The Last Sunset of a Life
by Andrew Binsted
(San Antonio, TX, United States)
Waking from his dreamless slumber, the Old Man thinks to himself, 'Here we go again.'
He rises from the bed and stretches, his bad leg as usual moving a little slower than the rest of his body. He winces as the pain shoots from his upper thigh down to his ankle.
'Damn!' he hisses to himself. 'Why the hell didn't they just cut the thing off and leave it be?'
When the pain passes, he stands, puts on his slippers, left foot first, as usual, and grabs his cane from its customary place in the corner. He then proceeds to the kitchen.
Through the window over the sink, he sees birds flying low over the lake, which is really just a glorified pond, roughly thirty yards across at the widest point, and one-hundred yards long, in the shape of a tear, as if God Himself and all of His angels had found reason to cry.
'And why shouldn't they?' the Old Man thinks, 'the things this world has seen, the things He could have stopped?'
He stops himself as he realizes for the millionth time that nothing will come of senseless complaining. He goes about making his breakfast: toast with butter made from organic milk, free-range scrambled eggs, and, though the doctors had told him countless times not to, black coffee with two spoons of sugar. As usual.
That done, he takes his plate to the cabin porch, to the old rocking chair where he eats most of his meals. The chair creaks and groans in protest as he sits. The sun hasn't yet finished rising, and the mist is still floating over the glassy surface of the water, like an old ghost determined not to leave its haunt. 'Or an old man too stubborn to let go of the past,' he thinks. Somewhere, a dog barks as the world begins to wake up.
Though the cabin has a dining room, complete with table and chairs, he finds it easier to eat outside, where the clear air somehow makes the food taste better. Besides, eating in there brings back memories of her and the meals they shared in that room.
Her. His eyes fill with tears and the coffee turns sour in his mouth as he whispers her name and remembers their time together.
His appetite gone, the Old Man returns to the kitchen to dispose of the remains of his meager breakfast. As he stands at the kitchen sink washing his hands, pain erupts throughout his entire body and his legs give out beneath him.
Collapsing onto the wooden floor, he thinks to himself, 'Is this it?'
The Young Man rolls down the window of his truck, allowing the cool night air to permeate the cab. She does the same on the passenger side. They sit in silence for some time before he says 'You know I love you, right?'
She responds 'Of course. And I love you.'
They talk of the house they?ll have one day, a cabin by a lake, with a window in the kitchen looking towards the water.
Silence prevails once more as they come back to the present, to the harsh reality that he?ll be gone in the morning. He slowly leans over to her and kisses her lips.
'Everything is going to be okay,' he says.
They kiss again, and sit for a while, taking in the situation, occasionally breaking the silence, but mostly just reveling each others company, for who knows when or if they?ll ever have this chance again?
Finally, the time comes when he must take her home, though every part of him is screaming not to, to just stay where they are and be together.
But he must take her, for fear of what her parents might say.
Outside her house, on the porch steps, her standing one step above him to match his height, he tells her again, 'Everything is going to be okay.'
'I know,' she says.
And they kiss again, passionately, their lips pressed hard together as the tears fall down their faces.
Finally, she pulls away and wipes her eyes, but to no avail, and the tears continue to flow.
Sobbing, she chokes out, 'Goodbye.'
'Don't say that,' the Young Man says. 'This isn't permanent. I promise.'
She says, 'I know. I'll wait for you.'
And he walks backwards down the walkway, all the way to the truck, never losing eye contact until he climbs in the truck and begins the drive home, flinging gravel into the night air, as she stands there, tears falling onto the cold ground.
The Old Man drives along in silence, wondering when it is going to happen, and what it will be like. He hopes it will be quick and painless, perhaps in his sleep.
Though he doubts it.
That would be too good for him. He believes he deserves to suffer, deserves to see the blackness coming for him and deserves to be powerless to stop it.
He tried to kill himself once. A few days after the accident, as he has come to call it, though he knows in his heart it was not an accident. He knows that he is entirely to blame.
Knows he must suffer for it.
The Old Man tastes the salty, metallic taste of blood in his mouth, and rolls down the window to spit the red mass into the grass along the road. Cool morning air rushes into the truck, helping to clear his mind of such morbid thoughts.
He pulls into the hospital parking lot and prepares himself for whatever may be coming.
After signing in at the desk, he sits in the shining, sterile examination room and wonders how many other people will sit there, waiting for similar news. To take his mind off that, he begins look go through the various drawers of medical supplies.
He hastily slams shut a drawer of syringes as the door handle turns, and the doctor walks in with a grave look on his face.
It had spread again, this time to his lungs.
The Old Man has two weeks, at the max.
The Young Man pulls up to her house.
He sits for a moment, checking his reflection in the rear-view mirror of the truck. He looks older. His uniform makes him uncomfortable and itchy in the southern heat.
He opens the door of the truck, takes a deep breath, and begins to make his way up the walkway to the door.
Before he reaches the porch, however, the screen door is thrown open and she rushes out, tackling him to the ground and kissing him furiously.
The tears fall down her face.
At dinner that night, her mother comments on how handsome he looks in his uniform, and her father asks him questions about the time he spent overseas, and he responds accordingly, though he never fully takes his eyes off her.
Months pass. There is finally enough money to build the house.
To have a home.
To start a family.
The Old Man decided to spend his remaining days at home, refusing all medications and offers of assistance, saying 'Thanks, but no thanks.'
'I've learned to live with my pain.'
When he arrives at home, the Old Man goes down to the water, climbs in his small canoe and unties it from the dock. The doctors all recommended exercise, and since his bad leg hampered him from walking very far, he had taken up canoeing, which allowed him to exercise his arms and heart while keeping his legs relatively still.
After rowing to the middle of the lake, he puts down the paddle and allows the current to take him wherever it wishes. Laying down, arms folded across his chest, the Old Man remembers the past.
They had been living in the house for almost two years when it happened.
She was pregnant with their first child, and they were on their way to the hospital. She was laughing when it happened.
He had been looking at her, telling her stories about him and some of his friends during the war, when he returned his gaze to the road and saw it.
Another truck tearing down the wrong side of the road, the driver clearly intoxicated.
The Young Man swerved into the other lane, narrowly missing the other vehicle, but lost control of his own.
The truck rolls over onto its side and continues rolling into the trees on the other side of the road.
The Young Man blacks out.
He wakes up in a hospital room, with a stranger standing next to him.
The stranger said that he was a doctor, and that the Young Man had amazingly suffered no injuries, but that they had been unable to save the lives of his wife and unborn child.
The doctor said he was sorry.
They were gone.
Months passed, agonizingly slow and painful. The Young Man had taken to heavy drinking, which would later be the cause for the poison spreading through his body and destroying his life.
One night, the Young Man decides he can no longer live with the pain.
He finds a rope in the shed and proceeds to tie it into a noose, his shoulders heaving as his body rocks with heavy sobs, making it difficult to tie the cumbersome knot. He throws the rope around a branch and climbs the tree.
Slipping the loop around his neck, he prepares to jump.
He steps into nothingness, and his calm quickly turns to pain, and then fear as the rope fails to break his neck and he is faced with the prospect of suffocating.
With his last breath, he calls out her name.
Somehow, as if in answer, the rope snaps, and the Not-So-Young Man falls twenty feet to the ground below, blacking out before he hits.
He wakes up alone and in agony. His leg is snapped apart in two places.
Mustering his remaining strength, he drags himself to the house and calls an ambulance.
He blacks out.
Again, he wakes up in a hospital.
And again, he wakes up without her.
The Old Man is crying for the first time in almost thirty years.
He cries for himself.
He cries for her.
But mostly, he cries for his wasted life.
If only he'd had the courage to start anew. To try to be happy. To take back his life. He would do anything to do it all over again.
But he can't.
He calls out her name, telling her he has seen the errors in his life, telling her he knows what he should have done.
Telling her he knows now that it wasn't his fault.
The Old Man returns to the house as the sun goes down. He fixes himself dinner. Greasy cheeseburgers and golden-brown fried potatoes. No more free-range garbage.
He eats his meal in the dining room.
After rinsing his plate and cleaning the kitchen, the Old Man goes to bed.
Quietly, and without a fuss, just as he would have liked, the Old Man dies.