June 6, 3:45 pm
When his mind emerged, like an artifact chipped from ancient stone, Richard was in pain greater than any he had ever known. And unlike after the Void, this time he remembered everything with painful clarity. And he remembered his body shattering like glass. In the exploding agony of his suffering, he remembered the truck, and the impact. He remembered the boy reaching toward him.
Every bone in his body still felt broken, and his head felt like it had exploded. He drew in a breath and screamed. And then continued to scream as his body slowly mended itself. He felt bones knit, and he felt the very shape of his torso twist itself back into normality. He opened his eyes and saw his body writhing, convulsing, and slowly reshaping itself into something vaguely human.
And every excruciating second of it was an agony greater than he thought he could endure.
As the pain reached a crescendo and then began to slowly abate, he tried to stand. But he could not get his feet under him and collapsed again. Vaguely, through his pain, he realized where he was. He was back in his home, back in the pool of blood on the floor of his living room. He was back under the limbs of the blood tree on the wall.
How am I back here? he thought through his agony.
He could not stand, so he crawled. Painfully, he pulled himself out of the bloodstain on the carpet, and toward the hall.
He looked up just in time to see Michelle rush past him. She had what looked like a bag of groceries in her arms. Reaching the hallway, he craned his head to the left, and saw her in the living room, taking some groceries out of a bag, and then disappearing into the kitchen. He heard the familiar sound of his own refrigerator opening and then closing.
“Michelle…” he croaked her name, but his throat felt as if it too was crushed, and was only now reforming itself.
Keith’s friend rushed past him again, and this time he brushed her ankle with his outstretched fingers as she fumbled open the door. And then she was gone, outside. Richard heard her key turning in the lock.
Fighting the agony with every ounce of his strength, Richard fought his way to his hands and knees, and crawled to the door. Trying it, he found it locked.
Once again, he was a prisoner in this house. The house of his death. And he knew he was alone. Keith was not here.
He pressed his face to the small window next to the door in time to see Michelle hurrying down the sidewalk. Parked on the street was Michelle and Pil’s giant yellow SUV. The one Keith had named Big Bird. And standing on the sidewalk in front of it were Keith and Pil. The huge man had folded Keith into his arms, and was holding him with such tenderness, such caring, that it made Richard want to melt into the hall carpet. In that moment, the agony in his body was no match for the pain in his heart.
“Keith!” He yelled, but his voice was still just a crackle. He pounded his hand on the window, wishing that he could break through it. But he knew he couldn’t, even if he had the strength. Even if he had been real and not just a shade.
Pil held Keith as if he was a little boy, his head buried in the big man’s chest. Pil was stroking his hair, but neither man was speaking. Michelle had stopped on the sidewalk. Like Richard, she was just gazing at the men, perhaps uncomfortable at seeing their private moment. Richard felt the tableau freeze. The two men in their tender embrace. And the two people that loved these two men, watching helplessly. He felt a kinship with Michelle in that moment that he had never felt when he was alive.
Then Michelle walked up to the two men and placed a hand on Keith’s back. Both men turned to look at her, and while Keith was turned away, Pil wiped some tears from his eyes with the back of his thick hand.
For just a moment, Richard saw Keith’s face through the glass. That face that had accompanied him for a decade. The face that still brought him such light and joy. And Richard knew that if there was any meaning for him left in this world, it was in that face. Keith was the only thing that mattered now. His own life was over and meaningless—unless he could find a way to protect and care for Keith.
As he lay panting in the hallway, he heard the car pulling away from the house.