Blue police lights were flashing through the half-closed blinds… again. The scene, which is exactly what it was, a scene, like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of a busy store, was not new. Jack had watched the drama unfold countless times. His next door neighbor was an abusive ass, not that Jack would ever confront the man. Confrontation wasn’t in his nature. He wasn’t a coward, but he thought of himself as more civil than to resort to violence. He had, however, called the police many times to report the noise, the cars in the street, the loud music, but mostly the fighting. Loud voices, screaming obscenities, shouting and wailing, it was all too common and usually broke into Jack’s much-needed sleep. Why, he wondered, did deadbeats always seem to have their crises in the middle of the night? Why couldn’t they fight during decent hours like everyone else?
Jack stood in the darkness, watching the policemen in his neighbors’ overgrown yard through the blinds. They couldn’t see him, but he saw everything. It had become his habit, to watch, just an unseen observer spying on the misery of others. He didn’t consider himself a snoop. He was in his own home, after all. He didn’t seek out the insanity that seemed to be a constant state for his neighbors. If they wanted to act like fools, that was their right. If they insisted on doing it on their front lawn, then watching them was Jack’s right. Besides, he couldn’t sleep anyway. He’d been lying in bed, tossing and turning. Sleep was no longer something Jack could count on. He was getting older, his forties were more difficult than he had imagined, not that he could have slept through the screaming, or the radios squawking. Jack couldn’t understand why the police radios seemed so loud at night.
And there it was, he thought to himself as his neighbor was escorted out of the house in handcuffs. It wasn’t a new sight, Sydney Oliver must have had a criminal record, Jack couldn’t know for sure, but the long-haired, lanky man who never seemed to have a shirt on, had been taken from his home by the police on countless occasions. Unfortunately he always turned up the next day, just as loud and as nasty as ever. It made Jack’s civic duty seem like a waste of time. He would determine not to call the police when the fighting started, but there were times when the wailing seemed as if Sydney were surely killing someone and Jack’s resolve broke. Although on this occasion Jack hadn’t made the call, it must have been one of the other neighbors.
The tattoos on Sydney’s pale skin seemed unnatural in the flashing blue lights from the patrol cars. His long hair looked dirty, and he was looking at the other houses around his own, as if he expected the person who had called the police to be standing at their own front door waving a sign to let him know how to seek his revenge. Jack thought the man was an idiot, and yet he lived in the same neighborhood as Sydney, right next door to the shirtless abuser. What did that say about Jack, he wondered.
His life was not what he imagined it would be, and that thought taunted him as he returned to his bed. The empty section of the queen-sized bed mocked Jack. His wife was gone, his future was so boring he wondered why he even tried anymore. He was trapped in a mid-life crisis, with too much debt and very few prospects. For forty-two years he had done the right thing expecting that he would be rewarded at some point, but instead of rising to the top he had gotten stuck in the soft middle. He was invisible, a clone, a nameless placeholder in the machine of life, easily replaceable and completely forgettable.
“Have a seat, Jack,” the doctor said.
Jack knew the man’s name. They were the same age and he had been a patient at the clinic for a decade, but Jack still thought of him as “the doctor.” It was the first time he had been invited into the doctor’s actual office, with tufted leather chairs and diplomas on the wall behind the big, wooden desk. Jack sat down, knowing intuitively that he was not about to get good news.
“I’m afraid the prognosis isn’t good,” the doctor said in a soothing voice that Jack found surprisingly comforting. “Your white blood cell count is very high, and the lymphocytes are immature. It’s cancer, acute lymphocytic leukemia.”
“I thought only kids got leukemia.”
“No, that isn’t true,” the doctor said, as if he were preparing to tell an exciting story at a dinner party. “ALL is most common in children and the elderly, but it does sometimes occur in middle age, especially in men. Essentially, your bone marrow isn’t making white blood cells correctly anymore. Think of it like an assembly line that is making a very specific apparatus, but something has gone wrong. Your body is making the white blood cells wrong, Jack, and making far too many of them. That’s what cancer is, mis-formed cells that can’t do the jobs they’re designed to do. They end up doing harm instead of doing good, does that make sense? And it can occur anywhere in the body. Your cancer is in your blood, which means the disease has access to every part of your body.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” Jack said.
“It’s not good, I’m afraid. You’ll need to see a specialist, a hematologist, to get an accurate diagnosis and find out all your options.”
Jack felt numb all over. It was as if he were shrinking back from the horror of what the doctor was telling him, receding into his own body for protection. He could still hear and see what was happening, but everything seemed far away and distant somehow.
“So I need chemo,” Jack said.
“Chemo therapy is an option,” the doctor said, nodding encouragingly, but something in his eyes told Jack that he was lying.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“Look, I’m not an expert. I’m just a general practitioner, not an oncologist. Everything I tell you is generalized information. Every person is unique and every diagnosis needs to be tailored to each individual’s medical needs.”
“Just tell me the truth,” Jack said. “I can take it.”
Actually Jack was afraid he couldn’t take it. There was a sound like a siren, echoing in some distant part of his brain, and a feeling of intense fear was seeping into his body as if he were locked outside in the middle of winter storm. He could feel his heart beating in his chest, pounding hard, as if his blood had become glue and didn’t want to flow through his body anymore, but despite all of that he couldn’t turn away. It was like looking at the mangled corpse of some poor animal on the side of the road, its flesh ripped and smashed by a speeding motorist. Jack knew he didn’t want to hear what the doctor was telling him, but he couldn’t look away.
“Okay, there are a few things you need to know,” the doctor said. He was sitting close to Jack in the second leather chair, not behind his desk like Jack had expected. He was leaning toward Jack, a look of compassion on his face.
“Acute lymphocytic leukemia is aggressive. It spreads quickly, which means you need to see someone as soon as possible. I won’t lie to you. You’ve been my patient for a long time and I’ll do all I can to see you through this, Jack, but unless we catch ALL early, most people don’t survive it. We’re talking a few months maximum, but we don’t know where you are in the process. We don’t know if the disease has spread.”
“But you have an idea,” Jack said.
“I wouldn’t want to guess,” the doctor said.
Jack didn’t normally see through people. He had never been perceptive like a hardened detective on a crime drama. But Jack could tell that his doctor was lying. He had an idea of Jack’s condition and he did in fact want to elaborate. Jack wasn’t sure he wanted to know, but simply couldn’t resist asking.
“I need to know,” Jack said.
“All I can go by is the lab report,” the doctor said. “I’ve never seen a white cell count as high as yours. We didn’t catch this early. It could be in your brain, in your liver, your lungs. We won’t know for sure until we run a battery of tests, Jack, but you need to prepare for the worst. You should probably be admitted to the hospital today, but I couldn’t get you into the hematologist until tomorrow. They’ll need to do scans and perhaps even biopsies, but it doesn’t look good, Jack. It doesn’t look good at all.”
Jack nodded. He couldn’t take any more. He’d been feeling tired, as if he were fighting off a cold, but not sick. In fact he wouldn’t have even seen the doctor but his pathetic health insurance covered an annual physical and his company gave him half a day off for it every year. He had just wanted a break from the monotony of his job, a little half-day vacation, and suddenly he was facing a death sentence.
The look on the doctor’s face told Jack the real story. There was no hope there, not even compassion, just sadness and a shadow of fear. It was the way you looked at someone you knew was going to die. The reality of that fact was frightening, terrifying if you looked too close. And Jack understood the gravity of the situation. He didn’t need to go to the hematologist. He didn’t need more tests done. He was dying, that was the bitter truth of it, and nothing could be done to save him.
“How…” he struggled to speak, his mouth was suddenly so dry, “how much time?”
“I can’t say for certain,” the doctor admitted. “There’s still a lot we don’t know. Maybe two months, if we can get you into the hospital and onto a treatment plan as soon as possible.”
“No,” Jack said, standing up slowly.
He was tired, in fact he had been overly tired for a long time it seemed. The trouble he’d had sleeping was the rationale he’d used to explain it, that combined with his age and being slightly overweight. Everyone told him that things changed when a man hit his forties. But clearly the way he’d been feeling wasn’t due to the lack of rest, or even middle age. It was the cancer. The disease was running rampant through his body and stealing his energy in the process. His body had turned against him, and was killing itself.
“I’m not going to the hospital,” Jack went on. “How much time do I have?”
“A few weeks, maybe,” the doctor said.
“And it will get bad?”
“Yes, it will. It will happen fast.”
“Good, no sense lingering if there’s no hope.”
“Jack, I never said that,” the doctor exclaimed. “I never said there was no hope.”
“You didn’t have to,” Jack said.
He didn’t shake the doctor’s hand like he usually did at the end of an appointment. There was no sense waiting for permission to leave the suddenly very claustrophobic office. He opened the door and wound his way through the twisting corridor back to the front desk. The woman working there looked up and the shadow of fear he’d seen in the doctor’s face was even more pronounced in the receptionist’s eyes.
“You have an appointment with Dr. Keller at the oncology center on Division Street,” she said.
“Cancel it,” he told her without even slowing down.
“Mr. Holloway?” she said, but Jack ignored her.
He pushed through the glass door and made his way through the large central hallway to the stairs. Tears were stinging his eyes, and his legs felt heavy, but he held himself together until he got to his car. It was a two-door Honda Civic, over a decade old, with a large spot on the hood where the engine heat had peeled away the paint job. He dropped into the driver’s seat, closed the door, and covered his face as the tears came streaming from his eyes and his body shook with uncontrollable sobs.
The .45 caliber pistol was heavy, the metal cold. Jack had always been frightened of the gun. His father had forced him to take it when he got married. The weapon had gone into a box at the top of the closet, where it was carefully avoided for the next two decades. Jack had only fired it once, at an indoor shooting range. The gun, always mysterious and deadly, had proven to be even more frightening in action. Jack wasn’t prepared for the recoil, or the outgassing that pelted his face with each shot. It was like trying to hold a small explosion in his hands, and even with the protective ear muffs, the sound inside the concrete range was deafening.
When Jack left the doctor’s office there hadn’t been enough time in the day to return to his office, not that it even crossed his mind to go back to work. He drove home, through the confines of downtown and out into one of the many crowded subdivisions that surrounded Spokane. His neighborhood was dated, with many of the houses needing new paint or even more complex repairs. The yards were weedy, the sidewalks cracked, and the road was dotted with potholes. It was a depressing place to live, Jack thought as he drove home, and it saddened him to think of spending the last few weeks he had left there. He didn’t want to face an illness that would overwhelm him.
The gun wasn’t the first thing he went to when he got home. He was hungry, he’d been told to fast before the physical, and hadn’t eaten anything all day. So when he finally got home he ordered a pizza and turned on the television. He couldn’t concentrate on anything, so he’d opened his laptop and begun researching acute lymphocytic leukemia. When the pizza arrived he could barely eat it. The information he’d discovered online was either academic, or graphic in its explanation of how he was dying. There was no way to avoid what was bound to be a painful and humiliating death.
So, after wavering between bouts of anger and fear, he had gone to the closet and pulled down the box where the Springfield 1911 pistol was kept. There were two clips and a box of bullets along with the gun. Jack knew enough about the weapon to check all the moving parts. It was clean and ready for action. Jack pressed eight bullets into the clip and then slid the slender metal magazine into the handle, not sure why he was loading the weapon to capacity when he would only need one bullet. When he pulled back the slide, it moved smoothly along the track, then thumped back into position with a satisfying chunk.
For the next hour Jack held the gun and thought about his life. He thought about Hannah, remembering the girl he had married, not the woman who had cheated and left him. She had been funny, and so excited about their future together, but both of those traits had quickly been kicked out of her by the harsh realities of life. They had met in college, marrying in the holiday break between semesters of their senior year. Those first few months had been full of wedded bliss, but then college ended and they had taken jobs. They moved into a small apartment, excited about their future, but the bills had piled up. They both had student loans to repay, and even with their combined income they struggled to keep up financially. That’s when the fighting had started.
A few years into their rocky marriage things took a turn for the worse. Hannah was let go from her job when the company she worked for went through a merger and restructuring. It took months to find another job, and when she finally did it was two thousand miles away from their home in northwest Arkansas. Jack didn’t want to move, but he didn’t want to lose his wife either. Hannah was determined to go, so he’d given his notice, packed their belongings, and moved to Spokane, Washington.
Things didn’t improve between them, not when they finally managed to purchase a home, and not when they decided to try and have a family. Infertility had been the final wedge between them, sucking away every cent they had saved and plunging them even deeper into debt. The fighting had grown nasty, and the space between them was like a chasm. Still, even through all of it, Jack had not realized he was losing his wife. When he came home after work almost a year ago and discovered that Hannah had left him, he was devastated. She had found someone else, someone with more money and better prospects. She wanted a divorce, but Jack had resisted. He had held onto the hope that she would come to her senses and return home, but instead she had moved to South Dakota with her lover and the last news Jack had heard was a rumor that she was pregnant.
He blamed himself for not being able to give her the children she wanted, and perhaps it was the cancer, he reasoned. Perhaps even then it was working to rob him not only of his life, but of his happiness as well. The longer he thought about things the more certain he became that ending his life was the right thing to do. He had acquaintances but no real friends, his parents were both deceased and his extended family lived far away, certainly no one would miss him when he was gone. There was nothing to live for, all he needed was the courage to actually pull the trigger on the gun.
Still, he remembered the way the pistol bucked in his hands, the way fire roared from the barrel and death breathed its hot breath across the back of his neck when he pulled the trigger. Shooting himself would end his life, but it would be a frightening, painful way to go. He knew that holding the gun steady would be difficult. The last thing he wanted was to flinch at the wrong moment and end up with a terrible wound that would take days to kill him. He didn’t want to feel any more pain. It didn’t seem fair that he’d had so little happiness in his life.
And then, after an hour of contemplation, he lifted the gun, looking down the dark barrel. One last task and his suffering could be over. One last job to do, and then what? He had believed in God as a child. He had grown up going to church with his family, but had fallen out of the habit in college. Somewhere in the back of his mind he’d always thought he would get back to church one day, perhaps when he had a family of his own. What would happen once he pulled the trigger? Would there be a light at the end of a tunnel? Would he face his creator, or would he simply wink out like a candle in a breath of wind? He didn’t know, and to be honest he was afraid. If God did exist, what would he think of Jack’s life? That thought scared him even more than dying. He didn’t want to just end, but he didn’t want to be a disappointment to God either. Both of his parents were gone, they had passed away following a car accident. Jack thought it was a mercy that they didn’t have to face their own demise, or live through his death.
The barrel of the gun barely protruded from the square housing around it. He pressed the gun to his temple, but his finger wasn’t on the trigger yet. He wanted to feel the metal against his skin, to think about the angle of the shot, and how the weapon felt in his hand. Could he hold the gun and fire the shot at the right angle? He didn’t want to rush things. There was no reason to hurry. He was dying, but he had time. Perhaps, he considered, he could do something with the time he had left. It was almost summer and the weather outside was just perfect, cool in the daytime, refreshing even. Ideas of what he could do flickered through his mind.
Maybe he could stick around long enough to tell his boss that he was quitting his job. He could go to the coast, see the ocean one last time. There was something magical about the sea, it was a place where anything seemed possible. Only, he had no money. His credit cards were maxed out by fertility treatments. Hannah had cleaned out their meager savings account when she left, a little salt to rub into his wounded heart. He had a retirement account with nearly eighty-five thousand dollars in it, but he knew it would take weeks to actually get his hands on the money. What could he do in the meantime? He would be left waiting, getting sick, growing weaker, with no guarantee he would even be able to make a trip once the money was available.
Suddenly the gun seemed like a better idea after all. His prospects were gloomy and depressing. The only way he could see to regain control of his life was to end it on his terms. He thought about taking pills, but there was something cowardly at the thought of an overdose, not to mention the fact that he didn’t have anything stronger than ibuprofen in his possession. Washington State had legalized marijuana but Jack had no taste for pot, it made him nervous and paranoid. All of which brought him back to the gun. He held it under his chin, his thumb sliding from the trigger guard to the trigger. His heart was pounding again and he felt something deep inside of him urging him to press down on the slender activator that would unleash the pistol’s deadly power.
He closed his eyes, taking several deep breaths, then finding the trigger again with his thumb. The barrel pressed into the flesh under his chin. He hated the fat that collected there, making the space around his face seem puffy and bulging out into a second chin whenever he tilted his head down. It was time, he knew that. All he had to do was press down on the trigger. No more fear, no more striving to find a way to make everything in his life work. He would finally be free, finally able to rest. All he needed was the courage to press down, just a little bit, just one second more. He was determined. Everything else fell away. He was ready. The gun, which had been heavy and awkward in his hands all night, suddenly felt right. He would press the trigger and end it. His heartbeat calmed, his body felt light, and he knew it was time.
And then he heard the scream.Type your paragraph here.