Is this what dying really feels like?
That question was the last thought to flow through Hal's mind, and it seemed stuck there in mid-stream, unable to move forward. There was never any pearly gate, no flash of light or recanting of his sins. There was just the question. The single question that waited an eternity for an answer.
A sound broke through the haze of timelessness.
There it was again, and suddenly Hal realized he was having thoughts. Why was he thinking about having thoughts?
Hal tried to open his eyes, to wake up, but he only partially succeeded. There was nothing to see, but he was clearly awake. He was thinking about being awake and how odd this felt.
Something was covering his eyes, and yet even so they felt fused shut somehow. Slowly the cold truth of realization condensed in his mind. His eyes were covered by bandages. He was lying down. He was alive.
Hal wanted to cry, but he couldn't. Why was he alive? Was the universe just playing some great cosmic game of chicken with him? He had given his world everything, and yet it demanded still more. The call of life always asked him for more.
The beeping accelerated as he felt his heartbeat speed up. He was in a hospital bed. The air felt still and cool to his half-working nerves. He tried shifting his weight a little, but halted himself when he felt the tug of tubes sticking into his body. There were tubes in his arm. There were tubes in his stomach. There were tubes in his nose.
He heard a sound like a gasp of surprise. Wherever he was, he wasn't the only person in the room. Hal heard footsteps shuffle from his right to his left and then hastened to even further beyond, leaving the room entirely.
So much for pleasant introductions.
Hal felt his tail begin to stir, and it slowly opened its four blood-red eyes. It was a strange feeling in that with his own eyes blinded, Hal for the first time remembered that he still had these ones. Their sight didn't manifest in his mind with clear images or even as the sensation of vision at all, but he suddenly had an intuitive feeling for his surroundings. He somehow understood that this room was longer than it was wide, and he shared this space with other beds cradling other unconscious patients. This room felt dim. This room felt tired. But most of all, this room felt forgotten.
He lay there alone with his thoughts for some time before the sound of footsteps returned. These new ones were sharp, and each footfall echoed through the halls with the sense of purpose. Before long the echo became a direct sound and the footsteps approached all the way to the front of his bed.
“Mister Adhil. You're awake.”
The voice was stern, female, and confident in the way that only experience could provide. It seemed to be waiting for his response, and only after a fair amount of delay did Hal speak up himself, testing his vocal chords.
“Um, good... morning?”
“Good morning indeed. I'm surprised you can speak.” Hal heard the sound of metal brushing against plastic and the faint flutter of paper as charts and diagnostics were consulted. “I don't think we expected you to wake up today, if ever at all. Tell me, how do you feel?”
Right to business then.
“Tired. Like I'm trying to wake up from a dream that I can't remember.” Hal offered the statements that he felt were best. After a few moments without a response, he hazarded a question. “Are you my doctor? Am I really alive?”
“The answer is yes, to both.” The clipboard clattered back into place at the end of the bed. “Forgive my abruptness, but it's not often that I get the opportunity to have these sorts of conversations. I'm Doctor Richter, and this is room 13B of Bergmann Memorial Hospital. Long term care.”
The footsteps moved closer to him. Hal could sense the faint pressure of fingers poking at buttons on his monitors. “Your blood pressure is a little high for someone who's been in a coma, but everything else looks normal.”
Hal's heart froze.
“Wait, I've been in a coma?” He dreaded the answer that was to come. “For how long?”
A minor sigh escaped the doctor's lips. “I'm afraid you've been asleep for quite some time. Let's see... about a year and a half.” Her voice lowered a bit. “It's pretty rare to have anyone wake up like this. Most of the time, it's just a waiting game until the plug is pulled.”
Hal tried to find some words, but they were slow in coming. So many thoughts were racing through his mind, it was difficult to settle on any one, but eventually enough laps had been completed to allow the most pressing one to rise to the fore. “Why am I still alive?”
“Don't you mean 'how am I still alive'?”
“Sure.” Hal shrugged, or tried to at least. His nervous system felt like it had been rebuilt out of molasses. Arguing semantics could come later.
The doctor took a moment to formulate her explanation before speaking. “Statistically, you should have been dead on arrival. Everyone's physiology is different, but the brain can only survive without oxygen for so long before the damage is irreversible. That amount of time is usually measured in minutes not hours. Conveniently, its distribution is described by a nice normal bell curve.” Dr. Richter's voice actually sounded annoyed. “You're the edge of the curve. Your life is an anomaly.”
Anomaly. That word was an unwelcome one. A word the doctor hesitated to even speak. No one ever knew how to handle anomalies.
“I've been writing a paper on your condition, but even I don't really understand it. From all appearances, you have very late-stage cancer that's spread to every single part of your body. But, for some reason it doesn't seem to be hurting anything.” Richter grumbled in dissatisfaction at her apparent lack of understanding. “It's the most widespread and comprehensive cellular mutation I've seen in a living body, and somehow it's benign. This collage of old cells and new cells... it's just what you are now.”
“That's good, isn't it?” Hal didn't understand why she sounded so disappointed.
Hal heard the sound of a pen clicking to life and the sharp scribble of notes on a clipboard. “Your mutated cells appear to use a different respiration cycle than normal, allowing for greater anaerobic energy production. I've been trying to nail down the specific chemistry, but all the cell samples I take die quickly when removed from the host. It's remarkably infuriating.”
Hal managed to tilt his head ever so slightly in a nod of understanding. It kinda made sense. He wouldn't have been able to wake up from being drowned if his cells couldn't some how get by without oxygen, even if that meant going dormant for a long time. After his mind finished absorbing the information, he offered a wry smile. “Sorry to be so inconvenient to you.”
“It can't be helped.” The pen clicked again and the clipboard clattered into place at the foot of his bed. The doctor sighed again. “Now that you're awake, I have to make some calls and take care of some paperwork. I know it sounds cliché, but you should just take it easy. We have an awful lot of difficult physical therapy to look forward to.” It sounded like the doctor was starting to walk away.
“Wait.” The footsteps halted in reaction to Hal's word. “What happened to Miri?”
“Miri?” The doctor sounded like she was thinking who that name was attached to. “Oh. Yes. The purple fox? She'll probably be dropping by soon.” Hal heard the faintest of chuckles. “She visits you almost every weekend.” Without another word, the footsteps left him and eventually faded into distant echoes down the hallway.
The news was such a shock to Hal, that he simply lay there, stunned, for what felt like another year and a half.
Miri was alive?
This had to be a dream.
No person could ever get that lucky. No life could ever be so blessed.
Hal felt a familiar constricting sensation in his throat. He struggled against the inevitable pressure before finally giving way to a singular emotion that spilled out from his lungs.
The emotion wasn't relief. Relief is too transient. Relief is a cold glass of water on a hot summer day. When the heat fades, it fades as well.
The emotion wasn't happiness. Happiness is warm, soft, and intangible. This feeling was strong, massive, and overwhelming, like a cresting wave, reaching, peaking, and ready to crash onto shore.
The emotion Hal felt... was Joy.
Joy surged forth from his heart, flowed through his lips and poured into the room, carried forward by the current of laughter. He laughed longer and harder than ever before, feeling the purity of those echoes reflect back and wash over him. For the first time in his life, Hal understood what laughter was always meant to be. Laughter, is the celebration of joy.
Hal laughed until his body was exhausted, and simply could not continue any longer. Even though he was blinded, the world felt brighter than it ever had before. It wasn't long before his world had become a lot busier as well. No Miri yet, but instead an army of medical assistants, perhaps drawn by his honest and vocal expressions of joy. There wouldn't be any of that here. This was a hospital.
Tests were run, samples were taken, interviews conducted. A lot of medical jargon and stern, disbelieving voices. What's two plus two? What year were you born? Do you feel dizzy? Nausea? Is it difficult to think of words? Describe what a square looks like. Apparently he was supposed to be brain dead, and the experts had a hard time accepting that he was not.
Amid the flurry, Hal learned more about his physical health. His muscles were atrophied from being in a bed for a long time. Between that and the old gunshot wounds, learning to walk was going to be difficult. Good thing he had some experience under his belt.
Both of his eyes were blinded. One had been smashed and one had been sliced, and neither one would be able to show him the world again. The bandages that covered them weren't really necessary for anything other than keeping people from being shocked by his appearance.
The scarring on his body was extensive. Bullet wounds, lacerations, blunt force trauma. Pristine and low mileage he was no longer. One young resident probably described it best when he remarked that Hal looked 'pretty hardcore'. It wasn't an adjective Hal was accustomed to people applying to him, but it would do.
Somehow, none of these facts particularly worried Hal. What else could he do, but laugh at it all? He was alive. It wasn't a perfect life, not even close, but it was something. Maybe something was enough.
Eventually the nurses and doctors and residents finished their poking and prodding. They would be back, they promised, with more questions and more tests, but for now, Hal could relax in peace. His energy level was hardly up to the task of sustaining such attention. Simply laughing had drained him a good deal. The sound of the heart monitor was soothing, almost entrancing, and he flirted with unconsciousness in and out as time passed without being measured.
Eventually, the unmeasured future came to pass, and Hal felt the presence of someone else in the room. A warm hand gently placed itself on his own, and even without words, Hal knew who it belonged to.
Miri's soft voice crossed the space between them, sounding calm, but perhaps a bit sad. The quiet of the room told Hal that they were completely alone. It didn't seem like she knew that he was awake.
“Today's a special day for both of us, isn't it?”
Hal forced himself to remain still. He wanted to hear what she had to say without interrupting her. Hal honestly didn't even know what day it was, other than it was a weekend.
“I finished my thesis. If all goes well, I'll be 'Doctor Rodgers' soon.” The normally great news was delivered with a wistful tone. “Heh. Doctor. I don't know if that title even means anything to me anymore.”
Hal stopped himself from frowning at Miri's words. Her voice had a quality to it that he could feel but not quite place. The faintest trembling in her fingers telegraphed the subtle wavering that was soon to follow in her words.
“You know, Hal, it's strange. I thought I'd be happy about this, but for some reason, the more things go back to normal, the more it feels like everything is wrong.”
Lost. That was the word Hal had been searching for. Miri's voice sounded lost.
“I always imagined that when I got to today, that Dr. Kincaid would be here to congratulate me. To tell me that I did a good job. He'd smile and say something about how I have a bright future ahead of me, and I think I would actually believe him.”
She drew in a long, hesitant breath, taking a few precious seconds to gather more strength.
“And I thought that you would be there too. That we would cross this line together. I pictured Dr. Kincaid saying the same thing to you, but you'd just smirk and make some joke about how I did all the real work. We'd all laugh and smile and everything would feel right. Like I was actually meant to live that moment.”
Miri sniffled a bit. “But that's not what happened today, is it?” Her voice became more strained. “Spirits, Hal... How many times have we had this conversation? This is so stupid.”
Hal almost spoke up, to comfort Miri, to let her know that he was still here. But something stopped him before he could start. Why did he suddenly feel afraid?
“I know you can't hear me. But I just wish...” Hal felt the dull sensation of a droplet of water falling onto his forearm. “Sometimes I just wish that I could go back in time and remember that I was happy once. Back when we could just watch the stars together, and talk about the wind and mountains and snowflakes.” Miri sniffled again, fighting against the strain in her throat. “Now that today has finally arrived... I honestly don't know what the hell I'm supposed to do with my life. Every day just feels like I'm going through the motions. Have you ever felt like that?”
Hal heard her laugh bitterly at her own words. “Of course you haven't. Every day you had a new sky to look up at. I always wanted to know what that would feel like, if only for a moment.” Her hand squeezed his. “Everyone says that I need to move on. But they don't know what we've been through. The small moments we shared. What they meant to me. Not one person in the world understands who I am.”
Hal finally broke his silence, and his tail bobbed to life, angling over towards her. “I do.”
“Holy-!” Miri screamed in surprise and Hal heard the sound of a chair clattering to the floor. The faint tremor he felt through the ground meant that Miri fell too. Hal frowned, wondering if he was a little too cruel in surprising her like that.
“Miri? Are you ok?”
A fist responded with a firm punch to his side. “HAL!? You ASSHOLE! You're awake!!? Were you listening this entire time!?” Another fist landed home, even stronger than the last, followed by another.
“Ow. Sorry.” One jab struck him in the gut, close to where some tubes were. “OW! Hey! Don't mess up my happy tubes!”
“YOU'RE SUCH A JERK!” She sobbed freely, striking with one last punch to his side. The attack soon turned into a hug, and Miri embraced Hal tightly, crying into his shoulder. If Hal could cry he would too, but he settled for gently wrapping his free arm around her to return the gesture. They stayed like that for a long time, allowing the gravity of their improbable reunion to fully sink in.
“Hal. Oh Hal.” She spoke his name over and over, as if repetition would prove that that he wasn't an illusion. Her voice was muffled a bit from being pressed so close. “I thought you were in a coma! The doctors told me every time that there wasn't much chance you would ever wake up!”
“Yeah, well, I'm an anomaly apparently.” Hal smirked a bit at his own humor. “I thought you were dead.”
Miri pulled her head away for a moment, presumably to wipe at her eyes, as she struggled and mostly failed to compose herself. “I very nearly was.”
“Then how?” Hal only got a few words into his question before her head was resting close again.
“You have terrible aim.”
“I'm being serious.”
“So am I!” Miri jabbed him, much more gently this time. “The bullet hit me in the stomach, a few inches below my ribs. Right here.” Her fingers guided his hand along her side to a place where a patch of her fur was missing. Hal's fingers felt the odd, soft flesh of raw scar tissue. “It missed my vital organs. That said, I nearly bled to death in that church, but the medics were on the scene super-quick. A *lot* of medics.”
Hal grimaced as he remembered the final minutes of that encounter. To him it just happened yesterday, but Miri had a lot more time to recover and come to grips with the traumatic events. Unpleasant as it was, this was his opportunity to learn about the aftermath. “So... what happened?”
Miri sighed, closing her fingers around his, just like they had back then. “The troopers won, but, I don't think even a dozen people made it out of that room alive. So many bodies that used to be people just... everywhere. All over.” She tightened her grip a little. “Trooper ops always have paramedics on standby, and practically every single unit in the city was there to triage the casualties. It was all over the news for weeks.”
Hal felt her face nuzzle into his shoulder some more. “All it took was a few emergency blood transfusions, two surgeries, and way too much time in the hospital to get me back on my feet again. You know. Easy stuff compared to what you're used to.”
Miri's voice was harder to hear with how her face was buried. “I thought I lost you, Hal. Are you sure this is real?”
Hal snorted. “Not at all. I'm probably hallucinating.”
“Is that so?” A little edge of mischief worked its way into Miri's words. He felt her head shift, moving up towards his to plant a kiss on his cheek.
“Ehhhh... still not convinced.”
A finger poked the side of his face. “Hmph. Nice try, but that's all you get. We're hardly alone.”
“Awww.” Hal pretended to be disappointed. “Hospital wards don't turn you on?”
“Well, there's one date idea out the window.”
The two of them laughed a bit at the joke, still trying to come to grips with the new reality they both earned. Hal didn't have enough energy to keep up the banter, which seemed to suit Miri just fine. They lay together in silence, enjoying each others company all the same.
Unfortunately, they weren't able to savor the moment for too long before more footsteps came down the hall. These ones sounded heavy. Boots marching in lockstep. Hal didn't need to hear the word to understand who was coming.
“Troopers.” Miri's voice sank low, and she pulled away from Hal to sit back down in the chair beside him.
The loud boots entered the room, breaking the calm silence they had enjoyed. Some of the boots stopped there, but another pair continued on approaching them with a sharp sense of purpose. “Ah, Miss Rodgers. I didn't know you were here.” The new voice sounded imperious and overbearing.
Apparently these two knew each other, and from the iciness of Miri's tone, it was not exactly a pleasant relationship.
“I need to speak to Mister Adhil.”
“Go right on ahead, but I'm not leaving the room, so don't even try to make me.”
The prosecutor sighed as if weighing whether or not to force the issue. He must have decided to let it be, because his next sentence addressed Hal directly. It was very formal and to the point. “Halcyon Adhil, I am here to inform you that you are under arrest for crimes against the city of Anduruna. The list of charges is rather extensive, I'm afraid.”
Hal grumbled. “Last I checked, I'm lying in this bed because I tried to help the city. What the hell am I being charged with?”
“Murder. Aiding and abetting a domestic terrorist. Power use. Illegal possession of a firearm. Many more items along that vein. Any one of them alone could put you away for a long time.” The voice seemed to take immense satisfaction in reciting Hal's so-called crimes. “You're in an awful lot of trouble.”
“Gee, I've never been in trouble with the cops before.” Hal quipped dryly, unable to hold back the snark.
“You don't seem to be taking this very seriously.”
“And you don't seem like a very pleasant person.”
Miri chastised his tone, but it was difficult for Hal to keep the edge out of his voice. He smiled a false smile towards the sound of the prosecutor. “Thanks for the friendly notice. So, do I get to talk to a defense lawyer now?”
“Oh, no. Not at all.” The prosecutor laughed a little bit, and Hal decided that this gloating sound wasn't what laughter was supposed to be. “Your guilt was determined by the courts many months ago. Sentencing simply hasn't been carried out because of your medical condition.”
“What?” Despite his physical weakness, Hal felt a fire begin to burn inside of him. “That's not fair. A defendant is supposed to be able to confront his accusers. You can't just convict me while I'm in a coma.”
“Terrorists like you don't get the same rights afforded to normal citizens.”
“I'm not a terrorist!” Hal started coughing violently, and Miri's gentle but firm touch made sure he leaned back in bed, preventing him from overextending himself.
“It's true.” Miri spoke up for Hal. “Hal was the one who helped stop Marcus! He should be thanked for what he did, not condemned!”
“That's quite enough from you, Miriel. The only reason why we didn't banish you for powers violations is because you agreed to cooperate with the investigation and prosecution. But you've played that card already and it would only take one word from me to have you arrested as well.” Prosecutor Graham cleared his throat, clearly not afraid to throw his weight around as he pleased. “Just because the two of you may have done some admirable things does not erase the crimes committed. We are a city of law and order, and those who violate our laws will be punished accordingly.”
The sound of footsteps slowly paced in front of Hal, and he pictured the Prosecutor wearing a smug expression as he clasped his hands behind his back. “You have no idea how much of a shit-storm you created. How many good men lost their lives because of everything that happened. Our finest company of shock troopers was nearly obliterated in that confrontation, and we lost many more people in the weeks that followed as we hunted down the last remaining elements of your brother's little insurrection. Those soldiers will never be brought back to life, and someone has to answer for their deaths.”
Hal was not pleased with the way they were being treated. It was only due to exhaustion that he failed to raise his voice. “So I'm the last loose end, huh?”
“Indeed.” The prosecutor paused in his slow pacing. The directness of his voice seemed to address Hal directly, instead of reciting a monologue into the empty room. “Your brother is dead. Even if we had tried to save his life, it would have been too late. You stabbed him through the heart.” Hal frowned. “Every known associate of Marcus is either dead or in prison, and the meteor shards that we recovered are safely secured from the public and renegades like you. Rest assured, we won't allow any more citizens to make the same mistakes you have.”
Mistake? Hal mentally shook his head. No. His life wasn't a mistake. The meteor wasn't a mistake. This petty man would never understand.
“So what are you going to do to him?” Miri asked the question she didn't want answered.
“Lucky for you it's an election year, and the Viscount is trying to project a softer image. Instead of execution, it will be easier for everyone if you merely disappear. Leave Anduruna and never return.”
“Banishment?” Hal struggled to untangle the knot of conflicting emotions that balled up inside his heart.
“Yes. It's the standard punishment for powers violations. Trust me, you're getting off a lot easier than I think you should. As soon as you're discharged from the hospital, your citizenship profile will be deleted, and all of your assets will be seized by the state. You will cease to exist. You will leave the city and you will not be permitted to return. If you do, the consequences will be... severe.”
“You can't do this to him!” Miri argued against the verdict. “After all he's sacrificed, you're just going to reject him?”
“Would you rather we shoot him instead?”
“This isn't right!”
“It doesn't matter. It's the law.” The prosecutor's voice had a finality to it that indicated the issue was no longer up for debate. “Now silence yourself, unless you want to suffer the same fate.”
“I won't!” Miri didn't relent. “If you're going to banish Hal, then you'll have to banish me too!”
“Calm yourself, Miss Rodgers.” Graham's voice became intensely cold and serious. “This isn't the sort of choice to be made lightly in the heat of passion. There is no undoing it once it's been done.”
“I told you my answer. I have nothing more to say to you, Mister Graham.”
“Miri, you don't have to-” Hal started to protest, but he was quickly cut short.
“Hal, shush.” Miri gave his hand a determined squeeze. “After all that we went through to find each other, I'm not letting you disappear again.”
“So be it.” The prosecutor grumbled to himself. “We don't need a dissenter like you causing trouble, anyways.”
“Wait.” Hal got the impression that the man was preparing to leave. “Before you go, I have one last question.”
“What date is it today?”
“Excuse me?” The prosecutor sounded peeved by Hal's mundane question.
“The date. Today. What is it?” Repeating the question only seemed to irritate the man more.
“It's April 15th.”
“Heh.” Hal felt the beginnings of another laugh stir in his soul, and he was unable to hold it back. Soon he was laughing in earnest, filling the room again with the sound of joy.
“And why do you find tax day so funny?”
“Haha.” Hal managed to slow his laugh long enough to speak. “It's not that. I don't think you'd understand. I'm just happy to be alive.”
“You awakened are all the same.” Graham's voice sounded bitter and spiteful. “You have no respect. This city is better off without you. You might be happy now, but when you're alone in the wilderness, cold, hungry, and lost, you'll wish you could come back.”
“Whatever.” A smile emerged on Hal's lips, undaunted by the warning. “Believe whatever you like. It doesn't change the way I feel.”
That seemed to bring an end to the conversation, and the footsteps of Prosecutor Graham stomped out of the room. As silence returned, Hal felt his body relax. The smile didn't go away. Happiness was not the normal reaction to a situation like this, but Hal decided that he just wasn't meant to be a normal person. He certainly was pretty bad at it.
Miri remained with Hal, letting her guard back down now that they were left alone. She laid her head next to his and snuggled close. For a long while, the two of them merely enjoyed the sensation of being together. Being alive. The beeping of his heart monitor reminded him every second that yes, he was here. Life was here. Love was here. He had everything he needed. Everything else, well, those were just minor details.
After a time, Hal finally recovered enough energy to speak. He almost didn't want to break the silence, it was so comfortable, but the words on his mind had to be spoken. “Thank you, Miri.”
“Mmmm?” Her muffled voice sounded like she had fallen half-asleep. “For what?”
“You know. For staying with me. For everything. I don't know how I ever got so lucky.”
Miri nodded sleepily, brushing her cheek against Hal's shoulder. “I think we're both lucky.”
“I suppose that's true.”
“Mmm.” Miri placed a hand on his chest, lifting her head slightly.
She gave him a light kiss on the cheek. “Happy Birthday.”
[End Chapter 24]