Bright white letters on a perfectly black background. Nothing else in sight. No other senses registering anything. Just a date, in old type-writer font. This is what Walter Michaels sees as he falls asleep every night, and has done for his entire life. It is his clue, his glimmer. It is the day he is destined to die.
Walter locks the front door to his flat, slipping the key into an envelope which he hides under the mat for his son to find on the 22nd. He makes his way slowly down the stairs, hefting his bags with him. He puts them in the boot of the car and turns on the radio for what he knows is the last time. He supposes he’s lucky really. He knows the full date. Not like his nephew, jumpy every 10th December but still here. Unable to plan for what is coming. Relieved to make it to Christmas each year. Or his own mother, who had always known just the year. He smiles thinly thinking about it as the city fades out into countryside past his windows. She’d known she would be old enough to have grandchildren, which had given her peace, though she’d never had any guarantee she would have them. And the months of 1982 she did live through were like a personal purgatory.
Walter has always felt fortunate that Destiny granted him knowledge of the entire date, full awareness of when his number was up. Almost the same number that had been flashing red on black on his alarm clock when he woke up with the sun this morning. 20 07 16.
He wonders, idly, as cars eager to get home after work fly past him on the motorway – he is maybe a little cautious in his speed today – how differently he would have lived his life had he not known that he would die months after his seventieth birthday. Walter had enlisted in the army at just sixteen, at least in part because he knew he wouldn’t die in his service. He never regretted his decision, but he had grown to appreciate its naivety. The damage he and his fellow soldiers sustained and endured had convinced him of that a hundred times over.
In the throes of the Cold War, with nuclear destruction an ever-present danger, an ever-present fear for most, Walter had been quietly confident that the world would get through without anyone pressing the big red button. His wife, when he told her this at the time, as the sun spilled into their bedroom one morning, had smiled at his optimism, said that maybe he’d be scavenging in the desolated radioactive wastelands for forty years, unable to see the sun through the mushroom cloud. She was joking of course, but she was right. The curse of a glimmer that is just a date, even a full date, is that Walter has never had any idea how his death would come, or what the world would look or sound like when it did. He thinks, turning off the motorway onto a quieter road, with signposts to possibly idyllic villages he’s never been to and now never will, that he wouldn’t have minded knowing this was what he’d be surrounded by. His wife’s death in the hospital bed she’d always seen, just five years before his would inevitably come, had at least given her faith that the world would not crumble until after she’d left it. He’d kissed her hand and told her that his world would crumble as soon as she left it. But Walter had managed to stumble on without her. The thought that he would join her – wherever it is that Destiny secretes her prey – in just a handful of years had made the separation more bearable, as had their children and grandchildren, the parts of her that lived on.
The road grew more twisted as Walter neared his final destination, tapping his fingers on the wheel along to the song, hoping he hadn’t forgotten anything in the weeks and months prior to his death as he set his affairs in order. His will was finalised, his eldest son told of where he would be, where to find the key to the flat, where to find his little book. He had reunited with old friends – school friends, workmates, military buddies – and made his peace with them all one last time. He found that some had died while he had been out of touch, unaware of when they would pass on, unable to extend their gratitude and love for the role they had all played in each other’s lives. None of Walter’s old friends had questioned why, after all this time, he was reaching out. They all knew, even if not the precise details, the truth that Walter was near his time. He had left a big tip at the little cafe he liked to go to when the sun was barely up, hugged the friendly bartender in the pub across the road where he had gone to drown his sorrows after his wife’s passing, and wished the pretty clerk at the florist’s good luck with her exam results.
The day before, Walter had the whole family round to his shoe-box flat. Surviving siblings, nieces and nephews, children and grandchildren, all crammed in together. No one brought presents as such but they came with his favourite foods, a little bottle of good whiskey, old photo albums rescued from attics or barely-used cupboards and dusted off for the occasion. Walter had teared up at the pictures of his wedding day, touching the side of his wife’s youthful face reverently. He had asked to keep the photo his daughter showed him of his wife, laughing in the morning sun as they took a stroll on their last holiday before she got sick. He had stuck it to the car radio so he could take her with him on his final journey. Walter had thanked them all individually, giving them each a last hug and a kiss on the cheek. The youngest, his only great-grandchild, barely two weeks old, was put in his arms for the first and last time. A hello and a goodbye. A sorry I won’t have time to cherish this memory and a sorry you won’t have this memory at all. A bittersweet thing.
Walter blinked away tears, slowing the car to a crawl before reluctantly stopping. He took deep breaths, remembering how his daughter had held back, checking once again that he wanted to be alone for what was to come, her tears spilling down unchecked. He wondered if it wouldn’t have been easier to know something else; to not have been able to say goodbye. To not have had to say goodbye. Gently he eased the car back into gear and continued, his mind now on the final goodbye he’d said, just this morning to his wife. He wore a tie, like he always used to on all their dates – she had always fussed about it being crooked, but he could never straighten it out on his own. He brought a bouquet of lilies – a bigger bunch than usual, for the special occasion. They had always been her favourite, and the smell used to cling to her so much that the scent of it even now transported him back into her arms. That was where he chose to spend most of his final full day, sitting at her grave in the sun, talking to her, wrapped up in her smell and the memories he cherished of her.
He’d made the decision as soon as he saw the light leave his wife’s eyes that morning five years ago that he would be alone when he died. Not lonely, not without anyone he could ask to be with him if he had wanted to, not without people who had offered, but alone nonetheless. Walter wanted to be alone not just to help him be at peace with what was happening, but to avoid being an accident or a catastrophe that hurt someone else. But he didn’t want to die in his sad little flat that never smelt of lilies and didn’t get the morning sun, so here he was, driving to a little camping spot up on a hill, with a beautiful view of the rising sun, that they’d snuck off to when they were younger, then taken their children to, that was now barely used by anyone. He parked the car as the sun set, kissing the picture of his wife, taking off his tie and lying it on the seat, grabbing his sleeping bag, leaving the window open and the keys in the sun visor for his son. He left the cool bag and clothes for tomorrow in the boot of the car. He walked a little way with his flask and sleeping bag, took off his shoes and lay down in the grass, staring up at the stars on the warm summer night. He lay there for what felt like – and might have been – hours. He’d left his phone in the car. His watch, an anniversary present from years ago that tended to lose time, but he liked so much he didn’t mind constantly readjusting it, was back in his flat. Walter didn’t want to know what the time was; how close it was to running out.
Sleep took a long time coming. It made the corners of his mouth quirk up in amusement to think that by the time his glimmer next came it might be announcing that he was already there, already at his destiny. At his death.
But sleep did take him and in that split second when he lost consciousness 21.07.2016 in white typewriter font on a perfectly black background flashed into his mind, exactly the same as it had every night of his life.
His sleep was dreamless.
His sleep was endless.
For the immeasurably fleeting moment where Walter knew he was dying, knew he was breathing his final breath, he thought to himself but I wanted to see the sunrise, and then he was gone.