LEON WAS TWENTY-SIX when the true fragility of his body revealed itself. He died for the first time. There was no flying, no tunnel. He didn’t see a light. He died, and a few minutes later he regained consciousness on a gritty carpeted floor under a pair of small hands pounding his breast as a female voice counted aloud. He opened his eyes. A male face loomed over him, so close that all he could see were stubby black mustache hairs sprouting from the pores of an upper lip and the rose-pink flesh of the mouth. The man was pinching Leon’s nostrils shut, about to give him the kiss of life.
Leon felt a grunt of exhaust wheeze from him as if a knee had pressed into his rib cage. He sucked desperately to get breath into his chest. Every cell right out to his skin lit up, an instantaneous electric surge through flesh and bone.
The owner of the rosy lips fell backward onto the floor, muttering, “Jesus fucking Christ.”
The firm’s first-aid officer, the woman who had been pumping his chest, shot out a laugh.
“My god, he’s back.” The armpits of her green cotton blouse were dark with damp. Clear snot trailed from her nose to her lip. “Leon? Leon?”
He moaned and rolled his eyes toward her, still unable to speak, and she laughed harder, as though the laughing was an expulsion of something trapped inside. She wiped her nose on her sleeve, rubbed her hands down her skirt and rocked back on her heels, staring at the ceiling, laughing that seesaw braying laugh Leon had never heard from her before. His head lolled to the other side, and he saw his work colleague, the one who had been breathing spent air into his body, kneeling with head bowed as if in prayer.
He had died and been brought back to life in an office. He remembered a phrase: Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful.
“The ambulance is on its way, mate.” Leon’s colleague punched himself in the chest, a frantic gesture of relief. “Jesus, you gave us a fright. Fuck.”
The next month he died again. Seven months later, again. Each time less mighty, less dreadful: his deaths were becoming modern and mean. Life tethered to the medical industry had begun. In a year’s time, when his ailing heart muscle had given out, they transplanted a new heart inside him, a heart removed from a healthy young woman whose brain had been unwired by a fall onto concrete. After an uneasy truce, his recalcitrant body began its assault on the invading organ. No quantity of immunosuppressants would convince his body to make peace with the muscular pump that could save it. His body and the heart battled on together in their bad marriage until he could barely walk.
By then he was living with his mother in the country. His sister traveled up from the city with her two children. The boy, his nephew, barreled out to the backyard and began tearing
around the garden. The cat had bolted as soon as he arrived. Leon’s five-year-old niece came and sat next to him while his sister perched on the arm of the couch, her legs twined, hands resting in her lap.
“So how are you, Leon? Mum says you’re improving a little.”
He stared at her, amazed. “I’m dying, Sue.”
“Oh, Leon, always the pessimist. Let me get a cup of tea first, then we can chat.”
Once she had gone into the kitchen, his niece lifted her wide eyes to him.
“Are you really dying?”
“Where will you go when you die?”
He guessed it must be time to think about that. He didn’t believe in heaven and choirs of angels, or a sulfurous hell with eternal punishment. He didn’t believe he would be reborn into another body. He was perfectly confident in what he did not believe and unable to fill the resulting void with any positive belief. Which left nothing.
“I think I stop being. I won’t be here anymore but I’m not sure I go anywhere.”
She lowered her gaze and played with the hem of her dress. He was sorry to disappoint her.
“Maybe I’ll go to heaven.” That was what people did to children. They told comforting lies. His mother had told him the same thing, except he had never believed her. She had described it in the same singsong voice the third-grade teacher used to recite the times tables, as if something repeated enough times must surely be true.
“It’s okay if you don’t go anywhere,” she said. “It’s only that I wanted to visit you.”
Two weeks later he was bedridden, unable to eat, breathing with the labored effort of an aged man. The hospital still had no suitable donor. They rushed him in, implanted a pump beside his failing heart to keep him alive and sent him home again to wait and hope for a new heart.
It seemed there was an epidemic of heart disease. The waiting list was longer than ever. Leon had drifted to the bottom because this was to be his second heart. His body had already rejected one. New kinds of hearts were being grown in laboratories and artificial hearts that could last thirty years were at trial stage but not close enough. Preparing to die was his most logical course of action.
Until the call came.
He had to choose. One choice was risk, it was illegal, it was madness. His other choice was waiting for an impossible donation while he was being eaten up with fear and rage. And then dying anyway.