Work was ghastly. Roman needed a break. No better time than the winter holidays, when cheer sloshed through the city, unbearably wet and merry, like the snow melting on asphalt and mixing with confetti left behind by endless parades. He’d go up to the little cabin, he decided, up in the mountains, relax away from the forever-smilers and the always-happy. Clear his head.
He’d given his boss a note. The man, a veteran of the trade and accordingly wrinkled and grey, with a face and a heart of stone, raised a fat eyebrow.
“People don’t take a break from dying just because it’s the holidays, Roman. I don’t see why you should get a break from work.”
Roman had no logical answer, nothing concrete and reasonable to satisfy a bureaucracy’s demand. He sighed, and, looking straight into boss’ fleshy, swollen eyes just said, “Please.”
Theirs was a difficult profession, and though Roman was young, half-a-decade of his life had already been swallowed by its tasks and assignments. He didn’t have much of a youth because of it. Bossman at least had some fun beforehand, gone to college, had a young wife, spent summers carefree and camping. That was before Young Wife died. He’d since wrapped anything soft, happy, mewling and baby-like inside him with a triple layer of barbed wire, but Roman’s tired gaze, it managed to pierce through.
“Alright, fine,” he told Roman. “You can have a weekend off. But we can’t pay you. And don’t tell anyone.”
Roman’s face, not used to smiling, twisted upwards, attempting a grin. He shook his boss’ hand, with a sincere thank-you. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”
He left that evening, driving hours from the city. He could see the cabin from the highway, wedged into a blue mountain. Even on hazy days, when the mountain concealed itself in smoke like a mysterious lady with a cigarette, the little cabin roof poked out proud amidst the firs. He and Lily, they’d dreamed of owning a cabin once. But they were just silly kids then, with silly dreams. Still, he bought it in her honor.
At those altitudes, the snow didn’t melt the way it did in the city, on lukewarm pavement, breathed upon by hot cars and millions of pedestrians. Here, it accumulated. A downy layer blanketed the cabin’s front porch. It was a shame to shuffle through and destroy its innocent flatness.
Stepping inside, Roman waved his hand against the dark, searching for a flashlight kept by the door. There was no electricity, and with night now leaking into the cabin, only the flashlight’s feeble beam guided him. Roman crept to the cabin’s back wall like a cockroach wary of its discovery. The fireplace was heavy with dust, its cold interior infertile grounds for fire. But Roman coaxed the hearth back to life. A lovely orange glow soon warmed the room.
The cabin had walls of exposed and lacquered wood, sturdy, cozy, a real home that stayed warm amid blizzards, kept out bears and coyotes, and smelled forever like the fireplace smoke, its scent seeping into the wood for years. Lily would have loved it, with the old and battered couch laying loyal as a dog a few from the fireplace, and all the knick-knacks too, the framed photographs, the wood-carved chickens, the glass bowls of cinnamon potpourri. But Lily was dead. Roman was alone at the cabin, truly alone, no internet, no phone service, no neighbors. Then again, Roman was always alone. He hated putting the thought into such melodramatic terms, but it was kind of true.
Satisfied with the crackle of a content fire munching on logs, Roman occupied the kitchen.
“Don’t think I’ve forgotten, Lily,” he said out loud. “I know it’s our fifth anniversary today. I thought I’d make us a special dinner. Focaccia, perhaps?”
Focaccia, that wonderful flatbread with a scattered black constellation of spices and dried tomatoes embedded like bulging eyes upon its face. Lily had introduced him to it. At fifteen, she was already a gourmand.
Their first date seemed a lifetime ago. Two teenagers, all limbs and chapped lips, spread lakeside with a scrappy picnic. She made him laugh so hard mucus shot from his nose, as with a particularly wet sneeze. The sun was on its latter half of the day’s work, inching towards retirement, towards the water, and so more generous with its beauty, dipping every leaf, crevice of tree bark, and finger of grass into gold. It really did a number with Lily’s face, softening her every feature, but making it also more pronounced, like a spotlight crafted by an expert technician, saying, Look at her cheek, her eyelid, the inside of her mouth. Nice, huh?
“I feel like this moment could last forever,” she’d said, one of those horribly cheesy things he couldn’t excuse from anyone but her. And also, he agreed. They didn’t know better back then. They had yet to realize eternity was not theirs to have. When she’d asked if they would be together forever, he’d panicked. Millions of such perfect moments, like millions of beads on an endless string-- the sheer quantity, the infinite commitment, much too much for a fifteen-year-old boy to handle. What a fool he’d been, pulling away from her the rest of that year. At sixteen, a whiff of sense drifted back between his ears, and he resumed that old intensity in their courtship. But it wasn’t enough sense that he regained, clearly. Why else would he invite her into his father’s Buick, onto the highway, with only half a driver’s ed course in his brain?
The day before she died, they’d made focaccia too. She wrote the recipe on a pink sticky note, folded it into a teeny triangle, and slipped it in his shirt pocket. For later, just in case. At the cabin, he unraveled the sticky note yet again, peeling it back corner by corner. No need really -- he had the recipe memorized by now. He just liked seeing her handwriting again, smudged after years, but still bold, all capital letters, small but shouting.
He’d crashed the Buick, of course. Into another car. He hadn’t been careful -- he didn’t think he needed to be. Sure, in the movies it seemed like getting glass shards wedged in your forehead or an airbag punching your ribcage would be painful, but so falling off a bike, or getting a nosebleed. And a car crash, that pain seemed like it would be more adult. Only grown-ups got into car crashes.
After the impact, his ears rang, and his knees were bruised. The other car rammed into Lily’s side, the door crumpled like a tinfoil ball, the glass shattered.
“Ooh, yikes, Lily, you really got the worst of it,” he said. Lily didn’t respond. Her head lolled to the side, and her eyes closed.
“Aw, great, here comes the police,” he said, watching two cars approach from the rearview mirror. But these were not police. There were no sirens, no uniforms. Just two of the saddest-looking men he’d ever seen, in suits, climbing out and shaking their heads. Roman rolled down the window.
“Hey there, gentlemen,” he said.
“Hey, son. Looks like a pretty bad car crash. You alright?” asked one of the men with long lines running to the corners of his mouth.
“Yeah, fine, fine,” answered Roman.
“Any heavy bleeding?”
“And the young lady over there, she’s your girlfriend?”
“Why, that’s a cheeky question officer,” Roman grinned. “What’s it to you? You jealous?”
“Is she at all responsive? Have you slapped her, called her name?”
“Slapped her? Why would I do that? She’s, uh, sleeping or something. Look at her, all peaceful. Must be some kinda nervous response, just passing out like that.”
The man sighed. He and the other man looked at each other, weary.
“How old are you?” the other man asked.
They both clucked their tongues.
“Well, son,” said the first man. “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. Your girlfriend is dead.”
“Dead? What’s that mean?”
The protocol, as Roman would later learn in his own training, gave a very standardized description of death to those who’d never heard of it before. The protocol anticipated every question that came after -- “What happens next? Will it happen to me, my family, my friends, my dog, etc.? You mean I’ll never see them again? What do I do now?” The men were trained for ultimate discretion. Their car was parked beside Roman’s, concealing it from the highway, lest some passing, curious-eyed driver see them pull Lily’s body from the wreckage. They slipped it into a long black duffel bag and stuffed that into their trunk. No one but Roman saw everything, and because of that, the men insisted he come with them. Ordered it.
“Wait, so, who are you?” he asked, buckling into their backseat.
“We work for the government, and from now on, you do too.”
“Well, we can’t have you just out in the world, can we? You’ve seen too much.”
Roman got to spend a final evening at home, under the conditions he tell no one about what happened. His parents were sad he had to go, of course, but not surprised. The government drafted people often, and at random, always in secret. They were usually older though, often elderly. Really, his parents were proud their boy would serve so young.
That first night after Lily died, he didn’t sleep. Anger kept him awake, like a caffeine bee buzz in his skull, multiplying thought into accusation into more thought. How come no one told him? No one told anyone! Ever! At first he thought his parents had kept some great secret from him, but deliberating it through, re-examining old memories for hints of conspiracy, he found nothing. They, along with his friends, teachers, everyone really, they all didn’t know. But the government men, they told him it would happen to everyone. Even him. That especially, he couldn’t comprehend. Everyone else leaving, sure. But him? His mind? His body? It seemed so real, so permanent. Infinite. And one day, it would simply not exist. It seemed unacceptable.
In the cabin, he slid the now-composed focaccia onto a metal pan, and placed that above the fire to bake. It was a lovely smell, bread baking. He wondered why he didn’t do this more often. He promised himself, when he was still in his first year of work, to make the most of his now-limited life. Make it count. But in work lay also the problem.
His work days, they were grueling, spent wiping clean death’s fingerprint from society. If they were lucky, it’d be some lonely person succumbed to old age ( a concept that, five years later, Roman could still only barely understand), someone with no family, no witnesses, alone in an apartment. There, the work was easy: get the body out so no one sees, mop up blood or signs of rot. But if someone had been there, found them, witnessed their heart attack, or, worst of all, had accidentally killed them, not understanding the true frailty of their own existence, that was terrible. Over and over, Roman had to deliver the shattering news, give the standard explanation, draft them into their new occupation. A happy society, his training alleged, is one unaware of its own end, and those who were unwittingly revealed the great and tragic secret couldn’t be trusted to be quiet, to keep this society free, and so had to be mandated into keeping that secret.
The focaccia was now done, brown and crispy, fragrant with charred onion. Roman removed it from the fire, and, tearing out huge chunks and stuffing them full into his mouth, paced around the cabin, re-examining all the old hung-up pictures once again. In every one of them, his friends, his family, so happy. He was so jealous, it stung his very heart. To them, nothing could ever be a big deal. Bad day at work, break-up, failed exercise plan or artistic endeavor, what did it matter, it would always be a new day, an infinite number of fresh starts and second chances. No counting down the hours, no agonizing over a wrong choice, no time wasted pondering the beyond.
He’d made it to the door. The focaccia gone, his free hand opened the door, the winter chill teasing, pinching his cheeks and his knees. A fresh layer of snow covered where he’d brushed past before. It could get dangerous, he thought, with the fluctuating temperatures. Snow melted, froze again, forming a layer of ice right below the snow. How easy it would be, distracted by some distanced thought, walking too fast to the car, whatever, but just forgetting to look down, to be careful, and slipping, falling, his head cracking on the steps, bleeding out, staining the snow around him like spilled cherry juice. He was all alone out there, so hopefully, no one would find him. Perhaps the coyotes would get there, the bears, doing what he normally did, disposing of the evidence. Perhaps snow would cover him, conceal him from the view of a passing mailman or a lost weekend-camper. He’d fossilize under there, to be discovered by clueless scientists years in the future, unsure of what exactly they’d found. Seems like a human, but why’s it so still? But no, no, of course he was being silly.
“Sorry, Lily,” he chuckled, pinching his nose-bridge between two fingers. “I get a little carried away sometimes. I’ve got work Monday. Bossman would kill me if I didn’t show up.”