“Sometimes I think I can almost catch it.” Casey touched the bottle to his lips, then absentmindedly lowered the fifth without drinking. “As if it were there just out of view, at the corner of my eye. That’s the feeling anyway.”
Nate waited for him to continue, his friend’s face grayish even in the glow of the fire.
“As if it were just over my shoulder, and if I turned quick enough, I might actually see the truth.”
They were drinking Scotch, the best they could buy, each with his own bottle. After all, why the hell not? thought Nate. “But you never seen it?”
“Not enough to really know. It’s more a sensation than something you could verbalize, like a vague half-remembered dream, or a lost memory from a previous life, more sensation than reality, but for years I kept hoping I might get a glimpse.”
“You warm enough?”
Casey smiled. “I suppose I might as well be warm as possible now, huh?”
Nate wasn’t sure what he meant, so he tossed another hefty stick into the flames, the riled sparks ascending as dashed swirling orange lines. He looked up but couldn’t yet locate a star, knowing that on a cold clear evening like this one, soon enough the sky would be brimmed. They’d probably even be able to see the Milky Way. “Can’t believe Beth wouldn’t come with us.”
“Some things strike me as perfect. A certain moment, certain works of art, nature. Anything we can’t imagine altering. The shadow of the earth crossing over the moon turning it red—”
“Nothing’s perfect.” He regretted the comment immediately.
“But that’s not true—things can be perfect. You know what I keep thinking of?”
Nate shook his head, but his friend didn’t notice, transfixed by the fresh flames embracing the new branch, or perhaps just his memories.
“I keep thinking about this one day I spent in Wisconsin. It was about six months after I’d gotten out of the hospital the third time. I was at my healthiest . . . and remember, I took that road trip by myself to see some of the country?”
Nate nodded, smelling the pine sap as it dripped in the heat, his boots beginning to warm.
“It was the furthest west I’d ever been, and I was so full of joy to be traveling and not lying sick in a bed, the contrast overwhelming. I noticed this bar with a gorgeous old neon and couldn’t resist pulling over, which was the point of my trip anyway—doing exactly what I wanted.
“This was an original bar, probably built in the thirties after prohibition ended, not a fake retro place like you see now. A hot August day, I was in a T-shirt. I’d been working out some and though it wasn’t much, I felt okay in the T-shirt. For once I wasn’t so sickly and thin. I even had a tan.” He looked over. “You probably can’t imagine what it’s like always being embarrassed by your body, actually despising your body. Sometimes wanting to destroy it, maybe even shoot away the part that’s tormenting you, if you only knew exactly where to aim.”
Nate reached out to stir the fire although it didn’t need it, then glanced across the snow field losing the last blush of evening light, sloping downwards for perhaps a half mile toward the ice-rimmed beach, the bay in the distance a flat silver hide all the way to the island, everything now a grayish-blue monochrome except for the color of the flames. He wondered where Casey was going with this, having heard it before. They’d known each other since they were kids, Nate growing up only a few miles inland from Casey’s family’s summer estate on the coast. Nate’s dad had clammed and egged, fishing when he could get on a boat, but Nate had avoided the ocean since his father’s death, working at landscaping, carpentry, and odd jobs after he’d dropped out of high school. Now well into his forties, he hadn’t experienced the kind of illness Casey had, but he knew what pain was, his back and particularly his knees barely getting him through the work day any longer, his fear that he couldn’t continue increasing, especially during the winter months. If he couldn’t work anymore, what the hell would he do then?
“I was picked up by a woman in the bar. That had never happened to me before.”
“You never told me this part.”
“Some things get ruined if you tell them, but I figured tonight, why not. Besides, I’m starting to feel the whiskey. These pain pills really kick you when you drink with them. You sure you don’t want one?”
“Tell me about the woman. Was this before Beth?”
“No, but we hadn’t married yet. This woman who picked me up wasn’t great looking. As a matter of fact I suppose she was pretty overweight and plain, but she had wonderful skin and she was funny.”
“So what happened?”
“I went home with her. She lived by this lake in a tiny cottage. I still remember the name of the lake. Winnebago. There’s something nice when you say the word. The lake has this weird aberration where every few years it produces tons of big dumb bugs that the sturgeon feed on. The bugs only live three days but become so overwhelming they cover the houses along the shore. Apparently the sound is deafening. Anyway, we went swimming together in this lake, no bugs that particular year. It was very shallow and calm and you could walk way out before it was even chest high. It was eerie wading out into almost complete darkness. At first she kept her underwear on, but then we were naked. We held each other in the tepid water for a long time. Her hair smelled lovely.”
Nate didn’t say anything for a minute, waiting. “That’s it?”
“It was perfect. You said nothing is ever perfect. That was.”
“What happened to her?”
“I don’t know. I told her my name was Jim and that I sold insurance in New York. How would she ever locate me in Maine? Now I wish I’d told her the truth.” He closed his eyes. “I think she really honestly liked me.”
“Were you worried Beth would find out?” Nate lifted his bottle, a touch of icy breeze traveling up from the water, the fire agitated for a moment, the heat from the flames brushed rudely away from his face. It was bound to be a real cold night; they wouldn’t be able to stay too long even with the fire.
“I suppose so. You know what still breaks my heart? When I got up in the morning, she’d washed all my clothes. They were all folded and perfectly neat and clean, sitting on a chair beside her bed. Christ! Over twenty years and I still think about her.”
“Do you wish you’d done it different?”
“Beth would have stopped it. She’d have found a way.”
Nate was startled by the comment. Casey never spoke negatively about his wife. But what did he mean: “Beth would’ve stopped it.” Beth didn’t own Casey, did she? If anything, it was the other way around. The touch of wind moved the snow; the fire reacted again, and a hot cinder was spit from the embers like a watermelon seed. Nate had built the fire near a pine grove, cutting off the dead bottom limbs, using the tips with dried needles as kindling, then feeding it gradually with the thicker ends. The pine burned quickly and hot but was unruly, though not nearly as lively as cedar.
He’d hauled Casey on a wooden sled most of the way. At first Casey had insisted on trying to walk, but after only a few minutes of trudging through a foot-deep drift, he’d simply fallen. When Nate helped him onto the sled he realized he didn’t weigh much over a hundred pounds. Coming here had been Casey’s wish, and who was he to deny him? Casey’d insisted on this precise spot overlooking the ocean and islands, and once they’d arrived, Nate had arranged him on the sled as a bench, placing his back and head against the pack. Nate had formed a seat for himself from green pine boughs and a blanket, positioning both seats far enough away from the fire to avoid the restless sparks.
“You glad you stayed with Beth?” Nate couldn’t hold back the question.
“Why not? You know it won’t never leave here.”
“Does it ever strike you as odd, you and I being friends for all these years?”
“Antithesis. Backgrounds, looks, strengths, economics, health.”
“Sameness don’t make friendship.”
“You’re the most logical guy I’ve ever known.”
“You’re the kindest.”
“You think so? How strange. I’ve never thought of myself as particularly kind.”
“I could’ve never made it without you.”
“Oh, bull. You’d make it regardless of circumstances.”
“Let’s cut this out. Praise mixes poorly with Scotch.”
“Are you scared? You must be scared.” He wished he hadn’t said it. Why were all these things popping out of his mouth? But he knew why; he was nervous.
Casey looked over. “Scared about what?”
“‘Bout what? Tomorrow.”
“The surgeon would be so angry to know I was out here drinking in the snow.” Casey chuckled, obviously pleased with himself.
“You know you should be resting. I thought this was a terrible idea.”
“Best thing I’ve ever done. You’ll see.” Casey tipped the bottle again. “I’m going to surprise you.”
“Okay. God, I sure hope so. Fuck those know-it-all doctors, right? Maybe this is the best thing for ya.”
“I don’t mean that. I mean right now.”
“You’re not drinking enough, but then you have to drive back. Always the conscientious one, never a waver.” Casey raised his hand. “Hold on, I want to tell you this. I didn’t want Beth here tonight.”
He mulled that over for a moment. “You got me, I’m surprised.”
“Here’s something else. I’ve come to believe she actually wanted to lose the baby.”
Nate was silent.
“You’re shocked. I’m not so kind now, am I?”
“It’d make you more so. If you stayed with her knowing that.”
“I’ve only come to believe it in the last few months. The trigger was that she never wanted to try again. First it was all she talked about, obsessed. Christ, was she obsessed. Then all those fertility treatments, her juiced hormones making her even more difficult to live with. All I heard about was the baby. But when she was finally pregnant, I think she became terrified of having the child, began to realize what it really meant, the endless years of being a mother—she changed her mind. I’d always believed her moods were the delicacy of her emotional state caused by the loss, but I’ve come to see her differently recently. It was guilt. Guilt that she secretly hadn’t wanted the baby, and when she lost it, she somehow believed her thoughts had affected the birth. She still feels guilty. It must be awful living with that. There’s such initial attraction in wanting, in focusing on one thing, in believing that having it will fix everything in our lives, but then once we achieve it, reality sets in, and we can become uncertain and fearful. Poor Beth. But who knows, if we’d had the kid maybe she would’ve been fine. Everyone has inexplicable fears.”
“She wouldn’t try again?”
“As a matter of fact she placed a moratorium on sex after she lost the child.”
Nate was silent again. No sex? For all those years. How could anyone live without sex? He felt even more bitterly towards Beth but didn’t dare speak. He looked out at the bay. Old timers said that some winters the water had frozen all the way to the island. It didn’t seem possible, but he’d seen a photo once. They’d even dragged a few houses to the island across the ice using horses. Decent-sized houses too, not just some shacks. People had more guts then. Casey cut into his thoughts.
“I know you’ve never liked her. You think I didn’t notice, but I did. You think she only stayed with me for the money. No one wants to be around someone sick, so you can’t hold too much against her. We all have our issues. She probably didn’t expect me to live so long.” Casey chuckled. “It’s strange to have one’s heart and one’s body at such odds.”
“I like her okay.”
“Why not let the unspoken jump out into the fire light?” Casey gave him a look. “No one will probably ever know Beth as I do. What I feel for her is pity. She didn’t have much of a life even if it was comfortable. But enough of that. I want to ask you something serious.”
Didn’t Casey think what he’d just revealed was serious? He took a small sip and waited.
“What do you think is the meaning of all this?” He waved the bottle toward the horizon or maybe the heavens. “I mean the absolute truth.”
“The big question. Though our culture seems to ignore it. Maybe I’ve been closer to the question than others from being ill. Gives you too much time to think, lying in a bed every day.”
“You wanna know what I think the point of life is?”
Nate thought a minute. “Getting my work done?”
“Really? That’s yours? You’ve certainly always gotten your work done. Christ, what you’ve done for me alone would’ve exhausted a normal man.”
“You been easy to work for. You always notice and appreciate stuff. And you pay good.” Nate attempted to joke but it sounded sour. He took a big drink to clear himself. This was becoming tougher than he’d thought. No wonder he was nervous. If things didn’t turn out tomorrow, this could be their last evening together. He glanced at Casey and could sense the intensity in his face. This attentiveness increased his unease. His meaning of life had more or less been survival, but he sensed Casey didn’t want to hear that. He tried again. “I think it’s making memories, you know, forming good memories for others. I don’t mean just good deeds, but even like with stories or movies would fit in with it. Think of that woman who did your laundry and how you still think of her, then tell me. She added to your life, your memories, right? It has meaning because of that.”
That stopped Casey. “I like that,” he said after a while. “That’s lovely.”
“I don’t explain things as good as you do.” He was relieved that Casey was pleased.
“You didn’t have all that time to do nothing but read.”
The conversation stalled and Nate tossed on another pine limb. They were surrounded by darkness now, and he couldn’t make out the distant ocean and islands beyond the saucer of gilded fire light, the stars above them through the rising heat and smoke. To see the Milky Way he’d have to move out of the fire’s range. The night was at his back and he almost shivered. It was odd to feel such warmth against his front half and such cold gripping the other. He supposed he could turn and thaw his back but didn’t want to appear weak. He wondered how Casey was holding up. Casey never complained, and Nate could only guess at what he went through being so sick. Anyway, there was an extra blanket in the pack if he needed it. Maybe the liquor and pills kept him from sensing the cold too much.
“Here’s mine,” said Casey.
“My theory of existence. The meaning of life.” He pressed the bottle to his lips. “I think our big mistake is thinking we’re the center of everything. Our reality on Earth might be merely a remote outpost, and we’re here because we’ve been rejected from the main entity. We were too spiritually unfit, too fucked up to stay among the others, and we get sent here to experience and learn what we truly need to know. Kind of recycled into something more appropriate, kind of a training ground for corrupted souls. Of course most of us don’t figure it out. I suppose we either vanish or are sent back again for another run through the wringer. There are certainly more of us all the time.” Casey laughed at his own joke, then began coughing, his face switching to a grimace of pain. For a moment it was obvious how sick he truly was. There was something about Casey that made it easy to overlook his frailty. “What do you think of that?” he said.
“Not sure. I guess it’s possible. Sure would explain why so many people are bastards.”
“Life can’t just be about material success, can it? Building all this stuff, owning all this crap you really don’t need. Look at the teepee compared the skyscraper, that tells you a lot.”
Nate didn’t respond. He knew only too well that Casey had never lived in a teepee. But then why should he? Besides, Beth in a teepee? Now there was a big laugh. “Isn’t a trailer kind of like a teepee?” he said, but Casey ignored the joke. Nate had always figured that his worn-out trailer made Casey uneasy. But when you live in a mansion, everyone else’s home must seem pathetic.
“How can the meaning of life be greed? Does that make sense?”
“Depends on how little you have.”
“But the wealthiest seem to be the greediest.”
Now Nate laughed. “Is that true?”
“I’m not as wealthy as you think. Besides it’s never interested me that much. I read this article about happiness. After a massive study they found out the happiest people only earned between twenty and twenty-five thousand a year. As they became wealthier, they became more miserable.”
“Guess I’m lucky then.”
“I’ve always thought so.”
“There was that one time.” Nate said it reluctantly. It would always embarrass him. Excessive emotion, particularly in himself, always embarrassed him.
“Yeah, there was that. But you did the correct thing.”
“It was a close call.”
“Neither of us has been all together lucky when it’s come to women, have we?” Casey’s bottle moved again. It was getting less than half full, while Nate’s was missing merely a couple inches.
“My time to surprise ya. Now that I look back on it, I was lucky there too.”
“I sure didn’t see it then, did I?”
Casey shook his head. “You were rather angry. Not that you displayed it, but I could tell.”
“Know what you said to me?”
“When I called and asked for a gun. Know what you said?”
“You said, ‘When do you need it?’ I always remember that. You didn’t have no idea what I needed it for, but that’s all you said.”
“I figured if you’d asked it must be important.”
That stopped them for a moment, Nate trying to find the stars again. He considered the extra blanket, but if Casey wasn’t that cold then he wasn’t going to give in either. “Did you ever for a moment want to hurt Beth?”
“Odd question, I guess.”
“She threw a glass paperweight at me once.”
“Missed my head by a few inches. Went right through a window.”
“I fixed that window. Thermopane in the dining room.”
“So you did. I can’t remember how I explained it.”
“Yeah, why lie when you don’t have to?” Casey chuckled again, Nate again pleased but amazed to see him so happy. He was getting drunk, yet not that drunk. But then, Casey had always been able to drink without showing the effects. “Don’t hold any of this against Beth. As I said, she didn’t have it so wonderful either. When you live intimately for so long with someone, maybe it’s too much. You get to know everything unseemly—their fears, terrors, phobias, every mood, bizarre desire, nightmare, their pasty face in the morning, ache and gripe, even their digestion. Maybe it’s too damn much.”
“You put it that way, maybe living alone ain’t so bad.”
“You never did remarry.”
“Once seemed enough. Didn’t wanna make you be my best man twice.”
“It’s not easy to live alone when you’re sick.” Casey said it resignedly, which prompted Nate to say something he’d long thought.
“I woulda taken care of ya.”
“I could never ask that.”
“I’d still do it.”
Casey looked at him a while. “That was a very nice thing to say.”
“You’re gonna make it through this thing. I know ya are.” Nate worried his voice was sounding emotional.
“It’s always the instinctual against the intuitive or maybe you could call it the poetic intelligence.”
“Another way of looking at life.”
“You lost me.”
“We have our base instincts, our hungers, our needs, but then there’s the beauty of living beyond those, of doing or making something wonderful and lasting, be it by deeds or by fabrication. Sorry, I’m feeling rather transported at the moment. A strange idea just hit me. I need to rest for a minute if that’s okay.”
“No need to say nothing.”
Casey stared toward the sky and didn’t say anything for so long that Nate began to worry. He couldn’t help but follow Casey’s gaze every few minutes: same black pulsing infinity with stars. Back when he’d been a teenager, one morning before school started, he’d stood in front of the rundown brick building and fixed his eyes on the roof. Before ten minutes were over he was surrounded by students and a few teachers, all looking up, all asking what was going on. Human nature. If Casey needed some quiet, that was fine with him though the wind had picked up again, the smoke smarting his eyes on occasion. He fed the fire to create more updraft, Casey not moving, not bothered by the smoke, not even drinking.
After what felt like well past half an hour or even longer, he finally asked, “Case, you okay?”
Casey screwed the fifth into the snow. “I’m Columbus.”
“Actually, I’m Jesus too.”
Damn, he knew coming out here hadn’t been the smartest idea. “Buddy, we best be headin’ back.” Nate stood, rubbed his hands together over the flames, deciding he could leave the fire to burn itself out. The pines were too far back to catch no matter what the wind.
“Sit down a second. I have something amazing to tell you.”
“Really, we best get goin’. You got a long day tomorrow.”
“Please . . . ”
So he settled on his bough seat again.
“You’re those people as well.”
Casey held up his hand. “Thoughts I’ve been guessing at for years . . . I finally feel it. I really believe it might be true.”
Nate decided there was nothing to do but listen to his friend. After all, it was his night.
Casey was staring at him, an odd smile on his face. “What if reality isn’t what we think it is, and matter doesn’t exist and time isn’t merely linear? What if the only thing that exists is a massive construct of consciousness which is an energy forming the illusion of everything? What if a lifetime only seems to be a separate entity, but it’s actually just a minuscule nodule of this enormous construct? You can actually enter it for moments. The beauty and perfection of the construct is overwhelming because you realize you’re everything: Plato, Jesus, the ocean, the stars, anything you can imagine. You’re even me and I’m you. But that doesn’t make any sense, does it?”
Casey laughed. “And you think I’m drunk.”
“Actually I feel bizarrely lucid.”
“You’re sure talking a bit strange.”
“But this fits all the criteria and explains everything.” He was still laughing. “Besides, I felt it. I know it’s real.”
Nate didn’t respond because he had no idea what to say. Maybe the stress of the pending operation was too much for Casey? Or the possibility of dying.
“Maybe I suddenly know this because I’m going to die, or my body is going to stop.”
Casey had read his thoughts. “You’re not gonna die. You’ve got a decent chance tomorrow. But we better get you back. You’re supposed be there at nine, and it must be near ten by now. If we head back now you can still get some sleep.”
“Containers. How else can you explain containers?”
“Think about it. The universe might be enormous, but if it exists as matter it must have an end. Then what contains it? Infinity can only exist if nothing exists because everything has an opposite. A construct of consciousness is both infinite and doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t require a container. What’s amazing is that it’s billions of connected but separate consciousnesses that create the shape and form. A massive reality of agreement growing more complex as the separate entities increase.” He paused. “Why did I never see this before? This is what Blake was alluding to. No wonder every culture believes in a God or gods. It’s the construct that they’re intuitively aware of.” Casey began laughing again, slapping his leg in glee. “But, my God, if everything agrees the world can become anything. We can change anything. We can become anything as long as opposites remain intact. How wonderful. Think what it means.”
Nate didn’t know what to say; Casey seemed to be seeing the world for the first time. What could he say to that? “Change anything?” he said.
“You said we can change everything.”
“We can. We’re the construct. God, I painted all the Rembrandts, the Vermeers, the Gauguins, the Hoppers. I wrote Moby Dick. No wonder we understand books and paintings the way we do.” He was giggling. Then he frowned. “Of course I did all the awful things as well. No wonder you can imagine doing anything in your mind. You actually did it!”
He glanced over, looking embarrassed for a second, then away. “Sorry, I was just feeling this odd connectedness, as if my spirit had flowed out into everything. I was building the pyramids, could actually feel the Egyptian sun on my back; I was Columbus with the sea spray against my face watching the Indians on shore, I was Jesus with a nail through my wrist, I was my mother giving birth to me.”
“Casey. Did you take something?”
He turned back slowly, holding Nate in his gaze. “This is real. I know it is. Everything aligns. Quantum physics is just beginning to discover the beginning of this. Of course the mind alters controlled experiments; it can alter anything. Of course the smallest particle will eventually prove to be consciousness. It is everything. And the construct is always perfect because it’s the exact centered balance of every opposite, every desire, every vision and need.”
“What are you talking about?” Though Nate was pleased for his friend, he was feeling distracted and a bit alienated. It was as if Casey was talking to himself rather than to him. What did he know about constructs and being Jesus? Besides, he was getting damn cold as the winter night increased.
“We are constantly all modifying the world, including the past and the future. Time. Of course it’s not linear, it only has a perception of being linear while you’re a nodule. That explains the odd dreams I’ve had. Why I dream things before they happen. This is why psychics can foretell fragments of the future, describe objects that have remained buried for a thousand years.” He stopped for a moment, frowned again. “But maybe the beliefs and boundaries of the future construct affect the past? That might be a problem. That might complicate radical change. No wonder everything changes so slowly. I wonder if finally in the end everyone realizes the truth of the construct and gets overwhelmed by the perfection of it.” He began to laugh again, picking up the whisky and taking a drink. “What a gift to see it now. I can finally look out at the stars and instead of confusion and longing, I feel only joy.”
A gust of icy wind caught the stand of pine, and the sound of the lifting limbs struck Nate almost as an omen. The fire flared, he closed his eyes to the smoke, and again he felt strange. There was something in Casey’s manner that made what he was saying impossible to dismiss. He knew Casey believed what he’d been saying for whatever reason he believed it, either the drink, the painkillers, or the fear of dying. It was a few minutes before Nate was able to say, “So we create everything together with our minds? Is that what you mean?”
“More or less.”
“Then why disease, why sickness and misery?”
“So there can be health and joy. Everything must have an opposite. Without contrast we wouldn’t be aware that anything existed.”
“How about bugs then? Black flies and mosquitoes. Why would our minds make them up?”
Casey laughed. “Birds. The billions of bat, dragonflies, fish, and bird consciousnesses. Even those sturgeon. Maybe sometimes they overdo it a it, but the amount is up to them, isn’t it?”
“Animals are part of it?”
“Of course. Everything.”
“These are some strange thoughts.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t done a better job explaining. It’s too new to me and I feel overwhelmed. It’s probably impossible to verbalize anyway, yet I felt I had to try because I wanted someone to know. There isn’t much time.” He smiled slowly. “Time again, Nate. Time. You’re going to have some, my friend. Maybe you’ll do some reading, think about this stuff. Maybe take a trip somewhere if you want. See Europe or Asia. After all, you’re not even fifty yet and you’re healthy as an ox.”
What was Casey talking about now? He could barely afford the payments on his new truck, his trailer, land, taxes and insurance, heating oil and food, not to mention going out. Everything had gotten so expensive. European vacations? This was one difficult and weird evening. “I sure don’t have that kind of time.”
“I’ve left you a letter, all my books if you’re interested, most of my unpublished writing to sort through if you want, my gun collection and the Nash. I’m leaving you a third of my estate. You shouldn’t have any trouble with Beth. I know you’ll be kind to her. Remember, in her own way she’s been through a lot. Besides, if she contests the will or creates a problem, she’ll lose everything. I’ve made that very clear with my lawyer.”
Again Nate was taken aback. Everything seemed to be moving at a blinding pace while at the same time it seemed so motionless and silent. Even the fire had stopped snapping, and the sea breeze had left the pine grove, probably blown itself out for the night. He felt as if he’d taken something. “I don’t know what to say.”
“No need to say anything. You’ve already said it over the years with your work and friendship. It’s the least I could do in return.”
“Case, you’re gonna pull through. Don’t talk about a will yet.”
“I have one last favor to ask.”
Nate nodded. “What?”
“I’m sorry, but I need you to leave me now. I still have so much to think about and I’m getting tired.”
“Leave you? What’re you talking about?”
“You need to go back.”
“You’re gonna get real cold. I don’t know if I can build the fire up enough to keep you warm for very long. I suppose I could come back in a couple hours, but even that’d be risky; you could fall asleep. I think we’re in for a real cold night.”
“I’m going to allow the fire to go out.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“I came here to die.”
Nate stared at his friend. “Come on, that’s not possible.”
“It’s what I want.”
“You can’t expect me to just walk away.”
“I’d do it for you.”
“Don’t ask this.”
“In a way I’ve already done it for you. I knew you planned to shoot them both when I loaned you that gun.”
“But I didn’t.”
“That was your decision. This is mine. I can’t go back into that hospital. I’m exhausted, Nate, and I’ve suffered enough. Too many years of it, and there’s no more fight in me left. I’m not going to die on some overly lit table connected to tubes. This is what I want. I’ve had the most wonderful evening of my life. Talking with my best friend, watching the darkness cover the coastline I love, seeing a glimpse of truth I’ve searched for my entire life. I’ve been blessed once again. Now I want some time to think alone, then drink my fill, then I’ll fall asleep. Send someone out for me tomorrow. Don’t come yourself. I’ll only appear even more pathetic dead, and I want you to remember me like this in the fire light and darkness, a smile on my face and the liquid peat in my hand.” He lifted the bottle. “If you come to need it, I’ve left an additional letter for the police to prevent any suspicion of negligent homicide, so you shouldn’t have any trouble there.”
Nate stood awkwardly, feeling the whisky, the confused unreality of the request. He looked up at the swirling smoke lifting to darkness. “Please come back with me. The operation will work this time. I know it will.”
“You must do this for me.”
“Don’t force me to ask again. Don’t force me to beg. The night has been perfect. Don’t ruin it, please.”
Nate reached down to pick up a thick stick, tossed it into the flames. Then added a few more as if it would somehow change things, maybe warm up the entire hillside. “This is what you want?”
“I just walk away?”
“I don’t know what to do.”
Neither of them said anything as Nate turned his hands over the now boisterous flames, sparks snapping onto the snow. Then Casey said, “Hey! I just thought of something?”
“What?” said Nate with eagerness. Had he changed his mind?
“For once—no hangover.”
It took a moment, but then Nate chuckled and they both began to grin. Nate could feel an uncontrollable emotion rising in himself like a boat breaking from its mooring. “God, I’m going to miss you.”
“You’ll have time now. You won’t have to work unless you want to.”
“I’d rather have our friendship.”
“That’ll always exist.”
“Case, come back with me. Take a gamble on the docs one more time. If it don’t work, we come back out here. I’ll even buy the Scotch next time.”
“If I go back now I’ll have a horrible hangover.”
“There’s that.” Nate stared at his friend a long time, unable to move.
“Thanks.” Casey was holding out his hand. “Thanks for everything.”
Nate shook it. “Damn,” he said, and turned. He wanted to say something more, but his throat was tight and his mind numb. This couldn’t be happening, could it? Without any real decision he began to walk back towards the truck through the snow, but his spirit seemed to remain at the fire as if he weren’t actually moving away. With each additional step he realized he was going to cry. He looked back at the fire once through wet eyes, the lashes beginning to freeze, and his hand as if with a mind of its own lifted. I can come back in an hour, he thought. I can always do that.