part the last
A gull cried, sharp but far away. The faint smell of salt tickled the hairs in his nose. He drew a long, chest-filling breath, dragging that air into his lungs.
This wasn’t death.
The world felt cool. The gull cried again. A few more long-drawn breaths, and he heard Natalya say:
“Hello, again, stranger.”
He tilted his head to the sound of her voice and opened his eyes, the lids parting with a sticky click. Slowly, Natalya’s face swam into focus. Her hair was pulled back to her crown, with little flyaway wisps at her temples flowing free, and touched with smoky-brown highlights that brought out her natural complexion. She had very little makeup on, just a touch of darkness and shine at her eyes and lips. He could make out gentle crow’s feet wrinkles around the former, and worry-lines around the latter, but as she came close to him, those all seemed to disappear.
His voice came out a croak: “…hoo-ehrr?” He tried to loosen the phlegm, and a dry discomfort like the run of sandpaper along the membranes inside his throat made him grimace.
She lifted a cup and pushed a spoon to his lips. “Don’t try to speak, yet. The tubes have not been out for long.”
The stuff in the spoon was cold – ice – and, as he sucked on its soothing wetness, she told him:
“You are in hospital. Almost four months, now.”
He drew a breath full of ice that made him cough. He tried to lift himself up but couldn’t do it, instead falling back against the bed beneath him.
A motor whirred as she raised the bed higher, until he was mostly sitting up.
The lines around her mouth deepened into a frown once more. “You were shot,” she muttered, and he closed his eyes, recalling the sound of the gun, followed by a jumble of images and sensations that had nothing to do with being shot: flashing lights, droning beeps, the wheeze of pumping air.
A stroke of her fingers through his hair made him open his eyes again.
“We thought you were going to die,” she went on, when he saw her smile, faintly. “But you proved all of us wrong.” She resumed her slow spooning of ice chips. “There were so many operations, so many tests, so many hours waiting for you to wake up. But through it all, your heart stayed strong. The first time you opened your eyes, you grabbed the nurse by the arm and said, ‘beach’. Do you remember that?”
He shook his head.
She pressed her lips together and passed him another spoonful of chipped ice. “That’s all right. They said memory could be difficult. Anyway.” She nodded across him and chuckled. “We could not bring your hospital room to the beach, so we brought the beach to you.”
He turned his head. On a table next to the bed sat a tiny portable speaker attached to an audio pod, from which the sounds of gulls came. Beside that was a shallow plastic dish filled with seashells, sand, and a few stalks of purplish flowers.
“Kirill refreshes it every day before he goes to work,” Natalya said. “Do you remember him? Our Kiryushenka?”
This time, he nodded.
She snickered. “How could you forget, eh?” She spooned him some more chips. “He and Darya are attached at the hip, these days. Philip suggested they apply for the national athletics program, but, in the meantime, they work in one of those flashy bars you have always hated. She sells liquor to leering businessmen,” she told him in a telling-tales voice, “and he brings drinks to slow-thinking party girls. But, they are happy.” She pulled a quick face. “They also screw like rabbits. I have envied you this quiet room these last few months.”
He managed a weak smile.
She chuckled again as she offered him another spoonful of ice. “Don’t worry. We will find you a place with nice, thick walls before you are released.”
He swallowed the chips before they’d finished melting. The ice scratched, but he didn’t care; he needed to speak. He grasped her hand with the cup – God, he could barely manage it – and rasped, “Thank you.”
Her face went blank for just a moment, before her full smile returned. “Hush,” she said, and tipped another spoon of ice to his lips. “And rest. You need to get better.”
It took time to regain his weight, to say nothing of his balance, speech, and strength. But, just like the last time he’d teetered on the brink, he pushed himself through recovery and rehabilitation with the help and encouragement of his friends, until he was free.
After his discharge from the hospital, he made time for them all.
For Kirill and Darya, that meant listening to the stories they brought back from the bar and the beach, and watching them grow closer. They’d become a more serious couple in his time asleep, though they still teased and lusted after each other, like Natalya had said. They were also keen to make their own way in their new lives. The prospect was frightening but freeing, and they were determined to save up enough to finance a flat together closer to the sea, which both of them loved and took time out of every week to swim in, both singly and as a pair. It seemed as though they were living at least part of their dreams. Maybe they even made love under the stars, sometimes, too….
The main apartment was close to Victoria’s city centre while also being within fair walking distance to the beach. He liked stretching his legs there every day. Without a real job, he needed something to fill his time. And, he enjoyed being just a man, taking time to find his next calling.
Natalya joined him for lots of these walks but not all, especially during the day. She’d discovered a lucrative new lifestyle as a fashion consultant for the city’s population of wealthy retirees. It wasn’t escorting prominent Manhattan businessmen and politicians, but it more than paid the bills for their three-bedroom apartment. And, she seemed happy. So much that Seven felt uncomfortable not being able to contribute beyond some cooking and basic housekeeping.
“Don’t be silly!” Natalya told him on one of their twilight walks along the beach. She’d bought them some coffees to sip against the salty breeze, though she left hers mostly forgotten as she held to his arm like a chatty private tour guide. “You are still recuperating.”
“You heard the doctor,” he reminded. “I am one hundred percent!” He shook his foot out of a tangle of weed that had either washed or been dragged up to the sidewalk. Likely the latter; he’d seen more than one laughing child trailing the vines after them like waterlogged kites. “Or, at least, what counted for one hundred percent before.”
Natalya sucked a click. “You have always put others ahead of yourself. It is time to collect on that. Besides,” she added after a pause. “I like having a house-husband.”
She chuckled, but he drew them to a slow stop. A light silence floated around them on the breeze. They were alone, here, separate from the waning cavorting of amusement-seekers on the sand and the burgeoning bustle of restaurant-goers on the street.
He drew a slow breath, and said, “Natalya.”
“Semyon,” she replied cheekily, though that made him pause again. He didn’t like that old name. It didn’t feel like him, anymore. Neither did Seven, of course; Seven was another life left behind. He’d have to get around to putting in a change-of-name request. Simon, maybe. It didn’t matter, at the moment. He’d left his old life behind, though there was a part of that old life that he still wanted. A part he’d never admitted, until now.
He faced her, and said, “I love you.”
She stopped, too, and her irreverence fell away as she blinked at him.
He kept going. “You are my friend, but also so much more. I would like to be there for you, as you have been there for me. I cannot tell you what that means beyond what I feel in my heart, but, perhaps, I can change who I am—”
“I would not want you to,” she said, shaking her head. A shiny film had bloomed across her gaze, which cleared at a blink that set free a spill of tears down her cheeks. She reached up and laid her palm to his face. “I love the man you are,” she said, her thumb stroking the scarred skin beneath his dead eye. “I have always loved the man you are.”
Something inside him fluttered, and made his breath falter: it went in and came out as a stutter of air. No words could match hers, so he said, simply, “Tasha…!”
She put her arms around his neck and hugged his body close to hers. He did, too, fiercely and briefly. Before they eased out of their clutch, he pressed a kiss to her forehead. Anything more would have felt forced, anything less, not enough.
When they parted, she smiled up at him with a look of deep feeling, her green eyes shining with happiness. She broke into a gentle little laugh. “What do we do, now?”
He took her hand, grasping her fingers loosely but with love, and smiled. “We live.”
And that, as they say, is that.
I hope you enjoyed my foray into speculative fiction. It was a different journey for me to take, one I learned from and loved traveling. If you liked it or you didn’t, feel free to let me know in the comments.
Now, go out and live your life. You only get one.