Is it possible to look into the eyes at the moment of death and understand what comes next?
It seemed like an absurd superstition, but it was the notion that kept Michelangelo standing frozen in the doorway, staring in trepidation at his sleeping father. By one wall was a twin-sized air mattress, newly made with old sheets and blankets. More than anything, Mike did not want to get in that bed. There was no room for anyone else in a small bed like that. Once he was in the bed, he'd be alone.
"You'll be up a lot," Leo said from behind him. "If you're not getting any sleep, come get me or Don and we'll take over."
Mike turned to look quizzically at him. "Raph?"
Leo shook his head. "Not Raph. He's having a hard enough time."
Mike swallowed hard. And I'm not? He did understand, to a degree, why Raphael was the one getting special treatment. Raph's emotions raged as much as Michelangelo's, but even after years of spiritual growth, Raph could only swallow his negativity. It was much harder for him to overcome it than it was for Michelangelo. It had always been that way. Nevertheless, even though he knew it was no easier for his brothers than it was for him, Mike would have liked to be the one who was treated with kid gloves for once.
Raising his eyes to Leo's, he saw there a grim trust. Behind his brother, Don and Raph were talking quietly on the couch. They all figured—believed, even—that Michelangelo could handle this without wimping out or screwing up.
I KNOW! I'm totally psyched! They picked up the whole series!
You're putting the family at risk for a fucking comic book?
Mike's choice of career had raised some controversy. Leo thought it was too public. Don thought it was a sign of hope. Raph had been gruffly proud. Splinter had been reserved. Mike had been vastly disappointed. It seemed that whenever he excelled, his family expected him to do exactly the wrong things with it. After the Battle Nexus tournament, they'd withheld praise because they believed he would boast endlessly—which he did, to be sure. After he'd been published, they were afraid he'd expose himself and the rest of them with him. For once, they were expecting him to do the right thing, and still he stood, weak-kneed and choking on the knot in his throat.
"How do you keep going?" he whispered to Leo.
Leo's exhausted face was grave. "Just get to the next moment."
Tears sprang into Mike's eyes, but he tightened his jaw and nodded. As he walked to the air mattress, it felt like there were weights attached to his feet. Stiffly, he bent over and crawled into bed, gingerly pulling the covers over himself, knowing as he did so that he was only going through the act of getting ready to sleep. How he was going to actually sleep was beyond him.
Instead of leaving, Leo sunk into a chair nearby and leafed through one of Splinter's old books. Mike nearly sprang out of bed again when Splinter's breath suddenly rattled and stopped, but a motion from Leo halted him.
"It's the way he's sleeping," Leo whispered. "His tongue gets stuck in his throat. He'll wake up just enough to start breathing again. It happens all the time."
Leo's prophecy came true seconds later, when Splinter shifted slightly, closed his mouth, and swallowed. Then his mouth dropped open again, and he began to snore. After a moment, Mike relaxed back onto the mattress, watching his father. The spike of anxiety was still ebbing.
It could be in the next week, or in the next breath he takes.
"I don't think it'll be tonight," whispered Leo.
Mike felt his muscles unwind in Leo's reassuring presence. It's just Master Splinter. His eyes drifted closed.
Mike shot out of the bed, heavy with sleep. Leo was no longer in the room, and the lights singing from the living room had gone out. Splinter's eyes were open and fixated on him. Michelangelo stumbled toward his father, blinking his lead-lined eyelids. "Yeah? Whaddyou need?"
"Wadder," Splinter said hoarsely.
Michelangelo grabbed the glass of water with half-melted ice and held the straw to Splinter's lips, which locked around the straw and began to pull frantically at the water. Mike watched him, his focus intensifying until he saw ghostly haloes haunting the lines of his father's face. This isn't scary. This is just taking care of my dad. It's not such a hard choice. It's not even a choice. It's more like a part of my body, built into a place I never knew existed.
In that same place, he found his own hidden reserves of strength. They rose like helium balloons as he watched his father. Nothing to be scared of. Splinter made a face of distaste and spit the straw out gently.
"Ice," he croaked.
The request may as well have been a spell, lifting Mike to his feet and making him scramble for the kitchen. He returned with ice stacked high in the cup and quickly sat at the chair by Splinter's bed, offering the straw again. Splinter had nearly drifted off again in the meantime, but his eyes opened wide when he saw the cup. This time, he nursed the straw with a look of relief. After several swallows, he sat back against the reclined bed with a sigh of satisfaction. Mike set the cup back down on the night stand.
Seeing his father shift restlessly, Mike placed a hand on his shoulder. "You need me to move you?"
Splinter hesitated, then nodded. Almost shaking with eagerness, Mike snatched a thin pillow from a pile on the floor. "Which way, right or left?"
The rat appeared to consider this, eyes squinting slightly, then he pointed to his right. Mike pushed his fingers gently under his father's left side and lifted him, turning him as carefully as possible. Splinter gripped the edge of the bed to stay propped that way until Mike finished shoving the pillow underneath his exposed side. Then the rat relaxed back onto his back, the pillow wedged under his left side turning him slightly to his right. It was less than a second before he was squirming again with discomfort and grasping at the pillow, trying to pull it out from under him. Alarmed, Mike removed the pillow and Splinter sank back into the mattress, obviously relieved.
Mike wet his lips. He didn't like trying to tell his father what to do, but if they didn't turn him frequently, he would get bed sores. Leo had shown him pictures. It was horrifying. "Um. You feel like you're getting sore anywhere?"
Splinter met his eyes and gave him a weak smile and a shake of his head. "No. I am fine."
It was the clearest he'd spoken since Mike arrived. Mike could have cried again. "Anything else I can get for you?"
Another shake of the head. "No. You must rest."
How typical of Splinter. Here he was on his deathbed, and he wanted to make sure his young, energetic son got enough sleep. Mike swallowed, suddenly no longer the least bit tired. He wanted to sit up with his father, to be at his beck and call without the wall of sleep separating them. For years, you stayed up with me when I was sick. It's my turn now.
Splinter's eyelids drooped, but lifted again, and Mike could feel a gentle pressure, an urgent plea from his father's eyes. It finally came to him—if he was truly going to do whatever his father wanted, he would have to go back to sleep. Splinter was worried about him, and the last thing that should be on a dying man's mind is worry. Returning his father's weak smile, he peeled himself away from the side of the bed and sank back onto the air mattress. Sleep took him more quickly than he realized it could.
It almost hurt to wake up, but Mike ignored it as he yanked himself out of bed. After Splinter swallowed less water than Mike hoped he would, they both sank back into sleep.
This time, Mike woke to find himself still sitting in the chair by Splinter's bed, head resting on his folded arms on the side of the bed. After a few sips of water, Splinter eased back against his pillows and reached blindly for his son. Mike caught his hand and ran his thumb over it gently, hoping his father would be reassured by his touch. The rat's eyes rose to connect with his.
With another weak smile, Splinter spoke. "You should not w'rry f'r me," he slurred.
Mike bit his lower lip for a moment, not sure if he should ask what was on his mind, afraid of getting the response he dreaded. "Are you scared?" he blurted out.
Splinter shook his head. Of course Splinter would shake his head. Splinter wouldn't want Mike to know how fear tore at him in these last days of his life. He would want to reassure him. "Why shoul' I be afraid?" he murmured soothingly. "I will return to my master."
Unable to keep himself from crying, Mike turned away quickly. The hand in his tightened.
"I will look after you there, my son."
Mike's eyes slid closed, knocking tears onto his cheeks. One slid all the way down and dropped to the floor. How do you know that's where you're going? How do you know you're going anywhere? The mere thought of his father not existing sickened him beyond words, but he couldn't use Splinter's blind belief as a crutch, either. If I looked into your eyes the moment you died, would I be able to see where you went? Could I experience that death with you, so I could know what it's like? Would I find answers, or would you disappear without a trace?
"I should've stayed home," he croaked through his tears.
"No," answered the voice of the rat. "I am proud of who you have become. I am sorry I did not read your books."
Mike had suspected Splinter hadn't read Real Heroes, but had secretly been hoping otherwise. Now it was confirmed. He forced a grin, as if the notion that it bothered him was ridiculous. "It's okay. It's not for everyone."
"Like Confucius," Splinter said with an ironic smile.
Now Mike gave a genuine laugh. He had never, even at his father's sternest orders, picked up Splinter's dry Japanese manuscript on Confucianism. Oh Sensei, you funny, funny guy, you got me.