“Atlantic” by Sleeping At Last
I woke up suddenly and sat up with a start. The second I did, the rejections in my chest punished me with searing pain and I winced. I looked around and squinted in confusion at the bright lights above me, the mahogany wood beneath me, and the plants set up around me. There were several brown beds set up in various spots in this room and I realized I was sitting on one. All the others were empty, but they all had white towels neatly folded at the head. There was water trickling softly from a mini waterfall into a frothing pool in the corner and soft tune was being played by a flute I couldn’t see. Where was I?
“Rise and shine,” a voice said nearby.
I spun and saw a black man dressed in a gleaming white shirt with equally gleaming white pants. His hair was white and woolly and his skin was a golden brown like bronzed chocolate. He was holding a towel on his arm and smiling at me like we knew each other, but I’d never seen him before in my life.
“Where am I?” I asked him. “And where’s Eight? Where’s Four?”
“Your friends are fine,” the man replied. “Trust me.”
“Trust you?” I asked. “I don’t even know you.”
“But I know you. They call me the Gunsmith. I gave you your gun when you were born. I’m the reason you are the way you are. I’m the reason all of you are the way you are.”
I narrowed my eyes at him, not sure if I should believe him.
“And it’s why I know exactly what you need,” he added.
I ignored that last comment. “What about that man in the hood? Where is he now?”
“Let me take care of those wounds,” the Gunsmith said, ignoring me this time. “Come.” He waved at me and motioned towards a wooden chair next to him.
I didn’t move.
“Everything’s gonna be alright,” the Gunsmith reassured me. “You just need some time to yourself right now.”
“How can I take time for myself when the people I care about need my help?”
“The people you care about need more than your help.”
“What do they need?” I asked, my heart suddenly beating faster.
“Come,” he waved at me again.
I sighed then slowly slid off the bed and walked to the chair. He sat me down then took off my jacket and hung it up on the wall.
“Take off your shoes and your socks,” he told me.
I sighed then reluctantly took them off.
“And your shirt.”
I pulled my shirt off and he took it from me.
“Here,” he said as he gave me a cup of hot chocolate.
I grabbed it and the warmth of the mug was surprisingly soothing. I took a sip and couldn’t stop a stubborn smile from making its way across my face. It was oat milk–just the way I liked it. How did he know? As I was thinking this, the Gunsmith grabbed my feet and gently placed them in a bowl of warm water.
“Uhhhh….what are you-what are you doing?” I stuttered.
“Just sit back and keep drinking,” he told me.
I didn’t want to keep drinking. I wanted to go help my friends. And I wanted to know why this mysterious man was trying to pamper me. But I gave in and sat back and forced myself to take another sip. Maybe there was some kind of sedative in this hot chocolate. As I drank, he started moving his hands around my chest and pulling and twisting and squeezing. I didn’t feel much, but eventually I heard metallic clatters in a small bowl at his feet. A few minutes later, he wiped his hands and showed me the bowl full of rejections he’d just pulled out of me.
“These were all in you,” he said.
“Four. Eight. Seven. Everyone, really. You never actually dealt with them. You just kept moving, hoping you could make up for them, didn’t you?”
I lowered my head and looked at my feet. I didn’t like thinking about those rejections. There were reasons for each of them. I wasn’t dedicated enough. I wasn’t present enough. I wasn’t good enough. So if I could just do a little more for people, I could be enough and those rejections would fall out naturally. Wouldn’t they?
“What have you been doing for fun these days?” the Gunsmith asked me as he started rinsing one of my feet.
“What the heck?” I blurted. “What are you doing?”
“Asking you what you do for fun,” he replied without missing a beat. “So tell me…what have you been doing?”
“I…” I stared as he cradled my foot in one hand then lathered water from the bowl onto it with the other. I couldn’t think straight, but eventually wrestled my thoughts still to find an answer. “I like to, uh…I’ve been uh…there are these books I’ve been reading.”
“Yeah? Which ones?”
“Ummm…” I watched as he placed my first foot down then moved to the second foot. “How to Win Friends and Influence People…The Secret…”
“Those are good. If you like them, you should check out The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer and The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo.”
I had heard of those books. But they were fiction. What in the world did they have to do with the books I was reading?
“Sure…” I replied.
He dried my feet with a towel then removed the bowl.
“Follow me,” he told me as he walked towards the bed I had been sleeping on.
I set the hot chocolate down then followed him.
“Lay on your stomach,” he told me, gesturing to the bed.
I followed his directions and got on my stomach. The warmth of the sheets on my bare chest was oddly comforting and I shut my eyes briefly to soak it in. Then I felt the Gunsmith’s hands sliding up and down my shoulder blades as he rubbed oil on my back. My first instinct was to protest, but I suddenly felt weak. Not in a bad way. It just felt better to lay there and let him go to work. His fingers pressed and pushed, kneading my muscles until I was teetering over the edge of sleepiness.
“Why is it so hard for you to let me take care of you?” he suddenly asked me.
I couldn’t speak at first and just moaned from the massage. “I…I don’t really need help.”
“Those rejections in your chest and these knots in your back would beg to differ.”
He kept massaging me and with each press of his fingers, I felt my body and my soul unwinding, like he was pressing peace into my muscles.
“You said that my friends need something more than my help,” I eventually asked him. “What did you mean?”
He rubbed my shoulders and hit a knot I hadn’t expected and I hissed as I felt the tension release.
“Your friends don’t need your help,” he said. “As much as they need you.”
I kid you not when I say that my first thought was, “What’s the difference?” But I didn’t say anything and instead just let his words sink in.
“All done,” he said.
I sighed with content as I slowly rolled over and sat up. My entire body from head to toe felt rejuvenated, like I’d just come out of a hyperbolic time chamber or a full day at a spa. He had just given me a foot washing and a massage and I felt like a new man.
“Thank you,” I said to him.
“Don’t thank me yet,” he replied, reaching into his pocket. “I have one more gift for you.” He pulled out a black magazine with one word engraved on the casing: LOVE.
My heart fluttered when I read it and I took a deep breath to prepare myself for what was coming next.
“This is what you work for,” he said. “What you fight for and what you live for.”
I nodded, feeling the tears begin to well up. My body was trembling with anticipation like a dog about to go for a walk.
“But I want you to know,” he went on. “That no matter what you do, you always have this.”
I nodded again, forcing myself not to jump up and down.
He held out his hand and I gave him my pistol. He loaded the magazine into it and I took a deep breath.
“I’m ready,” I said.
“For what?” he asked me.
“For you to shoot me.”
“No, no, no,” he chuckled. “That’s not how this works. Not with you.” He handed me my pistol back and I held it in confusion. “Before you can learn to love others, you have to learn to love yourself.”
I felt a strange pang of disappointment and joy hit me in my chest. But I understood. If I could let him take out my rejections, wash my feet, and massage my back, I could let myself bite this bullet. So I lifted the gun to my head, took a deep breath, then pulled the trigger.
I dropped to my knees and felt the love coursing through my body in waves.
I looked up at the Gunsmith and smiled from ear to ear. “Thank you.”
He smiled back at me. “You’re welcome.”
Original artwork by Alyssa Pfingst