Another short story, uncannily very similar in theme and structure to the others in this unexpected series. The prompt in this instance was a comment, “What if you knew you only had 9 hours until your death, at midnight?” Here is an imagined scenario:
Amaia adjusts the dark blue blanket around her shoulders and tucks the loose corners under her arms.
“Oh Mannie, thank you for coming at such short notice. And for bringing the sleeping bag.”
She pulls something out of her pocket, “This is for you.”
She hands over a bulging DL envelope, folded in half. The broken seal at the top gives away that it has been used. Maybe Amaia had received a bill or doctor’s letter in it.
“Sorry it’s so scrappy. It’s the best I had at hand. I’m sure you understand.”
I peer inside.
“Look later, after…”
The envelope was crammed with notes.
“Amaia, really, this isn’t necessary.”
“I can’t do anything with it and anyway, I passed a cash machine on the way home. Better in your hands than the bank’s. Go and do something nice. Send me a postcard.” She smiles, “Come on, let’s get going.”
She says goodbye to her landlady and we make our way down the road and along the back suburban streets, laden with blankets, pillow, cooler box. This has been the first warm day of summer. The balmy, but swiftly cooling, Saturday evening is idyllic. It is the long-awaited shift to summer’s warmer temperatures. We turn up a hidden side path that leads to a nearby wood. It is steep and we make our way up it slowly. White dog roses hang low across our heads, ivy is thick on our right and the path reeks of dog piss.
“A dog would be good company for this journey,” notes Amaia, “He could leave his mark here; add his piss to the others’.”
Even in these first forty minutes, she has so much to say than I do, but then she has had about seven more hours to come to terms with what is to come. At the end of the steep path, we reach the gate which we cover with the blankets and sleeping bag. We use the cooler box as a step and climb over the gate into the wood. I have never been into late night trespassing, neither has Amaia, but these are extenuating circumstances.
“I’m going to have a difficult time explaining all this.”
“That’s what friends are for,” laughs Amaia, “I’ve also told the others about the plan, so it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.”
Amaia knows the spot she has in mind. It is an elevated clearing in the wood, “where the bluebells are an abundant sea in spring.” She snuggles into the sleeping bag and sits up against a tree with a pillow propped up behind her. I switch on her laptop, insert the USB network adapter, doubtful that we might access any Wifi from this spot. It is worth a try, especially for a moment such a this. Amaia is unpacking her backpack. There are three bottles of water, rescue remedy, boxes of Ibuprofen and Codeine tablets, three bottles of codeine linctus, a slab of dark chocolate and a grubby, well-loved teddy bear. She pulls out a bottle of wine.
“So you’ve started drinking?” I say.
“It’s for you, to toast the occasion.” She picks up the boxes of tablets and starts arranging them in a neat tower. “I didn’t think I could get rhis much shopping done in the time I had. I went to three different pharmacies, so as not to arouse suspicion. Luckily, there’s a glut of pharmacies open on a Saturday afternoon near the Emergency Clinic.”
I don’t want to probe too much, but I should, just in case I have to answer difficult questions tomorrow. I do know that Amaia has called her mum, brother and sister. We also hope to connect with them over Skype in the wood. I will hold her hand. The rest is inevitable. Amaia starts crying.
“Mannie, is this really it? Is this how it ends?”
I step over towards her and take her in my arms.
It was 3pm when Amaia walked out of the Emergency Clinic. She had collapsed unexpectedly in the morning during a workout. These sudden seizures were not uncommon among generation. We wondered if they were caused by the devices. It was impossible to live life without these agents. We worked with them, used them to plan and guide our daily lives. Slowly, but most surely, we realised that they were also killing us. While we noted this, it was not made official. The diagnoses were vague and the conclusions swift. Amaia was lucky because the doctors had recognised she had time: 9 hours. This meant she had almost half-a-day to prepare.
On the ‘phone she had said to me, “I once knew a wise old woman who said, ‘The gift of cancer is time.’ These last few hours are in some ways a gift.”
It was already 8pm by this time and I was out drinking with friends. My response was anger. How could she have left it so late to call me?
“Listen, Mannie, I called for support. If this is too much, forget it…” She took a breath. “Of all the people I know, with your training, you should have some understanding. This isn’t the time for a fall out. I’m going through the stages. I’m staggering between anger and acceptance, and I’ve consumed quite a lot rescue remedy. Would you come over?”
When we were at college, a group of us decided to take off the afternoon for a trip to the seaside and we asked Amaia along. I’d teased her, of course her answer would be no; she’d scheduled that afternoon weeks before. I watch her in this dark wood as she unpacks her backpack. It reminds me of her impeccable sense of fore-planning.
“Mannie, I need you just to make sure I’m not in pain, “ She had even researched the codeine to morphine effect beforehand. “When I first heard, I thought I would just climb into my own bed and drift off. I mean, what else was there to do? It wasn’t as though I was going to change the world or do my great work in 9 hours. It isn’t enough time to get back to see my family. So, well, might as well accept things. Then I remembered… I just don’t want to be in that kind of pain and discomfort, please, Mannie, please.”
It was a great deal to process and in my pause her tone turned brusque, “If you’re not able to, say so now. Stop wasting my time. I’ll find someone else.”
But we both knew that in this city that we had made our home, neither of us had that many people to turn to. As often in these darkest moments, it could mean turning to a stranger. Amaia knew this, “Mannie, I don’t want to be alone in a bed in an ugly hospital room.”
There is no Wifi signal and it is already 11pm. We debate whether to stay put or move on and then am almighty thunderstorm strikes. Amaia is already in tears about the Wifi. With each burst of thunder she lets out a pained cry. Then she starts babbling, “I don’t want to die in this rain. The worms will come, come out of the earth to eat me here. The mud, the mud, will take me, like the men in the trenches. I’ll be stuck here. The flies will come. The maggots. Oh, Mannie, Mannie!”
Amid the thunder, lightening and rain, she rattles a whisper, “Not here.”
Amaia gets up, climbs out of her sleeping bag cocoon, deserts her pile of comforts and starts walking. I pick up my backpack with the computer inside it and run after her. For me the ground is damp and slippery, but she strides ahead sure-footed. Back on a path, she turns towards the gate on the main road, on the opposite side where we had climbed in. I’m behind, but catch her intone to herself between a coughs that rattle, “I can get out. If get to the gate, I’ll get out. It’s all just a weird dream. I can get out.”
She strides with purpose. At this speed we will be at the gate in a few minutes. And Amaia may be right. It is possible that the doctors made an error, or she had misheard. Running around in a storm, in a wood late at night is a little surreal anyway. We just need to get inside, dry off and have some sleep. Aiming for the gate and getting back to reality seems sound strategy to me, too.
I notice that the drama of the storm has subsided and although it is still raining, the drops fall lightly. In the distance, a church clock chimes. Once, twice, three times. It had been years since I’ve heard such a clear peal. Four, five, six. I pick up my pace.
“Hey, Amaia. Let me come with you to the gate. I’ll help you climb over.”
Seven, eight, nine. Amaia turns around, sways a little, “See, I made it.”
She is soaked through, her hair is sodden. Her face is grey, but her eyes seem bright and alive to me. Ten, eleven, twelve. I step forward to give her a hug, “You made it.”
Before I reach her, she crumples into the mud and wet leaves. Above us a hovers a helicopter on the lookout for druggies in the wood. They shine a beam down on us and I know, the explaining now begins.
If you enjoyed “9 Hours”, you might also enjoy one of these other short stories:
Fenstone’s Flower – about an unexpected bloom in an elderly garden-enthusiast’s greenhouse
Hand-tie – about a bouquet delivery
Running in the Wood – about a husband and father’s mind-clearing run in a wood
Gone are the cars – about a photographer capturing forbidden cars in a post-apocalyptic, carbon-rationed world
There are also hundreds of poems on this blog. Take a lucky dip by clicking on any of the months below and see what comes up.