This world, the world of this story, is almost yours. Almost. Built into its physical laws lies an extra clause, seamlessly woven into the pattern of life. And this additional line, this one idea more, makes all the difference in the world.
I was a young girl when I stood before god with a gun in my mouth. The weapon I found in my brother's bedroom, wrapped in newspaper and tucked behind an elderly chest of drawers. Swaying lamp-light cast shadows that night, frayed shadows as I knelt in the dark and the dust.
“I want my soulmate,” I tremoured. “I need him now.”
God said nothing to this; still the shadows swept peaceably across my wet cheeks.
“You must understand. You made us this way.”
The steel cool against my lips.
Barely a whisper now: “Don't make me.”
The shadows swung left, then right, covering my eyes. I blinked in time, remembered a chant from skipping on the playground:
One, Two, Three, Four.
Hear your Lover at the door.
Five, Six, Seven, Eight.
Pray that this one's your soulmate.
Each shadow a skip.
One. Two. Three. Four.
I squeezed the trigger.
I heard a sad story that I was promised was true. It's hard to believe, but perhaps it happens every day.
Two soulmates lived together in a tall house by the sea. The outer walls stood corroded by salt; inside, drooping wallpaper hung damply through the rooms. They slept on the top floor of three, up a narrow staircase that creaked in the ocean winds. In that room, they stored all their happiness and love. I suppose they always expected it to be the place they would die.
The girl arrived home one day and closed the rotting door. Vague noises upstairs, falling through the floors. She climbed, and climbed, until the sounds crystallised into screaming. Her man, calling out in pain. She must have known that he was near death, but still she ran. Not down, not away, not to safety. Instead, in a moment of madness, she ran to his side.
The stress of his heart attack triggered her own, and they died in each others' arms near that bleak, chilly shore. Close to the deaths they would have chosen, no doubt, but so needlessly early, so wasteful. A pause, a turn, all that was required. She could have stopped on those stairs, and walked away, and preserved for them both a future.
When I first heard this tale, I wept with rage, for how could they not understand what they had been given, when all of us wait for it our lives entire, and some of us, scarred, wait impatiently still.
In a world where we cannot die alone, such stupidity to run to your lover's side. In a world where we are destined a soulmate, if only we wait, such selfishness to so easily let them go.
I sit, the carriage humming all around me, wheels spinning over rails beneath my feet. Opposite me a woman sleeps, her pale head resting against the vibrating window. Contentment is etched into her old, wrinkled face. I hate her half-smile, a smile so deep it follows her out of consciousness. I am glad when she leaves.
For a while, the seat is empty, then is taken by a man. He is youthful, handsome, alone. My heart lurches with the train; drunken hope rises like sweet bile. Well, he could be. He could be the one. My hand rests against my cheek. When I remove it, I will know.
“Hello,” he says.
I smile, my hand still pressed against my face. “Hello,” I reply.
“Are you alone?”
I nod. “And you?”
He smiles and my breath is shallow, my thoughts dizzy. I lift my head away from my hand.
He recoils and all hope is gone. Just like that it disappears, so swiftly that it leaves a hole. The emptiness settles inside me, sucking, sucking away.
He recovers his poise far too late. “What happened?” he asks.
I trace the long, gnarled line along my face. “I was ten,” I say. “I tried to die.”
Once you find your soulmate, only then does your countdown begin. But not for us, the knowledge of how far it may fall, how many seconds still cling to life. Only the comfort that you can never die alone. That your life may only end with your lover by your side.
When I was ten, my best friend announced that she had found her soulmate. They walked through the playground, hand-in-hand, convinced of their intertwined fates. Too young even for young love, of course, and she would be long out of school when she bumped into her doctor in a furniture sale and discovered finally what it meant to be sure. But I was a small girl, without clairvoyance or comprehension. I saw only that my friend was lost to me, and then – as I watched them skip traitorously across the crunchy, gravelly school yard – I came to see that it was I who was lost, and she who had been found.
I begged god until I could beg no more. Days had passed, an eternity in my tiny mind. I took my brother's gun, for I knew I could not die alone. A test for my gods, my guardian angels.
The bullet passed through my cheek and I survived. But luck, nothing more. For as I learned that day in the hospital bed, my mother shrieking at my side, suicide was not an impossibility, but rather a loophole. For those who lacked patience, an easy way out.
“You're so young,” my parents wept. “You have love already, don't you see? You have us!”
But it isn't love really. It doesn't really count.
For my friend, that day in the furniture shop, it was a smile. Just a smile, a gaze, a pinprick in time. Just a moment and she was sure.
I too know exactly how to be sure.
Some nights after I tried to die, my mother came to me past my bedtime. As I lay contentedly in my snug, dozy bed, she read to me a children's tale. The pages were creased and dusty, the typeface antiquated. I had never seen the book before.
In the story, a brave prince sets out on a quest to rescue a princess, held captive by an evil spell. He battles giants and dragons and witches and sorcerers, overcoming all obstacles to free the girl from her enchanted prison. When the two finally meet, they discover – to their surprise and joy - that they are soulmates, destined to die in each others' arms. The prince takes her back to his kingdom, and the two soon become king and queen.
At first they are happy, but soon it becomes apparent that the queen is having difficulty becoming pregnant. The king begins to worry: what if they die before giving birth to an heir? At first, he heightens security, ensuring that he and his wife are protected by guards at all times. But there are deaths that guards cannot see coming: illness and disease that lurk in the quiet dark. So he sends the queen away, sometimes for days at a time, for they cannot die apart. When they meet, they do so quickly and carefully, in the safest, warmest parts of the castle, where they attempt to conceive a child. But still the heir proves elusive, and the king's paranoia grows, until they meet only once a week. Once a month. Once a year.
The child never arrives, and at last he forgets about the wife he loves. One day, many years later, the ancient king finds himself walking through a forest. His hair is white, his skin grey, his back bent. He shuffles slowly through this cool, green corner of his realm, and suddenly he comes across a cottage. Leaving his guards to keep watch, he staggers up to the wooden door, leaning heavily against it to support his frail legs. Slowly, oh so very slowly, he steps inside.
A woman sits, watching, waiting, quite as old as he. Her face is almost hidden beneath the creases that tell her age, but her smile is bright, a sinking sun still visible through thick, gnarled clouds. She smiles with recognition; she has waited now so long. And in that pinprick of time, he remembers her too and falls sobbing at her feet. She sits beside him on that icy, flagstone floor, humming softly and stroking his tired hair. When the guards enter the house, her brittle, lifeless body is knelt prayerfully over his. Perhaps she is asking for more time.
She is still smiling.
I dream of this story as I doze on the train. When I awake, the man across from me has gone. The seat is empty once more.
I am reminded of a strange statistic: whenever there is an outbreak of a deadly disease, the death rate rises. Time after time, this fact is proven true. When a community finds itself in the throes of a lethal illness, many people die. I do not understand this statistic at all.
There are exceptions. A small country somewhere in Europe, where – in the grip of a terrible smallpox infection – the death-rate dropped almost to zero. Perhaps I shall move there someday, to that oasis of sanity and sense.
I am still trying to recall the name of the country when I realise I am flying. It's a strange sensation indeed, to be seated one minute, and airborne the next. All around me, other people are suspended in mid-air, an entire train frozen in time.
Then I am no longer flying, but falling. My head smashes into the seat in front of me, I feel my legs crumple and my arms come apart. I taste bitterness in my mouth and see red paint spray before my dimming eyes. There is an awful sound, a screeching, dying dragon, and then everywhere there is metal and pain. Even as I open my mouth to protest, my stomach punctures, and my speech rushes away with the awful, scarlet blood. In my last conscious moments, I marvel at my one brief moment of flight, of freedom from the awful physics of this world. Then my life falls apart with the train.
In the dark agony, I open my eyes once more. I am lying in a twisted steel cage, wires and shards protruding on all sides, crushed bodies in the distance, and everywhere, a silent, desperate blackness.
I hear the faintest of voices calling from another world: “Is anyone alive in here?”
I smile but I do not reply. Ahead of me, I see a shadowy form, lying before me, trapped beneath a gargantuan bulkhead of metal. The dying man faces me, his face contorted in pain.
“Hello,” I breathe, and the word comes choked with blood.
When he replies, his own speech is laboured, yet fills me with joy. “Hello,” he says. “Cool scar.”
We laugh, and I know that I too am slipping away. There is time perhaps for one final effort. I grimace and cry and I stretch my ruined arm forward, across the broken, shaking ground. With the last of my energy, I reach my hand towards him.
He smiles and his face is pure light. My heart soars as he places his hand in mine. I feel his warmth as he squeezes me tight. I close my eyes.
I no longer think the queen was praying for more time as she knelt beside her king. I think perhaps she was mourning the time they had already been given, yet failed to take. I see now why the death-rate rises against all odds, why soulmates run towards each other when they should be running away.
Our world is just like any other, I suspect. We cannot know our countdown; we cannot control our time. We seek each other out, for we cannot be alone.
And brief though that time may be, how dazzling that still we may swell with love. How perfect to die complete.