Sitting in the campervan staring at the sea she no longer gets in because Ned isn’t with her, Ava feels a throbbing in her lip at the same time as a faint ticking starts up inside her head. She pulls the rear-view mirror round to look and there’s a miniature grandfather clock embedded in her bottom lip. Tiny hands whir around a clock face covered in what look like hieroglyphics. The veneer on the wooden body shines like lip gloss.
When the hands stop on one of the images, a chime rings out three times inside her head. Then the hands move to another image and the clock bongs again. It just keeps going. Her lip throbs and the tick clicks time inside her head. Ava grabs her phone and snaps a close-up picture of the clock. She needs to see what these images are.
Zooming in on the photo, Ava gulps. The hieroglyphics are elements of her life. Surfing, the van, her books. And Ned. A tiny replica of his face. Ned. Alive but not, trapped in that hospital bed.
The final hieroglyph is a blank gravestone.
Ava returns to the mirror. The clock hands stop on the van, the surfboard, the books, Ned, then the gravestone. Each time, three chimes ring out. Again, again, and again.
What does it mean? She has no clue. But she has to go and see Ned right now. Even though she swore she would stop going so often because she needs a break from the pain of dwindling hope. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t know she’s there.
Nothing has changed in the room she last visited three days ago. Ned still lies motionless, as he has done for the past four months, with tubes and leads connecting him to drips and machines.
Sitting in the chair at his bedside, Ava picks up Ned’s hand and rubs it on her cheek. ‘Ned. Can you hear me?’
He doesn’t respond.
When she takes his index finger and rubs it on the clock in her lip, the ticking, throbbing and chiming speed up. The gravestone. What does it mean? Is it that she has to let him go? Stop the machines. Stop pretending that Ned lying here like this is a life.
Laying his hand back down, Ava drops her forehead onto his shoulder. Listens to the beeps and drips, the ticks and chimes, Ned’s shallow breaths.
Ned can breathe.
The drip is just feeding him and hydrating him. The machines are just monitoring him.
After gently removing the drip needle from Ned’s arm, Ava yanks all the other leads away from him and throws them to the floor. She hefts him into a wheelchair while the machines beep and wail an electronic lament. Ava walks fast down the corridor to the exit. A nurse runs behind, calling for Ava to stop, telling her that she can’t do this. But she can.
Laying Ned on the bed in the van where they have lain together so many times before, Ava wedges him in with all the pillows and cushions. Drives slowly and carefully back to the beach where they used to surf together every day.
She wheels Ned onto the sand and the clock hands in her lip whirr around and around and around, faster and faster and faster.
As the wheelchair enters the water and it laps over Ned’s toes, Ava is sure a sound comes from his lips. She peers over at him but his eyes are closed, his face completely still.
The water is up to the seat of the wheelchair now. Ned’s waist now. If this really is his end, she wants to say a proper goodbye.
As a wave washes high on Ned’s chest and splashes his face, she wades round to the front of the chair.
She grabs his hands, and he opens his eyes. His beautiful eyes that she hasn’t seen for so long. ‘Ned?”
He stares at her. Heaves in a huge breath, and then another and another. Blinks. ‘Ava.’ He croaks out.
‘Yes, Ned. It’s me. And you. It’s you.’
A big wave shoves Ava’s back then breaks over Ned’s face. He splutters and shakes his head, smiles. Laughs.
Ava whoops. ‘Hold on, Ned. Hold on.’
She drags the chair back onto the beach then sits on Ned’s lap, smiling through her sobs as his arms creep round her waist and the clock in her lip stills before fading away.
Amanda Saint is the author of two novels, As If I Were A River (2016) and Remember Tomorrow (2019). Her short fictions have been widely published and placed and listed in lots of international prizes. Amanda founded and runs Retreat West, providing an online writing community, competitions and courses; and the award-winning Retreat West Books indie press, which publishes short fictions, novels and memoirs.