Desmond knew he was dying. He'd known for a while that his twenty-year-old body was giving up on him, far before its expiry date. Those years had slipped away and he had watched helplessly, as if he were standing on the side of a motorway watching the cars of his life pass by. The drugs had helped a little; bought him a few extra months up and about on his own, living like a normal person without his recently acquired entourage of nurses and doctors watching his every move. But it was never going to last. It seemed that time had finally caught up with him and was more than a little put out by him overstaying his mortal welcome.
For his part, Desmond had been fairly nonchalant throughout the entire ordeal, much to the surprise and confusion of his family and friends. He knew that he should have been scared, he should have been worried, he should have been bitter and he should haven taken his condition more seriously. The trouble was, he simply hadn't the time for it.
No matter how grim things had looked, or how close the predicted fatal date was, Desmond had made a stubborn promise to himself from the word go. He would remain happy.
He'd never believed in wasting his time wallowing in a pool of emotions, especially now that his pool was getting shallower by the minute. He focused his remaining energy on other things. Poems and songs tumbled from an attic of creativity that's size shocked even him; he played computer games, read books of various genres and worked on his academic career, digging into maths problems and writing piles of essays. "What's the point?" a friend had eventually asked him. An insensitive remark on the surface, but Desmond recognised and even relished the confusion he seemed to cause among his classmates. He'd noticed their perplexed frowns and sidelong glances, and their quiet, conspiratol whisperings when they thought he couldn't hear. His response to the question had only compounded his friend's puzzlement.
A thin, mischievous smile had been playing on his features when he replied. "Can you think of a better way for me to spend the time I've got left?" With no response forthcoming he added. "I've got better things to do than dwell on something I've no control over, and so have you." He laughed inwardly at the memory.
Now, however, he lay motionless on a hospital bed, still conscious, but he knew the end was creeping closer. For a start, although he could feel the bed clothes on his hands and legs, he couldn't move, or even open his eyes for that matter. The darkness was enveloping but also strangely reassuring in a way. Isolated from the rest of the world, he lay on an island of calm, the only connection to the room in the hospital ward being the thin sporadic beeping of his heart monitor, growing softer and softer in his ears like gently receding waves against the sand of a far off beach.
There was no pain though.
Not surprising, he thought derisively, when you were hooked up to a morphine pump. The pain had never really bothered him unduly, however. He'd been in pain before and didn't see the need for any kind of panic. The aches and pains of every organ in his body gradually shutting down had been the hallmark of his condition, never predictable, never relenting, but he had simply taken it in his stride, grown accustomed to the new problem and moved on. Desmond liked things to be simple and as a result treated his terminal condition as simply an inconvenient complication, nothing more.
Suddenly, he was yanked from his reverie as a hand clasped his in a gentle, futile embrace. He tried to react and open his eyes, but his body would not obey him. With in inward sigh, he set about trying to gauge who might be holding his hand, who might still be waiting by the bedside till the last moment. It was definitely a woman's hand he decided. His father would have had rougher fingers and a span that dwarfed his son's by a good two centimetres. He quickly ran through the other possibilities. There were a few of his friends that might have made an appearance but it was unlikely they would be waiting at his side till the bitter end. His mother…possibly, but the hands were very smooth, with soft skin and an almost tranquil feel to them.
It had to be Chloe, he decided, his seventeen year old sister who had stayed to the last and the thought made him smile inwardly. She was the most like him in the family, blessed with a perpetually sunny disposition and the pair had been very close. He knew that his death would hit her hard. It was easier for him, ironically; he wouldn't have to live with the consequences and reverberations of his passing but simply move on to what ever was waiting on the other side of this darkness.
Memories of her shimmered lightly into his sightless vision: the long black hair that cascaded down around her shoulders like a dark Niagara Falls; the beaming, crystalline smile that shone like a portrait of mercury light, and the image of her last birthday, one of the last days he'd been able to spend with his family before being moved permanently to the hospital ward. His parting gift had been a framed photo of the pair taken roughly a year previously at a barbecue with the entire family.
They'd been standing side by side, arms around one another's shoulders in front of a stand of trees in the garden. Sunlight had been spearing through the treetops, creating a gleaming star-like shape above the pair like a kind of halo. Both were smiling with their faces close together, almost cheek to cheek and the afternoon of joyful memoirs had been seized and cherished in a faded blue photo album. He remembered dimly the simple inscription he'd scrawled on the accompanying card:
He knew it wasn't brilliant but he'd never really been that good at expressing his own feelings seriously without some kind of rhetoric. In the end after re-reading the small passage through several times he'd decided it would get the message across and she'd understand. She had read the card in front of the whole family and hugged him tightly, whispering a promise into his ear.
The memories were pushed softly aside as a voice crept into Desmond's hearing, weaving into his mind from the outside world, a final softly reverberating message.
"Des…" Chloe's gentle whisper echoed in his ears. "I don't know if you can hear me but…I guess this is goodbye. I'll miss you, and I know you'll be happy wherever you end up." The grip on his hand tightened and Desmond felt like screaming in frustration, desperate to respond. "I haven't forgotten the card, or the promise I made. There's a scrapbook we made, mum and I. It's got loads of photos of you through the years. We'll all remember you…for the good times." She broke off and Desmond felt her other hand on his own. Then a spasm coursed through his dying body as if a switch had been tripped inside him.
With frightening suddenness the monitor's gentle bleeping morphed into a single blaring cacophony of noise that thundered in his ears, drowning out his sister's voice. He winced in pain, or at least he tried to, as the noise grew in volume, as if someone was cranking a handle over and over and over. Feeling began to drain from his extremities and he felt his limbs go rigid as his body finally began give up its fight.
This was it, he thought with a pang of resignation, time to die.
A spark of shocking brightness flashed in his vision for barely an instant, as if he'd just blinked while staring into the sun, and the hideous screaming of the heart monitor fell away, leaving him in an eerily silent world of darkness. His arms and legs had gone numb and an intense, biting cold rushed eagerly into his chest, making his whole frame shudder violently. The cold however passed as quickly as it had come and Desmond was left in a state of tingling euphoria. He lay still for a moment then tested his limbs. To his surprise he discovered he could curl his fingers and toes without difficulty. An impossible thought crossed his mind.
He opened his eyes.
The blindingly vibrant explosion of blue from the sky made him squint, with streaks of wispy cloud cover scattered across the vast expanse, as though some higher being had taken an enormous paintbrush haphazardly to a canvas. Blinking against the unaccustomed brightness, Desmond summoned his energy and sat up it one swift movement with a grunt of exertion. He stared in bafflement at his new surroundings. He certainly wasn't in the hospital anymore.
The rolling waves of the snow bound tundra cascaded across the new landscape in all directions like an ocean of white, sunlight rebounding from the icy crystals in a rainbow of gleaming rays. It was a stunningly beautiful sight and he could see patchy dark areas of frozen over lakes that dotted the waves like gigantic potholes. Apart from the carpet of snow however the landscape was barren and featureless without trees or rocks, just flat plains in every direction. Far in the distance though, he could just make out mountains, their dark peaks clearly defined against the skyline.
Looking down Desmond studied his own appearance but it too seemed to complicate the issue. He sat nestled in a mound of snow, wearing only a t-shirt, shorts and sandals. By rights he should have been freezing cold but all he could feel now was a strange heated tingling all over his body. His skin looked warm and healthy, not pale as he had last seen it before falling into his semi-coma. He reached up with one hand and ran it through his hair, feeling the long tousled mass for the first time in days. Well, he decided, this must be a last minute dream or hallucination. He scrambled upright and shook snow from his frame. If it was a dream he figured he'd make the most of it.
Glancing again at his barren surroundings he blew out his cheeks and took stock of his currant situation. The problem was there didn't seem to be anything to do in this winter tundra except wander aimlessly, and maybe make some snow angels if he became particularly bored. It wasn't much of a send off, he thought with a slight stab of irritation. He absently scuffed one foot across the surface of the snow, gouging a deep mark with his toes then stretched his body fitfully. Then something quick and bright caught his eye.
Spinning to his left with speed that surprised him, Desmond spotted a tiny, glowing nimbus of light hovering several feet away at head height. It looked like a floating light bulb from its size, but it was exceptionally bright. He frowned in interest and stepped towards it. Like a nervous animal the light flitted away from him, keeping an even distance, bobbing in the air almost tauntingly. It began moving again, very slowly away from him and Desmond followed with a thin smile.
His sandals made soft crunching noises as they pressed against the snow, leaving thin divots in the spotless surface. It just felt so real to him, and the only thing that kept him from believing it was real was the utter impossibility of the entire scenario. He couldn't have been transported from the hospital to some bizarre tundra and he certainly couldn't survive in such an environment in the bare minimum of summer clothing. Still, there didn't seem much point in wondering what was happening and there wasn't anything else to do. So he followed the light.
The dancing bulb of brightness led him on a long trek through the wilderness, up and down vast rolling snowdrifts, on one of which he'd lost his footing and fallen down, coming to rest at the base of the gentle slope. Hauling himself upright and dusting the snow away he laughed aloud, hearing his own voice for the first time in days. Then the light flashed back into his vision and hovered there for a moment before drifting very slowly away, as if it was beckoning him to follow. Desmond shrugged and continued on.
As he followed the light Desmond's thoughts drifted away from his strange snowbound world and back to the hospital ward, and to Chloe. Looking back just to that last one sided exchange he realised that it had actually been the worst moment of the entire abysmal affair. Lying there while his sister gave her last good byes and being totally unable to respond in any way; the feeling had been devastating. Even as this thought crossed his mind however, another, more uplifting one barged its way to the fore like an officious bodyguard.
He knew she would be okay without him. It was true he'd been there when she needed help or advice, needed to laugh or smile, but she would be alright. He knew it, because she was so much like him. Knowing that in her shoes he would have found a way to deal with whatever was in front of him; he could make a reliable guess that she would do the same. She'd be able to live enough for the both of them.
His mind shifted back to the situation at hand as the light led him over a last shallow lip of snow that revealed a large frozen lake, the ice covering its surface tinged in a darker colour than the surrounding whiteness. The floating nebula didn't stop but carried on out across the expanse, its brightness amplified by the mirror of ice underneath it. Desmond hesitated for a moment, prodding the edge of the lake experimentally with one foot but it seemed solid enough. Taking a breath, he too set out across the lake.
To his relief the ice was thick enough to take his weight and his confidence grew as he walked, his steps changing from short, cautious movements to longer, secure strides. He then noticed that the light had stopped, waiting for him at the exact centre of the frozen lake. Without pause for thought Desmond carried on walking straight towards it and when he was close enough, reached out one hand to touch it.
His fingers connected with the luminous globe for a fraction of a second before an explosion of blinding whiteness like a thousand supernovas engulfed him with shocking suddenness. Images of his life surged into his mind, shimmering and distorted like reflections in water, from all through his twenty years. Things he'd done, places he'd been and people he'd known were melded together in a chaotic whirlpool of pictures and sounds that made his head swim. A slight feeling of nausea swept into him and he was suddenly able to feel the brutal biting cold of the tundra, tearing at his exposed limbs with claws of arctic air. Then a terrific and deafening crack sounded ominously in his ears as the ice began to give way.
Desmond plunged into the water of the lake with crumbling chunks of ice sinking with him into the murky depths. He could still make out the rapidly shrinking light of the hole where he'd fallen through, but his body had now truly abandoned him. Everything below his neck was completely and totally anaesthetized by the freezing water that surrounded him. He sank with astonishing quickness, as though he was falling through air rather than liquid and he gathered speed as he plummeted deeper. Then with an abrupt jolt his descent halted and hurling him into a world of blackness once again.
When he opened his eyes again Desmond realised he was back in the hospital, back on the bed staring into the soft ceiling bulb. He blinked in confusion then tensed his limbs. He felt the familiar bed under his arms and legs, the pillow against the back of his head and a plethora of frantic thoughts exploded in his racing mind.
What the hell just happened? He wondered as he looked around. Had he merely fallen asleep and had a bizarre dream, only to wake up back in this damned hospital ward? Worse, could it be the morphine simply screwing with his brain? But no, he could see clearly now, and he no longer felt weak or immobile so something had to have changed. His limbs seemed to be obeying his commands once again. Mystified, he sat up.
The first thing his eyes fell upon was the dark haired girl at the side of the bed, clutching someone's hand with her head lowered. Desmond watched as she looked up with painful slowness, wiping away a small trickle of tears with her free hand. It was Chloe! But she wasn't holding his hand; he was certain of that because he felt nothing. He tried to lift his left arm but the result was something totally unexpected.
He watched in utter amazement as his arm seemed to materialize out of…his arm. Immediately he sat bolt upright in a violent motion and lifted both hands behind his head, out of sight. The other pair of arms remained motionless on the bed. With an uneasy feeling nagging at the back of his mind, Desmond began to turn very slowly, and looked behind him.
Speechless with astonishment he stared dumbly at his own face lying against the pillow; its eyes closed peacefully, an expression of vague contentment on its features. Only then did Desmond register the single continuous sound of the heart monitor, a sustained, ominous noise that signalled one thing and one thing only. He was dead.
Now an impossible possibility dawned on him and he scrambled frantically out of the bed, not even disturbing the covers despite his wild movements. He stood still for a few unimaginably long seconds before turning to face his sister. She had stood up now, with…his hand still held gently in her own. He clicked his fingers in front of her face and got no reaction. Oblivious to his presence, she released her grip and turned away towards the door of the ward.
"Bye Des," he heard her say and spotted the faint glimmer of a bravely attempted smile just before she turned her back. She left the room and Desmond was left staring at his own body with the sound of the heart monitor in his ears. He waited for a moment, and then reached out with one hand to touch the grey bulk of the machine. His suspicions were confirmed as the limb passed straight through the casing. He stepped back and smiled.
Well how about that, he thought, there really are ghosts!