"Save me Johnny," she whispers.
She's talking to angels. His name isn't Johnny.
Her hand convulses around his knuckles when the pain comes.
"Ohhh, God. Johnny-john ..."
There's something bubbling in her chest. His eyes leak. It'll be over soon. Knowing that never makes it any easier.
Mist floats along the boggy ground, sieving up through the wide-trammeled plains grasses in tendrils, the water-laden incense of rotting earth. It's reaching for the moon.
She's always bloody and almost gone like this towards the end, both of them stuck somewhere in the middle of a cheap watercolor painting hanging on a twenty-dollar-a-night motel room off a stretch of forgotten state highway. In the grass, ankles sinking into the mud, every time. There are bulky shadows on the horizon. Trees or sleeping giants or barbarian hordes.
He never says anything holding her hand. It's rare when he can end it early, but he's managed once or twice in a year of recurrence. Not that he's been keeping track.
When he finishes it this time it's because he can't take the suffering anymore. So he shakes and shudders and screams, drooling on her hair, trying to get the hang of a way to gently keep her windpipe closed with his forearm from behind, in which he fails. Because killing isn't a gentle act. It's a function, one he isn't cut out for.
She's been coming every night for the last year and he doesn't know why. In the end he needs it as much as he hates it. Loves her as much as he wants her to stay away. If he could forget the last part, it'd be perfect.
The first smile she flashes under the dreamscape auburn sky is what keeps him off the knockout drugs at night. She tells him things after that smile. Serious things, heavy things. Nothing that sticks later. Nothing like, "You'll have to watch me die."
Nothing like, "I love you but at the end of this, I have to go."
No. She whispers in his ear, and holds his hand, and they make love somewhere different each time. When she bends down and breathes on his ear drum love pours like hot lead down his spine and curl his toes better than any book.
All he knows is this love. This hot, wild, boiling love at first sight and the dying at the end. Nothing in the middle stays the same, or makes sense, or is remembered with accuracy. But the hard part, he dreams that the same way every time.
And she's talking to angels. She's calling him Johnny.
She dies finally, quietly, eyes open. Then he wakes.
He's better at it now.
The first time she came he opened his eyes in the dark, panting, a high animal whine in the back of his throat, sheets covered in sweat and tangled around his chest so tight he couldn't breathe.
He had a hard-on and he cried.
It was worse than loss. It was something he'd never had in the first place from a girl he felt he should have known his entire life. He wasn't sure why he was crying. Vague impressions were the only thing left, finding love and losing it, going towards the white light of fulfillment. Tripping and falling down the mountain on the last step before the summit.
He cried in the same way that a man who rarely cries but one day does, driving by a school and seeing a red-haired freckled kid cross the street, thinking, "That looks like my little brother when we were young," realizing a split second later that he never had any brothers, not knowing why he thought it, just feeling that he lost something from his childhood at thirty-seven.
So he cries like he hasn't in the last five years. He parks at a tattered little strip mall well decayed and balls, tears pouring down his face like acid rain onto a tie and a starched white shirt and suit coat, head resting on the top of the wheel, shoulders wracked with sobs.
And this has happened to him before, and by the time it was done he'd blown a meeting so he went home, back to his lonely apartment and sleep, where he dreamed. And she came to him.
It was like that the first time but now he's better at it. He opens his eyes and stares at the dark ceiling. The alarm clock says three and it's pitch black out. Sleeping afterwards never works. He rolls out of bed and goes to the bathroom, standing over the toilet and pissing with his hands on his hips. When he looks down half is splashed over the edge in the corner between the toilet and the counter. He shrugs and stares at his face in the mirror awhile. Baggy eyes and a face starting to get heavy and sag. Forty won't agree with him well. He puts on a pair of jeans sucking his gut in for the top button, then a t-shirt and ball cap.
The street is summer cool raising the hair on his arms when he walks by an alley. He goes through the middle of a deserted gas island and back on the sidewalk, ticking by dark little houses, manicured lawns, cats arching along fence lines, past the empty aisles of a twenty-four hour grocery store where the night stockman gives him a weary look.
He ghosts into an industrial section past gaping receiving doors with trash packed around the edges, semis hauling around corners reckless and bloodshot. He stops perpendicular to a smokestack and watches something blacker than night pour into the air, realizing the sky's turning gray. Broken-down men pull up to the squat factory blocks in used cars. More trucks blow in and out. He doesn't know where he's walking, lost not in the city but in time and space, wandering in the middle of the road when he loses track. He goes to the curb and stands at a bus stop he doesn't know.
The bus comes sooner or later. He stands in front of the driver dragging at his pockets for change and fumbling with his wallet when he can't find any, feeling stupid, shoving a five dollar bill in the man's hand, stumbling back to a seat.
He stares dumbly out the window, feeling his whole life catch up and drive him through the rubber matt and rumbling floor, under the axles, onto the pavement.
The bus stops across from a coffee shop on the outskirts of downtown. He tumbles out and crosses the street, traffic picking up under the lightening sky. The sun breaks along the street lengthwise in gold when he reaches for the door.
A voice quietly punctures the silence. His heart stops. He turns.
She has auburn eyes, the color of love and death.
"Johnny, is that you?"
Published October 2006