The following is from the novel by Robert McGill A suitable companion for the end of his life. McGill’s writings have appeared in magazines including The Atlantic, Dublin Review, Hazlitt, Y Walrus. He teaches at the University of Toronto. His previous books include two novels, the mysteries Y We once had a country, and two non-fiction books, treacherous imagination Y The war is here.
Regan decided that living wasn’t for her, maybe. There was no Hail Mary or last ditch left, only misery upon misery. Lucinda making her ghost. A stress fracture that she wouldn’t heal. Parents absent without permission. The latest rejection letter from the university was on the kitchen table, at the end of a line of terse and almost identical apologies: large number of applications this year, more excellent candidates than places, please don’t take it personally and do anything we can. I will regret everything. Words to that effect, anyway, as if the admissions officer felt terrible, he wasn’t just feeding copypasta on him. As if things had really, almost worked out.
She spent her days alone in the house. The track team had forgotten her. No one in the store except Paul seemed to care that she was quitting, and she was sick of hearing about him. It had been a lousy job, shoddy hours, a summer job extended to bogus full-time. She was eighteen years old and nothing. Online, she researched flat packs. Half a dozen times, she almost tried. Then came a Sunday when her mother didn’t bother to call. Ten minutes a week to tell Regan about all the hustle and bustle at work had become too much to ask. A proper family would have been finishing dinner together when Regan called the consulate in Auckland, where it was already Monday morning, and she heard her mother’s secretary ask if the situation was urgent.
“It doesn’t matter,” Regan said. You have been a great help.
‘Are you okay?’ the secretary asked, as if she realized at that moment that Regan might not be. When hiring her staff, her mother had once told her, she should choose IQ over empathy. Regan hung up.
She would have called her father, but the treatment center had a policy and she didn’t want to provoke him, so she laced up her running shoes and made a deal with herself. If she could drive a single mile without pain, she wouldn’t order.
Outside, the first ten steps felt like a run was supposed to feel, unhindered, jogging, legs light as milkweed fluff. There was just a little dizziness from skipping lunch. In his mind, he was already a few blocks away, running across the pedestrian bridge to the park, when his foot exploded in its familiar agony. He jumped to a stop, not even out of the dead end. Then he limped back into the house.
That night, with his Special K dinner uneaten, the remains of a sedimented wine bottle in his glass, and the final purchase page flashing on his phone, he felt an urge to see if his parents were somehow up on his bed, magically returned. without telling him. The last rejection letter was still on the table, stuffed back into her envelope. His sneakers lay tossed against each other in the corner. When he’d dumped them there, he hadn’t seen Diapers camped out on the heating vent. Now, he refused to come when she called, when he sobbed apologies, when he rained cat kibble into her bowl from knee-high to maximize noise, then pretended to eat the stuff to make him jealous.
“Mmmm,” she said, getting to her knees. ‘So good.’ The smell of fishmeal turned his stomach and it occurred to him that she was drunk.
On your phone, you agreed to the terms and conditions. The screen froze, no doubt a sign that her mother’s credit card was maxing out, but then the transaction went through. Regan called Toodles over. He didn’t show up. He went down to her mother’s basement office, printed out the statement from the website, scribbled a signature that looked like a crude forgery of his own, and left the sheet on the desk for the police to find. A second later, her kilter came out from under her. Her fall was interrupted by the ground. She crawled up the stairs and almost made it before passing out. When she woke up, she staggered into bed, leaving all the lights in the house on.
The doorbell rang at noon. The night had been real; the buzzer and the hangover were a severe test. She went downstairs determined not to pass out, her brain a blister about to burst.
No one stood at the door or in the driveway. There was only one box on the step, as tall as her waist and slightly wider, made of brown cardboard with no logo or address. It wasn’t right for them to just drop the thing when the website had made such a fuss about the secrecy.
The lack of weight when he lifted the box over the threshold was strange. She placed it in the living room, then went through the house closing blinds and curtains, sealing doors and windows with duct tape. There was no sign of Toodles, and the kibble in his bowl remained untouched. On a hunting trip, probably. It had been many years since his last chickadee had been killed, but venturing outside allowed him to pretend that he still had the chops. Regan went into the hall and closed the latch on the cat flap, feeling guilty for not saying goodbye to her. Now, her last memory of her wouldn’t be the warmth of her stomach as the two of them snuggled together on the couch; they were going to be her shoes, lunging at him with rubbery fury. He would never know that she had just saved his life.
In the living room, she wasn’t ready to face the box yet, so she checked her phone. Paul had left a long voicemail about the power of accepting people’s love that she deleted halfway through. Then he saw that Lucinda had texted him. Her heart skipped a beat, until he realized that all Lucinda had written was ‘Thinking of you’. For some reason, Regan’s first guess was that Lucinda had meant to write “Thinking Tofu.” Which didn’t make much sense.
A knock on the front door, lightly with her knuckles, froze her. Must be the dealer, again. She had done something wrong. She always did. They were going to hurt him. The website had promised routine levels of punishment if the instructions were not followed perfectly. A long silence turned into a longer one, tightening her throat. She then heard the scuff of shoes going down the path. By the time she reached the peephole in the front door, whoever it was had disappeared. The box was still waiting in the living room. Perhaps the blow had been a reminder to get going.
The flaps of the box were covered with layers of duct tape, so he got the bread knife out of the kitchen and cut it along the creases. After opening one end, she tipped the box on its side and reached inside. There have been videos of people doing this, before their relatives took the clips down, when there was a sick vertigo at witnessing people’s ignorance. what was to come he had never managed to see past this point in the procedure: the box opened, the package removed.
It was tubular and wrapped in clear plastic, like a piece of ground beef. What he was holding looked like a rolled up rug, except the rug had a silvery tint and the softness of raw chicken. Also, the near end was not a textile whorl; it was a pair of crushed human feet.
He leaned down to examine her snaking veins, her unvarnished fingernails, the swirling imprints on the tips of her toes like wave patterns in the sand. The feet lay sandwiched between the wrapping on one side and the coiled legs attached to them on the other, their heels deflated, pancake-shaped meat stretching from ankles that had been bent forward at a boneless angle.
Regan fingered the wrapper and felt no heat. She rolled the package across the carpet, inspecting it as she went. Her knees lined up perfectly with each other, the skin there thickly ribbed. Her eyes scanned up along the back of her thighs until she realized what was coming next and blushed. By the time she turned the thing over, her forehead prickled with sweat, but she just found herself back on her feet, curiosity repelled by the tight coil of the scroll.
Now was when things were supposed to begin their end. One cut from the knife and he would only have a few days to live. She thought about calling Lucinda and letting her know, asking her if she still thought of Regan as a survivor who would manage just fine on her own, if she still believed the stress fracture would heal, if she was still so sure a college would write good news.
Across the room, an entire shelf of the built-in bookcase was empty. His father had insisted on bringing too many books to the treatment center. Philosophy books and meditation books and books on sustainable living. Books with titles telling you to take six steps toward self-care, think like a puppy, or unfreeze your inner caveman. Books that promised to change your life. He rarely read them, but he liked to leave them around the house like a squirrel hiding nuts, nervous about future needs.
Regan’s head felt too heavy to hold. She had tried her whole life to be a good person. She hadn’t read all the self-help books either, but she had worked hard to pursue happiness, maybe more than her father had. Other people didn’t need to make as much effort. They made it seem like happiness was an easy night out together, like you could just text “Are you up?” and happiness would come, as if she didn’t slap you when you tried to hold her hand. Didn’t he deserve a bit of that? If not true happiness, at least a few days of induced contentment. Someone to take care of her, to make her feel good in the end, just for being there. It does not matter that everything was chimerical. At this point, she would accept even a chemical miracle.
Of A suitable companion for the end of his life. Copyright © 2022 by Robert McGill. Published with permission from Coach House Books.