Glass fragments of daylight bled through the curtains and burned Mandy's eyes until she was forced to open them, hissing away from the scorching sunlight to save herself. She was somewhat shocked to see that she was still in John's bedroom, actually delighted to know that everything that happened wasn't a figment of her imagination that she made up. John was still asleep beside her, breathing softly and submerged in a deep slumber. Mandy laughed a bit and set her hand gently on his head to smooth down his hair.
She wasn't worried about waking him up since he was a pretty heavy sleeper, unlike her who could wake up to the sound of a feather falling on the floor, which is why Mandy was actually astonished to know that she managed to sleep through the whole night. Usually, she would either have her paranoia keeping her up, insomnia, or simply just the sound of the building shifting and settling throughout the night.
She angled herself to the side and slid off the bed as gently as she could to make extra sure not to wake John up, wanting him to sleep for as long as he could because she knew he deserved it. Mandy gave him one last soothing pat on the head before tiptoeing out of the room and downstairs. The house was quiet but not unpleasant and the floor hardly made a noise when she descended down to the first level. She thought she hated the silence because it constantly felt unwelcoming to her. It always felt unnaturally cold and blue, but not this kind though. This type of silence was peaceful and warm, glowing bright, and shimmering gold.
Mandy headed towards the kitchen first to ransack the fridge, now realizing that she hardly ate anything the day before. She stopped though when her ears perked up to a tapping sound behind her. She turned around and saw the nameless dog trotting down the stairs after her. It stopped in front of the woman and just stared at her. It was breathing heavily and it almost looked like it was smiling too.
"You're already awake?" she muttered meekly and kneeled in front of the wiggling and excited creature. It didn't have a long tale so it would just wiggle its entire body instead, and it made Mandy giggle. "You're hungry too, aren't you?" she said and saw the animal brighten up. It kinda was like looking in a mirror since she would have the same reaction to food herself. "Alright. Come on, Mandy Jr." She gestured under a snickering breath and headed to the kitchen with the dog trailing behind her.
This all kind of felt nostalgic and odd, like she was reliving an old memory. Last time she made food in John's house, she disappeared for 10 years. Thinking about that day still brought shivers down her spine and she still wasn't sure if she made the right call that night. It wasn't actually a spur of the moment but Mandy also didn't think she was in the right state of mind to make such a decision. Her mind had snapped and she just wanted to leave, to run away, leaving everything and everyone behind, the job, the people...she wanted to start over. She never was able to escape the haunting memories though, and she would constantly relive them every night. It was the reason she never liked sleeping.
Mandy really didn't know what she wanted and just grabbed the first thing she saw. A gallon of milk. With that, she took a box of corn flakes and a couple of bowls too. One for herself, another for John when he woke up, and the other for the dog.
The moment she placed the bowl of milk down on the ground, he immediately started to inhale it.
Mandy patted his back. "Pretty thirsty, huh?"
She went back to mindlessly munching on her cereal and dozing off to the rest of the world. She stopped mid-chew though when she heard the sound of the creaking steps. Mandy blinked a couple of times and lifted her head, seeing John slowly walking down.
He stopped at the bottom step and looked around. When he spotted her, he genuinely had a look of shock on his face, like he was seeing Mandy's ghost instead of her flesh and blood version. "For some reason...I thought I dreamt all of this up," he said while groggily walking over to her. He was slow and still kind of limping because of his wounds.
"You don't say." Mandy smiled and made him some cereal too. "That kinda was my first thought when I woke up. Still...you were laying right next to me so I knew it was real."
John pushed his hand against his temple and sat down across from her. "Yeah, well...I woke up last and didn't see you there, so..." he stopped talking when he saw Mandy gradually lifting an eyebrow. "Of course, you would be in the kitchen though," he said it like he shouldn't be shocked at all.
"I got hungry. Sue me." She scoffed and continued to stuff her face. "That reminds me. Wasn't Aurelio suppose to come over today to get the car?" she asked.
"He is. We talked about it the other day and made a schedule."
"Oh, alright. I'm telling you this right now though..." Her lips crept up into a sarcastic smirk. "You totally killed your car."
John frowned. "He can fix it."
"Yeah, ah-uh. Keep telling yourself that. Maybe it'll magically get fixed the time he comes over." She dropped her head and snickered.
John smiled weakly and stared into his cereal for a solid minute. All this really did bring him back. He could remember her breaking into his house to eat his food and sometimes wait until he woke up to have breakfast with her. It kind of was like a tradition of some sort. Mandy did it so often that he had to get out of the habit himself after she disappeared. He could even recall waking up in the middle of the night to check his downstairs to make sure she didn't suddenly come back. She never did though and he would always return to bed disheartened.
Right now though, she was here in front of him, and John was happy. Nothing was perfect yet but it was the closest it felt since Helen died. Things appeared normal again and his smile was truly genuine. He wanted to remain this way but one thing was still bugging him though, something he knew he couldn't ignore forever.
"Mandy, your gun and clothes, you don't need them anymore, right?" he asked and saw Mandy slowly lift her eyes to meet his. "Can I..."
"Get rid of them?" she said bluntly, leaning her head against the palm of her hand.
He grimaced at her cold tone. "No, just...put them away with the rest of my things."
Mandy didn't say anything and it looked like she was putting a great deal of thought into it, even hesitating too. She bit down on her lips before taking a breath. "That's fine, but...I just don't wanna see it," she said uneasily.
John's eyes softened. "That's fine." He turned to get up when Mandy abruptly reached over the table and grabbed his arm.
"Hold on." Her lips turned up into a crooked grin. "I went through the trouble of making you a freakin' bowl of cereal, so you better sit down and eat before doing anything else."
He flinched and slowly sat back down. "Oh, right. Sorry."
John believes he could understand where she was coming from with that remark. She wanted them to have this simple moment for themselves. To not worry about the job, what had happened, or anything else. Mandy just wanted a small time to where she could feel normal, and John couldn't take that away from her. It may appear mundane to anyone else, but for her...it was a first.
John headed back upstairs and left Mandy in the kitchen after he finished eating. He moved with haste with a plastic bag in hand and began to pour all of his and Mandy's previous life into it. He didn't leave a single scrap of clothing, nor a bullet casing behind and stuffed everything until nothing from that life remained. He then took everything downstairs and was careful to stay out of Mandy's line of sight when he passed by the kitchen.
The basement was just as he left it. It was full of storage but in the center of the room was a hole with a large case inside. There were weapons and coins of the past still tucked away like they were 5 years ago. John didn't care to walk down memory lane though and simply just tossed the bag inside, slamming the lid shut.
Aurelio did eventually come over during the middle of the day to check out the car and see what he could do, but he ended up almost having a stroke after seeing the state it was in. "What the hell was John thinking?" He got down low and checked out the dents that lined the hood and the bumper. He could say that he was amazed to see how bad John messed it up to get it out of Abraham's place. "I thought he loved this car."
Mandy stood beside him and shrugged her shoulders, unable to give him an answer despite being there herself. She leaned against the hood and clapped her hands together. "Well...maybe he knew he wasn't gonna get it out of that place in one piece," she suggested.
Aurelio stood up from the ground and cocked a brow. "Even with the both of you there?"
Mandy scoffed and looked up at him with a lazy grin stretching to her bruised lips. She reached around back and patted the warped metal of the hood. "So what do you think? What's the diagnosis?" she said sarcastically. Mandy wasn't a car enthusiast and she mostly preferred bikes, but even someone with half a brain cell could tell that John's car was completely done for.
"Well...the motor's about to fall out and the chassis's all bent up, the driveshaft is all destroyed. And I don't know if you noticed, but there's a crack in the windshield."
"Oh, really?" Mandy turned around and pretend like she didn't notice it among the wreckage. "Does that mean you can't fix it?"
Aurelio playfully shoved her shoulder. "Don't start with me, Rose. I can fix it, but it ain't gonna be ready until..." He blinked a couple of times to quickly draw up his calculations. "...uh, next Christmas."
"Small price to pay..." Mandy turned her head back around and sighed, staring up at the house that still seemed pretty foreign to her. Honestly, she didn't know what's gonna become of her and John. Yeah, she's nervous more than anything but also excited, in reality. There was this unknown to their situation that she kinda liked and it made her heart flutter and speed up with anticipation. "Anyway, thanks for your help." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a couple of golden coins and handed them over.
Aurelio tossed them around in his hand for a bit and frowned. "You and John gonna be alright?" he asked, surprising Mandy. "I mean...John got out and so did you, in a way, but this...this is different, right?" There was this uncertainty in his voice that made Mandy's face harden up. "Are you both really out of the game, like, for good this time?"
There was no sly remark or sarcasm in her voice. Mandy's face had turned to icy-stone and her answer was simple yet stern. "Yes." She pulled her hands into her pockets and clenched them up into tight balls, shaking and cutting into the palm of her skin.
John used a couple of bags of cement he had laying around and used that to gradually cover the hole, one scoop at a time. He packed it on tightly until he couldn't see the case anymore and then began to smooth it out. It was a long and grinding process so he was downstairs for the majority of the day. Mandy though, would sometimes poke her head through the door and call out to him to make sure he was alright, even asking if he had buried himself. Of course, he would say no and she would disappear back upstairs, all the while laughing at her own joke.
Mandy had always been pretty easy to read and understand. She was like an open book. If she was laughing and joking, then she was alright. If she was quiet, then he would start to worry. He had always loved her laugh and the way it sounded since it was unexpectedly childish, and it would especially come off like that when she would start giggling at her own silly jokes. John would usually smile back though just because he liked hearing her talk. It was good to know that she was slowly adjusting to the silent calmness that the house was giving off.
After he finished leveling out the wet cement, he set the tool down and leaned back against the wall to stare at his work. With this, the hole had officially been covered, and the past along with it.
John felt his body suddenly seize up when the loud doorbell blasted his ears and went straight to his bones. The shock left him petrified like stone and he didn't even react to the sound of Mandy walking over to the door, hearing her unlock it, and then opening it. His breath got caught in his throat as he waited for something, anything that would tell him that it was alright, but any kind of hope ended with Mandy's voice echoing through the house.
"John? John!" There was something wrong with her. She sounded like she was in distress.
John found himself able to move again and immediately got to his feet, making for the steps upstairs. "Mandy?" He called out to her in a slight panic when she didn't answer back. When he made it to the doorway that she was standing in front of, he finally understood why she called for him. "Santino."
It was Santino D'Antonio, a clean-cut man in what looked to be an expensive suit. He would be considered handsome if his eyes didn't have this determined scowl that kinda threw John off. His voice was smooth too. "I was surprised to see Mandy answer the door instead of you," he said and ignored the woman's fretful gaze that was evolving to a hostile glare. "Good to see you both in good health. Especially Mandy after all these years."
John got over his initial shock and tugged Mandy back by her shoulder, not trusting her right now to keep her hands to herself. "Please...come in," he gestured while pulling his partner away as Santino stepped inside.
As John closed the door behind him, she caught a glimpse of multiple people standing outside in the driveway. He even noticed that Ares was out there too. He could tell that they were all armed and vigilant.
John hastily pulled Mandy into the kitchen to get out of sight for a moment. She was shaking but quiet towards him, completely avoiding eye contact too. Though he can't see her being mad at him just yet. Her eyes were focused on Santino, slowly narrowing into this harsh glare that intensified from the confusion of his presence.
"I was sorry to hear about your wife, John," Santino called out from the hallway.
"Thank you," John answered back politely. He glanced down to Mandy and placed a hand on her shoulder, but when he did, she finally spoke.
"Santino's here for a favor, ain't he?" She looked at him from the corner of her eyes and spoke coldly towards him. "So...what did YOU do?" Her voice was rough and darkened with seething resentment and anxiety combined.
It was Mandy's sharpness that made her realize that Santino wouldn't be here for anything else other than himself. Something happened in 'that' world that she and John don't know of yet, something that forced Santino D'Antonio to come down here.
Mandy was expecting him to tell her the truth since it was in their contract, but to her surprise, he quickly looked away and began to make some coffee for their uninvited guest. His face was twisted up in pain, a kind of regret that he knew she could see right through.
Mandy's eyes grew wide when he refused to say anything. She opened her mouth to protest but only to realize that she couldn't speak. She forgot how to speak, actually. The truth was going to come out eventually from Santino, but Mandy just wanted to hear it from John's mouth first. Yet, he refused to say anything...going completely against their contract.
After another couple of minutes, they both finally sat down with Santino, the man who had disturbed their newly earned peace. John was waiting with despair in the pit of his stomach, while Mandy was quiet and patient. Her arms were crossed over her chest and her face was stern.
Santino sighed softly and stared at the two legends in front of him. One who should be a ghost and the other who should be retired. "Listen, John, with all sincerity...I don't want to be here." he finally said and watched as John dropped his head, his voice coarse.
"Please, don't. I'm asking you not to do this."
Mandy lifted her arms in an annoyed manner and slapped them down at her side. "What's all this about? Can someone please tell me what the FUCK is going on?" she demanded.
"I'm sorry too, Mandy." Santino leaned back in his chair and reached for the inner pocket of his coat. "It's because of your partnership with John...that this concerns you too. No one gets out and comes back without repercussions." He took out this small silver disk with a skull on the front of it. He set it down on the table and it made a sharp clicking sound that made Mandy flinch, the color draining from her face and falling into a deep depression. "I do this with a heavy heart," He slid it across the table in front of John. "But remember, it was because of me...that Mandy's sudden abandonment didn't come back to haunt you."
Instinctively, Mandy brought her hand up to her mouth when she felt the sudden urge to throw up, but nothing happened in the end. The ill feeling didn't fade though. Her skin was crawling like fire ants had invaded her body and the agony of her heart had made her fall silent.
She had always wondered why nothing happened to John after she left. She didn't think about the effects of her abandonment that should have fallen back on him, though he never mentioned anything about it. She understood now that it was Santino that stopped any kind of consequences from happening.
"John..." Mandy choked up. "You made a Marker?"
Once again, John's eyes crinkled with pain, and for the first time, he looked at her. "I'm sorry," he pleaded in a broken whisper.
Santino explained his involvement a little further. "If not for what I did on the night of John's impossible task, he wouldn't be here right now, like this. This is because of me. This, in part, is mine," he hissed through his teeth when Mandy abruptly slammed her hand on the table, hard enough to make it rattle and silence him.
Mandy got up from her chair so fast that she knocked it over, kicking it aside and storming out of the room without another word, much less a glance.
John swallowed hard as his world began to spin. "Take it back."
"Take it back?" Santino had to repeat it to make sure he heard such nonsense right.
"Take it back. I'm not doing this to Mandy," he said sharply.
"A Marker is no small thing, John. For a man to grant a Marker to another, is to bind a soul to a blood oath." Santino tightened his jaw. "It's the same kind of structure that binds you and Mandy, which is why it must involve her too."
John still refused to budge. "Find someone else. I'm not dragging Mandy back into this. I just can't." He pushed the Marker back over.
"Listen to me." Santino snatched the Marker and opened it up, showing a bloody fingerprint on the inside. "What is this? Hmm? Do you remember? This is your blood. You came to me when you couldn't go to Mandy anymore. I helped you. And if you don't do this, you know the consequences. And they will most certainly...won't be kind to Mandy either."
John began to feel his hands start to tremble. "I'm not that guy anymore." His voice was deep but riddled with weariness.
Santino stared at him, burned his eyes into him that went all the way to his soul. "You are always that guy, John. Both you and Mandy." He stated it like it was a well-known fact, snapping the Marker close and sliding it back over the table. The scratching sound of it being dragged hurt John's ears.
"I can't help you." He shook his head and slid it back over the table one last time. "I'm sorry."
It looked like a storm was brewing in Santino's eyes now, but he only smiled at him. "Yes. You're right." He put the Marker away and stood up with him. "You can't. But he can." Santino pulled his hands in his pockets and headed over towards the door. "I'll see you and Mandy soon, John."
Nothing about this evening felt right anymore. The world was repeating itself once again like an unending mirror. John knew what Santino was going to do next and he anticipated every step he took while walking him out the door and into the night, even his last words seemed forced and venomous.
"You have a beautiful home, John." He bid him farewell and the door was gently closed.
John immediately went looking for Mandy after Santino left. He found her fairly quickly since she didn't get far. She stood in the hallway with her back towards him, fixated on a picture of him and Helen. The golden hue of her eyes was still burning though, consumed with intense fury.
"Mandy," John called for her but she didn't even react to his voice. He walked up behind her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Mandy-" He suddenly felt his hand get ripped off and slapped away with much ferocity. It stung like a mad hornet and he's sure her nails might've cut him too by accident. Still, nothing could beat the distraught look on his face when Mandy suddenly whipped her head around and shouted at him, completely red-faced.
"I thought you were done." Her voice was a piercing howl.
Reality fell away from him for a moment when she raised her voice. He quickly got over it though when he began to feel a searing pain coming from his right hand. "I am." He looked down and saw that she did actually draw blood from scratching him.
Mandy pointed her trembling finger right in his face. "No, you half-assed it. You don't make a Marker with someone when you plan to retire, and you especially...don't make one with Santino D'Antonio of all people. Of course, he was going to come and collect! Did you really think he would just forget and leave you be? That's not how making a Marker works."
John stepped back to get a better look at her. Not only was her face bright red but her eyes were glassy too. Her breathing was rough and it sounded like she was doing everything in her power to stop herself from crying. She was probably tired of crying, which is why she was struggling so much.
"I know that," he said.
"Oh, really? Do you really know that? Because you sure looked just as damn surprised as I did when that man turned up on your doorstep!" Her voice began to break up like a bad radio connection. It was becoming weak and small as her character began to break down. No longer could she raise her voice. She just didn't have the mental strength to do that anymore. "John, I'm...I'm tired. I'm more than just a little tired. I'm exhausted. I was...I was wanting to stop. I was ready...to stop." She sucked in a deep and sharp breath before biting down on her lips, still refusing to fully cry.
John went to touch her shoulders one more time. Luckily she didn't fall away from him like last time. "I was too. I was ready to forget it." He squeezed her shoulders tightly. "Mandy...I'm just...I'm sorry."
Mandy blinked slowly as tears attached themselves to her lashes. Her eyes snapped wide open though when she heard the sound of glass shattering. Flames of scarlet clouded her vision in an instant and there was this heavy push against her body. It was so strong that it caused both her and John to fly through the window behind them and slide across the ground.
John unraveled his arms from Mandy's body and looked up to see that his house was now in flames. Hell attached itself to his house and burned it up like a tinderbox. Windows were shattered, precious possessions were gone, and the memories that both John, Mandy, and Helen had were demolished, turning into smoke that only blanketed the sky.
Their skin smoldered against the intense heat but not nearly as fierce as their eyes were. They said nothing to each other and merely burned the image of the red house into their minds, all while feeling their desires slip from their fingers and burn up with everything else.