A short story
Just before you die the blood stops pumping to your brain. The last few seconds are like static from an old radio.
The afternoon is getting on, now. The sunset receding a little into the background. Any respite at all, I suppose. My skin cools. Not searing like before. I can rest easier in my seat. The needles fade…
I have been trying in vain to find something good on the radio.
The first one was modern R&B. You know. They pull some random jailbait from the school cafeteria and tell her she’ll be famous if she moans over a cheap drum machine. Mum won’t have to work two jobs. She’s really going for it too. Probably figuring if she fit enough notes in one single banshee wail they’d throw in some food as a bonus. Live the dream, right?
Next. Talk radio, the worst. Angry, conservative loudhailer. Takes calls from middle-class housewives who fall in love with the dulcet tones of his voice. Reminds them of Daddy. Talking about society going down the drain, whatever happened to real role models, the liberal media are in control and oh, I know! I know! It’s awful! Venting their frustration to their surrogate radio Dad, carefully ashing their cigarettes into their expensive glassware ashtrays. All of them dying all the same.
Another station. It’s glitzy pop music. Razor blades pushing into my brain.
There. Found the tail end of a Neil Young song. That will do. Horrible reception, suddenly. All static. I turn the radio off with the last drop of strength in my left arm. A surge of pain reminds me moving it is a bad idea. Arm falls to my side, motionless. Numb. The needles come back.
A nice little street behind me. One or two cheery little bars. Must have been packed. No one was outside.
Crisps, steak, sour cream, limes, salt, tequila, beer. Pool. Weather-beaten faces. Laughing, eating, drinking, forgetting. Cigarettes, melting into ghosts. Maybe a real guitar and a good amp. Maybe a jukebox. I would kill to get back there. Tell a joke; knock down a shot or three. Recede into the furniture, blissful. The needles are almost gone.
Orange rays moving right past me, or right through me, into the shuttered windows of the street outside, breaking into little beams, illuminating the dust that had been hovering out of sight. Thin slices of dust and light. Tangible enough that small children would try and hold them.
Boy playing on the beach. Six, seven? Not sure. Beautiful. Completely oblivious. Rolled up overalls, grubby shirt, no shoes, sand up to the knees. Unruly mop of yellow hair. Running around, hyperactive, plastic shovel and bucket in tow. Asymmetrical sandcastle, too close to the water. No one else around.
He sees me.
I can barely move my legs.
He dawdles up the beach, to the car park, to the car.
Hi there, I say. I try to sound cheerful.
Where are your parents?
He raises his finger vaguely towards one of the bars. Good job, kid. Jesus Christ. If I could lift a gun I’d shoot them where they stand, I swear.
They left you out here?
“I dunno.” A shrug. Does he care? He keeps looking straight at me.
I like your sandcastle.
“It’s a house.”
Oh, well then, I like your house.
He doesn’t reply.
You built it too close to the water. It’ll get washed away.
“The other sand is too dry.”
He’s got me there. I keep hoping he’ll stop looking at me. I keep hoping he’ll get bored and walk away. But…I don’t want him to leave.
“What happened?” he finally asks.
What do you mean?
The boy lowers his gaze from my eyes to my blood soaked left arm, still clutching my balled-up coat to the hole in my chest. By now the lower half of my t-shirt and my jeans are stained crimson.
“What happened to you?”
I was in — well it doesn’t matter now. It’s grown-up stuff.
“Do you need help?”
No. Please. Don’t tell anyone.
He shuffles awkwardly. “Are you OK?”
A weak smile. It’s fine. I’ll be fine.
The boy, seemingly confused, runs back to the water. Fuck. I don’t want it to end this way. Please God, not like this, scaring some little kid half to death.
A small eternity passes.
He pulls something from the sand and runs back to the car. All smiles and excitement. Hands cupped shut.
“Here,” he says. He opens his hands to show me a seashell. I have to laugh.
That for me?
He nods. I gingerly release my coat. No use now. I take the shell from his palm.
“I found lots. You can have this one.”
I rest the shell on my eye and grimace.
Yarrr! What do you think? Do I look like a pirate?
He laughs. I wrench my watch from my wrist with my teeth and hand it to him.
Here you go. Fair trade.
He looks surprised, even suspicious. He slides it around his tiny wrist. “It’s too big.”
Just keep it in your pocket for now. Your hands will get bigger.
He shoves it in his pocket. Gestures towards his sand house.
“Do you wanna help?”
Another weak smile. I think I’m gonna rest here for a bit, pal. I’ll just watch you.
He half-smiles and runs back towards his pet project for the day. With considerable effort I pull the lever of my seat and recline back as far as possible. Needles are gone. Cold feeling now. Spreading through me like a spilled glass of cold water.
Still got the seashell on my face. The kid down there, Dennis the Menace, still digging and laughing away. I close my eyes. I listen. Fading like a dying radio, I faintly hear the sound of waves crashing, lapping towards me, away from the sun, reaching for a boy and his house.