Mark Benedict, author of Sandra, The Nights Are So Long, is a graduate of the MFA Writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. He has previously published in Columbia Journal, Hobart, Menacing Hedge, Rue Morgue, and Tor.com. His publications include short stories, author interviews, and book and movie reviews.
One bright morning, Ken’s longtime therapist, Cheryl, finally relented and agreed that his case was probably hopeless. It was early spring, the return of color and warmth. Ken sat across from Cheryl, each in a plush armchair. The office was bathed in sunlight from the window. A vase of yellow flowers perched on the sill. Ken, though, felt like a frozen winter grave. He hadn’t laughed in months. He hadn’t written a song in a year.
“I mean, let’s be real, Cheryl,” he said, not for the first time. “I mean, be honest with me. Do you think I’ll ever be happy? Or even not miserable?”
“Dammit, Ken,” she said, frowning. But then, instead of arguing against trying to predict the future like she usually did, she remained eerily silent. “No, I don’t,” she said finally. “I think we’ve tried everything. I think we’re stuck in this wasp’s nest forever.”
“All right,” he said, surprised but not much. “Then I’m gonna do it. Soon.”
Cheryl smiled tentatively. “Maybe I can help. I mean, if you’re doing it anyway.”
Ken stared at her. Now here was a real surprise. And help how, exactly?
“There’s this death drink,” Cheryl explained, clasping her hands in her lap. “The Gulch, it’s called. Completely painless. It’s not sold on the market, obviously, but I know a back channel you could get it through. If you’re interested, I could give you a number.”
Hell yeah he was interested. Painless was perfect. Driving home, he called the number Cheryl gave him. After a few transfers, a scratchy-voiced man named Feld came on the line and said he’d meet Ken at a local coffee shop on Saturday.
Ken passed the days by pacing miserably around his apartment; he’d quit his office job and cancelled his internet months ago. In his calmer moments, he tried to conjure happy memories. Nights were nasty. Despair visited. He slammed tea and skimmed magazines and slept horribly.
On Saturday, Ken eagerly entered the dank coffee shop. A grey-haired man, sixty or so, vaguely criminal in a long leather coat, signaled at him from a table. Ken sat down across from him. Feld grinned, sipped his coffee, and asked Ken why he wanted to die.
Ken passed the days by pacing miserably around his apartment: he’d quit his office job and cancelled his internet months ago.
Ken was thrown. “What? No! I mean, can’t you just sell me this Gulch stuff?”
Feld made a face. “That’s not how this rodeo works, bud. I don’t even have it on me. If you want us to consider selling it to you, ya gotta tell us your sad story.”
“Depression,” Ken said, trying to sum it up quickly. “Since childhood. Also, my wife recently left. Also, I’m a failed songwriter. I’ve written hundreds of songs. Fucking hundreds, man. Can’t sell ‘em, can’t get a gig playing ‘em. That sad enough for you?”
“Nope,” Feld said flatly. “Sorry, but I’ve heard much sadder. This one lady? She was molested as a kid by a priest and a nun. She lived in fear of religious people. Poor gal was in constant terror! Tried to get past it but never could. You, though, I think you’re just going through a stage. A midlife thing. In a month or so, you’ll change your mind.”
And that was it. Feld split soon after. Back at home, Ken paced endlessly. Not sad enough! What crap. Although, in a way, totally predictable. He had never been enough of anything. Smart enough, skilled enough, lucky enough. Moira, his ex, would add, also, not easygoing or extroverted enough.
It didn’t change his overall plan, but still, he had gotten pretty attached to the idea of a painless fade-out. An afterlife seemed unlikely. He had actively invited the spirit of his beloved dead grandpa to visit him, to flicker the kitchen lights or smash the sink dishes, but all his homes had remained lamely unhaunted.
“I spoke with Feld, too,” Cheryl said at their next appointment. “It’s a libel thing. They’re afraid that, if you don’t go through with it, you’ll tell someone about the Gulch and where you got it. He said people often change their mind at the last minute.”
“Not me,” Ken said. “And I’m still doing it, I just gotta decide on the method.”
Cheryl brightened. “Listen, though! Feld mentioned something else, another off-market thing. An anti-depressant that really helps some people. It’s a psychedelic, very potent. Which is something we haven’t tried. Sometimes all it takes is a dose or two.”
“Jesus, Cheryl! No more fucking drugs. I feel like a damn junkie.”
Her eyes dimmed, her face drooped. “I truly believed I could help,” she muttered. “It was like a ninja mission for me. But nothing’s changed, you still hate yourself.”
“I don’t hate myself,” Ken said. “I hate the way I feel. I hate this nasty world.”
Cheryl sighed. “Are you gonna leave a note? For Moira or anybody?”
“Nah. She’d cry for two minutes, then go for a manicure. You’re the only one to say goodbye to.” Then, trying to grin, “You’ve been great, Cheryl. Sincerely.”
She smiled, then winced. “You’ve suffered so much. I would like it very much if you didn’t suffer on the way out. Let me call Feld again. Maybe it’ll help, who knows.”
It did help. That night Ken got a call from a dulcet-voiced woman who identified herself as Hoopsick, a courier associate of Feld’s. She said that she had just dropped off a contract at Ken’s doorstep. If he met Feld at the coffee shop tomorrow, and provided the signed contract and five hundred in cash, the Gulch would be delivered to him soon after.
That night Ken got a call from a dulcet-voiced woman who identified herself as Hoopsick…
Ken agreed, gratefully, then hung up and retrieved the contract. It indicated that the liquid provided was intended for research only and was toxic if ingested. Ken signed it, then brewed some coffee and set out to get his apartment in decent order. He put his musty wedding album, along with his acoustic guitar, unceremoniously in the dumpster pile.
“It’s a damn shame,” Feld said, taking the cash and the signed contract at the coffee shop the next day. “Your shrink told you about this psychedelic treatment, right? You’d see crazy figments and you’d cry like a doofus, but maybe it would cure you.”
Ken nodded. “She told me, but I don’t want it. Drugs don’t work on me, dude.”
“I don’t get it, bud,” Feld said. “You’re a cool cat. Why do you hate yourself?”
“It’s not like that. I don’t hate myself, I’m just exhausted.”
Feld considered. “Fair enough. But let’s slow this train down, right? Cuz I got some propositions for ya. Alternatives to the Gulch.” Then, grinning, “First thing is, we go out to some lady clubs. Classy places only. Second thing is, we get some revenge on this ex-wife of yours. Send her dead flowers, spread rumors about her on social media.”
Ken rubbed his head. Sometimes the dark feeling was like an uncomfortable mist, but other times, like now, it thickened into a strange, sweltering, murderous storm. Life wasn’t too short, days weren’t lacking in hours. Time crawled. Minutes were months.
“Look, Feld, these are interesting ideas. But I’ve already considered—”
“The third thing is, we get you an iguana.”
Ken looked up. “You mean, a fucking lizard?”
“You got it, bud! There’s actually an iguana rescue not far from here. Hoopsick volunteers there, she could get you a screaming deal. I mean, taking care of a pet really makes a person feel good, you know? I got two myself. They’re my green buddies.”
Ken, tearing up, smacked the tabletop. “Dude, please! Can I just have the drink?”
Feld’s grin dissolved, his posture crumpled like a puppet’s. Eventually he nodded. “I’ll circle back to your shrinker,” he said quietly. “If she still okays it, then we’re a go.” Then, after a long squinty moment, “Just do me a favor, though, okay? Don’t give away your car or all your money or anything. Cuz, well, you might change your mind, right?”
“My mind is made up! But fine, whatever. Just gimme the fucking Gulch, man.”
Three days later, there was a single knock on Ken’s door. Opening it, he found a small black box on the mat and saw a spiky-haired older woman, presumably Hoopsick, scurrying down the sunny, flowery path to the parking lot. She gave one quick, smirky, backward glance.
Ken grabbed the box, then slammed the door and opened the box to find, beneath crinkly tissue paper, a small clear vial. He stared at it gratefully. Not one more night. He wouldn’t have to suffer through one more sinister fucking night. The liquid inside the vial was a swirling red and orange, like the goo inside a lava lamp.
Ken took the vial and, feeling almost ready, sat down on the couch to think.
There was a girl he knew in high school. An acquaintance. A kind, pretty, dark-haired girl, who wore a green dress and tied her ponytail in red ribbon. When he heard in senior year that she secretly loved him, Ken felt ambushed by elation but wasn’t sure how to approach her.
Plus, the girl wasn’t popular or glamorous and his buddies were sure to give him shit about it. In the end, he did nothing, which had come to haunt him. Dating her seemed like it might have been the first step on the path to a better, less tortured life.
There was an internship opportunity in his junior year of college. A chance to work at a local recording studio. The acceptance rate was high, with maybe half of applicants admitted. But he was lazy back then and never got around to applying.
There was a feeling in him after college. A sense that he could have an expansive, adventurous life. A life whose pursuits included activism, world travel, and songwriting. But the day jobs were demanding and joyless. Forced to pick a dream, he picked music, which turned out to be a bad choice. And after his wife left, he was utterly alone. All his energy had been poured into music and marriage; friends and family had all drifted away.
Maybe he did hate himself. He had made dumb mistakes and didn’t always learn from them. Still, he hated the world more. This broken, baffling, vicious world.
Ken uncapped the vial and drank the liquid. It tasted like moldy water. A strange florescent sensation filled his body. An hour later, he felt intensely lethargic but was definitely still alive. Why? Oh, he knew why. Those fuckers had tricked him! But this realization slipped away when his body went entirely numb. The front door creaked open. The dark-haired girl from high school, still young, still in a green dress and with a red-ribbon ponytail, came into the room, sat down next to him, and asked what was wrong.
“I’m just so tired,” he whispered. “I don’t want to be alive anymore.”
The girl smiled sadly. You have to stay alive, she said, in a tone that smelled like cinnamon, but I can try to take away the pain. Then she plunged her hands into his chest, yanking out a squirmy black snaky thing. Ken gasped; the relief was staggering. The girl removed her hair ribbon and then, with marzipan malice, strangled the snaky thing with her ribbon until it went limp, then smacked it to the floor.
A huge, angry iguana darted into the room and gulped it down. Ken was slammed by grief. So many years lost! So many days stolen. The tears flowed like tortured songs. He wept and screamed. Get it all out, my dear, the girl said. Let it all go. She took his hand in hers and sat with him. Her green dress hissed, then crooned. The iguana morphed into a smaller, calmer iguana.
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