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Endlessly Every Bitter Thing

“Rejoice,” he said. “It has been three weeks since the last confirmed natural death.”

Amongst the protestors, Dr. Mazanito thought he saw his estranged brother, Carl, holding a sign that said VIOLENCE IS NOT THE ANSWER, which was bizarre—growing up, he’d always considered his brother insane. The first time he’d thought something might be wrong with him, Carl had been quite young at the time, perhaps twelve or thirteen, and Dr. Mazanito visited to tell his mother he’d been accepted into medical school. While he and she caught up, Carl went outside to play with a slingshot he’d recently been given for his birthday, and after about fifteen minutes they heard a bark, followed by a growl, followed by a yelp. Running outside, they found Carl standing over their dog, Jo-Jo, its head caved in after being struck by a slung-shot rock.

Despite not having seen his brother for fifteen years, Dr. Mazanito was almost convinced that this man was him. He and Carl had the same narrow shoulders, the same sucked in cheeks, the same distant look about them, but bars lined the windows and the glass was covered in western Oklahoma dirt. It could’ve just been a stranger, and Dr. Mazanito’s mind could’ve been playing tricks on him, but the resemblance, even at this distance, seemed uncanny. To be sure, he waved, but the man didn’t wave back.

He checked his watch. Only a few minutes left until he needed to join the others. He poured himself another cup of coffee, left enough room for sugar and milk. He hadn’t always taken his coffee this way. Before people had stopped dying, he’d taken it black. He enjoyed the bitter taste, the tingle in his gums as the caffeine soaked into his bloodstream. But as soon as everyone began to realize that sickness, old age, starvation, etc., etc., no longer ended life, he couldn’t take the bitterness any longer. He now had to dilute it with sugar and milk. It had to be creamy and sweet. It was an odd thing to have changed, and it bothered him that this was so. It was like he no longer had the stomach for the sadness of life, only able to digest the sugary and the saccharine.

As he drank, he watched the protestors hiss and spit at the police. They shouted angry chants. 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 - Don’t Murder Any More! Government Sanctioned Apocalypse! Genocide Is Not the Cure! There were about three-dozen or so camped out around the prison. They each looked hungry and sunburned. Baggy clothes hung from their limbs. Dust clung to their faces and arms and legs. Even the man who resembled Carl looked homeless. Despite that, though, their resolve didn’t diminish. He knew that if he walked down there among them, they would, at a moments notice, tear him limb from limb, and he couldn’t help but note the irony: spare the convicts, yet judge, jury, and executioner for whom they deemed guilty.

Once finished with his coffee, he headed toward the medical wing. Waiting for him there was a team of med techs and nurses. They greeted him with perfunctory nods of their heads or a curt “Good morning, doctor,” before resuming their duties. He didn’t know any of them by name. They were all employees of the city or the county, local coroners or EMTs or former hospice workers. That made it all the harder on them. They would have to return to the community. They would have to face their neighbors and explain why they did what they did, that it was all unfortunately necessary.

They were in a secure observation deck that overlooked a large open room. It had been used before as an infirmary, but now the room had been retrofitted into what appeared to be a shower, a grid of showerheads like track lighting above a tiled floor. Dr. Mazanito had to look closely to see that it wasn’t—the floor didn’t curve toward a center drain. A buzzer sounded, and in walked the inmates. They filed in two-by-two, their feet chained to the inmate in front and behind them, their wrists shackled to their waists. Most of them looked confused. They peered around in order to garner clues as to why they’d been summoned from their accustomed routines. Others, though, seemed disinterested. They stared at the inmates’ heads in front of them, occasionally blinking so that their eyes didn’t turn too dry. After they’d each entered the room, the guards exited and locked the door behind them. It was then that the inmates began to look worried. They tugged at their chains so that the inmate in front or behind them jerked forward, causing them to lose their balance. A few shouted out: “Hey!” they said. “Hey! What’s going on here?”

Once the room was confirmed secure, the gas was released through the showerheads. It was clear and odorless and so could not be detected by sensory perception. Instead, Dr. Mazanito had to rely on the affect it had on those who were exposed, sort of like how black holes were first discovered, giant planets spinning around empty, black space. The inmates didn’t gasp or cough or choke to death. Foam didn’t froth at their mouths. They didn’t grasp for their necks or try to run in a fruitless, panicked escape attempt. Rather they began to feel woozy. They swayed to and fro. Their eyes rolled back into their heads. Eventually, they lost consciousness and dropped to the floor. Dr. Mazanito chose this certain cocktail because of this. It was much more humane this way. They didn’t suffer. They didn’t seizure and cry out for someone to save them. Their last moments were instead euphoric. Their last thoughts clouded under an exultant inebriation.

Once each inmate had fallen, Dr. Mazanito ordered the gas to be ventilated, and after the prescribed twenty minutes had passed, he made his way downstairs into the chamber. He’d been anxious to do this since he’d first been told his duties. To be surrounded by so much death, it was macabre. It seemed unnatural. Their eyes had rolled back into their heads and their tongues hung from chapped lips. Their flesh turned an ashen gray from the lack of oxygen. He’d thought he would be overcome with an irrational fear that death was contagious, that if he stayed too long he could catch it like one does the common cold, but that wasn’t the case. Surprisingly, he was calm. But this, for some reason, bothered him even more.

The first body he reached was of a young Hispanic male, probably no older than twenty or twenty-one. His head was shaved, and he had a two-day stubble growing. He was face down, his body turned toward his right so that one shoulder lay on the ground, the other elevated above the tile. His right knee had buckled underneath him, and the inmate behind him had pulled his left leg so that he looked like he was stretching. Dr. Mazanito wondered what he’d done to be convicted. Theft? Kidnapping? Rape? Murder? Whatever it was, it didn’t much matter now. Dr. Mazanito knelt beside the young man, stretched taut his latex gloves, and placed two fingers alongside the carotid artery. Just as he’d expected, there was no pulse.

Realization that people weren’t dying naturally was a gradual thing, first whispered by doctors and politicians and happy, joyous family members. That’s how it was for Dr. Mazanito, anyway. It was a while ago, now, when his mother had taken a turn for the worse. First, she just got forgetful. She would walk into a room, look around confused, unable to remember why she’d entered in the first place. Oftentimes, she confused Dr. Mazanito with his younger brother, Carl, or sometimes his long dead father. She would forget to turn off the oven, and Dr. Mazanito would come over and find the room had turned molten, he pouring sweat as soon as he walked through the door. She forgot the combination to her home security system, and at least once per week he’d get a call from ADT, making sure everything was all right. Finally, when she had started a fire in the kitchen by shoving a fork into a hot toaster, he decided she could no longer take care of herself. Dr. Mazanito sold his childhood home, bequeathed her belongings to himself and his brother and aunts and uncles, and bought her a twin bed and a nice recliner. She took to it gracefully, though, when he told her. Usually a proud woman, she asked simply, “When?”

It was tough to see his mother so feeble. Her hands shook when she fed herself. She dragged her feet when she walked. She had to have help standing or sitting down. She couldn’t bathe herself or hold conversations or cook her own meals. Soon, she became a dependent. It didn’t really sink in that she was dying, though, until the first time he had to clean his own mother’s defecation. When he was finished, she just blinked up at him, completely void of shame or embarrassment, completely unaware of what had just transpired. Not soon thereafter, she’d stopped breathing, and he had to resuscitate her. He took her to the hospital where the doctors kept her comfortable with morphine. They pumped her full of oxygen and told Dr. Mazanito what he’d already known, that it was just a matter of time, it could be tonight or tomorrow or next week or next month, but it wouldn’t be long now. She would soon pass on.

So he made preparations. He put her in hospice and contacted a lawyer, made sure all her affairs were in order. He called Carl and cousins and nephews and nieces. He paid for travel and made funeral arrangements. He did all that he was supposed to do. Afterwards, he waited. They all did. They all came and sat in the hospice lobby, taking turns saying their goodbyes. The kids played board games or surfed the web. He and Carl recounted stories of when Mom had been younger, of how she’d raised them into the men they were. One day passed, then two, then a week. The distant relatives were the first ones to leave. They had jobs and responsibilities and mortgages to get back to. Finally, it was just Dr. Mazanito and Carl that remained. Every morning they checked on her before heading to work, and everyday after they would stop by and eat dinner. It was then that the news first broke. They were eating some microwavable ravioli and sipping glasses of ice water when a breaking news report cut into the broadcast. Pictured was a doctor from the CDC, an older gentleman, weary and tired and mustachioed.

“Rejoice,” he said. “It has been three weeks since the last confirmed natural death.”

Carl cried with joy. He hugged their mom’s comatose body and kept saying Thank you thank you thank you. They took her home and got her comfortable, and they settled into a routine. They fed her and cleaned her and they hoped that she would soon wake up, that she would laugh with them and watch television and on good days go to the park. But it didn’t happen. For three months she just lay there, and Carl, he couldn’t take it anymore; he left one day and never returned.

Dr. Mazanito still had a hard time recognizing the city. It wasn’t that there was a marked difference. It hadn’t happened overnight, and much of it, on its surface, appeared the same. Commerce still occurred. Businesses were open, selling coffee and checking accounts and overpriced corned-beef sandwiches. You had to look a little closer to see the differences: the tense way people carried themselves, mistrustful of their neighbors, peering over their shoulders; elevated prices, $18.50 for a gallon of gas now, up 100% the past two years; the larger population of homeless, finding shade underneath a tree or rest upon a bus bench. Crime had increased. Most of it nonviolent, but vandalism occurred more frequently, spray painted messages foretelling an impending apocalypse. There was more petty theft and drug use and reports of suspicious activity, strangers lurking outside people’s places of business, of their homes.

Dr. Mazanito pulled into a grocery store parking lot. The place, as usual, was packed. Inside, shoppers hustled down aisles, picking up what they could from sparse shelves, $12 gallons of milk and bottled water at $25 a crate. It hadn’t always been like this, but demand had soon outweighed supply, exhausted farmers pinched both by a population no longer dwindling and by the drought that gripped much of the country. There were too many mouths to feed, not enough resources to go around. Dr. Mazanito grabbed what he could: cans of beans and corn, a twelve pack of generic soda, a package of rice, and a pound of hamburger meat. Not a great score, but it would last him through the week.

At the checkout, a weary teenager scanned his items, the machine beeping in a rhythmic monotony. The boy seemed devoid of any emotion or countenance, instead having blended into his landscape. He was a clock on an undusted mantle, a bird feeder bought at a garage sale, now discarded into the garage. He didn’t make eye contact, not when he packaged the items or quoted the total price. When he counted the cash, his fingers moved over the bills in a practiced way, sliding them from one hand to the other with the whisk of thumb and forefinger. His perfunctory “thank you” uttered as a refrain would be, clucked off the tongue bereft of sincerity. Dr. Mazanito couldn’t recall if this was different post-death, if people were generally more distant and cold, or rather if his disappointment just seemed more pronounced. In the end, he figured, the difference didn’t matter much anyway.

Once home, he unpacked and stored the groceries, then he readied a pot and pan for dinner. He browned the hamburger meat and boiled some corn. He seasoned both with salt and pepper and plated them when ready. He’d never been much of a cook, though in the past he’d been one to enjoy good meals. There were a few steakhouses around town that he’d liked to frequent, Red Prime and Cattleman’s and Ranch, especially. He usually ordered prime rib or a rib eye rare, a side of garlic potatoes and asparagus, perhaps some raw horseradish in which to dip his meat. For wine he enjoyed shirahs and malbecs or anything from Mendoza Valley. These restaurants were still open, but reservations had to be made months or even a year prior, and the prices now made it impossible for him to dine there. Besides, they only accepted parties of four or more, and he hadn’t really anyone to invite to dinner.

He took his plate to the guest bedroom where his mother lay in repose, the same place she’d been since he brought her home from the hospice 15 years before, and turned on the television. Used to, he would have left it on for her when he’d left, convinced on some level that she could still perceive the world around her. He’d long stopped doing that, though, not necessarily because she wasn’t cognizant of her surroundings, but because it was just easier now to accept that she would never wake up. So he stopped feeding her. He stopped telling her about his day. He stopped thinking of her as his mother, really. She was now just a shell, wheezing shallow breaths as he watched the nightly news.

When the public learned of the executions, Dr. Mazanito had expected more protests and demonstrations and calls of an impending, providential judgment, but there wasn’t. The public’s reaction was subdued, even rational, really. A public debate ensued. Pundits argued various positions on talk shows, and politicians came down on one side of the issue or the other, but there wasn’t the outcry that Dr. Mazanito had anticipated. Most, it seemed, even supported the initiative, citing that sometimes the necessary was also unfortunate. There were a few, of course, who were adamant in their opposition. They picketed Dr. Mazanito’s office and decried the evils of population control. As he ate lunch, Dr. Mazanito would watch them and wonder who they were and where they came from. He imagined backstories for them, gave them names and ailments and worries and triumphs. There was a redhead he called Sue, and he imagined that she came from a ranching community in the southwest part of the state, cut her activist teeth on protesting the inhumane treatment of cattle at slaughterhouses. Another he named Frank, a Methodist preacher who had lost his flock to disinterest after immortality and a wife to depression, painkillers, and, finally, to a gambler from Reno. Each day Dr. Mazanito would pick a new protestor and fantasize about the conversations they had with their friends, their compatriots, their families. He would conjure fears and hopes and desires and embarrassing, life-altering mistakes. And it was on the fourth or fifth day of doing this that he saw a face he recognized: it was the man he’d seen protesting outside the prison, the one who remarkably appeared like his brother.

Dr. Mazanito tried to give him a new name and story, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it; he just looked too much like Carl. There were differences, of course. His hair was thinner and had turned gray. He seemed shorter, and he slouched more than what he remembered. Most of all, though, he looked thinner, like he hadn’t eaten a solid meal in months. Everyday Dr. Mazanito would find the man in the crowd and try to figure out if this was indeed Carl, fifteen years older, angrier, louder, and indigent. He made up stories about where he was staying now, who he lived with, what he had been doing for so long. Dr. Mazanito imagined he’d joined a cult, was brainwashed, starved himself, and had hitchhiked across the country, searching for an answer to immortality that wasn’t there.

Finally, one day after work, Dr. Mazanito followed him. As soon as dusk settled, the man collected his things—a canteen of water and a canvas satchel he slung over his shoulder. At first, all the protestors moved together. They headed west toward the highway, but there they dispersed into groups of three or four. Some got into cars, some headed south and others north. Some took shelter under an overpass, perhaps home for the night, perhaps home for many nights. The man, though, kept heading west. He passed underneath the highway and walked toward downtown alone.

Despite the changes that had occurred post-death, downtown still bustled with nightlife. There were clubs and bars and restaurants, and, if anything, people partied harder. They drank more and took illicit drugs. They combined cocaine and hashish and uppers and downers and booze. Without the fear of death, people cared less about the repercussions of substance abuse. There was, after all, an infinite amount of time to get clean, to be a better person.

The man ducked into a dive bar, a dank and dark place called the Rooster’s Walk, and grabbed a table near the back. Dr. Mazanito sat at the bar and tried to determine if this man was indeed Carl. He looked like him, sure, but did he share the same idiosyncrasies Carl once had? Did he, for instance, separate his food so it wouldn’t touch? Did he grip his glass with both hands as he drank? Did he demand perfection, the precise temperature, the correct sized portion in a high-pitched, unending tantrum? When they’d been children, their mother would cook rotisserie chicken or macaroni and cheese or a green bean casserole, but no matter what she served, Carl wouldn’t eat it.He would smell it and take one bite, mush around the food in his mouth, and then spit it onto his plate.He would pound the table with balled up fists and demand that their mother cook him something different, something better, and at first, every night, she would protest, but after about an hour of relentless demands, she would concede, tired and defeated, and Carl would eat his second meal with a pleased expression on his face. All the while, Dr. Mazanito would look on in wondrous awe, amazed at his mother’s capitulation, his brother’s persistence.

Soon a waitress came to the table and gave the man a hug, dropped off a plate of French fries and a cheeseburger although he hadn’t ordered. He dipped each fry once, exactly halfway, in a bowl of gravy, ate each one in two equal bites, and cut the cheeseburger into four equal parts, and it all came back to Dr. Mazanito in a rush, how meticulous Carl had been, how he kept everything neat, everything in order, so it was that much easier to make sense of the world, and Dr. Mazanito couldn’t help but get a little excited—it could, after all these years, really be him.

Once he finished eating, the waitress returned and bussed his table. They said a few polite pleasantries before they hugged and the man grabbed his jacket to leave. As he did so, Dr. Mazanito thought the man glanced a wayward eye toward him, perhaps in a moment of recognition, but it was dark in there, and several yards separated them. He laid a few bills on the table before heading toward the exit, and Dr. Mazanito studied his face as he passed by, so close that he was within arm’s reach, and though the man didn’t glance in Dr. Mazanito’s direction, he was positive now—it was Carl.

Dr. Mazanito paid for his drink and followed Carl outside. Night had fallen, and the streets were filled with semi-drunk revelers, cackling and slurring their way to the next bar. Carl crossed the street without looking, and a car screeched to a halt, nearly hitting him. The driver honked the horn and rolled down his window to rebuke Carl, but he’d already entered a nightclub, oblivious, it seemed, to how close he came to dying. Inside, multi-colored laser lights crisscrossed the room. To the left was an elevated sitting area, and below it was the dance floor and bar. Carl was ordering a drink, and Dr. Mazanito took a seat so that he could survey the entire club. Dancers packed in shoulder-to-shoulder, writhing to a deep and monotonous bass beat. It was loud in there, and so hot sweat formed on Dr. Mazanito’s face and neck and shoulders. Soon, his shirt was soaked, and he had difficulty breathing.

Carl drank a shot of clear liquor, then another, and another, and chased this down with a dark, opaque beer. Soon, his head began to bob out of rhythm with the music. He snapped his fingers and bounced without moving his hips. He ordered another beer and downed it in three gulps before heading out onto the dance floor, squeezing his way through the crowd until he was near the center. He raised his arms above his head and twirled with his eyes closed, his face upturned in rapture, and Dr. Mazanito all of a sudden had an urge to join him, to feel the same joy his brother was feeling. The urge was so strong, in fact, he hovered above his chair, ready to shake his brother’s hand and twirl about and laugh for the first time in years, but before he could make his way down there, confetti fell from the ceiling and the crowd erupted in a cheer. Dr. Mazanito lost Carl in the shroud of paper and glitter, and when he caught sight of him again, a young woman was jabbing her finger into Carl’s chest. He had his arms raised and palms outstretched as he tried to back away, but the woman wouldn’t let him leave, pushing him as hard as she could. The woman yelled something, but Dr. Mazanito couldn’t hear it over the blaring music, and Carl responded, pleading his case, it seemed, but she wouldn’t listen, reaching back and slapping Carl across the face. Soon, other dancers noticed the commotion, and a few large guys intervened. They pulled Carl from the woman, lifted him into the air, and slammed him to the ground. The dancers backed away and formed a circle around Carl and the men. They pinned him to the ground as Carl struggled, but he couldn’t move. Bouncers soon made their way to Carl, picked him up, and escorted him toward the exit, all the while Carl screaming something, begging, it seemed, that it was he who had been wronged.

Dr. Mazanito jumped from his seat and tried to get the bouncers’ attention: “Hey!” he said. “Hey. I know that man!” He pushed his way through the tables to cut them off, but he wasn’t quick enough. He stopped at the rail and yelled again, and this time they heard him. They stopped and looked up at Dr. Mazanito, the bouncers annoyed, Carl confused, but then came a look of recognition—Carl did know him!—but they didn’t stop for long, instead dragging his brother out into the street.

Dr. Mazanito pushed his way through the crowd and outside, but Carl was running away down the street. “Wait!” Dr. Mazanito yelled after him, but he didn’t stop, sprinting around the corner. Dr. Mazanito chased after him and turned the corner and tried to yell again, but before he could he was grabbed from the side. Someone grabbed him by his shoulders and jerked him into an alleyway. It was dark, and he couldn’t quite make out his assailant, but it didn’t matter. Every muscle in his body tensed in anticipation of a punch, for hands to grip his throat, for a knife to be jabbed into his chest.

“Why are you following me?” It was Carl. He had Dr. Mazanito by the collar of his shirt, and he pushed him up against the brick wall.

“Carl,” he said. “It’s me. It’s just me.”

“Who in the hell are you?” He pushed Dr. Mazanito hard into the brick, and his head crashed into it. Pain shot through his head and neck and shoulders, and his vision went white.

“Please,” he pleaded. “I just want to talk.”

But Carl wouldn’t listen. He swung and connected on Dr. Mazanito’s jaw, and he went down. When the kicks started, he curled into the fetal position and tried to beg his brother to stop, but he couldn’t get the words out from underneath all the blood and mucous that filled his mouth. When Dr. Mazanito went limp, the barrage stopped, and Carl stood above him breathing heavily.

“Dumb motherfucker,” he said.

Every bone in his body ached, but he managed to roll to his side and open his eyes. Above him stood Carl, shaking now, his fists balled up, ready to pounce if Dr. Mazanito moved. But he didn’t. He just looked up at the man, this shaking, frightened man, and noticed an irregular, pink birthmark that covered the bottom of his chin, a heart-shaped imperfection that Carl never had.

Back home, Dr. Mazanito undressed and stood in front of the mirror. His jaw was swollen and covered in dried blood, and plum-colored bruises pockmarked his ribcage. A tooth felt loose, and he could make out footprints on his back where the man had stomped on him. Every bone in his body ached. His head pounded. His eyes felt like they would sink back into his skull. He jumped in the shower and tried to wash away the pain, the grime that seemed to fill every crevice of his body, but no matter how hard he scrubbed, he never felt clean. Finished, he went to the kitchen, browned some hamburger meat, threw in a little rice and corn, seasoned it with salt and pepper, and took the food into his mother’s room. But he couldn’t eat. Every chew felt like his jaw would break. Soon, he had to stop—the pain was just too great.

He placed the food at the foot of his mother’s bed and watched her for a while. It was difficult even to recognize her anymore. Her hair had all but fallen out, just a few strands knotted atop her head. Her muscles had long deteriorated from atrophy, and her skin had yellowed over the years, resembling an infected wound. Bedsores, in fact, constantly affected her, and he had to pump her full of antibiotics to keep them at bay. He’d struggled with the necessity of it when they’d first become a problem, but soon he couldn’t take the smell anymore, the nauseating stench of pus and blood and exposed human tissue. It was hard to even call her a person anymore. She was just a collection of cells and carbon and water and oxygen that added up to nothing. And it wasn’t fair. Or right. And it was time, he decided, for it to end.

He grabbed a pillow and placed it above her face. He promised himself that if she resisted, that if she struggled underneath his weight, he would stop. When he started, he hoped she would. He hoped and hoped and hoped. But she didn’t. She just lay there until she finally stopped breathing. He thought he would feel something when it was done: grief, remorse, relief even. Instead, though, he was just scared. It wasn’t the act itself that frightened him or what would happen to her as she slipped from this life to the next. Nor was it the possibility of repercussion, of being judged for his crime, of being placed in the same gas chamber he’d designed. It was immortality that scared him, waking up day in and day out, having to swallow endlessly every bitter thing.

Noah Milligan's debut novel, An Elegant Theory, is forthcoming from Central Avenue Publishing in the fall of 2016. His short fiction has appeared in Rathalla Review, MAKE Literary Magazine, Storyscape Literary Journal, Empty Sink Publishing, Santa Clara Review, and elsewhere.