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When at last L arrives, the automatic doors do not slide open.
If he were in a rush, if he ran everywhere, in a rush like a child, there might be a jagged outline of his former figure. The image crystallises in his mind: some shattered glass, red-tipped shards on radiant frost.
His field of vision pierced, then dimming. Fading to black.
L steps back, wants things to slow down.
To separate himself from the thought: I would be remembered.
In a strange way, standing before the automatic doors, L feels he has cheated death.
Like his friend Chris who swallowed a fake ecstasy pill stamped SKY. The difference being, Chris arrived face up on a stretcher on a starless night, and the doors slid open.
L does not pursue this mood he finds himself in.
He has no ancient, intoxicating impulse to see it through; he is not a chaotic person; he leaves spellchecked comments on clickbait articles, unpicking their lack of substance.
At fifteen, he is hollowly thin, cynical, placid and permanently tired.
He masturbates decadently late at night.
In many ways he is ordinary. Yet his mind continues to link images to him: a queue of people walking through his outline, politely stepping over his body.
He wonders if anyone has ever said: To be honest, we were a bit relieved.
The doors of the hospital entrance, again, attempt to slide.
Each time, this motion reminds L of his life of banal dependencies.
I am at the mercy of stiff hinges, he notes, not unhappily.
A cluster of people have started to gather behind him. L turns to put faces to sounds. A grey, aquiline woman heels out her cigarette and whispers, Brilliant.
A classically ugly old man on crutches murmurs in some kind of agreement.
A young mother hunkers down and blows on her son’s hands, then demonstrates rubbing hers together. When she stops, her son starts to rub her hands with his. The young mother tilts her chin skywards.
On the airstair, boarding the plane, Viv said: Just to warn you, it will be a shock. Seeing him. My dad, your grandad, at the end, he was bones. Unrecognisable.
L nodded in reply, before walking the narrow aisle to his emergency-exit seat.
During the safety demonstration, a pixelated man pulled an oxygen mask over his face, eyes dark and vacant, and L envisioned what lay ahead of him after he got off the plane. After he passed through the hospital doors, on towards a sterile, long corridor.
L had never been inside a hospital before, so when he imagined opening the door to his Uncle’s boxy room, there at the centre, in the pale light, lay a weightless hologram of a man. But when L held out his hand, he felt nothing for the man.
Then the plane took off and a cold crept up his spine.
When Viv steps forward, she waves at the sensors and says: You must be joking.
L averts her gaze and scrutinises his long, inexpressive reflection. It is his hope that the automatic doors remain closed.
Viv and L flew 5,000 miles to be here. To be stuck outside, on the verge of calling out: We’re here.
It’s deep wintertime, a coated kind of desertification. All the windows are closed and nobody is on the front desk. L can hear the phone’s faint, incessant ring.
That was Viv a matter of days ago, awaiting confirmation. And when she received it, the doctor deemed it best to use the phrase: He’ll check out in days not weeks.
After relaying this to L, Viv forced out a laugh and said of the doctor: I could kill him.
High above the Atlantic, L could not sleep.
He opened the cabin shutter and sun poured in on Viv’s cloaked eyes, but she did not stir. In her lap lay a disposable of her and Uncle and L as a baby. In the mottled photo, Viv had a great fuzz of curls, and she and her brother exuded an indeterminable youth. Their grins and jade green eyes burst down the lens.
Then the plane raced through a tremor of clouds, and the photo fell. Unbuckling his belt and picking it up, L noticed himself. Beside his left cheek, shapes like tiny gold corals had surfaced: chemical dyes sensitive to oil and light.
He adored you, Viv murmured, pulling a blanket up to her neck.
Over the past month or so, L has been present for numerous talks about Uncle.
In the main, Viv came home from a work dinner, a few wines in her, and called down: Leo? Leo?
L would then slope upstairs and fold his long bones into the chair opposite.
There was nowhere he could hide, and where he provided silence, Viv filled it with talk. There was a lot of silence, and as the night wore on, it seemed possible for Viv to talk and talk. This woman before him was no longer his mother but a real-life person. Unravelling. Spilling stark admissions: You two are all I have left. And they’ve got him on so many painkillers he doesn’t know where he is half the time. She took a sip of wine: He threw up blood today. He’s fifty-fucking one.
When L returned to bed, his mind shrunk his growing limbs.
His cordless body plummeted.
Not into a mattress without springs, but into a starless abyss separated by a white sheet.
Death was no longer a concept canonised by Hollywood’s technicolour glory. Death was a mattress salesman, who lived alone across the Atlantic with a relentless thirst. Death was a mattress salesman who would die alone, if they did not board a plane, and soon. Death was his Uncle, and death would one day be in him.
As L lay there, turning all this over, Viv’s muffled voice filtered under the door: Leo’s distraught, I can tell. He’s speechless. He’s so empathetic. You learn that from your mother by the age of four.
Viv gently rests her hand on her son’s indoor shoulder, turns to him and says: I’m sure if we just wait a moment they’ll sort it.
I walked through a cloud once, the classically ugly man on crutches remarks to nobody in particular. It wasn’t very good. Cold.
The grey aquiline woman with tucked arms briefly opens her eyes and then closes them again.
The boy, dressed in a karate suit, looks up at his mother and says: When can we see him? I’m hungry.
Viv removes her hand from L’s shoulder and roots through her latticed, leather handbag. From the bottom, she retrieves a pack of pretzels and offers them to the hungry, newly beaming boy.
He crunches them loudly amid the icy, swerving winds.
The cluster imperceptibly huddle in closer.
Back when L and Viv still returned home to Westport for the holidays, the judicious Lundy clan would often remark how similar L was to Uncle. Apparently, they were both tall, quiet, placid, possessed good hand-eye coordination, but lacked discipline.
Well, they only said Uncle lacked discipline, but that hardly counted for guise.
They also stressed how close both L and Uncle were to their mothers.
Like that’s a bad thing, Viv dismissed.
But L did not know how to take this. He did not know Uncle. He informed his perceptions from other people’s words, and a part of him somehow resented Uncle for this.
The only time they’d met, L was at the start of his life, as Uncle is now at the end.
There are now enough people outside the hospital to fill a waiting room.
Outside, mercury is below zero and a discontent audibly grows.
A number of people have attached themselves to phones. Dialling so their discontent can be heard. Some can’t rid themselves of the words quick enough. Their feelings transferred onto an unsuspecting someone.
At the back, a patient airs his to a doctor: I don’t want them taking my blood in the middle of the night. I’m so tired. It’s not natural.
The doctor replies: Of course, I understand your concern.
It is L’s experience that those who said I understand, understood the least. It was something his dad used to say when he wasn’t listening. But then, his dad had not been a doctor, he closed deals and moved on.
With frost, sunlight is rendered a form of blindness. An ascending white glare that cuts through delicate pupils.
A man in dark overalls arrives with a shovel and spreads grit on the ground. People sarcastically applaud.
The wrenching of the doors prolongs. L feels he’s been here so long he could tell stories to those at the back they would never believe.
What would they be? I cheated death.
Look, Viv says, as a nurse with pale blonde hair rushes round the front desk and picks up the phone. He then swivels to see the waiting people outside. His hair is a fine white.
The waiting people shuffle forward, pressing L up to the glass.
His hands rise up to preserve his face.
A middle-aged man, who looks like he would defend himself in court, shoulders L and slams his palm on the door. In his other hand, he is clutching a bunch of pretty dandelions.
I do not accept this, he repeats with a percussive, vicious voice.
Viv pulls L close and mutters: It’s fine. We’ll get in. And when we do, I’ll give them absolute shit.
The nurse promptly finishes his call and approaches the door. Mouthing an indiscernible message, he eventually gestures with both hands: left, left.
The understanding doctor says: He’s going to let us through the fire door around the back. Follow me.
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