Fiction: The End

I have a little tradition of making sure that I post the final contribution to each NDQ issue here on the blog. For issue 90.1/2 which just went to the publisher the final contribution literally named itself: David F. Young’s “The End.”

This is one of those stories that is surprising, intimate, and hangs with you for a long time. It’s always hard to put something last in an issue (even if most people don’t read issues front-to-back), but the nature of the codex is that someone’s contribute has to end on the last page. 

Over the next few months, we’ll be featuring some of the content for issue 90.1/2 right here at the blog. If you like what you’re seeing, check out more from our most recent issue (89.3/4)consider submitting some fiction which we read all year around or even consider subscribing to NDQ!  

 

The End

My mother is wearing her favorite outfit, the one with the powder blue waistcoat and the extra fringe, along with her pearls. They’ve done a good job with her makeup, although she’d never wear that much blush. Her expression is more bored than peaceful, even impatient. This almost makes it easy to believe she’s still warm and breathing, but I can always tell. It’s in the set of her jaw, the tuck of her chin. For some reason, this is disappointing. I was hoping my own mother would be different.

 How many dead bodies have I seen? I could keep count once, but I lost track years ago. My best guess is probably hundreds. The truth is, they all start to look the same after a while. The skin takes on a certain pallor, just like a wax figure. The cheeks get slack around the skull. Eventually, the hands stiffen. If you leave them long enough, they’ll even start to curl, like their last thought is to hold on. I stare down at my mother, lying against the red velvet lining of her coffin. Her body isn’t there yet, but it’s close.

 Across the room, shuffling from group to group is my father, cursing wildly under his breath while he goes on shaking everyone’s hands. Who can blame him? My mother has only been dead three days. Everything about it was unexpected. She was washing the dishes when she brought her hands up to her head, complained for the thousandth time that evening about her migraine, then fell to the ground and died. In twenty seconds, she accomplished what takes most of my clients years.

 In many ways, it was an ideal death: quick, painless, ruthlessly efficient. She didn’t even have time to take off her gloves. My clients aren’t so fortunate. They suffer indignities. They breathe through tubes, suck their food down more tubes. They shit themselves. They lie in beds until their skin bleeds. I look at my mother’s placid expression below me, the healthy pucker of her lips. Compared to all that, I think even she would have agreed she got off easy.

 None of this is much comfort to my father. His name is William. He’s in his late seventies now, pale and gray, his hair still combed and parted in the careful way he’s done for decades. He’s always been a large man, a person of authority, although up until my mother’s head hit the floor, he was her dependent. The tumors appeared about a year ago, little black marbles collecting in one corner of his lungs. No one thought he’d outlast my mom, least of all me. But that’s how it happens sometimes.

 I watch him wander around for a while longer, then I walk up to my father and find him a seat. “You need to rest,” I tell him. I keep my voice gentle but firm, professional. I can see the telltale signs of distress: the red swollen eyes, the broken blood vessels spidering along his cheeks. He looks at me, then up at the rafters. “What’s going to happen now?” he says. But whether he’s saying this to me, to himself, or to no one at all, I can’t tell.

 

I decide to move in with him to help out, get his affairs in order, manage all the familiar logistics of death. My father and I have never gotten along, but that doesn’t matter. I make him meals, shuttle him to the doctor, sit with him while he stares at the television. I say nothing the few times he sneaks outside for a cigarette. I’m his only family now.

“There’s no need for this,” he starts saying to me. “I’m just fine. Go home.” Or, when his mood takes a turn: “Don’t start treating me like one of your hospice patients.”

I recognize that growl. Growing up, he’d use it whenever he got angry, which could happen at the drop of a dime. I could never seem to please him. He’d take one look at my outfit — maybe I’d be wearing something too boyish, like I often did — and his voice would lower an octave. “That’s not how my daughter should dress,” he’d say. It made me afraid. If you ask me why I’ve never come out to him, I suppose this would be why. I’ve long kept that part of me secret, even though I’ve realized, with the benefit of experience, he was never really angry. I hear my clients speaking the same way all the time. That’s fear.

“If you’re not going to leave, you might as well lend a hand,” my father says to me over breakfast one day. We’ve hardly done anything these past few weeks. It’s the longest he and I have ever been around each other without a fight. But today he leads me into my mother’s office, the only room she didn’t keep meticulously clean. Old books are stacked up everywhere, alongside more piles of paper and magazines. If my mother’s mind was a room, this would be it. I spend the day helping him go through everything. We fill half a dozen boxes and throw almost as much away. For the first time since I’ve come down here, my father looks pleased.

It’s like something switches for him. “Natalie, take a look at this,” he says the next morning. He wants me to go through her closet. I save a few dresses for myself, then cart the rest of her clothing off to Goodwill. My father is suddenly full of energy. He starts looking around for what else he can purge. I don’t question any of this; I’ve seen this sort of thing before. You’d be surprised by some of the strange rituals we build around death. Some people insist on keeping everything exactly the same, down to the dirty sheets their wife or husband died on. For others, mourning someone means never wanting to see them again.

My father stalks the house, hiding old photographs, throwing out old postcards, even replacing her soap. Soon there are hardly any signs of my mother left. But it’s when he looks at me one evening, leveling an intense stare across the table, through the curls of our dinner’s steam, when I realize it’s time for me to leave. I’ve become the last remnant of my mother left. I do what needs to be done. I use my connections to find a home nurse for my father, wish them both luck, and fly back to go take care of my clients.

 

I’ve always found refuge in work. Hardly anyone can believe it, but it’s true. Even Julia, my own wife, was suspicious at first.

 “So you’re a merchant of death,” she said on our first date.

I remember laughing. Julia was looking at me with a serious and thoughtful expression, but her tone was playful, ironic. She looked beautiful. I was nervous and was doing my best to ignore the decade between us. I’d been laughing at everything she’d said all evening. I wanted her to like me.

“I’ve been called worse,” I said.

 “But you are. You’re hired to help people die.”

“They don’t need any help. I just try to make them more comfortable.”

This was usually where my dates began struggling for air. The merest whiff of death was often enough to make the other woman’s eyes look longingly toward the exit. But Julia just leaned in closer. I was aware of everything about her at that moment. The cheap plastic bracelets looped around her wrists. The bounce of her hair, how it curled into black and gray-speckled hooks. The swivel of her bar stool. The position of her legs, inches from mine.

“So,” she said, smiling. “Tell me all about it.”

 Later, after Julia and I had moved in together, when I would come home from work each evening and lay my head in her lap, I did tell her. For nearly six years, this became our habit. She was the first person who really listened to me. Everyone else would ask about the diapers I changed, the pills I counted out. Maybe, if they’ve had experience, they’d mention something more specific. The powder smell of latex. The ripe grapefruit sheen of bedsores. Julia didn’t do this. She would sit still and let me talk about the conversations I’d had with my clients. She understood it’s not really about helping people die or keeping them from pain. It’s about being there for them. Everyone grows up and lives their lives knowing death is waiting at the other end, but most of them aren’t ready for it. What I do is help them accept this.

Saint Natalie, she’d tease me afterwards, her finger tracing a halo through my hair. But all that was a long time ago.

 

Almost three months go by before my father’s home nurse calls to tell me she’s been let go. I immediately get him on the phone. This whole time, I’ve been keeping up with his doctors. Lately, their voices have taken on a grave professionalism. They’ve mentioned lymph nodes, metastasis. But my father’s stubborn. He refuses to let me hire his nurse back and won’t let me find anyone else. I tell him I’m coming down.

Honestly, I’d been expecting this. My father is a proud man, self-reliant and traditional. All his life, he worked at the same bank, steadily climbing his way up from the lobby to the front desks to the oak-paneled back rooms. Besides my mother, he rarely got along well with anyone. His misogyny has never been a secret. Growing up, my friends’ mothers would avoid making visits. I could see the strain in my teachers’ faces when he’d show up for a conference. If he didn’t ignore you, he’d be rude, patronizing, outright dismissive. Sometimes, if he was bored, he’d just pick a fight.

But he loved my mother. In turn, she was devoted to him. Once, at a Christmas party, I remember watching how she stood beside him while he insulted her own friend. She and my mother had been talking about flower beds, a shared interest of theirs. I’d barely been paying attention. Still, I can see my father stepping between them, a glass of wine perched in his hand. “Don’t even bother, Irene,” he said to her. “You can’t grow them like she can. You can barely grow anything.” Then he laughed. Did he know why she didn’t have any children? I know my mother did, and still she said nothing.

I never got around to explaining all this to Julia. By the time we met, I’d long ago accepted my parents as they were. Any hopes I’d held for their divorce had been put away, shoved into the same closet as my sexuality. They’d live their lives, and I’d live mine. Julia never entirely understood this. “Just call them,” she’d say, stroking my arm, staring at me with her almond eyes. She thought she was helping, but the truth was I didn’t mind keeping her a secret. I’d become used to whatever relationship I had with my mother and father. I didn’t want to change anything.

We learned about my father’s cancer together, although the two of us were barely speaking by then. We were sitting at our kitchen table when my mother called. Afterwards, I promised Julia I’d come clean as soon as he was gone. Julia just looked at me. The kindness had left her eyes; by then it was too late. She wanted to move out, she told me. A week later, she was gone.

 

The runway is already shimmering with silver pools of heat when the plane lands. Just beyond, a morning haze of angry exhaust hovers over the highway. San Antonio is just like I remember it. The airport is awash in a muted palette of pastels. I stare at a pink swirling pattern stitched into the carpet as I make my way outside. It is April. The air is dry and hot. The sky is an unblemished gloss of blue. I have to wait twenty minutes until there’s a taxi. There is no breeze.

 It’s been nearly thirty years since I moved away from here, yet whenever I return I’m still gripped by the same sense of claustrophobia I had in high school. The heat presses down on you, the suburban maze of neighborhoods closes in. I’ve tried explaining the feeling to Julia. She’s never been to Texas, has never experienced a summer in the south. She barely even knows what it feels like being young and gay and confused. Acceptance was something her generation made fashionable. Less like a closet and more like a cage, I’ve told her. I could never be myself here. I watch the strip malls glide past me from the highway and tell myself to breathe.

 My father lives in a gated community on what was once the outskirts of the city, but is now a nest of new subdivisions and construction. Still, inside the gates, I’m greeted by the same familiar rows of houses, with their neatly cut landscaping and stucco molding and Spanish-style red and brown roofs, a few with a fountain or some other small adornment sticking out from their front yard. My father’s house is one of the more modest ones. Only one story, it is tucked into a cul-de-sac, hidden behind a hairy stand of mesquites. A red car I don’t recognize is parked outside.

 I knock, let myself in with the spare key he’s always kept under a rock. His nurse has been gone now for days, so I’ve been expecting a mess. Instead, everything is swept up and arranged neatly in its place. I walk through the house, looking for my father, by reflex sizing the place up, but also preparing myself to find him already collapsed and lifeless on the floor. Then I see him in the backyard, sitting by the pool, his pale skin glowing in the late morning sun.

 “Well, there you are,” he says as I approach him, squinting despite his sunglasses. “I’d hoped you’d changed your mind. In any case, you’re late.”

 “And you’re dying,” I say. “So here I am.”

 He keeps on staring straight ahead, right past me, as if I wasn’t there at all. There’s a splash from the pool, a laugh.

 “So is this her, William?”

 I turn around. A man has emerged from the water and crossed his arms over its tiled side. He looks about my father’s age, but much healthier. His head, nestled between his broad forearms, is lean and angular. A thick mustache curls over his lip, while bushy black eyebrows arch over the rest of his face. A mop of shaggy gray hair rests on top.

 “Toby, meet my daughter, Natalie,” my father says. “Natalie, meet Toby.”

 Toby smiles and crawls out of the pool. Swirls of gray hair cover his chest, his modest pot belly, all of it now decorated with little beads of chlorinated water, like sequins. He takes the seat next to my father and starts toweling off.

 “It’s very nice to meet you,” Toby says, extending a hand. He has a European accent, harsh and flat. German, I think. “Your father, he talks about you a lot, you know. I’ve heard many great things.”

 I just stare back at him, confused. My father, as long as I’ve known him, has only ever had a handful of friends. Usually, these relationships were brief, transactional. They’d meet for drinks after work, discuss business, money, maybe sports. They were nothing like the lifelong friendships my mother maintained, vast networks of women who filled my mailbox with condolences after her death. My father’s acquaintances (as he only ever called them) were aloof, barely even there. He never invited them over to our house, much less to swim in the pool. I never even knew their names.

 My father shifts in his seat, then finally looks up at me. “Toby has been helping me around the house,” he says. “You know, with this and with that.” He makes a vague gesture, then lets his hand rest on Toby’s.

 “Sure,” I say, staring down at those hands, at the two strangers before me.

 

He met him thirty years ago. Toby was a salesman. He worked for an East German company that made turbines, the kind that can power a ship, although Toby didn’t know much at all about that. What he sold was the idea of the company. And that idea, burdened for a generation by the Wall, needed funding. My father had just been promoted and was taking on his first few investment clients when he was assigned to Toby. No one else wanted him. His company was out of date, too risky, bound to go out of business within a year.

 “And it didn’t help that he could barely speak English,” my father says. “The first time I spoke with him, over the phone, I could hardly understand him. But he convinced me to have a meeting.”

 My father is in his wheelchair and I am behind him, pushing him through a park. There are birds tracing figure eights far up in the sky. Flowers have opened up unexpectedly, festively, on the trees. It is spring. I’ve been here three days now, making sure my father takes his medicine, preparing his meals, helping him hold his fork, helping him pee. He has not been happy about it. Although Toby has been giving us space, my father has been avoiding me, which is why we’re now strolling around this park on this beautiful spring day.

 “After that first meeting,” he says, “Toby and I began working together. I took a chance on him, even though he was a pain in the ass. Every week, he’d need something. This was how we got to know each other. I guess we became friends. We kept in touch. So when your mother died, Toby heard about it. I wasn’t that surprised when he showed up.”

 I push him along the winding path, past a lake strung with lily pads, then over a bridge where several men sit on coolers, dangling lines over the edge. One of them pulls a silver fish out from the water, and I stop so we can watch it thrash around angrily in the air. None of us say anything. After this long, I can recognize my father’s silences. This is not one of his normal ones. It’s not barbed or full of resentment. It’s contemplative. I stay quiet while I push him past the bridge.

 “Your mother,” he says finally. “She wasn’t my first.”

 

All my life, the story of my mother and father, college sweethearts, still nearly children when they got engaged, was told and retold until it had become something like our own family lore, a story that my father now calmly dismisses entirely.

 “His name was Steven,” he says.

 My father was nineteen at the time, a muss of brown hair, a wide smile filled with off-center teeth. It was his freshman year and, to make friends, he’d joined an intramural soccer league. They’d practice weekdays, in a field they mowed and maintained across town. They were good, he tells me. After they’d won a few games, it wasn’t uncommon for a crowd to come watch them practice.

 “I didn’t know him,” my father says. “He was someone’s roommate or cousin. He might not have even been in school. But I didn’t have any money at the time. I was always bumming rides. And he had a car.”

 One day, he offered to drive my father home. The car wasn’t ragged, in fact it was clean, but it was old. It shook violently each time the gears shifted and smelled vaguely like gasoline. Steven seemed unbothered by this. He slumped in his seat, easing the clutch skillfully while he steered with one hand. “Where you from?” he said.

 At that time, no one asked this. Everyone there came from the same few south Texas towns, maybe occasionally as far as Dallas. My father rattled off his address.

 Steven laughed. He was from Louisiana, but he was never going back. He was living here now, but where he really wanted to be was California. He was just saving up the money.

 My father had seen this thin figure before, dressed all in black and standing on the sidelines, but now he noticed his faint blond mustache, the slight Southern drawl masked under his breath. “What you plan on doing out there?” he asked.

 Steven smiled. “What else? I’m gonna be a star.”

 The next week, my father saw him waiting on the sidelines again. He’d found himself thinking about him, off and on, since that last ride. No one he knew had ever spoken so frankly about moving away before. Still, they didn’t seem to have very much to say to each other. The engine coughed and sputtered louder than he’d remembered. Steven turned up the radio. It was nineteen sixty-three. Ray Charles was playing his piano. The semester was almost over. My father’s shirt was soaked through. Steven was staring at the road when he took my father’s finger and, very lightly, put it in his mouth.

 I watch my father’s face soften as he uncovers this memory. For a few weeks that spring, he tells me, before he disappeared, Steven’s car became their secret world, parked in the shadows, surrounded by the first fireflies of the season, their brief glow.

 

I decide to wrap myself up in the comforts of work. I refill my father’s medicine, schedule his doctor’s appointments. I rearrange his furniture so he can use his wheelchair inside. While he naps, I go to the grocery store to pick up the few foods he can still stand to eat. In my free time, I help tie up his finances. I cancel his credit cards. I cancel his gym membership. I put all the old clothes that don’t fit him anymore, that will never fit him, into garbage bags to donate later on.

 I am a hive of activity. I work in silence. I’m constantly moving. The doctors have told me it doesn’t look good.

 I’m usually calm when my clients reach these last few stages. The difficult work of dying is over: the shock of the realization, the effort of acceptance. All that is left is the submission itself. But I’m having a hard time hiding my agitation. I clean his house, I fold his laundry, and still I can’t escape my father’s revelation, right before he’s about to leave me, that I’ve never really known who he is.

 I desperately want to tell Julia. My father and mother have always been in the background for us. I remember the first time I told her about them. We were on a camping trip. We’d been together for a few months. I was falling in love. She’d asked me about them before, but I’d always avoided saying much. What was there to say? But this time, lying in our tent, staring up at the constellations poking through the skylight, Orion swinging his sword up above, I let it spill out from me. I told her I’d never come out to them.

 Julia worked her head into the little notch between my neck and shoulder. It fit perfectly. “Oh honey,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

 I told her about my father, how our relationship had always been strained. “He was constantly disappointed. He either pushed me too hard or withdrew from me entirely. As for my mother, she put all her energy into pleasing my father. Nothing was ever left for me. By the time I got my first girlfriend, in college, I was three hundred miles away, so I never told them. And they never asked.”

 Julia held onto me for a while after that, until we both fell asleep. We didn’t talk about it again until after we got married. That happened a few months later. Julia had wanted a traditional celebration, a room filled with family, but I insisted on something smaller. It was still a beautiful ceremony. Pillars of sunlight were shining through the courthouse windows, the other couples were sneaking sips of champagne, whispering in each other’s ears. Not long after, Julia started asking about my mother and father again, at first gently pushing me to reach out, then insisting. What was I so afraid of? I always said no. I told her she didn’t understand.

Alone in my father’s guest room, I pick up my phone, put in the number I’ve long ago memorized. I hold my breath as I press the button. We haven’t spoken in months. I listen to the phone ring once, twice, then go to voicemail. Her familiar voice asks me to leave my name, number, and message. I hang up before I can think of anything to say.

 

Out of a sense of respect, Toby has been staying at a hotel down the street, only coming by for a few hours each day to have dinner and drink coffees out on the patio, occasionally taking a dip in the pool. He is shy, careful, reluctant to intrude. Gradually, however, he starts to give into the steady insistence of my father, who even in his state can still wear someone down. He’s soon here all the time. I see him trading folds of newspaper with my father in the mornings, placing fresh sheets on his bed. I watch him push my father in his wheelchair around the neighborhood.

 He and I hardly speak to each other, although this isn’t his fault. I’m the one avoiding him now. He’s a handsome man, large and regal, regularly dressed in a uniform of crisp oxfords and slacks. When he sees me, he always smiles and invites me to join them. “Please, come and sit with us,” he says. He’s friendly, enthusiastic, but not over the top about it. I think he knows I’m having a hard time making sense out of him. So he lets me remain scarce, an invisible presence, although I can sometimes see him looking around for me.

 There’s too much to do around here anyway. My father’s health continues to fail. He needs new medications. For some reason, his insurance is putting up a fight. Plus, my mother’s front garden has fallen into neglect. Unencumbered, the surrounding lawn has crept steadily into the hydrangeas. The roses bushes have gone limp. I find my mother’s old gloves, hidden away in the garage, and start ripping out the carpeted grass, pulling up the weeds. Piles of it form all over the front yard, although it feels like I’ve hardly begun.

 “Would you like a drink?” Toby is standing on the front porch, looking down at me. Every other time I’ve refused, but the gin in Toby’s glass looks good, so I walk over and let him make me a cocktail. My father is slumped in his wheelchair between us, fast asleep.

 I wait for him to say something, but he just sits there. I figure, if he’s come all the way down here, I might as well try to get to know him. “So how did you meet my father?” I ask.

 In his halting accent, Toby tells me about the turbine company, his first phone call to the bank, the subsequent friendship, all of it pretty much the same story my father had told me, except reflected back in the mirror of Toby’s own perspective.

 I want to press him. “But how did it progress,” I ask, gesturing around us, “to this.”

 Toby laughs. “Your father and I are very much alike. Did he tell you I also had a wife and family? My son, he is maybe a few years younger than yourself. My wife and I, however, ten years ago we divorced. I was very depressed, you understand. I had never been with a man, but I had always been curious. I mentioned this to your father in a letter. I don’t think much of it. We said everything to each other. But then he writes back, encourages me. And that is that.”

 “What do you mean, ‘everything’? You knew he wasn’t straight?”

 Toby looks offended. “No no. This I did not know until much later. Until after your mother’s death. That is when he told me. I found it surprising. I never suspected it, not once. But I wanted to support him, just as he did for me. So I came here right when he asked.”

 I laugh now. This, at least, is just like my father, lying about being pursued.

 “When did you learn this about him?” Toby asks. “Did you know?”

 “Four days ago,” I say. I raise my glass.

 Toby looks at me, then at my glass. “I see,” he says. He takes a drink.

 “I hope,” Toby says after we have been silent for a while, watching the suburban walkers pass by. “I hope you do not mind that I am here. I came for your father, but we are both making each other happy. You understand?”

 A woman with a poodle, red stains running below its eyes, walks past and waves.

 “Sure,” I say. “Of course.”

 

The grass outside is browning. The garden flowers are wilting. Spring is turning into summer.

 My father blames the heat for everything. A sudden attack of nausea. His prolonged vertigo. He’s told me to lower the temperature so often the HVAC units outside are rattling and the house is nearly fifty degrees. Nothing has helped. He wanders the house in his bathrobe, breathless and paranoid, prone to passing out. He looks paler and more delicate, like a wax doll, with each day. I give him fentanyl, little white lozenges he sucks at like gumdrops, but his pain is growing worse. He begins hallucinating, brief but vivid images of people crawling through windows, armies amassing far off in the distance, relatives I’ve never known appearing suddenly in the chair next to him, silent and accusing.

 I have experience with this. I’ve helped hundreds of others manage these last few days or weeks with something resembling grace. The work is difficult but straightforward. If they don’t want to believe they’re dying, you have to coax them toward acceptance. Use their religion, remind them of dead loved ones, anything that gets the job done. If they have accepted it, you just have to make them comfortable. Don’t try to speed things up. Let the process happen at its own pace, but help them with the journey.

 I tell myself I want to do what I can for my father. But every day now, Toby is at his side. Often he’s already there when I wake up, or perhaps he’s never left. Although my father does not always recognize him, he’ll always let Toby hold his hand or help him eat his food. My father is losing weight, his hair has gone thin, but Toby is undeterred. They are nearly inseparable. I can barely make myself heard.

 “Do you know who that man is?” I ask my father one day, shortly after Toby has left.

He looks back at the door, then at me. “Of course I know,” he says. “He’s my friend. Now who are you, that’s my question.”

 I clench my fists. I bite my tongue. “I’m your daughter. Natalie. I’m your only child.”

My father stares at me, a glint of his old self shining through, then says, “Well then why is he the one taking care of me?”

 

I spend the next few days stewing and considering my options. I could leave anytime. I’d anticipated a long stay and had passed my few clients onto other nurses, but I could just as easily take them back — the ones still alive, at least. I also have money. For years, Julia and I had talked about taking a trip around the country, driving up the coastlines and visiting small towns and camping wherever we could. Like all of our ideas, this one fell apart, but we had saved up for it. I still have the funds. I could go and do it myself. Nothing is keeping me here.

 But then I see Toby. He is in the shower with my father, his clothes soaked, slathering soap over his skin. Or he is crouching over my father in the bathroom, rubbing on thick dollops of shaving cream, then scraping it off carefully with a razor. Even my mother, after forty years of marriage, never offered these intimacies. My father doesn’t seem to care. They are often bent together, muttering to each other, as if speaking a language I can’t understand. When I ask what they are saying my father just waves me off.

There were days — years, actually — when Julia and I were just the same. Before everything got bad, we were passionate. Julia would push me up against walls, cup my breasts, bite my lip in public. She would hold my hands, whisper in my ear. Even across a room, we could communicate. All it would take would be a look, a glance, a gesture. Nobody else would ever notice. Just us.

But I’ve tried to forget those memories. What’s the point of holding onto them? Except I can’t help from thinking of them now as I watch Toby with my father, as I see how they stare at each other. None of it makes any sense to me. That shouldn’t be my father; Toby shouldn’t even be here. It all feels like a violation somehow, a betrayal. It feels like something wrong.

 

I decide to call Julia again. Her phone doesn’t even ring this time, it just goes straight to voicemail. This time, though, I don’t hang up. “I want you to know you were right,” I say. “This whole time, I should have been listening. If you give me the chance, I’d love to start over with you.”

 I sit on my father’s sofa for a while after I hang up, watching the heat outside continue to wilt away the garden, listening to the muffled sounds emerging from my father’s room. He and Toby have been hiding in there for hours, but I’m not bothered by this. For the first time in forever, I feel in control. My father’s condition has been worsening for weeks now. Soon, Julia and I will be together again, I’m certain of it. I just have to wait for the right moment to arrive.

 This comes soon enough. By the end of next week, my father is bedridden. He has lost even more weight. He is struggling to take a breath. What’s more, the tumors, I’m guessing, have finally reached up into his brain. He is beset by strange symptoms. Phantom limbs. Synesthesiac hallucinations. Blinding migraines. He calls out for Toby, but also my mother, as well as other people I’ve never known. Toby tries to calm him. All night, I can hear him through the walls, begging him to relax, drink some water, lay back down. The next morning, Toby knocks on my door. His clothing is crumpled, dark moons shadow his eyes.

“Your father,” he says, but cannot finish. “He needs the hospital.”

I walk into my father’s room. He is lying on top of his bed sheets, his thin body lost inside the same cotton pajamas he’s always worn. But the smell is what I notice first: the ammoniac mix of sweat and urine, the stale scent of blood, all of it hidden just beneath a gossamer of bleach. This is the familiar aroma of death. I sit down in the chair next to my father. His eyes are open, staring up at the blades slowly turning on the ceiling fan, but he’s hardly there.

I don’t believe in an afterlife. Neither do I believe in much of a God. What I believe in is life and death and an uninterrupted path in between. This makes a client’s last few days the most crucial part of my job. You have to be vigilant. They could be in intense pain, delirious, in and out of consciousness. Or they may seem completely calm. Either way, they’ll be less likely to deny what is happening to them. You must help them accept this while you shepherd them toward the very end.

 This is what I explain to Toby while I sit beside my father. The body is a stubborn and stupid thing, I say. All it knows is the struggle to live. It will keep fighting for days, weeks, sometimes months past the point it should have given in, slowly shutting off organs along the way. You can either wait for this to run its course, or you can try to convince them to let go. This is what I’m doing. I hold my father’s hand, stroke his fingers. I tell him it’s okay to leave.

 I look over at Toby. “This goes for you, too.”

 He is sitting on the other side of my father. He looks up at me, lost.

 I go on. “It’s time. He’s holding on. Tell him goodbye. Let him go.”

 Toby’s eyes widen. I can see their red rims. Behind his façade, I can tell he’s just like everyone else: afraid of death.

 “We can call an ambulance,” he says, but his voice lacks conviction. He sounds afraid. “We can get help.”

 It’s important to project compassion, patience, and understanding with loved ones. It’s just as important sometimes to be stern. “I know what I’m doing,” I say. “I think my father would only want family around him right now. But I’ll let you say your goodbyes. Take your time. I’ll be right outside.”

 I walk out and wait beside the door. Five minutes later, maybe less, Toby emerges. He seems helpless. He looks at me, shakes my hand, but says nothing. I watch him walk away.

 

“Her name is Julia,” I tell my father. “She has curly black hair, brown eyes. She’s almost as tall as you.”

 I take a breath. I’ve been waiting for this moment for years. I’d always imagined it differently of course — usually with my mother, probably over a nice dinner, maybe even with Julia there by my side — but I’m still grateful it’s arrived. I take my father’s hand.

 “She’s just as stubborn as you, too,” I tell him. “I think you’d like her.”

 My father’s eyes are the color of raw honey. They slide from the ceiling, over to me, then over to where Toby had been sitting. “Are you in pain?” I ask him. I place a fentanyl on his tongue.

 “We got married,” I go on. “Six years ago now, at the courthouse. It wasn’t very fancy, but I thought it was beautiful. She wanted you and mom there by the way. I wished you’d been there, too.”

 I’d always assumed this would be a painful moment. My father would express his disappointment. My mother would turn away in shame. I didn’t expect it to be peaceful. I am filled with relief. I watch the fentanyl dissolve, my father’s mouth go slack. His tongue is colored with little white spots, like snowflakes. I place another fentanyl on top.

 My phone is sitting beside me. I glance over at it. It’s silent now, but Julia could be calling me back at any moment. I want to be ready.

 “I would have come out sooner,” I tell my father. “But I guess you and I are more alike than we ever realized. Aren’t we?”

 I smile at him. A small moan rises up from my father. His eyes are lidded, his arms are limp. Who really knows how long he would have survived in this state. I’ve seen clients last days, even weeks, like this. I’ve even seen some recover entirely. You never can tell what can happen. All I know is that I’m sorry, in the end, that I barely knew him, that we barely knew each other. But I am glad that I can at least see him off.

I put a third fentanyl in his mouth, then close it. This is the final part of his journey. And I am here to watch.

~

David F. Young lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife and two daughters. He earned an MFA from the University of San Francisco and grew up in Texas. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories about strange men and a novel about model making.

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