I will be turning this into a short film. If you like this story and you know anyone who can help, please feel free to contact me.
Dedicated to my cousin Leo who lost his fight with cancer after 8 years. He died December 9, 2013. He will be missed by his family and friends.
The Exit Interview
"We're sorry Mr. Johnson. There's nothing more we can do. We're going to make sure you're as comfortable as we can make you."
Phil Johnson sat there in his thin hospital gown repeating the lines in his head. He sat chilled from the air conditioning. Hospitals had always smelled like death to him. He couldn't describe the smell, but he knew it well. The smell had filled the room since he had arrived. He never could understand how they had maternity wards in hospitals, but he figured that you had to learn about death someway. Why not spoil such a bad ending in the beginning with that awful stench?
He heard the handle of the room’s door turn and watched the tall man walk in. The man’s eyes were hidden behind black sunglasses. He was dressed in a plain black suit with a black tie, a crisp pressed white collared dress shirt, and polished black shoes, holding a silver briefcase in his right hand. The man sat down in the chair next to the hospital bed, the room’s fluorescent lights reflected off of his clean shaven head. Phil felt like the man had come straight out of a movie.
"Can I help you?" Phil asked.
"Ya' called, didn't ya’?" the stranger said with a drawl. “Well, not you exactly. But someone called for ya’.”
"Yes. I just wasn't sure who to expect,” Phil replied.
"That's the way these things work."
They sat in silence for a moment. The man took off his sunglasses and put them away in his jacket’s left inside pocket. Phil tried to look strong hooked up to the monitors and tubes as he sat up in his bed.
"Well. Should we get started?" the man asked.
"Started with what?"
"The exit interview."
Phil looked confused. "But I gave you the money... You got the money. No?” Phil asked.
"Your money is right ‘ere Mr. Johnson," the man said, patting the briefcase.
"Let me shoot it to ya’ straight. I kill people for a livin’. That's why you called, right?"
"Well... Yeah," Phil replied.
The man leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs.
“Look Mr. Johnson…”
“I prefer Philip or Phil. If you don’t mind,” Phil said.
“Okay there Phil,” the man said. “Let me give it to ya’ straight. I’ve killed many a person.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
“Well, that’s because I only kill the right persons,” the man said. “You see… In my line of work. There are lots of bad people, and I always choose the ones that go.”
“How do you mean?”
The man looked out the windows into the hospital hallways.
“My mama raised me right,” the man said as he turned back to Phil. “We was raised with Jesus and what not. Not all of it stuck. But although I kill people, my mama always said that I needed to do right and I do. Ya’ know?”
Phil stared at the man, his forehead furrowed.
“Look, it’s like this,” the man said. “I gotta’ sleep at night. I’ve made sure my whole life that if I meet Jesus and God and whoever else at those damned gates, that I could look ‘em in the eyes and say that I’d led a good life. That I had helped the world in some way.”
“Okay,” Phil said.
“I gotta sleep at night, is all,” the man said. “So when I get a call from someone saying you wanted me to kill you, I was a lil’ confused.”
“I see,” said Phil.
“I gotta be able to sleep, and I can’t figure out for holy hell why you want to die,” said the man. The man paused and pulled out a stick of gum from his left inside jacket pocket.
“So what I need from you, is a way that I can sleep. That’s all,” the man said.
“Pancreatic Cancer isn’t a good enough reason?” Phil asked. “It’s one of the terminal ones. I’m a dead man walking.”
“Well… Yeah,” said the man. “But that expiration dates already been set. I need a reason to move it up. Ya’ know?”
“All of the moneys in there?”
“All but the gas I bought the way up here,” said the man. “I don’t bring a wallet when I’m on the job. Too risky, ya know? I'll make sure ya' get it if need be. Sorry about that.”
“It’s okay,” Phil said.
“Look Phil. You seem like a great guy and I just need to be able to sleep at night, ya know?”
“Yeah, I get it,” Phil said. “But before we rest your soul, what should I call you?”
The man paused.
“You...You can call me… Mr. Reaper,” he said.
“Mr. Reaper?” Phil said with a small chuckle.
“Too Corny? You know what? Just call me Reap.”
“That’s still a little corny.”
“In my business, there’s not a lot of cool names that don’ come off as corny,” Reap said, beginning to chuckle himself. “That is a terrible name, huh?”
“Definitely needs some work,” Phil said. Both men shared a laugh.
“Well, I haven’t ever had to give a name before,” Reap said. “I mean, most all of ‘em didn’t even see me. I think this is the first time someone was expecting to meet me in this way.”
“Reap sounds fine,” Phil said. “So what’d you already know?”
“Besides the cancer? Let’s see,” Reap said. “You have a wife and three daughters. I know you have a small construction company, and a part time job on weekends umpin’ Little League. Why the umpin’?”
“Well, a long time ago I started doing it,” Phil said. “Think I was about 13. Paid for silly things like snow cones and records. In college it was always an easy way to make a few bucks, and then… I just kept going.”
“Not to make ends meet?”
“Not really. Only pays nowadays round twenty-five, thirty bucks a game,” Philip said. “I just kept going. It was fun, it was simple. Watching kids playing baseball, before life and all that mess happens.”
Phil picked up the clear plastic cup of water resting on the mahogany stained nightstand, and took a sip of water.
“I miss those times. Remember being a kid?” asked Phil.
“Who remembers a thing like that?”
“I do,” Phil said. “I wish someone had told me how good those times really are.”
“It’s just different now is all.”
“You’re telling me.”
“So the umpin’ was just about fun?”
“The money helped,” Phil replied. “ I mean, I wasn’t volunteering, but it did give me a little extra money. Saved for a rainy day.”
“Well that’s a whole hella’ lot of rain,” Reap said. “Let’s see, what else? Oh yeah, your three daughters.”
“Yeah,” Phil said. “Those are my girls.”
“Why three?” Reap asked. “I never understood why people would have three kids.”
“I don’t know,” Reap said. “One I get. I feel, most the time mind ya’, not when there are complications or what not. I feel like one is having a kid because that’s what people expect. Two makes sense because it gives a kid another one to play with and look after.”
Reap was deep in his thought. “And four or more make sense because then they all have someone to pair up with. But three’s a crowd,” Reap said. “But again, not countin’ complications or divorce or death, I could never understand three.”
“Well it was always supposed to be two, the regular American way kind of stuff,” Phillip said. “But… You know…” Philip paused for a moment trying to choose his words carefully.
“Try for a boy?” Reap breaking the awkward silence.
“Yeah, great guess” Philip said.
“That ain't uncommon,” Reap said. “Pretty standard.”
“I love Sammy, but I did… I kind of hoped for a boy.”
“Nothin’ wrong with that,” Reap said. “No need to be embarrassed. Most men want a boy to raise and do the son dad thing.”
“Yeah… It just feels like its the wrong thing to say.”
“Naw man,” Reap said. “Ya’ don’t needa’ feel bad at all. You’re the one percent of people who tried to have the opposite gender and stopped having kids.”
“One percent huh?”
“Well I could be wrong,” Reap said. “After all, polls have that margin of error bullshit.”
They sat for a moment, enjoying each others company.
“So ya' couldn’t talk her into a fourth time’s the charm situation, huh?” Reap asked.
“No. Lisa was already swamped with the girls as it was, so I figured I’d enjoy the family we already have,” Phil said. “If the third time didn’t work, we decided that it wasn’t meant to be.”
“That’s one way to look at it.”
“It’s the easiest way to look at it,” Phil said. “What else you need to know?”
Reap sat for a moment and shifted in his chair before crossing his legs and leaning forward toward Phil.
“Now, I don’t mean to pry Phil, but I got to,” Reap said. "Do you feel like you're right with… Well, whatever God or whatever you think exists?”
“What? Because it’s suicide?” Phil said with a laugh. Phil glanced at Reap and noticed that Reap had a serious look.
“Oh,” Phil said, looking away from Reap while trying to recompose himself. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh I-”
“No it’s fine,” Reap said. “Look, I don’t wanna ask, but I feel I gotta’.”
Phil sat for a second, staring at the ceiling. He never liked to talk much about spiritual things. Things like this were usually handled by his wife.
“I’m not sure what to say,” Phil said. “I mean, I’ve lived all this time and I haven’t been a particularly religious man. Sometimes for major holidays we go to Mass… But the longer I live the less I know what to believe.”
“Huh,” Reap said.
“I mean I just don’t know.”
“Well that sucks.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you’re quite a bit older than me and I was hopin’ that you’d have some of that stuff… You’d figured out that stuff by now. I mean with your situation and all. No offense.”
“It’s fine,” Phil said. “I mean, I have more questions now than ever. I’m not even sure I believe in God.”
“That’s a pretty strong statement from someone who claims they don’t know.”
“Well, I don’t.” Phil said. He paused and took another drink from his cup.
“You don’t know either?” Phil asked.
“No sir,” Reap said. “It’s all a myst’ry to me.”
“What about being raised with Jesus and stuff?”
“Jesus was a good guy and all. Do well to others and stuff,” Reap said. “Shit, I don’t know. I was hoping you know.”
“Well, I guess I might find out soon enough,” Phil said. “If I do, I’ll try to let you know.”
“We should have a word that you say so I know it’s really you. Ya’ know, when ya’ get to the other side.”
“Like...Spaghetti?” Phil offered.
Reap laughed for a good while before trying to regain his composure.
“Now why on earth would you think ‘spaghetti’ would be a good word?” Reap asked.
“I can’t think of why I would choose a normal word,” Phil said. “I mean your general Psychic probably has a list of kind of weird words. I think spaghetti is the perfect word.”
“That would be a pretty hard word to guess,” Reap said. “I’ll have to remember that in case I run into a psychic. Well, after you’re gone anyway. Whenever that is.”
They sat there, both looking at each other.
“So you think there’s no God?” Reap said.
“I think that whether or not there is a God is irrelevant,” Phil said. “I’ve always been a bit on the agnostic side of things. I figure that either there is no God and I die and there’s nothing, or die and there’s a God. Never met the guy so I have no idea.”
“Does the idea of hell scare you?”
“Naw,” Phil said. “The idea of my wife being mad at me scares me.”
Reap laughed again as Phil smiled.
“I just feel that if I’ve led a good life and all, then I’m not going to hell,” Phil said. “Or at least I shouldn’t. And if some God or whatever thinks I should follow some rules that don’t make me feel good about my life. Well… I’d rather go to hell than spend eternity with that guy.”
“Good point,” Reap agreed.
“I just think that a just God wouldn’t care about petty things. And if he did he’s an asshole.”
“That’s some mighty harsh things ‘bout God,” Reap said.
“According to some of the books, he’s a pretty harsh guy. I’ll take my chances,” Phil said.
“Well, you ain’t afraid of God, and it seems like alls else is in order,” Reap said. “Why now? Don’t you want that extra time with the wife and family and friends?”
Phil paused. He tried to think of what to say and couldn’t think of anything. Instead Phil’s eyes changed from looking down to looking at Reap. He didn’t know what to say, how to get this over with when the whole thing seemed so simple when he came up with the idea.
“Right now, it don’ look like I’ll be sleeping pretty,” Reap said. Reap began to stand up and picked up the briefcase with his right hand. “You seem like a great guy, Phil, and I just can’t take a man away from his family in his last few days. You already got an expiration date. Enjoy your time with the family Phil. Time ain’t on your side. Enjoy it while you got it. It’ll sneak up and then you’ll be at... Whatever's next.”
Reap raised the briefcase, offering it for Phil to take.
“I don’t want to die, of course,” Phil said. “I need to.”
“Now you’re just talkin’ gibberish,” Reap said.
“No, no. I do,” Phil said, pushing the briefcase away with his hand. Reap took a few steps back, and scratched his head..
“Well, that’s an odd way to try and change a mind,” Reap said.
“Please, Just hear me out,” Phil asked.
“Well, you still got some time left and I’m in no rush.” Reap walked up towards Phil.
“I only got six to eight months left, if I’m lucky,” Phil said. “But now is the time. You don’t think I want to be at my oldest daughter’s wedding in four months?”
“That sir is what most people would call a day to live for,” Reap said.
“Well, not like that,” Phil said. “If I made it to Jessica’s wedding day, I couldn’t even walk her down the aisle. I’d just be sitting there. By that time I’d be hooked up to more machines with a nurse attending to me. It would ruin my baby’s day. That’s her day. It’s not a day to be ruined with people asking questions about how I’m doing, or praying for me like that would do anything. It would ruin it all. Ending it now is better for that. Just me wanting to be there would ruin all of that. You see?”
Phil was sitting up. Even with the tubes he looked stoic.
“And my wife,” Phil continued. “What about her? And my daughters? Everyday I’m in here will cost my family an extra $3,000 a day after today.”
“No insurance?” Reap asked.
“No, just the regular shitty kind,” Phil said.
Reap laughed. “Oh Phil! You are one funny man, I tell ya’.”
“Thanks,” Phil said. “I just want my family to be okay.I make a decent living but the company is small and little by little I’ll have to get rid of everything. I did the math, that’ll be about two months from now.”
Phil found the words coming easier and his demeanor began to relax.
“If I live to six months they’d be in a hell of a lot of debt. And sure the life insurance will help them a little, but by then they’ll be so far behind-”
“There'll be nothing left?”
“Exactly,” Phil said.
The stale smell of death filled Phil’s nostrils.
“I just want them to be okay,” Phil said. He worked hard to hold back tears. “They want me to be okay but I’m not going to be. The doctor said there is nothing else to do. I’m already dead Reap, I just haven’t stopped breathing is the problem. I could luck out and die two months from now or live a year and dry up any and all value I have. A man doesn’t do that to his family you know?”
“I suppose a man doesn’t,” Reap said.
“I want to live, but sadly we all gotta go sometime,” Phil said. “And I need help Reap. You’re the one who can help me do it. If I did it to myself it would devastate them. You’re the perfect solution Reap. They need it to look natural. A man’s gotta take care of his family, you know?”
“And a man’s gotta get ‘is sleep,” Reap said.
Reap bent over, setting the briefcase on the floor.
“Ya’ mind if I get a smoke in?” Reap asked.
“Well, I don’t mind,” Phil said. “But I think most the patients on this floor don’t want to die from an oxygen tank explosion, so you might want to take it outside for their benefit.”
Reap chuckled and reached inside his left jacket pocket to pull out a red pack of Marlboros.
“You’re a funny man Phil,” Reap said. “I’ll be back in five if that’s okay. Give me and you some time to think.”
Reap pulled the handle of the door and opened it enough to get through before disappearing down the hall. When Phil was sure that Reap was out of sight, he pulled out a wallet sized family photo and cell phone from the drawer of the side table. He pressed two on the phone, the dial button, and held the phone to his ear.
“Hey honey,” Phil said. “Yeah I’m doing okay… How are you and the girls?...Yeah, yeah, don’t worry about me honey…”
Tears started to build in his eyes. He tried to control his composure as he talked.
“Yeah honey… That’d be great if I could see you tomorrow...and the girls… I just wanted to call and see how…”
As his voice quivered he squinted, trying to hold back the tears.
“No honey I’m fine. Just a little uncomfortable, I think the AC is blowing hard and it’s causing my muscles to hurt a little.”
Phil waited a few seconds while his wife talked. He wouldn’t have been able recall the words but instead just sat there, listening to her speak while he cried silently. Her voice was calm and he thought back to their first days together, and then having a family. He just sat there, remembering everything he could as a smile slowly worked its way up his tear stained cheeks.
“I was just calling to hear you,” Phil said into the phone. “I love you Mary. I love you and the girls and I just want you to know that.”
Phil saw Reap on the other side of the door looking in through the hall window.
“I just wanted to call and tell you that honey…I know you do...Bye.”
Phil put down the phone with the picture still resting in his right hand. Reap turned the door handle and came in the way he had left.
“Everything okay?” Reap asked.
“Yeah, fine,” Phil said, wiping his face with the back of the hand with the picture in it. “It’s just tough, you know?”
“I bet,” Reap said.
“Still smoke? Even after seeing someone with cancer huh?”
“Well… It’s time if that’s what you still want.”
“Will you be able to sleep?”
“I think that was up to you,” Reap said. “When I came in 'ere all I wanted to do was talk ya’ out of this. Spend some time with the family, friends, go out like a champ as they say.”
Reap walked slowly over to the bed and reached inside his right jacket pocket, pulling out a small black bag.
“Well. It’s time,” Reap said as he started to unzip the case. He opened the case to show a pair of latex gloves, two small vials and two small syringes strapped in neatly against the black satin backing of the case.
“So… You’re going to do it?” Phil asked.
“What? You changing your mind now?” Reap asked while putting on the gloves
“No, no. Just thought for a second you weren’t going to,” Phil said.
“I wasn’t for a second there,” Reap said as he carefully put the first needle into the vial, extracting the clear liquid. “But it’s somethin’ ya' said that made me change my mind. Ya’ see Phil I gotta sleep at night as ya’ already know. And I sat here, worried I wasn’t going to be able to sleep. A nightmare for me. I was looking for a reason to walk out of here and leave ya’ that briefcase.”
After checking the syringe, he sat it on the side table and readied the second needle, plunging the needle into the second vial just like he had the first one.
“But then ya’ started making sense,” Reap said as he held the needle with his right hand. “Ya’ see Phil, you are a great guy. It’ll be a shame to loose ya’. But that would be selfish of the world to keep you at this point. Selfishness is nothin’ you seem to know anythin’ about. I saw what a good guy ya’ are. Ya’ really do love the family, and I don’ think I could sleep at night, knowing your last days are filled with worries of hospital bills and such.”
Reap put the second syringe down next to the first. He looked at the picture in Phil’s hand while he pulled out a small MP3 player. “When I came in here, I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I did it,” Reap said.
“Now, I ain’t sure if I can sleep at night if I don’t do it.”
“I’m from the South,” Reap said. “Down there we speak ‘Merican.”
“Thank you Reap,” Phil said. “This means a lot to me.”
“Just part of the job Phil. And you can call me Brad.”
“You’re welcome,” Brad said. “But now that you know my name, there’s no turnin’ back.”
“Fine by me,” Phil said. “What’s with the MP3 player there?”
“Aww,” Brad said. “Well, I was kinda’ hopin’ ya’d do me a small favor.”
“What’d you need?”
“Well…” Brad said, pausing. “I’ve always had this weird… I guess ya’ could call it a fantasy of sorts.”
“I’m not really feeling kinky right now Brad.”
“Oh! God no! “ Brad said while chuckling. “No, no, no, I’ve always had this fantasy of the perfect kill to the perfect person. Ya’ see, in my line of work, I’ve never gotten the opportunity to have somethin’ like this. In fact anytime a guy saw me comin’, it was cause for panic and a bit of a struggle.”
Brad sat on the side of the bed next to Phil, handing over the MP3 player.
“Most people don’t get to call their shot at goin’,” Brad continued. “They wait it out, and it always comes as a surprise. Hell, most people are lucky if they getta’ pass while unconscious it seems. So you’re in a very exclusive club Phil. And you’re a nice guy and all so I kinda’ had this fantasy of how I’d want to go if I was in the same boat as you.”
“I’ve seen guys go and almost every time there’s a panic,” Brad said. “A realization that the clock is up. Two minute warnin’ if ya’ know what I mean. That got me thinkin’ about how I’d wanna go.”
Brad handed Phil the MP3 player.
“From then on I just wanted to go out peacefully. Maybe a nice song. Somethin’ comfortin’.”
“Can you tell me how it’s going to be?” Phil asked.
“Sure,” Brad said. He pointed to the first syringe on the night stand. “This one here gonna’ be a little cool. It’ll feel like ice water is runnin’ through your veins. Not too uncomfy, just a little cool. You’ll feel it.”
Brad pointed at the second syringe. “And this one here’ll be the one that feels real nice. You’ll feel warmth and then the lights and everything ‘round ya’ will start to brighten and then… Well.”
Brad chuckled as a smile crept across his face.“Right there Phil. Spaghetti.”
Phil took the MP3 players headphones and put them on his ears. “I’m ready,” Phil said.
“Thanks for doin’ this for me,” Brad said as he picked up the first needle. “I’m goin’ to sleep real good tonight.”
“A good sleep is all anyone can hope for.”
“Goodbye Phil,” Brad said. “It was great knowing you.”
Brad pushed the play button on the MP3 player and an acoustic guitar started strumming through the headphones. It wasn’t a fast song or a slow song, but it was beautiful and Phil began to stare at the picture he’d been holding. His three beautiful daughters. His beautiful wife. What would happen to them? He began to cry but with a smile on his face. In all of this somehow the smell of death was absent from his nostrils.
“Still ready Phil?” Brad asked.
“Yeah. I’m ready.”
Brad stood up, lifted the first syringe and injected the clear liquid into the small hose running from the IV bag to his arm. As the vocals of the song began, Phil felt the cool poison flow through his veins. Slowly it crept through his bloodstream until he could feel the chill throughout his whole body. He relaxed as he stared at the photo of his family. He remembered birthdays, family both here and gone. He remembered friends he hadn’t thought about in a long time. He sat and cried, but was happy.
Brad picked up the second syringe and repeated what he had done with the first. As Brad began to put the needles and vials back into the bag, Phil began to feel warm. It was like being covered by a warm blanket after being soaked from a cool autumn rain. Brad put on his sunglasses then proceeded to take off the gloves and gently put them back into the inside pocket from where they had come from. Brad then turned and walked out of the room with the briefcase in his hand. As he turned toward the exit he stopped in front of the window. As Brad stopped Phil looked at him, and mouthed the words “thank you” while giving a half wave. Brad waved back then left down the corridor out of sight.
The warmth was comforting and intensified and the room began to look brighter. Phil looked down at the photo, the music beginning to crescendo as the lights intensified, almost as if someone had put a dimmer that was slowly being turned up. The lights grew brighter and the music grew louder as he struggled to focus on the photo he still held in his hand. Now light was all he saw as the beautiful music filled his ears. And then he was gone.