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Hard to Say Goodbye
He turns and when he sees me, a slight smile slopes at his mouth.
“Hey,” he says. He's wearing a pair of electric blue sunglasses and a Marlboro is dangling from between his fingers on his right hand. A smear of blonde stubble grazes his cheek and above his lip. He looks so different, yet not at all changed from years ago.
“Hi,” I reply, crossing the last few steps to him and sitting next to him on the bench. It's hard to see if you don't know him, but he's side-glancing at me, taking in new details and refreshing the old. He thinks the sunglasses safely hide him – they don't. And I haven't changed all too much in past years, so there's no reason to prolong the 'taking in new details' glances.
“How goes your life?” he asks, finally looking away as he inhales on a cigarette.
“Good,” I say. “Yours?”
He shrugs. “Okay, I guess,” he says noncommittally.
I glance across the way at the gray brick building with the charcoal rectangle door. “Is Guillaume here?” I ask.
Matthew shakes his head. “No, but he said he'd be here.”
He's clinging too strongly to words that were only thrown out to stop the inquiries. I'm aware that Guillaume and Matthew have been really good friends for a really long time, but if Guillaume doesn't care, he doesn't care.
Matthew turns and looks at me. “I know what you're thinking,” he says flatly. “But he can't not be here; she was our teacher, for God's sake!”
Yeah, for our last year of elementary school.
“She wanted us to stay in touch, remember?”
“And now she's on her death bed, and he can't bother to come?”
“You're just now starting to doubt his presence here?” I counter. He scowls irritably.
“You'd think he would come,” he mutters.
“Yeah,” I say, but I never thought he'd come in the first place.
* * *
A little while later a woman dressed in all white with a surgical mask over her face scurries out from the charcoal door and towards us.
“Miss is very ill,” she says, “but she requests your presence.” She hands us each a mask of our own, which we don't hesitate to strap to our faces as we follow her into the muted building.
We are led down a dark corridor before the nurse opens up a door and ushers us in hurriedly before closing it and locking it behind us.
My eyes take a moment to adjust to the lack of light in the room before I make out a figure on a bed in the center of the room. Hollow cheekbones, sunken chest, flimsy arms and legs strung together with polka-dotted skin – it looks as if every illness all at once has leeched its way onto her at the same time. Her head has jagged scars and patches of graying hair, and her eyes are small little pools of everything and nothing. I never would've recognized her had it not been for the unmistakable mole on her cheek near her temple and the get-well cards on a nearby table addressed to a Christine Cole.
I don't have a chance to look away before she starts convulsing. Her head is so weak it lolls back and forth on the pillow, but the rest of her body seems possessed with the unpredictable energy or a lightning bolt. A nurse rushes to her side with a jar of some sort of balm, and another has a syringe. I cringe and suck in a musty, fabricated breath and turn my head to the side. Seeing her suffer, seeing first-hand the battle she's fighting clutches at my heart. It's too unbearable to watch.
When the sounds stop I look back to the bed. One of the nurses is slowly removing the needle from her arm, and the other is rubbing the cream on the bald patches of head. She's shuddering lightly, murmuring unintelligible words while the nurses soothe her. To think that moments ago she requested our presence through her own lips seems like a hopeful dream. She looks as if she can barely open her eyes, let alone speak understood words in full, grammatically correct sentences. Even ingrammatically correct sentences.
The nurses depart to their separate stations on the wall and everyone in the room is silent for several long moments before we hear her speak.
“Maia?” The voice is a squashed insect, just managing to take a few last steps. “I-Is that y-you?”
From my distant place at the door, I almost nod, but not sure she can see that gesture, I take a step closer to her.
“Yes,” I reply. Her withered lips attempt at a weak smile that, truthfully, makes her look even more sad.
“And M-Matthew, t-too?”
I sense him step up to my left side. “Yes.”
Her eyes smile sadly at us from the zombie face. “I alw-ways kn-knew you t-two would s-stay in t-touch...”
At the start of another seizing the nurses run over with a bucket. You don't even have to be looking to hear the blood splash the cold metal, because in the darkness, every sound intensifies, and even when you don't have a direct visual, any audio will give you one.
“Jesus,” I hear Matthew say, and I can't be sure what exactly he means, but the whole situation can be described with that one word.
The retching seems never-ending but when it finally does stop, Matthew and I are more than anxious to leave. Was it a hoax? Bring them in here to watch me die? That doesn't sound like a request our former teacher would make.
Reaching into my pocket, I remember the card I brought. I pull it out and walk over to the table, her tenuous eyes following me as I set it up, pulling out the stone heart she gave me for my birthday and setting it between the V of the card. Matthew sets up a card of his own and I see her watch him, too, with the detached grief that only a person who knows they've lost has.
“I'll m-miss you guys,” she whispers. I meet her teary gaze and understand why. We're very nearly children to her. Instantly I know I'll miss her a lot, too. I've known her since I was six. It's hard to let go of somebody you've known basically your whole life.
“We'll miss you too,” we reply, and I descend into a kneel at her bedside, suddenly overcome with grief. Her time is already up, and she's holding on for us.
Her skeletal hand slips down and I take it, pressing it to my ribs. The tears run down my cheeks like rivers; I don't bother to hold them back. This is the first time I've known someone who was dying and felt something. It's awful. It's horrible. The untying of strings. The unlocking of doors. The descending of darkness. Being stranded. Being alone.
“I'll miss you,” she whispers again, but this time, it's directed at me. I drop my head down to hide the tears.
“I'll miss you forever,” I whisper back. I look up and meet her eyes, and I can already see her departing.
Although her body has been ravaged, the closing of her eyelids is the most peaceful act I think I've ever seen. In her hand I feel her pulse stop and for a moment I fall still, absorbing the poisonous smell of death in the room.
“Goodbye,” I murmur as I retreat. Matthew solemnly echoes it before we backtrack our steps back outside to find ourselves under a dark blue sky.
* * *
The night is still and silent apart from the small bubbling of the fountain behind us. Head bowed over my knees, no thoughts go through my head. Although the hour is late, the word “sleep” never crosses my mind.
The silence is almost planned, like a vigil. I never thought it before, never put a reason as to why I'm sitting on a park bench in the middle of the night in front of the infirmary.
The second my eyes threaten to blink shut an owl hoots from the darkness. My head snaps up and silently I bury the pain in my neck to the back of my mind, thinking instead of Ms. Cole, the look in her eyes when she told me she'd miss me, the skeletal hand sliding down the bed to reach me.
Not hours before, these thoughts brought tears. Now my heart is numb and I can only feel a tiny throb of sadness in my chest.
I don't mean to break the silence, but a thought worms its way to the surface and wrings itself from my dry throat.
“She's gone forever, isn't she?”
There's a moment of silence before he responds.
“It's tough to grasp.”
A cool breeze blows past, whistling through the dark.
“She's better now, though.”
“She doesn't have to suffer anymore.”
“Thank God,” he agrees, though I hear the sorrow behind the thankfulness.
I sigh and bend down picking up a leaf that resembles a teardrop. I get an idea.
“Can I borrow your lighter?”
I gesture to the leaf. “Makeshift candle.”
He fumbles in his pocket for it and hands it to me. I wait for the next gust of wind to pass before lighting it and handing the lighter back. We both watch the fire eat at the leaf until it reaches the stem between my fingers. Slowly the fire flickers and sucks at my fingertips before Matthew gently blows it out. I look at him, somewhat perplexed.
“To Ms. Cole,” he says. Still confused, I echo his toast. Matthew pulls off his jacket and drapes it over my shoulders, offering me his hand as he stands.
“Where are we going?” I ask, studying the flaky skin on the tip of my thumb and forefinger.
“You can stay over at my place tonight,” he offers. I notice his sunglasses have disappeared, yet he's looking straight at me.
“Thank you,” I say, not just thanking him for the proposition of a place to stay.
“You're welcome,” he replies, and I take his hand as we walk down the dark empty streets.
* * *
Goodbyes are deathly hard. I know that now.