Karen told Fred Bell to go to the river and watch the sunset. She said it’d be good for him. The chirping birds, the crickets, the way the aroma of lavender would float over the river to the bench where you sat -- it was something you had to see before you died.
Fred shook his head and sighed. What river was she talking about? The Don? Humber?
“I mean, for god’s sake woman, there’s about five hundred rivers in this city,” he said into his phone, laughing after the fact, trying not to sound like an asshole. He could feel it coming on again, that gnawing in his forehead.
Karen said, “It’s a bit out of the city, but it’s worth the drive. You just gotta trust me on this.”
And even though Karen was just customer support, Fred did trust her. Over the past few days they got to know each other well. They talked about the pain and the doctors, and how they wouldn’t just let him die. Karen’s voice reminded Fred of his daughter, except she didn't cry or hang up five minutes in. Even when Fred’s rants turned into outbursts about illuminati and the immigrants, she would stay on the line.
Karen asked if he had a pen. Fred told her he had three. He wrote down the directions on a crumpled invoice.
She broke the silence by saying, “This is where I see you off, Fred. I want to wish you all the best.”
“You too, hun. I hope I didn’t rant too much. Sometimes I can’t help myself. You know...”
“Thanks. For everything.”
* * *
The address was an hour’s drive from the city, just outside Stouffville. Fred decided he’d take the old backroads. Twenty years ago, he put a corrugated steel roof on Oliver Petrone’s barn, a place that was close by.
Fred remembered putting in a little more effort than he needed to, but he felt good knowing the roof would last a century. Plus, every night when he was wrapping up for the day, Oliver’s daughter would climb up the ladder and bring him a generous helping of lasagna or shepherd's pie. Fred would finish his dinner on the roof with a cold beer, watching the sunset.
How did I let a moment like that just slip by?
The backroads weren’t backroads any more. What was once a gravel farm road was now a paved and widened four-lane commercial highway. In every direction, they were ripping up the fields to put in new subdivisions.
He watched his cigarette smoke twist and glide out the open window. Oliver’s barn was gone, replaced by a pet-supply depot.
Fred drove past loaders and dozers, and self-replicating rows of homes, all identical and festering, conquering the once fertile plain. It reminded him of the patterns of spores and bacteria he’d see growing in petri dishes on television. It reminded him of cancer and the way it grows, fast and out of control, like that inoperable tumour swelling in his head.
For fuck’s sake. Are we the disease?
As the suburbs started to fade in the rearview mirror, so too did the gnawing sensations and the misanthropy. He tried to think about positive things -- his daughter and his new grandson perhaps; or the crisp autumn air and how it could pair so perfectly with an evening’s cigarette.
Fred Bell thought about the classified in The Star he answered just three days before. It advertised ‘the cure’, simple and plain, just a bold title above a phone number. When he called, a soft, compassionate voice on the other end answered.
“Clear Sky Departures.”
She said her name was Karen.
Fred told her everything. The cancer, the chemo. He said he wasn’t all that scared of dying but was terrified of what they’d do to him in the hospital when the time came. Tubes and bedpans and the incessant boop of the heart rate monitor -- it wasn’t him. It wasn’t the way he wanted to be remembered.
Karen said she understood, and that Clear Sky Departures offered something called the ‘tranquility package’. She said it was the way to go. She explained the details in plain english and Fred sent her an anonymous money order, mailed to some address in Panama.
And now he was following her directions down a small gravel path. He drove through rolling wheat fields and groves of barren maples. He took that road until he arrived at an open lot with a slow black river.
Fred got out of his truck, lighting his last cigarette. The lot had trees, birds, and lavender. Just as advertised. He found the bench overlooking the meadow, took a seat, and listened to the gentle burble of the black river.
He watched the river, wondering what would happen if he was to cross his arms, sink into the bottom, and have the current take him away. He dreamt of flowing down the tributaries into a wild spinning torrent that shook him until he couldn't remember who he was. He saw himself washing up on some white-sand beach, reborn.
Who really knows what happens when you die?
Fred heard footsteps crunching the leaves behind him. He didn’t bother to turn around and look. Whoever it was, they were right on time. He smiled as the sun slipped behind a row of oaks, drenching the scenery in a late autumn glow.
Someone had a gun at the base of his skull. He couldn't feel the gun itself, but he felt the coldness of the barrel. He could hear the machinery clicking as the Clear Sky employee pulled back the hammer on the revolver.
Fred wasn’t going to let this moment slip by. He focused on the smell of lavender and the leaves on the forest floor. He listened to the sound of the river, etching the scene in his mind, savouring it for one last moment before it went black.
Thank you for reading.
This work was made possible by the Writer's Block Fiction Workshop. The editors who worked this project were:
Thank you all so much!