The deaths were coming more frequently now. It was almost a weekly expectation to learn, through an acquaintance, the phone, or even Facebook, of a new death. Friends and distant acquaintances died of cancer of the colon, breasts, prostate, bones, liver—it was almost always cancer. But also heart disease, lung disease, stroke, diabetes. Sometimes the death could be attributed to human error rather than a natural cause. A car accident, for example. Nonetheless, even these could usually be traced back to mistakes made by the human mind, dulling as it atrophied in old age. The ravages of time within the interior of our bodies, expressed through the degeneration or sudden demise of our exterior selves.
They weren’t very old. They didn’t think so, at least. They lived in a two-story cottage across the boardwalk from the ocean in Santa Cruz. Grace had always wanted a view of the sea from the kitchen sink, and Dan was proud of being able to grant her this wish in his retirement. They’d had a good life, he thought, free of the drama that seemed to pervade others. Sometimes in the evenings, after a lunch with a friend or a particularly long phone call, Grace would gossip about the minutiae of her friends’ lives: the petty fights, long-standing feuds, and failed marriages of their generation, the eating disorders, drop-outs, and failed dreams of their children, whom Dan only vaguely remembered as a blur of giggling faces from distant soccer games. As she chattered, Grace’s pale face would flush, her anxiety palpable, and he would wrap his arms around her thin shoulders and reassure her that everything would be all right in the end.
Dan liked to stand by the upstairs bedroom window in the evenings and gaze out as Grace put the dishes away and wiped down the table after dinner. There were always small groups of people gathered on the boardwalk to watch the sun set, smartphones held out against the sinking orb or turned on themselves as they took silhouetted photographs against the yellow sky. Taking selfies, they called it.
Eventually, Dan came to realize that he liked watching these groups of celebrants more than he enjoyed looking at the actual sunset. What a privilege, he thought, to witness these small moments of joy in their lives. Regardless of whom these people were, of how horribly they may have acted during other parts of their day, they had gathered to celebrate being alive. They took photos and hugged each other. They will look back at this moment with pleasure in the coming years. Watching different groups of celebrants experience this kind of joy day after day made Dan feel like God.
When the call came late one evening, after the sky had darkened and the celebrants had scattered, Dan assumed it was news of just another death. He shook his head slightly at Grace’s stricken expression, as if to shame her. Sometimes she let herself get sentimental, as she did last year when they’d heard that her college roommate had died from complications of an aneurysm. She’d wanted to attend the memorial, even though it was in upstate New York, not easy to get to from California. But he’d gone with her, driven nervously in the salted snow, because he saw that it would bring her relief.
“Thank you. For calling. Yes, of course. I’m fine. Yes, we’ll be in touch. Thank you.” Grace dropped the phone and, still smiling her polite phone smile, fell into the overstuffed armchair. Its feather cushion deflated with a soft sigh beneath her. Dan looked up from his magazine.
“Well, then,” he said. “Who do we have this time? Let me guess…Mrs. Ahn, the dry cleaner’s wife. Or is it Henry, the mailman. Or, no, wait, let me guess…the owner of the nail salon. Mr. Phoung, is it?” Joking about death was macabre, he knew, but it could also be funny, a way to manage the undeniable knowledge of its advance. They’d started making these jokes last spring during a particularly brutal wave of deaths. Since then, Dan and Grace had continued joking in this way, almost competing to see who could be funnier.
“No.” Grace looked back at him, unsmiling. She wasn’t playing the game tonight.
“Well, then?” Dan was annoyed now and wanted to get back to his article. He’d recently become interested in Survivalism after catching a show called Doomsday Preppers on The National Geographic Channel. It was amazing how many strange reality shows there were nowadays. “Always Ready – Ten Tips to Prepare for Any Disaster!” The headline called out to him from the page. Dan hoped Grace would make her news short so he could get back to his article. After working full time in family law for forty years, he had a sense that he needed to catch up to the rest of the world.
“It’s Alli,” Grace said into the flickering fireplace. “They found her in a cafe, in Sacramento. They think it might have been an overdose.”
There was a hand pushing down on Dan’s chest, steadily compressing him until he felt depleted. He could barely get the words out. “Which Alli?”
“There’s only our Alli, Dan.” Grace stood up, walked over, and sat down on the rug next to Dan’s legs. She rarely sat on the floor anymore. Getting back up was hard on her joints. But now she removed the magazine from his lap and laid her head on his knees. He could feel her tears slide down his legs, gliding smoothly as if on tiny ball bearings.
They’d found Alli in a Starbucks in Sacramento, exactly 100 miles from her one-bedroom condo in San Francisco. No one knew why Alli was in Sacramento. The police suspected it was because it was easier for her to buy drugs there. Or maybe she had gone there because she didn’t want to be recognized. She’d just begun her second year as a junior partner at a law firm in one of those glass skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco. She’d told them that she ate her lunch alone every day in the employee cafeteria while looking out at the fogged Bay. The funeral was set for Monday.
In the sunlit kitchen, Grace held three post-its in front of her: blue, pink, green. She shuffled through them like a deck of cards. Cardiac arrhythmia. Sudden cardiac arrest. Death ischemic heart condition. She’d found these words on a website describing the symptoms of a cocaine overdose. “Which of these sounds better, honey? For the obituary, I mean.” She murmured, laying the post-its side by side on the table as if choosing between fabric swatches for curtains. Dan wanted to grab the small pieces of paper, scribble out Grace’s neatly lettered words, and replace them with: Druggie. Addict. Junkie.
“Whatever you want. It doesn’t matter, ” Dan said. He crossed the kitchen into the living room and started down the steps to the basement, closing the door behind him.
The basement smelled of mildew and laundry detergent. Dan paused on the steps, allowing his eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness of a single dangling bulb. Flats of cheap bottled water were stacked up in a corner. Waist-high Rubbermaid containers stood next to them, neatly labeled: Dan, Grace, Alli. Dan popped open a lid and checked inside. Each container held a hand-cranked transistor radio, a high-powered flashlight, a portable solar charger, a sleeping bag, a lightweight solar blanket, rubber-soled boots, a first-aid kit, foil-wrapped emergency rations, an envelope with $50 in small bills, and a Swiss army knife. It had only taken Dan a few days to set up this corner after hearing news of the Tohoku earthquake in 2011. There had been a sale at the local Wal-Mart, and he’d been able to pick up most of the supplies in a couple of trips. Nothing fancy like they insist on in The Prepper Journal, but then again he wasn’t preparing for doomsday.
Dan rifled through each container and checked the expiration dates, making a mental note to replace the rations in Alli’s box, which were due to expire in a couple of months. Otherwise everything was in order. He started back up the stairs. But he paused midway up, distracted by what he would say to Grace—Cardiac arrhythmia sounded best, don’t mention Sacramento—then turned again to face the containers. They stood in a neat row, silently protecting their goods.
Dan suddenly rushed down the stairs and with an “Arrh!” began kicking at the container labeled Alli. He tore off its lid, kicked it over, and stomped on it until the pebbly plastic began to warp, crack, and finally break. He smashed the transistor radio against the concrete wall, showering the ground with little pieces of shiny red plastic. He found the silver foil packs of rations and jumped on them with both feet, feeling the soft crackers inside of them crumble under his rubber-soled shoes before the packs themselves exploded and sent moist crumbs into the dark corners of the room. Finally, he located the Swiss army knife, which had spun across the concrete floor. He grabbed it, lifted a dull curved blade, and began rhythmically stabbing at what was left of the pile, embedding the knife into the debased plastic again and again before the pain from his clenched hand forced him to stop.
“Could you please ask Mr. Dawson to come over,” Grace said. “I have to ask him something.”
They’d arrived at the funeral parlor two hours prior to the service, as requested, and were now staring down at their daughter, who in death had lost the soft lines she’d recently begun gathering at the corners of her eyes and mouth, as if death had taken her character along with her life. Grace leaned in and erased an overdrawn line of lipstick off of her daughter’s lower lip with her right index finger. “You would think,” she said, “that it would be easy to apply lipstick in this kind of light, but they weren’t very careful.”
The florescent light was unsympathetic. It had turned Alli’s skin the pale yellow of lemon rind. Blue half-moons under her eyes showed through the pancake make-up they’d roughly patted over her face. Her thick dark hair, gray roots showing—”Oh! I should’ve brought some mascara to cover her roots!” murmured Grace—was simply brushed back and lay bunched and frizzing upon her shoulders. They’d gotten her part wrong too. It was usually parted on the left, not the right. This new hairline created a cowlick, which had been awkwardly tucked behind one ear. A tuft of coarse hair shot out from her widow’s peak.
“Mr. and Mrs. Martin. Welcome.” A man in a trim black suit was walking towards them, one arm extended. He approached Dan first. “Good to see you again. I trust you are well?”
Dan did not feel well. But he grasped the funeral director’s hand and smiled. “Yes.”
“Mr. Dawson.” Grace didn’t offer her hand. “We spoke about the placement of Alli’s hands the day before yesterday, over the phone. Do you remember?”
“Oh, yes. You requested…ah. Right over left, am I correct? That is typically how we arrange the hands of the deceased.” The smiling man glanced uncertainly into the casket. Alli’s hands were centered over the navy crepe dress that Grace had bought at Nordstrom for the burial. Ridiculously expensive, and not at all Alli’s style, but it had made Grace happy to buy it.
“No. Not right over left. Left over right. Left. Over. Right. As I’d made clear to you over the phone.” Grace leaned down and began rubbing at the back of Alli’s right hand with the damp crumpled tissue that she’d been clutching inside her palm. Her voice rose. “You can’t let people see this hand! It’s dirty.” The rubbing got faster, rougher. “You see the white streaks? How could you people miss that! When they found her she’d gotten cocaine all over—”
In one gesture, Dawson simultaneously signaled to a woman standing off to the side and pulled Grace away from the casket. “Mrs. Martin. I understand, and apologize. I assure you, your daughter was properly washed…” He led her to the refreshment table at the back of the room. “Mary will fix it. Let’s take a breath and have some water over here.”
Grace took the small flowered paper cup and took a sip. She let the cool water moisten her mouth and glide coolly into her throat. The florescent light flickered over her expressionless face. Dan could hear the soft, steady ticking of the black-and-white office clock on the wall. He remembered clocks just like these inside the classrooms of his high school—he used to check the clocks again and again, willing the second hand to reach twelve so he could finally be released from the dread of high school calculus. Grace took another sip, then calmly flung the small paper cup—still mostly full—on Dawson.
They’d gotten through the service okay. Dawson had re-combed his hair and changed—”Please don’t worry, Mr. Martin, I keep an extra suit in my office closet exactly for this kind of thing”—and emceed smoothly, keeping to script and smiling the entire time. Grace had sat in the front row dabbing at her eyes, red lipstick bright on her face.
Dan had smilingly, awkwardly, received embraces from family, friends, acquaintances, and ex-colleagues, even the assistant who he’d had an affair with years ago and had pretty much forgotten about. She had been sixteen years his junior, and he had felt a sense of pride that she was interested in someone as old as him. That was twenty years ago. She was now older than he was at the time, he’d reflected as he drove home to the reception. Her face had gotten puffy in middle age, her waist thick. She had pressed her breasts against him when she’d hugged him, murmured condolences for his loss, saying that she’d always liked Alli. He remembered a birthday gift she’d once bought for Alli, a delicate silver necklace that he’d passed off as his own gift, Grace exclaiming at his uncharacteristic thoughtfulness, Alli smiling awkwardly before stuffing it into her pocket.
Back home, the air inside the house was close with the smell of too many mourners gathered in one place. Figures in dark clothing milled about the kitchen table, crystal glasses in hand, or sat in clumps in the living room eating canapés from silver trays. Dan and Grace had attended their fair share of these receptions in recent years, and in planning this reception Dan was reminded of the zealousness and attention to detail that Grace had exhibited when she had planned Alli’s wedding years ago. She’d stuffed a white-laced binder with magazine clippings from Today’s Bride and West Coast Weddings, framing each image, notating it in her neat hand, then mounting each picture on its own linen-lined cardboard page. Even after Alli’s divorce, Grace had kept the binder prominently displayed on their coffee table. “It’s full of great ideas for the next time, honey. Honestly—it wasn’t the wedding that was the problem. It was a perfect day,” she’d say to Alli’s protests whenever Alli came over until the binder became another topic they’d learned to ignore, even as they sat on the sofa and looked over it at each other.
Grace was gathering everyone in the living room now. She was a dark silhouette against the large picture window that looked out onto the boardwalk. Dan spotted his ex-lover in the back of the crowd and joined her. She placed a soft hand on his back.
“Thank you for joining us today,” Grace began. “We are so grateful for your love and support these past few days. As you can imagine, it has been a very difficult time—”
The glass pane behind her shattered with a shriek, and Grace instinctively fell to the floor, folding her face into her hands. Small cubes of glass crashed against the pair of ceramic lamps on the console, plinking musically like a player piano. A high-pitched whizz. A second bullet flew through the broken window, ricocheted off of the ceiling, and found its landing in the sofa cushion. A small black ring of fabric sizzled in the striped chintz. Dan pushed through the chaos and found Grace crouched the living room rug, her face stricken.
“Honey. Are you all right?” He shook her shoulders a little.
“I don’t know, dear. I’m…fine.” Grace lifted her pale face. “What happened?”
Dan looked around the room. “I don’t know what happened.”
Police sirens rang in the distance, becoming more insistent as they came closer to the cottage. Most of the mourners had crowded into the kitchen, the farthest room from the living room window. Some were still crouched down on the floor, afraid to move. Dan crawled through the broken glass and carefully popped his head over the windowsill. A small crowd was gathering around a body on the boardwalk, some of the bystanders taking photos with their phones. The body was motionless. Dark blood leaked out from somewhere underneath its shoulder, and a few people stepped back to avoid its steady red path.
There was a sharp knock on the front door. Dan started and turned around, but Grace was still in the same position on the floor, head in her hands. He got up and opened the door.
“Santa Cruz police.” The uniformed man held up a badge. “There’s been a shooting outside, and the suspect is at large. We’d like to secure your perimeter.”
He glanced into the room, taking in the trays of drinks and food, the shocked mourners dressed in black. “Is there a party going on? Sir, how many guests do you have? Are they all accounted for? What happened to the window?” He muttered something into a black walkie-talkie mounted on his shoulder. “Sir. We’d like to conduct a walk-through. Please keep everybody inside. Stay calm. Nobody move.”
The UPS man dropped a large cardboard box on the doormat, knocked half-heartedly, and walked away. Dan opened the door and shouted “thanks” to his retreating back. Setting the box on the kitchen table, he cut through the shiny packing tape with a box cutter. He knew what he’d find inside. A SAS Crusher Tactical Crossbow with a precision Riser and Cam, an extra sheaf of carbon fiber arrows, and a wall-mounted silicone practice mat. All highly rated by The Prepper Journal.
They’d caught the suspect a few months after the reception. Gang-related, according to the papers. Revenge for another life taken. Just another entry in the ledger. A twisted accounting. Human life as currency. On and on it goes. A wrong committed. A wrong given in return. No one safe from the cycle of reprisal and revenge. Dan took out the crossbow and weighed it in one hand.
He set up the practice target on the far wall in the basement. He had to move some boxes and rearrange the Rubbermaid containers so that he could stand as far from the target as possible, approximating the distance from the house to the boardwalk. His first arrow hit the concrete wall with a dull thud and fell onto the dusty floor, leaving a depression in the wall like a shaving nick in skin. Dan picked up the same arrow and shot again. He wanted to work on his aim and didn’t want to dull the other arrows. Those were for real targets.
That night after dinner, Dan went upstairs to the master bedroom. The celebrants were gathered on the boardwalk as usual, some even unknowingly standing on the spot where the man had been killed. The sky was clear and the sunset shone with its usual orange glow. The celebrants hugged and smiled for their photos, and Dan was reminded of the sense of serenity he used to feel while watching this very scene. For a moment he forgot about himself, and it felt as if what had happened was a parallel life, and that he’d returned to his own safe trajectory. But it had, and he hadn’t, and so he pulled his armchair towards the window. It took him a couple of tries to get it to the right spot—far enough from the window that he wouldn’t be spotted, close enough that he could clearly see the boardwalk.
Dan settled into the armchair, putting a cushion behind his back for support. Reaching toward the floor next to him, he grabbed the crossbow and rested it on the windowsill. He squinted into the sight and slowly swept the crossbow from left to right, marking each celebrant at the center of the thin black crosshairs. Steadying the crossbow with one arm, he felt for the extra arrows to make sure that they were within easy reach. He was ready.