My name is R. It’s not much of a name, but someone I love gave it to me. Whatever past lives return to me and whatever other names they bring, this is the one that matters. My first life fled without a fight and left nothing behind, so I doubt it was a loss worth mourning. A man I don’t remember mixed genes with a woman I can’t recall, and I was called to the stage. I stumbled through the curtain, squinting into the blinding light of the birth canal, and after a brief and banal performance, I died.
This is the arc of the average life—unexamined, unremarked, unremarkable—and it should have ended there. In simpler times, life was a one act play, and when it was over we took our bows and caught our roses and enjoyed any applause we earned, then the spotlight faded and we shuffled backstage to nibble crackers in the greenroom of eternity.
Things work a little differently now.
Now we duck behind the curtain to find another stage. This one is dusty and cold, thick with cobwebs and reeking of rancid meat, and there is no spotlight, no audience, just a crowd of nameless extras sighing in the dark. I don’t know how many years I wandered that stage, performing horrific scenes from a script I couldn’t read. What I know is that sixty-seven days ago, I found an exit. I kicked open the door and stumbled out into the daylight of my third life, the one I never expected and certainly didn’t deserve, and now here I am, clumsily learning how to live it.
I lean against the sheet of plywood, pressing it to the wallwhile I fumble in my pocket for a nail. I pull one out and promptly drop it. I grab another; I drop it. I draw a third nail and with slow, surgical movements, I set it against the wood. Then I drop the hammer.
A few mild expletives bubble in my throat, evaporating before they reach my lips. My body is in no hurry to accept this new life. The hammer is a block of ice in my barely innervated hands; the nails are tiny icicles. My heart beats, my lungs inflate, my blood has bloomed from black to red and rushes through me with desperate urgency, trying to wake my tissues from their long sleep, but I am not a normal man. I am not a tanned and toned youth ready for summer baseball. I am death warmed over.
I pick up the hammer and raise it. Swing and a miss! This time a few curses make it through my lips, “damn” and even “shit,” nothing especially bold but enough to release some pressure. I clutch my hand, watching the flesh beneath the fingernail darken—one more bruise for my rich tapestry of wounds. The pain is distant. My brain hasn’t yet remembered that my body is valuable, and it barely bothers to notify me when I damage it. I am still a tourist in the land of the Living, snapping pictures of their struggle from my hotel balcony, but I want nothing more than to join them in the dirt. Numbness is a luxury I’m eager to lose.
The plywood slips and falls on my foot. I hear one of my toes crack. I don’t even have the energy to swear, I just sink onto the couch with a long sigh and stare through the scorched, splintered rift in the living room wall. We are a new couple and this is our first house; it’s a fixer-upper. A little putty will take care of the bullet holes, but grenade damage is an all-day project, and we haven’t even started on the bloodstains. At least Security was kind enough to clear out the bodies—the ones with flesh, anyway. We’ve done our best to dispose of what they left behind, but we still occasionally find bone fragments in the carpet, a few phalanges twitching on the kitchen table, a faintly buzzing cranium glaring from under the bed.
Why are we here? In a world where all anyone dreams of is comfort and safety, why did we choose this haunted house in the middle of a war zone? I know there’s a reason we rejected the stadium’s thick walls, something lofty and grand and profoundly important, but I find myself drifting back to the simpler explanations, the small, delicate, human concerns that are the soil for this tree.
I lean back into the prickly cushions and remember the first time I sat on this couch. A cold night. A long drive. Julie on the staircase in her soaking wet clothes, inviting me upstairs.
There are prettier places to live. There are softer and safer places. But this place is ours.