Never hope. Hope is a lie.
That’s what Ivan told himself when he watched his town explode in a torrent of flames. It’s what he reminded himself every day when he joined the army to avenge his family’s death, what he ingrained within himself when he watched his commander get shot at point-blank range. It’s something he tells himself, something he repeats to himself. It’s what he believes.
Never hope. Hope is a seed of poison that grows into delusions of the impossible.
It’s what he’s telling himself as he sings to the only friend he’s ever had.
Ivan’s blank gaze instantly snaps into focus. Had this been five years ago he would have given a sharp tongue-lashing at the usage of the Russian derivative of his name. Only one person had the right to call him that, and she had died a decade ago. But now he doesn’t have the heart to correct Theo, not with him lying on his death bed.
“Vanya? You…you stopped singing.”
“You drifted off.”
Theo sounds sleepy. If Ivan closes his eyes, he can pretend that Theo’s healthy again, cocooned in a bundle of blankets, sleepily asking for five more minutes before he has to go to work. And Ivan would bluntly rip the duvet away, leaving the occupant vulnerable to the cold air and shrieking indignantly at the crude awakening. While Theo would continue to flail around on the rapidly cooling mattress, Ivan would exit the room, a small but content smile gracing his scarred face.
But Ivan doesn’t close his eyes, doesn’t let himself fade into the realm of the past. He sits there, on the little chair, worn from carrying the weight of others long past. The acrid scent of disinfectant lingers in his nostrils, a scent associated with the dead and the dying. Theo’s not cocooned in the covers – he lies there on his back, with the thin white sheets draped gently over his body, feathery white-blonde hair splayed on the pillow. His face looks sickly and ashen, bright cerulean eyes faded and dulled. A thin paper bracelet circling his wrist marks him as a victim of a terminal disease, a rare malady that led to a terribly painful death even with the mercy of painkillers.
This wasn’t supposed to be like this. Theo wasn’t supposed to die. He was supposed to lead a long life, full of innocent little discoveries and happiness. He was supposed to be protected by his impenetrable shield of ignorance in his naïve little world, where Ivan would watch over him. If any of them were to die, it should have been Ivan. He had cheated death too many times already.
Ivan lets his head drop and closes his eyes. He can see the seconds ticking away in his mind’s eye – 00:07:15:30, 00:07:15:29 – and feels utterly helpless against the tide of time.
When he glances up again, Theo’s fallen into a blissful slumber. He lets himself breathe a sigh of relief. At least the pain hadn’t gotten to the point of rendering the drugs useless.
He leans back in his worn little chair and closes his eyes.
Sleep brings memories. Memories that Ivan doesn’t usually dwell upon. Memories that he has kept locked up in the corner of his mind, tucked away safely. Ivan doesn’t usually dream, but today seems to be an exception.
Ivan was in the hospital again – or rather, in the morgue. He was paying his respects to his fallen comrades, standing and staring into the dark room of covered bodies. He was about to leave, about to turn a new page in his life, about to leave his past behind.
He walked out the door and heard a voice speaking.
Part of him didn’t care. He wasn’t interested in the business of other people; not now, not ever. But the other part of him felt that the voice sounded vaguely familiar, and eventually he gave in, his feet making soft pitter patter sounds down the dark hallway.
“I’d just like to say…um. Ugh. Never done this before. Okay, trying again. Second time. I’d just like to say…thank you. Oh – oh come on! Don’t be like that! This – this is my sincere face! See, look! Sincere face! Anyway…here, I’ll be honest. My life hasn’t exactly been easy, and you’ve – you’ve kept me sane.”
That voice. It did sound familiar. But a speech – what type of person made a speech in a morgue?
“See, with the whole ‘getting kicked of the team’ thing. It was…kinda harsh. But you’ve helped me – helped me a lot. This ‘private time’ we shared…you’ve really helped me vent and express my feelings. You’ve kept me sane, and it means a lot to me.”
The voice got steadily louder. Ivan stopped behind a closed door, confident that this was the correct room.
“But all good things must come to an end, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s how to say goodbye and mean it. So without further ado –“
“Hello? Anyone here?”
Ivan opened the door by a crack and – argh, bad idea. Bad, bad idea. All those years of training – gone to waste. Where were his basic defence protocols? He had let his guard down, and he was paying the price.
Rule no. 1: never disrupt someone who’s making a speech in the morgue. In the dark. Where no one will hear your screams.
All those years of combat may have desensitized him to blood and gore, but one can never be desensitized enough when walking into a room full of badly mutilated corpses. Blood was splattered on the walls, along with strange grey smears that once may have harboured valuable information. The bodies were marred to the extent that Ivan wasn’t sure if he was looking at an arm or a small intestine.
“Haven’t you ever heard of knocking?”
“What the hell are you doing?”
Ivan backed away at the lunatic quickly advancing on him. The man didn’t look angry – in fact, he looked livid. He appeared familiar; however, Ivan struggled to remember his name. His one remaining eye was blazing with murderous intent while the other was hidden behind a black eye patch. Badly disfigured, probably. His lips were curved in a dangerous snarl, badly chipped teeth showing underneath dry lips. A messy cloud of black hair was tied back loosely, resembling smoke exploding from the angry volcano that was quickly gaining on him.
Too late. The man threw himself at Ivan – and while the man appeared thin and gangly, he did have quite a substantial amount of weight to him. Ivan crashed down to the floor, completely caught off guard.
“Look, Wilfred – it is Wilfred, right?” Ivan managed, dodging loose fists fired at his head. “Look, I didn’t come for a fight –“
Bam. Wilfred’s fist connected to Ivan’s head, white-hot pain blooming as his head knocked back hard onto the linoleum floor.
“Aw, too bad. ‘Cause I did.”
The next thing Ivan felt was the cold kiss of metal on his temple. He idly wondered why the hospital hadn’t installed a metal detector already. Inches away was the madman, his one golden eye burning with such a strong intensity of hate that Ivan wasn’t sure he had ever met someone who hated the world more than the man in front of him. It wasn’t the first time he had been held at gunpoint – but that didn’t make the threat any less real.
“Wilfred. Please. Let’s just talk like civilized men, alright?”
“No, let’s not! How’s that for an answer?”
OK. Negotiations were down.
Ivan kneed his attacker in the groin. Wilfred went down and Ivan took the time to kick the pistol from his hand – a Glock-17 – and pushed him away, pulling himself to his feet.
Only to be tackled to the ground again.
Wilfred’s lankly limbs were shooting kicks and punches everywhere, and before he knew it they were rolling down the hallway, fighting less like a pair of seasoned warriors and significantly more like a pair of angry, hormonal teenage girls fighting over a bottle of nail polish. Except they were barrelling down the hallways at a much faster velocity than two teenage girls could ever hope to achieve. And at some point, they stopped rolling down the hallways and started rolling through the rooms.
One unfortunate drywall buckled against the force and collapsed, wood splintering as they broke through. Ivan’s foot caught on an IV stand, sending the metal bar crashing down – and onto Wilfred’s head, knocking him out cold.
He was about to congratulate himself on his little victory when he heard a small sound of disbelief.
A small man appearing to be in his late thirties was sitting upright in his bed, staring in shock at the body lying on the floor. His pale blonde hair was tousled, bright cerulean eyes rapidly filling with tears.
“Stay calm, stay calm, stay calm,” the man chanted. Then his face crumpled in tears. “He’s – he’s de – he’s de – he’s de – he’s dead! I killed him!”
The little slip of paper at the foot of the bed indicated that the man who was currently sobbing his eyes out was Theo Gyddes, aged 37, who had been in a coma for twenty-five years. Ivan snuck a glance at the nurse. She looked torn between looking severely upset at the damage of property and overjoyed at the awakening of a patient.
Theo threw himself at Ivan, sobbing. “I killed Nutcase! Now I have to go to jail and I don’t want to go to jail! He’s de – he’s dead, and I killed him!”
Twenty-five years. That meant Theo had been in a coma since the age of twelve. He was child trapped in a man’s body. Ivan didn’t know how to react – except by half-heartedly pushing him away, only to have him latch on tighter. He grumbled and turned to the nurse for help, only to find that she had disappeared.
Five more minutes, he thought to himself. Five more minutes and then I’ll get myself out of here and away from this snot-nosed kid who’s using me as some overgrown teddy bear.
What Ivan didn’t know was that these five minutes would turn into five months and would later span into to years.
White walls. White floors. White bed, white blankets, white sheets.
Everything appears so clean, so terrible sterile that it makes Ivan feel uncomfortable, and he wishes that he were home, and that Theo was healthy with decades in front of him, instead of hours.
00:02:01:01, 00:02:01:00, 00:01:59
Ivan stands up, and stretches his legs. He’s got a bad crick in his neck from sleeping in the chair, and his joints crack from disuse. Theo’s still sleeping, his ashen face almost blending into the white sheets.
The door opens, and a red-headed doctor steps into the room, holding a clipboard. Ivan dips his head in acknowledgement. The doctor nods back, calmly assessing the small man lying inert on the bed.
“We’ve done all we could. I’m sorry for your loss.”
The doctor doesn’t sound particularly sorry at all, but Ivan doesn’t bother pointing it out. He just stands silently beside the bed, his gaze solemn. The doctor leaves, taking his beloved clipboard with him. A nurse comes to take his place, an apologetic smile gracing her face.
“I’m terribly sorry. It must be hard.”
Ivan doesn’t answer. He doesn’t feel obliged to.
“I don’t mean to intrude, but what was your relationship with him?”
Relationships. That was something he didn’t make. He had always been rather socially awkward, but the pain that came along with any relationship often made him feel that they were redundant and a waste of time. He could recall leaving Theo after the initial five minutes, only to have the nurse come after him and beg him to come back because Theo wouldn’t stop crying his eyes out. And at that time the only thing he could think of was the other things he could have been doing, while he was stuck here serving as an overgrown teddy bear for an overgrown child.
It had only gotten worse from there. Theo had developed a habit of following Ivan wherever he went, and it was utterly infuriating. But as irritating as it had been, Theo seemed to grow on him more than he had expected, and a mutual feeling of fondness had developed. Theo had successfully wormed his way through the thick walls around Ivan’s frozen heart, feeding little bits of hope to the dying bird caged in Ivan’s chest. Ivan had once built walls around himself, supressing that dying bird of hope, afraid of failure, of getting hurt. He’d raised shields, taught himself to not hope to keep himself safe from harm. And Theo had been there, with his big innocent baby blues and his naïve little smile, knocking at the walls of his dead heart. It wasn’t ‘perfect’, nothing like a romantic relationship, but it was real and good and pure, and that was good enough.
But the nurse didn’t need to know any of that.
“It was completely platonic.” That was the truth, after all. Theo had been the best friend Ivan had ever had.
The nurse nods, apparently satisfied. She spends a moment standing there in silence before leaving the room. Ivan appreciates her lack of speech. He could never bear the chatty ones – the ones that tried to convince you with their fake optimism that everything was fine when everything was clearly not fine. Minutes pass in the silence, and again Ivan can see the numbers ticking away, life draining out of the only person who had changed his view on life.
00:00:14:30, 00:00:14:29, 00:00:14:28
“Have you thought about what I said earlier?”
Theo’s still lying on his back, but he’s turned his head so that he’s facing Ivan. He waves his hand feebly to catch Ivan’s attention.
“Yes. And the answer is still no.”
“But they say that the end is agonizing. And I don’t – I don’t want to die screaming.”
“Just something quick. If you could tear my head off, or shoot me…anything.”
“I’m not killing you.”
“Not now, or not ever?”
Ivan doesn’t respond, and Theo falls silent.
00:00:10:10, 00:00:10:09, 00:00:10:08
There’s nothing Ivan can do, and he hates himself for how helpless he feels. He’s done all he could, but life just wouldn’t throw him a bone.
So he does the only thing left he can do. He sings, sad melodies tumbling out in a rich baritone, songs of love and life. Of hope – the greatest gift that Theo had ever gave him. The words in his mother tongue come out in soft syllables and rolling rhythms, and although he knows that Theo won’t understand the lyrics, he’ll know the meaning. And it’s real and good and pure, and everything he needs.
00:00:00:59, 00:00:00:58, 00:00:00:57
“Vanya?” Theo’s voice is weak, terribly weak. It comes out as barely a whisper. “I think this is it.”
There was nothing he could do now. It was all out of his hands, out of his reach.
All he could do was hope.