It doesn’t have to end like this. Isn’t that what they always say? Hell, who knows? Like any of us are actually there when you would say something like that. Because nobody walks away to actually talk about it.

But it makes sense, doesn’t it? Sure it does. I doesn’t have to be like this. What you’re really saying is this: It can’t be any other way.

He’s sitting in the chair now, head lolled over, grinning at the light like a ten-year-old that found his way to the good stuff in Grandpa’s special cabinet an didn’t know what he was getting in to. He’s not feeling too much, and he’s grinning for reasons he doesn’t understand.

And then he asks me, “You remember when we were kids?”

It’s the kind of question a man asks when he’s trying to find something from the past to save him, as if he can step into a time machine and make everything alright.

The problem is this: Time only goes one way. And no matter how hard you try, what you done can’t be undone. It would be like asking black to be white. Day to be night. Thunder to be silent.

“Yeah, I remember.”

He starts laughing. The semi-hysterical drunk laugh of a man who tries to push something out of his mind, as if he can control it somehow. Laugh hard enough and reality changes. The moment is just a joke and on the other side of that raucous chuckling that makes his chest bounce up and down he’ll find the next moment. The next breath.

If he laughs, he can pretend this will end a different way.

He sits up, drool and blood dripping from the corner of his mouth. His eyes flutter and he knits his brow. “Oh,” he says. Then he drags his sleeve across the corner of his mouth. Staring at the smear of blood on his shirt, he asks, “How did that happen?”

He looks at me with fawn-like eyes now.

“You were unconscious,” I say, handing him a fresh white towel. I have a stack of them. It’s the least I can do.

Looking scared now, he asks again, somehow trying to use his words to push his fate into the next room where he can shut the door, lock it in and then run like hell to get away from it. “Do you remember when we were kids?”

“Of course I do.”

He takes the towel, wincing as he gingerly dabs at the corner of his mouth. He’s looking at me with those eyes again – the ones that are just beginning to realize what is happening. Which means he’s still clear-headed enough to try and figure things out. I need him to focus on not dying. We’re not there yet.

I slug him again with the sap, on the other side of his face this time. Just as he goes back under, I feel the tears well up in my eyes again. I let them spill out on my cheek and dab them away with the next towel. He never notices the dampness of my tears. It’s tough, though. All I got is about thirty seconds to stop crying and clean up my face so he won’t think there’s something he can do to sway me.

He comes around again, gurgling and coughing, then, while his head is still leaned back and his chest is arching towards the light, he laughs again. It’s like coming out of anesthesia. You’re groggy but somehow know that you have escaped death and now you need to claw back the rest of the way. Life beckons hard. And so he laughs, pleading for it to fill his lungs.

He sits up, paws at the other corner of his mouth. I offer him another towel, but he holds his hand up, refusing. I lay it in my lap.

“You remember when we were kids?” he asks again.

“Yeah. You keep asking that.”

His face goes slack. He’s suddenly sober. He leans forward. His voice goes low and quiet, that earnest voice that unveils a reality that I must have forgotten about. It’s the voice that tries to drag me to a corner that only we know about, that one place where it’s just us against the world.

“You remember that time I found you in front of that teacher’s house?”

I close my eyes for a moment. The memory stings.

“Yeah, I remember.”

He leans in a little closer. “Well then you remember how I pulled the hose out of the exhaust pipe.” He arches his brow, waiting for an answer.

“Yeah, I remember that.”

“Then you remember that I laid you out on the ground and gave you CPR until you coughed and then started crying so hard I thought your body was going to shake itself apart.”

It really was like that. That coughing and sobbing that surged out from a place deep down inside my bones. It was my turn that night to claw my way back to life, clutching at its tendrils, desperate to never let it go.

Then, I remembered why I didn’t want to live anymore.

“You remember how I got you through all that? How I got you past Denise and got you to understand that you could find another reason to live?” His voice is pleading now. “You remember that?”

It’s hard to not cry. I feel the sob welling up in my chest, burning. I feel the tears stinging in the corners of my eyes. But I can’t do it. I just can’t.

“Yeah, I remember all that.”

“You see,” he says, his voice pitching up with desperate conviction, hoping I’ll follow him into the obvious void where this doesn’t happen. Then he says it. “It doesn’t have to be like this.”

I stare back at him, motionless. But I don’t say anything. He’s going to make one last try now. It would be easier for me if he didn’t. But I’m going to let him. I owe him that much.

“We did it, man,” he said. “We had always talked about being agents and assassins, working for the elite, prowling through the shadows that nobody knew about while we saved the world.” He hung his head and let out a thoughtful grunt. Then he looked back up at me. “And then we did it. You and me.” He laughed, that superior-sounding laugh of a man who has pulled the wool over everybody’s eyes. “Man, we didn’t care whose side we were on. Whoever bid the highest.” He blinked his eyes, looking around the room. “Sometimes they even paid us just so we wouldn’t do whatever the other guy paid us to do.” He let out a muffled chuckle. “Yeah, look at us go.”

I want to hit him again. I really do. He deserves it. It feels vaguely satisfying to do it. But mostly it delays the inevitable. I, too, want to push away reality and find that one last moment where we just might escape the destiny that has already been sealed.

Instead, I pull the paper out of my jacket pocket and hold it out to him. His eyes widen, just a little – his years of experience lock out any other reaction. Except he’s breathing a little faster. I can see the wheels spinning in his mind. How is he going to talk his way out of this? Just thinking about it makes me mad all over again and I want to smack him unconscious with the sap again. I could just keep doing that until he never woke up. But I won’t.

I owe him that much.

Surprisingly, he doesn’t try to deny it or spin it. He just tells the truth.

“Now, look,” he says. He lets out a sigh. I can see it in his eyes – he wants to apologize. But he won’t insult me that way. “I did get you out of that car when we were kids. And you got all those years between then and now. Because of me.”

“That’s true,” I say. “So why does that mean I don’t get any more?”

He leans back further, letting his arms drape to his side. Looking lazily at the ceiling, he says, “I don’t know man.” He lets out a big sigh and then sits back up. “You know – the money.”

He was right. We had said it from the very beginning. Whoever bid the highest, that’s who we worked for. America, Iran, North Korea, the UK. The list went on, chasing the sun around the world.

I just never thought it would stop with me.

He shrugs and frowns, shaking his head. “You can offer me more, if you want.” I grunt, amused by the brash honesty. He’s right, of course. But then there would just be another bid in the other direction. Because whoever had paid him to take me out had to be made of money. We had found every hit man they sent against us. So they finally figured out the only way to get it done was to set us against each other.

I pull the other paper out of my jacket and hand it to him. He takes it and scans it. Then he looks up at me, shocked. “A million more. Damn.”

“I turned it down.”

He laughs again, that drunken groping for a hallway that will lead away from the room and to some stairwell or elevator that can save him. “You can’t do that,” he says. “It’s against the rules.”

I smile gently at my best friend. My only friend. I do remember when we were kids. I’ll make it quick.

I owe him that much.

I bring the pistol up swiftly, pull the trigger. I whisk the gun back down before the thump from the silencer fills the room. His head jerks back.

The tears come again, but all I can think about is the fact that I’m the only man in the world fast enough to kill him.

I drop the gun, place the last towel over his head, button up my coat and step into the hallway. I walk quietly towards the elevator and press the call button. It’s just that simple.

I know who hired him. I’m going to take care of that.

And this time it won’t be about the money.

©2023 Michael J Lawrence

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