One Last Cigarette
Martin Hooijmans | Lars de Ruyter
The old, stone steps felt cold. A cold that pierced his body crawled through it and drained the last color from his cheeks. That seemed like the last bit of warmth left in the broken shell that still clung on to his soul, desperate.
His hand travelled upwards, nicotine-stained skin firmly wrapped around the bone that had been broken so many times but was now, in the seemingly last moments of his existence, for the first time in years, fully mended, healthy, strong. It was almost comic that his life had to end like this. But it was the truth, the punch-in-your-face truth, that it was approaching him with the speed of a jetliner. It was almost a comforting thought, yet he was not quite ready to give in, not just yet.
Salvation, although temporary, appeared in the form of a clumsily rolled cigarette. The tobacco seemed ancient, but it was a good one and had some burn left in it. It would go fast, though. He would cherish every whiff, savor it, taste it, draw in the warmth. He held the small object up to his pale green eyes and realized he had never seen it in this light before. What had always been a nasty habit, an addiction, was now his last lifeline. ‘Smoking leads to an early, painful death.’ He was young alright, too young to go, but it wasn’t because of the smoking. He had to laugh, a bitter laugh but still, at the thought that the ‘cancer stick’ in his hands would prolong his life, even if only for a few more moments, then put it in his mouth and grasped in the pockets of his faded blue jeans for the zippo lighter that had been his companion for many years.
The sound echoed through the deserted halls of the old station. The man slowly looked up to see the dark wooden doors swinging open with a loud creak, casting a bright streak of sun that came to a stop right in front of his feet, as if it were afraid to touch him. In the opening a tall figure appeared, looking exactly as he had expected. A young, beautiful woman with a halo above her head would have been preferable, but he was old enough to appreciate that that kind only handed out free shots in the places one went to to get wasted. Still, there was something oddly comforting about this classic appearance of what most people would call the Grim Reaper. As he took in the sight of him, the ceremonious black robe with the hood up that, of course, concealed the wearer’s face, he could see nothing grim about it. There was no scythe. Instead, its hands were calmly folded over each other and held in front of the robe. In the little light that made its way under its hood he saw no skull but the most comforting smile he had ever seen. It reminded him of the woman he used to love and knew that was the purpose of it, that he was perhaps supposed to think she was hiding under that dark appearance, stretching out to him from the place beyond she was forcefully taken to a year before. He diverted his eyes, the memory too painful to face that smile. Had he been too slow? Had he been too much of a coward to take that bullet? His mind told him over and over again that it would have been impossible, but his heart kept blaming him for her untimely death. It had throbbed for a year, stealing every desire to live, numbing his sense of survival. Somehow he had managed to live through it, barely but he had managed. Now, however, his time had come. He had endured too many wounds, too much starvation, too much cold. The cold that announced the long-awaited arrival of his death.
He was aware once more of the cigarette still squeezed firmly between his lips. That last lifeline. He looked once more at the face of his guide into the afterlife and realized that the desire to smoke was gone. The sight of that smile, of the light surrounding it, filled him up with enough warmth to not need it anymore. His desire to smoke was replaced by an even greater desire to step into that light.
As his body started into motion the aching in his bones, his muscles, his scars…even the heaviest pain of all, the one in his heart, seemed to vanish in thin air. As his first step landed in the brightness the figure’s arms went up into a welcoming gesture. The man was quick to answer and embraced it. It was exactly what he had felt when he was with her. Warmth, luck, happiness. If this was death, he could live with it.
The doors of the station closed.
And it was not grim. Not grim at all.