Mike glanced in the mirror, then just as quickly averted his eyes. It wasn't a pretty sight and hadn't been for some time. He looked like an overfilled sack of potatoes, filled with unsightly bulges in random and unexpected places, complete with one particularly large one that had gone to seed sitting on top.
He knew he looked a mess, and it wasn't that he didn't care. It was just that he was too far gone, his energy and enthusiasm for life drained away by too many long, hard years. He scratched his stubbly chin – three days coarse growth, turned patchy grey with the encroachment of age – and waddled out of the bathroom.
It hadn't always been like this. There had been a time when he was younger, happier, when life was good. Then he'd lost his job. Days, weeks, months of searching yielded nothing in a market where every business was shedding excess, too concerned about their profits to consider the human factor.
The constant rejection wore away at his spirit, eroding it until there was little left. His wife, despairing of the changes in him, sought comfort elsewhere, eventually leaving him and their children. That at least gave him a reason to struggle on, at least entitled him to a carers allowance from the government.
Life with young kids became a million little crises, each one demanding his immediate attention, each one lasting no more than a few seconds, fragmenting his mind just a little more, until the diaper days were gone and the children grown enough to look after themselves. For a while the daily disasters became fewer but bigger, then suddenly they were gone, both the problems and the kids, living their own lives now, as they should, leaving him with the freedom to get on with his.
The days had taken their toll though. Long years of comfort eating, of collapsing, exhausted, in front of the TV, of staying nearby in case he was needed. Now all that was left was the emptiness of the house, echoing the emptiness of his life, and this amorphous lump he had become.
The aloneness was the hardest. Whenever, wherever he went he was surrounded by people chatting happily, enjoying their lives. Ignoring his. In the end it became easier to stay at home. At least there he could pretend the reason he was alone was because there was no-one else there, not that people were avoiding him. The TV made its noises in the corner, a semblance of company, and he thought about ending everything. But what if that was what hell was? What if the worst thing possible after death were to be alone for all time, with no way out?
There was a knock at the front door. Probably someone trying to sell something, as if he had money enough to buy. He heaved himself out of his chair and shambled over to see who was there.
“Hi, my name's Nick. I just moved in a couple of doors down. I was thinking I could use some company, and I wondered if you might too. I brought lasagne.” He held up a ceramic baking dish.
Mike was struck dumb. His first thought was to wonder what the catch was, but then even if this guy was running some kind of a scam, he had nothing of value to steal. He stood back and invited the younger man in.
He watched as his guest bustled about in the kitchen, figuring out how to turn on the oven to heat the meal through, asking where the “cuts and crocks” where – the cutlery and crockery – chatting about inconsequentialities, how he had managed to land a job at the local 7-11, how there might still be an opening or two. Mike looked on nonplussed until curiosity overwhelmed caution.
“Why... why are you doing this?”
Nick looked up and shrugged.
“You'll probably think I'm nuts.”
“I already do.”
“It's just that I've gotten to believing that heaven's going to be about living in and out of each other's lives, sharing each other's experiences, joys and sorrows, loves and laughter. I figured it would be good to get in a little practise.”
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