For the fifth time that night, Fen woke up. Joltingly he bent over double in his bed, racked in a violent coughing fit that seemed to shake every small bone in his body like a loose window in a storm and made his ears and his eyes throb painfully. He felt like his brain was sore from knocking about inside his skull.
Some thick wetness spat out on the back of his hand again, Fen’s heart dropped a little
He clambered out of bed as soon as the coughing had abated, and stumbled through his barely illuminated room to the total darkness of the hallway.
His chest burned, it felt tight as though his ribs had shrunk and his throat shrivelled, and he sounded like an old set of bellows. He could hear the gentle harshness, his weak circulation of ragged breath, rasping as it was pumped through grating lungs, it was pathetic and he was angry at himself already.
He got to the bathroom, stubbing his foot on the door jamb as he broke through blindly. With one hand, he groped for the pull cord, and switching on the light he looked at the wet mass on his hand that glistened in the darkness.
He already knew it, but had kept the acceptance at bay for as long as he could. It had happened again.
Something was seriously wrong with him, and he didn’t know what, but of course if he had to guess he’d say
No, he knew that he mustn’t let his mind wander to conclusions when he didn’t know the first thing about it. All he could say for now is that he likely had some sort of chest infection, he nearly always had the flu these days, who didn’t? With the weather like this everyone was always sick.
He washed his hands, splashed water on his face, and spent too long peering at the grey, sallow face that started at him probingly from the medicine cabinet mirror. His watch told him it was only three in the morning, if he couldn’t sleep, there was no good him wearing himself out with worry.
Fen left the bathroom, and taking a glass tumbler from the kitchenette counter, seized up a bottle of whiskey and carelessly poured himself a large drink. It burned his lips with spice and overpowering oak bitterness. Tempering the liquor with tap water he started slugging back shots almost robotically, staring into the pitch blackness of the small square window, and letting his mind flow through the insulated glass unchallenged, flying through the endless world beyond.
After a while the whiskey did its work, his blood thinned and flowed more freely and his chest glowed from the warmth of the liquor, he felt his thoughts leaking like pressure from his skull, dissipating in the chilly air and condensing on the cold glass of the window, leaving his head feeling light on his shoulders. He sauntered over to his room and turning on the bulky computer sitting the corner he strapped himself into the interface cradle
Eve ambled through the meadow underneath the high sun, glowing white set in the faultless pastel blue of the sky. The landscape stretched in all direction, verdant hills rolled over each other, groups of people played among the gentle slopes, their squeals of laughter carried on the gentle breeze reached her ears from afar. Another day in paradise and as usual the citizens of this heavenly kingdom were all around, exuberant with joy. She wandered around looking to see if she could find anyone she knew, but all the faces she passed were strange. Still, she was here, and as always, the day was beautiful.
“Hey Eve!” a voice called from behind her, she turned around and instantly recognising the avatar, broke into a grin.
“Fen!” she called back and ran over to where he stood “What are you doing up?”
Opening his arms wide to receive the girl in a bear hug Fen laughed “I could ask you the same question” he said
“Can’t sleep” Eve dismissed the question as usual, their embrace broke and Fen looked at her earnestly, scrutinising her blue eyes for further meaning, he always forgot that he only knew her as her avatar.
“What did the doctors say?” He asked her quietly. Eve shook her head and smiled at him, her eyes glowed.
“Never mind that now, let’s go for a walk” she said, and lead Fen off through the meadow “Shall we go to the beach?”
“I’d love that” said Fen, he caught up with her and together they walked over the grassy terrain towards the sandy bay that faced the sea. They walked in heavy silence, both obviously had things they needed to talk about, but seemed unable to approach the subjects. Fen sneaked a searching glance at his friend, and decided he would be patient and wait for her to bring up her news.
“So what’s keeping you awake?” she asked suddenly, catching him off guard so he had to snatch his gaze away from her as though he had been caught peeping at something not intended for his eyes.
“I, uh” Fen began to answer instinctively, but his mouth dried up and he realised he hadn’t prepared an answer. He didn’t know exactly how to put it, so he just started clumsily “I’m not feeling any better, the cough is still pretty bad”
“Jesus Fen” Eve said in a pained tone “It’s been over six weeks now you really oughta get that checked out”. Fen’s eyes darted in a panic, like bugs scattering for hiding places after a child has lifted the rock they were underneath, he turned his face towards the sun away from Eve, feeling its warmth peel over his forehead.
“Yeah I guess…” he said. They had reached the bay now, the sand shifted underneath their feet and they sat down on a large black rock that jutted out of the ground, this is where they always came to talk about difficult things. “It happened again” he said after a while, clear he had been waiting to say it.
“Oh no… the blood?” Eve whispered.
“Yeah” Fen looked down at his hands “I think I’m dying Eve” tears spouted from his eyes, when he finally brought his head back up to face his friend, she was crying too. Eve took one of Fen’s hands and they looked out in silence towards the horizon, nestled between the sun and the sea.
“Welcome to the club” she said at length.
Eve woke that morning, as usual with a migraine. She had spent too long on the VR which always gave headaches, not that it would have made any difference. The day previously she had men, lined up in their white coats, wearing rehearsed condolences on their sleeves, informing her that, unfortunately, the tumour has not responded to the treatment, really sorry, we’ve done all we can. In the end, they gave her some pamphlets and left her to have time alone, the easy way out of telling someone that they’re going to die.
She was finding out that the world doesn’t stop just because she’s dying, her alarm clock went off as usual, she had to make the same miserable commute she made every morning and get to work.
With a defeated resignation she got out of bed, her expression staying limp and hollow as she dressed and got ready, without haste or care. She left her house, the sky was still black and snow came down lazily in thick flakes. The soft crunch of snow underfoot in the steady tattoo in rhythm to her pace gave her something to focus on. Without the song of the crunch, crunch, crunch her mind was free to wonder and upsetting thoughts flooded into her head unbidden.
It was like this, counting her footsteps to keep her mind braced against the intrusion of unwelcome thoughts she had walked all the way to the train station without any awareness of the time it had taken her to get there, and it was only when she realised she had arrived that she abandoned that abstract focus.
That’s right she told herself ruefully The world doesn’t stop just because I’m dying, better get on with it.
The morning train was always packed and overcrowded, but because this was only the third stop on the line, she could sometimes manage to get a seat on the first carriage. Unless that man got there first, which he often did. It’s funny how the small things that wind us up don’t seem small until something knocks them into perspective Eve thought to herself as she got through the station turnstiles, maybe she would have a word with the man and put an end to this feud, maybe she would tell him exactly what she thought of him. He was always rude and self-important. He barged, pushed and elbowed so that he could get the seat before her. They were the only two people who caught this train from this platform, and even still these strangers could not manage to remain civil, let alone be polite.
Coming onto the platform she saw him there, waiting, and she felt the bile rise in her throat and anger swam up through her like a warm vapour. He always looked so smug in his suit and tie, always making an ostentatious show of reading the newspaper to make himself look better and smarter than everyone else, but she could see through him.
Eve steamed towards the man, she told herself that the world may not stop just because she’s dying, but she finally has a good enough excuse to put it to rights.
Fen could hear Eve marching up to him on the gritted platform, he shot her the usual bitter look he normally did, she was always such a pest, haranguing him over a lousy seat, well today he didn’t have time for it.
Eve had just opened her mouth to give Fen a piece of her mind, but she saw the expression on his grey and sallow face. He looked as though he had given up, not just the race for the seat but for something much larger and bigger. Thrown off by the look of the defeat on the man she lost her place
“Hi” She said simply “I don’t think we’ve ever talked properly”
“No” Fen replied “I don’t think we ever have” He extended her a hand to shake, but before she could take it, it was snatched urgently back to his mouth, covering a coughing fit that had him bent over. He turned his back to the girl and carried on coughing until the train came. She quietly let him have the seat and after then never bothered about it again. They never got their chance to speak properly.