The roleplaying game—"Murder On The Red Carpet"—was my first party in five months. I arrived to find a dozen people in crazy costumes. Evening gowns. Thrift shop tuxedos. Wigs. At least two pince-nez.
I wore a borrowed black suit, and cheap black shoes I'd polished for 45 minutes.
"You're a son of a bitch, Sky Handsome," a pretty girl said to me.
"Wow, that's enthusiastic," I said. "What's your name?"
"Katharine Heartburn, as if you didn't know, you son of a bitch."
"Ha ha. But in real life."
The pretty girl broke character, crumpled into giggles. "In real life I'm Wendy. You're Lewis, right?"
We shook hands. Wendy wore a shimmering kimono-type thing, and two baby dolls dangled in a sash over her shoulder. I would learn that these were her character's adopted children, Kenyata (from Kenya) and Botsweeta (from Botswana). It was an obvious joke—that Hollywood actresses adopt African children—but I would find it hilarious.
An old woman approached us. I realized this was Lena, a friend from my old job and author of tonight's game. She was wearing prosthetic wrinkles and a gray wig. She was the only person I knew at the party.
"Why are you dressed like an old woman?" I asked.
"It's my character. I'm the eccentric billionaire who financed the movie you starred in."
"Didn't you read my emails?"
"I don't currently own a phone or computer."
I could see that this annoyed Lena. I could also see the dread on her face. How she was conflicted about being hard on me.
Everyone's like that now. They smile bravely while visualizing the spider web scars on my wrists.
Then I realized—Wendy had known my name. What had Lena told her about me?
"Just remember," Lena/eccentric billionaire said, "tonight is the premiere of Double Tap Out. Someone will be murdered. You're Sky Handsome, star of the movie, and you're supposed to be charming."
"Charming. Got it. But what's with the smoochers?"
I thumbed at the couple standing in the corner of the room, near a bookshelf and a rickety window. They were engaged in a passionless kiss, as if slowly sucking the life from one another. Their lips never separated.
Lena shook her head, still annoyed but suppressing it, I could tell. "It'll make sense," she said. Then she shuffled off to greet the final arrivals.
"They've been kissing for an hour," Wendy whispered. "An hour at least."
"Weird," I said.
"So your character hates me?"
"I'm your ex-wife. You cheated on me during the filming of Double Tap Out with your costar. It was in the tabloids, you son of a bitch."
"Hey hey, beautiful! Let's enjoy the evening!"
"That's the spirit!"
"No, I suck at this."
"You'll be great. I can tell. Here, take this." Wendy handed me her phone, pulled up to a file outlining the game's plot and characters.
"Gee thanks, doll."
"No prob," she whispered cutely. Then, with flourish, so everyone else would hear: "To hell with you, Sky Handsome! If you won't acknowledge our adopted African children, then I'll see you in court!"
Wendy/Katharine Heartburn whisked away. She had a knack for performance. I wondered if she'd ever done any real acting.
I scanned the crowd and studied Wendy's phone. There was Terry MacGuyler, my agent, whom the file said I was supposed to be angry with because Double Tap Out was tanking. There were screenwriters Richard Butt and Harry Butt, aka the Butt Brothers, who until Double Tap Out had only penned porn and nature documentaries. There was Anne Elly, the award-winning director of the film, whom I recognized as a checkout girl from the local co-op grocery store.
They all approached me, calling out my character's name. We engaged awkwardly in the roles Lena had sketched for us.
I watched Wendy the entire time. She was exciting and dynamic, as if lit by an inner bulb. I noticed that her real talent was that she listened to the other actors. That her charisma erupted from attention rather than from worrying about what to say next.
So I tried to listen, too. A character known simply as The Preview Voice addressed me. I listened to him speak in an undulating announcer's timbre. But he (or rather his character) seemed insecure about his announcing career, so I recommended that he speak more from his testicles. "The bottom of your balls!" I barked, channeling, for some reason, George C. Scott. "You must speak from the very bottom of your balls!"
"Maybe that's my problem!" The Preview Voice intoned. "Someone once told me to speak from my elbows."
"Your elbows? Ha!" Then, remembering that I was supposed to be charming, I added: "Stick with your balls, kid. I see you going places."
We laughed. I felt like I'd won a prize.
Everyone was drinking except me. A bit later, Lena stood on a chair and called our attention. She related some advancements in the plot. I didn't listen closely. I was watching Wendy. At one point, Wendy shot me a nasty in-character sneer. I volleyed my best million-watt smile.
But somehow, at that moment, it dawned on me that Wendy was only acting nice. Obviously Lena had instructed her to be sweet to me, and Wendy was the type of woman who could accomplish this without seeming false.
Lena finished her speech. Then she handed us individual slips of paper: specific character instructions. I/Sky Handsome wanted to win back Wendy/Katharine Heartburn—I missed her, our domestic bliss, even our adopted African children.
"Hey," I said, squinting at Lena. "Did you change your make-up?"
"I don't know, did I?"
Lena's wig was different—sort of salt-and-pepper grey. The wrinkles on her face had softened.
"You look younger."
She stared at me mysteriously, then walked away.
I moved reluctantly toward Wendy. I passed the kissing couple. The guy was rolling his shoulders, trying to loosen up. I heard both of them breathing heavily through their noses.
In character I managed: "You guys are great kissers, baby!"
Turning back to Wendy, I saw a guy yelling in her face. His cheeks were red with booze. I stepped closer. I heard him say:
"If you talk to the tabloids again, I fulking kill you." He had a convincing Irish accent. "This is bowlshit, you bitch."
"Hey," I said. "Take it down a notch."
The guy turned to me. His shaved head seemed carved from granite.
"This bitch here—"
"Stop calling her bitch." I laughed in disbelief. I looked over his shoulder at Wendy. Her eyes were wide open. Was she still in character? Was this part of the game?
"I'm serious, mate," he said. "This bitch needs to—"
"Whoa whoa whoa. I'm not in character now," I said, raising my voice. "Calm down or we're going to have a problem."
He stared at me. Neither of us budged. "Right, mate," he said in the brogue I now realized must be authentic: I was picking a fight with a legitimate Irishman. "I was just playing the fulking game, mate," he went on, "Maybe you should take it down a notch."
The guy flicked my shoulder with the back of his hand.
I looked at my own shoulder, where he'd flicked me.
"Clever," I said.
What the fuck was I doing?
Then Lena was between us.
"Okay, guys! Things are testy, just like they're supposed to be! Very convincing acting here! Very convincing!"
Lena's smile was petrified. She gripped my arm and hustled me into her tiny bedroom. She closed the door behind us and sat down at her desk.
"He was calling her a bitch," I explained.
"That's his character, Lewis. He's supposed to do that."
"It seemed like too much."
"This is a murder mystery. Animosity is a given. He and Wendy are friends."
Lena was tearing up. Another woman I've made cry this year. I asked her what was wrong.
"Nothing, it's just..."
"You... I'm trying hard. Now it's all messed up."
"Me?" I said. "What's messed up?"
"The game is messed up. The plot is that... that he's the murder victim, and you're the murderer."
I processed. I was the murderer. He was the victim. I checked the file on Wendy's phone. The Irish guy's character was Johnny No Good. It seemed his job was to piss off everyone at the party. And apparently to die.
Lena shook her head. She now regretted revealing the plot to me. I wasn't supposed to know. But I also comprehended that it had been her intention—in writing me as the murderer—to invite me into her circle of friends.
"Lena, I'm sorry."
"It's fine," she said.
I watched her peel several prosthetic wrinkles from her face.
"What's with the make-up?" I asked.
"My character's got Benjamin Button disease."
"I get younger throughout the night. The first person to call it ‘Benjamin Button disease' wins a prize."
"What's the prize?"
"A DVD of Benjamin Button."
"I just want people to laugh," she said gravely. "Have a good time."
"Did you tell Wendy about me?"
She couldn't look at me. I walked over and rubbed her shoulders. At one point, before everything, we'd been good friends. I wanted her to know how much I appreciated the invitation to this crazy party. But I couldn't form the words.
"Can we rewrite the script?" I managed. "Just edit me out. I could leave right now."
"Not enough time. It's too intricate. We just have to go through with it. It'll be fine."
"Please don't fight with him," she said sweetly. "I don't think he knows... about you."
My hands stopped on her shoulders, mid-massage.
"I'm fine now," I informed her. "I really am. It's been five months. Please don't tell people about me. I'm sober. I've got a job. I'll buy a phone with my first paycheck."
"I know, Lewis. I'm glad. I really am."
She removed her salt-and-pepper wig, then turned to look up at me.
But there was nothing left to say. I exited the bedroom. I saw Wendy. We had instructions to talk to one another. I nodded at her. She approached me.
Finally we were alone. We sat on a couch that was covered with a yellow-and-blue checkered sheet. She lit a cigarette. Then she lowered the cigarette to her baby doll's mouth.
"Little bitch won't smoke," she said.
"Katharine, baby," I said in character, "I can't live without you. These past few months have been unbearable. I'm dying. I want to come back home."
"It's sweet that you stood up for me, Lewis. Really sweet."
"Stay in character," I said gently. "You're Katharine Heartburn, I'm Sky Handsome."
"I want you back, baby," I said.
"What about that little cunt you've been sleeping with? Your costar?"
"She's old news, baby. Older than an impotent concentration camp survivor."
Wendy didn't laugh.
"I have an idea," I said, struggling to hold the scene together. "Tell me how you've spent the last few months without me. Convince me that you're happy, truly happy, and I'll leave you alone forever and ever."
Wendy grinned. She liked the challenge.
"Okay," she said. "You left me three months ago. Delivered the bad news via Twitter. Had your assistant pack your clothes. I haven't seen you or your assistant since. What have I been doing? I've been caring for our two adopted daughters, Kenyata and Botsweeta. Which hasn't been easy given my demanding acting and modeling and U.N. volunteer schedule. Children don't raise themselves. It takes a village, though in this case obviously not the village where they were born, because now they live in Los Angeles with us. I mean with me." Wendy laughed. She maintained eye contact with me even as her mind spun this brilliant, elaborate biography. "But that's not what you asked, is it Sky Handsome?"
"The truth is that I've been wonderfully, beautifully happy. I've made three point two million dollars since you left. I co-wrote a screenplay about a necrophiliac... a necrophiliac..."
"That's right. A necrophiliac financial advisor. It's been optioned by Paramount. I spent three weeks at a yoga ashram and achieved, if not total enlightenment, then the closest thing to total enlightenment available on this mortal coil. I cook every night with organic vegetables grown in my own garden. I experiment with tantric masturbation. Frankly, I'm high as a fucking kite on myself. I feel like a new woman."
I'd stopped laughing by that point. I just watched her in awe.
"So what have you been up to, Sky Handsome, you son of bitch?"
I glanced at the kissing couple. Their arms hung at their sides. They seem to be leaning onto each other's lips. A spot of drool clung to the girl's chin.
"I'm... on the verge," I said.
"On the verge?"
"On the verge of..."
"I've been miserable without you, Katharine. I regret it every day. I regret leaving you. I regret everything. If you don't take me back, I just don't know what I'll do. I'm on the verge of collapse. I spend tens of thousands of dollars on celebrity shrinks and Buddhist masters. I meditate five hours a day. I've walked on the Appalachian Trail. None of it helps. I'm depressed. I'm miserable. The solitude. No one understands me but you. The shrinks give me stock sayings, and you must accept these stock sayings on faith. But excuse me, faith? I have none left. I don't believe any of the words. I've wasted my life. Without you, I'm nothing. I can't go on."
I looked at Wendy. She gazed down at her knees.
"Sorry," I said.
"No, don't worry."
"Fuck me," I said. "I'm sorry. That was weird, wasn't it? It was just... it was just my character."
"I told you I wouldn't be good at this."
"You're uncomfortable now."
"I know Lena told you about me."
"I'm sorry you have to deal with it," I said, wincing. "I'm fine. I'm sorry. I really am."
I stood and launched myself into the party.
I wanted to drink. But I didn't succumb. Instead I diverted that energy into a new mission—I needed to apologize to Johnny No Good. Apologizing is something I've become very good at—it's part of every treatment regime known to modern man.
But Johnny No Good had vanished.
I found Lena and asked if she had seen him. She shrugged, then shook her head.
"Oh," I said.
Apparently I'd already murdered him.
Taking this as her cue, Lena stood again on her chair.
"There's been a murder!" she cried out, and everyone at the party screamed happily. "It's Johnny No Good! Who could have done it?"
As she read from her script and listed the suspects (everyone was a suspect), I realized that in this game, Lena was the only person who was supposed to know the murderer's identity. Not even the murderer was supposed to know. It was part of the fun—the possibility that you might be the killer.
That I did know, while being technically more realistic, was in fact a violation of the game's rules.
I was exhausted. This was my first post-treatment social gathering. I'd botched everything. But I decided I would make it up to Lena. Or at least try. I would be the best Sky Handsome/murder suspect ever.
So I imagined myself as Brad Pitt. George Clooney. Paul Newman. I paid attention to everyone. I listened to every word. Weirdly, pretending that I was a superstar, and that everyone loved my company, seemed to convince me that no one at the party knew about me, about the real Lewis. But of course everyone knew. The secret was out. I'll have to move to a different fucking country for people not to know.
Lena now wore a sleek business suit. She wore no make-up. She looked exactly her true age. Then, a few minutes later, she changed into a schoolgirl's uniform. Her hair was pulled into pigtails.
I avoided Wendy. I made rampant pop culture references. I watched the kissing couple constantly. At one point, the couple began half-kneeling, mirroring calf-stretches. Their lips remained locked. The area around their mouths looked hot and chafed. From time to time, they opened their eyes and gazed at each other over their noses.
I turned, and there was Johnny No Good. A Sherlock Holmes cap was propped on his head.
"I'm The Inspector," he said. "I'm here to question you."
He smiled. He didn't seem angry at all.
"Back from the dead?" I asked.
"New character. I've been called in by brass to investigate the murder. Listen, mate, I'm sorry about—"
"No, I'm sorry."
"It was my fault. I got carried away. I didn't mean to start anything. You seem like a good guy."
"A good guy?"
"Any friend of Lena's," he said.
Clearly Lena had told The Inspector/Johnny No Good about me. He gushed on and on about how not pissed off he was.
"Listen, it's fine," I said after his seventh apology.
"Okay, mate. Thanks. I'm really sorry."
"Jesus, it's done already, okay?"
I turned my back on him.
Anger. Blaming others. Lena didn't understand. No one understands. Why are people so stupid? I observed the anger developing inside me. I knew this kind of thinking was dangerous. But instead of dealing with it, instead of substituting healthier thoughts, I retaliated. I began dropping hints that I was the murderer.
Overwhelming hints: I raved about what a great guy Johnny No Good was/had been. I employed grandiose weeping over his demise. I raised toasts to his memory. I told everyone that I was starting a Johnny No Good Foundation. Lena handed out more character instructions, but I didn't read them. Then, for half an hour, I accused every other character of being the murderer. I accused Anne Elly, the director, and Terry Maguyler, my agent, of participating in a twisted sex triangle with Johnny No Good, which was completely invented (by me) and had nothing to do with Lena's plot. I accused the Butt Brothers. I accused the kissing couple. I accused The Preview Voice, who seemed like a nice enough guy, so I regret bringing him into it. I was supremely annoying.
A few minutes later, Lena stood on her chair and called our attention. She was now wearing an oversized onesie. She sucked on a candy sucker. She didn't look at me. She wasn't happy. But she removed the sucker and screamed with strained glee that the mystery had been solved. The murderer was...
Everyone cheered. Everyone laughed.
But they were all faking it. I had ruined the game.
At least it was over. I walked out of the house without saying goodbye to anyone. I don't own a car, so I footed it across town. The walk home was thirty minutes. Forty minutes if I wanted to avoid the bars, which I decided was best.
I was only a few minutes from home when I realized that Wendy's phone was still in my pocket. I checked it and saw that several texts had arrived. The ringer must have been off.
10:57 PM: Hi Lewis. I think you have my phone. Can you bring it back to Lena's house? Lena wants you to know she's not mad.
11:03 PM: This is Lena. Everything's cool, k? The party was great. Everyone had a great time. Come back to the house?
11:09 PM: Are you okay? Call me. Please.
I turned around. Fortunately my racing mind had slowed down during the walk. I was able to take stock of what had gone wrong. I was already beginning to forgive myself.
I texted back: "Coming."
But would Lena forgive me? Would Wendy? As I walked, I composed a note to Wendy on her phone. In the note, I apologized for my behavior. Then the note kept going. Apparently I had a lot to say. I wrote that she was wonderful. Beautiful. That she was too good for me. I wrote that I knew how ridiculous it was for me to be writing this, but I couldn't help myself. I wrote that it had been wrong of Lena to reveal my personal business to her—because now a single moment in my life was all she knew about me, and how was that a good foundation for anything...
I looked up. The kissing couple walked toward me on a moonlight-dappled street. They weren't kissing anymore. They were holding hands and laughing.
"I was at the party," I said to them, waving. "What was the kissing about?"
They stopped and introduced themselves. Even in the moonlight I could see how raw their mouths were. The guy explained that they were documentary filmmakers. They were making a movie about a kissing contest somewhere near the coast. "Apparently that's a thing down there," he said. "We're going to enter. It's next week. Tonight, at the party, was our first attempt at extended public kissing. A practice round."
"But what does that have to do with the murder mystery?" I asked.
"Didn't you hear Lena at the end?" the girl said. "She announced we were an alien life form. A quote alien life form. Evil succubus monsters who kill everyone at the party. Everyone died in the end."
"I was the murderer," I told them. "My name was Sky Handsome."
"So you escaped alive!" the girl yelled happily. "The murderer escaped! We must take him! We must suck his essence!"
In unison, the couple made grotesque kissing faces. They reached out for me, contorting their hands into chomping claws. They began walking toward me like zombies.
I faked an expression of terror. I dodged their attack. They continued chasing. We danced around like this on the street for a few seconds before they caught me. They closed their claws on my arms. They pressed themselves into me, moved their faces toward mine as if preparing to suck away my life. I called to the heavens for help.
Finally the game stopped. We all laughed.
"I left the party pretty quickly," I said to them, still laughing. "I must have missed Lena's epilogue. I was a little out of it tonight."
"We didn't notice," the girl said. "We were kissing the entire time."
"Have a good night," she said, taking the guy's hand.
They walked away.
I stood there, watching them leave. Then I took out Wendy's phone and deleted the note I'd written. I believe it had been my plan from the beginning to delete the message, even while writing it. I believe it had been my plan to walk into Lena's house and hand Wendy the phone. Smile. Here's your phone. Simple. Kiss Lena on the cheek. Thank her for the party. Answer any questions they had. Ask Johnny No Good his real name. Apologize to him sincerely. Hang out with them as long as they wanted to reassure them that I was safe. That I wasn't going to hurt myself again.
Whether or not that had been my plan, that's what I did.
"Murder!" was inspired by a real roleplaying game I attended in Carrboro, NC, written by my brilliant friend, Lena Kyman. So yes, many of the game's details (in this story) were appropriated from my friend's writing, though I'll take credit for Benjamin Button disease and the kissing couple. Basically, a roleplaying game struck me as a perfectly insane place for a neurotic, recent suicide-attempt survivor to reenter society. And that's how it happened.