From across the room, the calendar stared. The previous days’ boxes had all been crossed out with red pen, and tomorrow’s was thickly outlined in black. He had yet to cross out today’s date, unable to even take a single step closer to the calendar. So, instead, Atticus walked over to the cupboard and took out a can of soup. The kitchen light, which gave off a sickening orange glow, flickered as the train rolled by a few blocks away. He bent down and opened another cupboard, pulling out the four-quart pot. As the stove and soup began to heat up, Atticus sat down in the only chair at the kitchen table. He looked up at the calendar again. It stared back. Once today was crossed off, no more boxes remained until tomorrow’s black outline.
Sighing heavily, Atticus got up and walked over to the wall where the calendar hung. He unclipped the red pen and removed its cap just as the doorbell rang. Replacing the cap, he clipped the pen back onto the calendar and walked through the kitchen. As he entered the hallway he glanced back into the kitchen, towards the soup. It hadn’t even started to steam yet. Atticus reached the door and looked through the peephole. A girl in her early twenties stood outside the door, looking back down the hallway behind her, shifting nervously. Atticus almost opened the door, but stopped as his hand touched the old brass doorknob.
“Who is it?”
“I need your help.” The girl’s voice was barely audible.
Atticus looked through the spy hole again. She was now looking down at the mat, slightly swaying from side to side. He looked down as well, to the carpet below his feet. It was yellowed with age and grime. A small black beetle crawled from beneath the door and started making its way across the floor.
“I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” He took a step back towards the kitchen.
“I was told you … that you can help me.” Her voice wavered.
Atticus stood in the kitchen doorway. “I’m sorry. I can’t. I don’t do that anymore.”
“Please!” the girl shouted and the door handle rattled. “You have to help me. I have to know!”
He walked back to the door and leaned his forehead against it. The painted wood felt cool on his face. “ I … I can’t do that anymore. I don’t know how.”
“Yes, you do,” she said quickly in a hushed but strained voice. “You did it for my aunt two weeks ago.” She paused. “Please.”
Atticus remembered the girl’s aunt. She had been his last customer. She was skinny and wore green rain boots, even though it had been sunny that day. The woman had taken the news better than most people did.
“Please …” the girl repeated from the other side of the door.
Atticus slowly pushed himself away from the door and reached down to its handle, unlocking it. When he opened the door more of the ugly orange light, the same kind of light from his kitchen, poured into his apartment from the hallway. The girl stood in the doorway, her head lowered, and picked at a fingernail on her left hand. She glanced up and he could tell that he surprised her.
“You’re … my age …”she began, but Atticus cut her off by moving out of the doorway and extending his arm into his apartment.
“In,” he said quickly.
She shot him a worried look.
“Please,” he added, forcing a smile.
She entered and Atticus shut the door. She looked around at his empty apartment.
“Fancy, huh?” he asked her, trying his best to keep his smile.
“Oh. No. I mean, yes … it’s fine … it’s great.” But as she said it her eyes quickly swept the room once more, a look of disappointment clear on her face.
“Yeah, thanks. Can I get you anything?” Atticus asked as he moved towards the kitchen. “I’ve got … water. And I think a can of Diet?”
“No. I’m fine. Thanks. I’d just … really just like to get started.”
Atticus turned back toward her. She had walked over to the window and now watched the passing cars outside his apartment.
“My aunt says you did a really … good job. She doesn’t know I’m here. It’s been a rough week with her in hospital, but she is doing better because of you. You gave her hope. I’ve never seen her quite this confident, actually.” She looked away from the window and then moved toward Atticus. “I need your help. I need to know.”
He nodded and then glanced down at the carpet. The beetle had made its way from the hallway and was now navigating across the floor, disappearing in and out of view as it climbed each thread of carpet.
“Please … I need to know, I …”
“You don’t need to know,” Atticus said suddenly, a little louder than he intended. He took his eyes off the beetle and looked up at her. She had stepped back a little. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean … I just mean … you want to know. But you don’t need to.”
“You don’t understand,” the girl said, straightening up, her voice becoming thick. “I do need to. I need to know for sure that I will always be there for …” She brought her hand up to her stomach. “Look, do you want my money or not? I don’t want to waste any more of your time.”
“I didn’t mean …” he began, but just then the kitchen’s smoke alarm blared through the apartment. The girl placed both of her hands over her ears, her eyes wide. Atticus walked into the kitchen and saw that the soup had boiled over onto the stove, burning into a thick black smoke. He took the pot off the red coil and then pulled the chair from the table beneath the alarm. Using one hand to cover his ear, Atticus took the alarm off the wall and removed the batteries. The alarm abruptly stopped, the silence almost as painful. He returned the chair to the table and quickly mopped up the mess with a dishtowel, tossing it into the trash before returning to the living room. The girl was standing at the window again and Atticus noticed that she had opened it to let out some of the smoke.
“Thanks,” he said, nodding towards the window.
She nodded back, but didn’t look up.
“Look,” he continued. “If you don’t want to do this, it’s fine.” "
“You have the ability to do what you do, but you couldn’t even see that your soup was boiling over?” she asked in a rushed voice, her hands shaking at her sides.
Atticus sighed. “It doesn’t work like that. I can’t—”
“Never mind,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.” She looked up at Atticus and gave a halfhearted smile, then took off her green hoodie and sat just beneath the window.
“What’s your name?” Atticus asked, joining her on the floor.
She nodded and looked around the room again. They sat in silence for a few moments before she dug into her pockets, producing a thin stack of twenty-dollar bills. “It’s a hundred, right? That’s what my aunt said it had cost.”
“You don’t need to pay. It’s alright.”
Cally looked surprised and held her money out farther. “Why? You took my aunt’s money.”
“That’s because rent was due.”
“What about next month’s rent?” she asked, surveying his eyes.
“I’ve got it covered already,” Atticus simply said. “Look, if you really want to pay, fine. But you don’t have to. I mean it.” She continued to look him over. “Really,” he added.
After a few moments she shrugged and pocketed the money. “Thanks.”
Atticus forced another smile.
“So … how does this work?” Cally asked quickly. “I don’t have much time. I’ve got an appointment in a bit. Will it take long?” She sat up straight, trying to hide her nervousness with a weak smile.
“No. It won’t take long,” Atticus responded blandly. “Are you sure? …”
“Yes!” she shouted at him. Her cheeks flushed a dark shade of pink and her eyes began to water. “I need to know,” she continued, her voice now at a whisper. “I need to know when. I need to know how.”
“I can only tell you when. I won’t tell you how.”
Cally stared back at him for a moment. “Fine,” she said shortly. “Then just tell me when.”
They stared at each other for a few moments and then Atticus placed his hands out, palms up. The girl stared down at his hands and began to breathe heavily. She slowly lifted up her own hands and held them a few inches above his. She was shaking.
Cally suddenly pulled her arms away and looked up into Atticus’ face. “Do I have to do anything?” Her breath became rapid and her eyes began to water. “Will it hurt?”
Atticus smiled. “No. It won’t hurt. Just relax and it’ll be over in a second.”
She took a deep breath, held out her hands, but then looked back up at him. “Have you ever done it to yourself? Do you know … how?” Her eyes were wide and she leaned forward a bit as she asked.
Atticus’ smile faltered and he put down his arms. His head began to hurt. The calendar stared over to him from the kitchen.
“I’m sorry!” Cally said quickly. “I didn’t mean to … I’m just nervous.” She held out her hands again, palms down. They had stopped shaking.
“It’s alright,” he said, raising his own hands until their palms were only a few inches apart. “Are you sure you want to know?”
She shut her eyes and nodded.
He slowly raised his hands until their palms touched.
For a moment nothing happened. Then the room’s features began to blur and the carpet darkened to black. The walls dissolved into buildings and cars exploded out of wisps of foggy air. Noise bubbled from out of the silence until there was a constant buzz of sounds. People formed out of shapes and shadows as the black ground dried into gritty pavement. Atticus opened his eyes, but Cally was no longer in front of him. Instead he stood on a cracking sidewalk in a large city, next to a busy street. He was standing outside of his apartment.
At first he thought he might have accidentally read himself again, but then he heard Cally’s voice come behind him. She was exiting his apartment building and began walking in his direction, wearing the green hoodie and talking into a cell phone.
“No … no. I’m fine. I’m just leaving a friend's house now and I’ll meet you at the doctor's office in a half hour.” She stopped at a crosswalk a few feet in front of Atticus and turned toward the street, waiting for traffic to pass.
“No, Honey, I’m fine. Seriously. I’ll be there soon.” The crosswalk light turned and she began across the street. She laughed. “Yes. Both of us are fine. Alright. Love you too. Bye.” Cally hung up the cell phone just as a white sedan turned the corner, ignoring its red light. She didn’t have time to move out of the way, the driver never even seeing her. The impact broke most of her ribs, her blood splattering against the car’s windshield and speckling the white paint job with large drops of red. Her body flew nearly thirty feet through the air before crashing into the concrete ground and sliding to a halt. Atticus stared at her dead body as people nearby screamed and the driver stumbled out of his vehicle.
The windows and walls of the buildings began to blend into a single surface and threads of dirty carpet began to sprout out of the concrete like yellowed grass. People dissolved and cars disappeared into nothing. Atticus closed his eyes as the noise of people screaming turned into the sound of a snowy television, and within seconds, faded into silence.
Opening his eyes again he saw that Cally still had hers tightly shut. He hesitated for a second and then put his arms down. Her eyes instantly snapped open and looked into his. They were watery and her arms, still held out, began to shake.
“Well …” she said, trying her best to control her shivering. “When?”
Atticus opened his mouth, but no words came.
Cally put her arms down and wrapped them around her belly. “Please,” she begged. “Tell me … I need to know … I need to know that I’ll be there for her.” She began to cry.
Atticus watched her cradle herself, his brain unable to hold thought. Tears began rolling down her blushed cheeks as she stared over, unblinking. He opened his mouth and the words fell out. “You’re old. You see her grow up and have children of her own. You’re happy.”
Cally let out a sob and covered her mouth with the back of her hand. She began to cry, but smiled. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Atticus watched her tears stain the carpet dark and only nodded.
She wiped her eyes and took in a deep breath, holding it a moment before loudly exhaling. “Thank you,” she repeated. After a few moments of silence, she pulled on her green sweatshirt and slowly got to her feet. Atticus rose as well. Cally gave a watery laugh, awkwardly touched his shoulder, and headed towards the door.
“I have,” Atticus said, looking after her.
Cally gave a little jump and turned back around. “Excuse me?” she asked, wiping away some remnant tears.
Atticus was quiet for a moment. “I have … seen how I … I have, to answer your question.” They continued to look at each other. “A hazard of the job I guess,” he added quietly.
She stared back at him for a moment, and then asked, “Would you rather not know?”
Atticus shrugged. “I didn’t mean to see … but it just happened. And now I know.” He looked back down to the carpet. The wet spots where her tears had fallen had dried.
“Well … do you … do you have some time?” she asked in a whisper, now staring down at the carpet as well.
Atticus smiled. “It doesn’t really matter.”
Cally thought about something for a moment, and then looked at Atticus. “I suppose if you know when and where it’s going to happen, you’ll be able to prevent it, right?” She gave him a small smile.
“I could. But I won’t.”
She stared, taken back, and then said, “You’re saying you wouldn’t prevent your own death if you could?”
“You’d be giving up the chance of enjoying years of happiness!” Cally said harshly, her voice cracking. “Years of friendships and love. Experiences. You could spare heartbreak of the people who love you the most. At least for awhile!” Her eyes began to water again. “Is your life really so terrible that you’d choose not to even fight for it?” From inside her pocket her cell phone began to ring. She slipped her hand inside her hoodie and silenced it, all the while continuing to stare at Atticus, waiting for answer.
“Death isn’t a curse,” Atticus finally said, looking down to the carpet. “To run from death would be running the largest circle. We can fear our death and spend every moment of our lives trying to avoid it or we can embrace it when it does arrive and have faith that something different … something better, is out there for us.” Atticus looked up at her. “Knowing is the curse. Not death itself.”
Cally’s mouth opened to say something, but no words came out. She tilted her head a little, but still didn’t say anything. Her cell phone rang again. She blinked her eyes, and then took a few steps back towards the door.
“I … I have to go.” She gave Atticus a quick smile. “Thank you, for everything.”
Atticus didn’t say anything back, but followed her to the door. She opened it and walked out into the hall, the orange light spilling into the apartment once more.
“Thanks … again,” she said quietly. “I hope … I hope you spend however many days you may have being happy. We all deserve that, don’t we?” Cally gave him one last smile and then flipped open her cell phone. “Hello? Hi, Honey …”
Atticus closed the door and walked into the kitchen. The stink of burned soup still lingered. He walked over to the calendar and unclipped the red pen, uncapping it and crossing out the day’s date. Tomorrow, outlined in black, was all that remained.
Atticus dropped the red pen onto the ground and walked into the living room, sliding against the wall onto the floor near the window. He looked down at the carpet. He saw the beetle. It was dead. At some point during the conversation, one of them must have stepped on it and the insect now lay motionless, a yellow pus-like substance issuing from around its head. The sound of the car’s tires braking against the pavement drifted in through the open window. People on the sidewalk began to scream and an ambulance siren sounded in the distance. Atticus just stared at the beetle. And the beetle stared back.