My access card unlocked the door. As I stepped inside, motion detectors turned on banks of fluorescent lights filling the room with near-blinding white light. A blast of refrigerated air caused goose bumps to form on my arms and the nape of my neck. Tiny pulsating blue, green, yellow, and red LED bulbs filled the room signaling the nonstop activity of one thousand computer servers.
The dancing signals reminded me of Mercy Hospital’s biomedical equipment. For months, as I sat in mother’s hospital room I watched them flash their never-ending warnings.
While I never understood the lines on the heart monitor, I knew if the line went flat, doctors and nurses raced trying to save the patient. If they could not resuscitate her, hearts broke. I knew the monitor’s continuous flat line pronounced death. Soon after that proclamation, a doctor with solemn eyes would confirm the machine’s decree. In time, the chaplain followed offering religious comfort in whatever denominational flavor the family preferred.
Breast cancer consumed mother. She wasted away under the machines’ watch care. The lights danced their death ritual. The beeps disturbing her rest until the lines on the heart monitor screen pointed to eternity. Then, she was gone.
“It’s on the second server rack,” said Andrew, the night computer operator. His voice broke my reminiscing. He pointed to my left making sure I knew where our problem child resided.
My thoughts focused on why I hurried to work at two o’clock in the morning. I moved over to the finicky server. I started my diagnosis by connecting the keyboard, mouse, and flat-panel monitor that made up the crash cart as we called it. As I leaned in for a look, I placed my left hand behind my back.
“I found your problem,” I yelled in a voice that boomed over the roar of the servers, switches, and air conditioners.
Scratching the stubble on his chin, Andrew said, “Wha – what was wrong?”
I stood up straight glaring at Andrew. “The server hung up when rebooting. It’s right here on the screen. That’s why we couldn’t access it with a remote connection. My guess is it happened when you restarted it after applying the patches. It’s rebooting now. Yes, it’s starting okay.”
“Oh,” he said.
“Andrew, that’s something you have to find and fix on your own if you want to work here long-term. I should troubleshoot and repair this. You just hook up a crash cart as I did, check the monitor, find the problem and fix it. I’ll check the log files in the morning. Open a Severity 3 problem ticket. Assign it to me. Keep an eye on it, but I don’t expect any problems.”
“Thank you, James. You know I hate to call and wake you up.”
“Idiot,” I thought
“I appreciate it. I would be in a fix without you. Go home. Enjoy the company of your bride,” Andrew said.
I understood. It seemed most of my coworkers were surprised at both my recent marriage and that I wed someone as beautiful and charming as Kat.
“Please give my apology to your Katherine,” he said with an even bigger grin adding a wink.
“I hope the rest of your night is quiet. If you must know, I was just trying to get to sleep – as if it’s any of your business,” I said as I headed for the door.
The servers’ blue, green, yellow, and red lights flashed their goodbyes to me. They reminded me of the conversation Kat, and I had that evening. At first, we were trying to make sense out of life while dreaming of a bright future and long life together. Then I talked about mother’s death while Kat listened. Next, we discussed how the grim reaper had a destiny with everyone. Just before the call, our conversation had shifted to mother’s twin sister Elizabeth.
Aunt Elizabeth became a dedicated vegetarian, runner of marathons and breast cancer activist in the two years between mother’s death and her own malignancy’s diagnosis. Since her tumor’s discovery, she had morphed from athletic and energetic to a bed-ridden skeleton, unable to take care of herself or even control routine bodily functions. The grim reaper was at her door, knocking. I didn’t know how soon the door would open, but I knew it would open.
Before her cancer, Aunt Elizabeth lived an active lifestyle. That changed. A routine self-exam while showering discovered the lump. A mammogram followed. Then the biopsy, the radiation treatments, having a double, radical mastectomy “just to be safe” she had said and now the metastatic breast cancer at only age 47, the death sentence.
My grandparents, Aunt Elizabeth’s parents, were dead. She didn’t have any brothers. My mother, her only sister, had died four years. She had never married. Had no partner and had never had children. I was her only living relative.
After marriage, Kat and I rented the other half of Aunt Elizabeth’s duplex. Kat had become her closest friend and as the daughter, she wished she had. My wife loved her more than she loved her mother, doing what she could to care for her, trying to make her comfortable. Kat was in total denial of my aunt’s condition.
One day Aunt Elizabeth’s physician said the end was near. She had less than three months. The doctor recommended she get her personal affairs in order and immediate hospice care if for nothing more than providing Kat, and I support as we cared for her. She had removed her glasses getting serious when the physician added the hospice could also provide something to mask the ever-increasing pain.
“James,” Aunt Elizabeth said struggling to catch her breath. “The drugs scare me.”
“I understand.” I held her hand looking at the fear in her eyes.
She continued in a breathy, low voice, “No, I’m not sure you do. Those drugs are both evil and good. The masking of pain is their benefit. James, I fear they will destroy my mental faculties. That frightens me more than death. I don’t want to fade into a drug induced stupor where I don’t recognize Kat or you.”
Each morning before work, I checked on Aunt Elizabeth. My routine was taking her a cup of black coffee and bowl of grits for breakfast. She loved grits. She would add sugar and real butter, not that artificial margarine. She also savored her coffee nursing it to last all morning.
Kat’s job permitted her to work from home allowing her to check on our patient every few hours.
One Saturday morning after breakfast when Kat wasn’t there, Aunt Elizabeth had a frank talk with me.
“James,” she said. “I’ve decided to stop all treatments. It’s time to face reality. I am going to die. I want to depart this life with a clear mind. I may wither away as the cancer destroys my body, but I don’t want the long death your mother went through or any hospitals.”
I looked at Aunt Elizabeth. Her words were heading where I wasn’t expecting. “Go on,” I heard my voice say.
“I’m not afraid of dying. We all have to face it. I’m going to embrace death. I’ve decided to go to heaven in the next few days,” she said.
I watched her facial expressions as she next shared how her faith would sustain her through the passage from this life to the next. I smiled as she even shared her Christian faith trying to make sure I would join her and mother one day in heaven. I tried not being too annoyed as she pressed me for a reply, not to her evangelization of me, but that I assist in her suicide.
I remembered mother’s suffering. I wanted better for Aunt Elizabeth.
“James, I can’t do this by myself. I don’t have the means to get the required medication to put me to sleep … permanent like. You must help.”
I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth as I replied, “Yes, I’ll help.” I could not believe I gave such a cavalier answer.
At work that morning, all I could do is think about what I had agreed to do. I knew it was the right decision, but I had agreed to kill Aunt Elizabeth. I took the afternoon off as I was face to face with an ethical dilemma. I had agreed to help Aunt Elizabeth commit suicide.
I hadn’t drunk since I was in the army, but that day I downed my first liquor in over five years. I drank and drank, as the finality of the decision I made became reality. The bartender had to call Kat to come rescue me from myself.
“What the devil are you doing drinking?” asked Kat as she sat down on the stool beside me. Irritation was in her voice and on her face.
I looked up with a sheepish grin on my face.
“Hello, my love,” I said.
“Don’t you hello my love me. Why are you drinking? Dammit, you know you can’t handle alcohol.”
“Hello, my love. You look beautiful when you are mad. Work, yes, work, that’s why, and Aunt Elizabeth and the economy,” I replied.
I knew Kat would never agree to my decision. I could never broach the subject with her. She hadn’t been around to see mother’s suffering. She didn’t fathom how much worse it would get. She was too noble and virtuous for assisting in a suicide.
“How could you!” was her last comment as she helped me to the car.
I smiled a broad grin showing my teeth.
She glared at me before driving us home in icy silence.
I decided to have a good-bye tour for Aunt Elizabeth. Over the next few days, I invited her friends to pay their last respects in person. The visits helped keep a smile on my aunt’s face. She seemed to have found new strength from her guests.
Two days later, she asked, “James, have you figured out how to do it yet? I’d like to die this Sunday.”
I looked out the window staring, thinking and didn’t reply.
She interrupted my thoughts. She said, “I figured it out. We can borrow some extra pain pills when the hospice nurse isn’t looking.”
“What? We can’t do that.”
“Honey, I remembered the nurse mentioning I was on the largest dosage of the pain pills. She said not to take too many. That would bring the end faster than we wanted. I recall she said only five or six of the pills would kill a person. We only have to skip one pill a day to have five saved by the weekend. I already have four stashed.” She reached under her pillow collecting her supply in her hand then slowly moved her clenched fist in my direction. As the hand drew closer, her fist opened showing four pills resting in the palm of her hand.
I turned toward my aunt. I rubbed my center of my forehead with the tips of my fingers. After a deep breath, I said, “Sunday, we’ll do it Sunday morning. I’ll grind up the pills and mix them with your grits. We can pray, watch your television preacher and then you can enjoy your grits.”
“Yes and have Katherine bath me Saturday night,” instructed Aunt Elizabeth. “I have a new nightgown in my dresser. I want to wear it. Make sure you call Brenda and Jennifer from my Bible study class. Brenda can do my hair. Jennifer can do my nails. Did you know they own The Magic Mirror? I use that beauty shop. I must look my best to greet Saint Peter when I arrive at the Pearly Gates. First impressions are important. Have them come Saturday afternoon, say 2 PM and please tell them, I will be forever grateful.”
I had to turn away, look at the floor. I was choking up, about to cry.
Get a hold of yourself. Death is her choice. Looking up from the floor, I said, “I’ll call them. Yes, I knew that was their business.”
“James. I’m ready,” she said. The fear disappeared from her eyes.
I nodded. Nothing more was said. I made the requested arrangements. Saturday went well. Kat asked no questions. She bathed her and changed her into a new gown. Brenda did her hair where she looked like she was ready for the country club black-tie dance. Jennifer manicured and painted her nails.
Saturday night I went to bed thinking about Sunday morning’s plans.
“What’s wrong?” asked Kat.
“Nothing,” I lied.
“Aren’t we going to make love?”
I smiled. “Darling, I’m just too tired. Work has me pretty stressed out. Besides, you know I’m on-call. The servers have been finicky, as Andrew has done software patching again. This weekend is the production Linux servers.”
“Well, okay, but don’t let this become a habit,” she said. She kissed my forehead.
My statement about the servers was true. The stress I faced was accepting the fact I would be Aunt Elizabeth’s executioner in but a few hours, and I would be her executioner.
Kat was right; I had never turned down sex before in my life. One of the things I like about Kat was she was one of the few women I ever knew who liked sex as much as I did, but not tonight.
Sleep was hard to come as my thoughts focused on Aunt Elizabeth. Sometimes I saw mother’s face. Around one o’clock, I fell asleep.
At two in the morning, I awoke to a text then a phone call that the production Linux servers didn’t like the new patches Andrew applied tonight. My going into the office would make sure the jobs scheduled for five o’clock A.M. ran on their appointed timetable.
I told Kat what was up and hurried to the data center.
When I returned home just before seven A.M., all was quiet. I thought of my commitment to Aunt Elizabeth. I went into the kitchen and started cooking a big pot of grits. I took the pills and crushed them in a cup. I used the handle of a knife for the pestle and ground them into a fine powder. With care, I stirred the medicine into the pot of grits. I was afraid of not using enough meds to do the job, so I ground up all the pills.
Another text from Andrew came in interrupting my cooking, and my work phone started ringing before I finished reading the message. The data center again required my attention. A Linux Server wasn’t restarting. It hosted the critical database. A reboot of the server failed to correct the issue. If I didn’t get there and get it repaired fast, the weekly Sunday only jobs wouldn’t start on time. Therefore, they would fail to finish running today. There would be the heck to pay Monday morning if the jobs failed to complete. I could see my director’s red face and hear his booming bass voice yelling at me if he had to explain to the VP why the jobs didn’t finish. I physically shook just thinking about the situation.
I turned off the burner heating the grits. I removed the pot from the burner.
“Who called?” asked Kat. She stood in the kitchen door leaning against the door frame.
I filled her in on the impending disaster at work.
“Don’t touch the grits. I’ll take Aunt Elizabeth her breakfast when I return. I promised her I would spend time with her this morning. You could go into the data center with me,” I said with a wink.
“No way am I going to that freezing, noisy place. Besides, I am not going to let that pervert Andrew rape me with his eyes. Good luck. I’m going back to bed,” said Kat.
At the data center, the tiny pulsating blue, green, yellow, and red lights greeted me signaling the nonstop activity of one thousand computer servers. Again, the dancing lights had me thinking of our hospital’s biomedical equipment. One hour later, the issue solved, and I arrived back at the duplex. I had averted another potential crisis.
“Kat, I back,” I said as I opened the door to the duplex.
There was no answer.
I glanced in the bedroom. The bed was empty. Kat wasn’t there. I noticed the stove top. Gone was the pot of grits. I felt sick to my stomach as I made my way next door.
I could hear the TV preacher delivering his sermon as I entered Aunt Elizabeth’s side of the duplex. A faint, distant hissing sound produced a white noise in the background. I saw the pot of grits was sitting on the kitchen counter. My aunt’s face came into view. She had a blank stare with tear stains visible on her cheeks. A bowl with a spoon in it sat on her nightstand.
On the dark mahogany end table, next to the recliner was a second bowl. Kat sat slumped in the recliner, eyes wide open, her countenance showing the shock of her unexpected face-to-face meeting with death’s grim reaper. She looked more mad than peaceful.
“Kat?” I said.
Turning toward me, she stood and screamed, “How could you? How could you?”
“How could I what?”
Two uniformed police officers stepped out of Aunt Elizabeth’s second bedroom. The shorter one said, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense.”
I looked at Aunt Elizabeth. I saw tears again streaming down her cheeks.
“James, Kat said the grits smelled funny. I told her why they smelled to keep her from eating them.”
“How could you?” screamed Kat a second time. She reached for me with her hands trying to choke me.
I sidestepped her attack.
“When I told her why,” added Aunt Elizabeth, “she freaked out and called the police.”
“Yes, I did,” said Kat.
“The police said I am unable to make my competent decisions. James, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause you any trouble,” said Aunt Elizabeth.
The taller police officer said, “Let’s go sir. You are under arrest for attempted murder by poisoning.”
Beep, beep, beep blared the alarm.
“What the?” said the shorter officer.
We all looked toward the kitchen. The sound was coming from that direction.
“It must be the smoke alarm,” said the second officer. “I don’t smell any smoke. I’ll turn it off.”
“It’s in the kitchen,” said Kat.
“Ha.” A sinister, psychotic grin appeared on Aunt Elizabeth’s face as she showed them a Bic® lighter held in her right hand. “You’ll give me my bowl of grits or I’ll flick my Bic®.”
The relentless beeping of the alarm continued.
“My god, that’s not a smoke detector, that’s a natural gas detector,” said the shorter officer. “She’s filled the house with natural gas.”
I saw she had used some of her last strength and opened the old gas jet at the head of her bed.
“Give me my grits, then stand back, or you all join me meeting our maker now!” she screamed.
She held the Bic® out with her thumb primed, ready to ignite the lighter.
“Give me my Grits! You’re too slow!”
“Saint Peter, the last thing I remember was seeing Aunt Elizabeth. She flicked her Bic®. Then there was an immediate flash of light, explosion, ball of fire engulfing me, and then suddenly I’m standing in front of you telling my story,” I said.
Written by: Jimmie Aaron Kepler