It was the briefest of contacts, a mere brush against each other as we passed in the hall outside my office. I had seen her before, but didn’t know her name. She was tall and shapely with red hair and pretty green eyes that smiled behind her glasses. In that one touch there was a spark, perhaps nothing more than a little static electricity that happened to discharge between us, but whatever it was it made us look at each other and our eyes locked for the briefest of moments. Now I’d like to be able to say that in that moment I saw our whole life play out before us like some movie, but that wasn’t it. In that flash of a moment I looked into her eyes and saw oblivion. My death waited for me in her.
I suppose it would have been natural to be scared, hell, terror would have been a proper reaction, but I had never feared death. I held a strange curiosity of death, specifically my own, but in my desire to understand my own demise I found myself drawn to the death of others. I had a hard time believing that death could be random no matter that it often seemed that way. No, our actions or the actions of those around us pushed us inexorably closer to death every day and in time some choice we make sends us to the grave. Some people obsess about death wanting to know what happens after we die. Reincarnation, heaven, hell, nirvana, whatever you want to believe, it interests me not, whatever happens after our last breath is drawn is inconsequential. Life is for living and anything that comes after is just a pale imitation at best, everlasting torture at worst. For me the interest is in the act itself. Do we see it coming before hand? Does that feeling of dread that creeps up our spine for no reason foretell our demise? If we know it is coming can we avoid it? Should we even try?
I’ve been there when the life spark left the body and every time it was different. Some people seem resigned to the end while others fought tooth and nail to hold onto the little they had left, daring to hope for just a little more, but in the end, when their heart took its last beat they were forced to leave this world to those who still had life within them. I was convinced that the line between resignation and struggle was where my answers lied. Was the man who struggled oblivious to the portents of his own demise? Had the woman who simply resigned seen it coming and known that resisting was just a waste of her few remaining moments? I often tried to ask the dying in their final moments which it was, but so often they were lost in the waning moments of existence and could offer little more than gasps, but occasionally someone would try to explain it to me.
Once a woman in her nineties had whispered in her final moment, “I’ve seen it coming for some time, but I didn’t expect it tonight.” She had not fought it, she had accepted the inevitability of it and passed quietly. Curiously it was the oldest and youngest who fought the least and I think it was because the old were ready and the young didn’t expect it or understand it. The old woman’s whispered final words confused me for a while. If she had seen it coming for some time how did she not expect it on the night it happened? Did that mean she had not died in the manner she expected or when she expected? Was it possible that she had seen her death, but that it had changed due to some action she had taken which altered her course? I focused my curiosity on this question for some time and came to the conclusion that it was possible to alter the time and means of death, but that in trying to do so we risked calling upon the reaper earlier than intended.
So there I was standing in the doorway of my office, my oblivion walking away, completely unaware that with every step she took my time on this earth grew shorter. As she turned the corner and left my site I was shocked back to reality, our connection severed. I stepped back into my office, shut my door and closed the blinds. I needed privacy, a chance to think. My heart was racing a million miles a minute. I had seen it! My death was coming and I had been made aware. How simple it was to see it coming! My hands shook with pleasure. At last I felt truly vindicated. I had been right all these years. We were warned, told that our breaths were measured and running out. How glorious.
Sitting at my desk I began to calm down and immediately put my affairs in order. I called my lawyer and had him draw up a will, donating all of my belongings to whatever charity he liked and my body to science. He was used to the strange requests I often made of him and didn’t even bother questioning me any more. He was paid well and I had been a client for over twenty years so drawing up a will out of nowhere wouldn’t even make him bat an eye. I was all alone in the world, no wife, no kids and the rest of my family had died when I was still a teenager so there was no one I felt that I needed to say my farewells to. I was ready, it was just a matter of waiting.
As I sat back in my chair I began to imagine the various means and manners of my impending death. Images from heroic self sacrifice to being hit by a car as I stepped off the curb all raced through my mind and in each of my mental picture stood that lovely red headed girl, smiling, crying, laughing, screaming, but always there. While I reveled in images of the end I felt something else, a small tickle at the back of my consciousness, something nagging me with feelings of self doubt. What was I forgetting, there had to be something. It struck me that I still had one theory left unproven: could the path be altered? Could I do something to avert my extinction? Could I alter my fate in such a way as to escape it and live for some time longer?
I resolved to try. Time was short. I had seen my doom and its time was drawing close, to tarry for even a day might make my actions too late. I had to act swiftly to ensure that the change took place. I left the office and returned home, gathering up a few items and then heading back to towards the office. I sat in my car and waited. The minutes slowly ticked by on the digital clock of my car while the quiet strains of Brahms drifted from the speakers. I waited, unsure of myself for the first time in twenty years. For all of the times I’d observed death first hand I had never been nervous or uncertain in my actions. My research was cold and impersonal, a means of discovering the truth, but today I would be putting it all to the test, proving or disproving my life’s work in an evening. I swear I could hear the numbers change on that dashboard clock and the sound was mind shattering. Finally I saw my doom leave the office. She walked out to her little economy car and drove off, blissfully unaware that I followed behind her, chasing my doom through rush hour traffic.
It took nearly an hour, but eventually we arrived at her home, a pleasant little two story affair on the inner edge of the suburbs. I settled in and watched. No one else came home, no dog patrolled the backyard, no neighbor stopped by for tea. She was alone, so very alone.
I left my car well after dark had come to the neighborhood. The humming streetlight in front of her house chirped and blinked out as I stepped out of my car, a good omen if one believed in such things. I quietly made my way around to her backyard and picked the lock to her back door with no difficulty. My years of research had made me acquire some unusual skills, but I was never so grateful as I was at that moment. Once inside her house I quietly looked around, learning more about her as I made my way to the stares. Her name was Rebecca. She had a beautiful kitchen, but ate frozen meals for dinner. She liked to watch movies and had quite a collection of classics. She had loved once, but that had been long ago. It really was too bad I hadn’t gotten to know her earlier.
The stairs were carpeted and my climb was unmarred by telltale creaking. I kept a gloved hand on the upstairs railing as I slowly moved down the hall to the room at then end with the light pouring out of it. I crossed the hall and stayed close to the wall as I inched my way closer to the doorway. I peeked in and saw her dressed in a forest green nightgown, sitting in a comfortable chair, a book in hand, a reading lamp hovering above her right shoulder. She faced slightly away from the door and seemed completely unaware of my presence. My hands sweated within my gloves as I looked upon her. It was the moment of truth. Her death for my life and all that I believed.
I screwed up my courage and stepped into the room quickly, with purpose. She barely registered my presence before I was to her. My hand pressed against her mouth, choking off her screams as I pulled her from the chair. She fought and struggled, desperately kicking and clawing at me as I dragged her toward her bed. A strong jab with her elbow knocked the air from my lungs and I reflexively released her mouth, but instead of screaming she bit me, burying her teeth in my arm and pulling away a small piece of flesh. It was I who screamed first that night.
Rebecca was a fighter. She knew her time was not at hand and she assaulted me with every fiber of her being. She clawed my faced, kicked my shins, and punched my stomach, never letting up, forcing me back, and refusing to let me back into the fight. Before I knew it we were out of her room and in the hall overlooking the living room downstairs. How had I lost control? What had happened? She punched me in the jaw one last time and I fell backwards, crashing through the railing and as I fell I realized where I had gone wrong. I had panicked. I had rushed into her house without making the preparations like I had with all of the others. She was my doom and I had rushed headlong into her.
I had hit the ground nearly head first and the last sound I can remember was an explosive crunch that I assume was the sound of my own neck breaking. I don’t know how long I lied there, but some time later she came downstairs a cell phone held to her ear. I couldn’t hear and even breathing was becoming harder, but I could read her lips, “I think he’s dying.” I would have laughed if I could have moved.
“How right you are,” I thought, “I’ve been dying all morning and you didn’t even notice until now.”