Note: this story was written long before the events of Ferguson and is not intended as a remark about them.
"This is the guy? This is him?" Jon said, motioning to the the seated figure with a hood over his head. Jon paced, in clipped, angry steps, clenching his fists.
"Yeah," replied one of the men in suits.
Jon flashed a pained grin. "Where'd you find him? Where'd you find a piece of shit like this?"
The two men in suits looked at each other uncomfortably. They felt complicit in the hooded man's crimes, codefendants to his existence. The second man shuffled, and answered while staring at the floor.
"The hospital. They just left him in the hospital to see if they could ID him, and that's where we found him."
"Did he bother you? Fight much?"
"He was under when we got him," replied the first man. "We kept him under."
Jon forced a laugh, and drew back to punch the man in the hood, letting his blow pass inches to the side of the man's left ear.
"Hah," Jon gasped again when the man flinched. "Well, he's up now."
The two men in suits studied Jon intently in a mixture of worry and reproval. Jon was acting unusually, both for himself, and compared to other people they'd arranged meetings for. They let the silence in the room stale into unease before speaking up.
"Sir," the first man said, "if there isn't anything else, he and I should be leaving."
Jon looked at his palms, covered in a patina of hot sweat.
"How long," he began. "How long do I have with him?"
"Two hours," the second man replied, his voice heavy with reluctant concern.
"Then I'll see you in two hours," Jon said, turning around a chair at the table opposite the man.
The first man waited before quietly nodding his assent. Then he and his partner left the room. Jon and the man were alone.
"All right," Jon said. "Have you figured out why you're here yet?
"Can't be too hard, can it?" he asked . Jon reached for a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket.
The hood breathed.
Jon drew himself to the chair and pressed his torso into the seatback. How many inches of table were there between the two of them? Thirty?
There were just thirty inches separating him from this spectre, this guilt-laden silhouette with his chest rising and falling?
"OK, you know why you're here. All I want from you is the truth.
"Simple, right? Just the truth."
The hood seemed to stare at Jon like a white wall, meeting his words and impatience with inscrutability. Jon had no idea what the man under the hood felt. The man didn't enter his mind. Instead, Jon was talking to the cloth, the mask, the malevolent opacity.
The hood didn't answer. It just stared back at him like an indictment of his own rage, which welled up in Jon.
He crushed the cigarette into the table.
"God damn you," he seethed. "You really think you can be silent about this? You think you have the right to not talk to me?
"You're wrong, I promise you—you're going to tell me. God damn it, you are going to tell me.
"You're going to tell me why you murdered me."
The hood breathed.
The first time Jon woke up after death, he was tired. His eyelids had never been heavier then, as if his body was trying to press him back into asleep. He wanted to sleep. He couldn't.
A terrible feeling he'd felt before only a few times in his life was digging a hole into his gut, only he felt it now more acutely than he ever had before. He was swimming in nausea and hyperventilating. His heart struggled to beat.
During the 2008 housing crisis, Jon had gotten laid off. The ad agency got rid of 30 out of 75 representatives, and Jon was among the cuts. The layoffs were timed to take effect early in 2009, after Christmas. At a bar with coworkers after the cuts were announced, Jon was astonished by how some of his ex-coworkers who had played cutthroat games with each other trying to gain the most clients now drank salutary shots of call bourbon. They commiserated briefly. Then they boasted about their plans and went back to sniping one another, joking about impotent penises or children on Adderall.
If there's a dawn, if there's something you see you can hold onto or save, keep it to yourself.
This feeling was beyond being alone. This was being excluded from everything. This was having every thought or preparation sabotaged. The loneliness curdled into anger and into despair. Jon intoned the Lord's Prayer and Hail Marys in mumbling repetitions.
The words got lost and disappeared into the darkness.
There's nobody in charge of this place. Fuck them. Fuck whoever made this.
Awake but impotently afraid, Jon fumbled for his wallet, his watch, his phone, anything. It was all there. His wallet still had a twenty and four singles. Credit cards. The notion of credit cards was preposterous. Jon snarled a tight smile at the absurdity.
CVS. Yep. Kroger. Yep. Driver's license. Yep. It's all there. Every damn card is there.
What the hell am I supposed to do with it now?
He checked his body. He knew that he had to have had some kind of wound, something—the last thing he could remember was a commotion, and then he was here. It must've been violent or something. He must've gotten shot, or stabbed, and died while he was still in shock and wasn't remembering anything.
Maybe he'd had a stroke or a heart attack. Aren't you supposed to recover from a heart attack if you're young? Jon wasn't in bad shape. He was forty-one. Was he still forty-one? Was he something else now?
He finished patting down his body. He couldn't find any blood, wound, anything. He was whole.
But he was dead.
Whose voice was that? Jon hadn't heard anybody approach him.
"You'll need to get up."
That was his voice. But he wasn't moving his mouth. Why did he hear his voice?
"You can stay down if you want, but the longer you do, the harder it is to stand up."
He looked up. He saw himself, standing, wearing the same clothes he was wearing. But he looked different. He looked impatient, but forgiving. He looked exactly the same, but older.
Jon tried standing up. He felt like his body was dewed with lead as he forced his neck up, then braced himself to one knee. He felt like the world was collapsing on him. He couldn't get off one knee.
"When you finally stand up, it hurts."
Jon didn't have a body anymore. Not a real one. How in the hell could anything hurt?
Holy shit. Pressing his hands into the ground and attempting to push onto his feet leapt into his arms and legs with a gnawing, infecting ache. His temples throbbed and he started to vomit on himself. His neck felt like somebody was punching it into hell.
It was too much. He crumpled down over his knee, which dug into his chest like a shard of iron. He could barely breathe.
"I know," he heard himself say. "It hurts."
The time that passed there was among the slowest Jon could remember experiencing. He snapped in and out of consciousness. Every time he woke up he was grimacing in pain, which hadn't abated. His knee teetered back and forth, and the muscles in his hands were growing fatigued from pressing into the ground. His skin was turning raw, and he was damn near close to rolling over from exhaustion.
How was he supposed to stand up like this?
"You were shot," he heard himself say.
"A twenty-eight year old man shot you to death four days ago."
How do you know?
"I was there."
Who are you?
"You. Get up. Stop wasting your time."
He was furious at the voice. It was so cruel, so unsympathetic. It had no idea how crushed he was, how badly he hurt when he tried to stand up. The task seemed impossible and sadistically elusive. How was he supposed to get up?
"I did it, you son of a bitch. If you don't do it now, it'll be harder later. Do it. Get on your damn feet."
Anger boiled in Jon. This was all bullshit. Shot and dead with no explanation. Divorced from his family, his wife, his friends, his world, everything he had ever known. It made him furious. And now he was being told to stand up, when the only thing he wanted was to feel relief, rest, to disappear.
"You have to stand up eventually."
"Because you already did it."
Jon was going to do it. His body boiled with anger. His veins throbbed like fuel ducts. He concentrated on turning his body to concrete. Concrete doesn't feel pain.
The effort was monstrous. It involved Jon biting into his lip and tearing off part of his gum so he could let the blood spill into his mouth. He breathed in forced, concentrated bursts before launching himself to his feet in an explosion of adrenaline.
He gasped, surprised and dazed by the success. He looked around to see where the voice was coming from, and saw himself standing, wearing a quiet satisfaction.
"Ha, you did it. Didn't you."
"Yes, you son of a bitch! Now tell me what I'm doing here! Tell me what I do next!"
"I don't know. I disappear after this happens."
And he saw himself vanish.
Death seemed like an endless parking lot to Jon. The first few hours he spent wandering around, he didn't see anybody, occasionally yelling into the fog which swallowed the sprawling floor of cold asphalt. When he finally did see somebody else, they were lying on the ground, flitting in and out of sleep, murmuring. He tried to shout them awake, or rouse them by shaking their shoulders, but they wouldn't respond. Dozens upon dozens of people refused to wake up. He was still alone. He wasn't in pain any more, but he was alone, and the ground kept going underneath his feet.
He could sit down now, and stand back up. He tried lying down when he got tired, and was able to stand back up. He was OK, maybe, for being dead. Except where the hell was everybody? Where had he gone, when he'd disappeared?
"You haven't figured out what you're doing here yet, have you."
The voice startled him. This wasn't his this time. It was deeper, and with a shade of judgment to it. Jon looked around to see a man wearing a suit, too long in the legs and too wide at the lapels, with no shoes. He had a plaintive look, with gaunt cheeks and smoke-stained, sunken eyes that betrayed a final remnant of warmth. Jon didn't know what he was appealing to. Jon was the least possible person to have an answer around here.
"I'm dead, I know that much." The man was unimpressed by the response. He was dead too, right, fuck, right. Everybody here was dead.
Then, so what. Fuck this guy. Fuck him if he's dead too. He's just as dead as you are, only he's taking the extra mile to harass another dead guy for no apparent reason. What the hell is wrong with him that he bothers a dead guy who doesn't understand what's happened to him?
The hell with you, guy. Jon started to walk away when he was snared back by the man's voice.
"You're a fool if you don't talk to everybody you can here. You think there's something else to do here?"
"What am I supposed to talk about?"
"I am dead!" Jon roared at him.
"Then you should really find out what's going on."
"Do you know what's going on?"
"More than you, yes."
"Then how do I get out of here?"
"Ah…" the man said, clucking his tongue. "I don't know the answer to that question."
Over the next few hours, Jon and the man went back and forth. Jon asked questions, and the man answered as many as he cared to answer.
Who are you?
"I work here."
Are you dead, too?
"Everybody here is dead."
What is this place? Who runs it?
"Death. It's just death. Nobody runs death."
When did you die?
"A long, long time ago. Long before you did, and long before all my loved ones did, and they're all here now too."
How in the hell do you "work" here? Who in the hell "works" after they die?
"Some people work because it gives them a sense of purpose. Some people work because it's something to do.
"I work," the man said, "because I like to talk to people."
Jon paused out of a surprising emotion. He envied the man. He envied his sense of purpose and sense of wholeness while Jon was just a sea of questions. The revelation stunned Jon so much, it took him a half-hour of silence before he could think of his next question.
"But, if you work, who do you work for?"
"Other dead people."
"Anybody," the man said. "I don't lean on much in the way of money, so I work wherever people need me."
"Yes. Dead people."
"What do dead people ask you to do?"
"Tell them about other dead people who are here."
"And what? Find them?"
"Usually. But not always."
"Do they pay you?"
"Sometimes they pay in cigarettes. Other times they pay by doing something for me later."
"Like what? How much can there be to do here?"
The man raised a single eyebrow at Jon and answered briskly.
"Lots. For one thing, people like you need to learn what's going on."
"Who came up with all this?"
The man thought for a second before answering. He appeared to Jon to be reverent, fearful, even, if what he was about to say to Jon next. It held the man in a momentary cryptic mystery.
"I came up with it on my own. That's the rule here. You come up with your own ideas."
"But whose idea is that?"
The man was disappointed by Jon's question. He walked away without saying a word.
Jon followed him until the darkness became too thick and he disappeared.
The man stared at the table.
"Tell me your name."
He kept staring at the table, which held a small spotlight of glare. The room was lit, which was a luxury most rooms here didn't have. Most rooms were just empty mazes to feel your way through.
There was so little in this place to go on, so little fiat, so little generosity. The tiny boiling lightbulb might as well have been an act of grace. It didn't buzz. It didn't flicker. It didn't think. It was a stupid, indifferent yellow light whose only flaw was creating a hollow spotlight of glare that this wretch across from him kept staring at.
"Sometime after you killed me, you were shot in the back of the head. Your family identified you, and then they buried you. That means you had a name before you died.
"Tell it to me."
Jon stood up. He tossed the hood back and forth in his hands, setting it down on the table. He rubbed the knuckles at the end of his fingers.
"How do you not know my name?"
The light on the table glared up at Jon.
"You know how I was killed, that I was buried. How do you not know my name?"
"It was all they told me when they brought you here."
This stupid fucking lightbulb.
Jon scowled in the light, unable to mask his contempt. This man across from him, with a three-inch scar on the left side of his jawline, a pockmarked nose, a gnawed-on hairline and rheumy eyes was nothing like Jon. This man was a sea of ugliness and disdain, but retorted Jon with such weariness he seemed to be mocking Jon's questions.
"So what's your name?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"No, what's your name?"
"You don't care what my name is. You care about getting an answer to the question so you can feel in control."
Jon shook his head slightly to himself.
"You don't know my name. You know almost nothing. I could make up anything here and you wouldn't have the slightest idea whether I was lying."
Jon frowned. He leaned back in the chair, letting his chin press into his throat.
During his life, Jon had had a fair ability to tell when he was being lied to, but people always had skin in the game. Other ad reps. Media advisors. Companies he was representing.
Those lies had almost always amounted to bluffs, little lies of push where statements overreached. They were seldom—though sometimes—barefaced fabrications, and Jon could usually read them. He didn't know if he could tell whether this man would lie to him.
"OK. So tell me a name, and I'll see whether I can find out if it's yours."
"Richards. That's my name."
At first, death toyed with Jon's sense of time and distance. He could begin a walk with relative ease before discovering his legs quickly became sore and throbbed with a dense ache. He'd guess the distance elapsed had been only a few hundred yards, but when he checked his watch, he found he'd been walking for close to three hours. He blinked and miles disappeared under his feet.
Occasionally he would see other people as he walked. Some would sit huddled over the ground, others would walk past him and nod, but walk quickly away if he turned to speak with them. Some prayed, clutching their shirts and appealing to the space over their heads.
Some hummed or sang, or rhythmically beat on the ground with their hands.
Others scrawled pictures or wrote. Pencils and pens were so scarce that they deliberated over every word in an entranced stasis, breaking to write a few thoughts at a time. Love letters to the living. Short stories. Autobiographies. Anything anyone would want to read.
There's no hierarchy to this. There's no way to publish or disseminate. These aren't people who write because they think it'll become a way to make a living, or a testament. These are the thoughts of people whose hopes have been annihilated.
But only the dead read their own histories. The living don't know this world even exists.
The living. Jon thought about the living more, sometimes, than he liked to. Memories or scents of his wife dangled in front of his face, filling him with momentary calm. His young children laughing and spitting up on his shoulder. How smooth his baby son's back was. It all still felt so real. The memories enveloped him in a halo of warmth.
It just felt so cruel when it was all snatched away.
Jon tried writing down some of his thoughts, or these lingering impressions. He'd managed to take a pen from someone who'd stayed in their coma. But the thoughts were private, that he only wanted to read to himself. He always put down the pen to leave the thoughts safely in his mind.
"What are you writing?" Jon once asked a man jotting down words on a paper.
"A woman I knew when I was alive."
Jon smiled. "What else, eh?"
The man writing smiled back. "What else."
He couldn't contravene the man. Writing these painstaking lyric memoirs was cheering him up, and Jon didn't want to pry under the happiness. He let it be.
Without Jon asking, the man started reading the poem
"Melinda, the first time, Melinda, the last time, Melinda, the always, the ever, the sunshine.
"You and I sewn together, I your shadow, you my silhouette. We loved in both highlight and moonshine, absent of worry, absent of regret.
"Our children, our mysteries, our soft thoughts and dreams, their childish wonder, and their mischievous schemes.
"I could dance through eternity just for a glimpse of your smile in theirs.
"What are you looking for?"
"What, you don't know, Richards?"
"I can't imagine."
"Richards! You surprise me, Richards. After all, Richards, you seem to know everything. You're a regular know-it-all, Richards. Why don't you know this, Richards?"
The man smirked. "Cute."
"What's cute, Richards? Is it cute that I'm calling you by your name, Richards? It is Richards, isn't it? That's your father's name? Richards? And his father, another Richards? All these Richardses. Your uncle, Richards. Your mother, Richards. Your children? Richards? Or do you know your children's names?"
"Fuck you. That's their name."
"Richards! Disappointing. Richards, you're going to have to do better than that, Richards. I've heard a lot of cursing before, Richards, or did you forget that everyone is dead here, Richards? Do you think you're the first person to wake up and be upset they were dead, Richards? Richards! If you thought that Richards, you were mistaken! You weren't the first man to ever die, Richards. It just so happens I died before you, Richards."
Jon paused, relishing the visible discomfort on the man's face across from him.
"Or don't you dislike being called a false name, Richards?" Jon twisted the name, no, the word, the hollow, meaningless word, into the man's face, which bore gruesome shadows.
This fucking lightbulb.
God bless this fucking lightbulb.
The man scowled and ran his hands through his hair.
"My name is Kyle Selznick."
"Hi Kyle. Now shut up while I tell you again why you're here."
Jon spoke at length, revisiting his first lonely hours in death, barely emancipating himself from the shadows which pressed down on everyone here. He emphasized the common thing between the two men, that regardless of past misery or joy, they were both alone here now, embedded in death with memories behind them and infinity ahead of them.
"That's something you maybe haven't experienced yet," Jon told the man. "You haven't spent a day out of the hospital yet, so you haven't quite felt what it's like to face endlessness. It's something you won't like."
"I don't like being under."
"So?" Jon snapped. "There are only a few things I want to know about you. Your sentiments aren't one of them."
"You don't understand—I really don't like being under. It's not like I fade to black or anything. I'm deep in the haze that's pressing down on me, pushing me into a gulch where I never stop falling.
"All I've been praying for is to hit bottom."
"Too bad. You're up. They got you up. I asked them. You see that? I got you up. I can put you under again. Now how about that."
"I don't like being under."
"We're moving on, Kyle."
"Can I ask you what your name is?"
Jon spent months wandering, visiting other lost souls. He got lost in the dreamless, sleepless process of existing in death, letting his mind flow freely from person to person. He retained fragments of what he encountered, but mostly he was consumed by a growing desire to again be alive. The hunger reached into him like a flame, wrapping around his spinal column and tickling the crown of his skull.
It forced him awake when death's doldrums began to pull him back toward the abyss. A shard of pain that he wasn't supposed to be trapped here, in this eternity of patience.
He wanted to know if anybody else had felt like that. He started asking around.
"I haven't," a woman said. Jon had met her while she had been crouched on the ground, humming a lullaby she'd taught her children. "But I've known plenty of people who have."
"What do they do?"
"They do what you do, a lot—they ask around, try to find out what the feeling comes from."
"How do they find out?"
"I don't think they ever find anything."
"Then what happens to them? What happens to the feeling?"
"Most of them disappear eventually, though I don't really know how. They stop walking, but they don't go back to sleep. They just...vanish."
"Who sees them vanish?"
"I don't know. Maybe nobody. But there's a time when they're gone from here, and that's that."
"What about their loved ones?"
The woman shrugged.
"Maybe they never arrived."
Jon shook his head.
"But how do they know what this feeling is? What is it? Why do I feel the same thing as other people who've been here?"
"Maybe," she said, "you're supposed to disappear."
Jon quizzed soul after soul about the feeling he had. He only rarely met others who shared the sense of throttled unease that shook them out of his listlessness.
They never wanted to talk to Jon; they only ever wanted him to talk to them about the answers he'd found. They were thirsting for a solution as badly as Jon was.
One day, however, he met a single woman who shared his sense of confusion and restlessness. She had been raped and murdered, she said, and dead for about a year, she guessed.
"I don't want to ask about it."
"I won't ask you to listen if you don't want to. Truth is," she said, "I already know damn well enough about it myself. I doubt I'm going to learn anything from talking to you."
"What about before?"
"Before? Before, I was a single mother working as a physician's assistant. I took the train to work in the afternoon, when my mother watched the kids, and got home around 1 AM most days. It was tough, but OK. We were getting better. It was tough. I was working through it."
"When did it happen?"
She paused and folded her hands.
"When I was commuting home one night."
"What happened?" Jon heard himself ask her.
She turned a cool, sad look toward Jon.
"What happened? Imagine everything you never wanted to happen to you. Imagine everything you could be afraid of happening. That's what happened."
"Jesus…" Jon said, "I'm sorry, I don't even…"
She waved him away with her hand. "I'd rather not talk about it with you, right now, any of this."
She began to shake, just barely. Jon thought better of trying to put his arm around her. He started to think, instead, of himself, running a finger up the side of his neck, past the base of his skull and into his hair where the bullet must've entered. Where the bullet had entered.
"Why does this happen?" he asked.
"Why does what happen?"
"This...the grief, the wound, the loss, the anything. What the hell does this happen for?"
And then suddenly Jon was seized by the revelation of his desire. That was what his desire was yearning to figure out. He was looking for an origin story for his own death.
He needed to find the man who killed him.
Over time, Jon learned, the dead volunteer their names without asking. Those who found that Jon listened were too glad to have him listen, including their names, their ages, how long they'd been dead, names of relatives, circumstances of their death, anything. They were trying to make contact. Any kind of contact.
So when Jon finally met the man in the suit he'd first seen after awaking, he didn't ask him for his name. The man simply extended his hand and said the word "Frank."
"What have you been doing since the last time I saw you?"
Frank smiled. "Helping. Helping others."
"What do you get from it?"
"How do you connect these people to one another anyhow? How do you help these people find each other?"
"I write the names down."
"And you've got my name."
"Yes. Among thousands."
Jon looked at the ground.
"Come on Jon, I would've told you. You should trust me better than that."
"But…" Frank paused, "I think I may have found him."
There was an instant before the disbelief flickered away from Jon's face and comprehension began to seize him.
"How do you know it's him?"
"Him? He told you?"
"The people who help me out told me that shortly before he'd been shot, he had killed a man. The man he killed," Frank continued, "sounds like you."
"Late thirties. Brown hair. A little over six feet. Shot behind the left ear."
Jon buried his hands into his eyes. That description was all he amounted to here. Late thirties. Brown hair.
Shot behind the left ear.
"I'm sorry, Jon. It's not what I think."
Frank massaged the sides of his head.
"OK, Frank. I need to see him."
Frank dropped his hands.
"Why. What do you need to see him for."
"This man killed me! I deserve to know why I had to die!"
"Why you had to die?" Frank was dripping with contempt unusual for him. "Jon, everyone here had to die somehow. Sometime. Everyone arrived at this point eventually."
"But that's what you don't understand! I don't feel 'dead.' I don't feel 'finished' or 'resting.' I feel eaten with a need to discover why."
"And what if he doesn't tell you a damn thing?" Frank snapped. "What if he just wastes your time or lies to you? What if he sits in the chair while you berate him for hours and he doesn't tell you anything else about why the hell you should have to be here?"
"Frank…" Jon began, "did somebody kill you?"
"I died, Jon. What the hell good is it going to do to figure out why something bad happened to me? Why can't I move on and do what I can do with my time now? Why don't you try to figure out how to make peace with yourself rather than setting yourself at war with your history?"
Jon shook his head.
"No. No. I can feel it. I need to speak to him. I don't care if he says nothing at all, or if he repeats everything I have to say, or he babbles gibberish. I want to speak with him."
"I don't think this is a good idea."
"I've seen people vanish before they were ready. It doesn't work. It's horrible."
"The only thing I know is if I don't do it, it'll hurt me forever."
"Yes, but as a splinter or a lost limb? You've got to moderate your pain. You could be going somewhere worse you won't come back from."
"I never hurt anyone like that while I was alive. I can't believe I would deserve to get hurt here."
"Deserve might not have anything to do with it."
"Or it might."
"Why would it?
Jon crouched for a moment while he thought of his answer. He had a small, barely discernible smile on his face when he answered Frank.
"Because I was alive in the first place."
"You should have seen yourself die."
"It was like I just erased you from the world. I was running, I had my gun, and I caught you behind the left ear. You went down almost instantly. Fell like a statue.
"You should've seen it."
"Jesus. Fuck you. Fuck you. What's wrong with you?" Jon roared at the man.
"Goddamn it, you fucking monster. Why the hell would I want to see myself die? What the hell kind of man tells me I should see myself die?"
"It was something I'd never seen before in my life," the man said. "Ever."
"And you think that a man dying is something to fucking savor?"
"If you want to know why you died, don't you think you should confront the fact that you're dead?" the man shot back.
"I know I'm dead! I experience it every second I'm here! I'm apart from my world, my hopes, my future, my past! I'm dead! I'm dead! You don't need to tell me who or what the fuck I am, you fucking piece of shit!"
"You're goddamned right you're dead. And I killed you." The man was staring directly into Jon's eyes, pushing his pupils down, deep, into the back of Jon's skull. The gaze was ferocious and complete, but not smug. Cold fury boiled in Kyle, indignation, even.
"What in the hell gave you the right to do that?" Jon said. He stormed around the table and grabbed Kyle by the neck. He squeezed, planting his thumbs into either side of the larynx.
Suffer, you fucker.
Jon took his hands off the neck and grasped the back of Kyle's head in one motion, throwing it into the edge of the table. Kyle's brow bled from a fresh gash. Jon continued to grab his head with both his hands, slamming it into the table, again and again. Kyle spat blood. Jon continued, dizzy and sweating, turning to Kyle and pasting him with right after left, right after left, right after left.
He used his knuckles. He used the heels of his hands. He put Kyle in a chokehold between his right forearm and bicep and squeezed again. Kyle's eyes shut.
He wasn't resisting.
Jon let him slip out of his arms.
Kyle slumped down to the ground, coughing and streaming rivulets of blood from his forehead and nose. His eyelids puffed shut before Jon's very eyes. Jon went cold.
"So," he began again, gasping, "so why did you do it? Huh? Why did you kill me? Why did you kill a man who'd never done anything to hurt you? A stranger? Why in the fuck would you kill a complete stranger?"
"It was…" Kyle said, lying to one side on the floor, "an accident."
"It was an accident."
Jon shook his head back and forth in slow, deliberate motions.
"No. That's insane. How do you accidentally shoot somebody in the head? Huh? You just finished telling me how I looked—how I looked!—as I was dying. And now you tell me that it was some kind of accident? No. You're lying."
Jon stormed behind the table, lifted Kyle up by his collar and threw him into the chair. He breathed into Kyle's face.
"Tell me why you killed me."
"It was a stick-up," Kyle said, "I was running away, and I shot you by accident."
"Tough to believe, I guess. But I was running away with my gun out, I pulled the trigger by accident, and I shot you."
"That's why you're dead," Kyle said.
Jon softened in the chair, his hands collapsed between his legs.
"Because of a stick-up," he said.
Jon started sobbing.
It was so pointless. So unfair. Kyle began to tell him how he had been an addict, and ran out of work for money for Oxy, and then ran out of friends for money for Oxy, and then ran out of patience to beg, and then ran out of reasons he could tell himself to not hold a gun in a stranger's face.
A bullet got loose from the gun and ran away to kill Jon. It got him.
That was the truth Jon had been driven to find, the meaning binding everything together. Shit. Shit luck. Goodbye.
"But what about you?" Jon asked Kyle.
"The cops found me later, and I couldn't face the idea of jail. I went out with my gun up, but I was never going to pull the damn trigger again. They got me a couple of times in the chest, and I died in the hospital about an hour after that."
"But I died instantly."
"I guess so," Kyle said.
"Do you think you'll ever see anyone you knew ever again?" Jon asked him.
"Not if I go back under. And I'm not sure I can keep from going back under. The world here," Kyle said, pointing his hand over his head, "presses down pretty damn hard."
"Yeah. It does."
The light from the light bulb hung silently between the two men.
In time, the two men came back and took Kyle out of the room. There was little point to it now, so they didn't cover his head with the hood.
Jon left the room in a daze, rearranging his clothing. He found all his cards, wallet and watch, and threw them without thought onto the ground.
He took a few tentative steps away into the world. The air was fresh and light, and the fog had lifted to reveal a bright, mild sky.
Jon was ready to leave.