- Write a short story, of 700 words or fewer, based on this prompt: A man is surprised to find himself feeling both pleased and liberated by the news that he will soon die.
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VOTING CLOSES August 28, 2017.
Victoria’s fingers, curled loosely around Nick’s, seemed cold and papery on his skin. Sweat was starting to pool in the creases of his palms, but he couldn’t bring himself to pull away and wipe it on his jeans … not while the doctor spoke. Nick needed to hold tighter and tighter to Victoria’s hand. Her fingers remained limp and cold, only barely squeezing his hand back.
“We’re going to do all we can, Mrs. Warren,” the doctor concluded, nodding sympathetically. “I’ll give you a moment.”
The door and Nick’s eyes were shut tight as the man left. Victoria’s hand was still in his, her thumb now tracing slowly over his knuckles. His stomach was uncomfortably full of questions, the hows and buts and why nows and why hers mixing with what he had eaten for lunch in a way that threatened to make him sick.
“I told you,” she whispered, sighing out what sounded like a breath of amusement.
He opened his eyes. How could she sound amused at a time like this? After what they had just learned?
It was a wry, melancholy little smile that trembled on her lips, and bitter, heartbroken little tears that trembled on her bottom lashes as she looked at him. “I told you I’d be first.”
For a moment, all Nick could do was stare blankly … and suddenly the memory rushed back.
Nick had been clasping Victoria’s hand then, too, as their families and friends congratulated them. Jackson had stood at the front of the room holding a glass of cheap champagne.
“My brother Nick,” he’d started, “Is the most insufferably competitive person I’ve ever known.” There was slight laughter throughout the room, and nods from Nick’s family. “That changed on the day that Nick brought Victoria home. That night we played Monopoly. By the end of the game, it was Nick and Victoria battling it out while the rest of us fell asleep. While they can be a pain to compete with, I’m happy for them. I know that they will make each other happy, and push each other, and that they’ll go far together. They’ll be competing over who’s going to die first and fulfill the vow ‘till death do we part.’ Congratulations, Nick and Victoria.” A final round of laughter, applause, champagne.
That night in their room, Victoria was wincing as she extracted bobby pins from her hair at the vanity as Nick unlaced his shoes.
“I will be the first to die, you know,” she informed him loftily.
Nick laughed. “No, you won’t.”
Victoria scoffed and dropped another pin before moving to stand in front of him; that crooked, challenge-issuing smile on her face. “Watch. I’ll get to the afterlife first, and when you show up, I’ll say, ‘what took you so long?’ and I’ll hand you a second-place ribbon.”
Nick shook his head. “No way. I would have to die first. There isn’t a way I could keep living if you died.”
Victoria’s face had softened then, and she took his hand as she explained, “But I would have to die first, because I couldn’t go on if you died.”
Now, looking at his wife’s tearful smile, Nick cupped her cheeks and shook his head. “But it wasn’t supposed to be so soon.”
“He said I likely have another two years,” Victoria murmured.
And then what? Nick wondered. How am I supposed to keep living without you when it seems like our life together barely started? When I’m supposed to have years left and you’ll be waiting for me out of reach with a second-place ribbon?
About a year later, a troubled frown sat upon another doctor’s face. The doctor knew Nick’s wife was terminally ill at home, and the doctor only had more tragedy to share.
“How much time do I have left, doc?” Nick demanded.
“I really couldn’t say for sure…”
“Tell it to me straight.”
The doctor sighed and shrugged. “I’d estimate a year.”
The doctor had never seen a man look so relieved, so free, and so liberated to hear such news.
“Maybe,” Nick said seriously to the bewildered doctor, “She and I can just call it a tie.”
“I’d say he has a week or 10 days. Two weeks at most.” The grim-faced doctor excused himself to allow his words to sink in.
“No,” said one of the two women standing near the bed. She placed trembling fingertips against her lips. “That’s too soon.”
Her sister wrapped a comforting arm around the woman’s shoulder. “Betsy, he hasn’t been himself in years. We’ve known this day was coming. It’s time to let him go.”
“That doesn’t make this any easier, Rhoda,” Betsy said with a heavy sigh.
“I know,” Rhoda soothed, stroking her younger sister’s head. “But just look at him. He doesn’t even know we’re here.” The sisters studied their elderly father, a shriveled shell of the man he once was. He no longer bore a resemblance to the active, vital man he’d been before the Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
“I don’t know about that,” Betsy countered as she watched a tear slip from his eye and roll down his cheek. “I think he’s aware of a lot more than we realize.”
Rhoda grasped her sister’s hand and led her across the room to the narrow sofa where they had slept the past few months. “He doesn’t even talk to us anymore, Betsy. Not really. The only time he speaks, he’s mumbling something about somebody named Alice—whoever that is. We lost him long before this…”
A week or 10 days. Two weeks at most.
For most people, hearing that kind of news would be devastating. Not that anyone believed he heard a word of it. But he’d heard it alright, and understood it well enough to know the death sentence just handed down would set him free.
He knew he’d been talking about her. Most of the time he didn’t recognize his own children, but he could summon Alice’s porcelain skin and jade green eyes from the deepest corners of his mind. It was in those shadows that he really lived, and had for the last 50 years.
For all anyone knew, his mumblings were nothing more than the confused rantings of a demented man. But no, Alice was real and had been holding him hostage for half a century. He’d never told a soul about her, not since she ran out on him and left him a broken and angry man.
Except she didn’t run out on him.
She’d run from him, but she wasn’t fast enough. He’d caught her and the full force of his anger coursed down his arms and through his fingers. Before he realized what he’d done, Alice lay crumpled on the floor in front of him.
He’d tried blaming it on the booze. He knew he was a mean drunk. That’s what they’d been fighting about. She was fed up with his drinking and told him she was leaving. Those were the last words she’d ever spoken.
As he’d cradled her lifeless body, rocking her back and forth saying he was sorry, he vowed never to tell. Alice had said she was leaving, and over time he made himself believe she had.
But now his memories were turning into murmurs, and it was only a matter of time until he confessed what really happened.
A week or 10 days. Two weeks at most. Then he’d be free from the torture of knowing his own hands had squeezed the life out of the first and only woman he’d ever truly loved. He’d be remembered as a devoted father and dedicated teacher. A pillar of the community.
There would be a funeral and the mourners would say things like, “He’s in a better place” and “At least he’s out of pain now.” His belongings would be sold or thrown away and the memories his friends and family had of him would fade away.
Then one day, the new owners of the house would grow tired of looking at the patch of floor that didn’t quite seem to match. They’d tear it up and then everyone would know the truth. Alice hadn’t walked out on him. She’d been there all along.
The doctor told me to get my affairs in order.
“One month, at best.” His face was apologetic, although it was the best news I’d heard all week. The entire year, even. He’d shown me the biopsy results, then gave me a prescription for some painkillers, so I wouldn’t have to feel the increasingly painful pinching sensation in my bladder, and told me to make another appointment for next week.
Sixty years was more than enough for me. The first 59 had been terrific. I’d travelled around the world, met a beautiful woman, had three children. The last year, however, had completely sucked my soul. I couldn’t wait for this life to finally be over.
I crumpled and tossed the prescription on one of the waiting room chairs as I walked out of the clinic, and called my boss. Time to get my affairs in order, just as the doctor had ordered.
“Hey, Ross,” I said, “I’m going to call the IRS and tell them about those phony invoices you’ve been fabricating. Find someone else to do your dirty work. I quit.”
I hung up as a string of protests and profanities sang in my ear. Next, I called my best friend. Or, to be exact, my soon-to-be-ex-friend. When he answered, I said, “Just thought I’d let you know that I slept with your wife. Twice.” I paused, then added, “Two months after you got married. Think of it as payback for screwing me on that property deal 30 years ago.”
I let out a satisfied chuckle as his voice faded away. Revenge had never felt so good.
As I got on the subway, I called a realtor friend and asked him to put my house up for sale. Elsie had always hated that place, and I could finally give her what she had wanted, albeit a year too late.
Then I rang my lawyer so he could update my will. All the proceeds would be immediately donated to a foundation for sick children. My own children would never see even a penny from that sale. Not after treating me like I’d never even existed. The oldest one didn’t even have the courtesy to invite me to her wedding. I’d only found out that she was getting married from her university professor, who still kept in touch with me.
Three hours and several more phone calls later, I’d done everything I had to. Exhausted, I collapsed on my comfortable sofa, and closed my eyes to rest. If I were to go tomorrow, I was ready. Very soon, I could finally have the reunion I’d longed for, with my Elsie in Heaven.
My phone vibrated, interrupting my thoughts. The number flashing on the screen was from my doctor’s office. They’d probably found the prescription I had thrown away. Irritated, I rejected the call, but they were persistent, so I finally picked up.
The doctor sounded breathless. “Mr. Smith, I have some good news. The pathologist deciphering your results was new. You have a small cluster of cells crowded together, and it was easy for him to make the mistake. But something doesn’t seem right to me, so we brought in an expert pathologist to look at your results, and she decided that those cells were harmless.”
I was stunned. “So … what are you saying?”
“You’re not dying. Not anytime soon. The symptoms you’ve been having could be treated with a strong dose of antibiotics. A couple of months, and you’ll be as good as new.” He cleared his throat. “Our apologies for the error. But I’m sure you don’t mind, right?”
My mind flashed back to the all the phone calls I’d just made, and my blood ran cold.
“Not many people get a second chance in life, Mr. Smith.”
I wondered if there were any other quick, painless way to die.
“So consider yourself extremely lucky.”
Grant was a man surprised to find himself feeling both pleased and liberated by the news that he soon would die. Of course, he’d been wishing for this day for at least three years, but it was still a shock to see it written on Page 42 during the table read. He’d received the script last night delivered via courier, but as was his custom, he didn’t bother to read it. He already knew what it was going to say—a terrible crime was committed, he and his sidekick detective would solve it, all while he struggled to maintain his temper and sobriety. It was absolute drivel.
He paged ahead quickly to see if he was really dead, then looked around the table. Everyone was uncomfortably avoiding eye contact. He’d been sucker-punched with this one, but it didn’t dampen his glee.
Freedom! When he’d auditioned and taken the role of Detective McCracken for Officers of New York, a steady paycheck was what he’d considered freedom. With a crappy agent, he’d signed a five-year deal that became less monetarily rewarding as he learned what other actors earned on shows with poorer ratings. He’d tried to break his contract more than once, but the network legal brass had locked it up tight.
So, for the last two-and-a-half years, he’d done his level best to get fired from the show and the contract that prohibited him signing lucrative movie deals, even during hiatus. He’d harassed the writers, gave everyone who spoke to him grief, and showed up late, drunk and sloppy on several occasions. He was offensive, intolerant and dictatorial on set. It didn’t matter. He’d won two Emmy’s, three People’s Choice Awards and had a huge fan following for McCracken. He was handsome in a rugged way that translated to the screen effortlessly.
His new agent had told him last week that he was on a very short list (as in the only person) being considered for a huge studio blockbuster. Now with the show out of the way more than a year earlier than he expected, nothing was stopping him.
He took a swig of water and continued to read through the scene. This would be his swan song. He’d probably even win another Emmy for his work this season. He texted his agent under the table, “KILLED OFF—start fielding offers NOW.”
The rest of the cast finished the last few pages. Directions for call times were given. Grant ignored them. People moved quickly for the doors. He could have been invisible.
At the doorway, the director rested his hand on Grant’s shoulder, “It’s been a good run. You have a lot to be proud of—don’t let it get you down.”
Grant shrugged off his hand and gave him a look that said, “Who the hell do you think you are?”
Staff parted ways as he walked down the hall to his dressing room. He was starting to get angry. Why hadn’t his agent warned him about this? Where the hell were the apologetic producers? He was a network commodity and he was being treated like dirt.
He opened the door and found his agent sitting on the coach, staring at his phone.
“Hey man, did you hear the news? I’m done with this hell-hole. What do you have for me?” He grabbed a Stella from the fridge and popped off the cap. “Ready to celebrate?”
His agent didn’t look up. “Have you been online?”
He tossed his phone at Grant. He saw his face on the screen and pressed play.
It was a 10-minute video of him on TMZ describing in detail the flaws and shortcomings of nearly every A-list actress in Hollywood, in and out of the bedroom. At one point, Grant ranked them on a number scale and even what price he’d pay to be with some of them. It was filthy, drunk talk from months ago when scenes had run late and he’d found himself on the studio lot in the early hours in the morning celebrating after the shoot. He didn’t even remember who was there.
His agent delivered the news. “It’s over, Grant. You’re dead.”
Samuel squinted across the BART train at Death seated across from him. If the train hadn’t stopped mid-transit from Ashby Station to MacArthur, and the other riders weren’t completely frozen solid, he would have thought the old man a normal Bay Area crazy. But those things did happen. So that meant either Samuel was crazy (not uncommon for an actuary) or this man was Death.
“Why don’t you have a cloak and sickle?”
“Really? I stop time and tell you that you are going to die in six hours, and that’s your question?” Death’s tired eyes rolled into the back of his head, the skin fell away, darkness surrounded the car forming a shroud around the old man. “Is this better?”
Samuel found himself unable to move, as if every muscle had simultaneously turned in its resignation letter, and fled. The world went black, and a small tunnel of light began to form off in the distance. Samuel felt that he very much wanted to go there.
“Whoa,” bellowed Death in his face as the tunnel vanished and the subway train returned. He found himself staring up at the old man and the ceiling of the car beyond. “I said in six hours, not now. That’s why I never show up like that anymore.”
“Does everyone get this visit?” Samuel picked himself up and sat back in the seat. Outside the windows, North Oakland stood as a frozen blur.
“Yes,” Death nodded as he sat on the bench next to him. “With a Non-Disclosure Agreement. Says you can’t tell anyone about me or my business practices. If you do, you don’t get to go to your happy place.”
“So Hell is real?”
“No, you just cease to exist.” Death made an explosion motion with both hands. “Poof.” Death used Samuel’s squint from earlier. “Why are you smiling?”
“So, I don’t have to pay back my student loans, credit cards or mortgage?”
“And I don’t have to go to work anymore?”
“No, but you also—”
“And I don’t have to break up with Dara or explain to Stu why his kid kinda looks like me?”
“And global warming, or Russian invasions, or North Korean nuclear missiles are no longer of any consequence to me?”
“Look,” Death said holding up his hands. “Maybe we should start over. I think I messed something up.”
“No, no, no,” Samuel said. “You didn’t mess up, I did. But now, I’m free from everything. I don’t have to pretend to be friends with Arthur and his wife. I don’t have to get stuck in traffic or sit on BART thinking I’m possibly sitting in someone else’s filth. I don’t have to give up on my dreams of being a writer while I go and calculate risk for someone else’s fortune.”
“True, but you’re not going to be a writer now. You won’t get to see Stu’s— um, your kid grow up and have his first date, or drive his first car.”
“Are you kidding me? I was a lousy writer. Stu will raise him better than I ever could. Kids don’t date now, they just swipe right. And the joy of driving was stolen by Elon Musk, so who cares? I’m free. That’s all someone else’s problem now.”
“What about falling in love?” Death pulled out a phone. “Let me call her. Love will tell you what you could have had.”
“Love sucked. I failed at that every time.”
“This isn’t how this is supposed to work, Sam.” Death typed out a text and then looked up with a smirk.
Sam took back his previous squint and raised Death a cocked brow. “Why are you smiling?”
“Because it’s your lucky day. My boss just let me give you another twenty years.”
“No!” Samuel jumped up and turned to face Death, but the seat was empty and everyone on the train was looking at him. Oakland went zipping by the windows again. Sitting back down, he pulled out his vibrating phone from his pocket. A text from an unknown number came through:
SORRY, HERE IS THE NDA. Txt STOP to stop receiving msgs from Death. [NDA.pdf]