The Man Who Lived at the End of the World

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Chapter 15

Lucy felt confused and conflicted as the world around her seeped away along with her strength, and another one seemed to beckon her, filled with all the colourful things she had imagined as a tiny child and since forgotten behind the mist of living. Laughter and mischievous whispers found her, tousled her hair, begged her to play, and she drifted between sleep and waking with a smile for them all. Her body cried out but it somehow seemed like a long way off, a dying shell that anchored her here with pain and its hunger.

She sat limply in her bed, small against her plump pillows, trying her best each morning to sit up straight as soon as she woke and to drink some water, knowing that was what her gran would have told her to do. She eyed the bottle sadly as it lay across her lap. There wasn't much left in there now. The mineral water had already run out a few days ago, and the trickle from the taps had stopped before her bottle was fully refilled. The tap water had an odd taste too, and there was a residue of dust settling at the bottom of the bottle, but it was all she had, and even that was running out.

She wondered how long she had been there, when her gran would come back with Anna, and she wondered if they had left her because she would have only slowed them down. She knew it was her fault they had been left behind to start with. If it hadn't been for her, they would have been safe long ago, protected in a special camp with plenty of food and water.

She closed her eyes. Even her guilt seemed distant now. Waking was more difficult each day, the deep pull of sleep an ever-irresistible surrender. The house shook her awake from time to time, pieces of it falling away around her. It was now a shell like her body, shedding pieces to let in more and more light, destroying itself as it threw off its weight.

Many days ago she had managed to brave the stairs and venture down out of sheer hunger, but there had been nothing. The front wall of the house had collapsed into a dusty heap of bricks and glass and now looked out upon a street strewn with the same broken puzzle-pieces of walls and roofs. Her climb back upstairs had been impossible, and she had given up and slept that night on the carpet covered in the fine dust of disintegrating walls, down by the foot of the stairs in the warm night breeze. Waking the next morning, she had looked up from the floor where she lay and had seen them stretch up above her with more steps than she had ever seen, as if they had climbed all the way up to the sky, and for a sleepy moment she had felt happy, and wanted to climb all the way up and leap onto a cloud.

She had shaken with an effort so tremendous she could barely remember any detail except for pain and trembling, but somehow she had stood and crawled back up the stairs, one by one. Once back in her bed she had found she was too weak to leave, and now she simply sat, waiting for nothing, letting the same pains tear through her like scissors through paper, day after day.

Somehow, despite all the rumbling and quaking, her room remained untouched, its window the only intact glass in the house, perhaps even the street. Although the walls and ceiling began to crack and drop sandy showers of plaster, and the furniture now sat at strange angles or lay sprawled across the floor, Lucy's bed remained where it had always been, opposite her pristine window, letting in a tired and anaemic sun each morning and keeping her from the sweeping gusts of hot air that now had its home in the ruins.

As more days passed, sleep and waking eventually became one, the ache of hunger retreated to a dull growl, and her water ran out. With nothing left to quench the pain, her body was racked with an agony that seemed to make her lighter, burning away her substance, purifying her. She felt like the mummies of Egypt, lying still in the tomb of her bedroom and slowly drying out like leather in the heat. She was slowly fading.

On a night when everything was dark she had a dream, like the dreams from before, and in her lightness she floated from her bed and down the stairs, struggling like trying to swim through thick water, but eager, and she passed like a shadow through the broken downstairs rooms, past the hulking silhouettes of ruins and upturned furniture, floating past them all, and out onto the cool grass outside.

The stars were there for her, shining brighter than the morning sun, reaching for her. She sank to the ground, looking up at them, straining to hear what they had always tried to tell her, and she heard them calling her home.

With a smile she closed her eyes and felt herself dissolve into the night, her white nightgown billowing like a sail, carrying her to the sky. When her eyes opened the sun was bright again, and now that she knew what the pure black sky had been saying to her for all of those years, she felt happy, and she felt forgiven. She wanted to laugh at the shame she had felt before, and how little it had meant all along.

She was moving, slowly climbing the sky, where she heard the voice of her father talking to her in beautiful poetry, passing through golden beams of sunlight that bathed her with a recognition that she was now like them. She was going to her cloud, the one she now remembered the voice telling her about. It had been so long ago, but now had an immediacy that levelled the passage of time into nothing. She was going to her own cloud so that she could step off and go back into the heart of the star where she had been born.

When the floating ended she felt herself settle onto the cloud's pure cotton whiteness in an endless sky, and the memory of her father loomed over her just as if she had been a baby in a cot. He was the man in the photographs, and the man in the car from her dreams, and she saw how they could be the same after all. His face was worn with care and scarred by a wildness that he had never been able to contain, but tender, with eyes as kindly as she always thought God's must be.

She remembered being tiny, with her father asking her if she would like her warm milk mixed with honey, and she remembered how she had loved to drink it before bed. She remembered, and at the same time she was there, and she nodded and smiled and closed her eyes.

Moments later it seeped between her lips and nourished her, travelling into her bones and dousing the flames of her pain forever. The cycle was now complete and she was finally ready to step away from her cloud and go back home. She looked back down one last time and saw it all, her old body like a doll in a tiny dollhouse, the broken earth, vast as it was, wrapped around like a ball, and she saw everyone and everything on it, held down against its surface. She wanted so badly to reach down and help them but it was too late now. She was leaving it behind, leaving her special cloud and the tiny little world full of hurt, launched on by the comfort of her father and the memories of his poetry. She was running back home into her own sky and her sun that never set, skipping and leaping, and then she leaped up so high she never came down.

Her soul was blowing bubbles and laughter was her breath, and soon she was nothing but a tiny point of light.

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