Trigger warning: this piece discusses death and is my attempt to dive into the issue of the right to choose to die.
The sun bathed Lilac’s face in hope. Her white sneaker squeaked on the marble steps before the glass automatic doors embossed with an angel. The doors opened silently and a rush of crisp air overwhelmed Lilac, pulling her into the pure white lobby where bustling men and women in matching white polos, white linen pants, and white shoes hurried to their destinations. A young woman with dyed blonde hair, perfectly plaited, sat behind a large, marble desk. The light reflected off the shiny white top and blinded Lilac. The woman let out a giggle and smiled at Lilac. She smiled back. “Orientation is around the corner in Cloud Three conference room,” she pointed to a long, narrow hallway surrounded by looming glass windows. Lilac held up a hand in thanks as the woman took a phone call, “Thank you for calling Near Death Experience, where we show you what’s on the other side. This is Pearl, how may I make your dream come true?”
Each room had an automatic glass door embossed with a cloud and a number. She approached the one labeled “3” and entered. She sat at the black, marble table across from the only other woman in front of the white folder with her name. The woman with straight blonde hair, was straightening a white name tag which read: Violet. She shot Lilac a smile which Lilac returned eagerly. The sounds of the office continued around the nervous girls. Lilac tucked herself in and accepted the white plate from Violet’s outstretched hand. She placed a cherry streusel from the selection on the table and a napkin on the plate before pouring a cup of coffee and adding two sugars and two creams to it. The coffee went from a deep black to a soft brown to a pale cream.
“Will you do the same for me,” requested Violet. Her voice was as delicate and light as a flower’s petals. The windows dimmed slightly which made it easier for the girls to take in their surroundings.
“My name is Lilac,” Lilac said, offering the steaming cup of coffee and a handshake. Violet, whose fingers were surprisingly cold, took her hand and shook it. The door opened softly, and a tall, older woman entered. She wore a linen dress and her soft, black curls cascaded down her shoulders.
She smiled gently, “Welcome to orientation, girls. She clicked the TV on and a bright white cloud appeared on the screen: ORIENTATION in big, black letters was written across.
A piano melody played and the woman’s voice welcomed them again, “Welcome to Near Death Experience University or NDEU. You have passed the vigorous background and screenings associated with your position as Angel. We are so delighted to have you. During this week long orientation you will learn what NDE is all about and how you contribute to this breathtaking experience,” images of young men and women in lab coats flashed onto the screen, “During your final two days you will be in the Lab getting real life practice and,” images of a smiling NDE team appeared, “You will begin with your Partner in your position,” the cloud came back, “Once again, welcome!”
Lilac and Violet beamed in their seats. Large, white binders and textbooks appeared in front of them. They began reading the intro, guided by the tall woman who had a deep, silky voice, “My name is Tulip and I will be guiding you through the experience of orientation. I am an Archangel, which means I am your direct supervisor. If you ever have any questions or concerns, please approach me immediately.”
A few hours later, Lilac clutched her binder to her chest with a smile on her face, not even noticing her sneakers which continued to squeak on the white tile of the lobby. The woman behind the desk waved goodbye. Lilac confidently exited the building, letting the sunset glow on her skin. On the fourth day, Lilac confidently walked into her workplace and poured out two coffees, just the way that Violet liked hers. In one corner, two pristine, white lab coats hung on slim, black plastic hangers. The girls changed and followed Tulip to the glass elevator at the end of the hallway which housed the conference rooms.
The elevator doors shut softly and Lilac gazed in awe as they shot up to the second floor. The glass seemed to glitter in the morning sun and Lilac felt like she was flying. Her heart beat out of her chest when she shot her eyes down to her feet and saw the floor below her scurrying around like ants. Tulip held open the doors again and they stepped onto the second floor. The lab floor was much like the first. One, long, glass hallway, lined with glass doors. Except, these doors were embossed with a beaker containing a number. “Go to Lab 3,” instructed Tulip. Violet followed Lilac as she walked down the hallway. She stood in front of the door and it whooshed gently open.
The Lab was nearly all white, with a few accents of black along the edges of the white, oak cabinet doors. There were two large tables where research was being conducted and four computers. A loud beep startled the two young girls and they jumped. From behind them, Tulip calmly opened the large, wooden door at one end of the Lab. They entered a large room, double the size of the conference room. Six patients lay in beds, three along one wall, and three directly across from them, sleeping. They were covered with crisp white linens. The room felt warm and smelled like fresh cookies. Soft, gentle beeping in perfect rhythm echoed off the walls.
Tulip appeared to be searching for something specific. Both girls impulsively attempted to assist their supervisor on her quest—eyes darting to white drawers with silver handles and matching cabinets. Both were vaguely aware this attempt was in vein. Tulip reached up and pressed a blue button with a cloud on it. The cabinet whooshed open. “Are you ready girls?” she asked over her shoulder as she grasped the tray of syringes that the cupboard had released. She smiled and placed the tray on the counter. Tulip began washing her hands in the white, marble sink, by the syringes. She reached up and a pair of gloves were seamlessly placed on her outstretched hands by an eager lab tech named Oak. The girls lined up behind Tulip and repeated her process. She picked up a single blue syringe and a single red syringe. “Alright girls, you know the drill: red first. Then, wait,” she made direct eye contact with the girls, her soft green eyes now felt full of discipline and a touch of fear, “Exactly one hour.” Her eyes softened slightly. “We inject blue and monitor vital signs for how long?” she gestured to the girls.
“Fifteen minutes. If the patient is not revived then press the red button,” replied Violet.
“Exactly,” Tulip eyed Lilac before grasping the red syringe. “Now, how much time do we wait between injecting patients?”
“Fifteen minutes!” Lilac shouted. Tulip looked at her and Violet laughed. “Sorry, that was loud,” blushed Lilac.
“Exactly,” replied Tulip in a controlled, low, measured tone, “Because this is a near death experience. Not,” her icy eyes shot to the girls, “Their death experience.” She took a deep breath and waved the girls over to the first bed. An older man with laugh lines that weaved a story of a life well lived along his face slept peacefully. Tulip gently pushed the monitor to the side so that Violet could step closer to them. Now that Lilac was closer to the man she was surprised to find that the air around him smelled of hot chocolate. When she closed her eyes she could envision a steaming mug on a cold day, watching the mini marshmallows relishing in their bath.
Lilac blinked rapidly and Tulip smiled, “Angels are meant to connect deeply with our patients. You’ll learn to block it out and allow it in as needed.” She held the red syringe aloft. The bright light of the Patient Room made it seem like the liquid inside was alive. Lilac gasped and Tulip placed a hand on her shoulder. Tulip lowered it slowly, deliberately. She reached for the port of the IV and slowly injected the sleeping man. The red liquid filled the IV and travelled down to the patient’s arm. Lilac was entranced. Within a moment, the monitor began to flatline and beep loudly. Tulip calmly nodded at Oak who turned off the monitor while she disposed of the used syringe in the red, plastic, sharps bin. A green clock appeared against the white wall. It read 59:55. Lilac released a breath she hadn’t known she was holding.
The Angels moved to the bed of the second patient. She was a young woman; the remnants of a full face of makeup complete with ruby red lips, remained on her face. Lilac tucked a stray hair behind the woman’s ear. Again, Tulip held the red syringe aloft, but this time she handed the syringe to Violet who beamed. Lilac’s heart sank and her eyes were cast down on the floor. She stared at the white tile, speckled like an easter egg with touches of pastel. Tulip’s soothing voice guided Violet as she approached the woman’s port and gently pushed the liquid into her vein. Again, the monitor began to beep. Tulip indicated the sharps bin. Oak turned off the monitor and the clock appeared. When Lilac caught Violet’s eye she felt a shiver rush down her spine. Violet’s eyes seemed to sparkle. The corners of her mouth were twitching but when Lilac caught her gaze, the mouth was forced into a frown. Lilac noticed the woman’s eyes did not rapidly move back and forth indicating sleep. The sheet did not rise and fall gently with each breath. Coconut no longer perfumed the air. Lilac reached for the woman’s hand to find it cold and limp. She instinctively recoiled. She felt her heart crack.
The team moved to the last person in line. He was a middle aged man with strands of silver in his ink black curls. Lilac took a deep breath as Tulip raised the next syringe and handed it to Lilac. The syringe felt cool in Lilac’s gloved hand. She breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of freshly mowed grass. She pressed the syringe to the port opening. Tulip placed a warm hand on her shoulder and Lilac pressed down on the plunger. The contents of the syringe poured into the IV and a gust of cold blasted Lilac. She shivered as every hair on her body stood up. A tear rolled down her cheek as she disposed of the syringe in the sharps bin and Oak turned off the loud monitor. The team tossed their gloves in the black trashcan and returned to the Lab where Lilac sat on a white stool, processing shock and horror. She had just taken someone’s life.
“It’s not permanent” Violet soothed. She stood and wrapped an arm around her friend. Lilac shrugged. The clock above the man read 5:55 and began to glow red which they could see through the window connecting the Lab and the Patient Room. Tulip stood and opened the door again. Lilac and Violet followed; Oak trailed behind like a lost puppy. Again, Tulip washed her hands and Oak gloved her up. The girls hurried through their process as well. Tulip took the first blue syringe from the case. She watched the clock above her like a hawk. Slowly, it ticked down to five seconds left. Tulip poised the needle at the port.
As the clock read 0:00 Tulip pressed the liquid into the IV. Oak flicked the monitor back on. It screamed like a banshee. Lilac was certain that they had done something wrong. But then, Lilac smelled it. Hot chocolate. She smiled. The grin painted her whole face in elated joy and Tulip smiled back at her. The man took a deep, trembling gasp, and slowly, the monitor began to beep, evenly. Lilac breathed in deeply.
“Oak, please monitor his vitals and send him to the Recovery Wing,” instructed Tulip. She moved the team to the next bed. She passed the blue vial to Violet who cried when she revived her patient. The third patient belonged to Lilac. She took the blue vial from Tulip’s fingers. It felt surprisingly warm. Lilac did as Tulip and Violet had. She watched the clock intently and pushed life back into her patient. Oak flicked the monitor on and slowly, the scent of fresh cut grass filled Lilac’s nervous lungs. She, too, burst into tears. Tulip thanked Oak and brought the girls back to the conference room where shiny certificates waited for them. Tomorrow was the last day of orientation. Lilac was glad for the sun as she exited the building. It felt like she had returned to Earth. She glanced up at the huge, glass building. She watched the elevator return to the first floor and then shoot off.
Six months passed slowly. Lilac and Violet were a team and relied on each other to ensure that the proper protocols were followed. One evening, Violet invited Lilac out to dinner. They walked to a bistro a block from NDE with Lilac anxiously filling the silence that surrounded Violet with funny stories from work. They were sat at a small, metal table outside. “Li,” began Violet. Her eyes seemed to bore into Violet’s whose own gaze kept shifting to the table. “What if,” she cleared her throat and leaned in to whisper, “What if I said I need a favor?” She cleared her throat again and mouthed, “It’s big.” Lilac sat up and leaned closer to her friend.
“What do you mean?” she demanded. Violet explained Lilac how a letter arrived in the mail last week from a man named G. She slid the scrap of yellowed parchment across the table and Lilac read:
I’ve been watching you. We need you. Reach out to Michael. 888-777-6666
“I did, Li,” said Violet as she waved the waiter away. “Lilac, there’s a program that can help people. People will pay to die peacefully and we can give that to them!”
“What!? Like,” Lilac lowered her voice, conscious of the stares from the other guests around them, “Like not revive them?” Her trembling hand flew to her mouth while her eyes scanned the restaurant, aware that any of the other guests could report them to the Ethics Line of NDE.
“It’s for a good cause,” replied Violet. She leaned back in her chair and began nibbling at the bread at the center of the table.
“No!” said Lilac. She shoved her chair back and hissed, “We have very clear instructions, Violet. We let patients experience death for a moment or two-not forever!”
“Wait!” called Violet. Lilac caught a look of desperation in her eyes. “Come back, please,” she begged. Lilac stopped dead in her path. “It’s for Tulip,” she confessed. “Her story is ending, Lilac,” insisted Violet, “And she deserves to end it the way that she was meant to.” Lilac shook her head, demanding that the knowledge she had just gained be shaken out. Violet stood and walked to Lilac, resting her chin on her Partner’s shoulder. “The sales department created the contract with Tulip’s family under an assumed name, Nancy. The logistics department hid the sale under mountains of paperwork,” explained Violet. “All that’s left is to actually do it…before the cancer does…” Lilac reached up to rub away the steam of Violet’s breath from her ear. She felt her friend’s cool fingers interlace with her hot ones.
Lilac took a sip of wine and her seat. She waited until Violet had sat down, too. “No, absolutely not. I will not not not kill,” she said. The two girls sat in front of each other. Neither touched their mountain of spaghetti. Both drank several glasses of wine. “There are programs,” insisted Lilac, “Where people can petition to die peacefully.”
“They’ve denied her,” said Violet as she swirled her red wine. “Because,” she took a sip, “She is still mentally capacitated.” Violet rolled her eyes. “She would do it for us. You know that. And this…” Violet sighed. For a moment, she seemed human. Her brow furrowed deeply and a frown was painted across her face. Lilac noticed an exhausted look in her eyes. “This isn’t fair,” Violet’s voice cracked.
“Ok….” Lilac swirled her wine while choosing her next words carefully, “What do I need to do?”
Tulip lay asleep on the bed in patient room 3. Lilac approached her silently as Violet grabbed the syringes from the cabinet. Oak watched them intently. The girls scrubbed in. Violet led the team to Tulip’s bed. Lilac inhaled deeply; she smelled vanilla. With her eyes closed she saw fresh baked cookies on cooling racks. She held onto the rhythmic beeping of Tulip’s monitor and bit her lip to stop the tears. Up close, Lilac noticed fine lines on Tulip’s face. More tears threatened at the sight of dark bruising under Tulip’s eyes. “Thank you,” whispered Lilac. She clutched onto Tulip’s hand and Violet held her other one. Oak rested his hands on their backs. The team stood together one last time.
“Ok,” Violet broke the silence. She took the syringe and injected it slowly. The red liquid flowed gently like a contained waterfall and the clock starts. They all moved back to their lab in a silent funeral procession. “Protect each other,” she had told the girls on their last day, “No one else will.” Lilac smiled at Violet across the room. She noticed tears filling her friend’s blue eyes. The clock glowed red. The team reached for one another’s hands. It ticked down to 0:00. Alarms began blaring. They squeezed tighter, fighting slick fingers. Three men rushed in wearing bullet proof suits. Two doctors followed them. The Ethics Guards pushed the team to their knees. The syringe of blue liquid fell from Violet’s hand, shattering on the tile. They could hear the doctors shouting at each other as they came to the realization of who the patient was. The Ethics Guard standing over Lilac smelled like Tobacco. Fresh tobacco. She breathed deeply and closed her eyes as she feels the syringe of red liquid enter her veins.