Exit Party

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Summary

Genre:
Horror / Drama
Author:
Alex Beyman
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
1
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
16+

Exit Party

“Third time is supposed to be the charm, isn’t it?” My mother remarked over the news program on the radio. “I can’t believe it took him four attempts.”

I wasn’t paying close attention, idly watching strip malls and apartment buildings pass by out the car window. Mottled cloud cover stretched from one horizon to the other, the way the sky looks when it cannot decide whether to rain.

“Reminds me of Miranda’s son. Goodness, how long was he in the hospital before he could try again? A year? I want to say it was at least that long.” As she talked, she glanced furtively at me. Trying to discern whether I was picking up on her meaning.

I changed the subject, asking if I was supposed to know Miranda. “Oh, you met Miranda! I think you were just a little guy though, I took you along to the Christmas party at the office. You hid behind my legs when I introduced you.”

She fiddled with the radio knob until arriving at what sounded like the middle of an interview. “-That’s all there is to it, really. We as a society build it up, make it out to be more than it is. It isn’t just individuals who do that. I mean, what does it amount to? A little poppity-pop, then it’s over. Does that really merit so much controversy?”

The station host interviewing the man, elderly judging by his voice, added in little superficially thoughtful sounding quips here and there, perhaps not wanting his guest to outshine him. The sort of remarks that sound clever in the moment but turn out not to mean much of anything if you go back and pick them apart.

At last, we arrived in the parking lot of the super store. One of those obscene one stop mega markets the size of an airport, just a giant beige monolithic block jutting up out of the asphalt. “I could’ve bought it online” I pointed out.

She put her hands on her hips. “Really? For something this important? You’ll be glad we made a day out of it. I want to be there with you for every step. I know you think you’re a big man now but-” I interrupted, finishing her sentence in a silly voice. “-I’ll always be your little boy. Yes, I know.”

It really was something of a comfort to have her along. In truth it’s the last thing I’d ever want to do alone, yet as the big day approached I found myself keeping everybody at arm’s length. Friends, old girlfriends, even my own family. Pushing people away has always been part of how I deal with difficult feelings, though it’s never actually helped.

It reminded me to get my phone out, checking for comments on my Facebook post where I announced that I’d chosen ballistic penetration as the method I planned to use. All of my closest friends, and surprisingly some who rarely so much as like any of my posts, had something to say about it.

“That’s a classic way to go! My dad did it that way. Very clean, all at once. It’s all about acting on that sudden impulse. I should loan you the album he listened to. Droning meditation music, you rock back and forth while clearing your mind of all thoughts so you won’t hesitate when the time comes.”

Jorge, my best friend of 8 years, had something to say as well. “Don’t get too worked up over this. Millions have done it before you. The important thing is to remember you’re not alone in all this. You’re surrounded by friends who will give you the strength you need to go through with it, because we love you.”

I teared up a little, then became self conscious because I was in a public place. Fucking Jorge, still such a bro even though I’ve been so distant lately. I smiled, slipping my phone back into my pocket as I walked down the candy aisle with my mom. “I don’t need candy. Nobody at the party is going to want candy mom, we’re not twelve.”

She pouted. “Look at these, though! They’re so cute.” She held up a sucker in the shape of a Colt 911, where the barrel was the hard candy part you suck on, and the plastic handle was shaped like a pistol grip. I smirked at the packaging, which read “steel flavor”.

I talked her out of it, and soon we were browsing exit wound canvases. I got the idea years ago when I took a date to an art gallery, where they were showing a collection of exit wound imprints. The blood and brain matter which bursts out of the exit wound, splattering onto a canvas positioned carefully just above and behind your head.

Each one totally unique. Like Rorschach inkblots, but a dull reddish-brown rather than black. It would give Mom something to remember me by, and to hang up over the fireplace. Proof that I’d seen it through, and gotten it right the first time....more than some could say.

Mom took my hand, startling me out of my introspection. “I know I said this already yesterday, but I am just so proud of you. Doing it like a man, making your father and I proud. None of that mincing, half-hearted helium bag nonsense, like the Mathersons’ daughter. You’re not leaving it to chance. That’s how our family has always done it! You’re such a grown man now, I can’t believe it’s almost over.”

It was her turn to tear up, though she was smiling. Happier than I’d seen her for many years. How could I destroy that smile? No, I couldn’t. Nothing to do but move forward with the process. Hard to believe I was already near the end of week 4.

During week 1, the notion that the big day will arrive seems so distant and abstract. It feels like you still have your whole life ahead of you. That’s the week they give you to notify your extended family, to quit your job and make other initial preparations.

It becomes a little more real when week 2 arrives, but it still feels dreamlike. As if you’ve still got the full month, or that the big day will just never arrive somehow. This is the week they allot for you to research the various methods and choose one of them.

I panicked when week 3 arrived. I’m not proud of that, but I’m also hardly the first. Like the same amount of anxiety, spread out over the full month, was barely noticeable. But that it was being compressed into a smaller and smaller space as the days went by, making it ever more intense.

That was the week for making funeral preparations. They should really allow more than a week for that, as it’s a surprisingly convoluted process with a lot of paperwork to fill out. What would I have done if I couldn’t get the plot I wanted? I’ve never heard of anybody being granted an extension.

I still couldn’t believe all of that was now behind me. I remember going through all of it so vividly, as if it was still happening now. But here I am in week 4, still nowhere to go but forward. Week 4 is for organizing the party, and making your peace.

That’s also something that I feel as if I need more than a week to do. But then, would two weeks be enough? Three? It’s the sort of feeling which expands to fill all of the space you make available to it. Before the law passed requiring randomly selected people to go through all this, I’m sure many people didn’t think even eighty years was enough time.

Maybe it isn’t, I don’t know. I don’t have eighty years to find out. I have two days. Not even that, if you count it in hours. It’s funny how granular my measurement of time has become, now that I have so little of it left.

We wound up agreeing on a mid sized, modestly priced canvas after briefly arguing over whether it would be large enough to catch all of the wet emission. I explained I wasn’t going with a very large caliber, so she was probably imagining more of a mess than there would actually be.

Of course she wanted to splurge on the largest size. But I hardly wanted her to waste money on the five by seven foot canvas only for the imprint to be a pitiful reddish blotch in the very center, taking up perhaps one square foot.

On the ride home, I found myself reading an article on history’s most notable exit methods. A sort of macabre hall of fame, honoring those who not only accepted their responsibility but fulfilled it with gusto.

The one which caught my attention involved a clever boy who, half a century ago, had spent weeks constructing a special helmet designed to simultaneously discharge eight shotgun shells into the points where the human skull is known to be weakest.

It was important to him that they all go off at exactly the same time, for instantaneous and absolute annihilation of his brain. To that end, he rigged up an innovative electronic firing pin system for each shell, joined together by a mess of wiring strung between them.

According to the article, he flipped the switch just as his mother opened the door to his room, having waited patiently for her to come investigate. I should say “according to legend” as the hard copy for the case was destroyed, and that last detail seemed too perfect to have actually happened.

It made me wistful. That would’ve been a really cool way to go, if only I’d known about it a month ago. There’s just no time left to arrange for something so elaborate. That’s useless to say though, everybody in my situation wants more time. None of them get it.

After dinner, I retired to my room to watch some videos I’d bookmarked over the past few days. All of them were suicides caught on tape. Most were pretty common stuff, like Budd Dwyer’s televised suicide, but I’d also managed to get my hands on some real rarities.

Christine Chubbuck was a news reporter for WVLT-TV channel 40 in Florida. On July 15th of 1974, she delayed her normal interview with her guest, claiming she had to read a newscast. This confused her coworkers, as she’d never done it before.

In fact it wasn’t a newscast, but a suicide script she read aloud to the camera. “In keeping with Channel 40′s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’, and in living color” Christine read, “you are going to see another first—attempted suicide.”

She then produced a revolver, planted the tip of the barrel behind her right ear, and pulled the trigger. It had always been a tantalizing mystery to me what happened after that. They all drop so suddenly. It’s not like in the movies where you fall over like a tree. You instead collapse in a heap all at once, like a sack of bricks.

But which way did she fall? What position did her body come to rest in? The grainy mpeg video, obtained from a dubious dark web repository, at last satisfied my curiosity. She fell abruptly forward, smacking her head on the table in front of her before falling to the floor.

Almost anti-climactic. The mystery is usually better than the reality, which rarely lives up to what you’ve imagined. Still, I rewatched it eleven times before setting it aside and moving on to the next one.

It was the Bjork stalker, another classic. It drags on for hours and hours as he paces around his room, mentally preparing himself. Because of that, it’s tough to find the full video. Most versions of it are cropped down to the last few minutes.

No appreciation for slow, tantric buildup. People are just too eager to skip straight to the main event, I suppose. I’ve only watched the entire thing myself twice before, so maybe I’m not the one to stand in judgement.

This time I skipped around, watching a few minutes here and there, trying to put myself in his shoes. As much as possible, trying to live inside of his apparent mindset as he psyched himself up for his final act.

This video was actually the inspiration for the exit wound imprint fad. This one guy set up a canvas behind his head in the hopes that his brain would splatter all over it, only to fuck it all up by using a 9mm weapon.

9mm rounds will penetrate one layer of bone, but often not two. They bounce around inside of the skull, totally shredding your brain. This made it a popular choice until the exit wound imprint craze took off. Then suddenly everybody wanted larger calibers, to ensure a good spread across the canvas.

There was no splatter of blood and brains in the video. Just a split second bulge on his forehead, the bullet straining to escape in that moment but failing. Literally one frame later, his body’s on the floor. It’s strangely cathartic to watch a life end from the outside, while your own life goes on.

It creates this illusory feeling that death isn’t real. As if, because you’re able to keep on watching after the guy in the video is on the ground with blood pooling under his head, it will be the same way for you. Somehow you’ll just keep watching, keep being aware of what happens after you’ve pulled the trigger.

The next video was just the last minute or so of the Columbine footage. I had no interest in watching Eric and Dylan slaughter innocents, just what they did after that. It captivates me because they don’t do it at the same time.

Eric shot himself first, probably taking for granted Dylan would do it at the same time, but he didn’t. He lingered, only shooting himself several seconds later. It drives my imagination wild trying to figure out what thoughts were going through his head, just before that bullet.

Regrets? Rationalization? Did he consider laying down his gun and surrendering to cops, only to decide that he’d come too far and done too much to wuss out in the eleventh hour? Of course I’ll never find out, for more than one reason.

At least they succeeded on their first attempt. I next watched a video of an Australian man from 1995 who shot himself in the chest with a shotgun. Despite blowing a hole in his torso, he somehow managed not to destroy any vital organs.

So he next positioned the barrel under his chin. Must’ve never read up on how to angle it properly as he only wound up blowing off his chin and much of his face. Still alive and conscious, he then struggled to reload the weapon before finally getting it right.

I’ve thought about going with a shotgun, but it doesn’t leave a whole lot behind. The entire head just disintegrates, and all the guests would have to wear raincoats. Besides, traditionally members of my family have always done it with a handgun, and at home rather than some sterile government exit center. I hardly wanted to leave such a terrible mess for my mother to clean up.

I closed out of all the browser windows, then finished deleting everything embarrassing on my computer I didn’t want anybody to read. Like a folder of chat logs between myself and an ex that I saved, reading over them again and again in order to live inside the illusion that she still felt that way about me.

I found a bunch of cringy old essays I wrote in highschool as well, and a folder of nude selfies I would trade with girls I met through online dating websites before I got the exit selection letter. No need for any of this now. I deleted my dating website account as well.

Finding stuff to occupy myself with, I guess. Every time I peered over my shoulder at my bed, something in me forced me to turn back to the computer screen. I didn’t want to go to sleep just yet. As if, by refusing to, I could prevent tomorrow from ever arriving.

When I finally did crawl into bed, sleep was fitful. I woke up twice in the night, and on a trip to the bathroom, I passed by the casket in the livingroom. It was covered in a sheet because Dad insisted it was a family tradition that I not see what the casket looks like until my big day.

Reminds me of Christmas. When I would sneak out of bed to see the stockings hung by the fireplace, and the presents stacked up under the tree. I’d shake them to try and get an idea of what could be inside. How sternly I was scolded the year Mom caught me doing that!

The casket just sat there, silhouetted against dim light from street lamps outside coming in through the living room’s bay window. Silent, but exuding a sort of subtle gravity all its own. I slipped the sheet off, opened the lid and climbed in.

It felt strangely comfortable and right. As if this is where I’ve always belonged, but didn’t know it until now. I tried shutting the lid and only found it more peaceful, laying there in the quiet darkness. Surely this is what it will be like?

No, not even this. Not the sensation of lying still in silent darkness, but no sensation at all. I could never wrap my head around that. I don’t think the human brain has evolved with the capability to imagine what death is like. There’s no reproductive benefit to that.

I clambered out and replaced the sheet, making sure to drape it over the casket exactly how I found it. Mom really thought of everything. I’ve heard of plenty of cases where families couldn’t get ahold of a casket in time.

The body stiffens up into a cold, solid lump in whatever position it fell to the ground. Often that requires breaking the joints in order to position the arms and legs so the body will fit in the casket. Not for me though, she really covered all the bases. That’s my mom for you.

When I returned to bed, it struck me as odd how similar it felt. Just two different kinds of bed. One for the little, temporary slices of death that we call sleep, and the other for the endless sleep that we call death.

These thoughts swirled around in my head, folding over on themselves, until at last I once again fell asleep. I’d have liked to dream of something nostalgic tonight. My first love, that magical Summer I spent in Florida so many years ago. Anything but this.

The same old recurring dream that seems to resurface when I’m anxious about something. I’m in a cold, bare concrete room illuminated by a single bare bulb dangling overhead...with a gun on the floor. There’s just nothing else in the room. No way out, except one.

I tasted the barrel of the gun, sliding my tongue around it as I angled it towards my brain stem. What would it feel like, I wondered? Can anybody say? Vanishingly few people ever learn first hand what it feels like to do this, and survive to talk about it.

When at last I pulled the trigger, time abruptly slowed to a crawl. I could feel, with intense clarity, the sensation of the bullet penetrating up through the roof of my mouth. Then the feeling of the red hot bullet searing my soft, tender brain tissue as it tore its way through.

Then, the back of my skull exploded in a fountain of sticky red mist, jiggling chunks of brain matter and shards of shattered bone. I slumped over...only to realize a few seconds later that I was somehow still conscious.

The pain never went away after that, just subsided to the point where I could think clearly. That I could think at all baffled me. I’d destroyed my brain, surely? When I reached around to feel at the back of my head, there was a big sticky, warm opening. I felt something soft and squishy when I stuck my finger into it.

So I put the gun back in my mouth and tried again. I felt it all in slow motion, just as vividly as before. But the result was the same. I was still conscious. All I’d accomplished was to make a bigger mess of my mouth, and the back of my head.

I kept trying until I ran out of bullets. I was crying by this point...but there was also blood streaming out of my tear ducts, nose and mouth. Diluting the tears as the steaming, salty mixture pooled beneath me.

When I next felt around the back of my head, I discovered to my dismay that the entire back half of my skull was hanging open. Like a gaping brain bucket, though there was precious little in the way of brain matter still inside of it.

I reached my hand deep inside the opening and felt around in there. I could feel soft, warm squishy pulsating stuff, experiencing all sorts of strange sensations as I did so. I think I smelled burning eggs at one point, and saw little sparkling points of light swimming around the edges of my vision.

I cried more, but it changed nothing. So I then set about trying to hunt down all the bloody chunks of my brain, scoop them up in my hands and dumping them back into my busted open bucket of a skull. Even after I put all of it in there, I couldn’t remember anything. I couldn’t remember why I shot myself, as my brain would not put itself back together again.

I was miserable, yet also aroused for some reason. Part of me wanted to keep shooting. It’s difficult to say why, as the feeling is impossible to fully capture...but it seemed to me as if the act of the bullet penetrating the skull and plowing deep into the soft, warm brain was almost sexual.

I could imagine no other way forward, desperately wanting to feel it again. To never stop feeling it, if it was possible to somehow make it continuous. If only there were more bullets! My tongue, and in fact the whole inside of my mouth was burnt from all those gunshots. All I could taste was blood and gunpowder.

When I awoke, the house bustled with activity. Dad was on the phone with one of the guests instructing them how to park so we could fit as many cars in the driveway as possible before anybody would need to park on the street.

Mom was busy in the kitchen, preparing to bake a cake by the looks of it. There was some sort of concert on the little kitchen television, which a scrolling banner at the bottom clarified was a charity event to cover the exit day costs for underprivileged families.

The orchestra was playing the 1812 overture, with two long lines of people to either side of the stage. At every point in the song where a cannon was about to go off, the next person in each line would rush up to a podium at the edge of the platform with a pump action shotgun on it, prop it up against a stand designed for this purpose, and put the tip of the barrel in their mouth.

Then, just as the cannon would normally fire, they would pull the trigger. Blasting their head apart in a shower of putrid, steaming gore. It was relentless. As the pace of the song increased, people were rushing to play that lethal instrument at the rate of one per second, or close.

Soon the curtains to either side of the stage were soaked in blood and speckled with bits of bone and gristle. A team of volunteers dragged bodies away, at first faster than they could accumulate, but it became apparent that they were becoming overwhelmed near the end of the song.

It took me longer than it should have to work out that the people lined up to either side of the stage were just all the members of the audience whose exit day was today.

But then, someone choked. They ran up, planted the shotgun against the special stand, put it in their mouth...but didn’t pull the trigger. The orchestra slowly died down. The conductor, bewildered, turned to stare at the spectacle unfolding to the right of the stage.

The camera zoomed in on the portly, middle aged man with the comb-over and grey button down shirt. He was sweating profusely and beginning to cry. The crowd murmured...then began to shout and jeer at him.

The broadcast cut to a “We are experiencing technical difficulties” screen. Then about fifteen seconds later it returned. The orchestra was back in the swing of it, finishing up the song. I could just barely make out the body of the middle aged man lying atop the ever-growing pile behind the stage.

After that, some stupid commercial came on. A woman with a mature but nurturing voice spoke over some faint, melancholy violin music in the background.

“Are you struggling? Did your exit selection come as a surprise, and your life’s in disarray as you hurry to make preparations? Do not give into despair. Call the exit assistance hotline. We’re here for you, and will talk you through this daunting time. Remember that you are not alone, our counselors are available 24/7 to help you do what needs to be done.”

I felt Mom’s hand on my shoulder. “Don’t pay any attention to that nonsense. I have a good feeling about tonight.”

Jorge was the first to arrive, carefully backing in his Yaris along the long, narrow driveway beside the house. “I hope you plan to stay the longest, otherwise it’s going to be a bitch to get your car out” I joked, only for him to grip me by the hand and stare at me.

“Of course I’m going to stay the longest, bro. I’ve known you longer than anybody here except your family, but then we are family. This is your big night, man.” I found myself tearing up a little. But that’s no good. Tears are no good right now, if I were to let them start I knew they would never stop.

Even then I could feel it. A tingling on my scalp, at the back of my head. I couldn’t stop thinking about it as I finished setting up the canvas. Like some sort of sensory premonition. My mouth was even watering, as if in anticipation of the barrel.

As ever, he was quick to liquor me up. Tried anyway, I didn’t want the rest of the guests showing up to find me shitfaced and drooling on myself. Little by little the cars trickled in, until it became a chore finding places for them to park.

By the time the party was properly under way, the sun hung low on the horizon. I hesitated before going back inside, savoring the deep oranges and reds. What a hell of a thing it is, to watch the sun set for the final time. Feels almost like it was a friend. Like I’m watching its final moments unfold, even as it watches mine.

Jorge thrusts a bottle at me again the minute I finish closing the front door behind me. Before I can protest, he puts a finger to my lips. “Just drink. It will help.” Because I don’t want to fight him over this, and because I believe he’s right, I take a large enough swig to satisfy him.

He didn’t follow me into the kitchen, so I motioned as if to dump the remainder of the bottle into the sink and pretend I drank it. Something stays my hand. The realization, I think, that I may need the rest of it later. I set it down by the fridge, then head into the livingroom.

A dozen smiling faces greet me. “There he is!” trumpets my Dad. “The man of the hour!” They all raise their glasses. Some of them cheer, others laugh. I’ve been to so many parties, but none where I was so decidedly the center of attention.

Every birthday since I was legal to drink, I just went pub crawling with one or two friends. Sort of nostalgic to have all these eyes on me. Unnerving too, because of the glint I see in their stares. The unspoken expectations.

“Here, smoke this.” Jorge now had a bong out, which I’d not seen him bring in. He launched into a story about how hashish was traditionally given to assassins before they set out on missions they did not expect to return from, because it diminished their anxiety about the rapid approach of the grim reaper.

The story had the opposite of the intended effect, but I still took a big hit so that Jorge would leave it alone, and he did. It wasn’t enough that I felt in danger of making a fool out of myself, but unfamiliar thoughts were beginning to swim around in my grey matter. The sort of thoughts that only surface when you’re ripped.

I began to tear up. Mom came over, looking concerned. “It’s just…” I struggled to get it out. “Remember when I was ten, and I thought I was going to be an astronaut?” She first scolded me, but then her expression softened.

“That’s no good. Everybody’s looking. They’re here for your big day, because they all love you! Not more than I do, which is why I can’t let you stumble before you reach the finish line. Wait here, I know what will put a smile on your face!”

She hurried into the kitchen. I heard the oven door swing open, and a delicious scent wafted out to my nostrils. Mom then emerged from the kitchen bearing a steaming cake. Carefully decorated, with the most candles I’d ever see on a cake.

I didn’t want to disappoint Mom, so I smiled even though I’d begun subtly trembling. That was just the start of it. The shaking grew steadily worse after we finished polishing off the cake, because I knew how little else there was left to do.

By the time Dad set up the little digital camcorder to one side of the canvas, I could no longer hide it. Jorge put his hand on my shoulder. “Like a leaf. I was worried about this. You want the rest of the bottle?” I nodded, wondering how he found out, or if I’m just that transparent.

“Do you want to get into position? I’m not hurrying you, I just mean so you can get a feel for how to sit. How to angle your head, all that good stuff.” He gestured to a cushion he’d put on the floor just in front of the canvas, with a beige tarp under it so the carpet wouldn’t stain.

Some primal part of my brain fought every step towards that spot. My self-preservation instinct, maybe. Somehow sensing that it wanted nothing to do with that cushion or canvas. I nevertheless forced my body into the shape I wanted, cross legged on the cushion with my head tilted back slightly.

I could feel the canvas behind me. Pulsating, resonating. Ready to catch the sum total of my dreams, memories and feelings. All around me, wide eyes looked on in excitement. Equally wide grins radiated approval. How could I disappoint them? How could I destroy those smiles? Nowhere left to go but forward.

The shaking was now accompanied by growing nausea. My stomach had joined the mutiny against my brain, it seemed. Try as I might to stop it, to sit in stillness and quietude, I only felt more and more strung out. Fried, and at the end of my rope.

I never imagined it like this. I had this romanticized picture in my head of how it would be, silly in retrospect. I looked so cool, posing with my eyes closed. So dignified. Never once did I picture myself as a quivering, nervous wreck. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But then I doubt anybody knows how it will feel...until it’s their turn.

It’s my turn now, and that’s all there is to it. That’s all there is to it. Nowhere left to go but forward. Towards the end of me, and of all things. From my perspective anyway. It seems almost like there’s this huge uncompromising wall of absolute blackness rushing towards me.

“I...I think I’m ready.” My dad cupped a hand to his ear. “I’m ready. Bring it to me.” He asked if I was sure. I shook my head. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel sure, but I want to try. If I can push through, it won’t matter. I just have to push through, don’t I.”

He smiled, then wiped a tear from his eye. “That’s right, just push through. Wait here.” He disappeared up the stairs, then came down a minute later holding a modestly sized wooden box. After unlocking it, he swung the lid open and presented the contents to me.

It was much heavier in my hand than I expected. I cradled the hefty chunk of metal for a bit, getting a feel for its contours. Smith and Wesson, Model 686. Nice long, narrow barrel that doesn’t bump your teeth at the correct angle, unlike the M1911 a lot of people use.

Everybody’s watching. I can feel their eyes on me as I slide it into my mouth, kneeling into position on the cushion. A few of them get their phones out to take pictures. “It’s going to be so beautiful” I heard Mom tearfully remark. “It’s going to be...just spectacular.”

There was a long, tense silence. All those wide, glistening eyes. Then Dad took it out of my hands. “There’s no rush, it only has to happen by midnight. Let the guests enjoy you a little bit more before then.”

I could’ve done it right then. I was ready in that moment, I think. Any little niggling irritations about the cushion, or the lighting, none of it would matter a split-second later if I’d just gone through with it right then.

I wouldn’t need a cushion after that. Wouldn’t need clothing, or a house, or a car. No more groceries. No more heating bills in the winter, nor air conditioning in the Summer. It’s remarkable how many practical problems it solves, all at once.

If I could only penetrate my brain. That’s all it is. “Shooting yourself” sounds unreasonably severe, to say nothing of the cultural hooplah surrounding “suicide”. All I’m going to do is penetrate my own brain, briefly.

That’s all I’m going to do. That’s all it is. Like those captive bolt pistols they use on cows at the slaughterhouse. Not so different from the sterile, colorful unit the government gives you if you go into one of their exit centers. Just so there’s no loose bullet to possibly ricochet and hurt somebody.

Those tapes are so fascinating to watch, because of how the full human characteristics of each individual are expressed in that little ten foot by ten foot room. Expanding to fill it almost as they pace around, argue with themselves, laugh and cry.

But it always ends the same way. However loud, energetic and colorful it is up until that point, it becomes much simpler afterwards. Quiet and still, as the blood goes down the drain in the center of the floor. Everything becomes much simpler, much simpler afterwards. Once everything is said and done.

“It just happened for her!” aunt Linda exclaimed, interrupting my navel gazing. “She and her brother were playing around with Grandpa’s handgun from his brief stint in the army when it went off unexpectedly. He would’ve said there should be nothing unexpected with a firearm and that it was just a failure of trigger discipline, maybe that’s even true. But how lucky for Rebecca!

She didn’t have to prepare herself for it. It just happened to her without warning. That’s where the real emotional difficulty is, in the preparation. She avoided all of that! It could’ve been a tragedy if it didn’t hit her square through the brain pan, or if she hadn’t been selected that morning to do it herself anyway. She didn’t even know, she never reads her snail mail, we were going to surprise her.”

Jorge laughed, so I joined in, though it wasn’t funny to me. I only envied Rebecca. There was a cottage industry for some years which offered unexpected assassination as a service, but predictably it was outlawed following the first unintended casualty. It shouldn’t even have taken that, really, people just wanted what they were selling so badly.

Like Lenny, in that book we were all assigned in school. That’s the gentlest way, if you don’t even see it coming. Like any other nice thing we could’ve all benefited from, reckless assholes had to ruin it for everybody by fucking around.

Jorge pushed the bottle on me again. I drank more deeply than before, expecting everything to be over and done with before it could fuck me up properly. Mom got out her slides. I groaned. Dad nudged me. “Your mother loves her slides.”

The first was my baby steps. I wore a red onesie bearing the image of a popular television puppet, struggling to keep my chubby little legs under me. I felt something in me weaken. Mom pressed the flimsy plastic button on the hand controller and the carousel clicked, rotating the next slide into place.

Piano lessons. Anything you force a kid to do, they’re going to hate. If you forced a kid to eat candy and play videogames, they’d hate it. I wore a grumpy little frown as my instructor carefully positioned my fingers on the correct keys.

I found myself thinking that I should’ve taught Mom Powerpoint to make this whole slide business more manageable as her collection of slides increased, before remembering that they’re all of me. The number of them isn’t going to increase.

The next was Summer camp. Space camp technically. It turns out they don’t have to do much in order to call it that. Just spin you around in a centrifuge, photograph you in an old space suit and quiz you about the Apollo program a few times.

I could be seen in a rowboat smiling wide, my arm around the shoulder of a girl I’d breathlessly fumbled my way to second base with the night before, behind the equipment shed. I think her name was Kaitlyn. Despite trading numbers, we never did keep in touch after the camp ended.

I grit my teeth, and my lip trembled. It’s the booze, isn’t it? This shit was supposed to make me stronger. The next slide was me on prom night. God, look at my braces. Didn’t even do any good, I was too dumb to wear the retainer consistently afterwards so my teeth just settled back to how they were. I caught such hell from Dad for that, on account of what the braces cost.

This is really what I’m going to think about as my last minutes run out? I always thought it would be profound philosophical stuff. A fresh tear escaped. Mom stared, the projector controller dangling by the strap around her wrist. “Sweetie, are you okay?”

What am I supposed to say? How do I capture all of it and express it in a way that doesn’t disgrace myself and my parents in front of all these people? “I don’t...I don’t want to see any more.” She clicked ahead anyway.

“Mom, stop it. Please. I don’t want to do this.” Dad nudged me again, but Mom waved him off. Everybody was quiet again. Mom put her hand on my knee. “Life is about doing stuff you don’t want to, for the sake of those you love.”

Everybody nodded sagely. “You do let the slides drag on though, don’t you Helen?” Dad interjected. “We all love your slides, but if the boy has seen enough, he’s seen enough.” This slide depicted the day I left for college, head a big poofy mess of hair, still far more pimples than somebody ostensibly finished with puberty ought to have.

“It isn’t...that I want it to be over” I managed, voice faltering. “Actually I wish it would never end, somehow. If it’s going to end, what was the point of it? How am I supposed to feel? I love you, Mom. I love you Dad. Why does it have to be like this? I was going to build a sailboat. I had all these drawings...Remember when I nearly drowned in the ocean because I didn’t know about undertow, but Dad swam out to save me? Remember how scared I was? I-”

Dad cleared his throat. “That’s quite enough of that sort of talk. That’s first week stuff, I don’t want to still be hearing that type of nonsense, not this far in. Come on, it’s not too late to do it with dignity. No more slides, no more talking, just do it.”

He again opened the box and handed me the gun. The look in his eyes brokered no alternative, so I took it. Another tear escaped as I looked around the room. Nobody would look at me. Averting their eyes this way and that, made visibly uncomfortable by the exchange. “That was a bit rough, Howard.” Mom kissed him on his stubbly cheek, just above the scar.

“It...is getting late, though...” She trailed off, the immense weight of implication squeezing the air out of my lungs. Dad glanced at the clock, so I followed his gaze. Ten forty six. Every trace of the sun long since gone from the horizon, crickets chirping away...the dusk of my life.

They kept watching me intently every step of the way, as if somehow their eyes were forcing me into position. There’s just nowhere else to go. I can’t run. I’ve seen what happens. I want to build that sailboat. I want to dance, I want to sing. I want more.

There’s just...nowhere else. The scene is so perfectly prepared, needing only one last addition to complete it. I knelt on the cushion, taking deep breaths in an increasingly futile effort to calm my nerves.

I glanced at the canvas behind me as if to make sure of something, but really just doing anything at all to buy myself extra seconds of light and sound...before the big black. As if sensing this, Mom assured me that everything was positioned the way that we talked about.

“Alright” I muttered. “It’s just...I’m just…” Dad now stood behind his little digital camcorder, on the collapsible tripod. “No more talking, I said.” I couldn’t even see his eyes now, obscured by the little fold-out viewfinder.

It could be worse. I could be one of the sad sack, thrice divorced, middle aged wastoids who do this on their own. No friends, no family. No cake, no canvas, just a bottle of whiskey and a revolver inside a dingy old minivan they’re living out of.

Jorge looked as if he remembered something important. He leapt to his feet, taking a CD out of his bag and putting it into the tray of the sound system. It was that droning meditation music he talked about. In a hushed voice, someone complimented him on it.

I closed my eyes and started rocking slowly, doing my best to lose myself in the monotonous, bee-like resonance. That’s how it’s supposed to work, isn’t it? You let go of all your thoughts until your head is totally empty. That’s when you do it.

A bead of sweat trickled down my face. When did I start sweating? I gently squeezed the trigger. Not all the way, just getting a feel for it. But that’s all it would take, isn’t it? The same thing I just did, only further. A little bit more force.

Then it will be over and done with. All this unsavory commotion can come to an end, things will be nice and quiet. No more of this emotional tempest in a teacup. Just stillness and quietude, as the blood pools.

Everybody got out their phones again and began to record. This is it. This is it, this is it, this is it. I have to penetrate my brain now. Don’t I? I have to. I have to penetrate my brain now. My whole body quivers, and the little hairs on my skin stand on end.

My breathing quickens. I hear some light murmuring. Maybe thinking that it meant I was about to do it? Really I’ve just become drunk enough that I can’t stop it anymore. Deep breaths don’t work. Nothing works. My body knows what’s coming.

So I push. Breathing harder and harder, more and more rapidly as I grip the pistol. Closing my teeth as much as I can around the barrel, face now drenched in sweat. I opened my eye a crack, and peered at the casket. I’m going in there now. All or nothing. All or nothing, all or nothing.

I screamed in hoarse, rattling anguish, muffled by the steel cylinder in my mouth. You could’ve heard a pin drop after that. I tried to squeeze the trigger all the way this time. I did. I knew they wouldn’t believe me if I told them, but I really did try. I put everything I had into that one moment.

...But I choked. I just couldn’t. I broke down into tears, taking the gun out of my mouth and bawling like a baby. Dad covered his face with one hand and turned away. Mom had one hand on her hip, the other over her mouth, and tears in her eyes.

I screamed again as the tears continued erupting from my eyes...the same desperate, strained sound a cornered animal makes. Then, before anybody could react, I bolted for the bathroom. I’d not taken three steps before Dad lunged at me, but he’s not as quick as he used to be. “Grab him! For fuck’s sake, somebody get ahold of him!”

I dashed past the kitchen, down the hallway and into the bathroom. The only door inside the house with a lock on it. I slammed the door behind myself and locked it, pulling out the drawer nearest it from the cabinet below the sink just to further ensure that the door could not be opened.

The banging started soon after that. Banging, angry shouting and threats. But what could they threaten me with at this point? I ignored all of it, hands on the counter, studying myself in the mirror.

Every little grey hair, every fine little crease that stress carved into the corner of my eyes over the years. What’s a realistic lifespan for someone in this family? I never asked Dad about any heart conditions or anything like that, he’s always been so healthy.

I took my shirt off. I don’t know why. I don’t know anything. Pacing back and forth, pulling at my hair, some of it actually comes out in my hand. I laugh weakly at the thought that I might’ve started balding soon if it weren’t for this.

After the banging and threats came the soft, sympathetic pleading. “Open the door sweetie. It’s normal, lots of people freeze up on their big night. You can still salvage it. Everything’s just the way you left it back in the living room. Why don’t you at least come out of there so we can talk about this face to face?”

I just continued to weep. Not a torrent anymore but a constant slow trickle, my eyes red and puffy. In the mirror, I looked thirty years older. Strung out, worn down and shaking, at the very end of my rope.

My Dad’s voice was next, as soft as it ever gets. “The clock’s still ticking, son. It’s nearly eleven. You know what happens at a minute after twelve, don’t you? The helicopters come. You don’t want there to be helicopters, do you? Think of your mother.”

I was thinking about her. Dad too. And the sailboat, Summer camp...All of it. Everything at once. Surging, coursing, spinning around in my skull. I couldn’t stop it now, all I could do was turn on the shower in the hope I could get warm enough that the shakes would stop. I just want to be warm.

“He turned the shower on” I heard Aunt Linda remark, voice muffled by the door. There was another effort to force the door as I stripped out of the rest of my clothes and climbed in. The water’s almost painfully hot, as it needs to in order to distract me.

I haven’t escaped. I haven’t. There is only one way out of this bathroom. I’ve just made it that much harder on everybody, because I’m weak. “I don’t want it” I whispered to myself. “I don’t want it. I don’t want it. I don’t want it. I don’t want it. I don’t want it.”

I could see somebody slipping their smartphone under the crack in the door, trying to record video of what I was up to. I turned the lights off. “He’s turned the lights off” came a muffled voice, a moment later. In the background, I could heard Dad barking excitedly and incomprehensibly to somebody or other on the phone.

Despite the cascade of hot water on my face, washing away the tears, my eyes still stung. I continued helplessly grinding my teeth, holding onto my own body with both hands as if to protect it from myself, rocking back and forth.

This is all there is. All I have left. My world has shrunk to just the size of this bathroom. That’s the largest it will ever be again. I’ll just...have to live out all my unrealized dreams...in this bathroom? Within the next hour, somehow. There isn’t really room to dance though. I’ve got nothing to build any sort of boat with, either.

I heard Dad’s muffled voice through the door. “The safety was on. Can you believe that? Even if he had the guts, the damned stupid idiot left the safety on. Maybe he did it on purpose.” Someone sternly hushed him, probably Mom.

He’s right though. Figures I would do something like that. Subconsciously? I slid further into the ever-deepening water collecting in the tub. I wish it were larger, I just want to float. I want to close my eyes and float in a warm abyss.

Like in the womb. Maybe that’s why I’m in here? It should all end the way that it started. Just then, my ears perked up. I couldn’t make it out clearly until I shut off the shower...but there’s at least one helicopter in the distance. The sound of the rotor chopping away at the air was faint now, but grew steadily louder as I listened.

I turned the water back on. I still have time. How long’s it been? In here, every second is eternity, just how I like it. The mania raging within me dredged up countless memories. Some poignant and sentimental. Others just stupid every day memories that were attached to the meaningful ones in some remote way, getting pulled up with them in the process.

I recalled an exit marathon I’d seen on TV. Just back to back exit videos submitted by families from around the country, in memoriam. One of them took place inside a church. Everybody there was Hispanic, there was this handsome boisterous preacher in a white suit who welcomed a ten year old girl up to the stage.

She smiled sweetly. Sheltered I imagine, still not properly understanding what death is or she wouldn’t be smiling as he handed her the gun. Beautiful music wafted out of the enormous pipe organ at the rear of the church, and volunteers in white robes lined up to either side, just behind her.

I didn’t understand what for until she did it. I suppose because I thought there would be more buildup than that. She did quickly recite a little speech and wave to family members in the pews, but then she put the gun in her mouth and did her thing.

Her eyes scrunched up abruptly the moment it went off. For a split second, some of her hair flew up in the back, carried by a few tiny bits of flying bone and gristle. She toppled backwards. Just as intended, I realized when I noticed she’d been standing on a slightly inclined platform.

The volunteers caught her, then without missing a beat, hoisted her slight frame into the gaudy white casket they had on hand for the purpose. The music reached crescendo. The only people in the audience that were in frame sat in the front most row, all of whom were tearfully laughing and hugging each other.

She’d been dressed so nicely, too. Such a frilly, sky blue dress. Such immaculate, shiny little shoes. All so that she could wind up in there. It pained me on more than one level. That child had it in her to do what I failed to.

Even a child managed it. What am I doing in here, then? Cowering naked in this porcelain casket, trying to regress. To go backwards when that was never an option. It can still end only one way, can’t it? What did I accomplish by locking myself in here?

Jorge’s voice was next to plead with me. “I’ve got your phone. You should talk to Angie.” I shuddered, unsure of why. “She hasn’t answered in ten years” I called back, “Why would that change tonight?”

He slid the phone under the door anyway. I didn’t plan to do anything about it until it began to ring. I tried to ignore it, figuring it was just Jorge on the other end. Or Mom, or Dad. It wouldn’t stop ringing though, so I eventually had to get out of the bath.

My body felt heavier than usual, like the bath sapped away my strength rather than the reverse. My sopping wet arms and legs dripped everywhere as I reached for a towel so I could get my hands dry enough to use the touch screen.

“It’s Angie on the phone, bro. Don’t ask me how, this took a lot of preparation. I know what you went through after she left. There is some deep hurt there. Draw on that hurt! Use it! I know you’ve been fighting it back all these years but if you let it back in and go where it takes you, it will get you through this.”

I knew Jorge wouldn’t lie to me about something this important, yet was still unbelieving until I heard her voice. My hand shook so badly I nearly dropped the phone into the bath. “Is that...really you?” She laughed. “It’s me. Been a long time, hasn’t it.”

“Y-you...sound so different” I stammered. “Well, the years will do that to you. Two children will do that to you.” I gasped. “Two kids! I always knew you wanted one, but two of them? Just because things went pear shaped between us doesn’t mean you have to go full blown masochist.”

She laughed again, incomparable music to my hungry ears. “It’s actually not like that. I mean I know you’re joking, but it’s been an amazing journey. As much as it takes out of you, there’s just nothing that could possibly replace it.

When my parents would say that to me, I used to think it was something they told themselves so they wouldn’t dwell on how their lives could’ve been without me. It’s true though, every word of it.” There was a long pause. I could hear her staticky breathing on the other end. “I just...wish you could have found out for yourself what it’s like.”

The tears started in again. I’m back in the bath now so it was just more water, I was already soaked anyway. “Nope. No kids. I couldn’t find anybody after you.” She rebuked me. “I don’t believe that for a minute. I can still see your new pictures on social media. You look great.”

I struggled with how to answer. “No...no, not like that. I mean I couldn’t find anybody that my heart would respond to. It’s like how your body rejects organ transplants if you don’t drug it. Or blood transfusions, unless it’s exactly the same blood type.”

She didn’t say anything. Just gave me space, which she must’ve known I would fill. It was enough for me that she listened. “I think human beings are born with some reserve of emotional energy saved up to make them bond with the person they’re going to rear children with. So they will both stick around long enough.

I blew all of it on you. I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life, before or since. The moment I first saw you, I knew I would do anything. I would throw my life away, even just for the chance. So I did. I don’t regret it either.

That Summer with you melted away all of the pain, mended every wound sustained in my life along the way to reaching you. Dried my every tear, injected color back into a world which had become unbearably grey.

But it totally exhausted that emotional reserve. Like how a bee rips its own guts out after stinging somebody as it tries to get away. It was either going to be you, or nobody. Now it’s going to be nobody.”

There was another long silence. When she answered, I thought I could hear something new in her voice. Frailty, maybe. “This is why I stopped answering your calls.” I winced. “I know. I don’t blame you. I’m sure it’s viscerally unpleasant to hear, I just don’t know what else to say. It’s like asking somebody with a gushing wound to talk about anything but the wound.

You were so sure I would find somebody else, that things would get better for me. It just never did. You moved on with your life but I never went anywhere, just languished in a pit. I was there a week after that phone call where you told me it was over. I was still there a month later. I was there while you raised your kids. I’m still there now.

My only comfort is that it will be over soon...and that you called, I suppose. That means a lot.” Even now, all I could do was spread my pain to her. In her shoes, I wouldn’t have answered my calls. I wouldn’t have kept talking to me nearly as long as she did.

“I...still mean something to you, don’t I? You can say that, can’t you? I’ll be gone soon, your husband doesn’t have to worry about-” She cut me off. “Of course, you goob. Of course you mean something to me. Those were good years yanno, and that Summer is one of those warm, nourishing memories for me too.”

I no longer feel nearly so fried. The hot water soaked so completely into my every little pore, I feel like a rehydrated sponge. My erratic heartbeat seems to have evened out as well. “There’s all this dumb, mopey shit I wanted to say to you. I filled this huge stack of notebooks with it, but I never did anything with it because I was ashamed. I knew I was sick.”

She rebuked me again. “That’s not sickness. That’s just you being human. You really are a human, yanno. If you remember any of it, now’s the time to tell me. I promise I won’t laugh.”

I asked if she was sure. “Some of it’s really cringy. Like emo seventeen year old stuff.” She urged me to come out with it. So, reaching back into my mind, I searched for whatever small part of it I most wanted to say to her in the moment.

“I just wanted to tell you, as the lights begin to fade...that you are the reason I’m not afraid.”

Another long silence. “That’s from a song, isn’t it.” Despite myself, I burst out laughing, new tears streaming down my face. Really I felt irritated with her, but it’s so like her to pick at even something heartfelt like that. I couldn’t help but fall in love with her all over again, because every little nuance to how she spoke just reminded me why I fell for her to begin with.

“I told you. Most of it’s song lyrics actually, I told you it would be stuff like that. You promised not to laugh.” She pointed out that she’d never laughed. That in fact, I’d been the one to. “I still love you so much”, I confessed. “It hurts. It hurts so fucking bad. I wish it could be any other way than this.” Only her breathing came back, until…”Me too. I’m sorry it took this to make me call you.”

I fell all over myself telling her it was fine. What a strange feeling. Even recently, I wanted her to know what my pain felt like. Now, that’s the last thing I want. I want to wall my pain off from her, so that she won’t be troubled by it. So that she can stay in her beautiful, perfect garden with her husband and children, living the life that she always wanted...which I now realize that I also want for her.

There’s just one problem. Part of her past is still clinging to her. After it’s cut loose and allowed to fall into the sea, everything will be perfect. Really, the selection letter was merciful. It forced something on me that I should have done years ago. Right after she left, instead of letting it drag on for this long.

If not for the letter, where would I be in ten years? In twenty? One of those fat, balding middle aged losers in a van with a bottle of whiskey and a revolver, except without the divorces. That’s what it spared me.

Back in Florida, I had to sell the only gun I ever bought for myself, because I became certain I would use it. That I would have one of my many long, dark nights of the soul, and in a fit of emotion I would get it down from that shelf and use it.

Every evening as I worked at my computer, then later as I lay in bed, I could feel it softly tugging at me. Whispering sweetly in my ear: “If you would only take me down from here and get it over with, the pain will go away. Just like that. Nothing will hurt after that, nothing will matter to you at all.”

It was a mistake to buy it in the first place of course. The helicopters are really close now, by the sound of it. I can hear Mom chattering fearfully to Dad behind the door. I’m done in here though, aren’t I?

I feel done. As if after all these years, a tremendous weight has been lifted off me that I was trapped underneath. This is as good as it’s going to get, isn’t it? If not now, then when? I toweled off, then hung it up on the rack.

The phone rang again. Angie, surely? Something she forgot to tell me. I grabbed at the phone, my still-wet fingers slipping once before gaining purchase on the smooth, flat slab of metal and glass. “Hello? Angie?”

But it wasn’t her. “No, I...this isn’t a wrong number, is it?” The woman on the other end recited my first and last name, then recounted how she found my number scrawled on a folded scrap of yellowing paper, tucked into the pocket of a jacket she once wore to camp.

“...Kaitlyn?” Unbelievably, it was. She explained that finding the phone number brought back happy memories from camp, so she thought she’d call me and find out where my life went. Of all the fucking days to call, she chose this one.

“Listen I...it’s just, I’m in the middle of something. I mean... there is something important I have to go and do. Can I...get back to you?” I hesitated at the last part because I knew it was a fib. She said I sounded like I’d been crying, and asked what the matter was.

“It’s...nothing. There’s this thing I’ve been putting off. I really need to get to it.” She asked if I had a little bit of time. Said she’d spent the evening working up the nerve to call, and wanted to say some things to me.

Angie just indulged me in the same way a minute prior, so I could not find it within myself to refuse her. “Do...do you remember the day we all lined up to do the piggyback hike? The girls and boys paired off, every boy carrying one of the girls on his back up the hill.”

I answered that I did vaguely recall. “Oh, good. I certainly do. I was...a little heavier than the other girls. Haha, I don’t need to tell you, I’m sure you remember. None of the other boys would carry me. There were more boys than girls, but even the extras refused. I tried not to cry because I didn’t want to embarrass myself, but…”

I filled in the gap. “...But you did. I remember now. You weren’t that heavy.” She laughed. I noticed a slight slur to her speech. Not yet as drunk as I am, but well on her way. “And then! On the day that we practiced CPR, you had to put your hands on me and blow into my mouth.”

I assured her I remembered that part. “You apologized to me. It was gutting, I’d never heard anything that dismal from another human being until then. You told me you were sorry that I had to touch you. That you knew what it must be like for me, but you didn’t.”

She was definitely weepy now. It tinged her speech as she answered. “But do you remember what you said back to me? That I should never apologize to anybody for my own body. That I needed it to live inside of, and that for all I knew you were a creep who was enjoying it. Then you started to mimic heavy breathing, and howled like a wolf.”

Despite everything, I smiled. Too much feeling. Too much, at a time like this. “You don’t know what that meant to me back then” she insisted. “That’s such a delicate time for a girl. I was so sure nobody could ever see me as anything other than a beast.”

I told her that she was only ever like ten pounds above average. “For fuck’s sake, you looked fine. Such a little thing, to get so worked up over.” She told me I clearly didn’t understand the hearts of women, and I agreed that was probably true. We both laughed at that, through the tears.

“Was there anybody that...I mean, is there anybody? Did you meet someone since then?” I asked why she was asking. “It’s nothing...well, no it’s not. I mean, I had ulterior motives when I called you. A stupid fantasy, really. I thought maybe you’d be single and looking for someone.

I thought, you know. Maybe we could go get dinner. Not some big thing, just to tell more funny stories from camp. That kinda stuff.” A sharp pain pressed on my heart. “Listen, it’s...not that I don’t want to.” I could practically hear her deflate through the phone.

“No! No it’s alright, I totally understand. I mean, I actually...I lost weight, you know. That was just my ugly duckling phase, ever since then-” I cut her off, assuring that wasn’t it, the pain in my chest only growing more severe the more she spoke.

But try as I might, I could imagine nothing to say which would not sound like an excuse to her. Which her fragile heart would not eagerly mistake for rejection, a feeling I know all too well. There was simply no alternative but to tell her everything.

So I poured my guts out for her. Turned myself inside out, like how a starfish eats. I told her about my selection letter. About all the preparation up until today, about the guests waiting outside. I told her about Angie.

“Oh. Of course there was someone else. I’m so foolish. I’m sorry I-” Again, I shut her down. “No more of that from you. If I have to tell you again, all these years later, I’ll do it. You are gorgeous, inside and out.

You are a staggeringly perfect emanation of nature, a piece of the Earth which has come to life that we might cherish it. Looking at you was like looking at the gently smiling face of a starry sky. I was so young and so put on the spot by what you said, nobody had ever put their heart into my hands like that.

I could react no other way to it, because I recognized those exact feelings of fragility and self loathing in you that I felt in myself...more often than I care to recount. That was the first time I made such a powerful and instantaneous human connection with anybody.

Your beautiful, delicate humanity shone through and I could do nothing but cradle it close to me. Nurture it like a wounded bird, the way other people in your life should have before me. I wish there was some other way out of this. I would love to go to dinner with you.”

She broke up on the other end, all I could hear was drunk blubbering. “I also called...because I got my exit letter yesterday.” Oh. Of course. I slumped against the door and let myself blubber too, now that the full picture had suddenly come into focus. No use fighting it back at this point, may as well feel all of it.

Stars. The beach. Dogs, trees, concerts. Summer sunshine. The sound of Angie’s laughter. No, no more Angie right now. I have to belong to Kaitlyn right now, at least until the call’s over. “I wanted...you know, don’t you?” her voice was so soft now, almost whispering. “I wanted that dinner to be one of the last things...before...”

The stabbing sensation in my chest was unbearable now. There was just nothing to say that would make it any better. “It’s not as scary as I’m imagining, is it?” she asked, voice trembling. “I mean, you sound scared to me. You sound really messed up. Is that what it’s like?

I have never been terribly good at bluster. But I’ve also never been so powerfully motivated until now. “There’s a lot of hand wringing at first. A lot of agonizing, but it feels silly in retrospect” I lied through my teeth, recalling just then something I heard recently on the radio. “Really, we make it out to be so much more than it is. What does it amount to? Just a little poppity pop, then it’s all over.”

It was the last thing I could do for her. To posture and thump my chest, so that she wouldn’t be afraid. She’d find out it was all a sham when her turn arrived, but she might at least sleep soundly every night until then.

“Maybe you’re right. All worked up over something so little, when it comes right down to it. When I hear you say it like that, I believe it.” I steeled myself as hard as I could in order to maintain composure. It was unexpectedly grueling.

“What’s that in the background” she asked. “It sounds like helicopters. It’s...it’s not, is it?” This time I answered honestly. “Geez. You’d better get going. Thank you for everything though. I was so scared about calling you, but now I’m glad I did.”

She lingered, as did I, each of us listening to the other’s breath. “I hate saying goodbye.” I told her to just hang up, because there’s nothing that will make it easier. So she did. I finished putting my clothes on, occasionally glancing at myself in the mirror. Imagining how I’d look lying down with my arms crossed, eyes closed.

“Hang on. No, not there. The outlet is behind the bookcase. No, on the left. Not that left! My left, not your left! For God’s sake. Here, let me do it.” Dad’s voice. When I emerged from the bathroom, body still steaming, he knelt in the hallway with a circular saw, plugging it into the wall.

Near as I can figure he was fixing to break the door down, if it came to that. It was either going to be him, or the men in those helicopters. I guess I’d rather he do it, all things considered. He stared at me, blinking in disbelief. Shielding his eyes, in the darkness of the corridor, against the light from the bathroom door which framed my silhouette.

“There will be no need for that.” He stood up, brushed himself off and demanded to know what I’d been doing in there for so long. “I wanted to be warm. And clean, I guess. I dunno.” He shouted and gesticulated like he always does when he’s this mad, but I just waited him out. It’s not like he’s going to kill me or anything.

Everybody was still in the livingroom where I left them, chatting nervously to one another about the helicopters and tapping away at their phones. They all balked at me when I entered the room. Despite being surrounded by all of these people, all of them important to me in their own way...as the curtains finally begin to fall, and everything draws to a close...I have never felt so completely alone.

“Are you...ready now? Are you going to do it?” I didn’t bother answering, except to ask where the gun was. “You’re okay though, right? What happened in there?” I smoothed my shirt, then tried to do something acceptable with my hair so I’d look alright for Dad’s camera. “Somebody just give me the gun, please.”

Nothing left that I want to say, and only one thing left to do. As I kneel on this cushion, I find myself grasping inwardly for anything I can use to fight back the fear this time. Thoughts of Angie. I remember every tiny detail of that Summer we spent together. Thoughts of Kaitlyn. The future we might have shared, in a different world.

It gave me the strength I hoped it would. The strength I was missing before. All at once, now. No hesitation this time, all at once. Just one last, big push. Got to keep those memories running through my head as I tilt it gently back towards the canvas, slide the barrel of the gun into my mouth, and squeeze the trig

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