By Mark Cote

Charlie stood on the sidewalk towards the end of the line. At 55 he looked older than is years having gone almost completely bald in his mid forties. Soon what was left was gray and white, and, coupled with his ever- expanding beer belly one could easily mistake him for a gentleman in is sixties. He would have been there sooner if it hadn’t been for his wife’s nagging him about being late. She had been doing that a lot lately, more so than usual. It began when he walked through the door from work and ended only when he turned out the light and pretended to be asleep, she still nagging in the dark of their bedroom about how he never listened to her anymore. He could hear her in his dreams, which caused him to toss and turn restlessly in the bed, which caused her to nag him even more.

“Next! Come on step up. Death or dying”? “Dying. Death is too final”.

“Door number two then. Move along”. “Next! Death or dying”?

“Not quite sure. Are there any other choices”? “One or the other. Make a decision”.

“Dying then. I need more time to think”. “Door number two then. Move along”. “Next”!

The line continued out the door, down the sidewalk and around the block. They had begun lining up at dawn; appointment cards indicating date and time to appear at the Department of Future Self-Determination. Once a year everyone between the ages of eighteen and fifty had to report and state their preference. Those fifty and older had to report every six months, children were exempt. The agency had been set up in response to the governments outlawing of suicide at the conference for population control held in New York City. An increase in the suicide rate had forced the new legislation in order to create a fee for service structure at the time of earthly departure. Suicide provided a free way out and therefore was frowned upon by the elected elite. Natural death or death by accidental cause remained on the no charge list. So far the results had been as expected; lots of undecided and a few who were ready to embrace the inevitable.

Those who opted to delay were given another appointment card stating date and time to re-appear and sent to door number two, an exit to the street and liberty for another year or six months, depending on their age. Those who chose death were guided down the hall to door number one where they were given a form to fill out and sign away their right to change their mind before entering. The office remained open until the line was gone for the day. At closing the numbers were tallied and filed, names of those who chose death were removed from the roster and the next day’s list printed and placed at the ready for when the doors opened at seven o’clock.

“You’re going to be late Charlie. Don’t forget that when you get back I have a hair appointment at eleven. And I promised the girls that you would take us to lunch at that new diner downtown so make sure to stop and get the car washed. Hurry now or you’ll not get a good place in line and you will be there all day, ruining my plans”!

Wouldn’t want to ruin your plans” Charlie said aloud sarcastically as he backed the car out of the driveway. God forbid she didn’t get her way he snickered, secretly wanting to see the look on her face if indeed he did get stuck there all day, a slight smile curling his lips. At least he wouldn’t have to listen to her until her got home. He had been keeping these appointments since his senior year in high school. They had simply become part of life, not a big deal, more of a nuisance than anything. He had had a few friends from school die tragically, one from colon cancer and the other in a motorcycle accident. Both his parents had passed from natural causes and his siblings were all still alive. The only stories he had heard about folks taking door number one were about strangers from second hand sources. He often wondered if anyone really took the opportunity to check out or if the whole thing was a merely a ruse by the government in order to keep tabs on everyone. Nothing would surprise Charlie.

Lost in thought, Charlie hadn’t really been paying attention. Before he realized it he was three away from the door, close enough to hear the responses to the familiar question.

“Death or dying”?

“Dying please. Still lots to do”.

“Door number two then. Move along”. “Next! Death or dying”?

“Dying please, anniversary next week”. “Door number two then. Move along”. “Next! You now, come along”.

The man was looking at him. Charlie froze, sweat running down his neck. He saw the man’s lips moving but the only sound he could hear was the sound of his wife’s voice.

“Don’t be late Charlie, you’ll ruin my plans”!

“Next” the man repeated, tugging Charlie by the shoulder. “What’ll it be, death or dying”?

Charlie stepped forward, and, looking the man in the eye muttered one word. Back home he knew his wife sat staring at the clock.