TW: discussions of death, of suicide
A storm was coming - probably wouldn’t arrive for a few hours but the air was sharp with electricity and wind snapped through the long grass that surrounded the house. The house was old, a one-story dwelling that could have been mistaken for an abandoned building in the middle of the woods if not for the faint glow of a lamp from within the windows. The paint was peeling, the fence was disappearing into the ground, and the open front door resembled a punched-in tooth in a grinning skull.
Not ideal, not for anyone but especially not for Johnny Fischer.
Door-to-door sales was not an easy game for even the veterans of the industry, and life insurance was tricky. People didn’t like to think about death, didn’t want to prepare for it, and springing it on them in a cold call was a tall order.
He’d only been at it for about a year now. While it kept him on the road and far away from home, the job had provided a considerable profit for the family man. People these days were cautious - they remembered their parents being burned by the stock market crash, grew up eating stale crumbs and pinching pennies. Knew that life was full of ugly surprises.
They wanted security, safety.
And Johnny could sell it to them.
Of course, he was well-accustomed to rejection at this point. He had more than his fair share of ‘get the hell off my property’ and even on a few occasions the barrel of a gun shoved in his face. He tried to let it slide off of him. Johnny couldn’t afford to get nerves, not with a baby on the way and his little girl starting school next year.
That morning, in the by-the-hour hotel he spent the night in, he’d used a payphone to call the family and see how things were doing. Linda had reassured him that things were fine before getting his daughter on the phone.
“Daddy?” Claire had asked, her little voice sing-songing through the telephone line.
“Yes, sugar?” he had replied.
“When are you coming home?”
Gut wrenching, that kid. He had been home not too long ago, just a few weeks, but to a little kid that can seem like a whole year. Rationality had nothing to do with the hook in his stomach while he answered.
“Soon, baby. You know that Daddy has to work.”
That’s right, Daddy has to work, and the job pays well but Daddy’s always working.
He could hear Linda’s voice in the background - “You’ll see him again soon, dear.”
God bless her. His wife was patient about all of it although she knew he missed her and he knew that she missed him. They’re lucky, the two of them. Most of his friends were in the kind of marriages that sucked the love out of you but Johnny and Linda - they just kept getting better and better. God, he missed her, missed both of them.
A few more houses to approach, a few more doors to knock on.
He just needed one more win and then he could go home.
“Good morning, sir, my name is Johnny and I’d -”
A door slammed in his face, almost hitting the tip of his nose.
“Good afternoon, ma’am, my name is Johnny and if you have a few minutes to -”
A soft-spoken interruption and apologetic smile.
No luck for Johnny, not on a day like this - it wouldn't be too long before the storm started. Can’t make a sale in the rain and if he returned to the hotel tonight without anything to show for it, it’d be another day on the road for Johnny.
So this house in front of him - it wasn't pretty, it was old and frankly looked like it should have been buried years ago. But it was all he had and he was going to give it his all. It was perched at the end of a long and winding dirt road that led him there. Far from civilization, with trees for neighbors. End of this line, this house.
The whisper of the grass was loud as he approached. The house was quiet, no sound of conversation and the porch was unoccupied. But the lights were on so he had to have a little faith.
Johnny travelled up the steps and let his briefcase down by his feet, knocked on the door.
Nothing but the wind answered.
Dark clouds were gathering above the treetops. The walk back to the hotel was long and he rather not let it be in defeat.
He knocked again, calling out loudly, “Anyone home?”
There was a creaky noise. He strained to hear the sounds of footsteps.
With a sigh, he tried one last time. Just as his knuckles were about to land on the wood, he heard a voice - surprisingly, from behind him.
“Someone’s always home.”
He startled - there on the dirt road stood a woman, about as old as his mother, with a straight back and fixed stare. She was wearing a black dress and in her hands she held a big basket filled with some kind of linen. He supposed she was gathering laundry from a clothesline. Johnny found himself in the strange juxtaposition of facing his client from the inside of their home.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” he said with a wide smile, “My name is Johnny and if you have the time, I have something important to discuss with you regarding your insurance policy. Is there any reason why we can’t have a quick conversation to straighten things out, Missus... ?”
Her mouth twisted wryly, “Mrs. Ryans.”
“Mrs Ryans, a pleasure to meet you,” he ducked his head, “Is Mr. Ryans home?”
The woman shook her head.
“In any case, how about we go ahead and get this knocked out before that storm comes,” he took a step closer to her, looking down from the porch, “It won’t take long and it’ll guarantee protection for your entire household.”
Mrs. Ryans didn’t say anything for a minute and he worried momentarily that he lost her, but she seemed to acquiesce and walked up the stairs.
“Come in,” she said in that low graveyard voice, resting the basket against her hip.
“Can I help you with that?” Johnny asked casually.
After a heavy stare, Mrs. Ryans nodded and let him grab the basket. It was heavier than he expected, but when he glanced inside all he could see was the linen.
With a sharp twist of the knob, she opened the door to a dark hallway - at the end he could see the glow of a lamp in another room. The house sounded empty as she led him inside.
An animal instinct kicked up in Johnny’s gut, a squirming reluctance to enter the cave, but it came with the territory. He bent down and picked up his briefcase, balancing the basket with the other hand.
By the lamp, there was a dead fireplace and two armchairs. She perched in one and he took the implied invitation to sit across from her, placing the basket on the floor.
“Do you have any children?” he asked, opening the briefcase in his lap.
“No,” she replied.
“Alright, just you and Mr. Ryans,” he cleared his throat and spoke firmly, “Now - the thing about being covered by Wrightson Insurance is that any policy can be adjusted to fit your needs.” He fell silent when she bluntly leaned forward and dragged the basket closer.
“What kind of protection are you offering?” she asked, leafing over the basket’s contents.
Johnny found himself lowering his voice unintentionally - “well, this is a life insurance policy, what that means is that in the tragic event of death in your family, an... inevitable event, as sad as that is, and it- it means that... The cost of your....” the pitch fell flat, hit the ground and died, because spontaneously, her face had stretched into a wide grin.
It was terrifying.
“Life,” she said softly, almost playfully.
“And how much is a life to you, Mr. Fischer?”
He faltered, brow furrowing as he tried to remember... remember if he told her his last name... He might have mentioned it in his introduction. In an attempt to recover, he fiddled through the papers in his briefcase.
“It depends on the plan, Mrs. Ryans.” He sighed deeply, the strained smile returning to his face, “Depending on how much you’re willing to pay per month, for the premium.”
She leaned back in her chair. Johnny felt his smirk falter again. It hurt his cheeks to keep up the facade of cheerfulness.
“Life has a different value to each of us,” Mrs. Ryans said softly.
“Well, I suppose that’s true.”
“And for yourself,” she continued, “What price is that?”
This was quite off-script. Johnny had long given up the facade of shuffling papers, was crinkling a rate sheet with the tight grip of his left hand.
“What’s your price?” she repeated, arching an eyebrow at him.
“Well, if you mean for my own policy - “ he coughed briefly, “I pay roughly about $15 a month.”
“For one life?” she asked, head cocked to the right, like a hawk regarding a mouse.
“Well, no, it’s for any member of the family...” he answered, “it pays about $30,000 in the event of any of our deaths...”
“$30,000... for Linda and little Claire and the one not yet here.”
The world tilted to the side. Johnny blinked rapidly at the old crone, who didn’t seem to find anything unusual with what she just said.
“Excuse me?” he croaked.
“$30,000... for four people, per person... That's quite the number, Johnny.” She turned her nose down at the basket in her lap with a calculating look on her face.
“I don’t... I don’t recall telling you my family’s na -” his voice died in a raspy whisper before he cleared his throat, “have we, uh, have we met before?”
“$15 a month...” Mrs. Ryans muttered, ignoring his question, “for four people... now... $30,000 I am assuming is the payout in the case of any untimely death.”
“Except - except for suicide.” Johnny waved the wrinkled rate sheet in his hand weakly, “at Wrightson Insurance we don’t cover suicide because we don’t want to, you know, encourage... desperate people...”
“Oh, well,” she harrumphed, “that is unfortunate for you.”
“I see, I assume then that you are... not interested in our policy?” he asked, hoping for that to be the case. For any reason to get up and leave.
“No, Johnny,” she said a little louder, “I mean that’s unfortunate for your policy.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
A dirty little smile played upon her lips.
“Little Claire’s going to take her own life - in about twenty years.” Mrs. Ryan’s nails hit the side of the basket with soft clicks, “And when that happens, well, you won’t be getting that payout.”
No. Johnny’s stomach rolled with nausea. That was just - “I don’t know what kind of sick joke -”
“No joke, Johnny. And for the one you haven’t named yet?” she flicked a hand casually, “Well they’ll make it to their forties before suffering from an auto accident but you’ll be long dead by then. Natural causes, though grief is certainly going to be a factor. So both of you are earning your payouts.”
A strange solemnity fell over Johnny.
It should have seemed preposterous that this person, all alone in her hole of a home, should know such personal details that won’t happen for decades. He should laugh, or get mad, maybe just leave.
Instead he found himself whispering, “...and Linda?”
Mrs. Ryans shrugged non-committedly, “Linda’s going to be very old when she dies. Old and alone. She’ll have a little money but she won’t have anything else.”
Johnny didn’t say anything to that. Just stared at the dead fireplace, that shadowy abyss of burnt coal.
Everything seemed cheap now.
Mrs. Ryans leaned forward, caught his eye.
“Now,” she said softly, “let’s take the case of Claire. $15 split between four people - I’ll include the one not yet here - and that’s going to be per month for the next 20 years. Well by my math, that means you’re going to be paying a total of about $900 for her life. And by the end of it, you’re not even getting that payout, on account of her jumping off that rooftop.”
“No payout,” he muttered nonsensically.
She lowers her hands into the basket and for a sick moment he thinks she’s going to bring out the head of Mr. Ryans or maybe a big snake or - but it’s not anything like that. Mrs. Ryans peels back the layers of linen to reveal cash - lots of it.
“Well, Johnny, I have over a thousand dollars in this basket right now.”
He swallowed dryly.
“And what do you mean by that?”
“It’s simple math, Johnny. I’ll give you this thousand dollars for Claire’s life right now, I'll take those twenty years for this basket...” she smiled widely, “it’s already more than what you’re paying for her. And - you get to keep the leftovers!"
The low light of the lamp illuminated all that money in that basket. Stacks of it.
“All in all,” she said, leaning back in her chair with the air of someone quite satisfied with themselves, “you’d be making quite a profit.”
Johnny stood up abruptly, the briefcase falling from his lap and landing on the floor in a forgotten sprawl. Without a glance behind himself, he threw open the door and stepped out into the oncoming storm, the wind battering against his head and twisting his hair into knots.
Darkness loomed ominously overhead, rumbling with anticipation. He was a few miles away from the house when the rain began to pour, turning the dirt road into mud. A few times his fancy dress shoes slipped on the slick ground but he got right back up and kept on walking.
By the time he made it to the hotel parking lot he was soaked, mud covering his suit and filling his shoes. But he didn’t go straight to his room - instead he went to the payphone, dug in his soaked pockets for change.
The first call was to his boss at Wrightson Insurance. No, he couldn’t make a sale today, but that was quite alright because he quit. His boss let out a startled noise but before he could say anything, Johnny slammed the phone into the receiver with no small amount of force.
Johnny was breathing hard when he plucked a few more coins into the payphone, dialed a number written across his heart.
Linda picked up briskly, pleasantly surprised but wary about his call. Yes, he was alright. No, he couldn’t talk to Claire right now, not yet... but he wanted to call to let them both know that he was done.
He was coming home.