“I WAS ABLE,” JAMES SAID, “to ignore it until yesterday; but last night, it was just impossible.”
Sitting on his bed’s edge, he shook his head. I was lying on another bed, my head on a pillow, his head slowly shaking. A ceiling light turned our room’s window black.
A vehicle’s drone outside rose then dissipated, seemingly annihilated by omniscient indifference.
James’s head had shot up in hope before falling as that droning had evaporated into nothing.
“The first time I went,” I said, “my hands shook when I knew there was no turning back.”
“It happened to you, too?”
He turned rapidly to face me.
“You?!” he repeated.
“It happens to everyone,” I replied.
“You don’t look too worried now.”
“I was the first time. And I was alone, remember?”
He stood and stared out the window, another drone evaporating into bottomless quietude, its source becoming engulfed by black.
“When I was a kid,” he said, “I thought dying was nothing. Now I don’t want to die.”
“It’ll be so exciting you won’t care.”
Premature death meant permanent annihilation. He was supposed to live a long life–to have a biographer! Dying now would have prevented his genius from being acclaimed.
“Because people drive in with guns,” I said, “it’d be suicidal to try to stop someone unless there was an agreement with the driver. That’s impossible in our case.”
Window blackness highlighted the stark white of his corneas, like a frightened child before the unknown.
“The drivers who stop,” I continued, “work with thieves. We’re not in that situation.”
“What do these vans look like?” he asked.
“They stand out; but it’s impossible to know who’s in them, unless the driver tips somebody off.”
“They stand out?!”
“Yes. But anyone could be in them.”
He stared without looking. The photographed aftermath of a bomb blast on the cover of the magazine on my chest didn’t help. Such incidents had once been intriguing, the photograph taken at our destination–Baghdad.
“The vans are white,” I continued, “without markings. They could be full of guys with guns, so you’d have to know what you’re doing if you tried to stop one.”
His head flicked on hearing “guns,” everything else dismissed. He stared at the floor, immobilised by the amoral unknown.
He broke his trance and said: “Why do I have to complicate my life? Why can’t I be happy with the beach like most people? Why do I suffer from this affliction?”
He was now being Shakespearean, fame his if premature death could be avoided! But obscurity awaits the risk averse.
“You’ll be so happy,” I replied, “that you’ll be able to die.”
“But I don’t want to die.”
“Risks,” I said, “are necessary. You know that.”
Death’s proximity questions motivation, turning criticism inward away from others, the light enhancing blackness.
“Ignorance,” he said, “is better than dying.”
“We’ll see tomorrow.”
He faced the neon lights that were glowing above the hotel’s carpark: purple, orange, red and green, luridly shining. I only saw the neon before, I could imagine him thinking.
“It isn’t going to come any earlier,” I said, “by staring out the window.”
“I wish he’d get here so I could get this over with,” he said.
He rested his elbows on the window’s lower jamb and studied the carpark. The world’s stillness suited my excited tranquillity. The first time I went I had been like him now, tormented by irresolution; now that discovery is close, his impatience has made almost everything–including me–meaningless.
Headlights flashed below. The phone rang. James’s sharp, crystal, cat eyes faced me.
“We’re coming now,” I said.
James fled towards the door. I followed as quickly as I could.
Gentleness oozed from Nuri’s muscular frame downstairs. His black beard floated against his white apparel. He looked trustworthy–like veracity’s embodiment–like a man free from the unknown.
In the van, James asked: “Mister Nuri–is it dangerous?”
Nuri still hadn’t had time to close his door, let alone put on his seat belt.
“No, no,” he replied, “it’s safe.”
A charming liar, I thought.
James got punctured, concern gases hushing from every pore in his body. Waiting to hear Nuri’s relieving words, he had been terrified about facing truths that could have crushed his pretences. His potential inability to turn his imagination’s visions into reality had implied the tragedy of the world not discovering his worth. The depth of that tragic possibility had matched the magnitude of the black nothingness that had engulfed his head in the hotel.
The van’s interior darkness exposed lit-up streets, the outside regaining its calming relevance. James’s head fell against a headrest. His eyes filled with their usual arrogant security. Nuri’s reassuring veracity had stopped analysis. Briefly, for the first time, without knowing it, James had approached self-awareness before dying had become easy again, like when he had been a kid, his returning lassitude lessening the urgency required to fight the high likelihood of the permanent obscurity he believed he didn’t deserve.
Kim Farleigh has worked for NGO’s in Greece, Kosovo, Iraq, Palestine, and Macedonia. He likes painting, art, bullfighting, photography, and architecture, which might explain why this Australian lives in Madrid. 183 of his stories have been accepted by 107 different magazines.