The lock was the tricky part.
But now, years later, the set he’d bought off the internet in high school paid off–in those days it was still dial-up. He placed a third pick in the keyhole, jiggled it and felt it click. Reaching forward, he turned the knob and opened the wood panel.
Everything led up to this moment he told himself. Everything.
Because life isn’t a fairytale, a trophy case of accomplishments, or a bucket list. Those are just stories people tell themselves. Reasons it was worth it.
But by now he knew better.
He knew that life was simply a long series of moments strung together, moments that made up a road one was destined to follow. “That’s all life is,” he said aloud, opening the plastic foam-lined case to remove the 9 mm pistol his father had bought him for target practice years ago. Just a series of moments wavering somewhere between terror and ecstasy—and as he said the last word a shudder ran through him.
He’d done that before. Ecstasy. The nights he’d taken it were glorious romps—sensual experiences impossibly beautiful and full of meaning, but coming down felt like someone was punching holes through your brain with a piece of rebar.
Wait? Hadn’t that happened before?
His thoughts wandered. The three vicodin he’d taken an hour earlier made it difficult to gather everything together. And then it came to him: the guy. In high school—psychology—they’d learned about a railroad worker or miner or something who’d had a piece of rebar shot through his skull. On accident. The crazy part was that he survived even though his frontal lobe was destroyed. After, he lost all motivation, the ability to plan. That was how they came up with the lobotomy.
Everything led up to this moment. Everything.
He made sure the gun was loaded, then stood up and grabbed a jacket from the garage, fitting an old black military beanie over his close-cropped skull of black hair. Walking through the kitchen, he pulled open the sliding glass door and stepped onto the patio.
Mild spring sunlight and the smell of grass and trees hit him, and something told him he should savor this. That this was important.
He remembered simple things: lying on the grass with his friends on summer nights, looking up at the stars, imagining what was possible with their fragile lives. He had so many dreams then. So many choices. And at the time he remembered thinking that whatever he became it would be great. Unordinary. Full of meaning. They’d been raised on heroes and everyone grew up expecting that one day, they’d get to play they’re own.
Almost impossible not to–what most people believe. Until. Until…
Until they become so ordinary it’s impossible to excuse it as anything else. Until they find themselves trapped in a meaningless job, salary consumed by rent and student loans and child support and credit card debt and whatever else resulted from a failed marriage. Until they realize that this will be their legacy. Not greatness. Not transcendence or beauty or passion or novelty—but working so they could pay to live, day by day, week by week, month by month. Meaningless. More comfortable than previous generations, but no more a player in the great acts of human history than serfs or slaves had been in bygone eras—lives too that would be lost in the shuffle of billions that had lived and died before them. Utterly meaningless. No more than ants incinerated by a four-year-old who discovers what he can do with sunlight and a magnifying glass.
For a moment he sat down on one of the wooden benches outside to think.
He’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant—idiot—and the families, being good Christians, solved it the only way they knew how. But his wife turned out to be as crazy as his friends told him she was and marriage wasn’t going to change that. Everything was inevitable. He remembered the screaming fits, the drunken fights, the lying, hiding, controlling, manipulation. After their first child she stopped sleeping with him—wouldn’t use or accept protection. Wanted to get pregnant again, something he knew they couldn’t afford. But in a moment of weakness… well, what could he say? The seed was strong.
And he loved his children. He was a good father. That part was beautiful. It was something people without kids would never understand. Couldn’t. That even if they were inconvenient and difficult—even if you never got a full night’s sleep again for the rest of your life, even if your back hurt and your hair turned gray and the stress gave you migraines—no decent human being would ever wish his children away. That in some ways, watching his little girl take a bath—playing with her; pretending to eat the pancakes she made for him on the pots she stacked in the lukewarm water—were among the best moments of his life. The most honest and pure.
But the marriage wilted and in its wake he was given what most men get following divorce: every other weekend, child support, a healthy dose of crippling debt.
He was spiraling now. Focus on the moment he told himself.
Everything led up to this. Everything.
He walked across the lawn, heading for a path that wound down the hill into the woods. The pistol bulged against his hip as he walked and instinctually he put his hand up to push away the trailing leaves from overhanging branches that brushed his face. He wanted to stay in the present, to focus on the mild, earthy air, his lungs drawing in and exhaling, the feel of his feet in socks and sneakers—but making his way, he couldn’t hold back the memories. The joy.
Those beautiful afternoons in college, jamming on his guitar, stopping every so often to adjust the distortion or take a hit off Jay’s bong. Then, thoroughly stoned, they’d spill out into the backyard to smoke tobacco pipes, ponder the nature of God, argue theology—but mostly talking about women. Making plans.
Playing poker in that ratty Chinese restaurant because they kept the bar open until two am. At first they snuck the chips in under his massive duster, but once the bartender knew they’d have a bunch of drinks and several orders of Kung Pao Chicken and Lo Mein, she’d said, “just bring the fucking case in—only if the cops or OLCC shows up, I don’t know a goddamn thing.”
Driving around trying to hit on girls at 24-hour coffee shops, inevitably winding up at the Top of the World—which was really just the tallest hill nearby—watching the city lights. The massive electric towers in the west hills with their bright red blinking lights, artificial and beautiful. They looked on while the world slept, lapsing into silence, tired and stoned, watching those flashing red towers, or turning east to peer across the river and the blanket of yellow city street lights that finally collapsed in the distance at the foot of the Cascades.
It was then it came home.
His mother’s embrace. The way she’d make him whatever he wanted to eat even though he’d never finish, curling up on the couch to watch movies. He knew she’d do anything for him. That even now, as a grown man, she’d do anything for him.
His father. Baba. What a good man he was. How he’d scoop him up in his arms as a child, tell him that he loved him so much, the faint smell of aftershave in the roughness of his beard as it touched his skin.
And what would his sister say?
Don’t do this. She was so fragile and beautiful. But so strong. So strong. Don’t do this she’d say. And then she’d grab him around the torso, trapping his arms to his sides and lay her head on his chest. Don’t do this. Please. I love you.
But it was too late now.
Everything led up to this. Everything.
And he couldn’t go back.
What would he go back to anyway? Trying to sell people shit they didn’t need? Hustling phones and making sales calls? Going to meaningless meetings so some rich fuck could hear the sound of his own voice? Dating women who treated him like a leper once they found out he was divorced and had kids? Lying in bed at night, wracked with guilt because he missed his children, tossing and turning, wondering just how in the hell he was ever going to pay off his debt—how he could even survive? And in between, searching for the next high, the next drug to numb the pain, to make him forget—the next grand experience with friends that were rapidly ebbing away into nothing as they became entangled in their own affairs.
No. He couldn’t go back. Life was just a long series of moments strung together, moments that made up a road one was destined to follow. For some, the road led to riches and glory. The wife and kids. The two story house. The white picket fence. The luxury sports cars and European vacations and wine collection and all the rest of the staged suburban success stories everyone felt the need to plaster all over their fucking Instagram feeds.
For others: debt, addiction, misery.
But what he understood now, what so few wanted to admit, was that the road wasn’t something you could control. That the concept of free will was a lie. Sure: you could make certain choices along the way, but chance, luck, and human desire had a say too, including the forks where decisions were possible. What about the kids born to an alcoholic father—the kids whose moms took crack during their pregnancy—the kids who had to dumpster dive to find food at night? What chance did they really have anyway against all these white suburban babies raised in curated nurseries with whole families and more books in their first six months than most adults own in their entire lives? And even then, who could say where they’d go? All anyone could do was follow their path, trees and bushes on either side, forest canopy overhead; a tunnel of shade and filtered sunlight as his feet beat the soft dirt.
Of course, you can’t tell people that—not the successful ones anyway. They want the credit. The honor. They want to lord their riches over everyone else, to believe it was all purely due to their own talent, a work ethic or great idea that triumphed over others.
But that was bullshit. Because he’d been a good student—one of the best in high school, a 4.0 in honors classes when he walked across the stage to receive his diploma. And he’d graduated from an excellent university, gotten a good job at a bank; hell, he eventually became branch manager and served a term as president of the goddamn Canby Chamber of Commerce.
But the outside world had a say too. Things he could never control. The interest rates on his student loans and credit cards. The emotional state of his ex-wife. The competency of his lawyer. The decisions of the black robed judge who’d sentenced him to life as a pauper, a slave to money, divorced not only from his wife but also his children. The cold hearted bastard may not have known it then, but he may as well have sentenced him to death.
Maybe he had?
And yet, it was all legal, above board… just.
At least: according to most.
His feet stopped at the edge of the bluff where the path ended. Below, the leaves of massive oaks fluttered, but the air here felt still.
Everything led up to this. Everything.
Some people—even after—would blame God.
But he didn’t.
God had nothing to do with it. God—if He existed—didn’t care. That was the true lesson of Adam and Eve. Because given the choice between blissful ignorance and knowledge, human beings will always choose the latter. Indeed, it’s not even really a choice.
And knowledge is good.
But it is also evil.
No, nothing that had happened to him was God’s fault. It was his own—as well as others. The choices he made combined with the incalculable infinity of choices others had made from the beginning of time; choices that, in the end, manifested in his being here at this place. In this time. The path—the road. Choices that led him to stand on this bluff, now, pistol bulging against his hip. Choices that weren’t really choices. Because he could turn around–that was true–but he wouldn’t. Because that was the simple truth wasn’t it? The illusion of choice. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what was going to come next—he did. But it wasn’t in his power to change it. Hypothetically–yes. But not really.
Everything led up to this. Everything.
And he knew now that no one would fully understand. How could he leave his kids? How could he give up with such supportive, loving parents? How could he do it without reaching out to his friends, his family… someone?
And maybe they were right. Maybe he should go back. Put the 9mm back in its plastic case, lock the cabinet, call Jay or Joe or Mark or…
But the truth was they might not even answer.
And sure: they’d understand. But what could they tell him? None of them were much better off. Jay or Mark would end up divorced; he was sure of that. Maybe both. And Joe? He’d spent his whole life in retreat. He was smart that way.
And what could they tell him anyway? The only thing he could do was go back to work, grinding out each anxious minute of each anxious hour, fifty hours a week, fifty weeks a year—and for what? So he could barely stave off bankruptcy and complete economic disaster? So he could see his kids every other weekend when he wanted to see them everyday? No, the truth was that somehow he wasn’t worth what he owed the world and there was no way out. No choice other than the one he was going to make.
He pulled out the pistol and sat down on the grass.
This was it. The only thing now were the unanswered questions: what was on the other side? What would happen once he crossed over into the void? The white light so many claimed to see? The pearly gates–or some version of red hell? Or would he simply cease to exist, aware of nothing when the blood stopped pumping through his brain to maintain consciousness?
Well, it was time.
Everything led up to this. Everything. And now it was time.
Time to find out if souls were real and immortal or if that was all bullshit made up to avoid the inevitable existential crisis that faces humanity alone—the realization that death is coming, death is coming, death is coming…
In the distance, a single shot echoed off the hillsides of the green valley.
But no one paid it much mind.
It was Oregon City, after all. Just someone doing target practice or hunting squirrels.
The car came down the long alley under a tunnel of tree branches, rolling into the gravel and coming to a stop on the driveway in front of the garage. The passengers got out and made their way to the front door, hauling an assortment of belongings: backpack, briefcase, purses, a bag full of groceries.
They called for him, but he didn’t answer—which was common. Probably sleeping or playing video games or reading. But when the man went into the study and noticed the open cabinet, he saw the open case. Saw that the gun was gone.
He crossed through the living room and opened the sliding glass door. Please God, he heard himself whisper. Please. He stepped across the patio and onto the grass. He could see the trail disappearing down the hill. “Please God,” he said aloud.
And then a blast of spring wind answered, howling up the valley, up the hill, and the wind chimes clamored in the trees, a pattern both foreign and familiar. And in that moment he knew. He turned to get the women… then thought better of it. He paused for a moment, letting out a heavy sigh, and made for the path.
He knew then that life was just a long series of moments strung together, moments that made up a road one was destined to follow. Some led to glory and riches. Some led to misery. Others led somewhere in between.
As the man wound his way down the path, he felt the trailing leaves from overhanging branches brush his face. Everything led up to this moment he thought to himself.