11

Salome' Byrd

My Fondest Memory

Do you remember the day our friendship first started? Or better, do you remember the week that all of those feelings changed between us? Do you remember that day when it started? We were lying on the grass in the park that day, like we had done so many times before. Your long hair was flowing all around my shoulders and I breathed its scent in gratefully, trying to make sure you didn't notice. Maybe you did, all those years after the sixth grade when I would subtly sniff your hair while you were laughing and pointing at the clouds. Maybe you just never said anything, so I thought I was getting away with it. It was just so nice, feeling your presence like that; knowing you were real and you were close to me… I couldn't help but appreciate it in some small way.

I pictured you in my mind's eye, soaking in your beauty. You were about two inches taller than me, standing at five feet six inches. Your body curved just perfectly, fitting your frayed size sixteen jeans (you had dragged me shopping enough times for me to know what size you bought) as if they had been tailored just for you. Your blue shirt with the kitten hunting a mouse on it was a little loose, but it still worked. From your hips to your slightly larger than average chest to your round shoulders, it all seemed to fit so well. Your limbs were long, and powerful. Your round eyes were caring, but with a fighter's spirit in them. Your lips were almost always in the shape of a smile, and I smiled too when I thought of them. Your long, wavy red hair seemed to link the rest of you to my brain. I let my smile fall and closed my eyes to really get the full effect.

"Benji?" you said my name the way I always love: gently, on the edge of whispering, sounding like the wind passing through the grass blades. My ears had been attuned to that sound since the day we met, since I had always been quiet enough to notice it. You put your hands down on the grass at your sides as you said it. My eyes snapped open and I dropped your hair from between my fingers like a kid dropping a cookie when their mom comes into the room.

"Yes?" I answered a bit nervously, thinking you had caught me.

"You're being really quiet today. What are you thinking about?" you asked in return. I might have been naturally quiet, but you could tell when it was my normal quietness and my more pensive or grateful silence. Even when we first met you could sense that difference. It's always been one of the things I've loved about you.

I sighed in relief that you hadn't noticed me and hesitated a moment, wondering how much to tell you, then started to speak.

"Do you think there are other people just like us somewhere, looking at these same clouds and imagining the exact same shapes we are?" I asked, watching as a fluffy little cloud rabbit sped across the sky. It met up with another rabbit and their faces met in a kiss, their paws intertwining. They started to fade into one another, one's ears melding into the other's until they were one almost shapeless cloud with giant rabbits' feet and then nothing more than wisps of what once looked like rabbits. I sighed a little in my head, though not out loud because I didn't want to distract you from thinking. The image of those cloud rabbits somehow made me happy and sad at the same time. I felt some moisture at the edges of my eyes and shook my head quickly, trying to get rid of it. There was no reason to cry over shapes that just happened to look like rabbits.

You were more silent now and we laid there for a long time, thinking about the possibility of doppelgangers. Could anyone think the same ways we did? Could anyone see the same things? Could anyone feel the same ways that we did about the same things?

"Do you think there are other worlds?" you countered my original question, paused, and continued with a new question, "Would you want there to be?" You bent your neck so the top of your head was on the grass and I did the same, our eyes meeting. I could see the gears turning in your head, the excitement and curiosity in your eyes. You were always a passionate person, no matter what it was about. Our pose was one of those things we did together; one of those things that just became habit through years of friendship.

I considered that. I considered there being another me somewhere, or many of me in various places throughout the universe… or universes. I smiled a little. It would probably be fun to meet myself and test out nature versus nurture. Then I noticed you shift yourself so that your elbows were holding you up and I immediately made the same movement. I considered there being another you or there being too many others of you to count. I thought about how they would all seem exactly like you, but there would still be only the one you. I thought about how it could make you less unique, less special.

"Maybe there are… but I'm not sure I want there to be," I finally said, equally softly. You smiled at that, like you were hiding some secret opinion or observation. My heart skipped a beat and my mouth went a little dry, thinking you had caught me at this too. Had you really seen through my words? Or were we still just friends and nothing more… or less? Still, I smiled back at you a little because your emotions always were infectious. When you were happy, everyone around you was too and the same went for when you were angry or excited or sad; it just couldn't be helped, even if the people around you were total strangers.

Then, suddenly, you laughed and stuck your tongue out at me playfully. You seemed to be telling me to relax and stop thinking, and that yes, we were definitely still friends and nothing else. I was relieved, even if part of me had to wonder why. It was only natural, though, for me to copy you and stick my tongue out ever so slightly too. We were both laughing now, and you brought your hands up to pull your eyelids down, the support of your elbows suddenly vanishing so that you fell on your back with a light "thump", followed quickly by the sound of my own back hitting the soft grass and dirt. It was the name of the game. What you did, I did.

Of course, at that point in the game we almost couldn't stop laughing and when you finally tried to say that we should start walking back to your house you just ended up stopping at "We should—…" and rolling farther in the grass with loud laughter that carried through the park with the sound of a small waterfall flowing onto a pile of smoothed river stones. It was beautiful and I tried to appreciate it through my own gleeful near-hysteria. I was laughing so hard that my eyes watered and soon we were almost out of breath until we stopped for a moment before laughing loud enough to fill the entire park again; we were laughing at the silence itself after so much noise, and I don't think either of us has ever been able to figure out why it was so funny. Can any kid, whether they're two or twenty-two, really say what causes that?

We were both in pain from the laughter by then, but I somehow managed to stumble to my feet and motioned for you to do the same if you could. You nodded as best as you could and slowly crawled until you were standing next to me. Then, do you remember what you did once we were both standing up in the park with the sound of your merry waterfall and the slightly more subdued sound of what I might have described as the angry call of a blue jay (which was my own laughter)? It was an old habit of yours dating back to the day we had met, a habit to swing one arm over my shoulders as we walked. It was actually often a way to signify that we were supposed to walk at all… and the first thing that had really signified and solidified our friendship with each other. That particular day in the park, though, so many years later, you leaned a bit more heavily than you did most days and it made us laugh even more for some inexplicable reason as we stumbled away from that park together.

The universe we were in, however, seemed to feel that we needed a challenge that day and so we didn't even manage to go five feet before we were confronted by one of the most intimidating and simultaneously ridiculous people I have ever seen. Even today, I can't find anything that fit either of those two categories more than he did, and I can bet you haven't either. I'm sure you remember him. He was easily seven feet tall and looked like he bench-pressed trucks for a living. He was wearing torn heavy-duty construction jeans, a white tank-top shirt, a ripped up denim jacket that was missing more than just its sleeves, and thick hiking boots with seemingly ordinary white socks. His eyes had a paranoid glint to them and he looked a little twitchy, a little prone to violence; the kind of guy who would beat you up if you so much as looked at him the wrong way. That was the intimidating part. He also had a lot of tattoos: a black and white rainbow frame stretching over his knuckles with a storm cloud on the back of each hand, a pair of black cloud-bunnies just the like the ones I had seen in the sky, touching noses on his forehead with little X's in their eyes and lightning behind them, a skull and cross bones with a bunch of little hearts coming from it next to them, a kitten on his shoulder peeking into a mouse-hole, a unicorn running across a meadow on his leg, so on and so forth. Not to mention the rhinestone heart with the word mom encrusted in jewels that was sewn on his jacket, the little rhinestone stars lining the ankles of his socks, and the vivid neon pink and green Mohawk that trembled every time he moved his head. That was the ridiculous part. I'm sure he meant for it to be ironically scary or something, and I think he even said something to that effect at one point, but it sure didn't come off that way.

Now, if most people were confronted by this guy they would run the other way as fast as possible. Unfortunately, not only were neither of us all that normal, but we were on a laughter high. I slapped my hand over my mouth again, knowing that I shouldn't laugh, but you didn't try anything like that and both of us just kept on laughing.

"What are you kids laughing at? Is something funny? Do you think I'm funny? Is there something about the way I look that is… funny?" He said in a deep, growling voice. It was like a giant German shepherd was talking to us, and he was really mad. I felt a bit of the color drain from my face in fear. I couldn't stop laughing. It didn't matter whether it was about him or not, I just couldn't stop laughing. I knew in my mind that this meant a certain death sentence for me. I tried to bite down on my hand to muffle the sound as I shook my head, tears coming to my eyes from the pain and struggle and fear. You just laughed a little quieter and shifted your position a bit so that you weren't leaning on me quite so heavily. You could sense how serious his threat was, I think, but you just couldn't control your laughter. I think you might have even looked up into his huge, intense, dark brown (almost black, actually) eyes and tried to use the infectiousness of your emotions to our advantage. Sadly, it didn't work.

I mean, he did smile, but it was a twisted "I'm going to rip you limb from limb and kill you" smile. Not especially comforting. We both continued to shake our heads and he cracked the knuckles of his right hand against his left palm. I felt my eyes widen a little. This was not good. I think my fear was even making me laugh a little harder, as idiotic of a move as that was. Images of my gruesome death flashed through my mind. You would escape or distract him with karate or maybe even defeat him in hand-to-hand combat, but I wouldn't stand a chance. I was toast. I cringed at the sound of his hoarse, growly, sarcastic laughter.

"You think I'm funny, then? I'll show you what funny is!" He yelled, pulling his fist back to punch me in the face. I closed my eyes, preparing for the worst. Then I felt your arm smoothly slide off of my shoulders and felt you gently shove me so that I stumbled quickly to my right. I fell back onto the grass and opened my eyes to see you run at him, screaming at the top of your lungs. My mind instantly flashed back to the day we met, when you beat that bully for me and we both got detention over it. You drew your own hand back (not over your shoulder, but at your hip so that it did more damage to him than to you) and punched the intimidating/ridiculous guy in the gut as hard as you could. I heard his breath rush forcefully from his body and heard him gasp as he tried to straighten himself up from his doubled over position. Unfortunately, you had your other hand ready and punched him in the gut again so that he fell to his knees. Then you grabbed his Mohawk and looked over at me. I nodded and got to my feet, smiling my thanks to you. I knew what that look meant, after all. You had saved me so many times that we had developed a sort of code. Your look was "all clear" while my smile was "Thank you for protecting me." Of course, there were others. You winked at me quickly (I blushed when you did, as always, though I always hoped you were too absorbed in your fight to notice) and my smile turned from a grateful one to a mischievous one. That wink that came at the end of a fight always meant "Now watch this, it's gonna be fun."

"Actually, you're right. My friend and I do think that the way you dress is a bit funny. But you shouldn't try to punch him in the face for laughing. What if he was laughing for some other reason? What if it was completely unrelated or he was just good-naturedly admiring your sense of irony? Or what if his parents or the police tracked you down for this? Come on, man, think it through. If someone laughs at you, then you talk to them, idiot. You don't just punch them. You get in a lot less trouble that way," You gave him your usual speech; just like you did to every bully you took down. You never said that it was necessarily some terrible moral sin to be hurting others, because you knew that they had probably heard that a hundred times before. You just told them it was a stupid life strategy. You pointed out all of its drawbacks for them, rarely mentioning how their victim felt. I like to think this kind of tactic worked. They would think twice before getting into other fights this way, considering all the trouble you told them it could cause for them. I like to think that, at least. It's hard to tell, since we didn't see a lot of them after you beat them down.

You crouched so the two of you were eye-to-eye and gave him a "now think about what you've done" kind of look, with a hint of amusement behind your eyes. I straightened my clothes and found my bearings again, the fear starting to leave me. Ah, there it was: the way to your house. I jerked my head to you and you nodded back. Then I heard a quiet apology and the guy falling to the ground. I didn't need to look to know you'd punched him in the face—with all your strength this time so that he wouldn't be conscious enough to follow us. The headache he would get when he woke up was just a bonus. You jumped back to your feet, dusted yourself off, and hurried over to me, returning your arm to its rightful place across my shoulders. As scared as I'd been, it all melted away once I saw that smile on your face. You were all I needed to feel safe. Your laughter rang through the streets from the moment we were out of park until you took the first step into your house. We had to finish our laughter high, after all.

"Hey…" you turned around and looked a little nervous and sad. I knew this look. This was the look you gave your "help cases" when you saved them. This was a look of pity. Worse, I knew why you were giving it to me, of all people. The sun was starting to go down and I would go back home. My dad wouldn't be there, he'd be somewhere in the city trying to forget that his wife had died when I was six. If he was there, he'd be sleeping in front of the TV. I was pretty much alone all of the time, and didn't really have any parents. I knew you pitied me for that, and wanted to help me because of it. Sometimes, I even went so far as to wonder if that was the only reason you liked to hang out with me: because you thought it helped me feel better. It wasn't the most pleasant thought. I interrupted you before you had a chance to invite me inside to spend time with you and your mom. You seemed to think that she filled the void of parents that I had, but sometimes being around you guys just made me feel worse about what I didn't have… especially when I thought that a fake "big sister" was all you wanted to be to me.

"No, it's fine. I'll be alright. See you tomorrow at school, okay?" I tried to keep the strain out of my voice, tried to keep myself from accepting just so I could sit in your room and tell you how I really felt. I tried not to show that I was hurt by the way you showed your own feelings, and especially tried my best not to be hurt by your friendship. Why couldn't I just be happy that I had it? It was stupid of me, I always thought. Your face fell and I think you gripped the doorway a little harder in regret that you couldn't do anything for me.

"Oh. Yeah, okay…see you there," you replied, trying to smile. I turned around to go home and sighed. I could tell that you were hiding things, just like I was, but what if it was your pity that you were hiding? I didn't have the guts to ask, and I didn't have the energy that day to worry about it. I walked past the sleeping form of my barely-existent father and flopped onto my bed. I groaned, telling myself how stupid I had been to even imagine confessing to you. I was an idiot, and I knew it. Eventually, though, I did manage to fall asleep.

My dream showed my dad dissolving into a puddle of bubbles like the wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz, followed by your mom pinching me on the cheeks and telling me how happy she was that we were going to be brother and sister. I panicked for a moment, but then I turned around and saw you sitting in your room with tears in your eyes. That wasn't right. You never cried over anything. I tentatively walked over to your bed.

"What are you crying about?" I asked softly, though I half-tried to stop myself because I knew you needed silence more than anything. You always appreciated silence, especially from me.

"You," you said, sniffing back more tears. I jumped back and stared at you.

"M- Me?" I asked, incredulous, "What did I do?" My tone went from amazed to depressed in a matter of moments.

"I love you, but you just see me as a bodyguard, as a protector. I don't even know if you appreciate me as a friend," you told me, crying harder now. I sat down hard and looked wonderingly, unbelievingly into your eyes.

"But I…" I started to answer you in the best way I could. Then my alarm rang and I sat up in real life, hitting my head on something.

"Ow… What was that?" I groaned, touching my head to my hand. It was still dark, so why was my alarm going off? My answer came when I turned my neck to look to my side. Oh. I was under my bed. Had my dream really made me toss and turn that much? The alarm got more intense and I took a deep breath to ready myself for the day.

I think I was recovered by the time I met you in front of the coffee shop between our two houses. I did yawn, though, feeling almost as if I hadn't slept at all. You laughed and looked both ways before crossing the street to take our shortcut to school. I gave you a look, using our secret code to ask what was funny as I followed you.

"You were up all night studying again, weren't you? Geeze, Benji, you've gotta take better care of yourself!" you admonished me playfully. I laughed weakly along with you and agreed, because there was no way I was admitting to having a dream where you confessed that you loved me and didn't think I returned the feelings. You didn't need to know anything that complicated this early in the morning… or ever; that would work too. Instead, we just kept cutting through people's backyards and ducking through alleys to get to school as quickly and directly as possible. I'd been nervous about the route the first few times, but the owners of the yards didn't seem to mind and this was a lot faster of a way to get your daily "bully's lesson" thing out of the way without its making us late for anything.

The fact that the alleys of our city were pretty full of crime definitely helped that. You were a pretty awesome vigilante, though you didn't get the kind of media attention that people like that usually receive. You were really only honored within the schools as a hero of nerds and underdogs; everywhere else you were just another freelance crime-fighter that no-one really cared much about. Sometimes, I wished that people could see how much you really did for them in those alleys. I wished that someone would do a news report on you and get the whole city thinking about what you did. I wished that you could be thanked by more people than just me. I wanted you to be famous. Unfortunately, I always forgot that people should be careful what they wish for.

That morning, I got my wish… and immediately wished I hadn't. We jumped the last fence, landing in a dark alley between two old brick buildings. We smiled at each other because we knew it was the best kind of place for you to find the thugs that you usually targeted. Your smile went from knowing to mischievous when the sound of two people arguing with a third drifted to our ears, and we silently unglued ourselves from the fence to peek at the situation. I felt my mouth fall open at what I saw, trying to calculate the odds of him being there in my head and finally just conceding that it was really freaking unlikely.

"You told me there was no law in this city. You said there was nothing here to threaten any of us, and that the cops were too cowardly to arrest a little kid. Now look! Look at what you're lies have done to us!" One thug yelled at a skinny, tall little guy with glasses. He gestured his arms back at the man with the badly bruised face and drooping pink Mohawk behind him, making sure not to block the dark look of fury building on the man's face as he crossed his arms and growled under his breath. His pink hair fell in front of his nasty black eye as he moved, and I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing. He had looked hilarious the day before when you had knocked him out in the park, and he looked even more ridiculous now. The others were wearing dull greens, browns, and grays, but this guy was in as colorful of clothing as ever. I guess he didn't care about being seen in his little intimidation game. The others were a bit more edgy, but professional. The little guy was quivering, and seemed to have dealt with them in the past. His eyes showed both terror and recognition, and it was a combination we both knew well.

Another thug punched the wall next to the guy's head, smiling maniacally and standing there without so much as whimpering from the impact of bone against brick. The brick itself was slightly cracked, and I started to shiver a little myself. I looked over at you, but I could tell by the look in your eyes that you were long gone. There was a fire there, an anger that I had seen a hundred times before. It was the look you got when you saw an unjust situation, a determined expression that said you were going to beat the perpetrators or die trying. This was the first time in a long time that I had actually been a little worried that you would end up doing the second. These guys were clearly tough, and there had to be at least eight of them crammed into that little alleyway. I didn't know how you'd have enough space to dodge them when they fought back… if you could even hit them in the first place.

"Mary…" I whispered, trying to warn you away from this one. You could let one slide, right? Just one? You shook your head, smiled in a way that you probably thought was reassuring, and readied yourself for an ambush. I opened my mouth to say something, but then thought better of it. You were beyond hearing it. All I could do now was trust in your ability. You were pretty awesome, after all. How could you lose? You had never lost before, right? I just had to keep telling myself that. You had never lost before. Why would you start now?

"You're going to regret making fools out of us, Herman. You're going to regret a lot of things," the first guy said, moving aside so that the guy you had fought the day before had a clear shot at him. He cracked his knuckles and suddenly you pushed off of the ground as hard as you could, as if that had been your signal to attack. You screamed at the top of your lungs, directing their attention to you and you alone. Herman almost passed out then and there, but just lost control of his legs instead; falling to the ground and going so pale I wondered if he really was okay. You flipped in the air, landing on one thug's shoulders. He stumbled backwards, trying to get you off. Everyone else started hesitantly walking towards him, not sure what to do with a flaming red-haired teenage girl clinging to their comrade. I had to bite my lip again, trying not to laugh at the absurdity of it. You screamed at them like a monkey, giving them your best crazy eyes to distract them from the pressure point you were pinching on their friend, making his eyes roll back as he passed out and fell to the ground. You used his form as leverage, pushing yourself into the air again to kick the next closest bully in the face, flying at him so fast that I almost couldn't see the look of surprised fear he had just before he too fell onto the concrete. You stood on him, your foot on his face and your fists on your hip. I couldn't help but smile a little, even as scared as I was for you, because it was obvious that you were having the time of your life doing this.

"Well?" you asked other six guys, noticing that they were all frozen in their tracks, "Are you going to come at me or what?" you flung your hair back behind your shoulders with a swing of your head and moved into a fighting stance, making a "come here" motion to challenge them. After another second of just staring at you, they pounced. You punched the first assailant so hard that some of his teeth flew out, swinging to kick two others across the sides of their heads and head-butting the third in the gut so that he crumpled to the ground and struggled to catch his breath. You were unstoppable, and I found myself slowly inching towards the battle grounds to get a better look at you. You were like an angel of justice, practically glowing with exertion and joy because you knew that you were hurting the right people for the right reasons… well, as right of reasons as hurting people can possibly have. It wasn't like you were using lethal force, anyway, so it was alright. I found myself getting happier the closer I got to you. Your emotions were infectious, but a lot of it was my own pride in having a friend like you.

Then the Mohawk man came at you, yelling something like a war cry and pulling back his arm behind his shoulder to punch you. Your smile grew even wider and you stuck your tongue out in happiness. "Hello again, Sir!" you said cheerfully, in the same kind of bubbly voice that girls get when they gossip about who likes who. You easily ducked the hit, punching him in the stomach like you had the day before and then high-kicking his jaw when he bent over from the force. I saw his eyes roll back in his head like the first guy's had and watched in awe as he fell unconscious, his lumbering, tattoo-covered form suddenly a lot less intimidating than it had been before. Now he just looked funny… and a little pitiful. You leapt off of the second guy you had taken down and spun around to face the whole group, giving a look to the last two remaining thugs that asked if they really wanted to try what their friends had. One of them turned around, checking to see if anyone was looking. Then he nodded back to the other guy and put his fingers in his ears. You tilted your head to the side, obviously confused. I was practically next to you now, and flicked my eyes between each of them to try and pick up some clue about what was happening. Was this last guy going to yell at you or what? I looked over at you, and you just shrugged.

"You think you're just all that. You think you're some kind of super hero, defending the defenseless and all that crap. You think you're doing something good, right? Something noble?" the guy said, his voice starting to tremble with anger. He spoke quietly, so we had to strain to hear. You took a step forward, trying to tell what he was saying. You frowned for a second, but then quickly regained your fearsome happiness as you responded to him.

"Actually, I'm just trying to help you guys out. If it wasn't me, it would've been the cops, and… well, let's just say that Herman was really wrong about them. They might not fight like me, but they've got tasers and guns and cuffs to throw you in jail for a long, long time. So would you rather go free with a few bruises or get locked up until your grandkids get grandkids of their own—assuming you have grandkids at all? I mean, the best way to go would be to just stop hurting people like Herman here, focus on your real jobs, and never have to see my face again. In all honesty, I'm just looking out for you. Pain, jail, or a clean slate, man, what do you want?" you said, starting your usual speech. The guy stood silently and listened, looking down at the ground with his hands at his sides. I was starting to get a bit suspicious. This didn't bode well at all. I almost said something, but again I realized that you were too in the zone to hear me. You listened when I needed you to listen, but I had to wonder why you never listened when you could benefit from what I had to say. Was I really just a pity case or what? It was driving me crazy, and my mind was going in circles—from the thug's shadier behavior to you not caring about my friendship and back again, and it made me even crazier to know that the two things were totally irrelevant. I tried to yell at myself in my head, tried to tell myself to focus. Something was wrong, and I had to pay attention to see it.

"You're right," the guy said quietly, making you step forward to hear again, leaving me behind, "The cops do have tasers and guns to deal with people like me. You? You don't." Then he pulled a pistol out of his back pocket and I cursed myself for not having noticed that about him before. How do you even miss something like that? I screamed the question in my head a few times before my brain froze up and I just stopped thinking altogether. He was leveling the gun at your head, and your muscles were all tensed. Your eyes went wide, and then narrowed in anger. He had you at a disadvantage, and you hated that. I could almost see the gears turning in your head, I could almost envision the plans you were making and discarding. You wanted to dodge a bullet and then punch this guy out harder than you had any of the others. I couldn't help but wonder what the hell you were thinking, though the thought was fuzzy and buried deep behind images of you being shot.

You had been in more fights than you could possibly count, at least half of those against people way bigger and stronger than you, and I had come along with you on at least three fourths of those fights because I was your best friend and we did everything together… but never in all that time, never once had either of us been held at gunpoint. We had never even seen a gun get involved in any of our altercations, not even after we left like shadows and the police came to clean up after your handy work. We were both frozen in fear and shock. A gun was too much for us to process. I noticed your legs lower slightly, and realized that you were readying for a jump. Your plan seemed to be that you would jump so high and so fast that he couldn't shoot you, landing on him just like you had in the start of the fight. I didn't think for a second that it would work. You were the most awesome person I had ever known, but no human was that awesome in real life. That was when I started to get scared for you. I mean, really scared. You had a pistol aimed at your face… you were about to die, and I couldn't see any way around it… unless… I blinked; the first movement since he had first pulled the gun on us. Suddenly, everything seemed to slow down and I saw exactly what I had to do.

The guy was as observant as I was, and noticed your motion a split second after I did. You didn't jump yet, waiting for your chance, but he didn't want to take any risks. He pulled the trigger, though his hand slipped a bit in his haste and I watched the bullet fly towards your chest instead of your head. I didn't register that this hit might not be as fatal as a head wound. I didn't register anything. I didn't think. My mind was blank, with only one sentence sticking where everything else had cleared out: "protect her." I ran, my foot first hitting the ground as I saw the flash of panic on the gunman's face and watched his fingers move towards the trigger itself. It felt like I had all the time in the world to get to you, but something told me that I didn't have enough of that time to waste thinking. He pulled the trigger as I got to you, and I had just enough of a window to jump in front of you, not even imagining the consequences. I didn't even feel the impact of the bullet as it buried itself into the right side of my chest. Suddenly, time came back all at once and gravity pulled me forcibly back to earth. I coughed and groaned, feeling a sharp and persistent stinging in my chest. It was getting worse as I laid on my right side, as if it had to make up for lost time. I heard the gun rattle on the ground as the guy dropped it, and then I heard him cuss and listened to his feet pounding the asphalt as he ran away. I doubted that he wanted to be caught holding the gun that had killed a kid, though it made me wonder why he had shot at you in the first place.

"Benji!" your voice reached my ears, sounding wonderful even at a high-pitched and worried scream like it was. The fact that your lungs were working so well meant that you hadn't been hit, even if I had, and that I had done what I had set out to do… albeit in a really stupid way. You jumped over me, getting onto your knees and putting one hand under my head. You leaned in close to me and I could see tears starting to form in your eyes. I felt them forming in mine, too, because I hated to see you cry.

"Shhh… don't cry. Please… ah… don't cry," I said, cringing from the pain that came into my side every time I spoke. I guess you saw it on my face, though, because my attempt to reassure you just made it worse and you really did start to cry, looking from my face to the blood that I could feel leaving my body. I just focused on your deep green eyes, enjoying the fact that they were so close to me and that they could still fill up with emotion because you were okay.

"Why…?" you asked, trying to finish the sentence past your tears. I fought back my own tears, trying not to cry just because you were crying. Once I started that, we would be in an endless loop of sadness. That was the last thing I wanted.

"I did it… ah… because…" I paused for a second, partially to recover and partially because I had always stopped myself before saying it in the past, but I knew that if I didn't say it now then I might never get the chance to again. I reached out and touched your hair, bringing it to my face and taking in the wonderful scent of it. I smiled and looked deep into your eyes, making sure that you understood what I meant. "I… love you," I told you softly, dropping your hair from my hand and brushing it against your arm. I felt a rush of embarrassment coupled with unbelievable joy and relief. I had said it. I had finally admitted how I felt about you. It was liberating, though I still felt the pins and needles anxiety of not knowing whether you felt the same.

"Oh, Benji…" you said, though the words started to fade and I had a hard time hearing them. There was a cloying blackness in my peripheral vision, and I realized that I was losing consciousness. I noticed that my breathing was shallow now, and that the pain of my wound was fading just like your words. Was I passing out or… was I dying? I couldn't tell, though I did feel really cold and it seemed like I had lost an awful lot of blood while confessing. "Crap," I thought, "Not now." Then everything went dark, and all the feeling in my body was lost.

The next thing I knew, the blackness was edging away from me and a bright light was blinding me instead. I brought my hand up to my face, feeling stiffness in my side that reassured me I was still alive and a pinch that made me switch arms. I was relieved to feel those things, because I knew that I couldn't have felt them if I was dead or dreaming. My eyes slowly adjusted to the new lighting and I took stock of my condition equally slowly. My side was wrapped in bandages, there was an IV in my right elbow, I was hooked up to a heart monitor that was beeping steadily, and I was wearing a hospital gown over my bandages. I lowered my arm and turned my head to the left, noticing a white chair with someone sitting in it. I took a second to realize that the person next to me was, in fact, you.

"Mary…?" I asked groggily, still feeling the effects of the pain pills they had undoubtedly given me. I blinked a few times, trying to get your image into focus. Your face was tear-stained, but your smile was as large and bright as ever once you heard me say your name. I weakly smiled back, trying my best to show you that I was okay. You laughed a little, seeming as relieved as I was. Then you did something I never would have expected. You jumped up from the chair and bent down to hug me. I was surprised, but I readily hugged you back.

"Benji, you idiot! I was so worried about you! I could have… I could have… I could have lost you. Never do anything like that again. I love you, Benji. I love you, and I don't know what I'd do if I ever lost you. Don't do that to me again. Please," you started out half-yelling, but your tone from anger to concern and… affection. The monitor started beeping slightly faster, and I cursed the circumstances.

"You really…? You aren't just saying that because—" I started to ask, half-unwilling to believe it. I had wanted to hear those words for so long; it had to be a dream if you were really saying them to me. I needed confirmation. I needed to know. You laughed louder this time, hugging me a little tighter (though you were still careful of my wound) and then drawing back to look into my eyes. I saw everything in those eyes. I had always seen your emotions in your eyes, but now I saw something that I had never noticed. I had been so worried about my own feelings that I had never really looked for yours. Your green eyes said it all.

"Really, Benji. I love you," you answered me, sounding so happy and sincere. I had to catch my breath, feeling the pleasant strain of a smile that was almost too big for my face and trying to think of something to say to this.

"I… I love you too," I finally said, not sure what else to tell you. Your face was glowing, and you looked more beautiful than ever as you said one more thing to me.

"I know, Benji. That's why I could tell you," you said softly, leaning in and pressing your lips gently against mine. I didn't even think about what I was doing; I just automatically kissed you back. Everything else just fell away, and all I could see was you. All I could feel was you. All I cared about was you. Everything fell into place then, and I knew that I would never have another day of doubt or fear or pain—at least, I would never experience anything like that without being able to handle it. I had you and you loved me, and that was everything I needed. I sat up, running my hand through your gorgeous red hair and breathing in your wonderful scent and thinking that all I needed to be happy for the rest of my life was that one moment, and suddenly it seemed like I really did have everything I needed. It was perfection. You reluctantly pulled away and we just looked at each other for a second, smiling like idiots.

"You have no idea how long I've waited for us to kiss like that," I blurted out, too happy that you had actually kissed me to care whether I sounded stupid or not.

"It can't be as long as I waited," you replied, your smile turning a bit mischievous. We both laughed, your voice as sweet as ever, and you scooted so that you could sit next to me and put your arm across my shoulders. The gesture seemed to mean so much more now than it had before.

"Hey," I whispered, leaning my head against your shoulder in return, "do you think there are other worlds out there; places where none of this ever happened and I never took that bullet?" You waited a second before answering and I could hear the joy in your voice.

"Maybe there are…" you whispered back, "but I'm not sure I want there to be."

"Good; 'cause neither do I," I told you, whispering one last thing before the nurse came in to check on me, "I love you, Mary."

You quietly sneaked out of my bed and took up your post in the chair, saying, "I love you too, Benji. I always have."

The End