The darkness before
I run to him but he rebuffs me. What is up with him? He looks dishevelled and unshaven. I’ve never seen him like this. His eyes are bloodshot and he stinks. With the greatest of respect, he smells stale, like off whiskey or gin. He must have been drinking. Bloody idiot. Why would he rebuke me? Did he not want to be found and if not, why? Does he not feel any form of duty to us?
What has he done to himself?
“Have you been here the entire time? What the bloody hell were you playing at? You’ve scared all of us sick! How could you do that to us, you selfish bastard?”
He just squints at me, as if trying to decipher what I’m saying. He’s never looked at me like that before as if he doesn’t know me or recognise me. What the hell has happened?
“Piss off, you’re dead. I shall stay here and stew, now piss off.” He steps toward me and slaps me. He slapped me. He actually slapped me. It takes me a few seconds to recover from that. I can taste a weird metallic substance in my mouth. Blood. I knew he was a powerful bastard but I didn’t think I would ever experience his fist in my face. Wait, he thinks I’m dead? Why does he think I’m dead? Why would he believe that a bullet would be the thing that finally killed me off?
“John, it’s me. I’m not dead. See.” I place my finger inside my mouth and show him the blood from my split lip. Yeah, that proves I’m alive doesn’t it? Only living things bleed; if it bleeds you can kill it. Please let this be the proof.
He takes my hand and just stares at it intensely. He looks from my hand to my face, my hand to my face. He looks like he’s in shock. Like I’m some kind of supernatural being. Also, he knows he’s in trouble because he just slapped me; it didn’t end too well for the last person that did that.
“John, it’s me. It’s really me. Look at me.”
“I survived. The bullet did some damage but not enough to kill me. Enough to put me out of commission but not to kill me.”
“My girl, I am so sorry.”
He scoops me into his arms and embraces me. It’s a lovely reunion but all I can think about is this mouth full of blood that I need to spit. The taste of blood, not pleasant. He squeezes me and my mouth, full of bloody saliva, opens and the content spills onto his back. I don’t think he’s noticed. He can find another shirt. Eek.
He looks at me again. His grey eyes swimming with tears; I don’t need this bullshit reunion at this time. I know I’ve wanted this reality to be true for the longest time but I am in too much pain. The slap to the face didn’t help matters. Now, not only does my abdomen kill me, my mouth aches as well. Wonderful; at least I didn’t lose any teeth. I’m not attractive enough to pull off the no front teeth appearance.
“Are you okay? I’m sorry but...you’re the third Elektra I’ve seen today. Admittedly, you’re the only one that spoke. The rest were just...corpses.”
“Sh...it’s okay. I’m here, you probably saw three of me because you are pissed out of your tree. Don’t deny it. Did you really think a piece of metal could kill me? Don’t be delusional. Answer my question, have you been here the whole time?”
“Yes. I told you to come here if you got into trouble and you did. You didn’t tell the others, did you? I can’t deal with seeing the rest of them.”
“No, I didn’t tell them anything. I remembered. This place has not changed at all, has it? You could have left the front door unlocked so I didn’t have to knock the wind out of my sails.”
“Well when you go back, don’t tell them where I am. I can’t leave the door open, anyone could get in.”
“Wait, when I get back? Don’t you mean we? I’m not going without you; I’ve stuck my neck on the line for this.”
“Elektra, don’t make this difficult. I’m not going back or I would have already, goose. I’m not going back.”
What does he mean he’s not going back? How can he even say that? Everyone back at the camp misses him, needs him even. I can’t believe he could even contemplate. I know one thing: I’m not leaving without him, no matter whether I have his permission or not.
“Goose, I can’t go back there....”
“Stop being obdurate...”
“No, I can’t,” he interrupts.
“Because I’m dying! Are you happy now Elektra? I’m dying.”
What? How? How can he...he be...dying? I have spent hours thinking that I would be the one to find him, dead. I just had vision. If there is a cloud deity, he’s a bastard with a great love of irony or something like that. He gives me hope for a matter of minutes to rip it away from me. That’s why he doesn’t want to go back. He wants to die here for what it’s worth. I cannot believe this is happening. I was supposed to be the one that was dying; not John, who was always the pillar and authoritarian of the camp. This can’t be real.
“How do you know, you silly git? I mean you can’t have proof or anything.”
“It’s what I’ve been thinking for a long time. My memory went to shit and I couldn’t coordinate anything properly. Rita told me she thought I had a condition called sporadic CJD, one of the symptoms is like a fast acting dementia. Loss of intellect. Hallucinations. I don’t want to lose my mind; I don’t want to be helpless, stewing in my own juices and trapped in my body like some kind of vegetable. So I made my choice; I’m going to overdose. Greatest chance of death, less mess.”
“No...no,” I can barely get the words out
“I have the pills. I just need someone to help me with the cap; I can’t open lids anymore.”
“You could make a cup of coffee two weeks ago...”
“A lot can change in two weeks, goose. I just need you to do this for me. I either do this now or the others will find me and I will die in that cramped bloody house. A vegetable. Do you want that for me? Hm? Please do this for me.”
“No. What are you asking me to do? What are you asking for? Euthanasia? No; bullshit. Rita might be wrong.”
“No, she’s not. I have to have it; I don’t recognise half of the people in that camp. I don’t even remember what Isla looked like. I haven’t been right for years goose. Yes, I’m asking you to give me a mercy killing. I want to die Elektra, please do this for me. I have never asked anything from you!”
“That’s true but how can you ask this of me? I will have to leave with that. Killing you. How can I live with that you egocentric sod? If you want to top yourself, do it yourself. I am done having to kill people.”
How can he ask me to kill him? He has been like a father to me so how can he ask me to end his life? If he does have this condition, then it may be the kindest thing but we should discuss our plan of action as a group. This can’t be my choice alone. He’s pleading with me. Why do people keep pleading with me to do things that are too much of me? This isn’t fair but then again, life isn’t fair. Why did I think everything was going to be okay? Am I really that naïve?
“Elektra, what do you by ‘people’? What happened? How did you get shot?”
“You want to know the truth. You were there. I left Roman; I got jumped; he shot me and I slit his throat. I killed him and you want to know the worst thing, I don’t care anymore. I killed a man who was trying to provide for the people he cared about; he could have had a wife or children and I murdered him in cold blood. I can’t be a murderer anymore so if you want to arrange your execution, that’s on you. Please don’t do this to me, I need you. We all do.”
Now I’m pleading with him, how the tides turn.
“You did what you had to do. To survive. You have so much more to give; you’re young. You’re going to do amazing things with your life, I know you will. Kid, you deserve all the happiness in the world and I’m sorry I won’t be there to see it. But please, I’m old and I’m tired of fighting and losing. Please help me. I am in pain, Elektra. I just want to be free. Freedom. I love you baby girl. You’re going to be fine without me, I know it.”
I can’t do it. I don’t deserve happiness. I deserve to be tortured; I deserve everything that’s happening now. I’m not going to be fine. I need him. It will be like losing my family all over again and I can’t deal with that. I don’t want to lose him but is it really my choice? He’s stubborn. There’s no convincing him otherwise. Whether he has my blessing or not, today his life ends. I can’t believe I’m saying this. I can’t be. I don’t want him to be in pain. I have to set him free. This is the one thing he asks; how can I refuse? I mean, wasn’t this decision I was going to make? I was going to die. I am so many things but a hypocrite isn’t one of them. If he suffers, it’s all on me. I can’t live with that but I can’t live with helping him die. This is the one and only he’s asking of me; the only thing I could never do. The only thing I can’t refuse to do. I have to help. I’m going to hell anyway, oh wait I’m already there.
“What bottle do you need?”
“What bottle are you going to down?”
“The paracetamol with the Jack Daniels.”
“Good choice; I’ll go and get them. Is there anything else you need?”
“Thank you,” he whispers with a smile on his lips.
I have to keep myself together. Neither of us needs the bullshit. This is the most painful thing I’ve ever had to do. Not only am I losing a father, but I’m losing a mentor and a confidant. I’m losing my best friend. Oh god, I’m falling to pieces. He’s going to die; he’s going to die. Oh god. Oh god! I have to do this for him but god, why? Why, you sadistic arsehole? Why do you see fit to take away everyone I have ever loved or cared about? Anyone I can’t kill; the only one I could never kill.
I place the pills on the table and unscrew the lid. I then go over to the mini bar in the corner of the room and pick up a bottle of Jack Daniels. I unscrew the lid from that bottle and place two glasses in front of us. If I’m going to do this, I don’t want to remember it. I pour the dark, sour liquor into both cups. He looks at me and smiles.
He’s shaking. He pours the contents of the bottle, three or four pills, into his mouth and downs the glass of whiskey. He gags but forces them down. He sighs contentedly. I take the bottle and drink. It tastes vile but I need to be numb. Drunk. Ignorant.
“Elektra, thank you.”
“You’ve already thanked me. Don’t make this any more difficult.”
“No, thank you for being in my life. You were the daughter I always wanted. Tell Rita to look after herself and tell Erin that I’m sorry. Also, give that Roman kid a chance; he’s a good man. You deserve each other.”
“I already have.” I have to blink back the tears
“That’s my girl. I owe you the truth. Your parents, I knew them. I stole you from them. Elektra, forgive me. I think they’re still alive”
“I don’t care, it’s okay. Just get comfortable.”
Wait, did he just my parents are alive? Why would he steal me? I don’t want to think about it. He is about to die; I can’t bring myself to think so badly of him. I don’t want that memory of him in my head. I want to remember him younger and strong. I want to remember him taking me on hunts, just talking to me. I want to remember the man who was the most important person in my life. That’s the John I want to remember. Not this broken shell of a man in front of me.
“Have a good life, goose. You’ve earned it; don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t good enough or strong enough because you are. You are beautiful and smart and so, so brave.”
“Shut up you cheesy old git, you.”
“That’s my girl.”
We sit in silence for a few minutes. I listen to his breathing, anticipating which breath will be his last. Finally, his eyes roll back into his head. His breathing becomes laboured. Then...silence. Nothing. I walk over to him and take his pulse.
He’s gone. He’s dead.
Oh my god, he’s actually dead. I helped him. How could I help him? The dawn finally breaks. John always used to say it’s always darkest before the dawn, I never knew he’d die by it. John Marcus Saunders. Time of death: 0642. Oh my god, he’s gone. For good. I’ve lost him. It’s my fault. He was looking for an excuse to get away. I can’t leave him here. I have to take him back to the others. They have to know. But they can’t know about this place. His true home. I’m not going to take that away from him, even in death.
I can’t leave him like this. He looks like a broken alcoholic. I have to do something. The last thing I can do. The beard. It’s the beard that makes him look like that. I pick up the pill bottle. I walk into the bathroom again. I place the bottle back down in the medicine cabinet. Amazing what is kept in a medicine cabinet. Paracetamol. Ibuprofen. Ribbed condoms, maybe the most disturbing. Am I really trying to be funny? That’s new.
I spot a razor. Right at the back of the cabinet. If I can get some water, I can do this. He has to be presentable; the corpse in the arm chair is not John. It’s but a shadow of him. If the beard were to go, he would look exactly as he did when he left. I owe him that. I owe him everything. I walk into the kitchen and turn on the hot tap. I place a scourer in the lukewarm water. I then walk over to John. I heard that using hot water opens up the pores, do you think it still does? He won’t feel it but I feel I owe him the respect of treating him as if he will. How can I do this? Why did I let myself be persuaded? He knew all the right thing to say to convince me. How do I even know that was Rita’s diagnosis? Bastard could have lied to me. No. I can’t think of him that badly. He’s dead. He’s dead because of me. Because of me.
I wipe his face with the sponge side of the scourer. Most of the dirt that lay on his skin has been removed. I have to detach myself. If I succumb to emotion, I won’t be able to continue. Game over. This is what he wanted. He wouldn’t want anyone to be upset by his death. This isn’t death, this is his liberation. He will not have to continue suffering. He’s finally free.
I walk over to the cold tap. It takes a while for the water to flow but when it does, there is a lot of mud and bits of vegetation in it. I place the razor underneath the cold water tap; blood seems to come straight off of the razor’s edge. I’m not surprised it was used as a weapon. I must have been.
I saunter back over to John. How can he look like he’s sleeping? How is that possible? The first pleasant death I’ve seen: no one coughing up their guts, begging for oxygen and no blood-covered corpse. He’s found peace. I begin to shave his neck, being careful not to nip his neck with the blade. I just have to be careful. I’ve never shaved a man before. I never thought the first man I’d shave would be a dead body. I’ve shaved before so I have an idea of what to do. He’s just a dead body. John is gone. He’s gone. There is no life in him. Whatever made him, him is gone.
I’m done. There was minimal damage to him. A few cuts but nothing significant. That’s the John I remember. A little stubble, no more. He looks so peaceful. I hope he finds peace, wherever he is. God knows, he deserves it. He’s done more than his fair share.
How do I get him back? I can’t carry him. It’ll be difficult to get back on my own but with extra weight, no. I owe it to him to take him back to the camp. We burn him. Then I return and spread his ashes here. On my own. My own. I’m the only one he wanted to know about this place. I have to find a mode of transport.
I open the back door and look back. How can he still look like he’s sleeping? I can’t think like that because I will try to bring him back. I could do it. If I were to make him vomit, he might stand a chance but he would hate me for the rest of his days. I can’t do that to him. I have to let him go. I get a way out of here and then I take him back with me to the camp.
As soon as I step outside, I’m greeted by putrid breath and a set of yellowing teeth. It’s a horse. The beginning of John’s animal farm but I’m grateful. I have a way to get us both out of here. I just have to get him onto the horse. I just have to overcome that small difficulty. I drag him by his feet. I never thought I’d be this but there is no dignity I could give him. He is...was... a big lump. Not fat but muscular. Now, I just have to muster my strength and chuck him on the back of the horse. I’m strong. I’ve lifted people a long way before. Not with a chunk out of me but I can do this. I have to do this. For him.
Right. He’s on. My back went but he’s on the horse. I’ll have to ride carefully. If he fell off, I won’t be able to put him back on the horse. No dignity for him. Failure for me. Once I get back to the flat, then I can deal with what I’m feeling but now I have to conceal it. I owe him that. Why do I owe him so much? I owe him things I can never repay if I live for decades.
The horse is tame. John had already saddled it. What was he planning to do? I’ve never ridden a horse before. I wanted to avoid it but this is my ticket out of here. It’s my one-way ticket to Wales or Scotland. My liberation. Why did John’s liberation have to be in death? Liberty in death, the only true freedom. I hoist myself onto the horse. I ache. I always ache. I shouldn’t complain. I’m lucky if anything.
I keep one hand behind my back, keeping him in place. He feels so cold. All of the nights when we were out hunting, I relied on his warmth. He always seemed like a heater, never cold. He radiated warmth, both literally and metaphorically. How can he really be gone? How can he be gone? How am I supposed to cope without him?Pull yourself together, Elektra.
I manage to get the horse into a trot. This was probably the worst way to travel under the circumstances. I have to keep on. Fight through the pain, that’s what he always said. Fight through the pain. The sunlight invades every part of the landscape. Sunlight; the light at the end of the tunnel. If only that were true and not a load of pretentious bullshit.
I have to bring him home.