A/N: This one is exceptionally heavy and depressing. Do not read it if you're feeling down. I don't generally post warnings on stuff, but because of the subject matter here it feels appropriate.
This is dedicated to Pete, who deserves better than nonbeing.
The engine purrs, soft and low, a carburated lullaby. Its sound fills the garage, pooling around storage crates, empty shelves, and tools that have never been touched. In the front seat of the Lexus sits a man in his late thirties. The bald spot compliments his pressed business suit. Carefully, his fingers manipulate the buttons that roll down the windows and recline his seat.
"Might as well be comfortable," he tells nobody in particular. He wishes he had a cigarette, but he gave up that habit years ago. Small price to pay for Annette Peters.
He laughs a little to himself, coughing on the last few inhales. God, but she was a wonder. Perfect form—slim, but could still fill a sweater. Perfect eyes (chipped fresh from a glacier.) And perfect disposition. In another couple of years, after her beauty had started to fade, he would've considered having kids with her.
He wonders what drove her away, after ten years of sweetness and quiet. He had bought her things. A car, clothes, bits of sparkling stone. In every other marriage he knew, those had been the foundation on which happiness rested. The firm-sure bedrock of mutual need. We can provide for each other was monogrammed on the spirit of every handbag. Every bracelet and ring.
Frustrated, he punches the door, hand cracking off the plastic, but he quickly regains his composure. He doesn't want to die frustrated. He wants to die at peace. Alone, in the vastness of his house, with only the murmur of simple molecules to witness his failure.
For a brief, terrifying second, he imagines what it will be like for the police to find his body. Flesh gone sallow and shrunk. Fingers rigid enough to snap. Bowels voided over expensive fabric. He shudders, and sucks in deep breaths of poison to calm himself.
He's starting to go a little light-headed now. Bits of bright are dancing on the edges of his vision, and it's no longer as easy to move. It's a little like being drunk. He tries to sit up in his chair, just for the hell of it, and finds that he can't. His fingers are ever so slightly numb.
"Can I help you?"
The voice throws a tremor through his being and he practically convulses, swiveling to look for its owner. Nightmare fantasies flit through his brain. Being discovered. The car being turned off. Men in brusque scrubs wheeling him out into the light for callous creatures to point and stare at. Living on as a failure. There would be support groups, and meaningful talks, and another forty years of misery.
"You can just think of me as a figment, if you'd like." The speaker walks into view, shoes moving noiselessly over the concrete. He (or she) is perfectly nondescript. Beige slacks, a white shirt, hair that is neither short nor long. "I just wanted to know if there was anything I could do to ease your passing. Make you less afraid."
The man in the car grits his teeth. "You could get out of here. Close the door on your way out. It's dangerous to breathe this stuff in, you know." Irony dances just outside his reach.
"I have no intention of going anywhere." When the stranger replies, his (her?) lips barely seem to move at all. "And the door is closed. A few stray fumes aren't going to hurt me."
"So, you're a full-blown hallucination, then? Something a few jackass neurons cooked up?"
"Would you prefer something else? Tunnels, lights, ancestors whose graves you've never visited?"
"No. This is fine."
They regard each other in silence for a few minutes, listening to the rhythm of the motor. It's the man in the car who finally speaks. "What's death like?"
The stranger shrugs his (her) shoulders and holds his (her) hands palm-up, professing ignorance. "I've never been on the other side. Couldn't tell you what it was like, even if I had. I can tell you what it's not, though."
"It's not noisy. Or hungry. Or violent. Or sick. It doesn't cough and sneeze and hurt and leak when you prick it or just when it feels like it. It doesn't get cold. It's never inflamed.
Picture yourself floating in a pool. Now take away the water. Now take away the pool. This is almost death.
When you think you're ready, take away yourself."
The man in the car sighs. His heartbeat slows, and his eyes flicker closed. He's not dead yet, and he won't be for a while, but his thoughts are splintering into dissonance. There's nothing more to do here.
The stranger sniffs delicately as he leaves the house. It's a wonderful property; a kind of castle of upper suburbia. The lawn in neatly manicured, and the driveway winds away down an elegant hill. There are shrubs and flowering plants, and when he finally steps off the asphalt into the open door of a hearse, he's a little sad to see it go.
But not too sad, of course. The man with the expensive car had never even asked his name.
"It's Grim," he explains to the drifter, warming his hands over an imaginary fire. They're both curled up around a sewer grate, which is issuing bilious gouts of steam out into the November around them. Vapor is freezing to the homeless man's fingers and clothes.
He squeezes them and winces. "Not that it's any business of mine, Grim, but you shouldn't be out here. Cat like you needs a doorstep to curl up on. An all-night kitchen to crash at."
"I don't think you should be worried about me."
"Is that so?" The homeless man blows on his hands, not doing much more than pushing the cold around. "If god and mama winter see fit to take me tonight, who am I to tell 'em no? Thirty years is a long time to be sleeping on sidewalks." He laughs, low and percussive, like someone beating on a broken drum. "You spend a little longer out here, you'll get to wishing for it too."
Grim shrugs, horizontally. "I'm older than you might think."
"How old is that?"
"Have you heard of the Phoenicians?"
"They those Greeks who were always carrying spears, kicking men off cliffs?"
"Close enough. They had hobos, too."
The other man shifts, moving his hands to his armpits. His features are white and pinched. "Well, shit. Don't the whole world?"
"Everywhere I've been."
The drifter chuckles again. "I can count on one hand the places I've been. This block, that block over there, the McDonalds up on West Plain..." He follows every item with a bob of his head, ticking off imaginary fingers through the mist. "What about you? You some kinda globetrotter?"
"The city's always been my home."
"That's true enough." The drifter chafes his arms against his sides, realizes it isn't doing much good, and cusses softly. The air is a blanket of needles, pricking through clothes and skin to breathe cold deep into his flesh. Soon he's tattooed with patterns in numbness. "You got relatives, Grim? Someone who'd care enough to take you in?"
"You're not trying to save me, are you?"
"Hell no." Even if it shakes a little, the man's voice is emphatic. "That's your decision to make, and I ain't got no right to intrude on it."
"What about you? Do you have family?"
"Never. I was born out of a streetlamp. Raised by a stop sign. Nursed by pigeons." He shivers convulsively. "Listen, you really should get to going. Temperature's only going to drop faster now that it's dark. There's a YMCA five blocks north. Maybe they'll let you in. I've never tried. Got the only creature comfort I need right here." Freeing one arm, he digs in his pants for a minute before coming up with a little airplane bottle of whiskey.
Grim traces an exposed finger over the sewer grate. It isn't even warm. "I'm not going away. Got something I need to do."
"Kid, I'm gonna let you in on a secret." The cap pops off the bottle. Its contents vanish. "I'm going to die. Couldn't bring myself to do it with drain-o or bleach, but drifting on a sea of alcoholic fog until Jesus takes me? That sounds about my speed." Another bottle, chipped and half-full, emerges from a pocket. Sallow eyes dare anyone to object.
Grim sits up, legs folding underneath. "I already know that. That's why I'm here. To tell you that everything's going to be okay. That it really is as painless as it sounds.
I've been to Sumer too, by the way. And Abydos. And Crete."
She's never been to Venice. That's one of her biggest regrets. It surfaces while she's staring at the prescription bottle, waiting for the pills to take effect.
Benzodiazepine. She reads the label a couple of times, rolling the sounds around in her mouth but never voicing them. She likes to keep her little apartment quiet. In an hour or so, this will be easier than it ever has been before.
Benzodiazepine. It sounds like some sort of mythical creature. Roots of a tree. Body of a tiger. Quills of a small, spiny mammal. Maybe it used to roam around the wilds of Venice.
And there she is again, come full circle to the Adriatic. Feet deep in the spongy marsh, fingers threading through the waters of the canale. In her mind they sparkle, even though she knows this can't be the case. Despite modern plumbing working its dingy miracles, there's no way a city of that size could keep its water sources pure. The Venice in her head is perfect, sun-brushed and sacred. No reality could live up to it.
But she doesn't care, she finds. She still wishes that she'd had the time, or the money, or the courage to go.
It's a little late for any of those now. She lets go of the bottle, rolling it across the coffee table. It doesn't quite make it to the edge, but the whirring sound of plastic on wood comforts her a little. Like a top, dancing in the face of gravity. Even the most insignificant things matter now. They're all she has left.
She flips open her phone and finds that it's only been a couple of minutes. The pills are hitting her stomach, stirring in the acid, beginning to dissolve. Soon they will be whispering pharmaceutical clouds invading her bloodstream. Holding her breathe for her while she falls asleep. But they haven't gotten there yet. She gets up off the couch and goes to make tea.
The kitchenette is compact but clean. All its surfaces have been polished, and all the pans and mixes and spices have been packed away into cupboards and tins. Her boyfriend sometimes complains about this. Says it's not properly 'lived in.' She fishes a kettle out from underneath the stove and a bag of chamomile off the top of the refrigerator and begins boiling water.
She's just getting around to combining the two in a big clay mug when someone raps on the door.
Water spills, hissing on her skin, and she yelps. The kettle slams into the sink and her mug sloshes, half-full, teetering on the counter-top. She freezes, sticks her fingers in her mouth, and waits. The knock sounds again, and then a casually dressed woman (or possibly a man) steps through the front door.
And ducks the mug, which smashes on the wall.
"It might reassure you a little to know that I'm not actually here." The wo(man) dusts herself off, patting at nondescript pants and a plain shirt. "And I'm not going to try and talk you out of anything, either."
Sensations flicker unseen in the air. Rippling cries of gondoliers as they pass invisible below the streets. Arcading on the Palazzo Ducale, bracing the upper floors as they stretch outwards into the summer air. The softness of sound and shadow underneath the Bridge of Sighs. Salt water, dappled by rain. She takes a breath. "What are you?"
"Think of me as a midwife, only I deliver you out of the world." Grim sits down on the sofa, propping her legs up on the coffee table. "Is there anything still bothering you about your death? You have a few minutes left. We can talk things over."
Venice. Venice. Venice. "No. There's nothing bothering me." Somewhere distant, imaginary seabirds cry. "Will I miss living?"
"Not at all. There won't even be a you to feel the loss."
Cobblestones underfoot. Espresso on the tongue. Amaretto on the lips. "And will anyone miss me?" Kissing Jason amidst the pigeons.
"There won't be a you to miss."
Outside the building, someone leans on their horn. It blares, loud and crass, through the night. "Well, that's something, then. Isn't it?"
"It's all you could possibly need."
She pictures the Piazza San Marco, then, holding it in her head until pharmacokinesis switches off the lights.
He keeps the room dark. It just feels appropriate. This ought to be private, with nothing but him and the running bath.
He tests the blade on his wrist. It's a safety knife with an unkind edge, a loaner from his job at the grocery down the street. They won't want it back afterward. He's technically guilty of ruining company property.
Add it to the list, he thinks.
The tub is half-filled when he slips in, taking the blade with him. He ought to have a little more compassion for it, he decides. After all, it's doing him an intimate service. Nobody else would want to touch his blood.
Tiny squiggling beasts. They're in there. Jumping from white cell to white cell. Swarming the contours of his skin.
Not that it's his fault, really. He's the victim of birth, his mother's third boyfriend, and somewhere back in history a monkey. He knows all the facts. Has had them ratcheting off the insides of his skull since long before the Phys Ed teacher sat everyone down to talk about the very special boy in their class.
But that doesn't matter now. Warmth surrounds him, and he lets the metal dig just a little too far into his wrist. Panic squirts out. It hurts. God damn, but they don't tell you that. He bucks and thrashes. The blade goes in deeper before he pulls it free, and now the water is a slurry cocktail of crimson threads.
He almost bellows, but manages to choke it down. This is what he wanted, right? He forces himself back, easing into the red. Adrenaline grits his teeth together, but he ignores it. Tries to relax. There's almost no need to bother with the other wrist. Soon enough, this will all be over.
"It helps if you breathe evenly."
This time he does shout, rolling to find a kid in a black hoodie and jeans studying him from across the linoleum. He (or she, the hoodie is fairly voluminous,) looks about eighteen or nineteen. Same age.
Grim opens his mouth. "Calm down, please. You're just seeing things."
"Like hell I am!"
"No, you really are. Can anyone do this?" He sticks a hand through the wall. Waves it around inside of the sink. "I'm completely fictional. But I am here to help."
"How's that?" He realizes that he's subconsciously holding onto his wrist, trying to staunch the flow. He makes himself let go.
"It's my job to show people how to accept death."
"Well, great job. Mission accomplished. You got here a little late, though."
"You misunderstand. I don't set things in motion. I'm part of the process. Otherwise people panic. Cling to life. Even when it's not worth living."
"That's kinda sick. Not in a loan-me-your-skateboard kind of way. Real Eli-Roth-territory."
The kid blinks. "It's natural. There's nothing wrong with coming to an end."
"There is if you're pushing people along. Nobody asked." He sits up in the bath, slapping his free hand back over the gash.
"You stuck a knife in yourself. It's assumed."
"I didn't invite all my friends to come and look. Do you think I want attention?"
"There's nothing shameful about dieing. It's a voluntary surrender. You can let go. Stop existing. Pain will never touch you again. It won't even be able to find you."
"So, you think I'm doing this because I'm weak?" Blood wells out again for a moment, and then a roll of toilet paper is jammed over the wound.
"Could you stop jumping to conclusions?"
"Yeah. You're right. It's a waste of time for both of us." He climbs out of the tub. The tiles heave beneath him and he grabs the sink for balance. His makeshift bandage slips free and the floor becomes a dangerous contagion. "Get out of my way."
Everything is swimming now, but he staggers back into his bedroom. There, piled neatly atop the covers, are his clothes. His wallet. His cell phone. He topples over it. Grabs the keypad. Punches in emergency.
"This is senseless." Grim is standing in the doorway, his expression neutral but his tone disappointed. "Why would you stop killing yourself?"
"Because I don't like being jerked around. That's why I did this in the first place." The covers are ruined, now. This isn't important, but when your consciousness starts to ebb, you worry about the small stuff. Like laundry, philosophy, and how you can't feel your toes. "You're Death, right? Professionally?"
"You could say that, yes."
"How many people have you 'helped' today?"
"A number. Why?"
"Because I want to remind you what's on your conscience. Don't let the revolving door hit you in the ass on the way out."
"Fine." Grim purses his lips and melts away.
It's a full fifteen minutes before the ambulance arrives.
You'd think he'd be the ultimate authority on closure. He isn't. Grim stares into his coffee mug, breathes in the steam, and then exhales it anonymously into the sulfur-smoke ambiance of the bombed-out cafe. There are bodies mixed with the debris.
Sometimes you lose them, he admits. For whatever reason—spiritual uncertainty or biological necessity—they resist your counseling and cling to continuation. It's a crying shame.
Getting up, he sifts through the rubble of a vending machine for a few minutes before coming up with a pack of cigarettes. He sheds the wrapping, flicks the top, and sticks the end of one in his mouth. He ignites it off of a still-burning wooden support.
And then he settles in to wait for someone else to choose oblivion.