We're standing on the deck of the big house in the mountains when she says something that makes me feel bad for all the babies in the world whose mother never made them giggle. It's that loneliness in the pit of your heart that gets born with you and never goes away. If someone touches it, you go to pieces.

"Did you ever think it would turn out this way?"

I say, "Do you mean, when I was five did I ever think: 'Hey, maybe I should try to die of a fatal disease at forty-three' ? No."

"But it's turning out that way, anyway."

The trees in the Blue Ridge Mountains are dense in green leaves. The wind makes them sound like water falling far away.

It makes so little sense for me to be here right now.

"What would you rather be doing?" she says. "Sitting in your armchair at home, staring at your toes? What could you possibly be doing?"

It isn't that I don't want to do this thing right now. It's that I don't want to have to do anything. I don't want to have to be anymore.

"That's not why you're here."

I don't deny I fumble with the purpose to my incarnation. And now spectre of death has absorbed me so that my life's only purpose is to mark time until its end. I have become my own living death.

It's like I'm charging a machine-gun bunker. The people in my life are falling to the left and right of me and I wonder if I'll feel the one that gets me. I go to funeral after funeral. I hold their hands in their last minutes. I tell their spouses and children their lives meant something to me.

They're alive one minute, dead meat the next. I can list them name by name. Next to me breathing. Then not. This is not a life I want anymore, and so now it's my turn.

She's looking at me that way. She must want me to kiss her but I can't do that. I can't pretend it doesn't bother me. It doesn't shake off.

I remember lying in bed next to Dani when she asked me that--did I believe she'd be somewhere when she died? What greater pain could there be? You don't tell dying people you think they're going to the great big no-place unless they're die hard existentialists, and even then, you try to convince them of the immortality of the soul even if you think it's bullshit. Pain makes you do things you wouldn't normally do. Maybe it makes you who you really are.

Jennifer's right next to me getting weaker. That goddamned gun keeps firing. I don't want to be here when she falls. That's not something I can live through.

She grabs me by the shoulders. She stares into my eyes. I think she can feel how deep I'm going. She's not going to let me go.

Please don't.

"Do you know what your problem is?" she says.

Someone is always telling me my problems, but this time I want to know. What did I do to deserve this? What is the fault I have that's so extreme I should watch the people I love die the way they do, and then suffer the same fate? I really want to know.

"No," I say.

"Nobody ever told you how beautiful you are."

It takes a second. One moment to freeze the falling. One moment to breathe again. Another to wonder what she means.

"What?" I say, a smile covering all the confusion.

"All the things you've done. That's why everyone loves you so much. We know you feel alone, but you're not. You never were. We all see it. We're all here but you act like you don't see us. You act like we don't know how much you hurt, like you're protecting us from how bad you feel."

I want to tell her she's wrong. I want to go away. But on this deck, this house in the mountains far away I have no place to go.

She says, "Stop. You don't have to protect us anymore."

I think to say something, but nothing comes.

"You should be me watching you, then you'd see. Then you'd know what your life means, because it means so much to all of us. You are so, so beautiful, Phil. Be with me."

She hugs me. Buries her face in my chest.

Beyond the pine deck railing the wind makes the trees sound like faraway waterfalls, their white mist rising in rainbows below the sun.

The prior episode is: Dream Echoes

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