The second I was shot, it felt like someone had just burned a hole right through my stomach. Lying semi-conscious on the floor of the store, I watched the blood from my gaping wound spread like a dam had burst. When I unknowingly walked in on the robbery, the store clerk had already been shot, his lifeless body stretched out behind the counter. The robber, a sturdy white youth with badly rotted teeth and fritz brown hair, from the moment I saw him looked wild eyed and was shaking (probaly on meth, I'd guessed) shot me without hesitation. I had a snowball in hell chance of dissuading him. It was close to 1:00 in the morning, and I had stopped in the all night open store to grab me a pack of parliament lights. I had an urge for a cigarette, but hadn't planned on getting smoked (pardon the pun). Chalk it up to the ol' Stephen Jones luck running true to form. The young man with the gun couldn't have been more than twenty years old, the same age as my own son, Tyrone. He stood over me with lines of desperation that overlaid his sweating brow, pointing the gun right down at my head.
"I oughta' shoot you one more time, mista', make sure you can't ID me. But the shape you're in, you ain't gonna' make it another minute or two."
"A-A little too late for that," I said, looking toward the video camera in the upper corner of the ceiling behind the counter. Right below it on the wall, a humorous sign with a cartoon character of a cop pointing with his finger read 'Smile, you're on candid camera.'
"Damn," the gunman muttered to himself, his face a ball of confusion. He suddenly shot out the camera, quickly running out of the store without another word.
"Son, I need you to try and stand up for me. Can you do that for me?"
The old, burly man standing over me was doing his best to get me on my feet. He wore blue overalls, like one of those country farmers in the south, and his hair was long and silvery white like the falling snow, with a mustache and beard to match. In a strange but good sort of way, he reminded me of Santa Claus.
"I've got a van right outside. I can get you where you need to go, but I need you to work with me."
"What about the clerk? You need to check on him, don't worry about me."
"Always the selfless one, aren't you, Stephen? The clerk is fine. He'll live. Now c'mon, help me out here."
"How did you know my name? I never said..."
"Your wallet," the old man answered. "The gunman could have taken it, but he didn't. Now, we do this on three, okay? One...Two...Three!"
Finally, with the old man's help, I got to my feet. It was easier than I thought it would be, and that made no sense to me. Maybe the gunman's bullet had only grazed me before.
"Lean on me," the old man said adding, "Thy chariot waits." We walked into his waiting van, which was also a bright white, from the seats and interior right down to the hubcaps on the tires. He got me in on the passenger side, took the wheel and we were off.
"What's your name, old fella'?"
"My friends call me Bird."
"Like the jazz musician, eh?"
"I prefer like the birds in the sky," he said with an infectious smile. "We should be reaching our destination very shortly."
"If it's to the hospital, you're going the wrong way. Johnson Memorial is in the opposite direction, on Smithfield Drive."
"I know where I'm going, Stephen. You just relax now."
"Look, Bird, I'm telling you, you're going the wrong way. Turn the van around right now. Please! Do you want me to die, too?"
The old man calmly placed one hand on my shoulder, pulled the van over and stopped with the other. The anxiety I had was suddenly gone, like his touch had willed it away.
"How did you do that? What in heaven's name is going on here, Bird?"
"Exactly," he said a matter of fact. "Stephen, I need you to do me a favor. Take a peek at my cell phone. Go ahead, son, take a good look."
It was an odd thing to ask, but something in Bird's voice compelled me to do it. When I did, the little screen lit up. It was I, still on the floor of the store with the clerk standing over me checking my vitals. He was on the phone telling the 911 operator that I had no pulse. But that was impossible. I was here with Bird, his hand still on my shoulder, no sense of panic taking control of me, just an incredible inner peace. I couldn't explain it.
"Stephen, the robber didn't kill the clerk. He only knocked him out by hitting him with the gun. However...he fatally shot you. I'm sorry."
For a moment, I didn't know what to say. The news of my demise, broken to me with such humility, grace, and reverence by this gentle old man was still...unsettling. I started thinking about my wife, Jennifer, and my son, Tyrone. The lifetime that I looked forward to sharing with them now would never happen. I would never get to see my son's wedding, never get to see the joy of fatherhood on his own face, my grandchildren. I would never be able to give him fatherly advice whenever he needed it. I would never get to grow old with my Jennifer. All of it, gone, snuffed out like a candle by the cruelest of breaths the way the gunman had snuffed out my life. Nevertheless, the inner peace that Bird gave me didn't allow for any anger, any malice.
"On a good note," the old man said with a glow-like twinkle, he reached into his pocket and produced a business card, which read in big, black cursive writing: Angels on Wheels and underneath that the mission statement, To succor all souls that are heaven bound. I looked at him and smiled, and he smiled back. It was a relieve to know going to the right place all along, just as Bird had tried to tell me and I suddenly felt an even deeper reassurance that I would eventually get to see my loved ones again...eventually...