“It’s All Immaterial”—A Short Story
And there it was, the answer he never expected.
Three months to live and nothing can be done. He could start chemotherapy, but as his doctor said: “It may extend your life for a few months, however, it’s going to be miserable. Chemotherapy may just make your last few months unbearable. I’m sorry.”
Silent, he stood inside the small room almost kneeing the doctor on his way up. He nods to the doctor and leaves the room.
He’s paid up. There’s nothing left to say, he thinks. He steps out into the hall and walks down toward the entryway to the lobby.
He could feel eyes on him, lots of eyes.
Was he crying? Possibly. He tends to get the whole leaky eyes thing when he’s upset.
He lowers his head, turning his face away from the wall of waiting patients and bee-lines to the exit.
“Darren!” a voice calls from behind.
He winces and keeps walking.
“Hey, Darren,” the voice calls again, more forceful this time. “Hey, man, wait up.”
There’s a tug at his shoulder and Darren swings around, ready to confront the asshole who didn’t get the brush the first time.
“Jace,” he says, voice breaking over the name. He feels an immediate flood of guilt and sadness and, something else — something he can’t put his finger on.
“Hey, man,” Jace says, shoulder-hugging him briefly. “You okay? You look kinda, I don’t know,” he pauses. “Not great.”
“Thanks,” Darren mutters. “I, uh…it’s been a morning.”
Jace glares at him. “Yeah?” He waits but Darren doesn’t budge. “What are you,” he clears his throat. “What are you doing at the neurologist’s? Everything okay?”
Darren swallows hard. No, I’m dying. I’m not okay. He stares at Jace, hoping he’ll shrug off the silence, wrap up the conversation and leave, but he waits like he’s got nothing better to do.
“I, uh, had some migraines and just wanted to get checked out. Everything’s fine.” The words felt hot in his mouth, he had to get rid of them.
Jace clamps his lips and nods. “Okay,” he says. “Glad that’s all sorted then.”
Jace continues nodding, staring. “All right, well, I should get back in.” He moves toward the office’s front door, but turns his face back and says, “My, uh, my father-in-law is Doctor Tierney. I came a little early to meet him for lunch, something about a surprise for Karen — my wife.”
Darren’s face gets hot, he knows it’s showing, but he waits for Jace to get to his point.
“Well, I’m gonna head back in.” Jace moves toward the office. “Good luck to you, man. It was good seeing you.”
Darren doesn’t say anything. He continues walking before anything else can be said.
He jams his hand into his pocket, scraping his knuckles across the keys. “Dammit!” He grunts.
It sounds like Jace says something, but Darren’s ears start ringing and he chooses to focus on getting into his car.
It unlocks as he nears the driver’s door. He whips it open and slides in.
Darren looks up, inhaling deeply. Had he known going into the office that he only had three months left, he wouldn’t have bothered putting up the goddamn windshield shade.
He lunges for it, ripping it from the dash. The passenger sun visor thuds to a close and the rearview mirror knocks cock-eyed. From the funny angle he catches Jace, still standing outside the office’s front door, watching him.
“Fuck,” he says.
Of course his closest friend from college married the town neurologist’s daughter. Of-fucking-course he did.
Is patient confidentiality even practiced in small towns? Or does his mom know he’s got a death sentence before his foot even hit the parking lot pavement.
Darren sits there. He lets the barreling heat off the dashboard run over him.
He grabs the rearview mirror and angles it to his reflection. His face is prickled with odd red patches he’s never seen before, not too terrible though. More like a bad sunburn he unevenly applied aloe vera to.
His eyes are dry and a bit bloodshot, but he didn’t cry and that’s what he cares about.
“I’m thirty-two,” he says, staring himself down.
The mirror starts shaking so he lets go of it. He takes in a few deep, practiced breaths and stretches out his fingers.
He thinks about Miranda, his ex-girlfriend. He thinks about how she kept trying to manipulate him into a proposal and how, when he’d finally had enough, he told her he wasn’t ready to get married. He wasn’t “the marrying type”, to be exact.
A part of him wishes he could go back and change his mind, change what he said to her. He loves her, he does. But wouldn’t that be worse? Let’s get back together then I croak within six months?
His pocket vibrates.
Let me guess: Mom.
He reaches in and fishes out his iPhone.
“Let me know how your appointment goes. I love you!”
That was it. Drops of sweat bead down his face, a few land on his phone’s screen.
He needs to make a plan. Yes, a plan. He needs to get home and sit down and make lists. Lists of people to phone, things he wants to do before he dies, lists of who-gets-what after he kicks it.
Kicks it. I’m going to “kick it”?
When it’s someone else, these little phrases don’t seem to matter as much. The weight of them jab at his conscience. It’s not clever or funny or even “cute”, as Miranda would call it.
He’s got to keep his shit together. Three months, that’s it. He can keep it together up till the end, he’s sure of it. If he’s falling apart everyone else will too and nothing will get done.
Darren taps the Engine Start button on the dash and the car comes alive in a quiet roar. The air conditioning kicks on, slow to start then blasts him with warm air within seconds.
He’s sweating profusely.
Maybe it wasn’t tears. It was just sweat, he assures himself.
Why do I fucking care?
The air cools and he breaths in deep, embracing this one little happiness. He’s always loved the smell of new-car AC and the way the air, it’s crisp dryness tickles down his throat, warming as it makes it’s way into his lungs.
Focus on the good things, the things that make him happy. That’s what he’s going to do.
He can go out positive or he can go out miserable, just like Doctor Tierney said. Well, something like that.
His phone buzzes again. Well, she knows now, probably.
He looks at the screen and sees a message, stacking onto his mom’s from a un-stored number.
“Hey, it’s Jace. If u ever need to talk I am here 4 u.”
Darren throws his phone into the passenger seat. It bounces off the taut leather and ricochets down into the foot well.
He drops his head back and sighs.
I’ll make lists, he thinks. I’ll do what makes me happy. I’ll…
He looks up into the rearview — no Jace. Good.
He moves his hand to the shifter and pulls it into reverse. The backup camera display pops up on the console screen and Darren carefully starts to reverse, chanting: “This is real, you are going to drive. Things sucks right now but I can’t take other people out with me.”
Focusing on the task at hand, he backs his car out of the space, swings around and shifts into Drive. He forces himself not to look back, to see if Jace is watching him.
He’s pretty sure Doctor Tierney told him.
No. It’s probably just his general suspiciousness seeping through. He’s acting weird, he knows it. Jesus, he’s dying and nothing can be done that’ll actually make a difference.
I should call Miranda.
I should call Mom back…
He shakes the thoughts from his head. After all, this is his life. Maybe the last three months of it can be spent finally doing things for himself and not always thinking about everybody else.
That’s what he’s going to do. He’s going to take that trip to Tahiti, the one Miranda wanted them to go on — probably for their honeymoon.
She’d presented it to him beautifully, romanticizing it, really selling it. But he was so convinced it was just some marriage ploy, some romantic getaway elaborately orchestrated to persuade him to pop the question.
Was she actually manipulative? Was he just being ridiculous? Is it conceit?
She never once pushed him, he just always assumed she was trying to get her way all the time. She’s the one who pursued him. He liked that. He loved that about her, even. He’d never met a woman who went after him like she did, and…
The squawk of a car horn rattles him. Darren shakes from his thoughts and sees he hasn’t moved since backing out of the space.
He holds up his hand in the crooked rearview mirror and takes his foot off the brake, moving it to the gas pedal.
I can do this. I’ve been driving for…for…I hate math.
I can do this with my eyes closed.
He proceeds through the parking lot of the small village-like office plaza. It reminds him of his first apartment, fresh out of high school. That was before he cared about having a Mercedes-Benz he can’t actually afford, or before he cared about material things in general.
Now his fulfillment was his six-hundred dollar leather wallet that nobody cares about but him, his eighteen-hundred square foot, two-bedroom apartment he spends over half his monthly income on.
It doesn’t matter that he has no savings. It doesn’t matter that he would, that he would’ve had to work till the day he dies, buried under debts he’d never be able to pay back.
It doesn’t matter because he has stuff — expensive, nice stuff that other people envy him for.
That’s what matters, what mattered to him.
It mattered up until the moment Doctor Tierney told him he was going to die.
Miranda never knew the truth. Nobody does.
She thought she was dating a well-to-do, responsible guy who just liked to appreciate his girlfriend. But he didn’t, he wasn’t.
Every moment with her was saddled by frustration, and it was his fault. All of it.
It was his problem, his doing, not hers.
What kind of life is this? Should I have been a Christian? Should I have prayed? Should I start now?
Darren swung his car around toward the exit and stopped at the sign.
When he gets home, he’s going to call his mom back — that’s what he’s going to do.
He’s going to tell her everything. He’s going to stop paying for his car and quit his job he only worked for the security of his stuff. He’s going to stop paying his rent and just…
No, he’s going to just go home and leave. He’s going to pack a bag, head to an ATM, empty his twenty-eight hundred dollars out and just go. Anywhere.
He’ll have his cash and the remaining credit on all his cards. That’ll be enough, right?
They can’t take his car if they can’t find it. Oh shit, the GPS. I’ll look up how to disable that. No, I’ll need that to know where I’m going…
Do I care where I’m going? I don’t care. I don’t think I do. It doesn’t matter, I’ll just hit the road.
I’ve always wanted to travel.
He waits for a break in traffic and pulls out behind a slow-moving motorcycle.
That’s what he’s going to do. He’s going to go home, pack, and just go.
He turns on his signal to get into the left lane, peers over his shoulder and drifts. The motorcyclist holds his arm up and follows suit, hurriedly changing lanes ahead of him.
He’ll give it a few days. He’ll call his mom when he’s on the road. He wants to see her, but if he does he knows the trip won’t happen.
She’ll beg him to get the chemo. She believes you can always recover from anything — nothing is ever set in stone.
Darren was young when his father died from lung cancer, but he remembered how his mom kept saying he wasn’t actually gone. She believed he was alive somewhere, and that urn of ashes were just from his beloved barbecue pit he’d cleaned out the morning he “died”.
Later she’d said he was reincarnated, transferred into this guy named Stu she started dating when Darren was seventeen.
I should just go, he thinks, his mind flooding with all the possessive and odd things his mother did throughout his childhood.
“WHAT THE FUCK!” muffles from outside his car.
Darren slams on his brakes. He’s hit, no, he couldn’t have — the motorcyclist is still up. They’re at a stoplight and he's stopped — good. He must’ve bumped him? It felt like the brakes were already depressed..?
“Wake up, asshole!” the man shouts, waving a middle finger back at him.
Darren’s heart pounds.
Maybe a road trip isn’t such a great idea.
He looks up at the red light. He’s not sure how long they’ve been stopped, but he’s stopped, everyone’s fine and that’s what matters.
He needs his phone. He decides to go for it, somewhere up in the foot well of the passenger’s side. He shifts his car into Neutral, to ensure he doesn’t get anywhere near that guy again, and leans over, sliding his hand around the side of the console.
Darren peeks up at the light again, still red. He unbuckles to give himself a little more leverage—he still can’t feel it.
He pushes his left foot just below the speaker on the driver’s side door and leans over the console.
He feels around, there it is, finally making contact with his finger tips.
He grabs the phone.
Darren whips up. He must’ve hit the shifter back into Drive because he’s wedging the motorcyclist between his car and an older model truck in front of him. “Shit! I’m so sorry!” he says, waving defensively as the motorcyclist bails from his bike.
He peers up at the cock-eyed rearview mirror, then down at the shifter to reverse. Darren swallows hard, heart thudding heavily and slowly backs away from the motorcycle who’s rider, shuddering, swoops in to save his bike from hitting the asphalt.
The car behind him honks and Darren’s pulse jumps to his neck and eyeballs. His hands vibrate uncontrollably.
Darren takes in a deep breath, holding it for a moment. He hits the Hazard button on the dash and shifts into Park.
The motorcyclist is yelling incoherently as he drags his bike out from between the two vehicles. The driver of the truck got out of his vehicle at some point.
Darren’s ears are ringing. Although the Mercedes cancels most all sound from the outside, he’s pretty sure he’s temporarily deaf.
He sits there, trying to calm himself. He’s no good to anyone if he can’t function.
There’s a violent rap at the window.
Darren squints hard and focuses on his breathing.
He’ll go home, he’ll call Miranda, no, Mom. He’ll do the chemo.
Someone’s pounding their fist on his window. Darren refuses to open his eyes as his formerly slowing heart rate spikes again.
With a deep breath, he rolls down the window and looks up at the man, the motorcyclist. His face is red and covered in the lines. Darren can’t tell if he’s just really old, rough or angry and scared and, everything, all at the same time.
“I’m sorry,” Darren says. “I just found out I’m dying from an inoperable brain tumor and I have three months to live. I’m sorry, I never should’ve tried to drive myself home. Here.” He pulls the keys from his pocket and offers them to the man.
“Take it. It doesn’t matter anymore. I’m sorry about your bike.”
The man’s mouth is cautiously wide as his face softens. He doesn’t speak.
“Take it. It’ll be repoed in a couple months, I’m sure. But, enjoy.” He shakes the keys and moves them closer to the man.
“Are you serious right now?”
The man grabs the keys, pockets them and steps back.
Darren opens the car door. “I’m sorry,” he blurts out, holding his hand up in the air. He wasn’t sure if he was expecting a crowd, but what he had was the driver of the truck and the leery motorcyclist, backing away further as Darren gets out of the car.
He turns and looks back in for anything he might regret leaving behind. He pats his hands on his pants, there’s the phone, the wallet. “Hey,” he says, looking up at the man. “Could I have the one key, that’s my…”
The man is already detaching Darren's house key from the loop. He tosses it to the ground in front of him. “Sorry,” the man says and shrugs.
Darren furrows his brow. He bends down, grabs his key from the pavement and nods to the men. “Sorry, again.” He turns, checks for traffic and crosses the street behind his, well, the motorcyclist’s car.
He walks up a slight incline of grass off the sidewalk, up to an elevated parking lot and sits on the curb with his back to the street. He straightens his leg and dips into his pocket for his phone.
He peers over his shoulder, back at the men still parked in the street as traffic slowly diverts around them.
The men are loading his motorcycle onto the back of the man’s truck, like they’re friends. Like they had this plan to catch the unknowing, dying guy and manipulate him to…
He sighs, and looks at the two text message previews on his iPhone screen: Mom and Jace.
His calmed heart thuds again and his vision begins to blur. He blinks the tears from his eyes and swipes left on Jace’s text.
He practiced on a stranger he almost killed, now onto an old friend from college. He wants out of his own head.
He wants out.
When he’s ready, his mom can get the refined version. Right now, he just wants a drink with his old drinking buddy from college.
That’s the best he can do right now. There’s three months left still to figure things out, depart on a high note.