Commentary and Philosophy Fiction posted June 4, 2014

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When lives collide by randomness and hope

The Continuity of Hattie

His hand shook as he hovered a thumb over the unnecessarily bold green 'dial' button. Breaths shook his nose like a malfunctioning bellows, wheezing and shuddering through his frame.

"What have I got to lose?"

An afternoon, your dignity, your freedom ... your life.

Yep -- nothing to lose. Holding his breath, he touched the green button and put the phone to his ear. A waft of air freshener assailed his nostrils -- claggy and cloying but better than the reek of vomit and faeces it covered. His abode was a cubicle in a motorway rest stop toilet, every bit as horrific as that sounds. The wall was covered in obscenities, disturbingly detailed depictions of anatomy, and a smattering of telephone numbers. Most of them were prefaced with an offer -- call Stephanie for a good time, Shiela swallows, Damon does dudes.

He picked 'Hattie needs help' -- either a cry for assistance or some very inventive marketing. The phone on the other end was ringing with that false, insular bell that means nothing but reassures the caller something is happening. He thought about Hattie, how her voice would be vulnerable but strong, reinforced by the hardships of her -- relatively -- young life. She might have been crying but she'd not let him hear it. She would be certain she didn't need his help, but the undertone would be begging. Her inton-

"Hello?" Fed up, nervous, tired.

He took a sharp breath but the words wouldn't come. A few seconds passed.

"Alright, you raspy-breathing pervert, where did you get this number?"

She's angry. You made her angry, you idiot! Say something -- make it better.

"I ... I want to help you."

She sighed -- a burst of static on the line. "No, I don't want help reclaiming any PPI. I haven't had an accident and it wasn't my fault. I have all the insurance I want. And no, I don't want to change my BLOODY ENERGY SUPPLIER."

Panic twisted his gut -- this wasn't going well. "No. It's not those things. I wouldn't do that to you."

"Oh, for Christ's sake! I'm hanging up now, loser."

"I'm dying." There -- I said it. What do you think of that? He breathed a few times, concentrating on calming his chest, but the effort only left him even shorter of breath. He did his best to suppress the wheeze while he waited for her answer.

"So?" Her tone was callous but she didn't hang up.

"I'm dying and I chose you." His hand shook so hard, it was all he could do to hold the phone to his ear. He sniffed, unable to speak past the gunge in his face. "I chose you, Hattie."

"Look, mister, I don't know who you are but I think you might need some help. Now, I won't call the fuzz on you if you leave me alone, alright?"

He laughed and it felt like marshmallows drumming on his larynx. "Nobody can help me, Hattie -- that time has passed -- but I called you because I think you need help."

"Where did you get this number?" There was the faintest tremble in her voice. She hid it well but he was intimately acquainted with the feeling of desperation. I chose right!

He smiled, wishing he could convey the expression with words. "Does it matter where I got the number? We're talking, we're connecting. That's what being human is about."

"Of course it matters. You're butting into my territory -- I have a right to know who copied my key for you or which window you broke through."

Such violent analogies. She's hurting badly. Somebody betrayed her.

"I'm not a burglar, Hattie. If I tell you, do you promise not to hang up?"

She snorted. "No! Of course not. But I do promise to hang up if you don't tell me."

"I'm in a motorway service station on the M1. Your name and number are written on a wall in the toilet cubicle I'm sitting in."

"Okay, hanging up now. Again."

"No! Please, Hattie, listen to me. Talk to me. I think we need one another." He coughed, his body displaying its usual sense of timing.

There was another silence but it was populated by the pregnant hush of uncertainty. "Why did you call my number?"

"It drew me to it -- to you -- more than the others."

"No, I mean why would you call a number on a public toilet wall? That's just nuts. Wait, what do you mean it drew you to it?"

He took a deep breath, imagining how close she was to hanging up. "The handwriting was neat and careful."

She actually laughed -- loud and sarcastic. "I didn't write it! Why would I write my own name in a men's room toilet? It was probably my ex -- nasty, bitter piece of work that he is."

"That doesn't matter."

"Of course it matters."

"No." I fought to keep my voice calm. "When death is close, these things are clearer. Please talk to me, Hattie. Please. Let me help you."

She chuckled and it sounded genuine, almost relaxed. "Fine, I'll bite. I got nothing else to do this afternoon except ... Yeah, nothing else to do."

"Thank you." He nodded, knowing she couldn't see it but certain she understood the sentiment. "It doesn't matter why or how people connect, only that they do. What brought us together is a mutual need."

"Just so you know, I'm not religious or spiritual. I live in the real world."

"This is the real world -- that's what I'm talking about. Not karma or synchronicity or any other word people want to ascribe it. Just people and other people -- real, honest and true."

She sniffed. "I like that idea. But why does this mean you think you can help me?"

"The people close to us cannot help us." He closed his eyes. "They don't listen because they think they already know us, and when we challenge what they think they know, they get offended. Then emotion gets in the way of truth. We don't know one another -- with us, there's no assumption, only honesty."

"What's your story, mister?" she sighed. "What happened to you?"

"Just life -- suddenly, unexpectedly, the way everything happens. I'm not a good person, Hattie, but I'm not a bad one either."

"Are you saying you don't deserve what's happening to you?" Her voice held a note of empathy. You poor thing.

I chuckled. "Deserve has nothing to do with it. Fairness and justice are toys for the rich and healthy to argue over. I'm dying because I'm dying, but I have one thing left I can control. I have my legacy, and I think you are part of that."

"Trust me, mister -- you don't want to trust me with your legacy. I'm a bitter waste of air whose life mission seems to be disappointing people. I let everyone down eventually, then they leave and it's just me, crying vodka on my empty bed, talking to a random weirdo who calls me from a toilet. How's that for an epitaph?"

"It's not your epitaph, it's your beauty shining through."

Her laugh was as bitter a noise as he ever heard, sour like turned milk. "I ain't beautiful, mister, unless you like the goth-pretender look. I'm a shabby scruff with a penchant for seeking attention with razors then driving people away."

"That only happens because they want to change you."

"They want to save me -- that's what they say."

"No," he said, throwing determination into his voice. "They want you to conform. I want you to thrive. Be my legacy, Hattie. Be my random, intended recipient."

"Recipient for what?" Her voice sounded wet, soaked in tears.

"Everything. You might think nobody can love you, but I do. I love you because you're free, and open minded, and honest. I love your beautiful self in every way it's possible to love. I know this because we are connected. I will be dead soon but that's a good thing, because in the wake of that finality, you will blossom into yourself. You can have my life, Hattie -- everything I leave behind. My gift to give."

There you go, girl. Every card I have -- all open-faced on the table. Don't let me down. Please.

"That's not love, mister. That's desperation."

"It's the only true love there is. One day, you'll know it. Meet me, Hattie. Whatever you had planned for yourself this afternoon, it's not as important as this. Meet me so I can pass you everything I am and you can give purpose to my life, finally, in its final days."

She sobbed audibly. "I ... I don't know."

"Come on. What do you have to lose?"

"My afternoon, my dignity, my freedom ... my life."

"Nothing, then. Nothing you haven't already resigned yourself to losing. Trust me, Hattie -- I know. Will you meet me?"

"But I don't know you at all."

A wave of beauty washed over him and for the briefest moment, he breathed clearly. "Yes you do -- in every way that matters and every way we choose to view. Our love is the purest love imaginable -- the love of kindred strangers, aligned at this moment in time. We are one purpose, designed to continue in your future."

The longest silence floated between them like a cloud of understanding. Despite the uncertainty, it was a most incredible sensation. Eventually, her voice smaller than a spark but hopeful like a newly born sun, she responded.

"Okay, mister. Just tell me where."

What If? contest entry

I wanted to write a character-driven piece as a break from my usual style, focusing on dialogue over too much description. I hope you enjoyed it :-).

Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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