BY GORDON RAY BOURGON
Copyright is held by the author.
GERALD CROWLEY watched dusk weave a fabric of grey light over trees and a small lake that only moments ago shimmered under a setting sun. His last sunset; no more watching light’s masterful stroke deny history its evidence. Tomorrow he will see his last sunrise.
He stood at the lake’s lip for as long as he could in the air quickened by mosquitoes and bats. He listened to the whine of insects, the tentative cheeps of the night birds. He listened to the single wash of wind sweep through tree tops.
Then he saw the headlights, two sets of them following the road on the opposite side of the lake. They were too early. “They’re too early!” Have they the day wrong? Or could it be . . .?
Gerald smeared a mosquito siphoning blood from his neck. He turned his back to the lake and made his way to the cabin. The path he took seemed wider and less cluttered in the daylight. He tripped and stumbled; fell to a knee, scraping the thinned flesh of his palm. He had to hurry. They were bringing Eve.
Remnant scent of this morning’s fire filled the cabin. As well as from his breakfast. He lit a kerosene lamp in the corner (there was no hydro, one of the stipulations of his wish), and the pungency of the burning match and fuel-soaked wick overpowered the fireplace smoke.
He tidied the kitchen first: stacking dirty dishes, wiping counter and table top. Where he sat near the fireplace he organized his books, wiped clean a wine stain from an end table, and fluffed chair cushions. Gerald knew there was not time enough for a thorough clean. Tidy would have to do.
Gerald was able to qualify for the Lasting Wishes program. Ongoing pandemics and shortages of hospital and hospice care forced the government’s hand to create a program to deal with the increasing numbers of the old, sick, and dying. Twisted and desperate thinking came up with Lasting Wishes, designed to facilitate the early deaths of these people before they took up precious hospital space. Eligible participants were allowed to live a month with their wish or wishes fulfilled. At the end of such time, friendly yet eerily quiet government health workers paid them a visit and administered a lethal but ‘humane’ cocktail. Participants had to be in a sane and lucid state of mind, and the wishes had to be within reason. Surprisingly, the number of participants, across the country, was high.
At the time he applied for the program, Gerald knew he was sane, yet his moments of lucidity were erratic. Fear did this to him. He was afraid of living alone after his wife, Astrid, died. And when he became sick, he was afraid of dying alone. He hadn’t a fear of death. He thought of it as part of a logical process. His brave face, once he learned he was dying from a weakened heart and deteriorating immune system, was what helped get him selected for the program.
A young man and woman were sent to his home to interview him. Gerald thought of them as the Smiley Couple. They wouldn’t let up with their ebullient positivity; so much so, Gerald became annoyed. He could not see their smiles, of course, behind their masks. He saw the movement of their eyes, crow’s feet lifting and dropping like tiny branches. They were, however, encouraging when it came to Gerald’s wish list. They wanted him to wish outside the box, reach for the stars, so to speak.
The half case of red wine, on his list, did not seem to be a problem.
Gerald agonized over his final wish. It created an itch at the forefront of his brain. It was all he could do to nudge it so that he could know it. It felt like something, or someone, he needed to retrieve from his past. He wished that were Astrid; but that was a private wish. As he paced his living room, facing the Smiley Couple watching him from his sofa, it came to him. Eve.
Eve Richmond, Gerald, and Astrid knew one another in high school. Years later, when Gerald and Astrid were in the same college together (their relationship budding), they ran into Eve in the shade of a maple on campus grounds. She planned to attend the same college in the upcoming year. 1975.
They were an inseparable trio, frequenting, like other students from the college, noisy diners, dingy bars with names like The Rose Tattoo, and The Hyperion. They rode city buses together, browsed the same shelves in bookstores tucked away in alleys and side streets. Together they lazed about in parks, watching the odd and the homeless parade past them.
Eve fell in love with Gerald’s hands. She watched them hypnotically when they wrapped around coffee mugs, cupped globes of wine glasses, hooked handles of beer mugs. She fell in love with the rest of him, despite Gerald – Gerry – haven fallen for Astrid’s enticements. Their romance seemed forever put on display with the sole purpose, Eve had thought, to break her. Broken, then, she would eventually disappear; fade away like yesterday’s news. Their love was a force brilliant as the sun. Eve was disgusted whenever she was witness to it.
She resented their happiness, their togetherness. Men hardly approached her; if they did, she snubbed them because they were lacking in one thing or another that left her without a spark. None had hands like Gerry.
Eve waited for him. Not that special man who might have caught her eye from across a room, or the one that could ignite a private fire aching to burn. No, not him. Or any of them. She waited for Gerald. She waited for him to leave Astrid.
How would she react to the photograph of me and Astrid? This, Gerald wondered, holding the photograph to his chest, deciding whether or not to put it somewhere out of sight. Eve had made it clear how much she disliked Astrid. It was apparent just after their fifth wedding anniversary. When Eve tried to kill her.
Nothing could be proven; only Gerald and Eve knew what had happened at that hockey game all those years ago.
“I never realized Eve does not like me,” Astrid said, the day following the hockey game incident. “She puts up a good act.”
Astrid was not good with people disliking her – not good with the lack of explanation or the transparency of their feelings towards her. Gerald knew this, knew that half the time it was her imagining it. Still, he felt ticked that someone could dislike Astrid, his sweet, kind, gentle Astrid. If the animosity towards her was true, then he felt it; he was included and disliked. However, with Eve, he suspected how she felt about him.
Following that eventful night, they (‘they’ meaning Eve and Astrid) hadn’t spoken much to each other. Eve’s habit before was calling every day to set up a coffee date, or a night at the movies. She would ask Gerald first; if Astrid answered, the invitation had less importance; Eve’s asking had less enthusiasm.
If one knew what was going to happen at the hockey game, they could have looked for signs and determined the depth of Eve’s aversion to Astrid. Perhaps even the reason for it.
“I saw it in her eyes,” Astrid went on. “It was the way she looked at me, like nothing happened, or she could care less if I was hurt.”
Gerald was witness to the accident. Astrid and Eve were returning from the concession stand during the second period intermission, carefully making their way down those steep, narrow, concrete steps. The moment Astrid lifted her head to see where she was going (which coincided with the moment Gerald looked up to see them), Eve shot out a hand and pushed her. So quick, like a flick of shadow, barely witnessed. Even Gerald was not certain what he’d seen. Astrid lurched, fell into a calamitous downward tumble, sending popcorn everywhere, landing hard on her knee then elbow. Her head grazed a nearby seat, opening a gash along her temple. She came to a crashing, painful stop against the rink’s glass.
Her contention the next day was accurate: Eve did not show any concern for her; as if she could care less Astrid was hurt.
After, the two women, as though it hadn’t occurred to them to break up their friendship, made show of tolerating each other. Gerald wondered if this was for his benefit. Not having any proof, he did not approach Eve on the matter of intent.
He was always of the opinion Eve was different. When they were friends in grade school, it was Eve who ‘tagged along’ until Astrid and Gerald allowed her to share their time. All the kids knew that Eve’s father (whom everyone referred to as Ross) was a drunk. Nightmares from the many horrors he’d seen in the war turned him to drink. Someone’s life controlled by circumstances no one could relate to, was the building block for an urban legend. The daughter of such a person was to be thought of as strange, and treated accordingly.
Gerald did not go for the urban legend stuff; he’d witnessed Eve Richmond as an outcast, one who held contempt for the world.
After the hockey game incident, Eve perpetrated an unforgivable plan to break up Gerald and Astrid’s marriage. She turned Gerald’s inconsistencies in his daily life into deceptions on his part that inferred he was having an affair. Late nights at the library (where he was the chief administrator). Looking at women’s clothing and jewelry in department stores but never purchasing anything. Making late night phone calls from telephone booths. Eve waited for Astrid to start thinking twice about what her husband was up to, then unveiled the notion that Gerald was cheating on her.
Eve’s plan failed. Astrid saw through the lies and inferences. A fight ensued Gerald kept his distance, and wondered what he’d ever done to Eve to make her want to do such a thing.
A year later, Eve called him while he was at work. She sounded tired, purposeful in wanting to deliver a message, but without the faculty to do so. She sounded drunk.
“I ‘sturbing you, Gerry? Sorry.”
“I’m at work, Eve. What do you want?”
“What, no warmth for an old friend?”
Gerald had already started eliminating Eve from his life. He put her out of his thoughts; if he could not, then he made certain they were negative thoughts: cold and callous.
“Everything that comes out of your mouth is a lie.”
“Oh, Gerry. Gerry. That’s not true. Not true. That’s why it hurts to tell you this.”
“Tell me what?”
“It’s about her. Your wife.”
“Astrid. You can’t even say her name, can you?”
“You can’t. And you’ve been drinking.”
“You’re like your old man. Can’t deal with life so you drink to shut it out.”
Gerald’s throat seized. He felt a pounding from inside his chest, as if more vile emotions clambered for release.
“Your . . . wife . . . Ass-trid. Gerry. Is cheating on you.”
“Fuck off. You tried this before, remember?”
“I know who it is.”
“Shut up, Eve. Go back to the hole you crawled out of.”
Eve was broken. She shook, she trembled. Scalding tears carved tracks across her lips and chin. If the telephone receiver she white-knuckled was a gun, this would have been over with. But that would have been an ineffective solution. She did not want pity. It wasn’t her who needed to die.
“Ask her. Ask Astrid who Marlene is.”
The click and dial tone that followed was more subdued than Gerald expected. It was almost inadvertent.
Two weeks later, Astrid had a miscarriage. A week after that, Gerald and Eve kissed.
Gerald hadn’t thought about that kiss in years. It was a mistake he put out of his mind, or at the very least repressed. It was more than just a kiss; he must have enjoyed it. Must have because it gave him an erection. Sure, he pushed Eve away, took angry steps to distance himself from her. Scrubbed his lips hurriedly with the back of his hand. Nothing he did eliminated the guilt he felt for being aroused.
Eve was consoling him after the miscarriage – her face and lips presented as an extension of her kind embrace. Gerald hated her for it, for making the situation about them and not about Astrid who had lost her baby. Gerald thought Eve had tricked him into the kiss, and for years he hated his naiveté, his weakness.
When Astrid was dying, he hated himself all over again. Again, he blamed Eve.
Marlene was another of Eve’s lies. She took a small truth and twisted it into suspicious behaviour. A hug between friends; that was all it was. Marlene had lost her husband, and Astrid, every day for weeks, consoled her. Eve had seen them together, in restaurants, in shopping malls, and drew her own conclusions. She fictionalized life to suit her needs. Friends became characters who did her wrong.
It was natural, logical, for Astrid and Eve to stop being friends. Astrid saw it as her eliminating Eve from her life. Gerald followed suit, but Eve remained a presence despite her being absent. Doors of guilt on both sides were left open. The need to close them nagged at him. He had the opportunity, now, to do so. Thanks to his lasting wish.
Gerald placed the photograph back on the end table, turned it to face the door. The time for lying and not facing the truth was over. Astrid would have wanted this. She would have wanted him to make amends with Eve.
A momentary white/yellowish light from the car’s high beams washed the cabin’s interior. After its passing, Gerald realized how little light his kerosene lamp cast. He remembered feeling lonely in its soft, dim glow.
He fixed the paper mask to his face. The people from the Lasting Wishes program insisted he wore one. He thought it was pointless, unnecessary. The wearing of such a seemingly innocuous piece of protection left him feeling it was too little too late. Astrid was proof of that.
The sound of car doors closing. Gerald moved to the centre of the room, and waited.
He felt the knife slip in just under his rib cage. He could smell her perfume, the scent of her hair; feel the heat of her breath on his neck. Their eyes met when the knife went in a second time. This was Eve. Still the same. Eyes of deception and pain. Eve. Astrid’s friend, once. My friend, once.
Gerald dropped to the floor as bodies rushed to Eve. She drew the knife across her throat and slumped on to Gerald. Their bodies jerked and twitched as if in a final dance. His trembling hand reached for her throat as if to stop the flow of blood. No one will know for certain.
Flashing, erratic light filled the room. The ambulance had arrived.
Masks were removed from the dead and the living. It was a shame, someone thought. The government was pulling the plug on the Lasting Wishes program. This was going to be their last visit. What a shame. Now there will be more paper work.
Gordon Ray Bourgon has had short fiction published in Canada, U. S. and U.K. He lives in Sarnia, Ontario with his wife and two sons.