turned to face me and she was smiling. “It’s hard for him, you know. Carrying heaven on his shoulders.”
“No, John.” She skipped another couple times. “But I know Zeus will let me comfort him.”
“Fuck him! We could go to Paris, for Christssakes, Janie. Let’s go. Let’s leave. You and me.”
She shook her head, looking up at the sky where the Pleiades had been.
Bethany Tap is a current MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, concentrating in fiction.