Smoking kills. The warning ran rampant. Little children were warned away from beginning the habit by their anxious parents. Young men and women took it up to punish their parents, but even they understood the destructiveness of their actions. The trademark raspy voice of the past had gone from sexy to shameful, and the poor sods who’d developed cancer from their habits were tsked at. People felt they deserved what they’d got.
Perhaps they were right.
Perhaps his body betraying him was revenge for the many years he’d neglected it. Perhaps he did deserve what he was getting. Perhaps the doctors who had that maddeningly superior air about themselves were right to judge and pick apart every single choice he’d ever made.
It was fair. He’d brought the disease on himself. He’d willingly taken poison into himself and now his very cells were revolting, his lungs shrivelling up and turning to rancid meat.
He was a stereotype now. A warning, pointed at and held up by mothers wanting to scare their kids straight. His own mother spent half her life alternating between scolding him and clinging to his neck as she cried over his impending death.
His family was ashamed of him. His friends tiptoed around him as though scared that the mere mention of his sickness would cause him to keel over dead in front of them.
He made people uncomfortable. He didn’t blame them. He made himself uncomfortable. It had been months since he’d looked in a mirror and longer still since he’d bothered to take any care with his appearance.
He was dying. It was fitting that he’d decay on the outside to show it.
Going up a flight of stairs yesterday had left him panting and wheezing as though a hand was clawing away the air he’d so desperately been trying to pull in.
He’d sneered at them before, the old people who moved at a snail’s pace. Who winced and moaned at the slightest touch. Their every second word had been about death and he’d thought them absurd. Defeated. Pitiful.
Perhaps this was his punishment. Meant to humble him, to cleanse him from the filth in his soul and the sins that filled his books.
Fuck that. Fuck the lessons and fuck the tests and just fuck everything. He was twenty six years old and he was dying and he didn’t want saving. He didn’t want the pain and the humiliation and the shame. If this was the cost of redemption, then it was too high.
Leave him to rot in hell, but give him back his strength.
The priests and the ‘respected elders of the community’ had been disgusted with him. They’d tried to reason with him at first, holding to the veneer of sympathy. Then they’d tried to exorcise his demons. They’d failed, of course. The only demon inhabiting his body was himself.
Finally, they’d left. He’d overheard one of them lamenting to another that he was beyond hope and destined for the fire.
He’d yelled back that he was already in the fire. How could he not be when every breath burned like acid?
Most dying people got closer to the Almighty. Apparently, something about looking your own expiry date in the eye made one fear for their soul.
He didn’t know what he could fear after this. He couldn’t imagine worse. He couldn’t breathe. He was drowning and burning all at the same time and nothing helped. The admonishing didn’t help. The praying didn’t help. The micromanaging didn’t help.
Not in the long run. And he was too dog tired to make such a huge effort for such a short-lived reward.
He’d thought about ending it. Oh, how often he’d imagined picking up that knife and taking it to those oh-so-prominent veins in his emaciated forearms.
He’d dreamt about it. The release. The finale.
He wanted it so badly, it made his fingers twitch.
He wanted it. He needed it. So why hadn’t he done it yet?
The answer was simple. It was what had caused human suffering for centuries on end, and would for centuries more until the day the world stopped spinning and the last body lay cold in the earth.
That four letter word, the one he shied from even when the filthiest of curses fell from his lips freely.
Hope had caused him more pain than his worst enemies. Foolishly, he let its lies intoxicate him over and over.
They were right, all those people who shook their heads and whispered about him. He was addicted. The cigarettes had been thrown in the trash years ago. But his love affair with hope remained.
It was embedded in his heart, in the smallest, darkest chamber it could find. Laying dormant until it sensed its hold was weakening and then striking, quick as a snake, to hold him in the world for yet another day.