Heston woke with a stiff crick in his neck at seven am. His bed sheets were strewn around him like a poorly made Toga. They were bunched close to his head by his ear, the way a baby cuddles a blanket in their sleep and it had completely missed his groin. He straightened up, leaning himself against the bedstead and pulling the cloth tight around his legs. His feet poked out the end.
He yawned, massaged his neck and drew his mind back to the night before. He smiled. Release was sweet. All that pent up aggravation suddenly and wonderfully dispelled on a woman dressed in a blood-red leotard, black pantyhose, sequined top hat and whip that she gripped with an iron fist.
It had been good. Painfully good. And cheap too, though Heston didn’t doubt she could live off his tips alone for a while yet. He wasn’t the kind of man to dish out his money without a second thought. Especially for services he could get for free; like a car wash. Even more so to women. But he saw it as a good will gesture; something to end his time here in Coby. He’d had enough; three years too long. It was time to move on. And he could rest assured that his last night had been well-spent.
His hotel apartment was already well-packed. He hadn’t culminated much over the years; a few books he could leave behind, a map of the state that he’d been given when he first arrived since the internet wouldn’t kick in for a few days, a bottle of champagne he’d polished off a few weeks ago, a television program, a few plates, bowls and mugs, a toothbrush and a plant from his neighbour that was dead in the sun on the balcony.
He hadn’t intended to stay the night here last night. Checking out in the night seemed an easier way to figure out where he was going next. Then there wouldn’t have been the bustling commotion he could now hear on the street below. Cars blasting horns, rubber tyres struggling to grip the road, the ringing of pedestrian crossing signals at the traffic lights. He was fifteen floors up.
Heston rubbed his temples. He chased away the thoughts of last night and took himself to the bathroom. He admired himself in the medicine cabinet. His reflection with the pure white of the overhead light made everything seem divine; Heavenly.
He smoothed out the wisps of hair on his chest. They were no longer fresh like the cotton soft hair of a growing boy. They were hard and firm, coarse and spidery. But he had known them such a long time that the touch to him was as silky to him as it ever had been. He traced a line with his thumb over his ribs, where the latter repairs of a series of greeny-purple bruises were healing. Bite marks. He could just tell where the imprints from the teeth were. He smiled. Bloody good night. What a bloody good night.
Heston was checked out of the hotel by eight thirty. It hadn’t taken him long to pack-up his computer and stuff it in his briefcase, take advantage of the freshly laid breakfast buffet, save a few things for lunch and hand in his key.
There was no nostalgia as he left through the revolving doors. He tended not to look back on these things.
The rush as he walked onto the street was stifling. People were floating everywhere. Men with coffee cups in one hand, briefcases in the other and a cell sandwiched between their ear and shoulder. Women with heels that clanked on the pavement like metronomes. Shop owners setting out seating areas in the centre of the street. The sickly smell of cinnamon pretzels wafting in the air. Papers flapping in the breeze. Bags swinging. Birds cawing. Babies crying.
Left, Heston thought. Just go left.
He began to wind his way through the streets trying to locate the ones that didn’t seem to be public throughways. If they showed a general direction, they were all equally as busy. The ones that weren’t were dead ends down grimy back alleys where used cooking grease was poured into the gutter.
He chose Samurai street and stuck to it.
Heston walked the seven blocks to Mezzo Cafe in relative calm. Were it not for the coffee stain down the front of his shirt, he would have made it to the coffeehouse completely unabashed.
He berated a passerby at the entrance who was feeding croissants, dimly, to some pigeons from his cupped hand.
As he swung open the door, a friendly ring caught him and the one set of eyes belonging to a sickly thin, blonde-haired girl stared at him. She balanced a baby on her knee and in between feeding and burping it, she found time to eat a warm bagel filled with lumpy soured cream and slurp drags of a cappuccino.
"John!" The man behind the counter exclaimed throwing his arms above his head. He was holding a thin brown envelope in one hand. It was about A4 size and, much to Heston's pleasure, was still sealed.
"Benny," Heston nodded and took the envelope from his hand. He slipped through Benny's attempt at a hug and ordered a cafe latte and double espresso on the side. He asked if the waiter could bring it to him.
He sought an isolated booth away from the windows, the kitchens and any company at all. The waiter just about found him and walked over with a shaking tray of coffees.
He put them down at Heston's table, brushing his envelope aside. Heston caught it defensively and tucked it into the inner pocket of his blazer.
Heston gave a brief smile. He realised it most probably wasn’t normal to order so much caffeine but Heston was irritated by the man and his overly inquisitive presence.
"Anything else, sir?"
Heston declined and picked four brown sugars from the pot. He teased the packets open and added three to the latte. He picked up his espresso and knocked it back like a shot. He grimaced. One sugar wasn't enough. He pulled the latte close, grasped the handle and nursed the milky liquid.
Satisfied that the sharp taste had been sufficiently removed from his tongue, he pulled out the envelope. He slid his finger under the flap and separated the paper from the glue with ease.
He pulled out two thick sheets of paper and a medium sized white envelope. The envelope was printed with several credentials: owner of the information disclosed, name of signee, signature, printed initials. He filled the first out immediately.
He paused on the second, pressing the nib of his pen to his lips then laid it down. He took a sip from his coffee and reclined in his chair. He looked over to the scrawny blonde girl. She pushed some fallen hair behind her ear and weaned the baby off the bottle she'd been feeding him. She leaned forward to take a bite of her bagel at the second the baby decided to relieve itself. It guzzled milky froth all over her and her breakfast, streaming down the sides of her jeans.
Heston winced. This was why he didn't have children. She blushed a deep scarlet in her cheeks and began mopping the mess.
Heston straightened and let go of his coffee on the table. He pulled the envelope close and clicked the pen on his breast pocket.
Rosie, he filled in the second gap. Rosie Cheeks.
He watched her rub her hands on her trousers and pop a chewing gum from its packet into her mouth. He’d seen enough.
He printed her initials on the final line and made an illegible scribble that could just pass as a signature. Over the rest of his coffee he filled in the two questionnaires and then sealed them in the medium white envelope. He put the envelope back in the original brown packaging envelope and wrote the address of the embassy on it.
He sipped down to the dregs of his cup then went for the door. But as he stretched out for the handle, he doubled back.
"Benny, I'll be out of town for a few days."
He brushed the back of his head with his hand, immediately wishing that he hadn’t said anything. The lump at the nape of his neck was unrelenting. It was as thick and hard as ever.
"Ah right. Where'll you be?" Called Benny as Heston turned on his heels and pulled on the brass handle. The bell above the door frame sounded again as it had on his arrival.
"Just ... out."
Heston closed the door with the envelope tucked under his arm. He felt a pang of hurt. Benny had been good to him these past years; providing endless cups of coffee, discounting on-the-house deals but most importantly being the one to take the most important of his mail. This one had been the most important on yet - and the last.
He slipped the completed envelope into the first mailbox he saw with the knowledge that it'd be with the embassy and filed within forty eight hours.
Heston made his way to the newsagents a couple of streets up. He had asked for a pen and scrap of paper. He scrawled a note on it:
John Dumfries. Loving brother, neighbour and friend.
He paused. He had never been called 'loving' in his life and for him to say it of himself was a bit of an injustice.
He kept it nevertheless and finished:
Passed away peacefully.
He handed it back to the newsagent directing them to publish it two days from now. The newsagent pulled her glasses from the bridge of her nose and toyed with them in her hand. Her expression was pained and she leant her hand across the table top to grab Heston's but he backed away and made his way back onto the street.
He hailed a cab and sent it to Jacksonville International Airport. He sat in silence in one of the back passenger seats where he watched the town houses change to roving fields and endless towers of city blocks.
To anyone else, the pixelated list of internal flights across the US would seem endless. But, there were very few states Heston hadn't visited which made the decision of packing between a select few even harder than choosing the first one to go to. What was the logical next state?
He walked up to the queue for the ticket counter. He hadn't made up his mind. A split second decision under pressure would be as good as any laborious process of selection.
He wheeled a small hand case and his bag, which contained his laptop, to a curvy lady in a sea green skirt and blazer combination with a navy blue shirt and matching neck tie. Her hair was ground in a stiff bun on the top of her head and her eyes had elegant waves of black liner dashed on the lids.
"Oh hi, Sir!" She welcomed as he drew up to her. Heston was surprised at her jolly lack of formality and general bounciness. By anyone's judgement, it was still morning.
"Can I get your destination please?"
Heston heard her words lag in his head.
"Um, Ohio. I'm going to Ohio."
She typed it into her computer all-the-whole commenting on how beautiful the state was and how one day she would like to visit herself. Heaton tapped impatiently on the counter, drumming his finger with irregularity.
She took his bags, tagged them and sent them on the transferral belt.
"Now you'll just feel a slight scratch."
Heston put the back of his hand out to her and she drew the fluid into a new syringe.
Heston had seen aeroplane travel revolutionise. When he was a child, 'self-check in' was still a relative novelty. Now, travelling by plane was a state-of-the-art system for tracking movement across the globe through liquid microchips embedded under the skin.
The sharp nib sunk under Heston’s skin with ease. Each new layer of skin had become used to his frequent travel and had grown back weak because of it.
"Well, you're all set. Enjoy your vacation, Sir!"
Heston thanked her. Some vacation, he thought.
Heston sat in First class and rubbed the base of his head where he circled the lump. He thought of everywhere he'd been. And the very few places he could yet go.
This regeneration business could be a real hassle sometimes. But did he really have an alternative? If you were immortal, the only solution was to be mortal. And life’s end was so cruel.
Heston cast his mind back to his first ever funeral: his mother's. He had been petrified. When he saw the dark confinement; a pit where she would rot in the white slim-line body con dress, pearl bracelet and gold eternity necklace and be, one day, uncovered at the end of the world like the corpse bride, he ran. He ran as though he could run away from death itself when all along he should have known how much closer he was getting with every pounding step.
If he'd have known then that he'd have to die a few times over in the course of his lifetime just to keep living, he probably would have run another mile.
Heston made a mental note: John Dumfries was now dead now - as of touch down in Ohio. Heston’s public identity now resided in Jack Spires. For a few more years anyway.