Cover Photo: On to the Next Life by Johnny Saurman

On to the Next Life

To the girl who got away with a piece of me.

She opened the door and I about fell in.

I didn't want let her to notice, even a little bit, the deep, fiery wound I had sustained while out in the world. If I did she'd never let me go out in it again... I don't love what I do. I don't even like what I do. It just happens to be what I'm best at. Doing what I do to get paid, it's kind of an absolute necessity to be able to move about freely in the world.

Getting injured isn't, getting caught isn't. Being seen isn't necessarily either.

"HI!" *Excited wave, big smile*

"Well, hello there..." *Grimace... Trying to show something resembling the same*

Being unseen is more par for the course, but life isn't always perfect. Sometimes it's messy.

This time it's messy.

I wanted to collapse into the wall, into her, and just slide down to the floor. To have her worry wash over me.

I've been lying to you every day but please take care of me right now. I need to close my eyes. I'm dizzy and my ears are ringing.

The lights keep dimming and I'm fighting to stay awake, much less lucid. I'm riding the edge of maintaining consciousness, but I'm not doing a terrible job at it.

"HOW ARE YOU???"

"Oh.... Not terrible."

I can fix this. I have to fix it, and I have to do it myself.

Of course there are two flights of stairs to climb yet, before I could even think about actually doing any of the aforementioned. Naturally, there would have to be that. Of course. Why wouldn't there be? I hope I don't get to the top and roll backward down all of them. That'd be embarrassing...

Oh, and I'd like to take a moment here to thank the inventor of the banister.

"Oh hey, I SUPER liked that book you recommended, I think I want to research others by that same author to...."

Ears ringing louder now. I'm not hearing what she's saying at all, so much as watching her mouth move and nodding in acknowledgement. Keeping an eye out for emotive facial expressions and non-verbal cues. Deep breaths. Okay...

She looks like some kind of blue jeans and cardigan wearing angel.

An angel with sensible taste in style.

I'm fighting viciously against the pain to stand perfectly upright, in spite of my injury, still burning in my torso... Lower chest, upper abdomen, left side. In, maybe through, maybe under... Maybe between the bottom couple of ribs. I hadn't checked yet. I did what I came to do and then I disappeared like I always do. This time, I just happened to bring a tiny, white-hot piece of the fight home with me. A little souvenir.

Of course it's not white hot anymore, it's cooled off to about local body temp. But I have to get it out of there.

I probably looked stiff and awkward, heavy, swaying, sweating, and favoring one side; Like I was still wearing a coat rack underneath my clothes or something.

She thinks I'm a sports journalist, a writer... "In the field". Haha...

I'm a little daffy.

Blood loss makes you daffy.

At least I think she still thinks I'm a sports journalist... Maybe just a shitty, accident prone one.

Maybe I should tell her the truth...

Maybe this time I won't be able to hide it anyway.

Maybe she already knows. That'd be such a relief... I wish it wasn't so impossible to get close to people without compromising everybody's safety.

I had done my best to patch myself up. Compress, something resembling a field stitch... Bandage. I wrapped myself in as many layers as I might need to sop up any troublesome bleeding, without having to worry about any of it reaching the surface.

She was still grinning widely and waving me in, so I guess I did an okay job.

"COME IN!"

*Stifled, violent exhale*....*Tortured in-breath*

"Mm....Okay, YEAH!" Too excited, bring it down a notch... (Adrenaline is tapering off, but still hitting me in dwindling spurts) "Nn-hngg. Ok, after you... I'll follow."

Trying to speed things up from the doorway so I can take my time cursing every one of these bastard stairs. Oh, wow...

Man, she looks nice...

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

She began to lead me upstairs. I could not keep up but I reached for her hand before it was out of reach. She sensed I was falling behind, moving slowly, and decelerated her ascent so I could take hold of her fingertips and squeeze with what little strength I had in me. Maybe she sensed something wrong. Maybe she simply noticed that she had been speeding away from my hand. A walk up the stairs holding the hand of another person... Who would want to rush through that?

Let's just call it a romantic gesture, and not what it really was: My life force slowly leaking away from my body through a .45 caliber aperture in my rib cage. None of that matters right now, compared to the life I am weakly grasping at the hand, and who is gently grasping mine in return. Not looking back, not looking at me, just letting it hang behind her for me to cling to, like a tow cable, while she climbs these stairs and I try to keep up.

I've leapt up these stairs two, three at a time before but right now they are never ending... Right now I have one, single-minded goal: To reach the top of these awful stairs.

One foot...

Breathe...

And then the other...

My god we finally made it.

By the time we reach the top, I'm dizzy, woozy, I feel completely drunk. I can't keep my head up and I'm leaning on everything. I haven't let go of her fingers. She's using her free hand to fidget with her apartment key. There hasn't been any talking since we left the foyer. Just electricity between our fingertips where they've contacted each other.

Time is a definite factor here... But I'm starting to feel okay about not rushing. What else is there that's good in life if not this? I've been missing it all this time. Two individuals' hands have found one another, and suddenly I'm no longer facing this life alone, as a solitary creature. Like a wild, injured animal would.

I don't even feel the hole in my chest anymore. I'm smiling at her. She's talking but I'm not following everything she's saying. Most of it sounds like little anecdotes and quips involving people I've never met. Some of it sounds like things I'd like to know about, but I just can't focus on the words.

Still, I can't stop smiling... Just look at her... She is everything the whole world ever was, or will ever be.

I'm happy. I actually feel okay. Like absolutely nothing in the whole universe could ever be wrong again. I've stopped struggling so hard to breath and I feel calm restored. Calmer than I've ever felt. Has anyone ever felt this genuinely happy before? Oh, god...

I know what this is...

I'm dying.

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

One little .45 calibur slug?

It's barely the size of the tip of my pinky.

I've been caught by so much worse, haven't I?

Apparently not this time...

But, this was SIDE WORK!

This NOBODY, goomba, pain in the ass crook who I was paid to bump off only caught a little piece of me.

And this? This is going to do it?

This is going to take me away from my blue jeans angel?

THIS is going to finish me off?

No... NO! fuck this, fuck that, and FUCK YOU.

I can feel my euphoric bubble burst. I want to protest loudly. I want to shout out - HEY, HELLO, YES I'VE BEEN CHEATED OUT OF MY LIFE WHO DO I TALK TO? But it's gone so far now that it wouldn't even make sense in this context.

Why did I allow myself to fall into this ugly line of work? Favor after favor. Until THIS?

I'm disgusted. I'd like to register a complaint with somebody, but who? She's facing the other way, arranging a place for us to sit, completely unawares that I am seconds from fading from this life into the next about 4 feet behind her. She’s still cheerfully regaling me with tales of her day, occasionally glancing toward me for feedback. Just happy believing that someone is listening. I can barely hear her, but I would still not dare take that away from her right now… So I’m still toughing it out. What the hell is wrong with me?

I’m still nodding sporadically at her story.

I can feel my face turn flush.

My brow furrow.

My mouth tighten into a frown.

My chest is on fire.

I'm fighting now.

I’m losing.

But I’m not going to NOT fight.

I still can't breathe well... Oh god, I can't breathe.

I'm so tense that I can't place a foot in front of the other... I can't see. I can barely hear. My ears are ringing so loudly now. I’m losing my balance.

“Heyyyyyy... HEY. ADRIAN ARE YOU OK?”

“CAN’T COMPLAIN…”

I was probably looking straight past her when I said it.

"No, something's wrong... Adrian..." She's pleading...

"...Adrian?" I ask out loud.

I smash my head on the corner of something hard on the way down.

“HEY!"

For a second when I hit the floor, I can actually hear it rain down pots and pans all over my face and body.

But I don’t feel it.

Maybe a spatula or two.

At least one big, metal colander.

Thank god, no plates though.

“Oh my God, ADRIAN”

She sounds like she’s a thousand miles away.

Then there is nothing.

It’s difficult to hide some wounds.