Authors: Tim Pratt
Orville wondered if any of the tourists on the bridge would notice him climbing over the rail, if anyone would try to stop him, pull him back from the brink, convince him life was worth living. If so, it would be a first. There were days when Orville looked back almost nostalgically on his junior high days, when he’d been picked on mercilessly, because at least then he’d been part of a social order—he’d had a place. As an adult, he didn’t even warrant much in the way of ridicule.
Orville climbed over the railing, careful, careful, because the way you did things
, and he wanted a proper death, exactly the death he’d chosen.
It was windy on the bridge, fogless, and there were a few boats sailing out on the bay. What would it be like, he wondered, to have the sort of life where you owned a sailboat, with so few cares that you could take advantage of a clear morning to go out on the water? Orville would never have that sort of life, even if he didn’t kill himself. Orville was a telemarketer—or had been until yesterday, when he walked out of the job—working from a warehouse in Oakland in an echoing space with dozens of other dead-end men and women, selling newspapers, magazine subscriptions, dietary supplements, or whatever else the script indicated. Orville received plenty of hang-ups, of course, and profanity, and he mumbled through his scripts by rote, feeling his soul atrophy a little more with each day. It barely bothered him, anymore—at work, Orville was a talking zombie.
But yesterday, his last conversation had been different. The computer dialled, someone picked up, Orville asked “Is this Mr. Ismael Plenty?” Upon hearing the affirmative, Orville launched into his spiel. The man at the other end didn’t interrupt, or say anything, until Orville was done, but then he began to speak. There was something strange in his voice: a kind of infinite pity. “Is this your life?” he said. “You make these calls?” He then described his own life: Arctic expeditions, overland caravans, desert nights, tense meals with mortal enemies, fortunes found and squandered, lovers, wine, wonder. Orville listened, rapt, the man’s voice a low enchantment. And the man said, “My friend Harczos used to say that a small life is worse than no life at all, because a small life commits the singular sin of squandering potential. I have lived, and now, I am ready to die. But you have not lived, and by the sound of your voice, by the rustle of your breath in the receiver, by a dozen tiny tells, I’m sure you never
live. And so, I feel compelled to ask: Why do you bother? Why don’t you just kill yourself?”
Orville’s mouth was dry. “I don’t know.”
“Come meet me for lunch,” the man said, and named a restaurant within walking distance of the warehouse. “We’ll talk it over, and figure out your next step.”
Orville didn’t intend to go, of course. Only crazy people asked to meet with their telemarketers. Orville didn’t eat at restaurants anyway, because he had no sense of taste or smell—hadn’t since he was a baby, ageusia and anosmia as the result of early head trauma—and so, for him, eating was just taking on fuel, not a pleasure.
But when his supervisor yelled at him a few minutes later—Orville had let a call go through without reading his script or speaking at all—Orville tore off his headset and rushed out of the room, out of the job, out into the street. The sunlight was dazzling and merciless. Orville went to the restaurant, just a little sandwich place with outdoor seating, and a tall, narrow-faced man with dark eyes stood and nodded at him. “You’re Orville,” he said. “Sit, and talk with me a while.”
Orville did. Afterward, he couldn’t remember much of what Ismael Plenty said, but every word had somehow carried great weight, and sitting in his presence had been like sinking into a cloud of dense smoke. Ismael had talked of the commonplace terrors of life, Orville remembered that much. He said happiness was an illusion, that corrosion was the nature of the world ; all lives were miserable, differing only in the degree of their misery. “And your life is miserable to a
degree,” he said. “Isn’t it?”
“Then I ask again,” said Mr. Plenty, leaning in, looking at him seriously, paying attention to him in a way no one ever had before. “Why don’t you kill yourself? If you free yourself from this world, a better world might wait for you beyond. And even if it doesn’t, wouldn’t oblivion be preferable to this?” He stood, threw some bills on the table to pay for his apparently untouched lunch, and said “Ponder that.”
Orville pondered. Talking to Mr. Plenty had made it all seem clear, as if the man’s aura of fatalism had enveloped Orville, and clung to him even when Ismael himself was gone. Orville went home to his small apartment in a bad part of town, because he had nowhere else to go. He sat up most of that night, flipping through old unsigned yearbooks and sparse photo albums, thinking about his lack of goals or plans, and finally deciding the world would be better off without him—and him without the world. He had, literally, nothing to live or die for, so why not die, since that was easier? He dreaded waking and working in the mornings, and he dreaded coming home to emptiness at night. Weekends were too long and increasingly difficult to fill. He’d lived for thirty years, and had never made love to a woman, never found or lost a fortune, never made a mark nor been noticeably marked himself. Having given life a fair shake, he’d discovered it wasn’t really for him, so why
he kill himself? Best advice he’d received in years.
So Orville stood on the far side of the railing, the last barrier between himself and the chance of a clean death. He wondered if it would hurt, and thought not—from this height, death would surely be instantaneous. He took a breath, prepared himself—and then caught a glimpse, from the corner of his eye, of a woman climbing over the rail and, with far less deliberation, jumping off headfirst. Orville watched with a sick weight in his stomach as the blonde woman in the red coat tumbled the impossible distance to the water below. But when she struck, she disappeared, swallowed utterly, no mark of her passing left behind. It wouldn’t be so bad, then. He’d just disappear, like she had. He did wish he’d jumped first, since he’d spent most of his life following other people, and he’d wanted this to be something he did on his own.
But it is
, he thought.
Everyone gets their own death.
People shouted, pointed, clustered around the rail, and a sailboat began tacking toward the place where the woman had gone in, but there was no way it would be able to reach her or help.
No one was paying Orville any attention, which was just as well, really. He looked up, into the blue sky, and took a single step off the edge.
He plummeted, feet first, wind screaming past his ears, eyes watering as he watched the bridge above him recede. The sensation of velocity was profound, but it seemed to Orville that he fell for a long time. His life did not pass before his eyes, and he was glad; his life was behind him now, or rather,
him, and he was falling out of it with great relief. This wind, this giving in to gravity, this onrushing sprint toward death—this was the feeling of freedom. He had no regrets. He did not believe in heaven, or hell, or reincarnation (life would have been better if he’d had the comfort of such beliefs), but he believed in oblivion, and he looked forward to that dreamless sleep in a state where loneliness did not exist even as a concept.
He looked down at the water, which seemed close and far all at once, with nothing in his field of vision to provide a sense of scale. But he saw something in the water, a luminosity, a pale soft light shining up and out of the bay, a light that seemed not warm, exactly, but rarefied, clean.
? he wondered, but before hope or incredulity could follow, he hit the water, feet first. The light was all around him, then, but the pain as his ankles shattered and his legs broke was so tremendous it forced consciousness out, blackness closing over him before the waters of the bay could do the same.
The first problem was: Orville woke up. He opened his eyes and saw light. But not the soft light that had surrounded him when he hit the waters of the bay, that Heaven-coloured light—this was buzzing fluorescent with too much blue, a cold hospital light.
There was pain in his legs and ankles, but the pain didn’t seem important—more a distant curiosity than something of any real importance. There were square acoustic ceiling tiles above his head, just like the ones in the telemarketing pen.
“I’m not dead,” he said, and his own voice seemed far away. He didn’t expect an answer. But a blonde woman in a red coat—so familiar, but who was she?—leaned into his field of vision and sneered. He wondered if she was a nurse, but only in a sort of perfunctory way, because nurses were the sort of people he expected to see in such circumstances, not because she looked anything like a nurse at all.
She said, “No, you’re not dead. You should’ve jumped headfirst. You jumped like you were trying to survive a sinking ship, feet first, ankles crossed to keep from smashing your crotch to bits on pieces of flotsam.” She sighed. “Or so I gather from listening to the doctors. I was already gone by the time you made your leap.”
Orville recognized her, and reached out for her, weakly. “I saw you jump. You survived, too.”
He couldn’t quite touch her. It seemed like he should be able to—her wrist was
, his fingers
, they should have been occupying congruent space—but there was no physical contact.
The drugs must be messing with my mind
, he thought, and that was his first understanding that he was medicated, on some painkiller that didn’t actually kill pain but merely made pain seem trivial.
The blonde woman moved back, out of his field of vision, and turning his head seemed like a Herculean task, so he let her pass from view. Her voice remained, husky and a little echoey, as if she were actually speaking around some corner in a corridor, the sound bouncing toward him through strangely angled acoustics. “Yes, you saw me jump, I guess. But no, I didn’t survive. I did it right, head first, mind cleared, straining toward the light like Ismael told me—”
, Orville thought with a thrill of recognition; oh, if only he’d fallen into and through that light.
“—but I just died,” she finished, bitterness and bile in every syllable. A sigh. “Well. I didn’t
die. I came unhinged, halfway between here and there, body gone under the water, and the rest of me, the parts that Ismael taught me to separate and hold apart, those are still here. My spirit, if you want to call it that, left behind.”
Orville couldn’t follow this, though that name she mentioned, Ismael—he knew that name. But she’d said something else, something his mind seized on more eagerly. He swallowed and said, “I saw the light.”
Her face loomed in his vision again, eyes grey and intent. “What did you say?”
“When I jumped. I looked down, and there was the most wonderful light. Like, sometimes on summer afternoons, coming home from work, the sunlight slants in and touches the trees and the buildings and everything gets . . .” He groped for the right word. “Luminous. I saw light like that, in the water, before I—before I didn’t die. Why didn’t I die?” Orville was distressed, in a far-off sort of way. He wasn’t dead. That meant he was still alive, but he didn’t have a job, and he was, he suspected, grievously injured. He’d lost his health insurance when he walked out on his job, probably. He wasn’t panicked, not through the haze of world-distancing drugs, but the worry was there, like the pain in his lower body, something he’d have to face eventually.
“So you saw the light,” she said, but not as if she were talking to him. Her face moved from his field of vision again. “Huh. Maybe that’s why I’m . . . huh. Did you ever meet a man named Ismael? Ismael Plenty?”
“I think so.” The drugs made remembering difficult. “I think I called him. For my job. He asked why I didn’t just kill myself. We met, and talked, we had lunch but he didn’t eat anything and neither did I, he just told me to ponder. So I did, and I saw the light.” Something occurred to him. “If the light is so wonderful, so much better than even the best life, then why doesn’t he just kill himself?”
She laughed, raucous and genuine and bitter all at once. “If only he could. Ismael would’ve found his way out of the briarpatch and into the land beyond a long time ago, if it were that easy for him. So. Mr.—What’s your name, anyway? You didn’t have any ID. When you hit the water it tore your clothes half off, and anything you had in your pockets got ripped away. The doctors are calling you Mr. Doe.”
“Troll. I’m Orville Troll.”
? What kind of name is that?”
“My ancestors were Norwegian,” Orville said, an oft-repeated answer to an all-too-common question. “When they immigrated, the officials misheard their name, and wrote it as—”
“Right. Anyway, Mr.
, the reason you didn’t die is simple. It’s because you’re a fuckup. You landed in the water feet-first. You broke every bone in your feet—there are a whole lot of bones in the feet—and shattered the bones in your legs, and did a number on your knees, and snapped a few ribs. What you
do was incur sudden and fatal head trauma, which you would have, if you’d landed headfirst, like I did. In fact, in a way, I kind of saved your life. There was a boat headed toward the place where I went into the water, trying to rescue me, so they were already nearby when you hit the bay. They pulled you out, got you to shore, and into an ambulance. Big heroes. We’re going to make the news, me and you. Two jumpers, one who got rescued, and one who got dead.”
“If you’re dead, what are you doing here?” Orville suspected it was a stupid question, but then, he’d always been told most of his questions were.
“I’m apparently haunting you. I know. Not the sort of problem you ever expected to have, I bet. Not what I would have wanted, either, but here we are.”
“You’re a ghost?” Orville said. “How can . . . I don’t think I believe in ghosts.”