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I cup my hands under the steady stream of water and let the faucet run until my fingers are chilled and shaking. Truthfully, I donâ€™t even notice what Iâ€™m doing. The big picture is too great to see, and itâ€™s taking all my mental power to process the plot.
â€œAre you all right, sir?â€ Thereâ€™s an attendant behind the door that I either forgot was there or never noticed to begin with. Iâ€™m not used to places this full of class, and, in hindsight, I wish I were somewhere else now, like a dirty bar or someplace that didnâ€™t take so much effort to get a table. If we were destined to fall apart tonight, why did I try to make it so perfect?
â€œSir? Do you need me to come in there?â€ I hear him call again.
â€œThanks,â€ I say like a machine on autopilot, faking a smile as if someone were around to notice. â€œEverythingâ€™s great.â€
I need to think. I try to think.
How am I going to get of here? I wonder. I canâ€™t leave. I canâ€™t walk right past her without a word or wave. The thought crosses my mind that this may the last time I ever see Rachel and if thatâ€™s the case I donâ€™t want it to end like this, defeated by awkwardness without a fight.
Three years are turning to soot before my eyes. No. I wonâ€™t let it.
I splash the water in my face, and it hits me like a quickening. Iâ€™m alive. Iâ€™m aware.
I kneel down on the tile floor and retrieve her engagement ring, the one that I let fall from my hands like a coward. The one she doesnâ€™t want.
Iâ€˜ve spent the last five minutes wanting to throw the damn thing in the ocean, wanting to launch it into space. But those would be mistakes. I put so much time into finding it. I worked so hard trying to get this night right.
This ring is my heart. I canâ€™t desert it to get trampled and pissed on. I canâ€™t.
I pick the ring up then rise, taking one last look at my soaking wet face in the mirror.
â€œDonâ€™t worry, Tim,â€ I say to my reflection. â€œRomeo always gets the girl, right? Didnâ€™t you read that in a book or something? Itâ€™s poetry. Itâ€™s science. Itâ€™s textbook. Itâ€™s fate. Go, idiot. Now.â€
I leave, back into the restaurant, and look for my table, for Rachel. Nothing is as I left it. For a second I think Iâ€™m lost then it hits me. Iâ€™m not lost at all. I stare at my table from a distance.
All I see is the empty seat where I left her. She was tense because of me and my proposition. Sympathetic. Sorry. Polite. Not mine. Not anymore. But she was here.
I scan the restaurant and confirm what I already know. Sheâ€™s gone.
The ring again falls from my deteriorating grasp, and I let it. I decide to leave it this time. Thereâ€™s no need for it. It doesnâ€™t mean anything to anybody.
My shoulders sink. I make my way toward the exit, defeated by awkwardness without a fight, minus a heart.
I walk into the Bonnet, a dimly lit bar, looking out of place. My shirtâ€™s un-tucked and my tie is unraveled, each end hanging around my neck to the sides. Funny thing is, I still look over dressed. But it doesnâ€™t matter. The Bonnetâ€™s empty for the most part. Itâ€™s just me and Kim, my bartender/psychiatrist. The door slams behind me. A cloud of cigarette smoke seeks shelter in my pores as my irises adjust to the flickering cyan lamps that light this cave. Iâ€™m home for the night. I see Kim.
â€œWhat the fuck, Tim?â€ I hear Kimber greet me from behind the bar. Sheâ€™s smiling. â€œDonâ€™t you got somewhere else to be tonight? Isnâ€™t tonight the night? You showed me the ring and everything.â€
I donâ€™t say a word. I shake my head.
â€œIt didnâ€™t work out,â€ I say.
It takes a second for her to realize what Iâ€™m saying.
â€œOh. Oh no. Really?â€ she asks. â€œNo, darling. You must feel like shit.â€
I nod as I walk toward her.
â€œIâ€™m sorry,â€ she says as she pops open a beer.
â€œWhat? Are you gonna quit? You canâ€™t quit now, right? You got a little Romeo in you. I can tell. And you know what they say? Romeo always gets the girl.â€
I grip the bottle as I take my seat at the bar.
â€œRomeo drank himself to death too,â€ I reply. â€œI guess we both got that thing going for us. You know what? Fuck this beer. Can I get something stronger? Anything? Vodka? Whiskey?â€
â€œNo. Thatâ€™s not a good idea. Iâ€™m not watching you drink yourself to death.â€
â€œYouâ€™re a bartender. I bet you see a hundred broken hearted Romeos come in here a night, chasing death. What makes me different?â€
â€œThose old perverted fucktards can drink themselves to hell for all I care. Youâ€™re not them. Never will be.â€
Kimber and I glare at each other for a moment. My glare is full of contempt, undeserved and misdirected. We donâ€™t break, we donâ€™t blink for two minutes straight as I teeter on the brink of a meltdown.
â€œFuck this and fuck you,â€ I say, throwing up my hands, breaking the silence. â€œYou think you scare me? You think whiskey scares me? You think death scares me? Well, youâ€™re wrong. You donâ€™t know shit about me or shit about shit! Iâ€™m not scared of anything! And Iâ€™m going somewhere else. Some place thatâ€™ll give me what I want. Just once tonight. Just once. Why canâ€™t I have what I want just once.â€
I rise to leave. As I spin toward the door, I hear Kimber call my name.
â€œTim. Hold up! Wait!â€
I walk toward the door, ignoring Kimber, determined to follow in Romeoâ€™s footsteps.
As I walk, my eyes look straight ahead but someone catches my attention from the corner of my periphery. She wasnâ€™t there before or maybe I didnâ€™t notice.
Thereâ€™s a girl, a woman, someone, something beautiful in front of me. She smiles like a miracle and for a brief moment, I donâ€™t feel so unbalanced.
Her dark reddish brown hair is pulled back and up slightly. Her bangs are combed neatly, parts swooping in front of her face, parts tucked behind her ears. Thereâ€™s a subtle gold stud jutting out of her left earlobe. Sheâ€™s dressed very casually, a black t-shirt, short shorts and a mood ring glowing red.
Sheâ€™s slim, athletic looking without a single blemish to detract from her fair skin. Her lips are a light red. Sheâ€™s effortlessly gorgeous. I look into her jade eyes. Theyâ€™re hypnotic. Sheâ€™s like a siren. I donâ€™t know what sheâ€™s doing in a bar like the Bonnet. For a whole second, sheâ€™s all I think about.
Then I think of Rachel, and how I wish this beautiful woman in front of me, luring me with her aura now, were Rachel instead. Three years. Three years it took me to realize how much I really loved her and I wasnâ€™t going to forget her tonight or next year.
The new girl waves me down anyway. Sheâ€™s sitting at the table near the door.
â€œSit and drink with me,â€ she says softly. Her voice is Heaven, euphorically pleasant. But again, sheâ€™s not whom I want.
â€œSorry. I already made plans for the night,â€ I say, alluding to my date with a bottle.
â€œThatâ€™s a shame,â€ she says. â€œSome other time then.â€
I nod, not really meaning it, and walk toward the door.
Outside, itâ€™s raining a hard, cold rain. I soldier through, treading through puddles until Iâ€™m three feet from my car. I fumble my keys. They hit the concrete then bounce. I bend down to retrieve them.
Thereâ€™s a flash of light. I hear thunder, as loudly and clearly as one can hear thunder. My teeth are chattering. My bodyâ€™s convulsing uncontrollably, my skin sizzling. Iâ€™m spitting in all directions and I shit my pants.
Thereâ€™s a pain in my throat.
The convulsions stop. My legs go limp. I hit the ground hard. As my consciousness fades to black, I try to look down at my lower body as I realize whatâ€™s happened to me.
Iâ€™ve been struck by lightning.
In the dick.
I open my eyes to find a plum sky and empty space. My body feels numb, floating like a ghost. My arms and legs are tingly.
I feel like Iâ€™ve awoken in a dream.
I look up, and Rachelâ€™s standing on top of the blade of a rainbow. I float up to meet her.
â€œTim,â€ she says. â€œIs that you?â€
â€œRach. I missed you, Rach.â€
I try to wrap my arms around her, but they touch her skin like a cold fog, and she shivers,
Itâ€™s like Iâ€™m a ghost, like Iâ€™m dead to her. But Iâ€™m not a ghost. I canâ€™t be. Whatever I am, she wants no of part me, Iâ€™m sure.
â€œBye Tim,â€ she says.
â€œNo! Wait! I need to talk to you! Hold up!â€
â€œLet me go.â€
â€œNo. I canâ€™t!â€
â€œTim. Would it be easier to let me go if I told you that I never cared? That I never gave a shit about you at all? I know itâ€™s what you want to hear now. Itâ€™d be a lie. But Iâ€™ll say it if it helps you forgot me.â€
â€œWhy then? Whyâ€™d you leave? Whyâ€™d you say no?â€
â€œHonestly, I just got tired of waiting for you. And by the time you were ready to be with me, Iâ€™d already moved on. You were too late. And you should move on now too.â€
She waves as her body fades to nothing. I blink then suddenly Iâ€™ve moved somewhere else.
Itâ€™s completely dark. From the abyss, I feel her soft lips press against mine. Itâ€™s her. Sheâ€™s with me again.
I pull the unseen shape of her body against me and feel her pulse. I embrace her fully, my left hand tracing up and down the arc of her back clumsily.
Weâ€™re so close. I can feel her heartbeat thump against my chest, faster and faster.
The two of us, weâ€™re part of a circuit, in tune with the ley lines. The electricity that runs through us, our pulse, is the pulse of the Earth. Weâ€™re magnets that canâ€™t pull away from each other.
I gasp for air.
Then it hits me. Where am I and whom am I with? I let go and pull myself away. Candlelight fills the room.
Itâ€™s as if she doth teach them to burn bright.
â€œNo. Not Rachel.â€
Itâ€™s the girl from the bar, wearing black lingerie, her mood ring burning red. Sheâ€™s dressed in frills and lace with small pieces of fabric that cover her skin but do nothing to hide her perfect form.
â€œYou?â€ I say.
She wraps her arms around my head then starts running her fingers through my hair.
â€œCome to bed with me. Now,â€ she says.
For some reason, I want her. But sheâ€™s not Rachel. Sheâ€™ll never be. I try to stall.
â€œI donâ€™t sleep with people I canâ€™t make small talk with,â€ I say as I try to move away. She pulls me closer. â€œAnd I donâ€™t know you.â€
â€œThen ask me something? Ask me something quick.â€ Her voice petrifies me, draws me to her. I become a statue, my feet thirty-six inches apart. My legs form an upside-down v. Her right hand moves quickly, tugging my belt undone with ease and grace. She shoves her perfect hands down my pants, one for each pant leg, rubbing up and down my inner thighs like two lost cars teasing their way up a mountain top toward its zenith. Her slender fingers are so warm and Iâ€™m so cold. Her touch makes me feel like Iâ€™m on fire from the inside.
I canâ€™t let this happen. I got to get back to Rachel.
â€œQuick, Tim,â€ she says, again. â€œAsk me something.â€
â€œWhoâ€™s your favorite basketball player?â€ I ask off the top of my head. Itâ€™s not something I particularly want to know, but hopefully itâ€™ll slow her down.
â€œJohn Ameachi,â€ she says.
â€œReally, â€œ I say. All of a sudden, I find myself intrigued. â€œWhy?â€
â€œBecause heâ€™s fearless.â€
â€œBullshit. Allen Iversonâ€™s fearless. He plays every game with reckless abandoned. Like heâ€™s not afraid of breaking every bone in his body.â€
Nameless bites her lip and smirks.
â€œJohn Ameachi was a gay man in Utah,â€ she says. â€œThatâ€™s fearless. A man like him in that bigot, hate town. Itâ€™s like heâ€™s not afraid of death. Iâ€™m attracted to that. Too bad, heâ€™s not into women. But then again, maybe thereâ€™s a reason heâ€™s not for me. Truthfully, Iâ€™m more into you anyway.â€
Her breath is hot on my skin. I canâ€™t resist. The candlesâ€™ flames dissipate in unison.
We go to bed in the dark.
Whoever she is, her voice echoes through the room like a howl in a cave.
â€œLet your pulse go flat,â€ she begs. â€œStay with me here.â€
Itâ€™s a miracle I survive.
I wake up on paper sheets wearing a paper apron, tubes in my nose and wires monitoring my health. My memories are fragmented, but all my senses scream of aseptic floors and sterile air. I know Iâ€™m at a hospital. I recollect the storm.
I peek under the sheets. My pubes are singed. Damn lightning. But I guess I deserve that. The last thing I remember is the rain, and then my dream, and how I cheated on my fiancÃ© with the girl from the bar in a surreal fantasy.
Then I remember I donâ€™t have a fiancÃ©. I sigh out of relief and sadness. Iâ€™m guilt-free but alone.
A day passes and I regain enough strength to walk. The doctor says my heart rate is normal and it would be all right if I wander the premises a while. I ask the nurse to borrow some pants from one of the orderlies, and she says itâ€™s no problem.
Down the hall from me, I see an old man seemingly on his last hour, his breathing strained, his skin pale. Heâ€™s nearing the unknown at a crude pace. Itâ€™s painful to look at.
That couldâ€™ve been me, I think. I could be dead or dying right now. For a moment, I think about how lucky I actually am.
Looking closer, I notice someone outside the old manâ€™s door. Itâ€™s Nameless from the bar. My heart skips at the sight of her; memories of things that only existed in reverie draw me to her. Awake now, I want her like I wanted her in my dream. Sheâ€™s a puzzle I need to solve, a lesson I need to learn.
I want to know her, for real this time. I want to be with her.
Again, for whatever reason, I feel guilty that sheâ€™s not Rachel. Sheâ€™s not the one I love.
But I canâ€™t help but feel drawn to her.
Nameless is a seraph, angelic and pure. But for now, thereâ€™s a cold look on her face. That must be her father lying there, I think. Or perhaps her grandfather or great uncle? Whoever he is, he looks important to her.
I donâ€™t know her, but I want to take away her pain. I want to comfort her. I want to be her world, her pillar. I move toward her. She catches me easing up slowly and smiles as I approach. I smile back. As I squint I notice her mood ring. I see it turn from a morose blue to a warm amber. This is encouraging. I keep walking.
Iâ€™m twenty feet from her when the most putrid smell in existence hits my nostrils. It reeks of rotten eggs. And that smell is in my nose. And itâ€™s working its way to my mouth. I want to gag. I begin to cough frantically.
This damned hospital is driving me crazy. What the fuck is this smell? I wonder. Thereâ€™s no way Iâ€™m the only one smelling this. I look around and no one is reacting. I mustâ€™ve stepped in something, I think as I look down at my feet. Nothing. Maybe Iâ€™m going crazy and this is my mindâ€™s way of stopping me from cheating on Rachel. But Rachel doesnâ€™t care about me. Whatâ€™s really going on? My mind is racing. I canâ€™t figure it out.
Nameless notices me coughing and rises like sheâ€™s coming to meet me. I turn immediately and walk in the other direction. I donâ€™t want to take any chances. If the smell is on me then I donâ€™t want to risk leaving a bad impression or, at the very least, look like a smelly guy.
I leave her alone. The smell sticks to my pores for hours after.
Doctors clear me to leave the next day. My departure is bitter sweet. I was hoping to see Nameless again before I left, behold her beauty one last time. Sadly, it looks like things werenâ€™t meant to be. Itâ€™s time for me to go.
Thunder booms outside of the complex and I jump, clutching at my crotch instinctively. The other patients and visitors glare at me like Iâ€™m insane. Theyâ€™re completely right. I shouldnâ€™t be this jumpy. What are the odds of lightening hitting me again? I ask myself.
With every step toward the door, I hear rain pouring harder. Itâ€™s as if something doesnâ€™t want me to leave. Itâ€™s all in my head, I tell myself. As I step out outside, the rain turns to hail immediately. No worries. My cab is waiting thirty feet from the door, and I can take a couple hits of ice if it means sleeping in my own bed tonight.
A quarter-sized chunk of hail strikes my shoulder and hastens my exit. I stride quickly over the slick concrete without worry of the rain or the black oil patches in front of me. I move so fast, so carefree that my foot slips and I fall to the ground hard. As I stare at the gray clouds above, favoring my back, a dagger-shaped piece of hail falls from Heaven and pierces my chest, narrowly missing my heart.
I scream out in pain.
â€œYou gotta be kidding me!â€ I yell.
An emergency team retrieves me, bringing me back inside as doctors rush to my aid.
The next few days are like a familiar waltz. All the steps feel the same: cryptic dreams, moping and wandering.
But everything happens for a reason. Everything leads to opportunities.
I see Nameless sitting outside the old manâ€™s room again. Nameless, the great unknown, terrifying and beautiful. I want to comfort her again. I move toward her again.
But as I enter within a thirty-foot radius of her, thereâ€™s that smell. Itâ€™s returned and is a thousand times worse, in fact. Whatever it is, it smells like a dead corpse fermenting in durian juice. It hits my nose, and I want to throw up.
Thereâ€™s no way Iâ€™m the only one smelling this. Thereâ€™s no way this is happening. I gotta be going crazy, I think. Maybe itâ€™s just the hospital, I wonder. Maybe thereâ€™s something unsanitary about this specific spot of the building. Whatever it is, I canâ€™t chance it.
I turn to retreat. As I do, I see her, my Nameless; I see her see me and wonder what sheâ€™s thinking now. I must look insane.
Fuck. I blew it. I blew it again. Sheâ€™ll never want to speak to me after this. Iâ€™m too scary and unbalanced.
Whatâ€™s that smell? Fuck. Iâ€™m going crazy.
Through the night, I do my best to block my romantic failing with Nameless from my memory. I try even harder to erase Rachel while Iâ€™m at it. I fail at forgetting both. Forget it, I tell myself. You have your whole life ahead of you, I repeat in my mind. You canâ€™t feel down forever.
When the hospital releases me the next day, I check the weather reports to make sure Iâ€™m safe. Sunny, it says. No chance of storm, it says. Despite my findings, I run to my taxicab cautiously but quickly, fearing a tornado spontaneously manifesting in my throat or some shit like that.
I make it to the cab safely then begin my way toward home, to my apartment: happy to be safely heading toward familiar settings, sad that Rachel or Nameless wonâ€™t be there to greet me when I arrive.
I enter the my apartment complexâ€™s hallway to find someone waiting outside my door. Whoever it is, sheâ€™s turned away, seemingly staring at nothing in particular. Sheâ€™s wearing a tan trench coat, which is odd considering how pleasant the weather is today.
â€œHey. Howâ€™s it going?â€ I call out from a distance as I approach. â€œWhoâ€™s there?â€
She turns. Itâ€™s her, my Nameless, sweet Nameless: the untitled mystery. The sight of her makes me forget Rachel.
She doesnâ€™t speak, just smiles and waits; hugging at the sides of her coat and swaying. My heart begins to race. My brain shuts off as I run to her like a mindless drone to his queen. Iâ€™m two feet away when she pulls open her coat. Sheâ€™s wearing nothing but black lingerie, like in the dream, like in that perfect night that I spent with her engulfed in perfect blackness. Her mood ring is on fire now, blood red and glowing. She wants me.
Her body is perfect: flat stomach, smooth legs. Like a photo-shopped goddess composed solely of magic and draped across the gutter of a two-page glossy spread, sheâ€™s the highest order of gorgeous. She smiles and I melt.
This canâ€™t be happening, I think. I must be dreaming again. But it feels real.
Ultimately, it doesnâ€™t matter. I donâ€™t care. I press on, taking the final two steps until weâ€™re face-to-face.
â€œHi,â€ she says coyly.
I open my mouth to return her greeting but then thereâ€™s that smell in the air, the smell from the hospital. It shatters the perfect glamour that surrounds us. That smell, that horrible smell; It smells like two hippie zombies making out in front of me. The scent cuts through my cold and enters my mouth, assaulting my taste buds. I throw up on myself immediately.
She scrunches her face, a deep furrow across her forehead.
â€œOh fuck,â€ I say, wiping bits of vomit from the side of my mouth. â€œIâ€™m sorry. Iâ€™m sorry. I think Iâ€™m going crazy.â€
Nameless is speechless.
â€œOh shit. This is so fucking unsexy. I should stop talking. Why donâ€™t I stop talking?â€ I ask a rhetorical question.
Again, she remains silent.
â€œI think Iâ€™m making it worse,â€ I say, making it worse. â€œI should go. I should duck in my room for a while and not show my face. No. Wait. Let me explain. I canâ€™t leave without explaining this. Iâ€™ve been having a bad week. My girlfriend left me. Lightning struck twice. And I have this scar now. And thereâ€™s a horrible smell thatâ€™s trailing me wherever I walk. Every time I see you.â€
â€œWait. What?â€ she finally speaks. â€œWhat smell?â€
â€œItâ€™s the most awful smell like ever. Like in the history ofâ€¦ itâ€™s just bad. I donâ€™t know what it is. I thought it was from the hospital but apparently not.â€ My mouth keeps moving despite my urge to shut it. â€œMy name is Tim by the way.â€
I stick out my hand. Nameless grabs it and shakes it.
â€œDeath,â€ she says. â€œNice to meet you.â€
â€œUmmmâ€¦what was that again?â€
â€œDeath,â€ she says again. â€œOr Azrael, the serphaphic angel of death. But my friends just call me Death. Or D when theyâ€™re trying to be cute.â€
â€œWait. What? The fuck?â€
â€œDarn,â€ she says, seemingly immune to my reaction. â€œWhen you flat lined and came back to life, it must have enhanced your sense of smell to a paranormal sensitivity. That sucks. Itâ€™s a one in a billion chance. But thatâ€™s probably what happened.â€
â€œYeah. Itâ€™s textbook. You can probably smell supernatural entities and ghosts,â€ she says, pulling her coat closed.
â€œWell. Enough of this science lecture. You wanna unlock that door so the two of us can go to bed?â€
Sheâ€™s grinning wide.
â€œBed? Us?â€ I say, turning my head. â€œNo. Youâ€™re Death. And you smell like Death.â€
Her carefree expression crumbles like cigarette ash at my words. I ignore her, moving to the door, my key in hand. I unlock it then jump inside in almost seamless motion. Sheâ€™s still frozen, apparently shocked at being rejected.
I slam the door quickly, in case she decides to follow me in.
What a crazy girl, I think. She must be crazy. Death doesnâ€™t exist, at least not as a person that I can hold or touch. Sheâ€™s gotta be insane. Sheâ€™s gotta be.
I hear her howl from outside of the door. Thereâ€™s a loud thump. Sheâ€™s pounding on the wall, I think.
â€œFuck you, Tim!â€ she screams. â€œDonâ€™t you ever dare show your face on the outside again! Or I will destroy everything you ever loved! Death always gets what she wants! Always!â€
I donâ€™t know what to say.
â€œFair enough,â€ I call back through the thin walls and door that do nothing to dampen the sound.
â€œI could tear through these walls and eat youâ€¦ohâ€¦ oh no. Haha. I know what Iâ€™ll do you little piss ant!â€
â€œGreat. Could you ummmâ€¦ leave?â€
â€œYouâ€™ll see! Haha. Youâ€™ll see.â€
I listen to her footsteps fade down the hallway until I think sheâ€™s gone. But Iâ€™m unsure. Did she really leave?
I sit, curled in a ball at the center of my living room, terrified for the next seven hours. Iâ€™m not terrified of Death. Iâ€™m terrified of whoever that crazy girl is; terrified that she might still be lurking.
Maybe I should call the cops, I think. I dismiss that option quickly. Iâ€™m already the guy from the emergency scanner whom lightning and ice hit in awkward places. Do I really want to be the guy whoâ€™s scared of beautiful girls too? To a station full of asshole cops?
But staying in my apartment is destroying my mood. I have to get out. I have to chance it.
â€œFuck it,â€ I say aloud. I canâ€™t sit in my living room all night. But I canâ€™t leave through the door. Crazy people know how to stab me when I leave through the door.
I decide on a destination: the Bonnet, with Kimber and likeminded drunk assholes to share my problems with, sad Romeos.
Itâ€™s probably cold out now. I throw on a wrinkled hoodie and move to the window. Iâ€™m two stories up and thereâ€™s a fire exit. If Deathâ€™s stalking me from in the alley, then kudos to her. She deserves to take a shot at me if thatâ€™s the case. Sheâ€™s earned it.
I climb out the window and stare at the street. Itâ€™s midnight. The sidewalk outside my apartment is mostly empty. I see no cars, only streetlights.
Walking to the Bonnet feels odd for some reason. I feel like Iâ€™m in a ghost town. No ones around except for me and a singular couple clutching each otherâ€™s arms, bouncing as they walk.
They look so happy. The girl reminds me of Rachel.
I look closer at them.
It is Rachel.
â€œRachel?â€ I say. â€œWhat the fuck? Rachel?â€ Sheâ€™s with another man, a larger man, a more muscular me; not me. Sheâ€™s moved on already. It hasnâ€™t even been a week.
My heart shatters for the fifth time in five nights. I canâ€™t speak. I canâ€™t breathe. This canâ€™t be happening. I look again. Thereâ€™s no mistaking it. Itâ€™s Rachel.
But thereâ€™s no time to be sad. As I stare at the two, I notice a gang of grizzly bears, five of them, creeping up behind, which is odd considering grizzly bears arenâ€™t indigenous to this region.
This canâ€™t be happening.
Rachel doesnâ€™t even see them. She must not hear them either. I canâ€™t let this happen.
I burst toward the two, Rachel and whoever Muscles is. For the sake of clarity, Iâ€™m just gonna call him Muscles.
â€œYo! Muscles! Rachel! Watch out behind you!â€ I scream.
Rachel hears me, sees me sprinting. She cocks a brow at the sight of me.
â€œTim! What are you doing, Tim!â€ she screams. Iâ€™m guessing I must look like a crazy ex to her.
â€œBehind you! Grizzly bears! â€œ I scream.
The leader of the pack is cocking his paw behind his head, ready to strike her. I canâ€™t let this happen. I move faster.
Iâ€™m five feet away now. I leap from the ground. In this instant, I feel like Iâ€™m hovering six feet in the air, soaring now like the greats; like Michael Jordan, like Dr. J or Vince Carter, unafraid of hurt like Iverson and Ameachi.
Time bends, slows and stops for this single perfect moment.
I kick the bear in the skull, the side of my foot bending perpendicular to my leg on impact as my ankle yields to the bearâ€™s unmovable face. I feel a sharp pain shoot up my spine as the swelling starts. The bear doesnâ€™t move. Time starts again, and I fall to the ground, my back slamming hard against the concrete.
â€œAgghhhh! Fuck!â€ I scream. I clutch at my injured ankle.
I look up and the bear appears more confused than anything, like heâ€™s never seen a guy with guts like mine. Heâ€™s never seen someone so dumb. As far as damage, itâ€™s mostly unfazed from what I can tell. The rest of the bears freeze like theyâ€™re waiting for further instructions.
I look at Rachel. Sheâ€™s speechless. I look at Muscles. Heâ€™s pissed his pants like a terrified child. I labor to my feet.
â€œTake five, Muscles. I got this,â€ I say. I look at Rachel. â€œYou guys gotta a run. Iâ€™ll hold them off.â€
â€œTim,â€ she says. Itâ€™s all she says. Itâ€™s like she doesnâ€™t know what to say to me anymore.
â€œRun, damn it!â€
The two begin to sprint in the other direction, away from danger. I continue to stand, telling myself Iâ€™m unafraid. The head bear, the leader, huffs his fuming hot breath in my face. Its spit barely misses my eyes.
â€œAh yeah, Bear,â€ I say. â€œKeep talking. Cuz Iâ€™m fixing to knock you the fuck out.â€
I raise my hands into a futile guard. The bears look like theyâ€™re ready to kill me. I guess this is how I die, I think as I make peace with myself.
â€œWait! I have something to ask him!â€ I hear a familiar voice call out.
Itâ€™s her, Nameless. In a split second, I process all the facts, all the strange occurrences. Maybe sheâ€™s really Death, I think. And she wants me.
Death walks toward us in a tight black dress like sheâ€™s ready kill. The gang of bears turns passive in her presence and sits.
â€œYouâ€™re really some kind of Romeo, huh?â€
â€œYou?â€ I say. â€œYou did this. Youâ€™re really Death.â€
â€œThen the lightning. That was you trying to bring me to you?â€ I ask, thinking about how deadly a flirt she really is. â€œAnd the fucking ice dagger. That was really creative.â€
She nods again.
â€œTim, you called out to me first. You wanted me. You remember at the bar. You looked so unafraid of me then. In your coma too. In your dreams that I invaded. You couldnâ€™t turn me away.â€
â€œWhat. That really happened?â€ I say. â€œWell. Iâ€™m not afraid of you now either.â€
â€œBut youâ€™re different now. Why are you willing to die, again? Whatâ€™s the reason this time.â€
â€œBecause I love her. There. I fucking said it. Itâ€™s dumb. Iâ€™m dumb. But I love her. And I shouldnâ€™t but I do. And I wonâ€™t let anything bad happen.â€
Death laughs at me.
â€œYouâ€™re willing to die for her but not for me?â€ she asks. â€œShe doesnâ€™t care about you like I care about you. I should kill you right now. And we can live happily away from life.â€
I stand up straight and shake me head.
â€œGive me one good reason,â€ Death commands.
â€œLook,â€ I say. â€œDonâ€™t take this personal but itâ€™s like the ancient proverb goes. â€˜Death is like a strangerâ€™s cunt. When youâ€™re sad and alone, when thereâ€™s nothing in your life, it seems enticing. It seems like an attractive alternative. But the more you go near it, the closer you get, the more you realize itâ€™s just a dark place. A place you donâ€™t want to be. A supernaturally pungent place.â€
Death furrows her brow.
â€œThatâ€™s an ancient proverb?â€ she asks.
â€œNo,â€ I say. â€œI made it up. It just seemed applicable.â€
Death shoulders sink. I know that look. Iâ€™ve worn it recently.
Iâ€™ve shattered her dream. Her ring begins to glow. I watch its color fade from grey to black, settling into a dull blankness, its sheen lost forever. She takes it off and throws it to me. I catch it.
â€œWhen youâ€™re an old man in hospital bed, Iâ€™ll come visit you,â€ she says. â€œAnd Iâ€™ll think of all the memories we could have had together, that we missed out on. And Iâ€™ll weep. And youâ€™ll weep.â€
Thereâ€™s a long silence.
â€œI have no idea how to respond to that,â€ I say, after some time passes. â€œThatâ€™s a really weird thing to say to somebody.â€
Tears stream down her face. She brushes them quickly, covertly, feeling sheepish maybe. Death manages a smile, perhaps forces one, and walks away; taking her bears with her. I collapse on the street. Sitting with my legs crossed underneath me, resting my ankle as I watch Death vanish in the horizon.
For a moment, I sympathize with her. Weâ€™re the same in many ways. Weâ€™re both broken-hearted. We both probably couldâ€™ve taken it better.
I do nothing but sit for an hour until I remember Deathâ€™s ring and look down at my hands. I turn it over in my fingertips and stare into the rich black. This ring is her heart, I think. No one wants it, including me, but itâ€™s mine anyway. She gave it to me. Honestly, I canâ€™t think of worse hands to hold a heart. I canâ€™t even keep mine safe.
I cast it into the air, into the vast black above. I donâ€™t see it vanish. I donâ€™t hear it land. I remember Rachel. As a dry lump forms in my throat, I pray that neither death nor love bother me for the next five days.
(c) Khoa Xuan Pham All rights reserved.