By R. S. Pyne
My grandfather knew exactly when he would die. Some people are lucky that way—or unlucky, depending on how you spin it. When he came to see me that morning, he had a grin on his well-lived-in face, dentures gleaming conspiratorially.
“Six before eighty, Billy boy,” he said.
I started to make coffee and only then found out that my flatmate had used the last. Putting the tin back on the shelf instead of the recycling bin was typical of a man who turned his T-shirts inside out to save going to the Laundromat more than once every three months.
Matt ticked every box on the slob list with a capital S. He seemed to think that beer and groceries magically appeared and invisible fairies cleaned up his mess every night when he watched reality TV, stoned out of his tiny mind. Always late with his share of the rent, always a new excuse why. I knew why: his money went up in smoke.
Grandpa quit smoking when his last paragliding accident broke both legs and his artificial hip. He walked with a stick, a swagger for any lady he passed and a spring in his step for his favorites. They called him a wicked, old rogue, but he did not care what people thought. He lived in a gated retirement community, always on a warning to behave or find somewhere else, but the powers-that-be could never get rid of him. A lifetime lease, although no one in the family found out how he managed it.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” was all he would ever say when asked, but then, so did granddad. He still had faith; he was a complicated man who combined Christianity with a lifestyle that would have killed men half his age.
He picked up my herbal painkillers—all the doctors would prescribe after my ‘episodes’— touched the scars on my wrists, and shook his head.
“Six years left, boy,” he said, “and I wouldn’t trade a single minute.”
His gaze flickered across to where Matt sat slumped in a chair molded to a butt that should have had its own zip code.
“It is wasted on some people.” There was a strange smile on his face, weighing up the pros and cons of his most audacious scheme yet.
If he noticed me twang the elastic band around one wrist, he did not show concern. Talking about it brought the demons snarling back as if they had never been away.
“The Lord, our God,” grandpa smiled, “sometimes offers creative solutions.”
Matt burbled something, too stoned for even rudimentary English. I found him difficult to understand at the best of times. Some nights, when sleep would not come, it was all I could do not to kill him; even second-rate flat mates were hard to find, and besides, how would I explain that to my counselor?
The voices had been silent for days, but granddad had started them whispering again.
“Stay with me, boy,” he said, sharper this time. “I found a way…to make the Reaper wait until I’m ready to go.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, to drown out the snide litany of insinuations, suggestions, and insults that always sounded like my ex-girlfriend. We had not parted on the best of terms. She still phoned once a month and was always disappointed when I answered.
I had blocked her number; she kept changing it. After another few months, upsetting her kept me from finding an exit. Bloody mindedness runs in the family. Grandpa was part role model, part bad influence with the dark side never far under the surface.
“Does that have anyone to miss it?” The old man winked and then looked disgusted when Matt farted.
He did that a lot, so often I barely noticed it anymore. The smell had the sickly odor of stomach pump kisses: one of the reasons our windows were open all the time, even when he wasn’t smoking weed.
“A sister in Australia,” I said, wondering why it was important.
Matt had told me once, in one of his rare sober moments, about a falling out over money, a bitter rift that would never heal. The poor idiot had the intellect of a soft-boiled egg taken out of the pan too soon.
Grandpa gave another bright smile. He took a strange device from his pocket. It looked like a calculator and a mobile phone got together to make babies. He turned it on and swiped his passcode, waited a few minutes, and swore under his breath.
Matt opened one bloodshot eye and asked hazy questions as my grandfather stuck him with a needle.
“What are you doing?” I watched, fascinated but appalled.
All the voices laughed at once, impossible to drown out. Breathing exercises and the elastic bands didn’t help, neither did visualization. At the sessions, the shrink told me to picture myself walking along a beach to a calm center, but the tide was coming in, and quicksand dragged me down. Running a fingernail across my arm brought some peace, until grandpa noticed and told me to stop.
He loaded Matt’s blood into the calculator-phone thing and waited.
“Nine from thirty-three,” he said, disappointed. “He’ll overdose in 2027—the seventh of January to be exact.”
“What?” Matt’s addled brain managed to find a surviving brain cell, just enough for that newsflash to register.
“Better than nothing,” granddad said. “I’ll take it.”
Matt tried to get up, residual survival instincts kicking in too late. His remaining lifespan billowed like fireflies from a slack mouth and swirled around the room.
“Relax,” Granddad said as the firefly cloud settled on him. “It’s just like drifting away with Mary-Jane.”
Except this time, he wouldn’t wake up. Not that he ever really did anything, so who would know the difference?