See him standing there, on cobblestone streets: laughing. In the flower of his youth, his eyes sparkle and everything about him glows with life. He smiles with the pretty girl with the golden eyes; watch as they reach for each other’s hands with the smooth, practiced motion of many years. He gets in a wink before she does; she nudges him and it’s his turn to blush before they smile and laugh again and walk down the street, leaning on each other’s shoulders.
What are they talking about? Plans. Plans for the dazzling future, wrought with myriad possibilities.
What... did I want? What did I want, back then? What were we planning... ah, yes, to conquer the world... back then it’d seemed possible, that together we could do anything, accomplish anything with our talents...
And then he’s standing somewhere else, a white room with linoleum floors and white walls and cold metal. This time he’s not smiling. He’s shaking with horror and he’s pale as death, almost as pale as the walls. He’s just been told that he only has weeks to live.
All the plans come crashing down, smashing on the floor like the most fragile of crystals, shattering as if in slow motion, glittering fragments flying through the air, reflecting rainbow sparkles off of everything like a final burst of hope before it all dies, scattered over tile—and—oh god it wasn’t supposed to be like this, I wasn’t supposed to die from some terminal disease with one chance in a million, I was supposed to live, we had so many plans, so many things to do, everything was just beginning—
Everything fell apart.
And the images go faster, now; his surroundings change, he changes: From the white room to one with harsh lights; with every passing day, every passing moment the vigor drains from his face, the life from his body and the hope, the joie de vivre from his eyes. Look, before and after: No resemblance. One flushed with youth, energy, rosy-cheeked and beaming; the other hollow-eyed, ashen-skinned, for all intents and purposes dead.
Watch as they try to save him, as part of him is torn between wanting them to succeed and wanting them to fail as he falls into a void of nothing, like a long tunnel of darkness through which shafts of light pierce occasionally; memories of days, of joy, of excitement, of living, not so long ago, but seeming like an eternity—even if I recover from this part of me is lost forever—
Like a nightmare, stumbling through vision after vision, of beautiful years and then horrifying sights while elsewhere, connected by a thread, his body undergoes cuts and incisions and chemicals and sparks and energy and magic; doing everything possible and impossible on the prayer that it’ll work.
I don’t want to die...
And work it does, and he opens the eyes he wasn’t expecting to ever open again to see metal and anxious faces that have become the only people he ever sees over those weeks, his only comfort as he waited to slip away. And he watches, still and barely comprehending as they whisper to each other with cautious hope, cautious optimism and whisper to him, and it’s like—
I know these people and I know what’s going on and I’m pretty sure I know what just happened but it’s like it isn’t me, I still have all the memories and all the recollections and all the sensations but it’s like I’m watching them through somebody else’s eyes, like it’s not me there, me who lived all that time—or is it not me who’s lying here right now on an operating table—
And he chokes up, too weak and feeble and numb to do anything but mourn yet again, let the tears slide down his cheeks for the hundredth time, grieving for everything that was lost and now getting a second chance, the opportunity to start over, except—I can’t go back to that, it’s all already over—!
Slowly, oh-so-slowly, he claws himself up from the pit he’s fallen in, gathers remnants of hope and slivers of broken dreams and tiny pieces of his broken heart, little fragments of who he used to be as his body recuperates, as they test him and go on with whatever far-fetched treatment works. He can’t decide if this is a dream or a nightmare.
I wanted to live, I wanted to live so badly—I couldn’t die, I couldn’t—
“There is one thing... It’s... experimental and we haven’t tried it yet on anybody, so there’s no guarantee it’ll work, but if you want to take the chance—”
“I’ll do it. I’ll take it. ...Please... I don’t care what it is, if I have a chance—if it’ll give me a chance—”
And yet—why—how—where—who—? Who am I what am I doing here where is this what happened what’s going on why aren’t I dead whywhywhy?!
Watch as he relearns, as he staggers on weak, stick-thin limbs when once he ran, sprinted down snowy streets with joyous laughter ringing in his ears; as he cries so many times but he’s not even sure why; as his body struggles, as he struggles, wavering back and forth from the brink of death more often than he’d care to count, but still keeping track of it in the back of his mind because what else is there to count, to bother knowing, when he doesn’t know the date, doesn’t know the time, hardly knows himself –counting. The incident with the sugar, when everything else—any other sustenance—was violently rejected. Starving for near a week as they pushed how long he could go without it. Being cut accidentally, too-thin skin and so much blood that wasn’t right, it was—something swimming in it, tiny green— And the bizarre growth of the tail, long and white and silky-smooth after the pain had gone; “Well, could be worse,” they said; at that point he almost didn’t care.
So many times. So slowly. Climbing up, up, up, step by step, crossing the thousand miles gradually, tiny bit by tiny bit. And in the end—standing before a mirror, staring at himself, mentally comparing the differences without even thinking: Paler. Thinner. Weaker. Emptier. A pitiful creature, a pathetic shadow of who I once was, bearing resemblance only in appearance and even then only at a stretch. ...I never had such vacant eyes... what happened to me...? [I all but DIED—] Why... can’t I go back to being that person I used to be...? [Because that person’s DEAD.] ...Ah... I knew... I always knew...
Tears brim in his eyes and he brushes them away yet again. And then, still staring at this shell of a person, he reaches out, lashes out; snatches up a pair of scissors—no, a knife—fumbling with long, slender fingers and the sound of tearing as carmine curls, dark red locks tumble down to the floor, the dusty floor back home—except this isn’t home anymore this can’t be my home anymore nothing from before matters now it doesn’t exist I don’t fit here it’s all wrong—and then the deed’s done and he looks up into that pale face streaked with wet and it’s all he can do not to break down again, even though he’s already cried so many tears for that lost future, that lost person, lost self, hands curling and gripping wood and shaking just like he did that day months ago—how long ago was it? He can’t remember, he’s not sure anymore—when they broke the news to him originally.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this...! That under-the-weather feeling wasn’t supposed to turn into this...! I’m still alive but it’s like I’m dead at the same time—
[Barely lived. A scant twenty years—two short decades when every day was bright, every day I lived to the utmost, enjoying, thrilling with every single breath I took, drinking in everything, every sensation—and all of that is lost forever...]
He picks himself up with shaky legs. Goes through the house one final time, letting his eyes sweep over everything he’s known, the backdrop of the place he’ll never return to. Then he leaves, and locks the door, and stands there looking down at the key in his hand. It’s so tempting, to simply fling it away over the rooftops, hurl it and end it all, the final nail in the coffin. [Nail. Coffin. Dead.]
...I can’t do it.
Slowly he pockets the key. Lets his feet take him on one last walk around the town he’s lived all his life, seeing the memories flash behind his eyes: running down the cobblestone streets as a child, then older and older; remembering all the tiny little things—sitting on the roof of the cathedral after a harrowing climb, the many times walking along the edge of the cobbles and on rails with arms outstretched for balance; singing softly, twirling around the square... the sound of music, the taste of cream, the scent of autumn, the feel of the summer breeze tinged with cinnamon, and the beautiful sights, the familiar sights, the feeling of being home...
Praying and hoping both for someone he knows to spot him [or not spot him] on this final round before he leaves, but no one does. [Not that they’d even recognize me anyway.]
And then he leaves. Departs on one of the off-world ferries and trains, not knowing or even caring where it takes him. Just wanting to get away, get away somewhere else, where I can start over, start my life all over—
He doesn’t cry, now, even though it hurts. He’s trying to keep himself together, and while it isn’t easy, it isn’t quite as difficult as he imagined. People come and go around him; strangers of all kinds, all species. Some greet him politely out of courtesy as they take seats beside him, some say nothing.
I... I think I can do this. I can do this. [Who am I kidding, I can’t do this—!] It’s not that difficult. I’ve done this before. [Living.] I’m still here. I’m still alive, I’m still breathing, I’m still feeling—
That thought makes him want to burst out laughing; he barely refrains, holds back until the next stop, gets off and staggers some distance away from the rest of the people down some alleyway—not caring where—before he slumps against a wall and laughs.
I’m still here—!
He laughs so hard even though it physically hurts, even though he can’t breathe, he can’t stop, can’t stop laughing and can’t even pin down the emotion behind it—hysteria? Irony? Bitterness? Madness? Panic? Fear? Certainly not humor—hope? Relief? He has no idea, just laughs until he’s completely out of breath and leans there and gasps, feeling the way his heart pounds in his chest so strongly and a sound far too close to a sob escapes his mouth but he doesn’t cry, not now; because he realizes for the first time seriously that he’s alive.
And after a long and yet short few minutes, he pushes himself away from the wall, composes himself, gathers himself and goes out; finds his way in this new place, this new world, a new name dropping so easily from his lips, building himself a new self from bits and pieces, some of them memories but others fresh and shiny brand-new; experiences, thoughts, feelings... All of them. I still have them.
He learns to live again, to function again, throwing himself into everything with almost reckless abandon before he learns to be careful again; he doesn’t want to die again. Learns to trust again, to love and care—it’s not like he’d completely lost those things yet, that would come later. But for now, he teaches himself how to live a life again.
He does things he wouldn’t have a chance to otherwise, the things he’d wanted to do previously, impossible to resist—learning, practicing, studying, working at things that fascinate him, meeting people, forming relationships... Still holding the memories of the past, but no longer only just that, moving forward despite it all, somehow finding it in him to believe, in himself and his own strength, however small.