The Man Who Lived at the End of the World

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Chapter 6

Lucy was floating on a sunbeam in the biggest garden she could ever have imagined, with acres of grass and fantastic tall trees reaching up to touch the sky. The sun shone over everything, but it had shone especially on her, just for a moment, to let her leave her weight behind and coast through the air like a mote of dust, just like the shafts of light she had seen pouring through the hospital windows.

As she went, floating on her back like the air could have been water, she heard voices below her but couldn't make them out. The ground only grew more distant and passed silently underneath, and she closed her eyes, full of open space, and felt the swirling thrill in her stomach at being weightless.

Soon she heard footsteps echoing close by, solid and purposeful, and she opened her eyes in unexpected panic and sensed that she was closer than she thought to the ground. Landing so painfully that a sharp wave of agony passed through all of her bones, the sun was suddenly too bright to look at and seared her eyes with a sharp ache.

“Come on sleepy-head,” said her gran, throwing open the curtains and blinding Lucy with sunlight harsh enough to pull her back into the world she didn't want.

“No!” Lucy protested in a loud and sleepy mumble, screwing her eyes shut. “No! I want to sleep!”

The blue colours of her room and everything in it became emblazoned with a bold daylight that left no space for shadows, and Lucy realised there was a weight on top of her legs. She tentatively opened her tired eyelids and saw that her gran had placed a round and flowery metal tray there while she opened the curtains. On it were an empty white cup with a blue pattern on a matching saucer, a metal tea strainer, and a teapot hidden by a thickly-knitted tea-cosy. A plate with two triangular slices of buttered toast sat next to them. She watched her gran come back over for it and lift it off Lucy's legs so that she could sit up.

“Time for breakfast,” she said with a cheerfulness that seemed slightly forced. “Drink some tea, it'll make you strong.”

Lucy was still bleary-eyed, and after her time in the other place she had already forgotten how weak she was in this one. She struggled to sit up, feeling her hands sink into the soft mattress and her arms tremble with the effort, and once she was sitting up against her pillows her gran put the tray gently back down on her lap.

“There you go,” she said, her soft but dry lips kissing Lucy's forehead as she sat on the edge of the bed with her. “Eat up, you need the energy.”

Lucy reluctantly poured the Earl Grey tea out from the teapot, through the strainer and into the cup like her gran had taught her, watching the sunlight float in strange bent circles through the golden-brown liquid, little wisps of steam escaping out into the air. She smiled, catching the gentle scent of bergamot, and as her gran ran her hand through Lucy's hair, straightening it out back over her shoulder, Lucy remembered she still liked this place too.

“It's good for you,” her gran smiled as she watched Lucy gingerly sip the hot tea. “Full of antioxidants! Whatever they are.”

Lucy laughed and felt the tea's warmth ease her stiff body. “I like it better than normal tea,” she said.

“It is normal tea,” explained her gran. “It's just got extra things in. I must admit I'm coming around to liking it, too.”

There was a moment's silence as Lucy watched her gran's gaze fade far out into the distance, her hand still absently smoothing Lucy's hair.

“Such beautiful hair,” she said, as she often did. “I don't know where you got it from. It's too well-behaved to be from your father.” She gave out a little chuckle, then sighed. “You certainly have your mam's eyes though,” she said quietly.

Lucy had heard her say this a long time ago. “Gran?” she asked quizzically.

“Yes dear?”

“Can I see the old photos of mam and dad again?”

“Of course,” she smiled. “I'll go and fetch them.”

She rose and left the room, her footsteps sounding down the stairs and then a few minutes later back up again. She returned with a small pile of dusty brown leather-bound photo albums.

“Let's see,” she said as she put them down on the bed and sat next to them. “Ah yes, here we are.”

Picking one out, she opened it and showed Lucy, and Lucy smiled to herself as she looked at the pictures. She always liked seeing them, those people that she knew were her parents even though she didn't remember them.

She looked at the picture of her mother. She always looked beautiful, her wavy hair as shiny as dark wood and her green eyes quietly piercing, as if she could see Lucy and understand her from out of the photograph. Next to her, her dad looked wild, his dark hair always past his shoulders and barely under control, but she liked his gentle face. She frowned as it suddenly reminded her of the man in the car from her dreams, but the man in her dreams was much older, far more careworn and scarred, and it couldn't be him. Lucy touched the pictures with her fingers, and felt like she was home, really home, and everything else was just temporary. All the illness and staying in her gran's house would all just end one day, and she would get to go back home.

Although she remembered nothing of them, Lucy understood that her mother was dead, in the same way that she understood other inevitable facts such as the country's capital, or the planets spinning around the sun, or gravity. It was all she knew, and it only touched her when she saw the photographs, but the feelings they brought were dull around the edges and confused her.

“When's dad coming out of hospital?” she asked her gran, even though she knew what the answer would be.

“He's getting better,” she replied soothingly, as she always did. “I'm still hoping they might let us go and visit soon.”

Lucy smiled. She was still waiting for the day she could go and see the man from the pictures. Somewhere, she felt like there was a secret promise, an unbreakable bond, and that they would simply have to meet.

She was almost as lost in the world of those photos as she had been in her dream, but just like the dream her peace was shattered by a fresh and abrupt jolt of pain that seared every cell of her body and made her cry out. That brief lull after waking was all she had been allowed, and now the darkness she had always felt lurking deep and far away inside had reached up for her again.

Feeling the tray slip from her legs and the photos fall to the floor, Lucy turned over and struggled to pull the heavy duvet over herself, feeling her eyes well up. She heard her gran bustling about the bed and her voice muttering almost constantly, but she couldn't hear anything clearly as her heart rushed blood through her ears in response to the sharp throbbing that had settled in her bones.

Slowly, gently, like the sky being peeled open, her duvet was folded back and a glass held to her lips. The new morphine came as a powder which her gran had to mix into water, and although it was flavoured with orange it still tasted odd. Lucy lay, curled up with her tears, and finished the whole glass sip by sip as he gran patiently held it for her.

When it was all gone, the soft sky of her duvet settled back over her, and she remained still. She hoped that the deep and sinister shadow of her pain would lose interest in playing with her and move on, but even when the morphine had driven its dark shapes further away she could still sense them waiting for her, and her dreams were no longer kind to her when she dipped in and out of the shallows of a desperate sleep, showing her only a broiling devastation waiting in the wings, and ruin streaking red through the sky.

She cried all day as the visions played behind her eyes like nightmares, great clouds of fire unfurling outward from the horizon and unleashing a relentless white heat, incinerating the city from her dream, melting its one car and the man inside who looked like the pictures of her father.

She eventually woke just enough to feel her mouth drying, and her gran was there to hold a glass of water to her lips. She sipped it gratefully and thanked her in a cracked and tired voice. Finally the sun outside her window began falling and pulled her deeper into sleep, and for a while she lay back in the grass, staring up at the wall in that other place, so far from the darkness and pain that it felt like none of it had ever happened. While she was there she felt content, lulled into blissful inertia by the softness of the breeze that settled on her warm skin.

After what felt like hours her gran's voice drifted back in with it, as gentle as a whisper as Lucy opened her eyes into her own bedroom, now dark.

“Oh Lucy, what are we going to do,” she was saying to herself.

Lucy saw her standing at the window, staring out at the blackness of night and then shutting the curtains quickly with a slight shudder.

“What's wrong?” Lucy asked sleepily.

“Oh I'm sorry,” said her gran, coming over, her brow creased with concern. “I didn't mean to wake you.”

“What's happening?”

“Oh, nothing,” she said with a smile, stooping next to the bed and running a hand through Lucy's hair. “There's a huge piece of rock floating up there,” she said, pointing up. “It's in space but it's heading towards us. They say we'll be perfectly fine though. I just hope they're right.”

“Who say?” Lucy asked, wondering why there was any reason to worry.

“The scientists who saw it,” answered her gran.

“Surely they'd know best,” she said, feeling safe. “We'll be alright. At least we have tea.”

Her gran laughed and pinched Lucy's cheek. “You're a case,” she said, standing up. “I'll leave the light on for a while.”

A loud click signalled the soft flood of light from the lamp on her bedside table.

“Don't forget to finish your water,” she added, and with that she picked all the photo albums back up from the floor where they had fallen earlier, pausing for just a moment to smile at Lucy, and then she left.

When she was gone, Lucy finished off the water, rehydrating the parched land she felt in her throat, and settled back into bed. Suddenly, as she lay thinking about the rock floating in space, she remembered the dreams of earlier, shallow yet so intense, with things streaking through the sky, and then she started to worry just like her gran.

She began to think that perhaps it meant something. She had felt that over the weeks, as her pains had grown worse, her shadows had claimed more of her, driving her deeper into the retreat of those worlds she visited when she slept, but now that they had found their way into her dreams perhaps they would soon escape and pour into the real world to wreak vengeance on everyone. Their spite was more intense than anything in her bright dream world, and she was terrified they would tear through its paper walls and claim it.

As she lay drifting on the morphine's hazy surface Lucy sank back into sleep, past the narrow band of horrors where her pain lived, and suddenly she laughed at how small and finite and far away it was as she passed through into a vivid brightness that held no limits. She knew that she would not remember when she awoke and that she would start worrying and groaning all over again, but it all looked so tiny from where she was, just a tiny little world full of hurt, and she found she could look down and see herself. She was just a speck on its surface, lying on a speck of a bed inside a doll's house.

The clouds floated past like cotton wool, and all of a sudden Lucy felt sad looking down there, drifting away from an imperfect world that she realised she loved more than anything.

The long grass swayed all around her as she lay looking up at the sky, but there was something pulling her back, as if she had entered this bright world tied to a rope with its other end back there in the tiny house, and someone was tugging her. The grass grew longer and longer, the earth opened up, and she fell all the way back down, down under the ground and back out, past the clouds and into the little dollhouse, where she woke suddenly and felt like she hadn't breathed for a lifetime.

Feeling air flood her body, her eyes sprang wide open and she heard a constant bustling all around her and a quiet yet incessant beeping by her side. Her limbs were so heavy and her throat so dry that she could not move or say a word, but she was able to move her head just a little from side to side, and she felt the resistance of tape stuck to her cheek where a plastic tube was threaded from one nostril to somewhere deep in the bank of machines next to her.

It looked like the other hospital where she had been just weeks before, and a thin white curtain isolated her from the ward. When she turned to the other side she saw her gran sleeping in a chair next to the bed, and tried to call out to her, but only a cracked whisper came out. She felt so thirsty, and wished for a whole lake of fresh mountain water all to herself so she could dive in and drink it all down, smooth and cool, until it was all gone.

She lay back and closed her eyes, her world a darkness of spinning nausea, the whole building whirling in circles with her trapped inside it. Time slowed and flowed around her and left her dizzy little corner alone behind its curtains, and after an age she heard stirring, and her eyelids snapped back open.

She looked over and saw her gran slowly sitting back upright after having been overtaken by surprise with sleep, and her eyes widened at Lucy in shock for a moment before she smiled with such pure joy that Lucy smiled with her.

“Oh Lucy,” she exclaimed, getting up and looming over her, squeezing her gently and kissing her forehead. “You're awake,” she said in a wavering voice. “I'm so sorry, Lucy.”

She held Lucy’s hand. “I told them I couldn't look after you by myself. I'm so sorry.”

Lucy felt dazed, and wasn't sure if her time at home had been one long dream. Her gran kissed her head again and then disappeared for a few moments, bringing a nurse back with her who bustled around the bed and brought others with her. Lucy let her eyelids drift down like curtains, ending the world outside, surrendering to its giddy spin.

Drifting in and out of a half-dream where all the voices had different faces, Lucy suddenly heard one which pulled her eyes back open, and a smile crossed her cracked lips.

“Hi, Rose,” said Anna as she walked in through the curtains like a saving angel through the clouds, wearing a long white winter coat like Lucy's, and she immediately came over and gave her a gentle hug on the bed, one damp cheek pressed against Lucy's. “I was so worried,” she said with a sniff, and then, embarrassed, she stood back up and wiped her eyes.

“She's been coming in to see you,” said her gran, standing next to Anna and holding her arm.

“Where am I?” asked Lucy with a frown.

“You're back in the hospital,” Anna smiled, “not far from the children's building where you used to be. How are you feeling?”

“Dizzy,” Lucy answered, still with a frown. “And thirsty.”

“I'll get you some water,” volunteered her gran, who quickly disappeared.

“What happened?” Lucy asked Anna, who came and crouched by the bedside. “Where have I been?”

“You've been right here,” Anna told her. “Your granny Rose feels terrible, but it was the doctors who gave her the wrong type of medicine. It wasn't her fault.”

“You mean the morphine?” asked Lucy as she tried to piece things together through the haze. “I've been sleeping? How long?”

“A few days,” Anna said. “We wondered whether you'd wake up. Your gran's been worried sick, and so have I.” She squeezed Lucy's hand. “I'm so glad you're back.”

Just then her gran returned with a cup of water and passed it to Anna, who held it to Lucy's lips for her to sip. Lucy closed her eyes and imagined being by the edge of a mountain lake, just the three of them, away from all the machines and intrusive beeping, away from the endless voices and footsteps and the harsh white of lights and curtains. She was outside, under a sky strewn with rushing soft clouds and sipping the freshest water on earth, and as it poured life back into her she felt the weight in her limbs slowly lift off and release them, and as the nausea and the spinning slowly cleared she began to wonder if she was still dreaming after all. There was no more pain, her shadows had left her, and although her body had been battered by them, leaving only weakness in its wake, Lucy knew that ruins could always be rebuilt. With the feeble strength that trickled into her fingers she squeezed Anna's hand.

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