From the author: A couple gets their jollies by stabbing other people in the back. But what happens when they decide to turn on each other?
Wisconsin and I gaze into one another’s eyes as I row away from the sinking cruise liner. Her little yellow Steno pad sits in her lap, momentarily scribbled in but quickly forgotten as we both marinate in the ecstasy of a job well done. I watch the ocean breeze pull at a lock of her hair, tugging the strand free from its place behind her ear to lay over her eye and across her cheek.
“Biggest one yet?” she asks, tearing her eyes away from mine – if only for a moment – to watch the waters teeming with bailing sailors and senior citizens. I chew on my lip and think about it.
“Definitely all at once,” I say. “Do you remember the job we had in the ice cream truck?”
Her eyebrows bounce at the reminder, and she gives a small shudder. A few more strands of hair fall across her face.
“We did that job for a while, didn’t we?” I say. “I’d guess that we got to more than a cruise ship’s worth of children before everyone caught on.” She and I both sigh at once.
“Oh, their heartbroken faces,” Whiskey says.
“Their eyes shining with wonder, handing over all that hard-earned chore money for…” I trail off, my train of thought faltering.
“A big fistful of kale,” Whiskey finished, her voice flush with pleasure.
So many boroughs terrorized, so many children left weeping in shock. And, as if that hadn’t been enough, we had been paid by both the local vegan council and the PTA for sabotaging a bunch of chubby kids’ faith in frozen dairy. Neither camps knew we had been double-dealing, either, and both were willing to shell out a little extra by the time we handed them their invoices. Then we showed each one’s receipt of sale to the other and skipped town.
Whiskey’s biting her lip. Between the memories and the high from the sinking, the excitement is almost too much for the two of us - but I have to keep rowing so that the rescue crews don’t find us still at the scene. Just because we are the way we are doesn’t mean we like getting caught.
It’s also probably worth clarifying that we’re not just in it for the money. Wisconsin and I are both self-diagnosed screwoverphiliacs. Natural-born traitors, who get a rush every time we break someone’s trust. Frankly, the business niche we’ve carved out for ourselves is just a plus. The real payment is the sensation, and how much more it’s compounded now that we’ve found each other.
And man, was finding each other ever a trip. I glanced at the yellow notepad on Whiskey’s lap again, trying to recall if this is the third or fourth that she’d gone through since I’d met her. I’ve always wondered if she had any more before we met, but she claimed that the notebook she’d kept when we met was her first. I have some pretty obvious reasons not to take her at her word on that, though.
Back then, we worked at the same McDonald’s, and we both got fired after someone realized that the gorgeous cashier had mixed up two families’ worth of orders – and that both trays of burgers were covered in a certain cunningly attractive grill worker’s spit. Not that the kitchen job was a big loss, anyway, ‘cause the burgers weren’t the only things covered in spit by the end of the day, know what I mean? Ah, kids. Our first job together, and neither of us even knew it.
Even that early on, we learned our most important lesson: in a culture where standardization and uniformity are all but guaranteed, trust is extremely easy to violate. You can bring someone’s world down around their ears by swapping the labels on two burgers. Or, you know, the pressure valves in someone’s luxury cruise ship.
After a while, Whiskey and I switch spots so that I can rest my arms while she rows. She had left her notepad on the seat next to me, full of calculations of how many people our stunt with the cruise liner affected, and how badly. I try to take a few glances without staring. She’s a little self-conscious about what she writes, but I can’t imagine why for the life of me. Some of our best evenings have been spent curled up in the back of our car, nuzzling each other as we each read off the day’s haul of broken hearts and ruined lives.
Alongside her calculations, while giving her new unit of measurement for betrayal a shot. Others had fallen by the wayside, including Teardrop-ounces, Scandalizations squared, and Decibels (of raising one’s clenched fists to the heavens and bellowing “nooooo”). To a layman, this may not seem like the most important thing to develop, but it’s not like there are support groups or lifestyle magazines for people with our condition. Whiskey’s search for the perfect metric was her own little quest for identity, and I can’t say I’m not a little invested myself.
Here, she was trying to calculate how many “kilogroans” a ruined vacation was worth, multiplied by the amount of passengers aboard, and subtracted by outliers assumed to be already having a terrible time on the cruise (considered to be roughly equal to the amount of passengers boarding with children).
Unfortunately, Whiskey wasn’t just struggling with accounting for outliers. It seemed that she had trouble focusing every time she tried to record the scope of our accomplishment, judging by the way her handwriting trembled every time a number made its way past the double digits. I didn’t know that she got off to her calculations, too. Judas alive, is that ever hot.
I catch her looking at me. She’s probably wondering if today’s the day I’ll finally do her in. Maybe she’s trying to figure out how she can do the same to me. Relationships are built on trust, after all, and the only thing we’ve really been able to trust in is trusting that we’re the least trustworthy people on the planet. And what better way to get our jollies than to betray the one person we know will be with us through thick and thin, after the biggest day of our lives?
She can’t watch me forever. As she rows, a breeze catches at her hair again, blowing her bangs across her face, and with her hands occupied she has to give her head a couple good shakes to clear her eyes. It’s not a lot of time to work, but you don’t get far with my condition without becoming a master of sleight of hand. A few quick movements and everything’s in place. As far as I can tell, she doesn’t notice that anything changed. My heart starts to beat a little faster.
Night falls while Whiskey and I eat a hushed but passionate dinner. What few words she and I share are spent reminiscing on the faces of the passengers as the ship started to go down. The spaces between our whispers are filled with gentle moans, uttered inches from each other’s faces, as the folds in our brains swell with serotonin. She tells me about the captain, his jaw slack as he received the call from belowdecks telling him that his ship is filling with seawater. I tell her about the young couple who, after sending their drink orders back for the third time just for shits and giggles, burst into tears upon hearing that their vacation savings were sinking with the ship. We both titter, and Whiskey shakes a little. Our eyes meet.
There isn’t any food left between us on the little lifeboat bench, so there’s nothing left to knock over. Which is good, because it gives me a clear path to leap across the boat and pin her, my hands at both of her wrists and my lips brushing against her neck. She gives a playful half-whimper and wriggles beneath me, and I draw my tongue up her throat and along her jawline. I take her earlobe between my lips and nibble it, gently, before I lean in and whisper to her:
“I poured out half our water.” Whiskey gasps and squirms. “What we had with dinner was the last of our rations.”
“We’ll never make it to shore in time,” she whispers, her lips smiling and her eyes closed. I pass one of her wrists over to free one of my hands before I reach down to caress her sides, her hips, her chest. But she jerks her other hand out of my grip, kissing me hard to keep me off balance, and reaches beneath one of the lifeboat seats. Before I can react, there’s a woosh and a bang as she pulls the trigger on an emergency flaregun.
“I thought I threw that overboard,” I whisper as I pull out of her kiss, my voice guttural with primal need.
“I had my suspicions. Brought another one. Stole it from the captain,” Whiskey says, and she gives a smile, loose with ecstasy and shimmering red in the blossoming chemical starburst above us. I growl, teased by her betrayal of my betrayal – just like the time in Spain I filled in her spike trap with her own Volkswagen to keep us both from tumbling inside! – and ignited by the reminder that this was the only woman I would ever meet who could ever run two steps ahead of me. Plus, the image of the captain running for his emergency supplies to find his flare gun missing revved my engine further.
We make hungry, desperate love in the red light of the signal flare, eager to please one another but wary of literally rocking the boat. As my breathing quickens and my thrusts become more desperate, Whiskey wraps her legs around my waist and holds me close. Thankfully, we’re able to get our clothes back on by the time the rescue helicopter arrives.
“Think we should steal that and leave the pilots here?” I ask, as the rope comes down to haul us up.
“Oh, babe, I just got my clothes back in order,” Whiskey purrs back with a smile and a sideways glance, “But, yes, we absolutely should.”
We entwine ourselves in one another, and as the winch pulls us upward, Whiskey leans forward and whispers, “By the way, I swapped my birth control with sugar pills.”
I’m stunned. Speechless, my mind whirling between images of Whiskey on her back in the lifeboat and a looming house with the dreaded white picket fence. How could our lifestyle continue with another life to care for? How could we possibly continue, with a child to love as unconditionally as I love Whiskey? And what about our conditions? Would I teach the kid to be like us? Would she? Would she train the kid to double-cross me? Would I?
…. And just how proud would I be if the kid pulled it off?
My eyes widen at the potential. Whiskey, who seems like she’s been waiting for me to come to the realization, grins and gives me a peck on the cheek. “Happy anniversary, baby,” she says as we climb aboard the helicopter. Minutes later, I’ve got a firm grip on the joystick, we’re headed to shore, and I’ve fallen in love all over again.
This story originally appeared in Do No Harm.