"I'm going to die, you know."
He said it so calmly, so matter-of-factly, just tossing it out there as though it was of no consequence when it was the only thing of consequence in the entire world. And those six, matter-of-fact, innocently spoken, little words stopped Berger's heart. He could feel it as his heart gave one final painful thump in his chest and just... stopped. Berger lifted a hand, gave himself a firm thump to the chest with his fist and willed his heart to start beating again. It had to. Until it did, he couldn't get enough air in to speak, to respond, to negate the words and he had to negate the words, had to make them untrue, unexistent, unreal, unspoken. If they stayed out there too long unchallenged, Berger somehow knew they'd become real... like Gepetto's little boy. A wish wished too loud, too hard, too often... that came true. And he didn't want those words to become a real boy.
After two or three more whacks, Claude finally took notice of what Berger was doing, rolled over to look at him, one eyebrow raised as though he'd no idea what he'd just done. Berger still couldn't speak, thumped at his chest again, more weakly this time with those knowing brown eyes starting him down. Claude lifted a hand, long-fingered, gentle, also knowing and placed it lightly on Berger's chest before he could lift his fist to it, again. That soft touch did what the hard thumping had not. It reminded Berger's heart that for now, Claude's still beat. And for as long as Claude's heart beat, Berger's would beat with it.
Berger covered Claude's hand with his own, lowered himself over Claude's body, started pressing deep, insistent kisses into Claude's neck, down his chest, his belly, until he finally swallowed him down with more instinct than true intent, filling his mouth with Claude instead of with the words he should have spoken. And those six little words remained in the air between them, undenied, unchallenged... existent.
"He would want you to move on."
She said it like she knew what Claude would have wanted, like she had some knowledge Berger didn't. Berger wanted to believe it was so, that Sheila knew things that he didn't. Sheila often knew things he didn't. And she if knew this, then maybe she knew other things, as well... knew that Claude's death was Berger's fault, that but for the speaking of a few simple words of denial he would still be alive. Or maybe she knew better things -- that Claude couldn't be dead, that he was alive somewhere just waiting for Berger to find him, that the Army's letter was a mistake -- screw-ups happened all the time, right? That was why "military intelligence" was an oxymoron.
Berger knew things like that. He knew what an oxymoron was. "Parting is such sweet sorrow." That was his favorite. Claude had like that one, had intoned it so dramatically every time he left to return to Flushing. It sent shivers up Berger's spine and he wanted to race after Claude each time, ask him to unspeak the words, to make them untrue... to remove the tragic foreshadowing from that bit of Shakespearean language. He never did. He never chased after Claude, never made him unmake the words... just like he'd never made Claude unmake the other words -- the six that stopped his heart.
Sheila was watching him with concern, now, a hand on his shoulder, mouth slightly parted as though to speak, but whatever words she had to contribute to her initial seven died in her mouth, never to emerge. She then winced, turned her eyes away, unable to meet his any longer. Berger understood that -- the pain of words unborn. He'd failed to birth too many of them in his day, too many that might have changed things had Berger had the courage to release them to work their magic.
...but he hadn't. And now he'd never know if those words would have changed anything. And Claude was still dead. Cold and silent in his grave, he'd never speak the words of Shakespeare again. He'd never speak anything again, never want anything again, never... never... What the hell did Sheila know about what Claude would want? Nothing. She didn't know anything. It was better that way. Better... if she knew, she'd leave him, too.
"She's getting married to some guy she met in DC."
Ten words this time to tear his world apart. He hadn't seen Sheila in days... weeks... had it really been months? He didn't remember breaking it off with her, didn't remember if their parting had been acrimonious -- It was a big word. Claude would have like that word. Claude always liked when Berger showed off his IQ. -- or if it had been "sweet sorrow." He didn't remember if she'd cried, if she'd screamed. He didn't remember if she'd thrown him out or if he'd left. He just didn't remember. The details wouldn't stick. Nothing stuck anymore, not with Claude gone.
He grunted, made some kind of response, wasn't even sure it was English, and reached for the joint in Jeanie's hand. She sighed, shook her head, but passed it over. Berger took a long drag of it, let the smoke out in nice, slow spirals. Jeanie threaded a hand into his hair, pulled him down to rest his head in her lap, continued to stroke her hands over his head, through his hair. It was nice. Jeanie was nice. She was soft, warm, caring. She'd loved Claude, too, and if the dumb schmuck had loved her back, he'd still be here. He'd have married her, been a father to her child, gotten a job to support them... not been drafted.
He hadn't though. He hadn't loved her, at least hadn't loved her enough. She had someone now, too, Berger thought. He didn't remember who, didn't remember if it was one of their Tribe or someone else -- some groovy guy from DC that Berger had never met and wouldn't care to meet. Jeanie wasn't like Sheila. She wouldn't leave him. Faithful, loyal Jeanie. She'd stay by his side until the end. Somehow, Berger knew it. It wasn't enough... but it was something. So he didn't even try to deny the words, knew nothing good would come of it... had nearly run out of fight to fight with. Maybe this was what it was like to be dead, eh, Claudio? Just slowly running out of fight... of life.
"With this stuff, you'll see the light!"
That was what Berger wanted. Light. Anything to illuminate the darkness in which he walked. He didn't even remember why anymore. His life had always been dark, for as long back as he cared to remember. There were flashes of gold in his memory, bits and pieces of images that made no sense out of context as they were.
Golden curls, gentle hands, soft, soothing voice. She'd been with him the longest. She'd been first, she'd be last... maybe she was the only one. Maybe the others were just illusions.
White gold: brilliant, glaring, unforgiving. She shone spotlights on every one of his faults, demanded he make them better, make himself better. He couldn't. He could never be good enough for her, never shine as brightly as she did, never be her match. She'd left him in the end, left him for someone better, smarter, more stable. It was better that way. He'd never been worthy of her from the start.
And then... honey gold. Molten sunlight, warm honeysuckle silk. A gentle dawn light that filled him to bursting, that made him feel as though he could do anything, be anyone. What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East... and the sun is gone. The sun is gone. The sun is gone. There would be no light, couldn’t they see it? There would never be light again, no matter how desperately he wished it would be so. No light. Only darkness.
Parting is such sweet sorrow...
"He's in cardiac arrest!"
"Charge the paddles!"
He'd been right... there was light. Too much light. Too much harsh, unforgiving light. Too many people. Too many sounds. Too many words. Berger had had enough. Take your shit back, man. I've had enough of your light. Enough...
"Bloody hell, we're losing him!"
"Starting chest compressions!"
Too much damned noise. Too much damned pain. Berger just wanted to curl up inside it and let it take him away. The darkness rolled in, closer now and Berger wished he could bottle it, sell it, that blanket of numbness that was a greater blessing than he'd ever realized... that absolute nothingness.
Deep in his heart, Berger laughed, choked on it, coughed it out of his chest on a wave of blood.
"I'm going to die, you know."
Berger's heart stopped... and there was no gentle touch to restart it, no answering beat for it to beat alongside. As long as Claude's heart beat, Berger's would beat with it... and Claude's heart hadn't beat for quite some time.
"Time of death... 2:22 AM."