I woke in a pool of my own blood, the gun still clutched within my hand. Above me, the sky was a cold and lifeless gray, and around me I heard the keening and rattling of the wind. It howled down the narrow alleyway, scouring the ground for trash and grit and hurling them into the air, a stinging, scourging force of nature in the city. Pop cans clattered across the chipped, uneven brick, coated with a grime that had lasted for an untold count of years, and rats scurried from one bag to the next, clambering over and amongst the refuse. I turned my head to look around, and it was then I recognized the place that I had come to rest.
As I stood the wind whipped back my coat, its icy tendrils battering my shirt and writhing around my chest. They clawed against my skin and penetrated, reaching deep into my bones with mindless, numbing cold. My heart convulsed, stricken by the chill, and I shuddered, feeling as though someone must be walking on my grave.
The hair on the back of my neck prickled. It might have been an imperceptible sound or an indiscernible current in the air, but suddenly I was certain that I was no longer alone. I turned, and there behind me was the body of the girl, laid flat on the bricks beneath her, unfeeling of their jagged edges, their knobby protrusions. Her body was white, pale beneath the paleness of a cold December sky, the gray expanse mirrored in the coldness and the lifelessness of her flesh. Her chest was stained with scarlet, the perfect symmetry of her hair and dress destroyed by careless hands. I held her in my arms and her hand in my own, pressing it gently to her still-wet body, and felt a tear slide down my cheek. This had been a human being, and was no longer. I knew then that this was my torment, to spend eternity in the knowledge of what I had done. My cheeks ran hot with tears that fell upon her fragile body, unable to repair with nonexistent magic what the hand of man had taken. I cried out for a miracle, but deep within my faith in miracles was dying, for I knew that I did not deserve one.
Slowly, the mist began to gather around me, coalescing into forms and figures that dissolved as quickly as they had appeared. The gray-green fog writhed and swirled, bubbling up like the outpour of some witch’s cauldron, and I began to hear whispers. They were soft at first, no more than the rustle of fabric or the sighing of distant willows in the breeze, but every passing moment lent them strength and clarity. The whispers became audible, barely discernible as words at first but within seconds unmistakable.
“Death, treachery, despair . . . ” The voices paused for a moment, as if gathering their thoughts. Then a face broke through the wall of mist, streaming into the circle as its body took wraithlike form, conjured from the fog like a spirit of the dead. The figure stabilized, solidified, and stepped forward. I felt my jaw drop in shock, and my words deserted me. I moved my mouth, but no sound came out of it.
“Hello, John. Remember me?”
Memories came flooding back, an unbidden deluge of sensation and emotion. Daniel in a bar, his face blurry and distorted, looking at me with concern. His voice, slurred and far too loud. His hands, helping me up and out into the street. The smell of beer, of my own vomit. The memory of Daniel cleaning me off, of him lowering me onto the couch.
I saw his face, bent low over a pool table, looking up at me, then down at his shot. The clack of pool balls, the dull thud and two sharp clacks as he sank three into different pockets. I looked down my own pool cue, took a shot, smiled wryly as I potted the que ball.
“I guess that’s game.”
A gun, pointed at my head. Daniel shouting, firing, the gunman dropping dead. I saw him thunder past me, bursting into the kitchen with the force of a bull rhinoceros. I heard his voice, loud and commanding.
“On the ground! Hands behind your head!”
I followed him into the kitchen, and the scene changed. We were at the bottom of the stairs, ready to go up. Daniel nodded at me, and I spun out to cover him. He charged, and I felt the double bang as my weapon went off twice, stopping a shotgun-wielding convict in his tracks. The man tumbled down the stairs, making Daniel dodge and tripping me up. I heard a bang, reached the top of the stairs and saw Daniel fall backwards past me. I heard the bang, saw the flash five times, knew from counting my ammo later that all of them had been me. The gunman toppled backwards, .45 revolver falling from his grasp. I spun my head to look at Daniel, teammates rushing past me with the haste of a full-on assault. I saw the mark on his forehead, the look of his eyes, like glass. I knew then that it was over, and my heart sank like lead.
I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I was back in the bar with Daniel.
“Your shot,” he said.
I looked at him uncertainly, but found myself already holding a pool cue, so I obliged him. I managed to pot one of his.
“You know, you never were very good at this game.” He took an expert shot and potted two balls. “I had to teach you the basics before you could even play with me.”
I looked at him as he bent to take another shot.
“You’re supposed to be dead.”
He looked up.
“Then how are you here?”
He paused a moment, as if gathering his thoughts. He took another shot and then stood, leaning on his cue.
“I don’t know precisely, John. I think it has something to do with you trying to kill yourself.”
“You mean I’m not dead?”
“Not yet, no, but you will be if you don’t get your head in the game. You let that girl scare the crap out of you.”
“She said it was my fault.”
“No, no, no, John. How many times do we have to go over this? I’ve told you that it wasn’t your fault. You tried to stop him. That’s all you could have done.”
“I don’t know, maybe if I had tried harder, maybe if I had been faster, I could have . . .”
“You could have what?”
“I don’t know, saved her, I guess.”
“I did some checking when I got here, John. She’s in heaven with her creator, just like I told you she would be.”
“How can you possibly know that? I don’t even know if I believe in God anymore.”
“I’m dead, remember? I know lots of things. And I also know what you’ve been up to.”
“You’ve been watching me?”
“Yeah, I have, and I must say, you’ve done a royal job of screwing up your life.” He sank the eight ball. “Game over, by the way. Go again?”
I shook my head.
“I still can’t believe I’m actually here. This is all in my head, isn’t it?”
“That depends on how you want to look at it. Most of your work is in your head, but that doesn’t make it any less real, does it?”
I raised an eyebrow.
“There’s a difference between faith and logic.”
“I know. You tried to tell me that plenty of times. I could never understand why you made the two so irreconcilable. I’m a man of faith, and a man of logic both. And you were for a time as well.”
“That was a long time ago. Before you . . . you know . . .”
“Died?” he finished for me. “I died, and you decided that was a good reason to go and stick yourself in the same damn situation I worked so hard to pull you out of?”
“You left me, and I . . . I couldn’t handle it. I went back to the keg.”
“I know, John. I know it’s hard. But do you remember that I told you everything happens for a reason, even if you can’t see it?”
“That’s what this is. Me being here, you questioning whether I even exist or whether it’s all in your head, everything you’ve seen and done and experienced, it’s for a reason, and I think you know that.”
“If there’s a reason, I sure as hell don’t see it. I’m nothing but a messed-up alcoholic.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“I don’t know. Isn’t it the truth?”
“No, John, it isn’t. You’re more than that. You’re a human being. Start treating yourself like one.”
I blinked, and I was back in the street. The girl was gone. So was Daniel, and for some strange reason I felt the loss more strongly than when he had died. It was like losing him all over again, and I knelt where I was and wept. There was no one to see.
As my tears began to stain the dusty earth, the wind died, and fat raindrops began to plummet from the sky. Under a leaden expanse the barren earth turned wet with spots of color, running and swirling like ink in a jar of water. Each mixed with all the others until only black remained, swirling around me and enveloping my field of vision. I looked around, but saw only nothingness. The barren world without reflected what I felt within – a mourning emptiness that knew no joy nor hope.
I let the tears come. I was certain I deserved them.