By Chris McCann
He was bone tired, but then his oncologist had warned him that extreme fatigue and nausea were normal side effects of chemotherapy. Normal! Funny word -- normal. He wondered if it were normal to spend one's golden years coping with an endless array of malignancies -- bitterness, regret, loneliness, fear, impotence, despair, cancer. Didn't matter what name you gave them -- they all amounted to the same thing -- a death sentence. "Just one goddamn thing after another. Golden years, my ass," he muttered to the empty room. "More like rust, mold and mildew." Shuffling to a nearby window, he pulled up the shade, squinting, for an instant blinded by the bright, golden light of autumn. Many of the trees surrounding the cottage were on fire, their foliage ablaze and shimmering in the late afternoon sun. He had decided a long time ago that the glories of autumn were a complete crock. That all this frantic color and flash was merely Mother Nature's final SOS before the gray, relentless, icy grip of winter grabbed her by the throat and squeezed the life out of her. Autumn was merely a vain appeal for a stay of execution.
Heating a can of soup for supper had nothing to do with appetite much less nourishment -- more a force of habit than anything else. He knew that with each swallow, bile, always tickling at the back of his throat, would erupt and fill his mouth with its sour burning. Very little of what he managed to get down stayed there for long, but returned to haunt him in one unpleasant way or the other. Food was no longer a pleasure and, besides, he'd always hated eating alone. Drinking was another matter entirely. Never minded doing that alone -- preferred it. One of the few pleasures left to him these days that his body didn't immediately reject.
In the deepening gloom of approaching night, he sat slouched, sipping steadily at his whisky, staring into the cavernous, unlit fireplace. Despite the artificial warmth provided by the alcohol, he felt nearly as cold and dead and insubstantial as the ashes littering the hearth. In the end, it had all turned to smoke and ash -- his career, family, friendships, health, his life. Like a cheap candle, his life had burned much too quickly, melting into a useless puddle before he could even begin to appreciate its light. Should've died young, he thought bitterly. Blasted off in a blaze of glory instead of hanging around here like a shadow, forgotten, imploding like a rotting pumpkin. The thought of him sitting perched on someone's porch, grinning, wizened, moldy, and grotesquely shriveled, made him smile. That's me all right -- Jack-O-Lantern...Jack-Old-Asshole was closer to the truth, he decided. No, he wasn't going gently into that good night -- or anywhere else these days -- took him fifteen minutes to get from his chair to the bathroom. And he had not only cursed the dying of the light, but had hastened it's demise with colorful, deliciously profane threats of revenge. In fact, as far as he was concerned, anyone having the consummate gall to describe aging in even remotely poetic terms could go fuck themselves.
Such dark musings were interrupted by the faint sounds of rustling at the door, then childish voices sing-songing in off-key unison, "Trick or Treat!" Possessing neither, he remained where he was until he could at last hear them bustle off, empty-handed, to their next stop. In his book, Halloween was a particularly silly occasion. A lot of commercialized nonsense -- enough candy and metaphysical mumbo jumbo to simultaneously rot the teeth and brain in equal measure. It wasn't the spirits of the dead walking the earth, more like the regional distribution manager for Hersheys or Hallmark. Being a hardheaded, cynical, agnostic was such a relief. At his age, faith required too much energy.
The sound of breaking glass roused him from his stupor. He'd dozed off again, drink in hand. Moonlight filled the room, a thin, silvery shaft illuminating the face of the antique Seth Thomas serenely marking time on the mantle piece, as it had done for generations, and would continue to do long after he was dust. The staff had presented the clock to him when he'd retired. A helluva lot nicer than a gold watch, he'd thought. Now it served as his only companion, a gentle reminder of things past, it's steady tick neatly segmenting his future into days, hours, minutes, seconds. Twelve o'clock. Time to begin yet another painfully measured, slightly tipsy shuffle off to bed. Midnight. "The Witching Hour," he muttered, snorting with disdain, and the effort required to return himself to a vaguely upright position.
The narrow stairway to his bedroom appeared to be moving -- seductively swaying to and fro -- as though daring him to mount it. It posed a nightly challenge that he could not refuse. Clumsily grabbing hold of the banister served to quiet the writhing beast long enough to gain a respectable foothold, to even make some progress. He might have managed to hang on until he'd clambered all the way to the top, if it hadn't been for the voice. At first, believing that it was just the restless night wind soughing through the trees, he'd shaken his head like an old dog, even snaked a long, gnarled finger into his ear hoping to somehow dislodge it, then resumed his perilous journey to bed. "Damned racket -- distracting," he mumbled. "Hearing's shot to hell, along with everything else."
Before he could round the corner to the relative safety of the landing, the wind spoke again, "Jack...Jack," it whispered. At that moment, it was no longer just the night wind, but her voice. "What the hell?" he cried. Whirling around, he pitched forward, releasing his grip on the railing. While at the same time, in one, breathless, dizzying, heart-stopping moment, he saw her lovely, young face shining up at him, illuminating the narrow blackness of the stairwell. Radiant with love and forgiveness, with life itself, she opened her arms to welcome him. For this man, on this night, a spirit did again walk the earth, returning at long last to reclaim what had always been hers. For this man alone, the vast, immeasurable endlessness called eternity had come calling, refined and distilled into one last thought, one final word..."Claire..."