At the end – really, the very end, the official end, it cannot be more “end” than this – Alan beamed the broad, face-breaking smile of an idiot. At some level, he knew it was wrong, and he would put his head down and try to gain some control, and pull it in. But then it would spread all over his face again, and his whole body would join in, his toes tapping to a tune only he could hear, his face turning to capture the beauty all around.
His attitude was not appreciated by the other mourners.
The start, though. The moments afterwards. Delighting in each other, in the growing easier intimacy. The time before familiarity, when territories are marked.
Alan has burst, he has burned, he has stretched alongside her in joy with no intention to depart. Yet, though they are still interwoven, Tanya senses a hesitation, a timidity before an aspect of her. She has been here before. This time, she will be good to herself. This time, she chooses generosity.
So she leads him, laughing, tickling. While it is always dark for her, he still surprises her when he vanishes for a moment. Then she feels the nibble at her toes, and he is back, kissing her all over, a slow journey along her legs. She cannot help jerking away at his lips brushing her thighs. He stumbles in response, awkwardly shifting his weight, falling on her for a moment. “It looks easier in the movies,” he says, but she has just his word for that.
A kiss, a dragging tongue, and she is squirming at his face buried in her neck, his breath in her ear. “That smell is gorgeous,” he says, breathing deeply, moaning, then his mouth finds hers. At last he makes to break away, but her hands squeeze the sides of his head, and her legs lock tight around him. To smash any sense of her fragility, to breach the threat of any presumption of frailty, she spoke the sort of words uttered in the moment and not repeated afterwards. He hesitated, then she thrilled at him leaning forwards. Gentle, still too respectful, he bestowed light kisses on her closed eye lids. She responded by fluttering, tickling his face with her eye lashes. He must not escape now. She pulled him closer, and whispered with hot breath, and his mouth opened. He kissed her wet: the bridge of her nose, her caranthus and caruncle, the words she knows, just like sclera, conjunctiva and macula.
Again he paused. She pressed with sharp nails behind his ears, her message clear. He descended. He licked her blind, open eyes. One, two. Ticked each dead eyeball with the tip of his dabbing tongue. And that was that.
No stimulus bar the intimacy of it, but that was more than enough, and they were moving and struggling and grappling, and it was happening again.
“What is this place, Tanya?” he asked. She couldn’t know it, but he had his eyes closed, trying to take it in the way she must, a clumsy attempt to understand. Clacking of crockery. Sounds of sizzling from several spots. Groans of garlic. He catches her scent as well, the vanilla tobacco of her perfume, and feels the first blush of arousal.
“Umm, a restaurant. You may have heard of them.”
“Don’t have them where I come from. I hear rumours they serve, what is it called … food.”
“Yep. Cajun-Indian fusion food. I love it.”
“I guess its kinda hot then?”
“You guess right.”
He wondered if it was some sort of compensation, the desire for stimulus, but was smart enough not to say it out loud. He said something else stupid instead.
“I was reading about this blind kid. He gets around his neighbourhood by making these clicking noises. Apparently it works like sonar, like a dolphin or a bat.” Then he realised, and blushed. He kept perfectly still, trying to give nothing away. Perhaps he could just disappear.
Her laugh came before her words, deep and throaty, like her voice.“You are such an idiot.” Her whole body shook with laughter. None of it is learned, he thinks. This is how a person laughs, who has never seen someone else laugh.
He corrected himself. This is how she laughs. And he loves her.
Something inside subsides, a tension he did not know was there. He is not making do. She is not second best. He loves her.
“Been reading, have you? I hear, people like you, their lips move at the same time.”
He joined in her laughter, his face creasing and his mouth wide, not worried about how he might look.
The food arrived, and he began an extravagant gesture of wafting the aroma to his nose, before realising it was wasted. Instead he sniffed loudly. “Smells good,” he said, before snorting like a pig. “Real good.”
She began to laugh again.
Perhaps the smells around him had dulled his senses. Maybe he was more tense than he realised. Whatever. In his mouth, nothing was happening. The food tasted bland.
It had started.
“Alan, it was great for me. Snuggle.” A command.
“My sense of timing is out, or something.”
“Don’t worry. It can’t be perfect every time.”
A pause. “So … before: it was perfect?”
She laughed. “It was pretty bloody good.”
The next day on the telephone:
“I think I have the flu.”
“The worst kind.”
“You sound weird.”
“You should see how I look.” Oh god …
“I’m guessing, very odd. And a peculiar colour. Mauve, I think?”
“Mauve. Pffht. More chartreuse.”
“Stuffed if I know. My whole family is either chartreuse or cerise.”
He has to keep swallowing, and each time it hurts. Everything was underlaid with a mild panic, his swollen tongue frightening him that his throat was closing up. This is the killer ‘flu that will end everything, and it starts with him.
There was a silence, and he felt blame begin to descend. He’s sick. He can’t help that.
“How … how are you feeling?”
“Great. Full of energy. Actually, really, really good.”
He paused before replying. Was she making some point? “Glad you haven’t got it.”
“Speak tomorrow. Call me if you need me.”
Later that week:
There was no fever, but he felt terrible. His tongue was thick, all food was tasteless pap. His sinuses throbbed. He wondered if you could go deaf but also have tinnitus.
Tanya came over, uninvited, unannounced. Strange to hear the tapping of her cane on the tiles of the entrance floor.
“This is a nice surprise. Did you have any trouble finding the place?”
“A little, but it was a lovely night, and I had a surge of confidence, so, here I am.”
He hugged her, glad of the comfort of her weight against him on the sofa. He felt lighter.
“I’m still not well,” he warned her as she pressed down.
“I know, I’m just enjoying being with you.”
“I can’t object to that.”
“What about this?”
“I can’t object to that, either.”
“I didn’t think so.”
Alan felt the pressure of her, in the sense of an instrument registering gravitational pull. No fine sensation, no reaction. She whispered in his ear.
“Pardon?” he replied.
Days passed. The sickness spread from his head to the rest of his body. He ate, he drank, not on impulse, just because he thought he should. He remembered that it was necessary to keep up his fluids. He forgot there were consequences. At one stage he looked down and saw that his bladder had voided. Probably some time ago. Should do something about it. He stood up. He fell down. His ribs crashed hard into the coffee table, cracking it, maybe cracking them, but he felt little, and heard nothing. There had been no dizziness, he just stumbled. Upright was no longer his natural position. He climbed back up with effort, telling his body what to do. Eyes wide, arms out, he shuffled across the floor, aiming for his phone. He did not trust his sense of direction. He hoped that if he found it, he would be able to direct his fingers to the right numbers in the right order, but any sense of confidence was long gone.
Alan was very distant from the world of data and input, tenuously connected to it only by the umbilical cords of tubes and wires. Soon the distance will be too great, and they will snap and he will be lost. Floating above his bed in a dark corner, feeling neither mattress or sheet, mostly ignorant of the machines, he was overwhelmed by misery. So much taken away, so much to lose.
Occasionally he was aware of vague shadows, indications of clumsy movement somewhere out there, before a quick withdrawal.
“Alan.” He heard that through the hash. Once or twice a century, a sound made it through.
He turned to face the voice, but he could not tell up from down. The movement shifted tides in his head that would take eons to settle, an unrelenting vertigo. He was departing the world, and swung his arms to find some fingerhold, to grasp on a little longer.
“Alan, can you hear me? Something amazing has happened.”
Through the darkness, the buzz of white noise, he hears her voice. Steady footsteps. No tap of a cane. No hesitation in a strange room. A new confidence.
“Sweetheart, can you hear me? It’s a miracle. I can … .”
He managed to lift himself, but then he was falling. Gravity had switched sides, and instead of dropping to the floor, he fell through the door, down down the corridors, along the street. Past the traffic, skimming the fields and into the air. He would fall sideways off the earth, and be lost. Panicking, he kicked out to stop his progress, reached to break his fall. Crashing, bashing, smashing anything in his way. He screamed but heard nothing, just the rush of wind. Collision after collision. Hard surfaces. Something soft that gave way.
The whorl did not peter out. If you looked closely enough, it went on forever. A spiral of bronze and chocolate and tans – there was no such thing as mere brown. Caramels and walnuts and coffees competing and contrasting in the grain, as complex in their interaction as the red spot on Jupiter, running into each other, then whispering out alongside. Delineations were illusion – follow the pattern, see it descend into Mandelbrot sets, bursting with information as the molecules of the wood reflected the photons pouring through the stained glass of the church windows.
And around the wood, the wreaths, the intricacies of the flowers, and the subtleties of their arrangement, both deliberate by the florists, and random by the ushers who spread them around the coffin. He relished the scents leaking from them. The church held a great bubble of air permeated by centuries of incense and beeswax and dust and grit, and fear and mourning, and happiness too. That was before he even started on the perfumes and aftershaves and odours of the congregation around him, all the waste products of the trillions of yeasts and bacteria feeding on their skin, cavorting in their moistness, devouring their oils and sweat.
The rasping of wools, sliding of linen, creak of pews, shifting of seats, and the choir was yet to begin. Distant traffic, a robin in the garden, a cash register across the street, a tear drop splattering on a pillow several blocks away.
Now Alan’s eyes, alert and clear, were caught by the shining brass handles of the coffin.
They did not blame him. It never occurred to anyone to think he had much to do with it at all. An unfortunate accident. Why had the hospital staff left him unattended in his condition? Why was a blind woman walking in there all alone, with all those wires and that equipment? He’d had a seizure, she tried to help, it was a tragedy. People are so robust, Tanya was such a strong woman, but that’s all it takes, just hit your head the wrong way…
Alan felt sadness. It was just he felt so many other things as well. Saw, smell, tasted so much. He would savour the communion wafer, quaff the wine, marvel at the delicacy of the frayed cuffs of the priest’s gown, the trace of white whiskers on the man’s soft, pink skin. Not just pink – coral, rose, salmon – the whole spectrum of the priest’s aging flesh.
The only remnant of the horror and misery of his mystery illness was a frozen spot on the tip of his tongue. There, he sensed nothing. Lost to some mysterious frostbite, it was no bother. The tip that had tapped. If a tiny dead zone was all the price he had to pay for his rebirth, he could not care less.
All of creation trilled around him: motes of dead skin dancing in the sunbeams, like angels in search of a pinhead; molecules of menthol quivering from a nearby pneumatic chest; the vibrato of a far off arrhythmic heart. Alan beamed, ecstasy rising within. All that had been taken was returned, and more besides. He put his hands on his knees and sat up straight, breathing it all in deeply. Despite his heightened awareness, the magnification of his senses, he was oblivious to the stares from the mourners sitting around him. He was alive, and all about, the world was alive.
Except Tanya, of course.
BIO: David Stevens lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife and children. His fiction has appeared amongst other places in Crossed Genres, Aurealis, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Pseudopod, Cafe Irreal, Not One of Us, Kaleidotrope, and the anthologies ‘Love Hurts’, ‘At the Edge’ and ‘Chthonic’. He blogs irregularly at davidstevens.info.