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Neil Munster was going to Los Angeles. This wasn’t an opinion, or an observation; it was a cold, hard fact. But not one he cared about. All that mattered was that, for the first time in fifteen years, he was leaving New England. And for the first time in his life, he was leaving New England for good.

     Neil was fifty-two years old, and he wanted nothing more than to end his life.

     At ten-thirty, he had stepped onto the Boeing 777 and found his seat. Now, he sat quietly at a Premium Economy class window, the battered copy of Gulliver’s Travels resting on his knee.

     How many years had he kept that book? How long had its weathered jacket stared up at him, inviting him to turn the pages and read through the story he had almost memorized? Through his teaching years, Gulliver had become almost like a symbol of his success, both present and future. Then, when everything had come crashing down…

     Neil grimaced, his gray eyebrows coming together. Forcing his hands to stay where they were, to ignore the ancient text begging him to pry open its cover, he turned to stare out the window.

     Logan International Airpot wasn’t unfamiliar to Neil. He had grown up in Maine, spent his entire life there – like any Mainer, he silently considered Boston to be the center point of the universe.

     Tonight, the moon was almost totally invisible, nothing more than a sliver hanging in the sky like the sickle Zeus had used to slay his own father.

     Finally, Neil gave into temptation and opened the book.

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     My father had a small Estate in Nottinghamshire: I was the Third of five Sons. He sent me to Emanuel-College in Cambridge at Fourteen Years old, where I resided three Years, and applied my self close to my Studies: But the Charge of maintaining me (although I had a very scanty Allowance) being too great for a narrow Fortune, I was bound Apprentice to Mr. James Bates, an eminent Surgeon in London, with whom I continued four Years;

     Neil knew the opening paragraph by heart, and not from actively trying to memorize it. He loved the passage, loved the entire book. He couldn’t say why, exactly, but he suspected that he loved it because it had always been there for him. Gulliver had been there when Neil’s own family deserted him. Gulliver had gotten him through the last few days of despondent misery; and before that, the fifteen years of hopeless solitude.

     After a while, Neil realized that two passengers had sat down next him: a young black woman and a middle-aged white man. He considered growling at them, telling them to find different seats, but a quick glance around the Premium Economy cabin told him that wouldn’t be possible: almost every seat was full. Neil remembered the discount tickets he had been offered, seemingly out of the blue, and connected the dots somewhere in the back of his mind. Quantum had never been the most respected travel company, and their higher-ups must have thought it was a good idea to nearly bankrupt themselves with special offers.

     For a second, Neil considered the self-destructive mindset of modern-day consumers, the attitude that led them to believe that if they were offered a special deal, they had to agree, or else. How many passengers aboard the crowded Boeing 777 were only there for the discount? Did any of them even want to be in Los Angeles?

     Neil forced these thoughts out of his mind just as soon as they appeared, remembering that he himself was one of those cheap passengers, that he had even less reason to be in California than he had to be in Boston.

     In fact, he really had no business being anywhere. Neither had he any interest. In anything.

     At one point, the senior flight attendant began to speak. Neil ignored her. He didn’t really care if he could locate the oxygen masks and PFDs; in fact, an emergency that required the use of a life-saving device didn’t seem like a bad idea. The deal had been that he wouldn’t purposefully kill himself: nobody said he had to save his own life, if it came to that.

     Eventually, the old woman in the bubblegum-pink uniform disappeared through the door that separated the Premium Economy and Business cabins. A few minutes later, Quantum Flight 888 left the runway.

     As the plane shot into the night sky, Neil pulled aside the cuff of his tweed jacket, revealing an ancient analogue watch. The hands read somewhere around 11:10; his eyes weren’t what they used to be, and he usually had to round up.

     Gulliver’s Travels, still resting on his knee, seemed to grow heavier as the plane mounted into the atmosphere. It needed to be read. It wanted to be read. But he wouldn’t give in, not again. He relied too often on the book – for comfort, for guidance. Not for moral support, no; the time for that was long gone. He had spent the last fifteen years trying to ignore the idiots who thought they could cure his misery by spitting pathetic wisdom into his ears. As if words could change the past.

     As if cheerful thoughts could bring back the dead.

     A whisper cut through the silence of the stuffed cabin, and Neil looked up. Not in surprise, or interest – just as a reaction of instinct.

     Two figures were making their way aft down the left-hand aisle, and Neil – sitting at a far-right window – had to crane his neck to see them.

     One of them was a young man with light blond hair, whose age Neil couldn’t quite make out. Somewhere between fifteen and twenty-five, he thought, unable to narrow the gap any further. Neil thought he looked vaguely familiar, and tried to place who from his old life the boy reminded him of.

     The blonde’s companion was a young woman, probably in her mid-to-late-thirties, with brown hair and a white coat. Depending on the young man’s age, she could have been his sister, his girlfriend…perhaps even his mother, if she was considerably older than she looked.

     Isn’t she around…Maryanne’s age? whispered something in the back of his mind.

     “Shut the hell up,” Neil hissed, turning back to face the seat in front of him, ignoring a confused frown from the woman to his left.

     Neil leaned back and closed his eyes, the book held in his lap. He didn’t know what he was doing here, but he figured he might as well enjoy the two things that still held any sort of pleasure for him: sleep and alcohol. The latter would be provided once the flight was in motion.

     The pilot’s voice came over the intercom and spoke a few introductory words. He welcomed the passengers to his flight, thanked them for choosing Quantum Airlines…as if any of them would be here without the deep discounts they’d been offered.

     Not that Neil cared enough to judge them. More than fifteen years had passed since Neil last cared about anything.

[four days ago]

     By the time Neil arrived in Brunswick, the sky had filled with clouds. They weren’t rainclouds: they were white, and the sun was shining brightly through them, bringing Maine to an annoyingly warm temperature.

     In his life before, Neil had been an English teacher. How many days, months, years had he spent teaching disinterested adolescents the importance of such-and-such metaphors? After a lifetime of translating all written words into What did the author mean? or What is the purpose of this?, Neil had actually come to think of the real world in these terms, as if everything was dictated by a Higher Being who found pleasure in creating real-life metaphors.

     Thanks to this way of thinking, Neil’s mood had gone from sullen to hateful. Given his situation, the warm temperature and glowing clouds seemed like a huge existential middle finger directed right at him.

     Neil’s cab sped away, and he stepped towards the cemetery gates.

     The graveyard sat just off the road that stretched between Brunswick and Bath, and Neil could hear every car as it went by. He couldn’t see them though, thanks to a slight rise in the middle of the field.

     Although he’d been given directions, it took Neil the better part of a half-hour to find Maryanne’s resting place.

     And there it was: an insignificant rectangle of stone, jutting up from the ground at a crisp right angle.

     Maryanne Henry Poore. Born three years after Neil graduated high school; died two years after his incarceration.

     Neil recognized the quote carved into her headstone, but he couldn’t place it. The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, which hurts and is desired. What was that? Shakespeare? Milton?

     It didn’t matter. Sixteen years later, he had finally found her. He was no longer a young man, and she was no longer alive. They had robbed him of his youth and potential; he had robbed Maryanne of her will to keep going.

     But now they were even. Seeing this gravestone had finally eased what-ever desire Neil had to keep living.

     Maybe there was a Higher Being. Maybe there wasn’t. Either way, Neil planned on finding out.

     Today.

     There was no one else in the cemetery, so Neil reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the Glock. From the other pocket came a magazine, which he slid into the grip.

     In the hours since Neil was released from Cumberland County Jail, he had thought of nothing besides ridding the world of the man who had pushed Maryanne over the edge.

     And what better place to kill a man than this: a forest of the dead, where the trees were stone monuments to once-living creatures, the roots a forest of bones and rotted wood?

     Neil brushed the tips of his fingers across the stone lettering, the name of that young woman – that girl – who had once meant so much to him. Whose life he had destroyed. It had been a vicious symbiont, their relation-ship: they had brought each other to the ground.

     Neil racked the slide and pressed the gun to his temple. He felt the cold circle of polymer touch the side of his head, held it steady against the thin flesh. This was it, he thought, taking one final look at the headstone. He didn’t care about the world around him; Maryanne’s final resting place was all that mattered.

     Then, he stopped. His finger rested on the trigger.

     “This isn’t what you’re supposed to do,” Maryanne said.

     “Yes it is,” he growled. “You did it, I have to do it too. It’s the same thing, except I was in jail for fifteen goddamn years before I got the chance.”

     “You don’t deserve this,” she replied. “You don’t get to take the easy way out. Put the gun away, and go make a new life for yourself.”

     “There is no new life!” he cried. “You think I can just go back to how I was before I met you? I’m fifteen years older and I’m ready to be done with this shit!”

     “Your lot isn’t to give up,” she replied evenly. “Your curse is to live.”

     He knew it was true. Even before he had come here, he had known, on some level far below conscious thought, that he wouldn’t finish the job. It was true, he was meant to keep going. With what, with who, he had no idea. But Maryanne had taken the easy way out. In her memory, and in penance for his sins, Neil would keep going.

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© copyright 2020 Nathaniel J. Nelson