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One day just a few months or maybe five, ten, fifteen years from now. Or thereabouts.

Max Finds Something Out

As usual, Max was up early. In the bathroom, she nervously rearranged her nail polish bottles. Each one a different shade of off-white. Eggshell, alabaster, coconut, ivory. She knew it was silly to have fifteen bottles of nail polish that were essentially the same color. But, hey, she liked white. In her mind, the slight differences in hue were proof she was at least a little bit daring. 

Max felt compelled to turn each label at a forty-five degree angle. Her brother thought she had OCD, but Max found it comforting, and this morning she needed comfort. She was waiting for the result of a test and her mind was racing and twisting and tumbling. 

After completing her bottle ritual, she sat on the toilet. Checked the timer on her phone. Still a few more minutes. She looked in the mirror. Pores were nice and small. Eyes were the same dull brown as always. She fiddled with her chestnut hair for a few moments before finally putting it up in a loose ponytail.

Needing something else to focus on, she took out her phone.

“Let’s try a new promo please,” she said to the screen. “More glamorous this time.”

Max watched the artificials suddenly come to life in the form of a video ad. On the screen was an AI-generated Max, but the bombshell version. Too bronze in skin tone. Too much wavy hair. And too much jewelry. Fake Max stood in the glossiest office ever. Modern art on the wall behind her. A stunning view of downtown Los Angeles in the background. The San Gabriels behind that. Everything sleek, clean and expensive.

“Here at The Exit Strategy Agency, we take your chosen end of life services as seriously as you do,” Fake Max said directly into the camera. Big, Ivy League smile trying its best to ingratiate warmth. But failing.

Real Max shook her head at the video. 

“No. This doesn’t work at all,” she said to her phone. “I look like an escort and sound like a lawyer. Lighten up the mood.”

Once again, Max’s phone worked its magic. Now, Fake Max’s outfit was nice and simple, something you’d get off the rack at an inexpensive department store. The office went from sleek to folksy. More wicker than marble. 

“Here at The Exit Strategy Agency, when you’ve decided it’s time for you to go? Trust that, like any family, we’ll be there for you,” Fake Max said with tangible softness. 

Real Max shook her head again.

“That’s not really saying anything. I need clients. Lot and lots of clients. So give me some gravitas. Something meaningful. Something people will remember.”

The phone went to work again. Fake Max was now in a comfy suburban living room. Sitting fireside. Crocheting a blanket. She wore jeans and a knit T-shirt.

“When my mother chose to end? There was no help for her. She had  nowhere to turn. She had to do it the old way. In fact, that’s why we started The Exit Strategy Agency. We don’t want anyone to go through what we went through, what she went through, all alone.”

The phone zoomed in on Fake Max’s face. It was glowing with sincerity. It was human. It radiated empathy. 

“We’ll be here for you. From your first difficult choice to call on us, to your amazing ‘last meal,’ to your final ending. And that’s a Carson family promise.”

Max set down her phone. She closed her eyes and was back there on that day. In the bedroom just down the hall. She was twenty-seven. Her brother Ethan was out doing something. She could never remember exactly what, though he’d told her many times. She was walking up to the bed where her mother was supposed to be sleeping. She was looking at her mother’s blueish face. Max was there frantically trying to wake up a dead person. She was screaming. 

Then Max was back in her bathroom. Back where she wanted to be. She took a breath. 

“Erase them all. Start again,” she said coldly into her phone.

An alarm went off. Finally, thought Max. She turned off the buzzing and picked up the pregnancy test sitting on the counter next to her menagerie of white nail polish, turned just so. She looked at the test. 

“Fuck me.”

Max was pregnant. This was not good news. She hated children. 

Greta considers

Greta had always possessed a mild fascination with death. It started at five when she stumbled upon three dead wrens, just hatched, in their nest. The feathers were wet and slimy, the beak of the birds opened a bit, as if yearning for breath or food. The image seared in her mind and served as a reminder to live dammit. And she did. She soared through her adolescence, played competitive soccer, cheered, dated many boys, She was even Prom Queen. She aced college. She got married soon after graduation and had two kids. Her life was full which kept the dead birds at bay. 

In middle age, after raising her kids, she strived to live again. She divorced and married and divorced again. She traveled to Europe and Chile and Tasmania and Singapore. She learned to tap dance. Well, she tried to learn tap dance. She swam every morning at her gym. She tried her hand at writing a memoir. She decided to read the collective works of Dumas. 

Then, the world changed to artificial. And the living stopped. Or the striving to live stopped. And the subsequent years became a case study in the atrophic, carefree, formless existence of merely being. Not living. Not failing. Just being.

Greta positioned herself on her bed just so. Feet near the edge, but not touching it. Arms at her side. Her phone resting on her knees. The pillow propping up her back. She never quite understood why this very specific position gave her so much comfort. But it did.

On the wall facing her was her favorite Chagall print, Bouquet At The Window. She liked it so much that she owned two more of the exact same print, one hanging in her living room and the other in her kitchen. 

Back before everything had changed to artificial, and when Greta was still able to work, she was an art teacher at a local community college. Chagall was her guy. Even after he waffled in influence, even after he teetered into irrelevancy, even after the cool kids and cooler critics found him static and derivative, she never wavered in her devotion to him. She loved his fever dream use of color. Not quite fauvism. Not quite impressionism. Not quite modern. Just perfection.

She often tried to remember those halcyon days teaching art: The desk where she constantly rearranged her various papers and whatnot. The whiteboard she wrote on. The hallways full of youthful chaos. Lessons she taught on contour and value and form. Papers she graded on O’Keefe and Kandinsky and Velasquez. But she could only remember pieces of these memories. Fragments of dialogue. Glimpses of faces. Never any names. Those were gone forever. All of this scared her. More, it frustrated her. She just wanted to remember everything as it was. 

“Play The Office,” Greta said and her phone played a clip from the old sitcom. It didn’t matter what clip. Greta had seen every last one countless times. She just wanted to hear the familiar noise.

Before the clip played, an ad popped up. It was for a chosen end of life service. Of course. Those were the only ads sent her way. 

“Not today,” she said out loud to herself. She wasn’t in the mood. She needed her phone to know that. She really needed it to understand that she wasn’t in the mood.

Max Fails a Client

Max sat tall at her desk. A trick, a power move, she learned from her father. Posture was dominance, he’d say to her.

On the wall above her head read the plaque, The Exit Strategy Agency

Every time she saw it, she winced a little. She hated the name of her company. Truly. What started as a joke, a working title, to honor her mother and father’s decades-long, sarcastic, good-natured expression they muttered whenever they were tired or overworked or upset (ie “Honey, we need an exit strategy from these hellish kids right about now!”) became accidentally permanent.  

Across the desk from Max sat Mr. Jamison. She glanced at him. He was an old-looking seventy, she thought. Uneven balding. Liver spots. A slight shake in his hand. In another era, he might have had that distinguished, stately air of a well-lived life. But in this era? He came across as worn.

Max fiddled with her Intake device, which looked like a slightly heavier, more important phone. When she had the Intake activated, she began to interview Mr. Jamison as she always did when she first met clients.

“Age?” Max asked.


“Last time you worked a job?”

“Five years ago. Journalist. Mostly online stuff.”

“Been on Gov Basic Income since?”

Jamison nodded.

Max steadied the Intake Device. She stared at Mr. Jamison with empathy.

“Are you depressed?”

Mr. Jamison smiled as if he knew this question was coming. 

“No. I’m not. I’m resigned.” He paused. “I’m resigned to ending, you know?”

Max looked down at her Intake, which buzzed softly. Indicating something was wrong. She looked up at Mr. Jamison and gave him a reassuring, albeit insincere, smile.

“So, no. I don’t feel depressed,” he continued, looking back at Max. “But I guess it’s hard to tell the difference, isn’t it?”

Max shifted in her chair. The Intake vibrated quite loudly. Max folded her hands together.

“It is hard to tell, Mr. Jamison. But we must be sure. Even if it feels like splitting hairs. Can’t pass Intake otherwise. Resignation and depression are not the same. But don’t worry. We’ll get there!”

Then her intake device vibrated again. Max knew what this meant. 

“Is everything okay?” Mr. Jamison asked.

“Mr. Jamison, I am so sorry. You did not pass your Intake. I am going to send you referrals to some wonderful therapists to speak to.”

“Therapists? What do you mean? You just said ‘we’ll get there.’ I was ready. I am ready. Mostly. I am mostly ready.”

“There’s nothing I can do. The intake device passes or fails you. I can’t do anything to change that once it decides.” 

“I was going to swim with sharks. A great white. A mako. That was going to be my last meal.”

“And a very great last meal that will be, Mr. Jamison,” Max said as she led him to the door.

“That was all I was living for Ms. Carson,” Mr. Jamison said. Max put her hand gently on his shoulder for a quick moment. 

“We will be here for you when you’re fully ready for that last meal. For your ending. That is an Exit Strategy Agency promise!”

Mr. Jamison must have realized that his pleas were futile. He nodded and left. 

After the door was shut, Max felt relieved he was gone. Usually, she quite enjoyed helping people schedule their endings. In fact, she felt honored to be of service. She was helping people at the hardest moment of their lives: at the end of it. To Max, the choice to stay or go was sacred. It was the one thing they could not take from anyone. It belonged to the individual and to no one else. 

But today it felt different. It wasn’t a mystery to Max why that was. She needed to get on with her day. Maybe that would help settle her. 

Greta Reconsiders

Greta looked at the clock in the upper corner of her phone. She’d been watching old sitcom clips for hours. She wasn’t hungry. She wasn’t needed anywhere. She didn’t have to be doing anything. But still. She felt a pang of guilt that she’d spent three precious hours doing absolutely nothing of note. She wasn’t sure why she liked The Office so much. The only thing she could think of was that everyone on the show seemed to value paper in the same way she once did. The overlooked utility of it. 

Defiantly, she scrolled past the next The Office clip as if telling her phone: See. I can do whatever I please. You don’t own me. 

The next video on her feed was an ad. Like before, it was for a chosen end of life service. Unlike before, Greta decided to watch. In it, a kindly elderly man wearing an olive cashmere sweater spoke into the camera: “Recently switched to gov basic income? Let the wonderful people at TransAge help you navigate this brave new world…”

Greta scrolled past this, shaking her head. Too close to home. Then another ad popped up. In it, a modelesque woman filled the frame with a shock of brunette hair: “We’re Valhalla Falls. The largest chosen end of life agency in the world. We guarantee you will pass your Intake. No other agency in the business knows the gov rules and regulations like we do….”

Greta didn’t like this one at all. It felt too corporate and reminded her of commercials from her younger days. Arrogance didn’t work on her then and certainly wouldn’t work now. 

She scrolled again. In the next ad, Greta watched as a nice-looking woman of about thirty-five, dressed in comfortable jeans and a loose tee, stood in what appeared to be a suburban backyard: 

“Hi. I’m Maxine Carson. Head of The Exit Strategy Agency. We’re family run and operated. No, not as big as the other guys. But we’re no frills. No hard salesmanship. We’ve been serving the greater Los Angeles area for over five years and we’re here for you. When you’re ready.”

Then, a man entered the frame next to Max. He had a big, silly grin spread over his big, handsome face.

“And I’m Ethan Carson. I’m last meal board certified and will be with you every step of the way as we bring your final wish to life. We have packages for all income levels. Including those of you on gov basic—”

Greta scrolled past just as she heard a knock on her front door. She got up to answer it. Standing at the door was the same woman she’d just seen in the ad. Ah, the parlor tricks of the goddamn phone, Greta thought. 

“Hi there Greta! Name is Max Carson.”

“I know who you are. Not interested.”

Greta started to close her front door. Max took a quick look inside her apartment before Greta could shut her out.

“Is that a Chagall?” Max asked. Greta stopped closing the door. “May I?” She nodded to Max and opened the door wider, giving her a clear view of the Chagall print she’d spied. 

“Oh my god,” Max said. Greta had many other prints too. Mostly Chagalls. But also a Degas. And even a Kahlo. “How lovely,” Max said.  

Greta invited her in so that she could enjoy the art. Which she clearly did. She walked around the room a few times. Seeming to soak  it all in. 

“I taught art. Chagall was my absolute favorite,” Greta said. 

Max walked up to Chagall’s Bouquet By the Window. A woman floating like an angel over a bouquet of flowers. 

“That’s my favorite of all my favorites,” Greta said.

“You know that Picasso said that after he died,” Max said as she focused on the print. “Chagall would be the only artist left alive who really understood color."

Greta knew this was probably another parlor trick made possible by an all-knowing phone, but she didn’t care. She would be charmed by anyone who even knew who Picasso and Chagall were. 

“So,” Greta said as she sat down on her red sofa. “You want to discuss my ending.”

Max took a seat on a black leather stool, just across from her. 

“Only if you’re open to it.”

“Every neighbor up and down these halls? All my friends? They’ve either gone through with their ending or they’re thinking about it. Or actively not thinking about it.” Greta let out a little laugh. “It’s all I think about, Max. I can’t find a reason not to. Not anymore.”

“Greta, I get how hard this is. I really do.” She reached out and put her hand on Greta’s knee, which instantly comforted her. Greta placed her two smaller hands over Max’s larger one. “So let’s go over the basics,” Max continued. “I’ve done your inventory. You’ve just about run out of your own money. Basic gov income isn’t enough for you to stay here at Graceful Elderly Center. You’d have to move and I don’t think you’d like where that would be. No family left to pitch in.” 

“You make it sound all so romantic.” She smiled as she looked away. 

“I’m sorry. I really am.”

“It feels like they sold us on a lie. They told us that we’d all be living in some utopia. Not having to work. Getting money to live a decent life. And I know most people are fine with it. They love it. At least everyone your age loves it. I just find it dull.” 

Greta let out a small sigh. “It’s such an easy decision to make when you’re not the one making it.”. 

“My brother Ethan chose to end about a month ago,” Max said. 

“The handsome man? In the ads?” Greta asked. 

Max nodded. “So I understand. I really do.”

Greta believed Max did understand. For a moment it seemed as though whatever mask Max wore to get through the day slipped. Just a bit. 

“Don’t you ever feel like all you’re doing is helping people commit —“

“No. No. Never. Please don’t call it that,” Max said. “We’re not allowed to ever call it that. And we all go to great lengths to make sure that isn’t the case. We are only here to help facilitate your decision. That is all.”

Greta understood and nodded. The mask was back on. 

“What about your last meal?” Max asked as if to pivot. 

“Yes. Please. Tell me about that,” Greta said finally.   

“It’s the thing I love the most,” Max said. “The thing that makes this job worth doing. It’s very simple: I will accompany you, as per gov regulations, on whatever bucket list item you’d like to do before your ending.”


“Within reason. This is the time to get creative. Just last week I took someone to toilet paper their high school history teacher’s house! Crazy right? And so much fun.”

“What about a trip to the moon or the Mariana Trench?” Greta asked. She’d recently seen a documentary on the Mariana Trench and the fact we knew more about the moon than we did the trench both fascinated and scared her.

“That’s definitely a VR option. We can make that happen. And we have. But you can do that on your own already.” Max sat back in the chair. “It’s weird. Turns out most people are happiest with a more tangible last meal. Something real. Sucking bone marrow and all that jazz. You know, wind blowing in one’s face. But it’s totally up to you.” 

“I don’t know,” Greta said. “I think I need to think about it.”

“Of course, Greta.” Max said as she got up to leave. “It’s a big decision.”

Greta looked around her living room. Besides the art, there was nothing in the room or in the apartment that mattered to her. It was a collection of furniture that had no innate value in a series of small rooms that offered no energy—no force, pulse, or pull.

She was done. 

Her eyes looked up and zeroed in on Bouquet By the Window. On the women floating through the air. No cares. Just an angel dancing in the blue heavens.                    

“Skydiving,” she said. 

Max Gets Annoyed

Max walked inside a CVS. She never actually went into stores anymore. She always forgot what ghost towns they’d become. There were no other customers. The shelves were mostly barren. It was just an empty warehouse-sized vestibule now. She was old enough to remember when this wasn’t the case. She remembered when going to the pharmacy was a fucking ordeal with long lines. But now? She wondered why they kept it open.

She walked to the pharmacy counter. The walls behind it were very much not barren. Pills and pills and more pills. Max laughed. There were so many pills, she wondered if this was some shipping hub. Whatever the reason for their presence, it was suddenly very clear as to why they kept this place open. 

A clerk, a young woman, maybe 21, sat in a swivel chair behind the counter. She was between the pill wall and Max. The young woman stared blankly into her phone as she twisted her long, charcoal-colored hair in her finger. 

“Hi there,” Max said. 

The clerk didn’t budge.

“Hi there,” Max tried again. “I’m here to pick up a prescription.”

The clerk sighed and skulked up to the counter. 

“Maxine Carson.”

The clerk typed in the name. A visible sneer spread over the clerk’s face as she read the prescription.

“Now I get why you came in person. Didn’t want anyone to know at home.”

“I’m sorry. Is there a problem?” Max asked.

“I mean. Our entire species is on the verge of collapse.”

Humans are on the verge of nothing other than  complete dominance, Max thought but didn’t say. Instead she said a more decisive, “It most definitely is not,” 

“Yeah. It is. People end at a higher rate than give birth.”

“Chosen end of life is a right.”

“Sure. Can’t believe everyone your age fell for that. They take away all the jobs. Promise money. Then convince you to ‘end’ so they don’t have to pay out.”

“Yes, we’ve all been been through our conspiratorial anti-establishment phase,” Max said.

“I’m only anti-establishment when it’s anti-human. But whatever. I just think what you’re doing is, like, super selfish.”

Max couldn’t believe the nerve of this little shit. 

“Are you kidding me with this?”

“You’re passing up on a blessing.”

“What business of it is yours?” Max said, raising her voice now. “And does your womb not work? No one’s stopping you from having a ‘blessing.’”

“Whoa. Chill. I mean. I’m like 20. And I have a job. Like, no one I know has a job. But I do. So. No kids for me just yet. Duh.”

“You are the exact reason I don’t want to have kids. The exact reason.”

Max turned and stormed off. But she stopped herself. She told herself that it was not the clerk’s fault. The younger generation didn’t know how to socialize properly. They weren’t taught correctly. Plus, she needed her damn prescription. She needed to not be pregnant. She walked back to the counter and tried to bury the hatchet. 

“I’m sorry. I’m having a day. So the last thing I need is inappropriate pushback from a clerk.”

“I’m more a ‘pharmacist proxy,’” the clerk said. 

“Oh fuck you. Just give me the damn pills.”

Max sat in her car in the underground CVS parking structure. She looked down at the medication. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. She never wanted kids. Ever. But maybe that was selfish of her. Maybe the CVS worker was right. Or maybe not. 

Something caught her eye at the far end of the parking structure. Two teenagers beating the shit out of a delivery pod. She smiled at the act of minor rebellion. She imagined Ethan would have done something like when he was their age. 

She had been thinking about Ethan all morning. The trouble the two of them got in over the years. The shared sunburns from long days at the beach. The time Ethan stole a Snickers bar and Max took the fall as big sisters often do. The way Ethan, only twelve, comforted Max when their father died from a stroke. He’d make a great uncle, Max. He would have made a great uncle. Then she turned on the car and drove out of the parking garage. 

Greta Aces the Test

Greta sat on a sofa bed in the small Exit Strategy waiting room. Not long after Max left her place that afternoon, Greta had followed her directions to the office for their intake interview.  

She was oddly calm about the whole thing. About her ending. It’s as though all she had to do was commit to it, to give in to what she knew was the right course of action. And then any doubt, any dissonance, any fear, evaporated. 

She looked around the waiting room. There was a desk against a wall. A dresser next to it. A poster of a baseball player next to the window. Clearly this was also a bedroom. She liked the fact that Exit Strategy offices doubled as a family home. It felt quaint to her. 

The desk beckoned to her. On a shelf was a picture of what Greta assumed was a young Ethan Carson in a Little League uniform. Beaming with a sliver bat in his grasp.

reta noticed a few drawers and she couldn’t help herself. She a sudden need to know what secrets were in those drawers. 

The first drawer was mostly pencils and papers and trash. But, inside the second drawer, she found something very interesting. She found numerous drawings and sketches. The art teacher in her perked up. She examined the work. Mostly still lifes. Baseballs. Obligatory vase and flower. A very good sketch of a cocker spaniel. It was the work of a child, but one with budding talent. A natural understanding of perspective and depth.  

But one sketch in particular grabbed her attention. She stared at it for a long time. In disbelief. Shocked at what she was looking at.

Then, the door opened. Max walked in.

“Greta?” Max asked.

Greta, startled, dropped the sketch. She collected herself quickly. 

“Sorry. I was snooping,” she said with a sheepish grin. 

“It’s okay. This was Ethan’s room as a kid. Just his old junk mostly,” Max said with a laugh. “I’m ready for you.”

Greta nodded and she followed Max down the hallway until they reached Max’s office. The women walked inside and took their respective seats across the desk. 

Max retrieved her Intake device and turned it on. She then indicated she was about to begin. Greta responded with a nod. 

“Age?” Max asked.



“Two,” Greta said. “But they’re gone.

“Last time you worked?”

“About twenty years ago. Art history teacher at a small college.”

“On Gov Basic Income?”

“Not yet. But I will be if I remain.”

Max steadied the intake device.

“Are you depressed?”


“What will you miss most about life?”

“What I used to miss about it,” Greta said, somewhat cryptically.

“Continue with that thought, please.”

“There used to be magic just being outside in the world,” Greta said as she glanced outside. The sun was bright and golden. “There were always new things to look at. Explore. Discover. Be enraged by. Be overwhelmed by.” 

“And you feel that’s now gone?”

“I don’t feel it’s gone. It is gone. The magic is gone. And I don’t see how it can ever come back. We’ve killed all the avenues for magic to exist. So? For me? It’s time.” 

“Would you remain if you felt you could get that ‘magic’ back?

Greta thought about this question for a long time. For minutes. 

“No. I’d still end. But I’d feel better about the world I was leaving behind. That’s for sure.” 

Max smiled and fiddled with the Intake device. The two women waited in silence for a few moments. Then, the Intake device buzzed. Max looked down. It gave the signal: Passed.

“Greta, it is official. You have passed Intake. You and I are going skydiving tomorrow.”

“I don’t need any training? I don’t need to practice before the skydive? Or do they still do tandem diving?” Greta felt old and out of touch even asking such questions.

“No,” Max said kindly. “No need for tandem diving. No need for practice runs. The suits do everything for you. All you have to do is jump.”

Max grabbed her coat and she and Greta left the office together. 

Greta nodded. “Bathroom?”

“Down the hall,” Max said. Then she added: “Do something you love tonight.” 

“I will,” said Greta. She turned to go but then stopped. “You know what I really wanted to say in that Intake interview, Max?” Greta asked.

Max nodded.

Greta hesitated. She wanted to say to Max that she wish people still got arrested over ideas. Or lost a friend over an idea. She wanted people to get into fist fights over ideas. Real ideas. Not artificial ones.

“I might sound like a raving lunatic,” Greta finally said. “A ridiculous old lady. But I guess I just really wanted to say that I hoped I’d die because I fought for something. Not because the intake device let me.”

“Greta, we don’t have to go through with your ending,” Max said quietly after a few moments. “Most people don’t go through with it. Believe me. So please, if you’re having any doubts? Let’s not do it.”

“No, it’s not that. It’s not about me, Max. I’ve made my decision.”

Greta dug in her purse and found the sketch that she’d stolen from Ethan’s drawer. She handed it to Max, who unfolded it. It was of an elderly woman wearing a tortoiseshell pendant around her neck. Max studied it. Then she looked up at Greta.

“It looks like you,” she said. She looked again, then lifted her head up. “It is you!”

“Yes. As a child, years ago, your kid brother drew a near-perfect replica of me,” Greta said. “And I found it in his desk drawer about a half hour ago. Imagine that?

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“No, it does not. At least not yet. But isn’t it interesting to think that one day it might? This sketch might mean something. Maybe it’s a sign. Or the start of something. Of a new idea. Of something bigger than what we have now. Maybe you can be a part of that.” 

Greta smiled. Max handed the sketch back to Greta. But she refused it.

“Or maybe I’m just a crazy old lady. Looking for something that isn’t there. Wishful thinking,” Greta said as she walked away, leaving Max holding the sketch, in a state of mild disbelief. 

Max Watches Greta Soar

Max and Greta drove three hours to the Perris airport way out in Riverside County early the next morning. The plane took off from there, along the brown edges of the lower Colorado desert before steadying itself at about fifteen thousand feet. Both women wore bright blue skydiving suits, goggles and, of course, parachutes. Greta was peaceful and calm, even that high up. Even knowing what she was about to do. 

Max barely realized that she was on a plane, about to jump out of it. Her thoughts bounced around: She’d never wanted children. She thought having them was selfish and unfair. To everyone involved. But she was cradling her stomach when she woke up that morning. What was that about? And she found herself obsessing over Ethan’s sketch. It was so bizarre. Greta’s words rang in her ears: Maybe the drawing was a sign. And so was the pregnancy. If she was being honest, Max was lonely. Her entire family was gone. But having a baby to stave off loneliness was the definition of selfish. She didn’t believe in signs anyway. Max had no fucking clue. But she was there for Greta. And only Greta. So she pushed everything down and focused on the here and now. 

The bay window of the plane began to widen. And the sky opened up behind it. Max and Greta watched as the sun pierced the eastern horizon. The larger Mojave, purple and pinched, folded out before them in waves and waves and waves. Pink and orange hit like party drugs. It was breathtaking. All of it. The big and the small. The land and sky.

Max’s confusion evaporated. Just went away. In a split second. And she watched earth pass over her, she had her answer. It was nothing short of an epiphany. Like crossing some rubicon of thought. As if the earth itself directed her. She couldn’t jump out of that plane. She wanted the baby. She needed the baby. And more? The baby needed her. It was suddenly all so clear. So clear in fact that she started to laugh. 

“I’m sorry, Greta. But I can’t jump with you today.” 

“Why?” Greta asked as she continued to take in the views.

“I think I’m having a baby.”

“Oh. Isn’t that exciting news?”

Max collected herself and pointed to the area of the sky just below them. “Look. I have a little surprise. Just for you.”

Something from below then caught Greta’s eye. Then, suddenly, drones lit up the entire expanse of sky. Brilliant colors of blue and rose and orange and green. The lights began to form an image. Quickly it became clear what that image was: Bouquet By the Window. The painting Greta loved had seemingly come to life, spread like a mural across the morning desert blue. 

“It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Greta said.

Greta Has Her Ending         

Max sat with Greta in her hospital room. Earlier, they’d gone over the cremation details. And where Greta wanted her small inheritance to go. They had tea and Greta even put a little gin in hers. Greta spoke of her two children. She went on and on about them. This was important for Great. She wanted Max to know them. At least in spirit. She also talked about her work. What she loved about being a teacher and what she hated. She talked about her own mother, who she adored. 

It was a lovely morning. And then it was time for Greta to end. She had Max put on her favorite song from her childhood, “Piece of My Heart” by Joplin, as Greta prepared herself. 

The artificial nurse appeared on a large screen over the hospitable bed and instructed Greta on how to insert the IV in her arm. Which Max graciously did for her. Max held Greta’s hand tightly as the IV started to take hold. Greta squeezed back just as tight. But then the tightness lessened. Greta lessened.

“Easy does it,” Max whispered in Greta’s ear. “Easy now.”

And that was that.

Max’s Midnight Wish 

In the middle of the night, when she couldn’t sleep, Max liked to walk around the house while it was dark and quiet. Just as her parents did when she and Ethan were young. Mom and dad, protectors of the keep, would shuffle from room to room to make sure all was well in the house as their children slept.

This was one of those sleepless nights for Max. Her moment of pristine clarity in the sky that morning had turned to expected doubt regarding the pregnancy. Which was typical for a woman who took twenty minutes to decide what shade of off-white nail polish to put on.  

Wide awake and spinning, Max crept into the living room and hoped her mother would be there. A ghost sitting on the sofa. 

As a kid, Max read every ghost story she could find, from “Coraline” to “Sleepy Hollow.” She devoured those books. Ghost stories captured her imagination in a way other stories did not. And now she wished they were all true. Now, in the middle of the scary night, she wished she could dig deep into that childlike belief in the unbelievable to summon her mother, her protector.

Max would say to her that the house she and dad had worked so hard to buy had come in handy. It had saved her adult children from the new form of homelessness. She knew that her mother would have loved it that Max and Ethan lived under one roof. Her mother would have loved the comfort of knowing her kids had each other. 

But of course Ethan had ended. Max would have to tell her mother that too. Perhaps her mother would already know. Of course she would know that her son possessed the same still darkness she possessed. She would already know that Ethan had not ended with the humane help of Exit Strategy, but had done it the old way. The rough way. The bloody way. The way that was jarring and shocking and crushing and meaningful. Just like his mother. 

Max walked into her office and sat in her chair. Which felt icy at night. Cold and deliberate somehow. On her desk was the medication she still hadn’t taken or tossed out. Next to it was Ethan’s childhood sketch of Greta. She picked up the medication. Then set it back down. She thought Ethan’s sketch would look great framed, sitting on the corner of her bookshelf. Ethan could be there in spirit as she helped a new client get on with life. But maybe that would be too morose. Too sad. Seeing her brother’s essence in a frame instead of in person. 

Max missed Ethan terribly. 

She thought of Greta next. She thought of good and evil. Right and wrong. Life and death. For one quick moment, she wondered if what she was did in that office, sitting in that same chair, day in and day out, was the right thing. Or if she shouldn’t close up Exit Strategy and go on basic gov like everyone else. She had two new intake interviews in the morning. Maybe she should cancel them. Give in and coast. 

If only her mother’s ghost would appear and set her straight. Tell her what to say, what to do. Max leaned back in her chair and waited for her. Knowing full well she wasn’t coming. But at least she had a few hours left in the night to be proven wrong.

image: Ryan McGinley