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Guile, by Geoffrey Neil

“Nothing is more common on earth than to deceive and be deceived.”

―Johann G. Seume

One

IF HE KNEW what was in store for him, Ian Shaw would have used the gun. A simple trigger-pull would have spared so much pain. The small bullet would have done the world a huge favor. His loved ones would forgive him. As awful as it sounds, they’d secretly be grateful.
Everybody’s rock-bottom looks different. At 28-years-old, Ian’s was a portrait of abject misery painted by a cascade of horrible decisions. This afternoon, his mobile home grew hot enough to bake him after he decided to max out his last credit card on beer instead of getting his air conditioner fixed. He stretched out in his underwear on a tattered recliner with a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon warming between his legs. Beside him, a torn-up bank statement with an overdrawn balance lay strewn over unopened bills and demand letters. His eyes glazed over while he looked at the stack, each envelope a complete waste of postage.
Unemployed, broke, heartbroken, and lonely, Ian was due for some good luck—at least that’s what the kinder people told him. “Hang in there and life will get better,” some said. “Good things are right around the corner,” others promised. A few tried to cheer him up with tired expressions. It’s always darkest just before the dawn. He hated that one most because he knew it was bullshit. After countless nights spent camping, he knew the pre-dawn sky was precisely as dark as midnight, and his life was blacker than both right now. Sure, his encouragers meant well, but he had no faith in their prophecies.
The closest thing to optimism Ian felt was that his life couldn’t get any worse. That’s where he was wrong. Like most people, he had no idea that a deeper, insidious level of misery lurks beneath rock-bottom. The poor souls who find it become trapped in the utmost agony and despair. Here, only death offers mercy, obscuring other exits, which is why visitors rarely survive. It’s difficult to reach without a perfect combination of foolish decisions and terrible luck. In the next days, Ian would unwittingly begin drilling down to this abysmal level, thanks to his penchant for foolish decisions. As for the terrible luck, he was dripping with it.
His life’s downward spiral became a plummet two months ago when Kate, the love of his life, dumped him after a five-year relationship. Her non-negotiable breakup devastated him. He withdrew from friends and family. He stopped shaving, stopped eating, stopped caring and started drinking.
He and Kate had run a business together—a small sandwich shop they started two years ago. Kate handled the books and operations while Ian managed inventory and fulfilled his dream of becoming the closest thing he’d ever be to a chef. Poor management and an inability to sustain enough operating capital caused the business’s financial health to decline in lockstep with the health of their relationship.
Ian still kicked himself for letting Kate blindside him. Missing all the clues, slathered a thick layer of embarrassment on top of his heartbreak.
The first hint of trouble came six months ago when she announced that she’d purchased a flight for a weekend trip to a self-improvement seminar. Early in their relationship, she and Ian regularly took out-of-town excursions together, so it was reasonable for Ian to assume he’d go with her.
“Where are we staying?” he asked.
I’m sorry, I should have told you,” Kate said, wincing to soften the blow. “It’s a women’s retreat.”
“Good for you!” Ian said, forcing enthusiasm.
“I thought you’d be upset.”
“Naa! Why would I be?” he said, feeling upset. “Going with girlfriends?”
“No. Solo.”
“Fantastic!” The enthusiasm took more effort.
Kate kept additional details of her trip under wraps. While out of town, she contacted Ian only once in an obligatory call to tell him she’d arrived safely. When she returned three days later, she found Ian in the back of their sandwich shop, stocking some new deliveries. After a tepid hug and a few clichéd exchanges about her flights and the weather, Kate said, “I think we should try abstinence.”
Ian laughed.
Kate didn’t.
“Am I that horrible in bed?” Ian said.
“It has nothing to do with quality.”
“Whew!” Ian wiped his brow. He went to her, put his hands on her waist, and pulled her close. “If we’re starting a diet, shouldn’t we enjoy a little bite to eat first?”
She gently pushed him back. “Stop, Ian, this is important.”
“You’re serious?” he said, still searching her face for any hint of a joke. “Abstinence, just like that?”
Kate nodded.
“Why?” He stepped away and picked up a case of sodas from the floor.
“For some couples, abstinence improves the relationship,” Kate said. “It strengthens the emotional connection by detaching the physical. It’s counterintuitive, but studies have supported it.”
Ian went to a shelf and slid the case onto it. “Is this something they pushed on you at that seminar?”
“It was one of the topics, but that doesn’t matter. What’s important is that abstinence is a powerful investment that could pay off for our relationship and I want us to try it.”
He came back to her, this time giving her space. “Don’t couples who choose abstinence agree to it from the get-go?”
“Not always.”
“Who begins abstinence after the fact? If this is some sort of moral thing, we’ve already been as naughty as can be. It’s not like we can start saving ourselves for marriage.” He picked up another case and heaved it onto the first.
“It’s not about morality,” Kate said. “It’s called PCA, Post-Consummation Abstinence. Many couples have dramatically enhanced their emotional connection by abstaining from intercourse.”
“Sounds backward to me,” Ian said. He picked up a mesh bag of cucumbers and plopped it beside the sink. His sex life with Kate was great by her own admission. Something had happened to her on that trip. She’d normally be nervous while talking to him about such a sensitive topic. But now she exuded an unsettling calmness while making an announcement she had to know would rattle him. “This doesn’t seem like you,” he said. He turned on the faucet and began scrubbing cucumbers.
She came to stand beside him. “If abstinence can reveal a deeper commitment to the relationship, we need that.”
“How long?”
“The suggested first round is sixty days.”
“First round?” Ian scrubbed harder, lips tight, teeth clenched.
Kate watched him, waiting.
Ian stopped. “So, is this a test for me?”
“It’s a test for us,” Kate said. “If it’s any consolation, it will be difficult for me, too, but I want you to agree to try.”
If Ian knew one thing about Kate, it was that if she got some bizarre new idea like this in her head, there was no changing her mind until it played out. Veganism, yoga, multiple detox diets, and two new-age religions were among Kate’s personal fads that had popped and fizzled. He knew abstinence was doomed, too, but having to tug out his own sexual release for whatever number of days while Kate came to her senses was an annoying price he’d have to pay. He pulled a shriveled cucumber from the bag and slammed it into the trash bin. “Looks like I have no choice.”
Kate flashed a frown. “Of course, you do.”
“Then, my answer is no.”
“Okay,” Kate said. She shrugged.
“Just like that, you’re willing to skip this abstinence thing?”
“I respect your decision. Abstinence is a difficult investment that not all couples can make.” She paused, sliding her thumbnail back and forth against her fingertip, a nervous tick Ian instantly recognized.
“Are you disappointed?” he asked.
Kate sighed. “Yes.”
“Fine. We’ll do the abstinence thing.”
“No, we won’t.”
Ian slapped the faucet handle down to turn the water off. “Making love when I know you don’t want to is a buzz-kill, babe.”
“When we make love, it will be because I want to,” she said.
Ian looked at her skeptically.
Kate raised her right hand.

. . .

The next evening, Ian cleaned the back of the sandwich shop after another day of paltry business. Kate had gone home early after announcing that she didn’t feel well.
His phone buzzed with her number. “Hey, babe.”
“Are you still at the shop?” Kate asked.
“Yep.”
“Can you stay there for a bit longer?”
“Sure. Why?”
Then came the words Ian had recently grown to despise.
“We need to talk,” she said.
He briefly pulled the phone from his ear and rolled his eyes. “Sure, what about?”
“In-person will be better.” Her strange calmness was back.
“If it’s about the abstinence, I’m still willing to try it—for a while,” Ian said.
Kate hesitated. “I’ll see you soon.”
When she entered the back of the shop wearing a taut expression, Ian got up from his chair.  “Hey, what’s wrong?” he said, going to her with open arms.
She held up her hand, snubbing his hug, then pointed her finger back and forth between them. “We aren’t working out, and we both know it.”
The words impaled him. He opened his mouth, but couldn’t speak for a noticeable moment. “If it’s about the abstinence—”
“It’s so much more than that,” Kate said. “You know we have some big issues.”
“Issues worth ending us? C’mon, Kate! You didn’t want to get married. I went along with that. You didn’t want to move in together. I went along with that even though sharing a place would save money and give us more time together. What issues are you talking about?”
“Let’s not argue. This was a difficult decision, and I’m sorry.” Her sympathetic expression showed the sensitivity he loved about her, but her posture and confident eye contact had a chilly resolve he didn’t recognize.
He tried joking to loosen her up. “Am I too horny for you?”
Kate fought the slightest smile that would normally have swelled into a laugh. “No.”
“Then what is it?” he asked.
“Ian, you are probably the most resourceful person I know. And I know you’ll desperately want to fix our situation. It’ll be easiest if we simply agree that nothing’s broken, the parts just no longer fit.”
“What parts? We fit fine! And we’re business partners. What about the shop?”
Kate gave him a pitiful look. Ian hated that look because it gave him the sensation of shrinking.
“The business is dying on the vine,” she said. “It’s time to cut losses.” She looked around their cramped back office. “We can decide which of us gets what from the shop. I won’t fight you for anything that’s important to you.”
“You are important to me,” Ian said.
Kate looked away.
Ian’s heart skipped when he thought she might be hiding tears, but she turned back to him, eyes dry, voice steady, and said, “I’m sorry, Ian. I realize this is painful.”
Ian covered his face and slid his fingers up through his hair. “If you’re still frustrated with our sales, that’s all about to change. I told you I’m on the verge of signing our first catering contracts, and they’re big ones. I’ve got verbal commitments. They’re basically done deals. I swear.”
“A couple of contracts can’t fix us.” Then Kate surprised him by taking his hand.
Normally, Ian would have loved her touch, but the sympathy coming through her fingers shrank him more. He pulled away. “Kate, don’t make this rash decision. Let’s sleep on it and decide tomorrow.”
“Sleep hasn’t changed my mind for many nights. I’m sorry to have to hurt you this way. But I know someday we’ll look back and agree that we made the best possible decision.”
“We aren’t making this decision, you are!” Ian said, anger rushing in to replace his shock.
“Please don’t raise your voice to me. Let’s not make this harder than it is.”
Ian slowly shook his head, staring at her in disbelief. “What do you want me to say—that I’m fine with it?”
Kate looked down at her hand, working her thumbnail against her fingertip again. “I have a request I’m hoping you’ll accommodate.”
“Now, what?” Ian crossed his arms.
Kate swallowed and said, “I think it would be easiest for both of us if we didn’t see each other or communicate for a while.”
Ian felt the urge to quickly agree so he would appear stronger than he felt. But accepting these terms ruined any chance of negotiation.
Kate didn’t wait for his agreement. She turned and headed through the door to the front of the shop.
Ian hurried after her, saying, “Why don’t we just take a break? We’ll give each other some space. Let’s start with… maybe a week. I’ll cover the shop.”
“I’m not willing to prolong the inevitable,” Kate said, navigating between dining tables.
“Inevitable? Why is this inevitable?” Ian tried to get in front of her to block her exit, but couldn’t before she pushed through the front door. Outside in the parking lot, he sidestepped beside her. “You’ve met someone new. You’ve cheated on me, haven’t you?”
“Ian, don’t even go there,” she said, reaching for her car door handle.
Ian threw his hands up. “What am I supposed to think?”
“If I could control what you think, this breakup would have been easier,” Kate said. “I knew it would get complicated.” She got into the driver’s seat.
Ian stepped closer, blocking her door from closing. “What’s gotten into you?”
Kate closed her eyes and held up her hand. “Enough.”
Ian stepped back.
She pulled the door closed.
Ian’s eyes welled up while he watched her drive from the parking lot. He took a few steps as if he might chase her on foot. His throat tightened when her car disappeared around the corner. “Goddammit, Kate,” he said, his voice cracking.
The next morning when he opened the front door to leave his home, he found a large cardboard box. It contained a few clothes, two pairs of shoes, a toaster, and an unopened bottle of wine from months ago, his miniature Valentine card still taped to the side. A roughly-folded note stuffed under the box flap read:

Ian,
Your stuff from my place.

If I missed anything I’ll reimburse you.
All the best,
Kate

Ian squeezed the note into his fist. He…