One by Shana Gardner
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I can't remember anything
Can't tell if this is true or dream
Deep down inside I feel to scream
This terrible silence stops me

Now that the war is through with me
I'm waking up, I cannot see
That there's not much left of me
Nothing is real but pain now

Hold my breath as I wish for death
Oh please God, wake me

Back in the womb it's much too real
In pumps life that I must feel
But can't look forward to reveal
Look to the time when I'll live

Fed through the tube that sticks in me
Just like a wartime novelty
Tied to machines that make me be
Cut this life off from me

Hold my breath as I wish for death
Oh please God, wake me

Now the world is gone I'm just one
Oh God, help me hold my breath as I wish for death
Oh please God, help me

Darkness

Imprisoning me
All that I see
Absolute horror
I cannot live
I cannot die
Trapped in myself
Body my holding cell

Landmine

Has taken my sight
Taken my speech
Taken my hearing
Taken my arms
Taken my legs
Taken my soul
Left me with life in Hell

~Metallica, One

 

One

Joe roused slowly, his mind clawing up from the depths of blackness that had engulfed him. A moment of disorientation greeted him as he attempted to open his eyes, to bring his hand up to brush back the hair that was usually clinging to his forehead. Neither complied. He attempted to suck in a breath of surprise only to discover that he couldn’t.

‘What happened to me?’ his mind screamed. 'Why can’t I move? Why can’t I blink? Why can’t I breathe? Why aren’t I dead?’ He heard a vague buzz over the gentle whirr-beep of the machines and fought to open his eyes again, heaving a purely mental sob when none of his efforts attained the desired result.

‘What happened to me?’ screamed through his mind again before the blackness drew him down once more.

The next time he was released from the void, he was aware of another presence. Two of them, judging from the voices. He heard the soft buzz of conversation as muffled footprints circled what he assumed was his bed, then the clank of equipment and a soft feminine curse.

‘Jun?’ No, too husky, too old. His nurse sounded like a chain smoker; he withdrew within himself again to combat the frustration at being unable to do the simplest of things. To move, to see, to cry, to be, they were all taken from him.

‘Oh God, this is a dream, this has to be a dream, I’ll pinch myself and I’ll wake up.’

‘Oh God, I can’t pinch myself. Wake up! Wake up!’

"It’s too bad, really." An older man, his voice soft and reassuring although laced with strain. "Poor bastard, he’s one of the worst that ever came through here. It’s a marvel that he’s still alive."

"Perhaps.." Another man, this one familiar. Deep, rough with.. distress?

‘Hakase! Hakase, help me!’

"Perhaps he should have died. It may have been more merciful."

"Nambu-hakase.. I understand that this is painful for you, but.. perhaps it would be best to discontinue the life support. His spinal cord is severed beyond our repair; he’ll never walk again. He’ll always need the machines; he’ll never be able to speak or see, or even to feel. He’s had too much damage."

There was a pause, and Joe’s mind quelled at it.

‘Please, someone, tell me what happened, please, I have to know, please, God, I can’t just stay like this, I can’t, I just can’t.’

"We’ll see." The familiar voice was enough to make him scream, the frenzy at being unable to was enough to make him want to scream again, to scream until his voice was raw, then to keep screaming until it was gone altogether and he couldn’t scream anymore. "I’d like.. I’d like to give him a chance."

"Of course, Nambu-hakase. There is always the option.. It’s not something I would normally suggest, but.. Well, he is who he is. He may be together enough for cyborg implantations to work on him. He may not be able to regain his sight without some major work on his brain, but he would at least be able to move again."

"No."

‘Cyborg? They want to make me into a freak oh God and I can’t say yes or no and I don’t want to be a freak and God thank you Hakase thank you thank you thank you I don’t want to die I don’t want to be a freak I just want myself back can’t anyone do anything oh God..’

"I didn’t think you’d choose that, Nambu-hakase, and I’m rather relieved you didn’t. It’s still considered to be a bit unethical, but then, so is discontinuing the life support."

"I’d like to give the others time to see him. They haven’t seen him since Cross Karakorum; they need time to say good-bye."

"Of course, Nambu-hakase. If you’d follow me, we can discuss the options further in my office."

Joe listened to their voices trailing off, filled with the desire to scream again, to rise up and rip the machines from himself, to run from the room and never look back. ‘They’re plotting my funeral already and I’m not dead. I’m not! God.. What did I do to you? What did I ever do to you?’

He let his mind sob on, straining against its boundaries, until the rhythmic whirr-beep of the machines soothed him back into unconsciousness.

 

Minutes, hours, days, weeks slid by unchecked for Joe, punctuated only by visits from doctors or nurses. Time lost its meaning between his bouts of unconsciousness and varying levels of awareness, usually spent wishing for something to happen, for it to all end somehow. He came to recognize the voice of the doctor who had spoken with Nambu; he was apparently in charge.

‘Stupid bastard,’ he thought viciously, ‘if he were so good, he’d know I was still in here. Why doesn’t anyone know?’

A purely mental sigh escaped him as he let his mind meander down its old beaten paths, remembering past battles, past friendships, past mistakes. For fear of going insane from his inability to do anything, he analyzed those memories, holding each one up to the light and studying it as though it were a cherished jewel, searching for flaws, for hidden depths.

‘Mama.. I’m sorry I failed you. I was young, God I was so young.. Father.. I know you would have wanted a more worthy son, one who could have gotten his revenge without ending up in a hospital bed like some kind of fucking amateur. Why am I here? Why hasn’t any told me yet? Did the gunfire..? Did I get caught in a blast? Did someone do this to me? Why can’t I do anything? Why can’t I just die? Why did they have to keep me like this? I can’t even breathe on my own.. And the rest.. Shit, I must have tubes stuck everywhere. I hope no one comes to see the Condor like this.. At least my legend can live on.’

 

Surprisingly, Ryu was the first to come. Joe recognized the ponderous footsteps even before they were completely in the room. He fought back the urge to try to open his eyes again, to hold out a hand in welcome to his old friend. Instead, he listened intently as the footsteps approached the bed and the chair scraped against the floor. "Hi, Joe."

‘Hi, Ryu.’

"I’m sorry I didn’t come earlier.. We had to take care of all the legal stuff and Hakase didn’t want us to be upset."

‘He didn’t want you to be upset? What about me?’

"I.. I wish you could have died, Joe. Seeing you like this.."

‘Like what?’

"The others said they would come later, if you’re wondering.. Hakase wanted us each to have some time alone with you before they pulled.. before you.. I’m sorry, Joe, I’m sorry we didn’t stay with you. We could have stopped this, it didn’t have to be like this, it could have been over."

‘Yeah, right. If you hadn’t left me, you wouldn’t have to worry. We’d all be too dead to worry.’

"I’m sorry we didn’t get to do more, Joe.. You were my best friend. Did you know that? I don’t think I ever got a chance to tell you. I love you, man, I wish it didn’t have to be like this."

‘I love you too, Ryu, don’t cry. I hate to see a grown man cry. If I could see. If I could see, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Don’t forget me, Ryu, please, I don’t want to be forgotten.’

"I’m sorry, I didn’t come here just to bawl all over you.. Your arm’s all wet, I’m sorry, I’ll get a towel, I didn’t mean to."

‘No! No, don’t go! Don’t leave me alone again! I don’t want to be alone, I can’t take it! Don’t leave me!’

The chair scraped back again and the footsteps receded, then there was the sound of running water and deep breathing. A few choked sobs, the rustle of fabric, then the scrape of the chair.

"There, you’re dry now. I can’t stay much longer, Joe.. And I don’t think I can come back again. Hakase wants to do it as soon as possible and I.. Joe, I don’t think I can take it. I don’t want to remember you like this."

‘Like what?’

"Goodbye, Joe.. I’ll never forget you, I promise."

The scrape of a chair came to Joe’s ears again, underscoring the thickness of Ryu’s voice. The footsteps padded to the door, then there was a pause, then the woosh of the door as it opened and the footsteps exited.

‘I’ll never forget you either, friend..’

 

To Joe’s astonishment, Ken was the next one whose voice he recognized. Others had come and gone, but hadn’t truly penetrated his consciousness, merely provided an underscore to the buzz of his own thoughts. It wasn’t until he heard that soft voice that he knew as well as his own that he snapped to attention, hastily reeling in his wandering thoughts.

"Hello, Joe."

‘Hi, Ken.’

"I don’t know if you can hear me, but.. Shimatta.. Why you? Any of the others would have been better. Why did they have to take you?"

‘Ken...?’

"I’m sorry, that was cruel.. I love the others, of course, but you.. You’re like my other half, Joe. We always balanced each other out. What am I supposed to do now?

‘Grow up, maybe? At least you’ll have the chance.’

"I wish you didn’t have to die, Joe. I wish there was some way to bring you back, to go back and redo everything so it didn’t have to be this way. But you wouldn’t want to live like this, would you? You’d hate it."

‘Like what?’

"If.. if it’s really over.. I’m going to give something with Jun a try, like you told her. I know I never paid as much attention to her as you do, but I’ll do it for you.. And I’ll name my first son after you.

‘You’re being melodramatic, but.. Thank you.’

"I.. I’ll see you again, Joe. I’ll come back, or I’ll see you after.. after.. later. You’re my best friend and I’m not going to let you go."

‘Thanks, Ken. What do you look like now? Are you getting enough sleep? You sound tired, strained.. There’s no one quite like you. Don’t give up. Don’t change. I’ll be fine, I hope.. Just take care of yourself.. and the others. They need you, so bad.’

"I’ve got to g.. go now. Don’t do anything before I get back, okay?"

‘Yeah, okay, I promise not to go anywhere.’

"Bye.. Bye, Joe."

‘Bye, Ken. I wonder if you’ve ever felt this blackness.. You’re the one who’s so big on the meditating, was this what it was like? Not knowing your body, only knowing your mind? Do I even have a body? I’m not so sure anymore...’

 

‘Hi, Jinpei.’

"Joe-aniki? You look funny, Joe-aniki. Can you hear me, Joe-aniki? You still have your ears, so I think you can, even though they’re kind of covered by that thing over your eyes."

‘Yeah, nice to see you too.’

"You look funny. They say you’re going to die. Well, no, they say they’re going to have to kill you. They didn’t tell me, I overheard Hakase talking to the other guy, the one that looks like an elf. I think they said he was in charge of you. I don’t want you to die, Joe-aniki, but I guess there’s no other way. I wonder what it feels like to have no legs. I remember one time when I lost feeling in mine, but I knew they were still down there."

‘You’ve taken the cake for cryptic remarks, kid. Does that mean that I don’t have legs or are you just wondering?’

"Ken-aniki was here before. Do you remember? He was crying when he came out and told me that I couldn’t come to see you. He said.. he said that I couldn’t take it, that I shouldn’t come. Why would he say that? Did you know that Katze’s dead? He pitched himself into some kind of pit that X made when he left. At least, I think he’s gone. I hope he is. I didn’t think that anyone had told you. I guess you could say you took him with you, since they all say you’re going to die."

‘They’ve always said that, kid. Go away.’

"Do you believe in Heaven, Joe-aniki? I do. Maybe you’ll get to go up there and meet a nice angel or something. I always wondered why you didn’t have more girlfriends."

‘Because I had to kill them all, why else?’

"Ken-aniki said I wasn’t supposed to upset you, but I thought that you might want to hear what was going on, y’know? No one even knows if you can hear us, but I thought you might want to listen, you know, just in case. I haven’t really seen Ken or Ryu much, and I’ve only seen Jun ‘cause we live together. Ryu’s up here a lot, usually out in the waiting room and stuff. He’s lost weight. We all thought Ken was gonna kill himself or something because he wasn’t answering anyone or anything and he kept staring at his Birdrang. Jun made us take all the sharp stuff and guns and stuff away and I kept wanting to tell her not to bother because the Birdrang was sharp but she just told me to hush and take the stuff."

‘Yeah, well, you know Junny. Ken wouldn’t kill himself, he doesn’t have the guts. Why are you babbling at me?’

"Hakase said that we’d give you two funerals, ‘cause he doesn’t want all the people for the Condor to mess up the people for you. He said they’re both gonna be closed-casket so he got you a really nice suit and stuff. You’d like it, I think, it looks like a Yakuza suit. I wanted to get you sunglasses but Hakase said that I couldn’t."

‘K’so.. I can’t look like a Yakuza without sunglasses. Sneak them on later, kid, and I’ll forgive you.’

"Jun said I could get a puppy or something. She thinks I’m upset. I was, I guess, but I don’t wanna remember the bad stuff. You’re my Joe-aniki and it doesn’t matter if you’re dead or what, you’re still Joe-aniki and I’ll remember that. So I got a parrot and named him Joe and he’s already learned how to swear and Jun hates it but she won’t do anything ‘cause she thinks I’m upset."

‘And you aren’t going to change her mind, are you? Little brat. Stay a little brat, Jinpei, don’t grow up. They need you, you keep them going.’

"I’m gonna have to go soon, Joe-aniki, the doctors said that we couldn’t stay long ‘cause you couldn’t do anything anyway and probably wouldn’t even know we’re here and they don’t want us to get depressed or something. Besides, I’ve gotta feed Joe. The parrot I mean. I can’t feed you, you’d bite my hand off ‘cause you don’t like being waited on. And I’m not a pretty nurse or anything so I guess you still wouldn’t like it so I gotta go and stuff. I gotta find some pictures I have of you for the funeral ‘cause I promised Hakase. I didn’t want to let him have them but he promised I’d get them back so I said okay. They’re good pictures, you’d like them. They’re not all happy or nothing and they make you look scary. Love you, Joe-aniki, bye!"

‘Step step step creak of the door step step creak of the door and he’s gone. Damn I’m good. Do I really look scary? I don’t think I want to look scary. Well, maybe. The Condor was supposed to be scary but do I want to look that way? I’m not sure. I think I must have been happy a few times, maybe even more, even if I can’t remember them. Why would Ken try to kill himself? He never acted like he really liked me, the jerk, but I guess that was his way of showing affection. K’so, he must really love Jun, then, he hit her as much as he hit me, just different. Maybe I even liked her a little, I hit her too, even if it was only that once. I think she’s the only girl I saw more than twice, maybe it was fate, but now it’s gone. I wonder if they got some sperm. Artificial insemination, heh. I don’t want to be responsible for the family dying out, the last of the Asakuras. That sounds like the last of the Mohicans. But I never scalped anyone. I did everything else, but I never scalped anyone. Too gory, not enough technique in it. Not as precise as Ken’s Birdrang, slicing throats perfectly straight down a line. Not even like snapping a guy’s neck. *crk, pop!* There’s no other sound like it. I wonder what it sounds like to scalp someone. I wonder what it sounded like when my legs got blown off. Did they get blown off? Does it matter? I can’t feel them anyway, I don’t really care if they’re there or not. I hope I still have my hands. I always liked my hands, even when they were covered with blood. Good, solid hands. The damned women sure seemed to enjoy them. I wasn’t a surgeon, but they were nice hands. Maybe I could train myself to spit a shuriken instead of throwing it if I were going to live, but I guess that doesn’t matter either. Wouldn’t want to spit it anyway, they taste bad, and how would I get it into my mouth? And then how could I aim it when I can’t see? I wish I knew what happened to my eyes. Do I still have them? They always liked my eyes, said they were sexy. Like my hands. I think it was the BirdStyle. Did I ever meet a girl in BirdStyle? No.. Not that I didn’t kill. I killed a lot of girls. Men too. I never liked men. I used to think that Ken did. Wouldn’t shower with him, wouldn’t drop the soap, knew he’d rape me if he got the chance, being a man-lover. K’so, what do I care? Whatever twists your titties, just keep it away from me. Wanna fuck a chicken, fine, just don’t make me eat the eggs. I wonder what it feels like, probably all feathery. No, I’ll stick with women, thank you, hot and wet and musky and groaning along with me. I was good, they liked me, except for that one that wanted to play with ropes. I didn’t mean to break her nose, she shouldn’t have tied me down, it wasn’t my fault. Never liked being tied down. Galactor liked to tie me down. Why didn’t they tie me down when they had me? I wouldn’t have tried to escape and ended up like this, then. I would have just died quick and easy and probably wouldn’t even have known it was going to happen. But then Katze wouldn’t be dead and X wouldn’t be gone. I wonder if Katze went to Heaven. Is there a Heaven? Does everyone get to go? There must be a line to get into Hell, maybe they have to send some to Heaven to handle the overflow. I wonder if I’ll see him there, or maybe I’ll be shoveling coals in Hell with him. Kissing the Devil’s ass, I’ll bet he is, fucking mutant. Always liked power. What was it like? What was it like to jump into that pit and know you were going to die? Did it hurt? Was it like this? Did he know when it was the end?’

 

‘Three million, five hundred seventy-two thousand, nine hundred seventeen bottles of beer on the wall, three million, five hundred seventy-two thousand, nine hundred seventeen bottles of beer, take one down, pass it around, three million five hundred seventy-two thousand, nine hundred sixteen bottles of beer on the wall..’

 

"No, Nambu-hakase, I’m afraid that there haven’t been any changes. It’s only a matter of time now, if you’d like to convince the last one to come see him, we can let him go. It’s for the best.."

 

‘One million, three thousand, seven hundred sixty-three bottles of beer on the wall, one million, three thousand, seven hundred sixty-three bottles of beer, take one down, pass it around, one million, three thousand, seven hundred sixty-two bottles of beer on the wall..’

 

"No, she hasn’t been in yet. Didn’t you ask her? The big one’s been in the waiting room every day now, we’ve had the nurses keeping an eye on him. That one with the blue eyes has been back a few times, too, but he never stayed long. No, we don’t expect his condition to improve, it won’t be long now.."

 

‘One bottle of beer on the wall, one bottle of beer, take it down, pass it around, five million bottles of beer on the wall..’

 

Soft humming was the next thing that penetrated his consciousness, some tuneless melody with a feminine sound that nagged of familiarity. It niggled at his memory, dancing around the edges of recognition until it suddenly clicked into place.

‘You used to sing for me when I was sick or injured. Like you used to sing for Jinpei. You used to always ask me to sing after you heard me in the shower one time. You said it relaxed you. I wish I could sing for you, Junny.’

The humming continued for some time until it was broken by the scrape of a chair and the soft rustle of fabric that he assumed meant that she was sitting next to him.

"I brought you some flowers, Joe. They’re not roses, I promise, they’re buttercups. They’re supposed to represent childhood memories. I thought you might like those more than something else."

‘I don’t care what kind of flowers they are. I can’t see them, I can’t smell them, and they sure as Hell don’t say anything.’

"Hakase has the plans for your funerals finalized. They’re very nice, you’d like them if they weren’t yours. Well, not really.. I know you don’t like funerals, but it’s still very nice. Hakase wanted to have roses there but I said no. I remember that you don’t like them, so he let me pick out most of the arrangements from us and the ISO. They’re mostly white lilies, very pretty. They look nice with your suit.."

‘Jun, I don’t care about the flowers. I never did, you know that. They aren’t guns, they aren’t cars, they aren’t women, I’m not interested in them.’

"Jinpei said you looked good. He was right. You’re a little bit pale, but.. you’ve been through a lot and haven’t gotten sun lately, ne? Your face still looks good, at least what I can see.. You’d be upset, though. They shaved your head. Do you think we should get you a wig?"

‘A... what...? Oh, God, I’m going to go to my grave wearing a rug. Thanks, babe, I really needed to know that. My hair! How could they shave my hair!’

"I’m glad.. I’m glad you weren’t.. well.. your face wasn’t disfigured. You had such a strong face, so expressive when you weren’t blocking it all out. There was just something comforting about you. You were big, you were bad, but you were Joe, too, and you cared. You were like a big brother to all of us, even Ken, trying to protect us from the bad stuff. Thank you, Joe."

‘If I know Junny, she’s crying and kissing my cheek and still trying to look composed right now. I just didn’t want any of them to get hurt; she makes me sound like a sap. Well, maybe I was a little bit of one.. But I’d rather just have me here now, like this, than all of them. Or all of them dead. I don’t want them all to die, that’s what I was trying to prevent. Shimatta.. It is over. It’s done. I can’t protect them anymore. I can’t even protect myself.’

"I love you, Joe, you know that? You were practically my best friend. Why else would I be sitting here babbling at you? I don’t want you to go, either, but.. It hurts to see you like this. I keep wondering if maybe I could have done something different and prevented this. Ken thinks it’s his fault.. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s mine. Maybe it’s Hakase’s for getting us into this in the first place.."

‘No, it was my fault. I’m the idiot, the hot-head, remember? Ken’s the same anal bastard as he always was and you.. well.. you like to play the victim, Junny, until you finally get around to getting a backbone. But you had it there, in the end, you left me like you were supposed to. Why didn’t I put myself out of my misery then? I had the Birdrang.. But I couldn’t move.. I wish Ken had done it. But then you had to go and get the ISO troops in there. Dammit, why did they have to save my life? Fucking waste of time, they should have let me go when it was obvious I was going to stay like this.’

"I wish I could be here, when they pull the plug.. God, that sounds cruel, doesn’t it? Like you’re some kind of appliance? Clap on! Clap off! Clap on, clap off.. the Condor!"

‘You’re getting hysterical, Jun. Take a pill.’

"But they said we couldn’t be here. Not even Ken. Hakase can stay, of course.. I think he’s the one who gets to do it. Like it’s some kind of honor, isn’t it funny? ‘You’ve been specially selected to end your foster-child’s life.’ Shit.. I’ve gotta go now or I’m going to cry all over you.. Bye, Joe, I love you, I’ll visit you every day."

‘Which me?’

 

‘Kum ba ya, my lord, Kum ba ya.. Kum ba ya, my lord, Kum ba ya. Kum ba ya, my lord, Kum ba ya.. Oh, lord, Kum ba ya.’

 

"It’s Ken, Joe. I.. I had to come back again. They let me come down, but just for a minute. Hakase’s here too. They’ve got me here under surveillance; they think I’m going to kill myself.. I wish I could, Joe. I don’t want to live without you. But I won’t kill myself, I promised them I wouldn’t, and.. I don’t want to meet you again like that. I don’t want to be reincarnated as a bug.. Or maybe we’re like the samurai, and would be reincarnated as a samurai.. That wouldn’t be so bad. But then we’d probably end up on the wrong sides and.. Oh, they say I have to go again. Bye, Joe, I’ll send flowers."

 

‘Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand; I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Thru the storm, thru the night, lead me on to the light; take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.’

 

"Tomorrow, Nambu-hakase, we can do it tomorrow. That should give you time to finalize arrangements. I’ve alerted the staff; they’re going to be on call tomorrow but not in the room. You can bring the others if you’d like; there’s room for them, but it may be a bit traumatizing. I’m sorry it had to come to this."

"Of course. I’ll be here early; the others most likely won’t be here."

"...poor bastard."

 

‘I am a poor wayfaring stranger, while traveling through this world of woe; yet there’s no sickness, toil nor danger, in that bright world to which I go; I’m going there to see my Father; I’m going there no more to roam.’

 

"Good morning, Nambu-hakase. Yes, we’re ready to begin, if you’d like to come over here."

 

‘I know dark clouds will gather ‘round me; I know my way is rough and steep; but golden fields lie out before me, where God’s redeemed shall ever sleep; I’m going there to see my mother, she said she’d meet me when I come.’

 

"Goodbye, Joe."

 

‘I’ll soon be free from every trial; my body sleep in the churchyard; I’ll drop the cross of self-denial, and enter on my great reward; I’m going there to see my Saviour, to sing His praise forever more.’

 

"How long is it going to take?"

"Jinpei, shh."

"But, onechan.. he can’t breathe or nothing, how can he-- ow! Ryu, what’d you do that for?"

"Jinpei, shh."

"Don’t you have any respect? Look, now, you’ve upset Ken; you’ll have to apologize later."

"Onechan, he was cryin’ before I said anything. You were too. I didn’t do nothin’."

"Jinpei."

"Sorry, Hakase.."

‘Don’t yell at him, Hakase, he’s just doing what I asked.. God..’

"It won’t be long now."

‘Remember me.’

 

 

 

 

Epilogue

The wind blew through the girl’s black hair as she bent to arrange the flowers in the vase. Her fingers lingered against the marble of the headstone that supported the vase and its mate, tracing the shape of the letters carved into it as though she could read them through her fingers.

Joe Asakura
Son, friend, soul brother
We will remember.

Tears spilled down her cheeks only to be swept dry by the strong breeze. The light fabric of her skirt whipped around her legs as she crouched near the stone, lowering her head. The wind stole away the soft sounds made by her moving lips, carrying them away from her, out over the cemetery.

"Jinpei turned fourteen today. He’s growing up so fast, Joe, you’d be proud of him. Ken’s still in therapy for that last suicide attempt, but the doctors say he’s doing better.. They’re trying out some anti-depressants on him now and think those’ll help. I went to see him a few days ago and we had a nice talk. He still misses you, I think he always will, but he’s learning to live without you.

"I’m sorry I didn’t come to see you earlier, things got busy. The snack’s still getting bigger and we were working on the expansion over the last week. Your picture is getting moved to the new bar; it’s bigger and better lit and more people will see it. Ryu’s helping out with it, but he’s so busy planning his wedding that I feel guilty for keeping him. You’d like his fiancée, she’s got an attitude like you used to get sometimes, but she’s really sweet about it and loves him a lot. It’s nice to know that one of us can get a normal life.

"Jinpei told me something yesterday.. He said that he thought you were still watching over us because you were too stubborn to give up. Like our own private guardian angel. I wonder if I should tell Ken that too.. It might make him feel better. We lost a big brother, we got a guardian angel, it almost seems fair..

"Nambu-hakase started a charity for you, by the way.. The Condor Joe Foundation.. It’s for all the people who lost breadwinners in the war. They’ve been setting up a lot of wayhouses and such, giving donations.. Kind of like some of those other veteran things, I guess, but they’re doing it in a larger area. They’ve made a lot of money so far; everyone wants to remember you.

"Well.. I should go. I promised Jinpei I’d be back to cover him while he took Maria out. We’ve got help now, of course, but we both still do the work. It keeps us busy. He wanted to go by 6:30, and it’s 6 now, and I don’t want him to be upset if I’m late. I’ll come back as soon as I can, Joe, I promise. Bye.."

The wind, heavy with rain, lashed her hair against her cheek as she rose, kissing her fingers and pressing them against the headstone. With a distant smile, she turned and walked off, one lone figure in a sea of headstones. She didn’t turn back; there wouldn’t be anything there no matter how many times she did.

It was always her imagination that carried the soft grumble of a laugh to her ears, that made the headstone seem warm under her fingers, as though she was touching warm flesh. It was one of the others that left the occasional feathered shuriken among the flowers, as some sort of memorial offering. It was just her imagination that someone watched over her while she was there, some large, benevolent watchdog.. or guardian angel.

Wasn’t it?

 

 

'Kum Ba Ya' is a Nigerian folk song from after the Christianization of the country. 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord' was written by Thomas A. Dorsey. 'I Am A Poor Wayfaring Stranger' was written by Richard W. Adams. I own none of them.

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