What if the purpose of life is to grow closer and closer until you get there
The kitchen, like the rest of the house, was white. It was all white with beige furniture, and Mark Bordeaux hated it. He often walked around the place and ruminated on how much he hated the blandness. He wished for some color, but he knew this was for the best. Each morning, he took breakfast with his wife, Jill.
“There’s a man in our mulch pile,” she said dismissively one morning while pouring their coffee. “I met him… last Tuesday, I think, but I forgot to mention it.” Mark took a bit of toast and chewed slowly.
“A man in the mulch pile?” he asked, choosing his words with care.
“Well, his aura,” said Jill. “You know what I mean.”
Mark did not know what she meant. He rarely did these days. He tried to engage anyway.
“What’s he like?”
“He seems lovely,” said Jill, “but it’s always so hard to tell. He says he would like to meet you.”
“Is he… alive?” asked Mark after a long pause. Jill rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, Mark. He’s alive. Don’t get weird on me.”
“Just asking,” mumbled Mark as he buttered another piece of toast. They said nothing more. Jill excused herself, leaving him alone. He peered through the window over the kitchen sink and onto the mulch pile in the backyard. He shook his head. It was getting too much.
When Jill returned, she practically jogged through the kitchen. She and Mark grunted goodbyes, and she left for an early meeting. Mark scrubbed the kitchen clean, arranging everything just right.
“We should get help,” said Jill after dinner one evening.
“Help with?” asked Mark. He wanted to hear her admit something. Anything.
“Mark,” she sighed. She was always sighing. “We need help… with us. How long do you want to go on like this?”
“OK,” said Mark after a long pause. “OK.” Jill smiled and hugged him.
They settled on a consultant that Jill’s friends all raved about. They described him as a “life changer” and “better than prescriptions.” His office was advertised as being just outside of town, but that was a stretch.
Mark hated leaving the city. Over the years, it had swallowed up several small towns, leaving a mismatched grid of streets that didn’t line up properly. The result was a spider’s web five and six-way intersections. “It’s like no one ever considered that someone might have to drive here someday,” grumbled Mark. Jill patted his arm.
He relaxed once they cleared the city limits. They were driving toward a shining monolith in the distance. Jill stared out the window, smiling. She waved furtively from time to time when she thought he wasn’t looking. Mark frowned as he looked at the broad, empty plain stretching around them.
“Someone must know something that we don’t to build all the way out here,” said Mark.
“Just be polite,” said Jill. “Maybe he likes solitude.”
The building was round like a silo. There seemed to be an observation deck on top, but they couldn’t be sure. They found a parking spot near the door and entered. There was no help desk, but a directory sent them to the fifth floor. “Shall we?” asked Mark. Jill beamed and slipped her arm into his.
They stepped off the elevator into a long, curved hall. It was lined with offices along the outside, but the interior space was a large conference room that housed an art expo. Everyone was painting unnatural shapes on a vast canvas. The instructor spilled praise on the group. “What heart!” he cried. Mark turned to Jill to roll his eyes but found that she stood misty-eyed in the doorway. He touched her arm, and she followed him down the hall. They found the correct office number and knocked.
“Come in,” rumbled a voice behind the door. The office was empty except for two chairs facing an enormous desk that held a small calendar, a legal pad, and a pen.
“I’m Roland,” said the counselor, extending a hand. His handshake was firm, but his hands were soft and smooth.
“I’m Jill, we spoke on the phone, and this is my husband, Mark,” said Jill. Mark nodded but remained silent.
“It’s lovely to meet you both. Allow me one moment…”
Mark and Jill took a seat in the chair as Roland straightened the pen, the calendar, and the legal pad. He sat down slowly, closed his eyes, then exhaled for a long time. Jill smiled and squeezed Mark’s hand.
“OK,” said Roland at last. “Before we start I must remind you that I am not a licensed professional. Anything I say is suggestive rather than prescriptive. You should think of me as a friend, not an authority. Now, why are you here?”
Mark squeezed Jill’s hand, feeling that she should set the pace. But she didn’t speak. She and Roland both stared at Mark. I guess I’ll go first, then, he thought.
“Jill and I have differences,” he said, “She sees things that I don’t… in a way that I don’t see them.”
“People often see things differently,” said Roland softly.
“OK, what I mean is, she sees things that aren’t even there.” Jill sat stoically. Mark had expected her to tense, but she didn’t.
“Have you ever tried to see them?” asked Roland. Mark flinched. What kind of question was that? Why would he try to see things that don’t exist?
“They aren’t there,” repeated Mark. “I keep catching her whispering to things around the house. On the way here she kept waving at the emptiness around us.”
“I hear what you’re saying, but have you ever tried?” asked Roland. From the corner of his eye, Mark could see Jill shake her head. The question bothered him.
“Well, no. I guess not,” said Mark. “I look where she points, but guess what… there’s nothing there.” His tone was sharper than he meant it to be.
“I’m just trying to help,” said Roland.
“I’m not the crazy one,” snapped Mark, instantly regretting it but unable to be calm. Roland looked at him sadly, Jill stared at the floor.
“I think we’re done here,” said Mark, “thanks for your time.”
He stomped out of the office, past the art class and onto the elevator. He stood holding the door until Jill entered. She looked sad, worse than before the session.
“What a waste,” said Mark as they pulled out of the parking lot. “A lot of good it did to work on my inability to see things that aren’t even there.” Jill stared at him, her mouth opened and then closed but no words came out. The base of her throat flushed, and she turned to the window. They drove on in silence. When they slipped back into the city through the maze of intersections, Mark began to relax. He put a hand on Jill’s thigh, but she stared out the window.
They entered the house in silence. Mark had everything in its place. Jill dropped her coat on the floor beside the hook and locked herself in the guest room. Mark didn’t see her again that night. He laid awake most of the night trying to figure out how to fix what went wrong. Roland’s words haunted him. Had he ever really tried to see things her way?
What a stupid question.
Mark ate breakfast alone the next morning. He heard the shower running in the guest room. A few minutes later Jill’s car eased onto the street. Mark picked up the phone and called off work, then pulled on his gardening clothes and marched to the mulch pile. A fine mist was falling, and everything glistened in the muted light. The wet earth smelled of life and decay. The scent of the mulch, acrid and rich, pulled Mark to his knees. He began to root through the crushed wood and leaves. His fingers turned red and then brown with residue, but he didn’t stop until he had overturned every inch of the pile, looking and listening.
Don’t Fear the Reaper
The Valentine’s Day party at Paradise Hills Retirement Village was finally winding down. Lauren, the activities director, was exasperated. Some of the residents were treating it like a clearance meat market and everyone was complaining about the food selection. To top it off, they kept using the wrong door. Every time it opened, the “Happy Valentine’s Day” banner fell. Every time it fell, Lauren swore softly, reattached it, then shouted that no one was to use that door.
Toward the end of the night, when she saw Ronald Rinkin approaching her for the third time, Lauren stepped out to grab a broom and avoid his propositions. While she was out, the forbidden door blew open. There, to everyone’s surprise, stood the Grim Reaper. A chill wind tore through the room. Plates flew from the tables, balloons careened wildly on their tethers, and the banner fell once again from the doorway. The Reaper stepped into the room, back-lit by the winter moon, with a bony finger outstretched.
“I’m looking for someone,” he rasped as he swung his finger from person to person. “Is it YOU? Or YOU? Or maybe YOU in the back?”
Lauren returned with the broom and cursed when she saw the fallen banner.
“Could everyone please stop using that door?” she yelled as she marched to retrieve the banner. The dark figure let out a wheezing, high-pitched chuckle that stopped her in her tracks. He took a step forward, then two steps backward, suddenly looking unstable. With a final “Is it YOU?” he pitched forward and landed face down. His sickle clattered across the tile floor and slid to a stop at Lauren’s feet.
The dark robes fell flat, aside from a lump where the shoulders should have been. Ronald, distracted from his Lotharian endeavors, shuffled over and began to poke at the mass of cloth with his cane.
“You there,” he said, “who are you? What do you want?”
“What do you think he wants, Ronald?” asked Sandy Bloomen. “He’s the Grim Reaper, and he’s here for one of us. Quit poking him.”
At that moment, the lump in the robes wiggled and began to shuffle toward the hood. A chubby pink arm, like a child’s, emerged from the black cloth. No one spoke. No one moved. The plump hand struggled for a moment then threw back the hood, revealing a small cherub.
“Tada,” shouted the tiny being, throwing his arms in the air. He was all flushed and pink, especially his face. Blood-shot eyes hovered over what could charitably be described as a five o’clock shadow. His loincloth, barely decent at the best of times, hung precariously from one hip as the little angel set his arms akimbo.
“Hey people,” he slurred, “it’s me, Cupid.”
“Are you drunk?” asked Ronald.
“No,” said Cupid, struggling to focus on him, “I’m fun. You should have seen your faces. You thought I was death.” He broke into another high-pitched giggle.
“Who invited you?” shouted an old woman from the back of the room.
“It’s a Valentine’s Day party. I don’t need to be invited.” Cupid shouted back.
No one knew what to do. They looked to Lauren who held the broom with one hand and covered her mouth with the other.
“Come on,” shouted Cupid, as he staggered around the room, “who wants to fall in love?”
He strutted past Lauren and tried to slap her butt, but with his lilting walk and short stature, he only managed to catch her mid-thigh.
“Get away from me, you little pervert,” she growled, pushing at him with her broom.
“I like a saucy broad,” he muttered.
He walked over to Edna Ranger, who sat alone at a table in the corner.
“How is it that a fine lady like yourself is sitting alone on the most romantic night of the year?” he asked, taking her by the hand and kissing each knuckle. “I figured there’d be a line of guys beating down the door to dance with you.”
Edna blushed and mumbled that she “has never,” and that she “couldn’t possibly.” Both statements were true, so Cupid made his way around the room. His slurred flattery was met with a mix of admiration and disgust.
“You know what’s wrong with this place?” he asked. “Everybody wants to have a Valentine’s Day party but nobody wants to fall in love.” He nocked an arrow and drew his bow.
“Who’s ready for love?” he yelled as he swung the bow around wildly. People screamed and tried to take cover behind their tables. He attempted to take flight, but slipped and released the arrow, which sailed across the room and stuck into the wall just above Edna’s head. She gasped then winked at the drunken little man.
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” said Lauren, snapping to action.
“Why don’t you fly away on that broom of yours,” grunted Cupid.
“I’m calling security,” she said, picking up the phone from its cradle on the wall. Cupid flew across the room. With alarming speed, he drew a dagger from a sheath on his ankle and sliced the phone cord.
“This is for the ones who need a little extra convincing,” he said with a wink, waving the dagger toward Lauren.
“You’re disgusting,” she said as she threw down the broom. “Get out!”
She took him by the arm and dragged him toward the door. He shook free from her grip but exited anyway. He grumbled the whole way out the door about how she couldn’t take a joke, that he was just doing his job, and that sort of thing.
Lauren turned to the party.
“How about some bingo?” she said. Just like that, the matter was settled and all but out of mind, aside from the robes and sickle that had been shuffled to the corner of the room, but not disposed of.
Last Wish at the End of the World
A flash of light, a wisp of smoke, and a tiny scream were the only signs of life on the rocky seaside wasteland. A well-hidden cave was home to the confrontation, where an enormous, muscular man stood facing a young girl.
“Did you rub the lamp?” he asked, leering at the metal object in her hand. She shifted it away from him.
“I can see that you’re holding it,” he said. “Did you rub that lamp?”
She took a step back, and the lamp fell from her fingers. The man tried to catch it but he was too late. He winced as the lamp landed with a tinny clink and rattled across the stone floor.
“You need to be more careful,” he said, examining the lamp. “Do you know how old this is? It’s brittle. It could have broken.”
The girl looked terrified.
“Do you know what I am?” asked the man.
The girl still would not answer. The man decided to try something different. Partly because he felt bad about scaring the little girl, and partly because he wanted to get this over with.
“Have you ever heard of a genie?” he asked.
Her eyes grew wider.
“Wishes?” she whispered.
“What’s your name?” asked the man.
“Tacoma,” she whispered.
“Tacoma,” he said, “you get three wishes. Use them wisely.”
“What’s your name?” asked the little girl.
Sweet kid, thought the genie.
“I forgot to introduce myself, I’m Sherrazin of the lamp,” said the genie, watching for a sign of recognition.
“That’s a weird name,” said the girl, wrinkling her nose. “I wish it was easier. I wish it was Tex.”
“Uh,” began the genie, “I’m not sure you can wish for…”
He could feel the change at his very core. After millennia of immutability he was suddenly…Tex.
“I liked that name,” he said wistfully.
“Sorry, Tex. For my second wish, I wish Uncle Jed was here.”
A man appeared. He was sucking on a piece of straw. His clothes were ragged and worn. He was ragged and worn.
“Hey Jed,” said Tacoma, “look, it’s a genie. I wished you would be here and it worked.”
“That right?” asked the man. He stood there, sucking on the straw, his lips puckering and unpuckering with the effort. He stared at the genie from under a stained, broad-brimmed hat. Finally, he spoke.
“Thought we were the only people left,” he said.
“I’m here,” said the genie.
“You come to rob us, didn’t you?”
“No. I’m a genie. I grant wishes.”
Jed stared hard at the genie, who stared right back. Tacoma looked back and forth at the two. The genie, growing impatient, broke the silence.
“Seriously,” he said, “I grant wishes.”
The man took a long draw on the piece of straw and snorted.
“Uncle Jed,” said Tacoma, exasperated, “he’s a genie. He magically brought you here. He grants wishes!”
“It’s not rocket science,” muttered the genie.
“Fine,” said the man, throwing his hands up, “I wish for a twelve pack.”
“You have to rub the lamp,” said the genie.
Jed rubbed the lamp. The genie threw some sparks and smoke.
“Behold, I’m…Tex of the lamp,” said the genie (his shoulders slumped as he said this).
“He’s kinda full of himself, isn’t he?” laughed Jed. Tacoma agreed and they both made little poof noises.
“I have to announce myself every time someone rubs the lamp,” said the genie defensively. “It’s the rules.”
Jed shook his head
“I wish for a twelve pack. Something good.”
“And I wish Mikey was here to see this.”
Another lanky man with a wispy beard and a sleeveless t-shirt appeared. He was holding a crude spear. The shock of materializing in the cave lasted for a second before he broke into a huge grin.
“Hey Jed,” he said. “Tacoma. How y’all doing?”
“Doing good, buddy,” said Jed. “You?”
“Hangin’ in there.”
“You weren’t in the middle of anything were you?” asked Jed.
“I was hunting down a wild hog out by the…” he stopped short when he saw the genie.
“Jed,” he said with a scowl, “who’s this?”
“This is the reason you’re here,” said Jed with a grin. “He’s a real wish-grantin’ genie. Isn’t that somethin’?”
“Mmm,” said Mikey. “You sure he ain’t here to steal our food? I almost spilled the beans about my huntin’ grounds right in front of him.”
“No kidding,” said Mikey, walking over to the genie. He leveled the spear at the genie’s chest.
“Can you prove what my brother says is true?”
“Rub the lamp and find out,” said the genie. Jed nodded and tossed Mikey the lamp. The genie tensed as it flew through the air. Mikey caught it and gave it a rub.
Tex made a little show and gave his credentials to another round of laughter.
“Somebody feels powerful,” quipped Mikey.
“He needs a lot of attention,” agreed Jed, tossing Mikey a beer.
The genie cleared his throat and motioned for Mikey to make a wish.
“I wish for some burgers to go with these beers.”
“And I wish for some fries.”
The two men began to talk about the last time they had burgers. Then they switched gears to talk about the coming harvest. The genie watched in amazement for a few minutes while they carried on like he wasn’t even there.
Well, the genie thought, if they need me, they know where to find me.
He turned toward his lamp and tried to enter. Nothing happened. He shook his arms and rolled his head from shoulder to shoulder and tried again. Nothing.
He was locked out of his lamp. He cleared his throat quietly, then with gusto.
“Yeah?” said Mikey irritably.
“I want to go home,” he said.
“So go, we’re not stopping you,” said Jed.
“Actually,” he said, “you are. I can’t get back into my lamp because the girl changed my name. I need someone to change it back.”
“Wait,” said Mikey, “your name isn’t Tex?”
The genie shook his head.
“Well what was it?” asked Jed.
“Sherrazin,” said the genie. Both men burst out laughing.
“She should have named you Sherry,” said Mikey.
“I wish your name was Sherry,” shouted Jed.
“This is not funny,” said the genie, “you guys are ruining my life.”
“Relax, Sherry,” said Jed, “we’re just having some fun. You don’t meet new many new people at the end of the world.”
“Mikey,” said the genie slowly, “you have one wish left. I need you to…”
“I wish I had a toothpick,” said Mikey, cutting him off. “Got some burger caught in my teeth.”
POOF. A toothpick.
The genie took several long, deep breaths.
“Dang,” said Jed, “I don’t guess you could get another one?”
“NO!” bellowed the genie, “I CANNOT get you another toothpick. You’re both out of wishes!”
He changed colors at an astonishing rate as several thousand years of pent-up magic found their way to the surface. There was fire, explosions, and sounds that shook the cave. Dust flew around the room and rocks danced across the floor like dried leaves. The tantrum was truly apocalyptic. The genie finished only to find both men sitting and picking their teeth in the back of the cave.
“You done?” asked Jed as he inspected his toothpick.
“Where did you get that toothpick?” asked the genie.
“Oh,” said Mike, “I got that for him. We’ve got a bunch in the back room.”
“If you had them all along,” asked the genie in a grating, low voice, “then why did you wish for one?”
“I’m tired and I didn’t feel like getting up,” answered Mikey. “But then I felt so bad for Jed that I went and grabbed one anyway. It’s frustrating to have something caught in your teeth.”
“YOU KNOW WHAT ELSE IS FRUSTRATING…” began the genie.
“Calm down, compadre,” said Mikey.
The genie was about to vaporize him when he saw Tacoma peeking around the corner of the cave entrance.
“YOU,” he shouted, “come here now!”
The girl turned and ran.
“Don’t you scream at her,” growled Jed. “She’s been through enough, what with surviving doomsday and all.”
“Sorry,” said the genie with a wave of his hand. “She has a wish left. I got a little desperate…could you see if you can get her to talk to me? It’s the only way I can go home.”
“Alright,” said Jed after one of his long, hard stares. “I’ll see what I can do. But she’s stubborn, like her mom, may she rest in peace.
“Can she read?” he asked.
They nodded and muttered that just because they were the last people on Earth, it didn’t mean that they were illiterate.
“I’m going to write her a note,” said the genie. “If she wants to comply, so be it.”
Jed and Mikey agreed to the plan, and within minutes the letter was written and handed over to Jed for delivery.”
“How you holding up?” asked Mikey once Jed had gone.
The genie shrugged. They sat in silence until it became obvious that Jed might be gone for a while. Mikey was staring out the door toward the sea.
“How long have you been living like this?” asked the genie.
“Our whole lives.”
“Her mother died having her.”
“So you’re really the last people on earth?” asked the genie, shaking his head.
“Appears that way.”
The two men sat watching the sea until the sun had nearly reached the horizon.
“Do you really think Tacoma won’t help me?” asked the genie.
“I’ve heard as much,” said the genie.
“She might come around,” said Mikey, “but you’d better get used to the idea that you might be longer than you’d planned.”
The genie wanted to remind him that he hadn’t planned anything, that the only reason he was still sitting here was that there was no creativity left in the world and that every opportunity for extending the lifespan of humanity had been wasted. But he didn’t. He sat and waited.
Jed arrived at twilight. Alone.
“Is she coming?” asked the genie.
“She’s over there,” he answered with a jerk of his head. “But she doesn’t want to talk to you when it’s dark out. I think she’s a little scared.”
“OK?” said the genie.
“She wants some space.”
“Tell her to wish me back then she can have all the space there is.”
“Let her sleep here in the cave tonight. She’ll feel better in the morning.”
The genie nodded, realizing that it would be useless to push the issue. He exited the cave and found a clear space to rest until sunrise. Stars burned in the clear air and he thought of all of the empires he had seen over the course of history. It had always been clear that humanity had an expiration date. He had assumed it would come with a bang…not a smoldering whimper. He hoped that Jed, Mikey, and Tacoma weren’t the last surviving humans, but something told him that they were.
Sunrise caught him lost in these thoughts and he stirred at the sound of footsteps. Tacoma took a seat beside him.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said the genie. The girl nodded.
“Sorry I called you here,” she said.
“It’s my job to come when I’m called,” he said.
“I’m also sorry I changed your name and made fun of you.”
“I’m…” began the genie, searching for words, “I’m just not used to it.”
“I’m going to wish you back home,” said Tacoma.
The genie gave her a small hug.
“I wish you didn’t have to leave…”
The genie tensed.
Tacoma covered her mouth with her hand.
The genie stood and began to pace, his chest heaving.
“I’m so sorry,” said the girl, following him at a distance. “It just slipped out.”
The genie began to walk toward her. She flinched, expecting another round of explosions or fire, but he stormed past her without a word and entered the cave. A second later he appeared with the lamp. He took three quick steps toward the sea and hurled the lamp toward the horizon. Sunlight reflected at irregular intervals until his former home landed in the rolling tide.
“What’s going on?” asked Jed, stumbling onto the scene.
“Don’t worry about it,” muttered the genie as he walked away from the sea to the crest of the hill. Tacoma called to him but he wouldn’t stop. Jed and the girl watched him disappear down the other side. He grew smaller in the desert until he was only a speck on the horizon.
“Where’s he going?” asked Jed.
“Home,” whispered the girl.
We walked and I swallowed hard against the revolt in my throat. I would not make a spectacle. Not on this day. Deep breaths. Slowly. We walked but seemed to cover no ground. The stark platform in the distance was inevitable. The crowds that lined the street jeered us and blessed us. Time writhed around us, at times so far from reach that it seemed to have stopped only to turn and drive us toward our fate. This kind of walk cast the nature of life into stark relief. Focus has strange timing.
We arrived at the platform. Our footfalls drew creaking protest from the quickly cobbled steps. They were uneven. My breathing was ragged as I looked over the crowd that gathered. I recognized some of them. I wondered what thoughts were in their minds even as I took my place. The fibrous rope made me shiver. I looked away from the knots. How had it come to this?
The air stilled. Everything grew silent. I nodded once toward the sky.
Then I pulled the lever.
Late one night she whispered my name. I held her close and offered the same.