A Dissolution (In Four Parts)

by Kevin Johnston


It was on the dining room table when he woke up in the morning. Taped on top of it was a crisp sheet of paper that read “look inside me.” When he first tried to open the suitcase, the latches wouldn’t give. He thought they were broken until he noticed the golden rim of a peephole, plugged into the side of the suitcase like a cork. He kneeled down on the floor, pinched one eye shut and peeked inside.

It all seemed too massive to be tucked inside such a small space. The repetition of the stars pulled him inward, as if the suitcase was a new universe with its own gravitational pull. Something bounced off the space that had grown inside of him and nearly knocked him down.

Everything fell away. He spent hour after hour staring into the peephole, wondering what else he could find. The longer he held his eye to the glass, the more he could see. Unexpected corners of light and dark and reflections tucked inside of themselves. It rolled on forever. He stared as deep as he could, trying to find the end, but the horizon was nowhere.

He wanted to find the hinges in his bones and collapse. Contort into the compact version of himself, small enough to fall through that peephole and spill out into the suitcase. The desire to float in all of it, unfold and press out against the unseen edges was overwhelming. He wanted to hang his head in the stars and maybe even search for the moon.

When she came home that night, he pulled himself away from the suitcase and asked her how she did it. She wondered if the details would ruin the magic, but he begged her to tell him again and again, half-believing that she possessed some sort of magical power he was previously unaware of. It seemed impossible to him that she could have made this with paper and glue or hands and wire. But she had.

She tied off a series of tiny light bulbs, Crazy Glued them inside, then hung some more, small and nearly invisible, off of wires. The lights all hung at different lengths and peppered the world from every conceivable angle. She lined the inside with crumpled tin foil and sealed the case around the edges to keep the light out. Every last landscape was mastered.

In the last few weeks, he had spoken of how lost he felt inside this city. The flood blurring out everything that used to shine. How the ceiling felt like something shifting and sliding imperceptibly, pushing down on them every night while they slept. A sinking roof with no escape hatch.

So, she built the sky for him. She folded it up, put it in a box, carried it under her arm and gave it to him. To slow the sinking of the ceiling.

To save them both.



He snapped awake middle of the night. She rolled over, wrapped her arms around him and slid closer, nestling her head into him. Somewhere in between sleep and consciousness, she said, “you smell of chlorine.” Her words muffled into his back.

She asked him if he had been swimming that day.

He hadn’t been swimming that day or any day since they had left the city and moved out here. He had joined the YMCA and bought goggles, a swim cap and a small pair of trunks. He had packed them in his bag, along with his workout clothes, but he had never gone swimming. Every day, he hoped that he might finally find his way into that pool. Yet, he never did.

He would watch the other swimmers through the window of the weight room. He would lift, push and press, never focused on what he was actually doing, but locked in on the fluid motions of the swimmers below. He noticed how little the good ones splashed, how they looked like automatons designed for this purpose and this purpose only. Their slick caps driving that image home as the faint smell of the pool forced its way through the windows.

The water cascaded over their bodies as the swimmers made their way from end to end. Some would touch and turn, others would flip in some underwater motion that he could barely decipher from his vantage point. They all entered the pool differently, swam differently and even toweled off differently, but they were all in that water. They were all making their way between the tiles at each end of that seemingly massive pool.

Sometimes, he would come close to getting in. He would take a shower after his workout as the signs indicated he must, slide his feet into those hard plastic sandals of his and walk back to his locker. He would even reach into his bag and feel the texture of the trunks between his fingers, the coolness that the plastic on his goggles always seemed to retain. But most days, he would just stand in front of his locker, not understanding why he couldn’t just get in the pool. Most days, he wouldn’t even grant himself the pleasure of believing that this might be the day that he actually did it.

When he dreamed of swimming, he was incredible. It was effortless. He could go for hours. The tightening of his muscles came together in perfect symmetry. The air and water would part for him. He would wake up with a gasp as if he was coming up for air and reach for his eyes because he felt the pressure of the goggles on his face. It embarrassed him to behave this way.

He rolled over to face her. Her eyes were still somewhere in between awake and asleep, adjusting to find him here in the dark, here in their bed. He put his hand on the side of her face, shocked by how beautiful she was when he could barely see her.

“I didn’t have time today. Maybe tomorrow.”



There was a boom. A loud, hammering boom, rolling and smashing itself into everything. An unseen cannon in the sky.

His head was buzzing and thick from last night and he wondered if he was still dreaming as the sky opened up in a flood. When he realized that he was actually awake, he slid out of the bed and walked to the hotel room window. The sky rumbled and lit up again. Somehow she slept through all of this. The booming thunder, the gaping sky and the much-anticipated rain pelting the windows.

He watched the world below as the pavement turned a brighter black and the dirt at the construction site across the street turned to mud. He wondered what the day would hold as Los Angelinos, despite their incessant talk of ending this drought, were not well equipped for the rain. He had visions of sleeping late today, somehow convincing his body that he was on this coast and not back on the other.

He turned the oddly square radio on. It slid a bit across the massive wooden desk when he put his finger on it, but then it came to life. “Time is on my Side” by The Rolling Stones played quietly, floating inside the room. She didn’t move a muscle.

Now, she was someone who always slept late. She had grown the disposition for that somewhere along the line. To sleep until it was time to wake up and go. She would roll over with a smile, one eye half-cocked, jump out of bed and devastate everything in her path.

Like that suitcase of so many years ago, she had grown her own gravitational pull.  So strong, in fact, that he was convinced all of this rain was falling just for her. If he told her what he was thinking, she would smile and say, “That’s silly.” Yet she’d been the center of too many universes for too long. Part of her had to believe it was possible. Not that she would ever say it out loud.

He turned back from the window to watch her. She didn’t mean to be what she was. What she had become. Some things just happened that way.

He went back to the window and watched the speed with which the clouds rolled over downtown, pulled by something too fast and sticky for him to understand. He wondered if the planes were grounded at LAX.

The clouds were headed directly for their hotel room, the plane of the horizon seemingly online with exactly where he was standing. The reclaimed Jesus Saves sign hanging on the building below, shimmying slightly in the storm. Yesterday she called it a beacon. He couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not, so he just smiled. But this morning, it felt to him like a lighthouse up there. A lighthouse on a concrete hill.

He jumped when she came up behind him and slid her hands around his waist. She said, “It looks like the drought is over,” and he could smell the sleep on her breath. She pulled him back to bed by one arm saying that she couldn’t sleep when he wasn’t there.

That was when he knew it would end.



She said that things had to get better. He said that if they didn’t, they needed a solution. She said that she had one. There in the kitchen, they made a pact. If things weren’t better in two years, they would have a duel. A shootout in the park to end it all.

It was a bit dramatic, but two years might as well have been 200 at that point. It wasn’t even an original idea, just something she had read in a book of short stories that he had lost on their last vacation. He thought the author was a woman, but couldn’t remember her name. She said that the author would have wanted it that way.

That night in bed, she was standing over him, talking in the dark. The light was clanging in off the street, through the windows and across her naked chest. As she moved about, the light skimmed further up her body and onto her face. Her smile lit up the dark. “A fucking shootout. I love it!” He heard the kids in the street speaking French. She always hated when they hung out by their window, smoking cigarettes and speaking a language she never found the beauty in. “Or we will fix this. And not wind up shooting each other,” he said from his position amongst the pillows. She dropped to her knees, burrowed back down into the covers, curled her legs around him. He pulled her into him. They slept the entire night in that position.

The next morning, she said to him, “You know, there have to be rules.” He hadn’t had his coffee yet and had no idea what she was talking about. She could tell by the look on his face. “Rules for the shootout.” “We’ve got two years. I’m sure we can figure it out.” She was insistent that they had to decide on the rules. Right there at breakfast (with the potential for amendments over dinner).

“How many paces?” This seemed like the least pressing piece of the puzzle to him. What did it matter? They would simply turn and shoot. She said that wouldn’t do. She needed a number. So, they decided on twenty. Twenty paces. It seemed like a fair distance and he had some faint recollection that was the same number of paces Alexander Hamilton had taken when he had his duel with Aaron Burr. She said she couldn’t remember who won that duel.

He had his own set of demands, the most prominent of which was that once the duel began, they had to see it through. If one of them turned and couldn’t muster whatever it was that it took to shoot a person they had once been in love with, the other would be put in a precarious position to say the least. That was simply not fair.

She imagined that if it ever got that far, she would want both of them to go down. Some sort of self-inflicted Bonnie & Clyde type ending. Riddled with bullets. Smiling and beautiful. As far as the hardware, he wasn’t exactly sure where two people like them could find pistols in a place like this, but she’d found crazier things in the past. So that was it. Twenty paces. Turn and fire. The end.

Things got better after they agreed to the shootout. Perhaps the threat of being shot to death by your lover, looming out there somewhere on the horizon, simplified things. It made them focus a bit harder and set them off in a direction they hadn’t been able to find before.

They found something that felt to him like that box of stars had so many years ago, but bigger. Perhaps even brighter. They put away whatever that thing was that was hanging in dreams and lurking in boxes and haunting hotel rooms. Perhaps it was a middle? The part where everything between them sagged under its own weight. Whatever it was, it was gone now. It took time, but they found themselves again.

“You know, I have never been happier.” She smiled at him. The younger version of him would have said she was beaming. He smiled back. “I’m happy too.” He stumbled around his head for the words to define what this was, but he found none. He was not naïve enough to call it indefinable, but perhaps it was just what they were now. He got up and walked across the room to kiss her. She kissed him hard, grabbed his hand and walked him to the other room.

There was a small suitcase in the center of their coffee table. He had the same feeling in his chest that he had years ago when he stumbled upon that first suitcase. “What’s this?” She gestured towards the box and said “I’ve never loved someone the way I love you right now.” He looked for peephole, but found none. A question floated in his eyes. “This one you open.” The clasps clicked solidly under his thumbs. “I mean it. This is a love for the ages.” He smiled and took in her face and he pulled the suitcase open.

Inside of the box were two gleaming pistols, nestled perfectly around each other. She was still smiling.

“It’s been two years.”

Kevin Johnston is a native New Yorker who spent the majority of his career writing and producing for television. Currently focused on short fiction, his story “Greyhounds” was recently published in the third volume of New Niu Press’s Flowers and Serpents series.