He had been fighting for his life, every second of his life. Every day was another installment in his epic of personal struggle. He was trapped forever in single combat: him against the Universe.
Or so he believed.
Throughout his life, however, he had always had defenders, who stood at his back or by his side and who had warded him from the very worst his opponents could offer. They could not shield him from all harm, of course, but their unacknowledged efforts had always managed to preserve him thus far.
He was barely old enough to understand that something was wrong - that he wasn't supposed to be this close to the windowsill where his father was holding him by both shoulders. Drunkenly swaying, his father gave him a little push, and he stumbled on fat toddler legs toward the open window. His father pulled him back at the last minute and laughed, then did it again. And again. It wasn't a fun game any more so he started crying, but daddy wouldn't stop.
And again. His knees hit the sill that time but his daddy caught him and pulled him back. He felt the hands on his shoulders pushing
and heard the CLANG, felt the wind as this time it was Daddy who fell toward the open window, through and down onto the sidewalk four stories below, never to push him again. He ran to his mother and threw himself into her arms; she dropped the frying pan and picked him up. They left that place and were long gone before the street outside became marked off by yellow tape. She warned him never to speak of that day, and he never, ever did, until the memory turned into fiction, until the press of pressing business drove him out of touch with her, and he couldn't have spoken of it later even if he'd remembered to, even if he'd had her to speak to.
The playground was a hot asphalt torture chamber with walls of chain link, containing him even as it left him fully exposed. The other children were his captors and his fellow prisoners - sometimes both in the same day, but usually it was cruelty that won out over comradeship. The others seemed suspicious, even fearful, of his clear speech and foreign diction, his odd, ill-fitting clothes, the books he carried to activities where books were not prescribed - and children are always quick to learn to express their fear with malevolence.
On this hot late-summer day the few exceptions he'd found to this general rule stood in a circle near the big double gates at the far end of the lot, a half-dozen or more of them huddled over their cigarettes and whispering furtively, with much rustling of pockets and nonchalant gazing whenever one of the playground assistants wandered too close to their conference. Something - his precocious English, perhaps, which enabled him to converse on or above their level though they were several years older than he - had somehow endeared him to this group of older kids. They looked on him as a mascot of sorts, though their favor had of course earned him only the further scorn of children his own age. He hung as close to the smoke-shrouded crowd as he dared, wondering if their fickle affections would be hot or cold today.
Warm, it seemed. One of the biggest, his face already acne-scarred, held out an arm to encircle him and draw him close. The kids in the circle were passing around a homemade cigarette, twisted paper and greenish leaf. Each one in turn inhaled furtively, held his breath for a long, long time, and passed the joint to the next, before returning to their own machine-rolled smokes.
One more before his turn, before the beginning of acceptance.
"There you are! I've been looking all over for you!"
The cheerful, brassy voice belonged to a teacher he'd already seen during two classes today, a large woman with an even larger smile. Her gaze flicked over the scattering youths and dismissed them utterly; he could easily believe she had been looking specifically for him. Her hand on his shoulder guided him back to her room, where she showed him the chess set and how to set up the pieces.
The game - and the attention - proved to be a greater attraction for him than the uncertainties of the playground; he spent more and more time indoors, weathering the scorn that his compatriots heaped upon him in return for the admiration of the others who spent their lunch hours in the company of black and white squares.
When he looked around at the end of that last semester for the kids who would have been his friends in the circle of smokers, they were nowhere to be found. And when he turned back around on his way out the gate to find his mentor, she was already striding into another huddle of black coats and backward baseball caps, shouting "There you are!" in her big brassy voice.
She drew him down to the overstuffed bed in the cold upstairs room, in the converted Victorian house just off-campus. She took him inside herself with a sigh of something very like relief, exhaling beer and cigarettes in a frosty cloud past his shoulder as they took solace in each other and tried to keep warm. He stroked her gently and she whimpered as she came; when he climaxed moments later, he called another name, but she forgave.
And when the morning came that she could no longer forgive, when his healing had hardened to the point that he called out no name at all, she left without demand. Caught in a whirlwind of his own making, he took no notice - proof, perhaps, of the rightness of her decision.
His physician was older even than he, old enough to remember when the bottom line wasn't the bottom line. She looked at him over the tops of narrow bifocals. Old enough himself to be if not a son at least a sibling of hers, he stared back at her, for once hoping for anything but the truth. She gave it to him anyway, quickly and kindly as she could. No nonsense about six months, a year or any definite span, but the words "irreversible" and "terminal" figured prominently.
She was hesitant to offer, but he insisted. There was a single option, but it was experimental. He'd have to give unconditional consent, and even then she'd have to put her practice on the line to get his application approved. It would take all his not-inconsiderable money, too; insurance companies dislike experimentation. But her smile was fierce as she offered him the hope. The fight wasn't over.
Blinded and raging, he had fought against the restraints for days, no longer understanding where he was or who was doing these horrible things to him... no longer understanding why all he felt was pain.
That evening, though, the nurses commented on how quiet he'd become: a model patient, if not very attentive. He swallowed his pills without complaint and seemed to fall asleep peacefully. For the first time in weeks, his hands lay flat on the white sheets that lay like a flag unfurled over his adjustable bed.
The nurse heard the flatline alarm at 4:07am; the team arrived at 4:09 and began the resuscitation efforts he'd demanded in an earlier period of denial and never rescinded. But they gave up quickly when he failed to respond, knowing their efforts to be futile even in the short run. Besides, he looked so peaceful lying there...
The white tunnel stretched away into infinite distances, lined by shooting stars and wisps of fog. He sped along it gratefully, leaving the clanking and hissing mechanisms of his body and its clinical extensions far behind. Up ahead a figure beckoned, waving him on.
He did something that in someone more corporeal would have been shading his eyes, but the figure came no clearer, though it did become larger as he rushed forwards, until it dwarfed him, reaching out to him with hard hands that gripped his shoulders fiercely, spinning him around, clutching him closer before letting him go with a push that sent him toward the open window...
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