On a corner outside of a store in an unremarkable city that’ll be forgotten in the annual’s of history, you shuffle towards me, your wet shoes scuffing the pavement. You avoid eye contact bowed in a pseudo-humble pose. Mumbling, you ask for change.
I acknowledge you with a nod and explain, “I’m sorry sir, I don’t have any change.”
Your brow furrows gathering ripples of flesh, accentuating your skeletal features. You step in front of me blocking my exit from the store.
You reply, “Hey man, I just really need something tonight. You gotta help me.”
Your desperation is pathetic and I think of all the reasons I should shove you out of my way. I think of the many reasons that you have gotten to the point of begging me, a stranger, to finance your chemical dependency. A show of force will just agitate you. Empty threats will result in the type of male posturing that leads to senseless violence. I chose a few forceful words to provide an end to our conflict.
“No means no.”
I push you aside and you stumble backwards; your left hand reaching into your soiled jacket to brandish a gun. I’ll feign fear raising my hands and widening my eyes. In my periphery I notice a camera. I could overtake you, but I fear that the video may be used against me. I’ll have to take the bullet.
I’ve been shot many times before. It ends the same way; a sudden loss of consciousness and I miraculously self-heal. I’m an immortal — an illegal. Over the years, I’ve learned to anticipate human behavior in such a way that I can “pass” as a regular. I decide I’ll step closer to you taking the bullet to the abdomen. I’ll be sent to the hospital where I will self harm for the next 48 hours to remove any suspicions. The doctors will predictably send me home with sterile gauze, antibiotics, and instructions on how to dress a wound. I will call a cab and limp home feigning injury discarding the items along the way. I’ll avoid the registries and maintain my identity amongst the regulars.
Back to the present.
I grimace and plead with you as if it’s my last chance at survival. I do my best to reenact a scene from an old mafia film.
Hands raised, the words tremble off my lips, “Please don’t shoot.”
You smile and straighten yourself standing erect. You’re taller than you appear gaining confidence with the additional height. You deviate and turn the gun on yourself. Pressed against your temple the flash of the muzzle sends blinding fire raging through the darkness of night. The echoes of the blast reverberate from the grim focal point of torn flesh and hot steel. Your body caves into itself leg’s faltering at the mindless dead weight above. Your pale body lay in the darkness, an eerily familiar sight. The blood pools around you subliming into the ether. Your skull reconstructs. The twisted tissues and fragments gather as if from some organic blueprint.
I step cautiously to examine the tattoo on your neck. You are like me — an immortal. The tattoo suggests that you were imprisoned, “quarantined”, during the Great Culling. The three digit tattoo suggests that you were one of their first captures. You must’ve died many times, experienced so much anguish. The memories only growing stronger with each return to life.
The swollen bump behind your ear, a tracking implant, suggests that you’re currently being monitored by the Ministry of Life. You were likely released due to some plea deal orchestrated by the immortal sympathizers. They care but they don’t understand that freedom is a prison to those who despise life. The burden of your current fears and past trauma consume your every waking minute. Of course, when death is not an option you choose to numb yourself to the World.
In this moment, as the blood rushes to your face and the smoking gun cools in the rain, I wait for that infantile first wind of life. I kneel down to gather your waking body holding your head close against my chest. Through a stream of tears I lean in to whisper, “I understand.”
Ted Chiang has a well known short story called, “Understand.” Much of it is a meditation on the limits of language and knowledge. Without giving away too much I thought that the concept of two extraordinary individuals attempting to match wits would make an interesting story. In this case, this is a more street level encounter in which the egotistical narrator finds common ground and compassion through his encounter.