Archive for May, 2015

  • Losing Virginia

     

    Vincent absent-mindedly twists his ring round and round on his finger, trancelike, ignoring the oven timer beeping beeping beeping beeping—

    Fuck, he rushes to the kitchen, fuck fuck fuckfuck— He takes out the chocolate cake hurriedly, though carefully—ah it’s not that bad.

    The cake has turned out well. Perhaps not quite as well as Virginia’s, but that pretty neatly sums up the last ten years.

    He has baked her chocolate cake every year on the anniversary of her death. He knows this is a tad melodramatic, but he’s stopped caring about things like that. He just likes the ritual of it. It never tastes as good as hers did. It’s always too dry or too bitter or burnt, or sunken. But this year it’s different. It looks and smells almost perfect.

    Look at that.

    ‘It’s a thing a beauty,’ he says quietly to himself as he bends down to appraise his attempt.

    A thing of beauty.

    He cuts into the cake and inspects the inside. So far so good. He carefully sets the slice onto a plate. As he pours on the cream he catches a glimpse of himself in the reflection of the microwave door: his face is gaunt, skeletal, and his hair has almost completely fallen out. He hasn’t taken his Vitamins in over a month.

    So this is what it’s like to grow old? It’s not that bad.

    Vincent feels a sudden biting agony in his stomach and he doubles over, dropping the carton of cream on the floor with a splat. The cream goes everywhere, glugging rhythmically, as though it has a pulse. The pain slowly subsides and Vincent watches the last of the cream bleed out from the carton.

                                                                ***

    Vincent is on his third slice of cake and the cream has been cleaned up. He takes a mournful mouthful of cake and tries to remember everything in his life. He tests his memories, seeing which ones are still complete and which ones have rotted away.

    His mind rolls over every memory in his life, but it lingers on a few morbid moments. His thoughts of death bring him to the first time he experienced it. To Titan; his childhood dog. A beautiful dog. His memories of him are imperfect, which is partly why he loves to visit them so often. He’d not had any Vitamins back then; they hadn’t been invented yet, so his mind could actually forget things. He could lose a moment and rediscover it again, in a while, when a smell or a song brought it back to him. For Vincent, Titan is a true memory, not a perfect recollection—a matrix of smells, touches and affections—he is abstract and foggy in the ordered perfection of his mind. But he remembers how Titan died very clearly as it was the day of his fifteenth birthday. It was also the day the war ended. He remembers his mother calling out joyfully to him from the kitchen and he remembers Titan having some sort of stroke and dying in his father’s arms. Vincent remembers the painful strobing of his heart and the sting and the salt of tears on his face. The two events were distinct, but his young mind connected them into some cosmic significance, as though Titan had to die to balance out the books. It’s only really these two moments that he remembers that day, though, and little else at all.

    He used to enjoy his early, imperfect memories, but it’s the ones that came later that are harder to let go. The ones that had always been perfect. Vast lacunas are appearing in his past and he finds himself losing people’s names often. These are names he’s known for two hundred years.

    This is my decision, he reminds himself and he takes another mouthful of cake.

    It had only been three years after the war when Vincent first heard about the new drugs. Some Swedish scientists had developed them and it was all over the TV and the radio. He was at university in Manchester, lying in bed with a woman whom, in his recent state of amnesia, he has only just started to forget.

     Two months ago he took his last ever Vitamin. On that day, his memories were complete and his mind stretched back effortlessly over his long and eventful life. Two months ago he remembered the radio broadcast about the new drugs:

    —We’re here with Dr Kerry Livingston, one of England’s top medical researchers, and she’s going to explain to us exactly what Swedish scientist, Dr Selma Holm and her research team have achieved with their new drug. Dr Livingston, what exactly is this new drug?

    —Essentially, this drug is a sort of anti-aging formula. It began as a project to decrease the aging process of skin and it was going to be a revolutionary new cosmetic treatment, but Dr Holm realised that the drug had other applications.

    —Hmm, very interesting. How exactly does it work?

    —The full answer is a very long and complex one, but, in layman’s terms, it works by changing the way our bodies’ cells regenerate. You see, our bodies are very adept at healing and growing, and they do this on a cellular level by a process called mitosis, or cell division for anyone unfamiliar with the term.  Each cell has a sell by date, or is killed before then, so your body needs to regenerate these cells when required. The problem is that every new cell that is created is made so that it is ever-so-slightly aged.

    —Why is this? Wouldn’t it just be better for the body to just make the cell as good as new?

    —Yes, obviously, but it can’t. This is physically impossible. You see, all organisms contain genetic material, and this genetic material degrades over time.  As it degrades, the cells produced degrade also. Eventually, all things age and die. Without exception. It’s true that some trees have been known to live for thousands of years, but this entropy of cell division is always present.

    —Right, so back to this drug. Does it stop this process somehow?

    —Yes Tim, that’s exactly what it does. It does this by infecting the human body much in the same way as a virus does. It uses something called reverse transcriptase to open up a section of our DNA. It then implants its own revision of instructions, perfecting the process of cell division. In theory, when an infected person’s cells divide, the cells produced are as good as new and with no aging whatsoever.

    —That’s incredible. It’s obvious that this process could prevent aging, but can it reverse the aging process?

    —It’s early days yet, but there are a whole number of positive applications for this drug, and we think it might be able to reverse the aging process with a little bit of tweaking. We also think that it might be the final answer to cancer, as all cancer really is rapid and uncontrolled cell division—what this drug presents is an opportunity to fight this—to control cell division completely, and it’s very exciting.

    —I have to ask a question I’m sure you’ve heard a lot over the last few days: should we be meddling with this? What are the ethical issues surrounding the drug’s potential?

    —I’m not comfortable answering this question just now. I’m a scientist.

    —No answer at all? Come on, Dr Livingston?

    —No thanks. Not at this time.

     

    Vincent remembered this radio interview in its entirety because it was the beginning. It was a new way of thinking that he couldn’t understand at the time, from that limited and present perspective. It was only in the months and years that followed, when Vitamins were given freely throughout the world that Vincent realised why listening to the radio that morning in Katie’s sweaty, sleepy embrace had made such an impact on him: it was when he had begun to consider the idea that he might never die.

    In the twenty-five years that followed the introduction of Vitamins to the public, Vincent joined The Sentries and helped in the fight against the growing number of religious extremists.

    One night has been on his mind for centuries. It was the 10th of August 2036 and his unit received intel that a bomb was going to go off on Tower Bridge…

     

    “Do you know what the worst part of this job is?” Rex says to no one in particular.

    No one answers. They’re terrified. I can almost smell it. The terror. Maybe it’s something in their sweat…

    “I’ll tell you, then,” says Rex. “It’s not the fightin’. It’s all the fuckin’ waiting and fidgetin’ in between the fightin’ that bugs me. It’s the waiting that drives me—”

    —‘Charlie Team respond,’ the radio says in its nasal tone.

    “This is Charlie,” Liza says into the mic. “We’re at the RV point and awaiting instructions.”

    Her voice sounds weak. She never sounds weak. If I die tonight she’ll mourn me. She might think that she loves me. Though I doubt it. At least if I die she’ll never know that I don’t love her…

    —‘Understood. Charlie Team will take the transports to RVP two. Fire Team One get in the ADV, Fire Team Two take the jeep. Make your way to rendezvous point two and await instructions. Hostiles might be in your area; stay vigilant.’

    “Stay vigilant?” says Owen. “Are they taking the piss? Radio back: tell them we weren’t going to stay vigilant. Tell them we were just going sing songs in the car and play Eye Spy to pass the time—”

    “—Shut the fuck up,” I say. “You’re not helping.”

    Owen stares me down. He’s just scared; now’s not the time to fight.

    “Shut it,” says Liza. “You heard him: Harriet, Owen, Tom, Rex on me. We’re Fire Team One.”

    She always makes sure I’m not with her. Why does she do this? Is she worried that I’ll resent taking orders from her? Is she embarrassed to give me orders?

    “The rest of you are Fire Team Two,” she says. “Vinnie leads.”

    No one is saying anything. No one is moving. I can smell the terror and it’s something different—something other than just sweat and pheromones. It’s more than just chemistry..

    “Right people,” Liza says, “let’s go kill some backwards bastards and get back in time for a nightcap. First round’s on me if we make it. Move out.”

    I take my team to the jeep and we file in. Martha takes the driver’s seat, but I don’t want to argue with her.

    “Right. Let’s go, Martha,” I say. “They’ve already started moving. Trail behind, but not too—”

    —The light from the explosion is impossible—a star going supernova in the tight interior of the vehicle in front of me. The sound is a thousand thunders and I cannot think or see or hear…

     

    “Vinnie? Vinnie? Serg? Are you alright?”

    It’s Martha’s voice.

    “Serg. Are you awake?”

    I can feel my feet. My toes. I open my eyes and I see the green, chemical light burning from the ADV. I can smell them. Liza…

    “Uuurgh… I think—”

    “—There’re dead, serg,”she says.

    “I know.” I’m crying now. Hard. I’m shaking so hard I don’t know if I can stop. Maybe I did love her? No. It’s maybe worse because I didn’t.

     

    Vincent has thought about that moment almost every day for the last two hundred and twenty odd years, haunted by the hellish unreality of the orange and green flames and the reeking miasma of the burning fat and hair.  With precise detail, he recalled picking up the anonymous pieces of Tom and Owen and Liza and Harriet and Rex.

    Two weeks ago he forgot Rex’s name and felt guilty for hours. He gradually forgot Owen’s, Tom’s and Harriet’s names as well. Liza was the last to go and he slept better than he had in over a century. 

     

    Vincent rolled one of his Vitamins around on the table with his finger. He still had plenty of them. If he wanted to, he could go back on them and recover in a week or so.

    Vitamins are free and easy to get hold of, but some people still choose to die. This is how he first met Virginia: at a euthanasia rally in 2122. They had met in a café beside the main demonstration. Virginia was a doctor and Vincent despised her on principal. Death was anathema to him, and back then he couldn’t see how anyone could think differently.

    He still remembers exactly how she looked that first day he met her. He was writing a story for his online newspaper and he’d intended to crucify her in the interview. Instead, he’d begun to fall for her:

     

    This coffee is disgusting. That’s what I get for agreeing to meet at her choice of café.

    The demonstration drums outside, crashing against the little café like waves against rocks: ‘Our voice, our choice, our voice, our choice.’

    “Would you like a top up,” the waiter asks.

    I wonder how anyone could stay in such a thankless job when they might live forever—or for centuries, at least. How could they stomach it?

    “No thank you,” I say.

    ‘Our voice, our choice.’

    I wish they’d pack it in. I’m sick of their whining… Is that her walking to the door? It is her. She’s beautiful. The door opens and the rhythmic waves pour in and drown the room:

    ‘OUR VOICE, OUR CHOICE, OUR VOICE, OUR…’ the door closes behind her, ‘… choice, our voice, our choice, our voice…’

    “Mr Murdoch?” she asks, smiling sweetly.

    “Yes… Um… Hi. Please have a seat,” I sound like a buffoon.  

    She smiles and takes a seat.

    “The usual, Virginia?” the waiter asks.

    “No thanks, Barry. Just a green tea for me, please.”

    She turns to face me, her mousy hair is messy—her face looks a little sunburnt. She smiles.

    “So,” she says, putting her hands together, interlocking her fingers, “would you like to ask me some questions?

    “My first question is bold, but I don’t want to keep you longer than I have to, and I don’t want to stay here, listening to that,” I gesture out of the window, “for longer than I have to. The question is plain: why do you support euthanasia of perfectly healthy people?”

    She looks a little shocked. I didn’t want to shock her. I didn’t want to upset her.

    “That’s not a plain question, Mr Murdoch, and your wording wasn’t plain either. I suppose the main thing I’d like to question is your assumption that they’re ‘perfectly healthy’. They aren’t. They are perhaps extremely depressed or mentally exhausted. Emotionally exhausted. Some are neither; it’s just something they want. I have spoken to so many people that have wanted to die, and most of them had thought about it for years before they came to me. The only reason they hadn’t done it themselves was because they knew how horrible it would be to come off the pills. A quick and painless death is what every man and woman wants.”

    She stares at me for a moment. Perhaps she’s searching to see if I’m satisfied with her answer.

    “Or perhaps,” she continues, “what you wanted me to elucidate was my emotions on the topic?”

    I nod.

    “Well I suppose that, other than empathy, the emotion I feel for these people is pity.”

    “Do you mean to say that you’re killing all of these people out of pity?” I say.

    “No. That’s not it. Your question’s loaded. I do it because a person has the right to choose what happens to them. But yes, I also do pity them a lot, and I believe I’m doing the right thing. It’s not illegal, you know? You’re looking at me like I’m a monster.”

    Am I?

    “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.  I just haven’t had such a frank conversation with a no-lifer before.”

    “I hate that term.”

    “Oh. Sorry.”

    Silence.

    “I’m sorry if I was looking at you funny. I’m just not used to people being so honest with me, I guess. I know it’s not illegal, but it should be. I mean, have you not tried reasoning with them? Maybe all they need is a month or two to think things over. Death’s far too final. It’s not an option; it’s the lack of options.

    “You obviously don’t understand depression,” she says. “And what do you know about death? What does anyone these days know about death?”

    “I served in The Sentries when the attacks started,” I say. My heart is pounding in my chest.

    “Oh. I see,” she says, and she looks at the table. 

    “I served when they hit Heathrow at 10/10,” I continue, “and Glasgow in 2030. I watched countless friends die so that these poor bastards could live, so don’t try and tell me—“

    “—I know,” she says, her voice quiet, soft. “I’m sorry. Please. I understand why you feel how you do, and I appreciate that it’s probably the only way you can feel, considering what you’ve been through. Not everyone has the same point of view, though. Not everyone wants to live forever. We don’t all share the same life—”

    “—Don’t you think I know that?” I snap. I sound horrible; she’s looking at me as though I’m the monster. But I can’t stop.

    “I just think they probably just need a little more time to think about things. I mean, how permanent their decision is. Eventually they’ll change their minds. Their depression won’t last forever.”

    Virginia smiles. It’s a kind smile and I feel bad for getting angry.

    “Would it make you feel better if I told you that every patient is subjected to three independent interviews before they can be euthanized?” she asks. “They must show the same resolve to die for a minimum of six months. If they waver at all, they are denied their request and asked to resubmit in six months?”

    “Six months?” I say. “What’s six months compared to an eternity? I hope that I don’t get bored for a year when I’m three-hundred and decide to end it all. We live forever, now; what good can six months do to clarify someone’s thoughts? I was depressed for a decade once, but I knew that it was just ten years in thousands, so I persevered. Life is another day to eat my favourite meal or feel the warm comfort of a bath, or the easy belonging of sex, or just holding a woman’s hand. Living provides me with another opportunity to learn and to experience something new, and to see something I’ve never seen before. Death is just so final. Depression moves on eventually.”

    “Well you might well have been depressed for a long time, but it really doesn’t sound like you understand it very well. The U-Clinics aren’t for everyone. They aren’t for you, obviously, yet you’re projecting your values into the head and life of every single other person. I’m glad you hang on to life so strongly. It’s an admirable trait, but not everyone feels the same as you. This isn’t about you.”

     

    Vincent finishes the slice of cake and sets it beside him. He is tired of remembering. It is so exhausting to remember. Yet, his brain hasn’t degraded enough yet, and some things were still crystal clear in his mind. Like the wedding. It’s the obvious next step in this memory walkabout, I guess.

    Vincent and Virginia’s wedding was a small ceremony, with only their families present. Afterwards, they went to Barbados for three weeks. In the intervals between having sex, they drank cocktails and ate far too much snapper and saltfish.

    Up until a few weeks ago, Vincent struggled with the lucidity of these memories. Previously, he could recall each infinitesimal, aching detail of their honeymoon. But now it is lurid and hazy—though this blur only seems to intensify the sensation of love and loss, making it more than real—more than it was.

    There was one day on the honeymoon that distinguished itself from the myriad moments their marriage was made of. And even this familiar, regular memory wasn’t immutable or unforgettable. He can’t quite go to the memory like he used to; its edges blur into other days and other memories and he reckons that this must have been what it was like before Vitamins, when people were doomed to visit and re-visit imperfect memories of the ones they lost.

     

    I am making love to Virginia and images of her are an amalgamation of all of the most exciting, cinematic times we’ve had sex—a sort of aesthetic greatest hits. Her smell, on the other hand, is vivid and of the sea and of her and the rum on her breath and the salty sweat that beads on her skin. We spend the rest of the day reading each other fairy tales from an anthology Virginia has brought with her. We do silly voices and laugh at the twisting, senseless plot-lines. When we’re hungry, we eat mangoes and bananas the hotel staff have left out for us. And when we’re sleepy we drift away together.

     

    Vincent’s mind is back in the dim, darkening room. The fourth slice of cake rests on the plate in his hand. He takes a forkful and reflects on its tastelessness—even compared to the second and third slices only hours before. I’d heard that my sense of taste would diminish, but not this quickly, surely?

    And in his mind he sees Virginia’s sleeping body beside him on the bed, and he can’t quite smell the rum, the sea, or even her sweat anymore.

    He didn’t know that that day with Virginia, that specific day they were together would be ‘The Day’—that this day would be synonymous with her when she was gone. He didn’t know that almost eighty-five years from that day he’d be eating her chocolate cake. That almost eighty-five years from that day he’d begin to forget the little details that made that day so special. 

    Vincent wipes the tears from his eyes hurriedly. Desperately. As though he is ashamed of them. He thought he’d cried all he could cry and this sudden burst of tears caught him by surprise.

    I didn’t think I could forget that. Never that. Was her hair across her face or held back with the red hairband? Did she read Snow White or did I? Did she forget all of this by the end?

    It is only in this last desperate attempt to be close to her that he notices the blunting edges of his memories of her. She’s not forgotten—not nearly—but he struggles to see her face clearly. He wipes away the last of his tears and calms his nerves.

    I can’t even remember what shade of brown her eyes were anymore.

    He composes himself and has a shower before bed. His back creaks and groans as he lies on the ancient mattress.

    I’m getting old, he thinks, and he begins to laugh. I’m finally getting old.

     

                                                                ***

     

    In the morning, Vincent wakes up busting to urinate, but when he tries to go the flow is slow and painful.

    He goes back to sleep afterwards.

    This was my choice, he tells himself. This was my choice. This was my choice. He repeats it over and over in his head, like a mantra.

     

                                                                ***

     

    The next day, he struggles to urinate once more, but he’s had a day to come to terms with this aspect of his aging body and he is slowly accepting the frailty of it.

    It’s hard to not age at all, then to do thirty years in a month, he reflects as he sips on his tea. He sips from Virginia’s cup; the one with the wolf and Little Red Riding Hood on it; the one he’d found in the little shop in Durham. Even that memory is fraying…

    Virginia is in the next shop along and I’ve crept back to get it for her.

    “It’s lovely, isn’t it?” the shopkeeper says, smiling at me.

    “Yes. It’s very nice,” I agree.

    “I saw your lady friend looking at it. Is it a surprise?”

    “Yes.”

    She beams at me. I hate this kind of attention. Just put it in the box and be done with it.

    “Would you like it wrapped?” she asks.

    Oh, for God’s sake. “Yes. Please.”

    The shopkeeper is from China; she still has the accent, although her English is perfect. She doesn’t look a day over twenty, but then most people don’t look a day over twenty. When I was young, shops like this one were almost always run by old women. Now I can go six months without seeing someone that looks over thirty—never mind an old lady.

    I’d like to see an old person again, and not just myself in the mirror. Vincent chuckles at the idea of a zoo of elderly humans knitting and playing boules while all the eternally young men and women watch them with amazement through the bars. Then he drinks from her cup again and remembers giving it to her.

    She bursts out laughing—

    “You rascal! That’s what you were doing!”

    “Yeah, well, I’m tricksy; it’s just a good thing that I use my powers for good.”

    She hugs me tightly and kisses me softly on the lips.

     

    He drinks from the cup again and remembers, and hopes that this is one of the next memories to go.

     

    It was the nightmare again. That night with Liza and the others. What’s that noise? What time is it? The bed’s shuddering softly. Virginia. She’s… she’s crying.

    “What’s the matter, little thing?” I rub her back and she moves, almost flinching from my touch.

    “Honey?” I say. “What’s the matter?”

    Silence. She’s stopped crying.

    “Nothing,” she says. She sniffs.

    “Come on.”

    Silence. Then she sniffs.

    “I’m… I’m sad.”

    “Sad about what?”

    “Nothing. Doesn’t matter.”

    “Nonsense. What’s the matter? Maybe I can help you feel a bit better?” I kiss her neck and stroke her skin. It bumps and tightens in reaction to my touch. Virginia cries even harder.

    “What is it?”

    “I can’t say. You’ll hate me once I say.”

    “That’s impossible. I could never hate you. What is it? Just tell me”

    “Promise you won’t hate me?”

    “I don’t need to promise—”

    “—Promise or I won’t tell you.”

    “Alright, I promise.”

    A pause for a few seconds. It feels like minutes.

    “I want to die.”

    The room starts to spin around me and I don’t know… How can I… I can’t be here. I can’t lie here, feeling the weight and heat of her in the bed, hearing her breathing, her cries. I get up and walk to the kitchen. I don’t bother with the dressing gown. I’ll make a cup of tea; tea heals fucking everything… There’s the Little Red Riding Hood mug from earlier. I should smash it. She pads almost silently behind me, but I can just about hear her over the fuss the kettle is making.

    I wouldn’t have bought you this cup if I knew you were going to die.

     

    Vincent, old Vincent, finishes his cup of tea and wipes the tears from his eyes. I hope that day is the next thing to go. I don’t need it. After that, I want her last few weeks to go too.

    The last few weeks of Virginia’s life were the hardest weeks of Vincent’s. She’d been off her Vitamins for almost two months and she’d aged rapidly.

    “I hate you for doing this to me,” I say.

    “What a horrid thing to say. And I’m sorry, but it’s not about you. It just doesn’t work that way.”

    “There’s still time to go back on it. There’s still time take the Vitamins and recover.”

    She shakes her head.

    “Please. For me?”

    I’ve told you it’s nothing to do with you. I just feel tired, you know? It’s like I’ve never slept and I’m just so tired. It just feels natural.”

    “How could it be nothing to do with me? If I’d given you a… If I’d made you happier you… you wouldn’t even be thinking about dying.”

    “I know why you’d think that,” she says, “but you’re wrong. I don’t expect you to completely get it. Not yet. It’s just not in you to die. You’ll outlive everyone. You’ll be the last human alive, just in case you miss out on something. But I don’t mind missing out on some experiences. My glass is full already and I’m so tired I can hardly bear it.”

    But mine isn’t. Can’t you stay alive for me? You might get over this in six years or so?”

    “Vinnie, I’ve felt this way for at least the last five years!”

    “You’ve been unhappy for five years?” I can feel my chest start to go, and I can hear my words begin to choke.

    “No! Not at all. I’ve felt completely content for the last five years. I’ve felt perfect. Done. Complete. There is nothing more I want or could possibly need.

    “I’ll never forgive you, you know.”

    “I think you will.”

    “How could I? You’re making me spend the rest of my long life alone.”

    “You don’t have to be. You could always meet a nice new woman and settle down with her. You could apply for a license; maybe they’d approve it and you could finally have a little mini Vinnie like we always wanted?”

    “How could I have a child with anyone but you?” I can’t stop the tears now. “How could I ever be with someone new when I’ve been with you for almost eighty years? And there aren’t any new people. Just old people who look young.”

    “You sound like an old man, Vinnie.”

    “What does that even mean?” I sniff.

    “I don’t know. You just sound old. Set in your ways.”

    “There’s no such thing as old men.”

    “Hmmm.”

    Virginia reaches out and grabs my hand and squeezes it feebly. I can’t stop looking at the tissue-thin skin on the back of her hand and the protruding, bumpy veins that look so much like deep-blue jelly snakes. The contrast of it against the smoothness of my own skin is disturbing.

     

    Old Vincent sets the cup on table in front of him and rubs his wrinkled face with his wrinkled hands. The memory is so much clearer than he thought it would be at this stage. He’d never felt so separate from her. She was old. Ancient. Something he thought he would never be. At least he felt a little close to her now. At least he could feel some of what she had felt back then.

     

    “I’m an old woman,” she says

    “I know,” I squeeze her hand gently, scared I might hurt her hand if I use any more strength.

    “But I’m ten years younger than you,” she says. “You know what that means don’t you?”

    “What?”

    “That means you’re an old man.”

    “You’re only as old as you feel,” I say, just for something to say. I don’t like this.

    “Fair enough. Then I feel two-hundred-and-ten-years-old.”

    “Yea, but that’s because you haven’t been taking your Vitamins—”

    “No, Vinnie, I’ve felt old for a long time. I’ve felt old longer than I’ve felt young.”

    “It’s hard to argue with that.”

    “Then just hug me instead, young man.”

    I hold her against my chest and I notice how much shorter she seems. Her frame is withered and frail and I’m so scared I feel sick.

    “Your heart is pounding,” she says.

    “I’m terrified.”

    “I know. I’m so sorry.”

    I’ll never forgive you, you know?”

    “I think you will.”

     

    Vincent takes the cup with Little Red Riding Hood on it and sets it in the sink. He is drained and can’t even muster the willpower to reach his bed, so he lies on the sofa and closes his eyes, hoping that he’ll have forgotten a little more by tomorrow.

    The more I lose, the easier it will be, he thinks, before sleep claims him.

     

                                                                ***

     

    Vincent wakens and decides to go for a walk through the park nearby before he’s no longer able to. He’s a little achy, but the painkillers have kicked-in and he has an old walking-stick left over from a Halloween party thirty years ago.

    People avoid looking at him. A woman gasps in horror as she notices him—though his hearing has almost gone by now. He can see the fear and disbelief in her eyes.

    I’m just an old man, he thinks to himself. He almost shouts it as he passes by a group of people.

    I’m just an old man.

    ‘What are you looking at?’ he accuses them and they all walk away from him, impossibly fast.

    How can they move so quickly? Was I ever that fast?

               

                                                                ***

    His days are getting excruciatingly long now, as though he’s trying to fit another hundred years into the tedium of his last few moments. His body aches and he is tired but restless and unable to sleep.

    Vincent wakes up wet and confused. He has wet the bed and it takes a while for him to realise. Cursing under his breath and sighing tiredly, he busies himself with stripping the bed and putting the sheets in the washing machine.

    While drinking tea from the Little Red Riding Hood cup, he tries to remember where and why he’d bought it. He doesn’t think it’s very him.

    Virginia must have bought it, he decides finally, exhausted at the effort of forcing the memory.

     

                                                                ***

     

    Today he drops the Little Red Riding Hood cup and it smashes over the kitchen floor. He’s crying and he doesn’t know why.

    I don’t even like this mug. It’s tacky.

    It’s his birthday. Two-hundred-and-thirty-one-years-old. He treats himself by cooking another one of Virginia’s chocolate cakes and reminiscing. His favourite memory is of his and Virginia’s honeymoon. Most of the details are flimsy and translucent now, but he still remembers the smell of rum on her breath and the look in her eyes and something of the magic of the moment. He remembers her hair spread out across the pillow—a rich, warm brown against the white. He remembers the smell of the sea and the saltiness of skin—

    If I could go back and live one day again… but his thoughts trail off as he loses track of them. He takes another bite of cake and continues to reminisce, smiling and enjoying the memory.

     

                                                                ***

    Vincent awakens slowly, growing steadily aware of the distant sounds around him and the indescribable feeling that he is somewhere he has never been before. He opens his eyes slowly and strains to focus on the morphing, blurring sway of the grated tiled ceiling above him.

    Slowly, timelessly, his eyes begin to focus.

    “Where the hell am I?” he mutters, but no one hears him.

    The room is large and very still. The noises come from the corridor. Voices huddle round, twittering jovially. Vincent props himself up for a moment to see who’s talking, but he is too weak to get more than a two-second look at what he realises is a nurse’s station.

    “Hello Mr Murdoch. You’re awake, I see?” says a much-too-loud disembodied voice.

    Vincent tries to see the source of the voice, but his muscles fail him again and he collapses back, gasping in pain.

    “Don’t push yourself, Mr Murdoch,” says the voice again, and she steps into view: a short, white doctor in a white coat.

    “You’re very lucky to be alive. Your parents found you on the brink of death. You actually died on the ambulance journey over here.”

    “I died?” something struck him about his voice – other than the obvious weakness of it: he sounded old and he couldn’t understand why.

    You kept saying the name Virginia and we were worried you might slip into a second coma…”

    “Who’s Virginia?” Vincent asks, realising the answer as he finishes the question. A little pang of guilt pumps through his chest, but it’s short-lived.

    “She was your late wife. We didn’t know who she was either, until your parents came to visit you and told us.”

    “I can’t believe I forgot her for a moment.”

    Vincent feels his cheeks warm with shame.

    “My memories are…” he continues, “I’ve… most of them have gone, I suppose. It’s hard to understand, but I feel like there are gaps between things. Massive gaps between memories.”

    “Hmm. Yes, I’m afraid it’s another side effect of not taking your Vitamins. The effects of aging occur exponentially. Some people have been recorded as aging the natural equivalent of twenty years in their final day.”

    “But why are most of my memories gone?”

    “Ah, well that’s simple: the brain cells containing the lost memories have died. We administered Vitamins at ten times the normal dosage, but I’m afraid the damage to the memories has been done.”

    Vincent stares at the ceiling, unsure of how to feel. He knows he should feel some sort of loss—he’s just wiped out at least half of his memories. But it’s hard to miss what he can’t remember.

    The doctor looks bashful. She says: “May I ask you why you stopped taking your Vitamins? Why not just jump off a tall building or visit a U-Clinic?”

    “I can’t really remember why I did it.”

    Studying her feet, she says, “I know you don’t know me and I don’t know you, but I think there is so much to live for and there’s always help and–”

    “—It’s okay,” Vincent laughs and dismisses her fretting with a wave of his hand. “Whatever made me want to die, I can’t remember it. So you don’t need to worry.”

    The doctor smiles.

    An awkward silence.

    “You said my parents found me. Are they going to visit me in here?”

    “I’ll call them if you like?”

    “No thanks. I’ll see them when I see them, I suppose. I’m not even sure I’d recognise them.”

    Vincent sighs deeply and searches his memories for images of either of his parents, but his search is in vain. He tries to find Virginia in the back of his mind, and all he remembers of her are snippets—little flashes of happiness and sadness.

    “What will you do once you’ve fully recovered?” asks the doctor.

    He contemplates this for a moment.

    “I’m not sure. I might travel.”

    “Where would you go?” She asks as she readies a syringe. She pierces the little jar and pulls on the pump, filling the tube with three times the standard dosage of Vitamins.

    “Don’t know, really. Can’t remember where I’ve been. Maybe China, or South Africa, or Mars.”

    “Oh, that sounds exciting. I’ve never been to Mars.” She fires out the air shot and injects him skilfully. It barely hurts.

    Vincent looks out the window and thinks about travelling the world and to other worlds, and he’s glad he can’t remember what could possibly make him want to miss out on another adventure. He falls back to sleep after a while and dreams of a woman and hair that smells like the sea and an old wrinkled hand grasped in his and about Mars—and it all muddles into something strange and wonderful and one of the nurses notices that he’s laughing in his sleep.

    “Must be a nice dream,” she mutters to herself.

     

    © 2015 Peter McCune. All rights reserved.