The right to die proponents didn’t exactly cheer. The anti-suicide crowd couldn’t quite complain. In fact, no one really knew how to react, but after years of court cases, op-ed pieces, demonstrations, billboards, and heartfelt television spots, people generally agreed that suicide by greatest fear seemed a manageable compromise.
• • •
“Patty, don’t do this, all right?” Lyle pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, welcoming a pain he could control. “I can’t. I-I just can’t.”
Patty pulled his hands away, and he let her, dammit, he let her. She gazed up at him, fear and pain leaving wet tracks on her cheeks. “Do you think this is easy for me? You heard the doctor. Chemo is no longer an option. I don’t have any other choice.”
“That’s just it, you do have a choice!” Lyle jerked his hands away before he crushed her fingers in his fists. “There’s radiation therapy, or that holistic specialist. The doctor even talked about a transplant. . .” Something coiled through his gut, darker and more terrible than the images of Patty’s liver and metastasized angiosarcomas holding her body hostage. Inoperable, incurable. The language of fear. The thing forced its way into his mouth. “If you loved me, you wouldn’t ask me to do this.”
Patty touched his cheek with cool, dry fingertips. “If you loved me, you wouldn’t leave me to die alone.”
• • •
Clinics–Vonnegut Shops to cynics and late night talk hosts–sprang up in dozens of cities around the world. Spacious facilities, full disclosure of accounts when called on, top notch security, and an excellent benefits package for the professional and support staff. The New Orleans Clinic sponsored the state’s second largest jazz festival every August. The Copenhagen Clinic hosted an annual survivors’ retreat the first full weekend in June.
• • •
The waiting room door opened. Monica What’shername?, slender and elegant and blue, smiled. “Lyle? Hi, come on in.”
Lyle stood. The words tumbled out in a knot of nausea and pain: “Call it off.”
Her expression did not change, yet a knowing compassion settled around her eyes and the corners of her smile. “Come into my office, and we can talk.”
Lyle didn’t want to talk. He wanted to punch her in the mouth, break her perfect fucking teeth, wanted to grab her by the throat and choke her until she gave his wife back. Instead, he followed her into a spacious office done in muted peaches and browns. He chose a wingback chair by the picture window, but could not make himself comfortable.
Monica closed the door. “Can I get you anything to drink? Water? Coffee? A beer?”
“No.” An afterthought. “Thanks.”
Monica settled in the chair across from him, tucking her legs under her, a casual complement to her silk and pearls. “How can I help?”
“You can give her back.”
She smiled with that same damnable compassion, acknowledging he was the only one who had ever felt this way when Lyle knew better. “I hear your frustration and concern, but that’s not our decision to make.”
“You didn’t see her this afternoon. She was scared out of her Goddamn mind.” The way she clung to him, screamed into his shoulder when the Clinic staff came to the door. Lyle could still hear Patty’s frantic sobs and, “Please, Lyle, you promised” as they lead her away.
Monica nodded. “Yes, but Patty signed the end-life consent of her own volition, aware of the implications and the binding, no exceptions, status. You stood as a witness.”
“No. You people, you people did something to her, messed with her head.” Lyle launched himself out of the chair to tower over her, fists tight and ready. Fuck reason and all the things he’d practiced saying on the way to the Clinic, better to stay angry, make her give him what he wanted. Besides, anger kept the tears at bay, and forced down the thing eating its way through his gut. He thrust a finger in the direction of the desk behind him. “You get on that Goddamn phone and tell the nurses to pack her stuff. I’m taking Patty home.”
“Patty’s very lucky to have you.”
Lyle winced, scowled. “I don’t want any of your -“
“There aren’t many people with the strength to agree to such a request as you have. I checked. This is the first witikophobia event on record at any Clinic.”
That fast, she cut away the anger, peeled back his bravado and laid bare the fear that devoured his courage and self respect, his true self. Too much, too fast. Lyle couldn’t hide from the pitiful, writhing thing he’d become. He fell to his knees, gripping her legs, the chair, anything to keep his head above the tears.
Hands stroked his hair, embraced him. A voice above the fear mingled with it, warm and cold and empathetic and unyielding: “It’s so hard. You’d never hurt her, you’d take her place if you could, but there’s no turning back. I know. I’ve been there.” Softer, an echo beneath the tears. “I’ve been there.”
• • •
A simple enough concept, really. After counseling and a battery of tests to score sincerity and mental state, people deemed rational and still determined to die signed binding end-life consent forms and were given 72-hours to set their affairs in order. They then surrendered to the Clinic to submit to the most terrifying death they could imagine. Arachnophobic? Lower themselves nude into a Plexiglas chamber and depress the trigger to fill it with poisonous spiders. Xrophobia? Sharpen a straight razor then use it to slit his or her own throat. Pnigerophobic? Swallow a pellet that would swell and seal off the esophagus, choking to death. Coulrophobic? Beaten to death by clowns. Severe financial and criminal penalties were levied against the surviving family members of any who took their life by less responsible means.
• • •
Take the blue pill eight to twelve hours before the event to calm the nerves, two yellow pellets under the tongue four hours before the event to improve mood and settle the stomach. Lyle didn’t trust the pharmaceutical bastards and followed each dose with seven slugs of Jack Daniels, one for every year of marriage.
He rented a tuxedo in accordance with Patty’s wishes, and did his best to make himself presentable: red cummerbund and tie; pin tucked shirt; cufflinks. He took another hit from the bottle then put in his favorite earrings, tiny emerald chips, a gift from Patty for their seventhanniversary.
The Clinic limo arrived at the appointed time, the driver discrete and comfortable with silence for the drive. Good thing he was doped to the gills and chemically happy, otherwise Lyle would have thrown himself out of the car at sixty-five miles an hour and hoped for the worst. Instead, he pressed the index finger of his right hand to the glass and drew it down, leaving his mark on the world. He needed a drink, bubbly to celebrate his cheerful grief. What kind of limo didn’t have a wet bar?
Once inside the Clinic gate, the driver stayed left and pulled up to a side entrance Lyle had never seen before. A man in sunglasses and a blue pinstripe suit stood at the door. Neither he nor the driver said a word while Lyle gathered the courage step out of the car.
Pinstripe led Lyle to a sitting room overlooking a rainbow of tulips. He left without offering refreshment and Lyle took a perverse pleasure in the fact that not everyone at the Clinic oozed understanding. With no clocks and no bar, he paced in front of the window. Patty loved tulips. He brought her tulips on their third date, and their first anniversary. Lyle tried to touch the joy behind the memories, but it slipped through his fingers like Patty’s hair when she still had it. He found the garbage can just in time.
He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and looked over his shoulder. “Not really.”
Monica wore red. She held out a folded square of rice paper. “These should help.”
Lyle took it, worms and leeches gnawing on the bones of his resolve when he saw the two red pellets tucked inside. “I need a drink.”
She filled a cut crystal glass with water from a matching pitcher. “Wine will be served with dinner.”
That same gentle smile. “I understand.”
Lyle dropped the pellets under his tongue and waved the water away. Seconds later, the warm tendrils of happiness flooded his bloodstream, poisoning his world. “Sure. Let’s go.”
The elevator opened onto a carpeted hallway ending in wooden double doors with brass handles. As Monica reached for the door, Lyle choked on a bit of happiness. “Wait,” he said, squeezing his eyes shut. “Is she. . .?”
“Not yet. They’ll bring her in once we’re seated.”
“Oh.” Where was his nausea now? Maybe he could stick a finger down his throat and ruin the party before it even started. Patty’s party pooper. He swallowed; a giggle leaked out the corners of his mouth. “Okay.”
She ushered him into a room of rich velvet and dark wood. Seated around a u-shaped table set with bone china and silver, men in tuxedos and women in silk looked towards the door and smiled, two or three glassy-eyed, one man pale and sweating. Lyle would have hated them for it if he could. He stumbled after Monica to the head of the table where she pulled out a chair, and dropped into it, stretching out his legs. He noticed the edge of his reflection in the silverware, how the open end of the U faced a single plain door.
It opened and two orderlies in scrubs wheeled in a woman wearing a knit cap, strapped to a gurney. A man in chef whites, carrying a black leather zippered valise, followed them into the room. He set the valise on the edge of the table, bowed to Lyle, and then to Monica seated to Lyle’s right. “Good afternoon,” he said.
Lyle leaned forward. “Patty?”
Patty craned her head around to look at him. “Lyle? Oh, God, Lyle, please -“
Her fear gouged a hole in his heart, but couldn’t penetrate the happiness. “It’s all right, Patty. I’m here like I promised.”
“Lyle, help me. I want to go home!”
Monica put a hand on Lyle’s arm and shook her head, no. “Last minute panic,” she said in a whisper. “To be expected. She won’t feel anything.”
As one of the orderlies offered wine to everyone at the table, the man in white unzipped his case and pulled out a scalpel, removing the blue plastic cover from the silver blade.
The others shook out their cloth napkins. Lyle followed suit. He smiled through the tears. “Don’t worry, hon. I won’t let you down.”
• • •
Most major insurance carriers covered responsible end-life events; not as many covered family support services after the fact.
Sandra M. Odell
Growing up, I looked at the ordinary from odd angles that never failed to encourage the sweetest of questions “Why?”, followed closely by “What next?” Writing has been described as a holy chore, a means of communicating the unknowable, and the tempest in history’s teapot. For myself, writing is as necessary as breathing, love, or a stash of really good chocolate. When I forget that inalienable truth, I flounder; when I embrace it, I am multitude. It’s easy to see the multitude when I embrace the chocolate, but you get the idea.