by Matt Appleby
If you knew they were coming, how would you spend the last hours of your life?
|Author's Note: this is just a little thing I wrote for a laugh. Okay, well maybe not a 'laugh', because nothing in this story is funny in the slightest, but my point is...I don't have a clue where it came from. It simply popped into my head, and stayed there long enough for me to want to write it down. So here we are.
by Matt Appleby
Though he had no way of knowing it, when Robert Thornton's alarm went off on that grey Thursday morning, he had something in common with 150,000 other people around the world, in that he had just woken up for the last time. If he had known, he would've spent his last morning gently stirring with the rising sun, in that beach house just outside Valencia, the one where his family had spent a wonderful summer ten years ago. But he didn't, so instead he just lay in the dark for a few minutes, listening to news headlines that didn't interest him.
He took too long in the shower, as he often did on morning like this one, so his last meal was a few slices of buttered toast, pressed into his hand as he left for work. As a younger man, he had once planned his hypothetical last meal: classic prawn cocktail for starters; a fish course of smoked haddock in parsley sauce; lamb curry for the main, sauce hot but not too much; dessert of lemon cheesecake with ice cream; and finishing off with a cup of coffee, milk and one sugar. If he had known that he would instead be left with some spare toast, eaten in a hurry, he would've taken the time to add marmalade, at the very least.
As he was in a hurry, his last conversation with his family was brief and irrelevant, asking his wife Emma what groceries were needed – milk and mayonnaise – and checking with his daughter Hayley about her chess club that evening; his son Sam was in the shower himself at this point, and so Robert didn't even speak to him at all. If he had known...there was so much he could say, how much he loved them and was proud of them, and all the things he hoped they would go on to achieve. He could keep talking for as long as he had left, and in fact would gladly do so.
But it all went unsaid. Emma forgot about their conversation almost as soon has it had happened, and spent the rest of her life torturing herself about what her husband's last words might have been. Sam, for his part, would go on to dilligently tell all his friends how much he cared about them, every time they parted, just in case. Hayley, an awkward girl who had been picked on from a young age, had concluded long ago that her feelings did not matter, and so insisted that she was fine with her father's death, indeed even convinced herself; when she found herself stood on a bridge over the local river, at the age of eighteen, seriously considering whether to jump off, it came as much of a shock to her as to everyone else.
Robert, of course, had no clue that any of this was coming. He would stop it all if he could, but he couldn't.
On the train ride to work, he did what he usually did, which was to simply tune out the world, looking out the window but looking at nothing in particular. If he had known that he would never see this view again, he would've at least tried to pay more attention, to study the fields as they went past, and the rows of old terraces and graffiti-covered fences once he entered the city. But in truth, the view was so familiar to him, and so stubbornly unglamorous, that it would very likely have not inspired any feelings either way. And in an ideal world, his last train journey would not be here at all, but the trip across the Canadian Rockies that he had dreamed of years ago, the dream that he knew even at the time was beyond his reach.
Once he got to work, he exchanged the usual pleasantries with his colleagues, fragments of conversation about meetings and weekend plans, exchanges that meant nothing and would be forgotten in minutes. Most of these people he would never speak to again, and if he had known...in some cases, he would've remained unmoved; but in others, yes, he would certainly have aimed for something more meaningful. He would tell James that no one cared about his golfing stories, and no one ever had done; he would tell Claire to stop micro-managing, that she would be much happier in the long run once she trusted people to get things done; he would tell Molly that, outside of his wife and children, she was his best friend in the whole world, and the time she drank Doug under the table was still the funniest thing he'd ever seen. But he didn't know that any of this was needed, and instead, the last thing he ever said was to ask Anita where his stapler had gone (she didn't know, and he never found out).
He spent the last two hours of his life checking e-mails and updating spreadsheets, other tasks that meant nothing and were quickly forgotten. If he had known this was how he'd be using such precious time, he would've been greatly dissapointed. That he rather have been with his family, if he could, was without question: in a way, it almost didn't matter what they would be doing. Though what he would most likely think of, if he knew he should thinking about it, was some fountains in a park near his office, ones designed for playing in. He'd taken Sam and Hayley there once, back when they'd first been installed. The two were still toddlers then, and such simple things had been objects of wonder and delight. He'd give anything to live that afternoon again.
Robert Thornton died at 11:13AM. He was already musing on what he might have for lunch: he had been thinking sushi, or he might succumb to weakness and go to the burger stand in the park. That was a often a good morale-booster on grey days like this one. Musing, in the end, was as far as he got.
The heart attack, when it came, was entirely without warning, and killed him in seconds. In fact, he was dead before his colleagues even heard him fall off his chair. The autopsy a few days later, once his body reached the front of the mortuary's queue, revealed a congenital heart defect, a deadly trap laid all the way at birth. That it took so long to make itself noticed was simply luck; that it happened to kill him on this day, as opposed to any other, was just another quirk of the universe.
He had enough time for one final thought. It was not of his family, as he might've expected. All he could think was...
...I don't understand.
And then, like 150,000 other people that day, he was gone.