Crosstime Science Fiction Anthology 2010, Vol. 9, pp. 1-10 - August 01, 2010
Closing Time Steve Dimeo
My hand closed tightly around hers as we climbed the wide-ramped, now empty stiles to the sweeping Moorish arches that regaled the front of our town's Halcyon Hall. Off-white vapor issued like sickly genies from the final Closing cycle's vents that rimmed the back of the Byzantine dome, merging to level off in a long, thick stream as if the night sky suddenly ended there We passed through the neutralizing force field at the edge of the portico with a quiet crackling that for a second frizzed our hair. One of the two guards, a female with short strawberry hair, bowed her head. "Sorry about the unpleasantness. We still have to protect against threats." Then the cathedral-like doors to the structure sidled aside and let us in. Nondescript instrumental music, faint but calming, filtered down from the huge vaulted lobby. It muted the murmurings of those who milled about awaiting one of the three attendants dressed in the high-collared azure jump suits with mock tunic bodices, capes ruffling behind them. I could barely get the words out even in a whisper. "You sure about this, Mattie?" "It's time, Richie," she said, resorting to the familiar diminutive of my name she used only in our more intimate moments. "You know that" We stared up at the coved ceiling over twenty feet above us featuring three-dimensional images of shifting clouds against a cerulean backdrop. Narrow vanes of skylights dark with barely a hint of starlight fanned from the apex between the arch's ribs. Indirect lighting about the dome's ridge lent a faded golden hue to the diminishing crowd below. Wanting to stay together as long as possible, we'd arrived near the facility's midnight closing time I scanned the doors to the chambers that ringed the back walls. "I don't see another way out–except the way we came in," I said. She looked askance with a resigned sigh. "You're always looking for back doors." "It's good to know you have options," I shrugged. "Except, Richie," she chided, "for us this is it." A young lady with long dishwater-blonde hair draped over the high collar and cape approached us, looking from me to Mattie. "ID, please?" Mattie fished the card from the pocket of her blouse It flickered from white to gold as she let go. The girl studied the data there, then blinked unusually round blue eyes. "You're to be our guest tonight, Mrs. Domanti?" "'Mattie,' please," my wife answered, eyes falling. I let go of Mattie's hand as I shook the young woman's and noted her nametag. 'Diane Sanders' stood out in gold script above the logo, 'Halcyon Hall' inscribed in a thin straight-line black sans serif font with its distinctive white slash of a tail to the letter 'y.' "I'm Richard, her husband, Diane," I said. "I'll be joining her." She hesitated as she checked the card. "Dr. Moreland has granted permission only for your wife." "Sorry," I said. "I meant I'd like to be by her side throughout the operation." I pinched back one side of my mouth. "Unless you're featuring a two-for-one special." She mirrored my expression but mirthlessly. "I'm sure you know that's illegal–I mean, without prior authorization." I pushed rny luck. "Punishable by death?" She clearly didn't appreciate the irony. "Of course not, Mr. Domanti. You hardly need further complications now, especially with that windfall coming your way. I don't either. I can't risk losing my position. But I'm sure you weren't serious." She paused for a response. I gave none. Mattie knuckled my arm in a surreptitious rebuff. Diane flicked her attention then from what had to be my graying hair to Mattie's sunken eyes. "You're sure this is okay with you, Mrs.– I mean, Mattie?" Mattie nodded her assent, tightening her grip on my hand. "I'm sure. 1 want him with me." "As you wish then." Diane turned towards me. "But I'll have to share some particulars with you later that you'll have to watch for during the procedure." She pivoted. "Now if you'll please come with me?" She led us to the circular station at the hub of the dome where she directed Mattie to mount the scale. Mattie looked back at me, embarrassed. "Do I have to?" "I'm afraid so," said Diane. "It helps us calculate the appropriate amount of medication." She rolled a shoulder, seeming to soften her stance somewhat. "We always have our client's best interests at heart." Mattie slipped off her long red coat and black flats, rubbing her arms exposed by the short-sleeved blouse before stepping to the small transparent square It lit up. Veins so close to the surface of her ivory skin stood out like jagged green and blue road lines on a geo screen, making her seem even more fragile. The eye-level read-out glowed in green, '105.' Diane frowned at the glimmering tablet in her palm as the data registered there. "That's less than your record indicates–quite low for your being only five-foot-two." "Five-foot-two-and-a-half," Mattie corrected as she often did with me. "She's lost another five pounds this past week," I interjected. Mattie tittered nervously. "I haven't weighed this little since I can't remember when." "She's stayed 120 the last three years," I said, mouth dry, "the same as when we first married twenty-one years ago. I mean, until this happened to us." Diane gave a perfunctory "Mmm-hmm" as she jotted something down with her light stylus. "And you haven't eaten anything the last eight hours?* Mattie gripped a fist at her stomach and ventured a wan smile. "Can't you hear my stomach rumbling?" Diane looked up a second. "1 wish I could do something for you, Mattie. But it's necessary before the operation. For your comfort again– and your husband's." She looked from Mattie to me. "Any questions before I show you to your room?" We both glanced down, then around us sheepishly, hoping no one could overhear, wanting to ask but not sure where to begin. She noticed our quiet uneasiness before fixing me with her eyes. "The reward should help you build a new life But we'll have to confirm the procedure's success before transferring the one hundred thousand to your family's account." "It's just us two," I reminded her, pointing at the card. "We couldn't have children–but came to prefer it that way. Unless you count the part-time assistant at our shop. 'Yesteryores'? Maybe you've heard of it?" Diane crooked her head. "The small place here in downtown Ashton that sells antiques like books and movies in formats nobody uses anymore?" "With a few of my own works thrown into the mix," I said with the slant of a smile Mattie raised her eyebrows and tried to smile, loo. "My husband has a gift." "Yeah," 1 demurred, thumbing at her before realizing the thickness in my throat. "You!" Diane repressed a smile, regarding the card again before responding. "But you still transmit your words in print. That's a bit-quaint, isn't it?" "Quaint," I repeated. "Our helper, Sandi Durant–she's probably a little older than you–finds our stock a bit more–uh–compelling. She poses new hope for your generation." "At least," said Diane, "you earned an extra twenty thousand for curbing our population problem. I mean to collect myself soon." "We used it to start our business." I flicked a hand into the air, thinking of our now-aborted plan for a second honeymoon back to Kauai. "But I don't much care about the compensation this time I mean, what could 1 spend it on now?" The last word caught in my throat. "He does care," said Mattie, wrinkling her small lips, "because I do." Diane, surprisingly stiff at delivering her lines up until now, reached over and touched Mattie's hand. "I just want the business end of things over with before we get on with it." Then she beckoned us to follow as we made our way to the back of the dome. Her feet, booted with the same soft fabric as her jump suit, shuffled over the glistening white marble floor. "You– I cleared my throat. She passed her palm over a brightening panel beside the door, making it hiss aside. She let us pass through first. The air smelled like gardenias. "Aren't you kind of young for this?" She tilted her head. "Our clients prefer us younger, Mr. Domanti." I pinched back one side of my mouth again. "Please," 1 said. "Shouldn't we be on a first name basis, considering?" She flicked eyes down at the card. "'Richard'?" "'Rich' is fine," I said. "Rich, then," she said. "But 1 consider it a privilege to serve here. We save our guests and their loved ones pain and suffering, not to mention the financial hardships this time of life always used to cause. I feel good knowing, too, that we're helping our country's health, fiscally and otherwise." Then she arched a light eyebrow. "Besides, it's a great opportunity. Where else could someone my age get this kind of salary or benefits? It'll insure my own future–and not just with the company. I–" She looked around, then bent her head towards us though the door had already closed us off from the rest. "1 have a fiancé, you know. We're anxious to start a long life together like you two." Then she swept an arm at the surroundings. "I trust the decor meets your expectations, Mattie?" She made it sound as if she'd be amenable to modifications. Hunched over at first, we finally raised our heads and widened our eyes at the breathtaking ambience. The chamber simulated the southern shore of Kauai, die sun setting spectacularly. Palm trees swayed softly near where we stood, waves lapping just beyond at the small white-sand beach. We had stayed near this very park. In the background The Hawaiian Wedding Song' played. In the midst of these three-dimensional palms hovered the thickly pink-cushioned bed on a fanning pedestal of golden light that shaded the venting ports below. "its fine," said Mattie, her voice small. "You can change in the bathroom there." Diane pointed to the side. "Meanwhile, I'll double-check to make sure your musical program lasts long enough." She positioned herself before the control panel beside the door while Mattie, a hand against the wall to steady herself, faltered towards the bathroom. I realized she'd been using me for support up until now. "Wait," I said to Mattie "I'll help." Slowly she shifted her head back with a weak smile. "Me," she said, "or yourself?" I tried to return her attempt at banter even under these circumstances. That was Mattie to the end. "Mostly you." She riffled through the wardrobe alcove and fanned out the long skirt to a filmy white gown. "This okay?" 1 shrugged. "You don't think it's a little–well–vampir-ish?" "What about this pink one?" She fingered the flounce at the bottom and the feathery butterfly sleeves though I noticed more the scooped back and neckline. "It might lend your face more color," I said. She agreed. I helped her off with her clothes, lightly kissing the slight but still adorable roundness of her belly despite her weight loss. I noted spots of petechiae lingering on her skin above her navel. "You've never really looked that sick all along," I added, still dazed that this was really happening. "That's the problem with this disease. It's in my blood: everywhere–but nowhere you can see from outside." "You'd think with all this technology," I said, "someone by now would have found a cure for this kind of leukemia–" She placed a hand on my head while I looked up at her, wanting to kiss more of her but unable to move or say another word without my voice catching. "Now, now," she said, patting me lightly. 1 had clenched my jaw to hold back any display that might upset her. I forced myself to stand up again and help fasten the side of her gown, all she wore now, then nudged the knobby small of her back so she'd leave first. The light from the sun setting too slowly over the white-capped Pacific silhouetted her still-shapely figure through the thin dress. Diane smoothed back down the folds of Mattie's dress that had crinkled up at the hem. "You sure look a lot younger than your record shows, Mattie." "She always has," I tried to add. Then she guided Mattie to the bed and eased her into place, fluffing the lavender-scented absorbent padding that puffed up about Mattie. She pulled the frilly covers up just beneath Mattie's breast and lightly tucked in the sides. Mattie, who never liked feeling hemmed in like that, kept both arms out over the blanket's satin-like facing. 1 noticed the curved glass on either side that would later encase her. Diane snaked the dark dispenser band around Mattie's upper left arm, then took me aside and detailed what was to come. I swallowed hard, trying to listen. Then she backed towards the door and looked at us from under eyebrows so light they seemed nearly invisible. "You'll have some time alone before the medicine takes effect." "How long?" Mattie said. "It varies," she answered. "Maybe twenty minutes at best? Then you'll have to leave quickly, Richard. You understand that, don't you?" She had taken to using my more formal name again, the form Mattie used when lightly reprimanding me. I gave a somber nod. I couldn't do anything else. Then the door sliced shut behind her. I fought to hold myself together–for Mattie's sake–and for mine. "How am I ever going to– 1 mean, what will I do when–" "You're a good person, honey. You'll find someone else. In fact, if I'd had the time–" 1 quickly placed two fingers on her lips. It would hurt even more if she said it. "I've only ever wanted you, honey. Besides, who'd want a withered up, gray-haired old man like me now?" She laughed faintly deep in her throat. "You're only fifty-two, honey." "I feel older." That's funny," she said, eyelids fluttering now as the drugs took hold. "I feel younger." "You always did." "Others will see your strengths." She reached over and placed the flat of her hand against my chest. "Here." She probably didn't realize it then but she had always posed for our moving stills together that way, my right arm over her shoulders pulling her towards me as she tilted her head against me, her long-fingered right hand splayed over my chest as though feeling for my heart. "That's where I'm weakest," I managed. "You don't see what 1 do. You've been there for me, for us, especially the last three months." "I haven't done much except make sure you ate healthy." 1 left unspoken that even this hadn't helped. "You're the stronger one here." Her eyelids, lavender with fatigue, wavered as she tried a grin. "I'm little but I'm tough'?" Her favorite catchphrase. "I mean, you've even been the one to close the shop and balance the till at the end of the day." We had filled a niche with the store, riding the crest of the nostalgia revival though coasting through the years since "You can do that fine," she said, trying to smile, "if you'll just wait a bit on your wonderful scribblings." "Few people care whether I do or not." "But," she reminded me with a feeble wink, "some of us do." "The words we've tried to preserve in our store do speak beyond when they're written or spoken–even yours and mine." If I weren't always jotting down ideas, I'd browse through our stock of books or discs when business slowed. Mattie whiled away such times by knitting gifts for us, but could easily drop everything to ring up sales more than I could. We both felt we'd provided a useful service, too, convinced that salvaging the best of the past would strengthen the present and future, not just for us but for our customers. Moreover, we'd done it together. Now with this 'windfall' – What could I ever spend it on without her here? 1 certainly wasn't about to return to Kauai alone "1 mean, someone like Keats couldn't know he'd be speaking to an age like ours when he wrote more than 250 years ago,
"Now more than ever seems it rich to die. To cease upon the midnight with no pain ..." I let the words trail off. "Like me, you mean," said Mattie, struggling to keep open her eyes liquid now like dark honey. "Except for the pain of leaving you." "That's," t choked out, "a big 'except.'" "We'll be together again," she said. "I wish I could believe that. You think some force favors humans over other creatures when it does this to good people like you–and us?" "Love's a force, too." She shook her head, not wanting to give into the medicine quite yet. But her voice turned gravelly when she added, "It's brought us so close that we're part of each other no matter what, right?" I couldn't find my voice. She noticed my distress. "I mean I've given you a little of me, you've given me a little of you." She stretched out a hand and again tapped the back of mine, dry lips pursed in mock innocence at her somehow indefatigable penchant for saucy humor even now. "Maybe in your case not always so little." I managed to cough out a half-laugh, stammering, "Love also– takes away." Mattie rustled the covers, fidgeting. "Speaking of which, honey. Could you help get these off me? I'm suddenly–so warm." Another recurrence of the night sweats, one of the earliest symptoms? Or the rush of the drugs? 1 rolled the linen to her bare feet. Her dress had rumpled up to her thighs. She exhaled, relieved, as she tried to puff away straggling threads of hair from her face. I brushed at them better with a forefinger. "Now," she said so softly I could barely hear, "come down here and give your Beeping Sleuty a kiss." It's how she'd always referred to herself when I woke her up every morning that way before we left for work. "And kiss you asleep?" "Maybe I'll dream you're just waking me up again." "Love," I said, "can only do so much." "Sometimes," she answered, "it's enough." So we kissed each other as I murmured, "I do love you, honey. Always have." She lifted her arm up to feather my face the way she did when we made love. Now, though, she raised it as though from underwater. "I love you, too, honey. Always will." The music in the background shifted to an oldie from the 20th century that had become our favorite from a film classic we kept in its many formats: 'As Time Goes By.' Lights flashed from the door's side panel–first green showing Mattie was fully anesthetized, then red indicating the band's fatal dose of potassium had stopped her heart–what Diane had warned. Mattie's head lolled to the side of the pillow cradling her like the calyx of a flower. She gave out one barely audible sigh. Then–nothing. In quiet horror, I watched blackness spider down the veins of her pale legs. She was gone. I clamped a hand to my lips to stop their trembling. But I couldn't curb the heat that welled up behind my eyes and seared my cheeks. Quickly I bent over her and kissed her stilled lips once more Then I lurched back. Had something spirit-like just emerged from them? Her breath? No, I realized. Gases from the start of the last Closing sequence. I shot a look at the door. Maybe they'd forget me, leave me to this fate here with her, let the gases take me, too. I didn't want to leave. Then I gaped at Mattie. Was that a flush beginning at her cheeks as though she were coming back to life? Coming back for me? Then over the fading sounds of the surf, the tinkling of the music that segued now to other favorites I couldn't make out any more, I heard a disorienting voice that seemed to come from everywhere. "Rich Domanti," it intoned. My eyes darted to the arched ceiling, then back down to Mattie's form? From her somehow? "You must exit now," the voice boomed. Grinding sounds strained from Mattie's bed. The glass clawed up from under the mattress and clamped shut. A stark white mist spewed out around her. Had my brief exposure with that last kiss been enough to take me, too? The scene rippled, blurring. I felt I was drowning in murky waters. The red light by the door flashed repeatedly. A siren blared in maddening oscillation–on then off, on and off over and over again. I slammed hands at my ears. Yellow light splashed over me. Cleansing vapor inside her glass pod engulfed Mattie's vague image. I spun about uncertain what was happening. Hands grappled my arm, yanked me through the portal back into the lobby's now-fading light. Everything looked jagged like the shards inside a kaleidoscope. I couldn't distinguish anything for sure until I swiveled about. The voice had come not from Mattie but from Diane. Her face loomed over me. Tendons in her slender neck pulsed like taut ropes. I glanced back at Mattie's now sealed chamber. A garish white seemed to seep impossibly through its seams. My imagination? "Closing time, Richard!" the voice cried out over the siren's shriek. "Thank God I got you out in time." "Thank–God?" I tried to shake away the dizziness but staggered at the effort. Diane tugged me towards the entryway, that redheaded guard on my other arm. "This is your only way out, Richard. Leave her with us now." Diane was panting as she shoved me onto the portico. "I can't," I whispered. * You can," she said. "You owe it to her. Make the state's gift a gift for her. And maybe with those words of yours she considered a gift, too, you'll let others know about her, about you both. What better way to keep her than by letting her go like that?" Gone were those initially stilted lines she'd delivered at the start. "Don't forget I've got someone now, too," she continued, breathless, releasing me at the brink of the long ramp. "And doesn't love really mean keeping them here"–she slapped a hand to her heart–"even when they're gone?" This from someone too young to understand as we did? But then wasn't love the link that bound us all, however tenuously? I twisted about and caught a glistening in her eyes that seemed in the dimness to brighten to the crystal blue of a shoal. Then I turned to face the violet cone of the station in the distance where the car pod waited to ferry me home "Maybe," I said slowly more to myself now, for she and the guard had already disappeared inside to lock up the hall until morning. I could use the money to dedicate our shop's window to her–moving images and texts of my own making that memorialized what she'd helped us fashion and hold together in a world that hadn't always favored our kind, "Maybe," I offered to the night, "you still are my reason for living." Then as I descended into the winter, inhaling its cold air that stung my eyes and cut through to my chest, 1 felt I was already beginning to breathe in part of her again. Steve Dimeo
Edward G. Robinson's last scene in his last movie, "Soylent Green," partly inspired this story as did Oregon's too-restrictive assisted-suicide law and my wife Nettie's early death at only 57 in 2004. A fan of science-fiction/fantasy since the early Fifties, I've written regularly since age 11. Besides film reviews and articles in newspapers and periodicals like Cinefantastique, Video Magazine and The Writer, I've published over 20 stories the past 43 years in magazines from Oui (when Playboy owned it), Woman's World and Amazing Stories to literary journals like Michigan Quarterly Review, Descant. ("Fantasy Figures" won the then-$100 1984 Frank O'Connor Award) and Tall Tales Vol IV ("Catching My Death" won the 2006 2nd Place $250 prize). More than 40 of my poems have also appeared in publications like Princeton Review, Blue Unicom, The Oregonian, Byline, Emily Dickinson Anthology (2003), Rattle and Soundings Review.