The water helps. You can feel something primordial when you're in a shower, like man shouldn't have crawled from the sea. The pseudo-womb of warm wet heat peels the fatigue away, layers of a rotten onion. I get it as hot as I can, steam cleaning my soul. The blood on my fingernails and the puke in my hair flow away, down to the hell that bore them. For the first time in hours, I feel human. I am free.

I left George and the ambulance and the inhumanity and the speed and the goddamn grinding tension behind me as I walked out the door at the station. I can't hear the bee hiss of the radio, and for once, I don't miss it. I've got a flush on my skin and I am running on fumes, that heady second wind you get when the work day ends. Out the front door like it's the border of an undiscovered country. Fuck y'all! I am Alive. I shed my uniform like a snake leaving his skin behind. Now is the time of the jeans, the era of the T-shirt. On to the sidewalk, down to the bus stop, the volume on the headphones cranked to the max. The sun is so bright it's pushing its thumbs into my eyes, but I drink it up like sweet nectar. The pain lets you know you're not dead.

Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two are playing a command performance in my head. Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant have setup on a smoky stage, just behind Johnny, dressed in his blackest suit. The RCA mike is perched just perfectly behind my forehead, the acoustics in my skull make the Grand Ole Opry sound like a barn. Cry, Cry, Cry. I listen to the Man in Black. I feel like a million bucks, happy and off and riding a high of freedom, but when I hear that mournful voice: Game Over. I hold my head in my hands and weep while the CD spins in my pocket. Johnny understands. He's seen the dirty underbelly just like me. I brought my guns to town, Johnny. I didn't leave my guns at home.

I cried for a good half hour. Not a shuttering wail, or a chest beating howl, just a dignified tear and a down turned mouth. I cried for Sonya, gone off to Heaven. I cried for the Kid, all punched full of holes. Mostly, I cried for myself. The tears rolled quietly down my face, off to the same place as the blood. Finally, when my chest was all hollowed out, and my eyes washed clean, I stopped. The faucet ran dry. I wiped my eyes on the back of my arm and looked at the world again. The water helps. That's when I noticed my eye had stopped moving. I burned off all the fuel and the little motor stopped.

The street was quiet as a grave, and the far off morning traffic droned, all the busy ones rolling to and fro, the hives of industry filling. I sat on the sideline, on the bench, waiting for the downtown express making it's way back from dumping a load of humanity. As usual, swimming against the flow. The battery ran dry on Johnny, cutting off "Folsom Prison Blues" just as the train started acomin' round the bend. The switch over was startling. From Nashville to Mutual of Omaha. What the fuck, Jim?

I was sitting amongst a murder of crows.

The old oaks lining the street were black with them, hundreds of regal scavengers. Cacophony was invented to describe the sound they were making. The jarring chorus made the hair on my neck stand on end. They cawed at everything, passing cars, the sun, the sky, me. I was awash in a sea of nature. I remembered watching Hitchcock's "The Birds" in Grade Six. The first really scary movie I ever saw.

They were watching me.

They are scavengers. Move around, show them you're alive! I stood up and looked at the nearest tree. It bobbed with black visitors. I raised my arms and yelled, stamped my feet and threw rocks. They sat and laughed. They were waiting for me to die. Or show them were the bodies go. Humans are animals. They clattered their beaks, imagining the taste of my eyes.

I ran.

I ran for blocks, away from the birds, away from the sound, away from my life, away from. I let my body take me on a tour, huffing and pumping, skipping down the concrete. I ran to Sonya's house. It would be safe, and it was close and I missed her. Maybe we could have breakfast, and she could tell me about the old country, and sip that black coffee. Yes, to Sonya's.

The door was still open, lights on in the kitchen. I closed the green door behind me. The onion was still on the cutting board. The blood was still on the wall. But the crows were outside, so that was ok. I tidied up the kitchen. Sonya wouldn't want it to be dirty. I knew, deep down, that she was gone. I also remembered why I had come here. I decided back in ambulance while we drove in at the end of the shift. I had a promise to keep. While I scrubbed the worn white floor, erasing the flecks of blood, I opened the door a crack. In case. The coffee was done when I finished wiping the walls. Nobody would come for her. She was all alone. The bank would get the house. I poured myself the last cup of the day and retired to the dark green pit of the living room. A jungle of plants would die in here while the lawyers searched. Sonya was alone. She told me every time I saw her. All alone, except for Chernozhopyi.

I came back for Cherno.

While I sat in her living room, among all the plants and the smell of old lady stewed in loneliness, I felt so comfortable. No-one in the world knew I was here. I found a desert isle in the midst of my life. We came too late to save the last shipwrecked heart. I would be damned if she would die forgotten. I wondered if I could scratch up enough money for a really big gaudy marble headstone for her pauper's grave. Something that would cast shadows on all the little people, shouting out how important, how loved, how rich she was. One last great lie for the world that bottled up poor Sonya, greatest of the Uzbeki. An old shoe box, covered in red Cyrillic, sat on the coffee table. While I waited for the cat, I took a peek.

It was stuffed with old square pictures, printed on thin Eastman Kodak paper, copyright 1950. Black and white, every one. They were all of Sonya, back when she was a ripe young woman. The poses all bore the longing look of a hungry wife, pointed at her new husband. I was trespassing, but I forged ahead. She was beautiful once, on the outside. She lolled in sun dresses and smiled on bikes. She held a puppy in front of a blooming garden, blew her candles out, posed by the Christmas tree. She lived up all her life a long time ago. In the bottom of the box, an envelope hid. It was brown with age. I held it carefully, afraid to knock the dust off its folded wings. I pulled the letter out, and found it was folded over 3 pictures. The envelope said it was from her husband Andrei, sent from Korea. The letter was written in something other than English, and censored with black ink. I put it down and turned to the pictures.

A wife's pictures to her husband. Longing and skin, sheets and makeup. I put them back in their cardboard coffin, ashamed of myself. I waited in the kitchen after that, but Cherno never came home.

The End

In which the mountains are old and I am the ghost on the battlements - Kid Eternity - Do svidanya, Rodina! - Standin' in a pool of cop blood with a shotgun you can't stop - Street Meat - Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar

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