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Contemporary Fiction

Six Months

Dan Swanson sat on his deck looking out over the water and contemplated his own demise. Six, maybe eight months, eh? Not a lot of time.

After he’d heard the prognosis, he listened to the options: maaaaybe they could slow the growth, maaaybe treatment could buy him a little more time. Dan was a numbers man. He listened to the percentages. He didn’t like the odds. 

“I know how difficult this is to hear,” said the oncologist. “You really shouldn’t be alone at a time like this. Is there anyone we can call for you?” 

Dan flicked the air with his hand, dismissively. “No, don’t worry about it. I’m okay. Really. I’m fine.”

“If you’re sure…”

“Yes. Seriously. Let’s just get back to the options.”

“You’re still a relatively young man, and otherwise, you’re in great shape. Maaaybe you’d weather the side effects pretty well. Better than most. Of course, this is a very aggressive, fast-growing cancer and—“

“Yeah, yeah, acute, metastasized,” Dan interrupted. “So, let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Basically, in a nutshell, what you’re telling me, Dr…Dr….” Dan searched for a plaque on the desk before him.

“Reynolds,” filled in the oncologist. 

“Of course. Reynolds,” said Dan. “What you’re telling me, Dr. Reynolds, is I’m pretty much fucked.”

“That is one way of saying it,” said Dr Reynolds 

“If I consented to the treatment, I might live a few, maybe several months longer.”

Reynolds, his hands steepled against his mouth, nodded once. 

“Or I could get really sick with the treatment, live a couple months longer, and maybe not.”

Reynolds nods one time. “There are no hard and fast rules here. Every single case is different.”

“I sense you’re wanting to tell me ‘if only I’d come in sooner.’”

“No,” said Dr. Reynolds. “I don’t want to tell you that.”

“But you’re thinking it.”

Reynolds didn’t answer, but said, “It doesn’t matter. You didn’t. And this is where we are. Mr. Swanson, Dan, if I may. You don’t need to decide right now, but should you opt for treatment, I advise you not to take too long.”

“I see,” said Dan. “So, I have a question for you.”

“Of course.”

“If you were me, what would you do?” Dan asked. 

“I can’t answer that. You—”

Dan interrupted again. “Of course you can. You just don’t want to.” Then he said a word he had not used in a very long time. “Please. I would really like to know what you would do if you were sitting on this side of this lovely mahogany desk.” 

Reynolds sighed, defeated, but understanding. “Alright, okay.  I’ll tell you.”

Dan leaned forward. 

“You’re a wealthy man, aren’t you, Dan?”

“Yes, I am.”

“If I were you, I’d go home, pack my bags and go live the very best life you possibly can for as long as you can. And when it comes time, and you’ll know when it is, come on home, and we’ll take care of you.” 

—§§—

Dan savored a surprisingly rich, spicy sip of a 1945 Château Mouton Rothschild, the “victory vintage.” He had smugly purchased it at a charity auction for an ungodly amount and stored it in the wine cellar for a special occasion. What could be more special than finding out you have a terminal disease and only a few months to live?

He watched the family across the lake, kids cannonballing from the dock, jumping on a trampoline, a barbecue under way. There were adults, too, some seated on the deck, others milling about, beverages in hand. There must be a party. What if he stopped in? “Hi! You don’t know me, but I’m Dan Swanson, the guy that’s lived across the lake from you for around twenty years.” Absurd. 

Both his parents had passed away. His brother wouldn’t talk to him since he missed their mother’s funeral. It couldn’t be helped. He was in China, for a critical business deal. Actually, it wasn’t even a funeral. After her cremation, there was…what was it called?  A “celebration of life.” He wondered what had been done with his mother’s ashes, and the thought led him to consider the options following his own demise. 

There definitely would not be a funeral. He knew he’d be dead, but he still couldn’t stand the humiliation of no one showing up. Who would come? Certainly not the ex. He had no friends. Tons of acquaintances and business associates, but none to call friends. He was sure his colleagues hated him. They had even ceased pretending to like him. Human Resources loathed him. His secretary, no, make that “administrative assistant,”  put on a front, but he knew she couldn’t stand him. It never bothered him. Until now. 

Well, he wasn’t going to tell them, but somehow, eventually, the news would get out. Imagining their reactions unsettled him, followed by unexpected, unfamiliar feelings of sadness. And emptiness. 

It was time for another bottle of wine. He retrieved one from the wine cellar, haphazardly selecting another red. Screw letting it breathe. He noticed some kind of tag, stuck to the label, Christmas-y, with a glittery snow scene. “Happiest of holidays!” It read. “To Mr. Swanson, from Alex T.” Who in hell was Alex T? Oh, yeah. The queer kid from Marketing. This was a pretty damn good Cabernet from Napa Valley, way above the kid’s pay grade. Probably just an ass-kisser. but then he remembered seeing him with a bedazzled Santa hat and burlap bag, distributing gifts to everyone in the office. He remembered thinking, “faggot.” Or had he said it out loud?

He carried the uncorked bottle out to the deck and stretched out on the chaise. He poured a glass and lifted it toward the sky. “To Alex!” he said, then returned to thoughts of his after-death directive. Absolutely no funeral and really the only other option was cremation, except no one  would want his ashes. There was no one to spread them at a designated place either, somewhere memorable, special to him. Of course, he could pick a spot and direct his attorney to hire someone when the time came, and he closed his eyes, remembering as a world traveler, all the extraordinary places he had been, things he had done: seeing the northern lights while skiing the slopes of Hlíðarfjall, scuba diving in the Red Sea, summiting Kilimanjaro, but nowhere  stood out as special. He had always traveled alone. 

Hm. Maybe he would fly to Japan and just head into Aokigahara with a lethal dose of pain medication and a bottle of water. Or there was Dignitas in Switzerland which really sounded far more appealing, but although now a staunch atheist, Dan had been raised in the Catholic Church. He just couldn’t shake the possibility of eternal damnation in Hell. 

The cancer would kill him soon enough. He was not going to undergo any kind of treatment. No chemo, no radiation, no surgery or experimental drugs. He remembered Sharon—or was it Sheryl?—his secretary, no, his administrative assistant, when she had battled breast cancer. He had found her repulsive as she attempted to maintain her position—the weight loss, her obvious struggles, the diminished efficiency and the unmistakable, pervasive aura of sickness. And that pathetic wig! He overheard comments about her loyalty, how strong and courageous she was, but he didn’t find her tenacity at all admirable. He had just wished she’d turn in her resignation so that HR could find a replacement, someone competent, energetic, healthy. And attractive. 

He vowed his last good days would be just that—good.  He would make a last-minute bucket list and in the next day or so, he’d send out an office-wide email stating he was taking an extended vacation. No doubt they'd be overjoyed. He would see his attorney and get things lined out for his immediate absence, and then, the permanent one.  

As he poured another glass from Alex T’s bottle, he realized he was decidedly drunk. Dan was an oenophile, a collector, not one to drink to excess, but after today’s news, he figured he was entitled. Deep in thought, he sat on the chaise as evening set in and solar lighting appeared to subtly consume the darkness. It was a new lighting system, spectacular but tasteful, illuminating the sloping path that led to the dock. The landscaping was truly incredible, a work of art, but he couldn’t take any credit for it. He just paid the bill. Actually, an accounting firm paid the bill. They paid all his bills. He didn’t do anything but work.  And exist, and now it seemed he wasn’t doing that so well.  

A little wobbly, he stood at the rail and looked out over the water, dark and smooth as glass. It was quiet now across the lake. The party was over, the house dark, save for a soft light glowing from a Palladian window.  It was a nice house, really nice, of a good size, too, but nowhere near as grand as his. He imagined the kids were in bed, with mom and dad relaxing in the great room, maybe reading, maybe talking about their successful party. 

He thought of Marissa, sweet, gorgeous, fun-loving Marissa. Lord, she hadn’t crossed his mind in years.  He remembered her angry, icy exit, not six months after they’d moved into this brand new house, her dream home. He’d tried to send the bitch alimony, but every check was returned to his lawyer, shredded into tiny pieces. Suddenly, he hurled the hand-etched Tiffany wine glass, hearing it shatter as it struck the stone slabs of the pathway. 

Well, that was ignorant. He fetched another bottle, another glass and sat at the teakwood table, listening to the sounds of summer, the lake softly lapping the shoreline, reflecting the moon and lights that ran up and down the cove. God, this was a beautiful place! And here he sat, alone, feeling the weight of his own mortality. The solitude he loved was closing in on him. Fuck!

Pack your bags and go live the very best life you possibly can for as long as you can. That was what the doc advised and that was what he would do. He contemplated his first destination, envisioning the turquoise waters of Bora Bora, staying in an overwater bungalow, scuba diving the coral reefs, sailing a catamaran, maybe snorkeling with some sharks.  

But try as he might,  Alex T, Sharon and Danny kept intruding into his thoughts. It was impossible to shut them out. 

There was no denying, he, Dan Swanson, was a schmuck, a worm, a weasel, an A-number one asshole. He was an arrogant, inconsiderate, shallow, selfish, ruthless, greedy, amoral, immoral, unethical, unscrupulous, misogynistic misanthrope. And he was dying, dying alone, just as he deserved. The possibility of eternal damnation seemed all too real.

He thought about Alex T, dressed in the Santa suit, and tried  to recall anything else about him. The kid seemed sharp enough, rather clever actually. He was pleasant, outdoing, and obviously well-liked. Certainly a great dresser. Dan had nothing against the gays, the LGBQ-whatever. So why had he been rude to a guy who had spent way too much money on a Christmas gift for his shitty boss? Because he was despicable, that’s why. A horrible, hateful human being. 

Then there was Sharon, not Sheryl, definitely Sharon. He had treated her like shit, like her illness was  an inconvenience— because it was. She was so damn good at her job, operating without her had been a nightmare. Her replacement was a joke, the temps were a joke. He never sent flowers. He never offered one single kind word to her, not a word of support, encouragement or reassurance. Despicable. 

And here he was, at his magnificent lake house, with all this. He held his arms out. All this stuff. And piles of money. That was all he would leave behind. No love. No friendship. No memories of good times. He wouldn’t be remembered for  philanthropy. Charitable donations were paltry and done only for the sake of a tax write-off. There was nothing in his life that was worthy of celebration. 

This simply would not do. 

Brain blink. Then…epiphany!  

He called his attorney. He called his accountant, surprised that either answered their phones this late, but then he was a pretty significant client. 

To each he explained that urgent matters had arisen requiring immediate attention. He acknowledged that with such short notice, scheduling what was sure to be a lengthy meeting would surely create time conflicts for them.  He invited, actually insisted, they meet after-hours at his house ASAP. He told them what they were going to discuss must be 100% confidential, and that he was counting on their professionalism, as gentlemen, to handle these matters with absolute discretion. 

They agreed upon Wednesday evening. 

Today Dan Swanson had walked out of the oncology clinic a different man than the one who walked in, and in the course of just a few hours, he was a different man again. He thought he might actually like this one, this man who was filled with a new, encompassing sense of purpose, not to make money, but determined to give it away.  

——§§——-

“So what’s the big secret, Dan? Why all the urgency?” This from the attorney, Stuart Phillips. 

“Yeah,what’s going on, bro?” Elliot Kyle, the whiz kid accountant asked. “Are you in some kind of trouble?”

The three men were seated outdoors around the teakwood table, drinking imported beer. There were two folders in front of Dan.  

“Not exactly.” Dan said. “Listen, before I go on, I want to remind you that you’ve sworn yourselves to secrecy. I trust your staff will follow suit.”

Both men gave their assurance, their expressions both grave and curious. 

Dan took a deep breath. This was proving harder than he thought it would be. “Stuart, Elliot,” Dan finally began. “I got some bad news yesterday.  I found out…I have cancer, and …it’s too far gone, and well, I’m not going to be around much longer.”

“Oh, my God. Dan! I’m so sorry,” said  Elliot, slack-jawed,  with Stuart echoing his sympathies. 

Dan waved them away. “I don’t need your sympathies, but I do need your services. Stuart, I hope you can fit me in tomorrow. I need a will.”

“Of course. That’s one thing you don’t need to worry about,” Stuart assured him. “If I don’t have time, I’ll make time.”

“Thank you, but it’s just the start. I’ll be making some sizable donations, and I’m relying on the two of you working together to make that happen.” He paused. “There are a few other things, too. Let’s just say I need to right some wrongs.”

He handed a folder to each of them.

“My requests are spelled out in these. I was as thorough as I could be. Guys, you’ll be on your own. I’m  leaving for Bora Bora Monday. Of course you can reach me by cell when you have questions. I don’t know where I’ll go from there. Might as well use up all my Frequent Flier miles, eh? Can you believe I have never been to Paris? I think I’ll visit New Zealand and check out the Waitomo caves. There is so much I want to see. If I’ve only got six months, they’re going to be good ones.”

———§§———

While Dan was enroute to the French Polynesian island, Stuart Phillips and Elliot Kyle met for lunch at the country club, each with the folder Dan had given them. 

“I can’t believe this. Dan's a young man. The same age as me.  It just makes me think, you’ve got to live every day to its fullest.”  Stuart shook his head slowly. “So what do you say we make this a martini lunch?”

“Sure,” Elliot agreed. “In honor of Dan. Hey, do you have any idea who Alex Trajkovski and Sharon Wilhite are?”

“Not a clue, but evidently they’re really connected to Dan for him to leave each of them half-a-million bucks. But he was adamant that the gifts be anonymous.”

When their martinis arrived, they raised their glasses. 

“To Dan!”  

“And to Alex and Sharon, whoever they are. Lucky sonsofbitches.” They raised their glasses again, then began to study the documents before them. 

“So half his estate goes to the National Breast Cancer Foundation,” Stuart said. “Breast cancer? That’s anonymous, too.”

“I just noticed,” Elliot said, “It says to be given in the name of this Sharon Wilhite. And the other half goes to the National Youth Advocacy Coalition. In Alex Trajkovski’s name.He didn’t say anything to you when he was in your office last week? About who these people are?”

“He didn’t offer and I didn’t ask, but he did leave $1000 to his brother,” Stuart laughed. “Dan said he’d tried for five years, but his brother wouldn’t talk to him.”

“Ouch! That has to hurt. A thousand bucks when your brother’s a multimillionaire.”

“And another thing,” Stuart added. “Get this. He wants to donate his house to a local shelter. He paused for effect. “The Rainbow House.”

“Say what? The Rainbow House? And the Youth Coalition Is Dan gay?”

“Well, I didn’t ask him that either, Elliot.” Stuart rolled his eyes.“But I don’t think so.” 

He sipped his martini. “But I’ll tell you one thing for certain, El. I’ve known Dan Swanson for a long time. A really long time, and honestly, I thought he was a mean, miserable, arrogant prick. And  there we were, in my office,  planning his Last Will and Testament, and you know what ?”

“What?”

“It was the first time I’d ever seen that guy happy.”

April 27, 2023 21:40

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1 comment

V. S. Rose
23:35 May 10, 2023

Hi Kristin! First of all, I really like your opening. It piques interest and makes you want to keep reading to find out what Dan Swanson is referring to when he says he only has six months left. Immediately afterwards, it's quite clear that now we are dealing with a cancer situation. I like how you're writing is clear, easy to understand, and well spaced. I'm always a fan of stories that make you want to keep turning the page to find out what happens. To write fiction, this ability is a godsend and I think you've showed some of that here. Y...

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