Time stretched out and contracted in dizzying waves as my breathing became shallow and laboured. The air was thin, dark, hollow. I counted, one minute and twenty-eight seconds, one twenty-nine, one thirty and I gasped for breath, an involuntary impulse, a sudden desperate hitch of the diaphragm. The blood was warm through my fingers, over my hands, soaking my clothes. All my own blood for a change. How much had I lost already? How much could I lose and survive? I was almost prepared for this. Almost. We had talked about this, planned for this. We had planned for everything. I could picture you counting along with me, even after you had turned your back and left me in the hands of fate. My pulse weakened. I whispered to you across the distance between us as it became greater and colder by the second, “Remember.”
“Can you hear me?”
“Can you open your eyes?”
Something like a dream or a memory, a dream of a memory, a memory of a dream. I was playing guitar on the couch, mesmerised by the sensation of the ever-present cuts on my knuckles threatening to split open, singing under my breath. Calming my soul. Easing the unwelcome aches that spread through my body and my every waking thought. You came in, dropped your keys on the table and announced, “He’s gone.”
“Did you actually see it happen?”
“No, but it definitely did. It all went according to plan. You know what that means?”
“We’re done.” You looked around, as if even after all this time you still weren’t one hundred percent sure there was no-one listening. “We can go now. They can get us out. It’s over. And I swear to god, the first thing I’m doing is buying that fucking boat then we’re getting the hell away from all of this, all of them, everything. Together.”
I rested my hands on top of the guitar and my chin on top of my hands. “I don’t know.”
“What? How? What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I mean I don’t know. It’s too soon, too early. There’s too much still to do. I don’t know.”
Drifting through needles and antiseptic smell and bright light glowing red through my eyelids. Drifting through footsteps and the rhythmic hum and beep and hiss of machinery. The awareness that at least I wasn’t dead. Yet. I tried to reach out to you, to gather a sense of where you were, if you were. I could hear voices. None of them were yours.
“Can you hear me?”
“Yes.” My throat felt like paper, like dead leaves.
“Can you open your eyes?”
“Yes. Am I…how did…when..?” The world looked bleak, liquid and gas and a cold sterile glow.
A sudden rush of activity, an overwhelming tide of motion around me and I was still in the eye of the storm.
However long later, after however many months and however many surgeries, I found myself looking into the mirror at a face that was not my own. They said the swelling would go down and the bruising would fade. They said it would be difficult at first, not being able to recognise myself. They said they could help with that, they did this all the time. They said it was important to start using my new name so that it would become a natural reflex for me to respond to it. They said I would be fine. They said nothing about you.
Reborn with a different past, a different story, I welcomed the beard that grew to cover at least part of the face that was not my face. I let my hair become long and unruly, more often than not allowing it to hang loose to my shoulders, only tying it back when I was at work. I wore overalls, smeared with the same grease and oil that kept my fingernails from ever being completely clean. Cars came in broken, they went away fixed. I felt a sense of satisfaction from being part of that process, repairing things. Every day held a small gift of completion, one good thing.
When I heard on the news that they had found his body, I wondered if you knew. I pictured you at sea, somewhere warm and far away. I didn’t know for certain if you were still alive but I believed I would feel it somehow if you weren’t. Lying on my back on my battered old couch in my battered old house, my fingertips found the scar, a good few inches lower than it should have been. Your control was always impressive, your aim always precise. Your bullet didn’t end up where we’d agreed it should but I don’t doubt for a moment that it ended up exactly where you meant to put it. And I still can’t hold it against you, even now.
Years later, I moved and then I moved again, and again. I became addicted to disconnection which was perhaps why I was even more surprised than you expected when you finally found me. Even with this face, with long greying hair and weather-darkened skin, you recognised me and of course I recognised you. How could I not recognise a part of myself? Though where time had hardened me, it had softened you. I had become untethered but you had become free.
Later that night, after all the words, all the years flooding through and between us, you asked, “Is there too much still to do?”
“No. There’s nothing still to do. Nothing at all.”
A deep breath, shared by both of us. Once our silence had been steeped in necessity, then honour, then distance and loss. Now it settled, golden, into the cracks where life had broken us against each other and split us apart before bringing us here. Everything. Together.