God Only Wise

A short story (2010)

We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
and wither and perish—but naught changeth thee.


On the top floor of the tallest building in the city, the second oldest man in the world quite suddenly became the first.

Alan Brant spoke, and there was light. As the blinds on the arched window rose up the afternoon sun dispersed into brown leather, reflected off laminated floors and caused the glassware on the far table to sparkle. He sat in the beam, scrolling through news, occasionally stopping to read an article or enlarge an image. Vivaldi's La primavera emanated from speakers at each corner of the office. Far below, beneath a thick carpet of impenetrable smog, cars drifted through the web of streets, interspersed by dark streams of pedestrians.

From amongst the traffic, a taxi pulled to the curb. From it, Alan's son emerged. Tom was old. He moved slowly and his hands were stained with decades of ink and paint. Before him the formidable structure sailed into the smog. Obscured at the very top was the deity of this central point in the universe, flinging out countless intangible strings of influence into the world. Tom knew that one led to him. Perhaps only a thin one, frayed and forgotten, but he could feel it, still there. He exhaled nervously and began to walk to the lobby, wondering how he would tell his father.

The oldest man in the world perused the news and sipped his coffee, and for a few brief minutes, remained untroubled.

Alan had chosen to retain a youthful face. It was handsome, from a naturally chiselled nose to a finely crafted mouth but his eyes crushed up light like black holes and spat it out crippled and lustreless. His skin shone with opulence and power, impermeably smooth.

The first hour of every morning was spent on hygiene. He rinsed with warm water, and then applied an oil-free ginseng balm – then an exfoliating scrub, a revitalising cream, and a face mask that would sit for twenty minutes. He did these things in the dark.

He had been one of the first, his memories unclear, like looking at something over a great distance or through opaque glass. Only hints and suggestions remained. White rooms, blue syringes, light-purple robed doctors floating from room to room like angels.

After his release from the Institute, he had gone drinking with his father. Here his memory was clearer. An old jukebox, red leather stools and hunting trophies arranged around the walls in a familiar pattern. The smell of tobacco and stale beer permeated the foundations of the bar, which infused in all the patrons a sense of duty to get drunk as quickly and as quietly as possible.

Delicately, the memory unfolded in Alan's mind like origami.

"Well?" said his father.

"Well what?"

"How do you feel?"

"Pretty awful."

The conversation faltered. The first words his father had spoken to him in weeks sounded as if he half expected his son to sprout wings or start making things levitate. His father did not speak to him as a son, nor even an equal. The silence held for a few minutes, finally interrupted by the bartender leaning between them to turn on the television.

His father – an old man, then – turned away from him, nursing his beer and peering over the scattered patrons to watch the television. An Institute advertisement flickered on to the screen, full of smiling families and couples running along beaches. Alan saw a glimpse of his own face. It filled him with satisfaction – he had achieved something, he had finally begun his life. Everything before now seemed like it had been procrastination.

"I've done it." He said. "I'm here. This is it."

His father looked at him. "I'm sure you'll have far greater achievements, Alan. You've got time now. You've got all the time in the world. Have you thought what you're going to do?"

"I'm going back to university."

"To teach?"

"To study. I'm not sure what. Anything."

His father smiled a thin smile. "That's my son, always the scholar. The only good is knowledge –"

His father's favourite words, Alan completed the idiom. They would be on his father's gravestone.

"Another beer for my boy!" his father called to the bartender, raising his own in a toast. Alan shrank into his seat.

The bartender came over to them, and poured Alan another drink. He looked from Alan to his father, smiled, and said, "It's great to see a young man take his granddad out for a beer. It's really great."

His father's face fell. The bartender moved off. His father looked at Alan, and then the mirror facing them across the bar. It was framed by bottles and a detailed engraving, but both men saw only their own reflections. They did not speak another word until his father muttered "Let's go." Even under the dim bar lighting Alan could see tears on his cheeks.

Years later, when his father was on his deathbed Alan had asked him why he had cried. He would only say 'a premonition', and return to determined silence. Years later again Alan had visited his gravestone. He read it through pouring rain, fists clenched and teeth chattering. 'The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance' - Aristotle. He never returned.

A news flash caught his attention. He quickly verified its veracity, found it to be solid, and sat back into the sun to wait, stunned. After a few moments the monitor signalled an incoming call.

"Good Morning, Mr Brant, I have some unfortunate news."

"Henry Lee is dead."

"Yes sir. It's a real tragedy sir. He was a hero in China."

"Yes, he was. How did he die?"

"His daughter filed a missing persons report this morning. It seems that his kayak was found empty at the edge of Erhai Lake in Yunnan where he has a boathouse-"

"Yes, I've been there."

"Yes sir. They found his body just a few minutes ago. It looks like a he just got tired and nobody heard him. It's a tragedy, sir, it really is. We've assumed the media is going to make a big thing of your newfound status, so we've got Harvey Lyman – you know Harvey, he did your Tercentenary Dinner speech – we've got him writing a press release for tomorrow. Now I don't know if you want to write a letter to his family yourself, or..."

"No, no, get Lyman to do them both. I'll look over them when he's done. One more thing..."

"Yes sir."

"Call Beijing. Tell the media to be respectful. No digging into his past, is that clear?"

"Yes sir."

The call ended and Alan sat back. For a moment, he was at a loss. He was the oldest man on earth. A vast weight fell across his shoulders. An emotion he had not felt in a long time began to emerge from the centre of his chest – it was doubt.

When the treatment first emerged, it was vastly popular. Within three years of its commercialization, it had overtaken breast enlargement as the most popular form of elective surgery. But then the right people had gotten angry. The right people had euthanized. The right mix of public opinion had been moulded by the media.

It had been called the Million Mortals March. It wasn't an official name, but in the way of mass movements it quickly became known as that. Very rich men were eager to protect their investments. When the police wore masks, you knew something unchangeable was going to happen very soon. And so the idea of immortality had quickly been tainted. Perhaps those were the critical years, where the idea, not frail in conception but in realisation, could have flourished. Perhaps it could have still, after that initial bloodshed, if not for the first wave.

The first clients, when they had reached around a hundred, had lost their will to live. Within a decade, half had decided to euthanize - and there it was, the great dissuasion. People didn't want to spend half their life savings on something they thought they would grow to hate. And even without the treatments and surgeries people were hitting their nineties. There were still the few, of course, who sought out far longer life extension at far greater expense. But it seemed that people had discovered something about themselves. The choice changed things.

He was one of the few. He was the last of the few. He made no large effort to revive the movement. There was one anti-senescence institute left in the world, and he owned it. It had less than a thousand customers, predominantly male – a figure that had stayed the same for years. Henry Lee had been one of the other great believers in life, fourteen days older than Alan. A prominent political figure, he had served his maximum terms as both Senator and President many years ago and then moved on to lobbying. He had been known as the Alligator – he had a bite that never let go.

And now he was dead – drowned on some damn lake, on some insignificant winter morning. It was a meaningless death, voiding the vast, unknowable potential of his age, his experiences, his emotions, his great intellect – all lost. Truly, Alan thought, such immense experience had rivalled the depths of the Valles Marineris. It was gone, dispersed into nothingness. Henry Lee, once vibrant was now a static facsimile of memory. The universe should mourn.

But up above the smog there were no clouds. The sky was clear. Perhaps there were clouds over China.

He was now the oldest man in the world. He examined the notion, and found that he enjoyed it. It was something new – a rarity, it seemed, now – and so he savoured the moment. It was a triumph over Lee, over the world.

The clock on his desk beeped. It was 5:30. China had just begun to wake up. He stopped reading the news and began to work again. Stock figures and statistics bloomed in his mind with practiced elegance, and he began to further reinforce his empire, little by little, stone by stone. It grew slowly, but it never waned. In this way, he moved mountains and conquered nations.


The elevator door opened, and a figure moved from the shadows into the exterior hall. Alan watched his son through the security system. Unlike his father, Tom had allowed himself to age. His jowls had descended, causing a greying beard to sag off his face. Deep creases folded off his skull, creating a resemblance to a bloodhound. He had also taken on an unmistakable paunch.

Alan remembered when he had gone through that phase – wanting to see how his body changed as the hourglass was allowed to resume, the second hand let loose. Age, when controlled, becomes a novelty. The cultured look had come into fashion with his friends in a few circles, so he had temporarily sped up his metabolism. But he had watched with horror as his face crumbled and his waist ballooned. Within a few years, he had reverted back to his old self. The experiment had not been repeated, his reaction a great source of mirth for his friends – he had dyed his hair and stayed indoors for weeks until the reversion was complete. It had been a source of mirth anyway, before they had all fallen out, slowly, one after another.

Alan stopped that train of thought. He rose from the chair, straightening his suit and quickly checking his appearance in the mirror. Satisfied, he strolled across his office and into the hall, doing up the middle button on his suit. Henry Lee had taught him that when it came to suits, 'middle always, top sometimes, bottom never'. Advice like that had served him well.

The hall took up most of the floor, a hub for a warren of sculpted rooms and long forgotten memories. Ergonomic couches sat in perfect feng shui with the central fireplace. At the far end, encased in a sunbeam, stood a spiral staircase leading to the upper levels. His son turned as he entered. Alan found himself annoyed. He paused for a moment, his step faltering, considering what the cause could be. Tom had let himself go, for one thing. Alan had put a substantial investment of time and money into his son. It had cost tens of millions, although Alan couldn't remember the exact figure off the top of his head. But most of all, Tom had not informed him of his visit or its purpose, leaving Alan in a state of intolerable ignorance.

"Well?" said Alan.

His son broke into a wide grin, showing sparkling white teeth. Even lack of self-preservation couldn't undo years of dental therapy. "Well what?" he asked. His voice was deep and boisterous and Alan remembered he didn't like it. It was a heavy voice, carrying far too much timbre for him.

"What brings you here, Tom?"

"I can't just come to see my father?"

"No, you can't. I have work." As the words left his mouth, Alan regretted them. He had a habit of addressing Tom as a child. Still, he was young compared to Alan. So young. He could barely remember that age. Tom's face had remained impassive, but his eyes flared at the remark.

"Sorry Tom," he said, "I'm just extremely busy right now. I've got a press conference tomorrow, and I still haven't written what I'm going to say." The lie was clumsy, but Alan could not enjoy looking at his son, not now.

Tom seemed to be glad to have a question to ask, and latched onto it quickly. "What about?"

"Henry Lee."

"Yes, I heard about it this morning. It was on the news. So you're it now?"

"So it would seem."

"Hmmm. It's a big deal. Oldest man in the world. Do you get a plaque or something? I think I remember Henry Lee got a parade."

Alan chuckled a little to himself at the idea. He had been given parades before. Anyway, he thought, who had the authority to give him one?

Tom continued. "How does it feel?"

"Much the same."

There was a pause. Neither man knew what to say. Alan spoke first. "Our stocks are up 82 points."

There was a pause. Tom shifted uncomfortably on the spot.

"Well actually Dad..."

"You've sold all your stocks." Alan finished. "You also didn't keep the money. I believe you donated it to an artistic charity – Global Art Education. I've frozen the transaction until you can give me a sufficient reason to unfreeze it."

Tom snorted. "Thought I wouldn't get it past you… Ah well, it was worth a shot." There was a long pause. "That's actually why I'm here today... I think..." Tom devolved into disfluency, then silence. Alan went to the bar and poured two whiskies – 234 year old liquor. Once past 240, whisky stopped aging and started rotting. But those 15 years before… For those few years it was an ambrosia. Tom had let his chin rest on his hands and was staring at the bookcase.

"You're here because of the date." Alan said.

"It's a year to the day."

"I know."

Alan placed the whisky in front of Tom on the table and sat down in his chair. He could still see the ravages of grief in his eyes and the set of his shoulders. In his opinion, Tom's state was unfounded. Tom had had many years to prepare himself for her death, and yet he had not.

"Tom, you knew she was going to die. She knew she was going to die. She refused treatment. You knew she was a purist when you got married. You knew she would get sick eventually."

"I know! I know. But I thought I'd have longer than I did. I thought we'd have longer together."

Tom fell silent. Alan drained the whisky and turned to pour himself another. Once he would have worried about his liver, but now it was better engineered than any work of evolution. "You've let yourself go. You looked better when you were younger. You should get something done. Tomorrow, whenever you'd like, drop into the clinic and see the doctors. There's a new fellow there – unexperienced in this field, yes, but I've heard some incredible things about his previous work. Only 78, and already he's the Head of Cardiology at the Eisenhower Medical Centre."

His glass refilled, he turned back to see Tom standing by the bookcase, inspecting the cover of a red leather volume. Surprisingly, he had reading glasses on. It disturbed Alan a little. Those eyes were state-of-the-art, and he was sure that they had come with a lifetime guarantee. Besides that, it was an unpleasant reminder of Tom's decline. Alan remembered, a long time ago, when glasses had actually come in as a fashion accessory. The idea of people actually making themselves short-sighted or long-sighted, just as an excuse to sport a pair of fashionable eyewear had always struck him as incredibly perverse.

Tom didn't look up. "What are you looking at?" Alan said.

"King James Bible."

"Ah. A classic."

"Yes. I didn't know you had this kind of stuff."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Well it's not like you're a believer."

"I can't have a King James Bible because I'm not religious? Please. I keep a copy of the Toledot Yeshu right next to it."

"I've read everything here. Socrates, Plato, Gibbon, Orwell... Read them all. God, is there even anything to read anymore?"

Alan had considered the problem a long time ago. "Of course. Around half a million books are written a year, and even if you assume that only one tenth of a percent are worth reading, that's still five-hundred books a year. If you read a book every day, you wouldn't make it."

Tom snorted. "You have an answer for everything, Dad."

"Yes. I do."

Alan strode to the coffee table and picked up the two glasses, taking them over to the cabinet and setting them on top carefully. He began to pour Tom another and a double for himself.

Tom spoke. "I'm going to euthanize. I thought I should let you know."

A slosh of whisky missed the glass and splattered over the cabinet top. He quickly placed the decanter back in its place and wiped the surface clean with a cloth.

"When did you decide to do that?"

"A couple of years ago, after Marianne was diagnosed. It was just after you'd given that speech about the future of the company, and I don't know... I was driving home and she was next to me. It was just so perfect. I decided that after Marianne passed on I wanted to follow her."

"Follow her where? I didn't raise you to be religious, Tom."

"I'm not. But you can't prove there isn't an afterlife. This, in a way, is an experiment to find out once and for all. The last great experiment - valid, reliable, accurate... but only subjective."

"The stakes are awfully high."

"There are no stakes. If there isn't something after, I'll never know. If there is... maybe I'll find there what I've lost here."

"Have you at least made some form of a plan, or are you just going to off yourself in the company bathrooms?"

"I'm going to use the rest of this month to get things in order. I've already made an appointment at the clinic. I've been told... I've been told that it's better not to draw these things out."

Tom stared at the bookcase. Alan took the opportunity to sit down and take things into stock. He felt at a loss. His son was leaving him, the world, forever. His friends had left him, sure. They had grown tired of life, tired of the work and the pain and the unendingness of it all, so they had chosen to end it. Euthanasia had evolved in leaps and bounds since Alan's youth – it was quick, painless and the environment was apparently quite friendly – well, as friendly as a morgue could be, he thought.

Alan suddenly felt that the whisky he had would not do, and drained it quickly, replacing it with another one. He put aside his sadness. If you let it, sadness would fester and grow into anger and grief and he had felt enough of anger and grief. There is only so much pain a mind can take before it stops feeling it, Alan thought.

"Aren't you going to ask me why?"

"I know why."

"Ask me."

Alan said nothing, but just looked at Tom.

After a time, Tom averted his eyes. "Look, I can see you're busy. I didn't come to argue with you. I just came to give you some notice. My funeral's all organised. It will be modest. I don't want you to make it big, Dad. No press, nobody but family, and keep everything to a bare minimum. I don't want to make a fuss."

Tom walked over to where his father was standing, his eyes regarding the youthful yet ancient face. "I know we've had our differences Dad. But you always provided for me and Mum. I love you. I don't want to hold you up, Dad. I'll be at the beach house if you want to talk some more. I'd like that."

Alan heard the sound of an incoming call from the office. He spoke quickly. "Tom, I should take this. Stay right there."

He put down his whisky and went into his office. It was a different executive – perhaps Harvey Lyman – whose face smiled up at him from the screen.

"Hello sir. I've finished your press release. It's about ten minutes long, and I've got the question and answers, so you should be all set. Sorry it was so late, sir, but I had to make some big changes. It should have arrived there by now, sir."

Alan hesitated for a moment, and stared out of the window and into nothingness. Tom would have heard Lyman's remark, and from it Alan's earlier lie was revealed. Outside the window, on the opposite building, two window cleaners slowly made their way down the vast wall of glass. He appreciated the simplicity of their existence. They started a building, they finished a building, and on every pane of glass in between there was no doubt, just solid, plodding work. He could destroy their lives with a flick of his hand. It was his kingdom, for as far as he could see and beyond. Why then did he feel so uncomfortable?

The young voice of the executive interrupted his train of thought.

"Sir, are you okay?"

Alan quickly recovered himself and looked back down at the executive. The young man's smile had faltered, and now he looked concerned.

"Sir?"

"Yes, I'm fine. I've got it. I'll read it over now."

He read as he wandered back into the hall and began talking again. "Tom, I can't let you do this. I'm contacting the best psychologist in the-"

He was speaking to an empty hall. Calling the front office only told him he was too late and he stood at his chair, staring at his desk for several minutes. Absentmindedly he pushed a pen off it and it clattered hollowly on the floor. He made a note to change the system to stop people leaving without his approval.

He attempted to return to his work, but for the first time in many years he found himself unable to concentrate. Numbers, stocks, figures... All turned to dust and slipped through his fingers. Time passed, but slowly. Eventually, he reached for his phone and made another call.


It took some time to get there. When the convoy arrived, the sun had reached the horizon and now threaded countless hues of colour into the sky. Alan stepped from the black limousine onto pavement, and took in the sight of the beach house. There was not another structure in sight and the nearest town was over an hour away. In the cars behind him, darkly clad figures emerged, reaching into their coat pockets and quickly scanning the surroundings. Not that there was any real threat of an incident – with the amount of money Alan had spent, he could probably take a bullet in the chest and come out smiling.

The house stood alone on the beach. Apart from scatterings of salt-grass amongst the dunes behind it, the place was lifeless. It was a traditional construction of pale wood and glass - simple, clean and modest. Alan had never understood why Tom had insisted on modesty, but there it was. A single light was on in the kitchen, and as Alan watched, another came on and the back door opened. Tom emerged, in the middle of drying a dinner plate with a chequered tea-towel. He saw the convoy, smiled, and waved.

Far down the beach, an automated oil collector dragged itself from the sea. It resembled a black slug slowly emerging from a diamond, its shape made indeterminate by the distance and the haze of the sunset. It was long, stretching from the back of the beachfront to the water's edge and far beyond, only now in the twilight leaving its work and retreating up the concrete pier. It produced a constant, loud hum in the lowest audible frequencies. An ache emerged behind Alan's eyes. With a nod from him, an assistant began to jog towards the device.

He began to walk towards the house, and a group of black figures peeled off to follow him, but after a moment he thought better and waved them away. He climbed the stairs alone, where Tom waited for him, wearing an apron embroidered with 'Kiss the Chef'. Alan gave it a glance and Tom began to remove it.

"I'm glad you came."

"You walked out on me before."

"You were busy."

"Don't walk out on me."

"I'm sorry."

Tom went inside to return the plate and the apron. When he came back out, Alan motioned towards the beach and they walked down towards the waves.

"Why, Tom?"

Tom shuffled his feet like a teenager. "I had motivation. Now I don't."

"Motivation? How can you not have motivation? You're an artist, aren't you? Write about her. Paint about her. That's your motivation."

Tom kicked the sand. On the few occasions when they had been together, when Tom was still young, they had gone to places like this.

"I had writers block for half a century. I thought I'd done everything I could in the world. No new words came to me, no new ideas. It was all rehashed trash, already done better by someone else. I was ready to do it, before I met Marianne. Then, with her... everything changed. I thought she had given me life, but now I know she only staved off death for a little while. Now, without her, who would care what I have to say?"

"Did you really do it because you thought people would care?"

Tom stopped and turned, looking back at the beach house. "Do you see that top window?" he said, pointing. "I keep my typewriter up there. I still use a typewriter you know. People laugh when I tell them that. Typing with a typewriter is unlike anything else. It's visceral. You can feel the words jumping from your fingers, slamming themselves into their rightful place on the page. But nothing comes to me - I sit there for hours and nothing comes."

"That's crap, Tom. I don't believe you."

"It isn't, and you should. The well has truly dried up. I know what you're thinking. You think I've been beaten by my grief, but I'm not grieving anymore. I finished that a long time ago. I'm just done."

Alan's annoyance returned with a vengeance. He had felt a similar emotion when his friends had told him of their decision, but this... this was worse. "Dr Breen is in the convoy. He knows all about the situation. You need to talk to somebody before you make this decision. He's the best, and you're going to talk to him."

"I have made up my mind. I'm perfectly within my rights to do this."

"What did Marianne say, when you told her?"

Tom averted his eyes, and Alan quickly realised why. "You didn't tell her, did you? She didn't know. Of course she didn't. She'd have told you what an idiot your being. You're still young – even if you don't look it or feel it. It's just a phase. You just need to push on through, find something else to live for. You know how many women would swoon over you? I could call over one of my executives right now, and within a month I guarantee you'll be married. I've gotten over bigger humps than this, Tom; you just need to stay in the game. You need to stay positive."

Tom looked at him coldly. "You never really understood euthanasia did you?

He started walking again, and after a moment's hesitation Alan hurried to catch up.

"I'm not depressed. I'm not depressed." It seemed that Tom was saying it more to convince himself than to convince Alan. It was a lie. But it was also a mantra – repeated in the hope of creating some prophecy to be fulfilled. As he walked, Tom reached into his pocket and drew out a thin necklace.

"I'm not depressed," he continued, "and I don't need a psychologist. I just want an end to everything." He held up the necklace. "This was Marianne's. I never saw her take it off. The first time I saw her without it was when she was in the casket. She wanted it to be on her neck, but they hadn't put it there. I couldn't bring myself to ask. I dreamt of it for months. I dreamt she was on the other side of a vast abyss, screaming at me for the necklace and I couldn't give it to her. I couldn't throw far enough."

"What the hell has that got to do with anything?"

"I haven't been dreaming lately. Maybe I just dream of more sleep. Maybe everyone gets an allocation of dreams when they're born... after they dream them all, it just becomes sleep. You just sleep, and get up, and go back to bed to scrape the bottom of an empty tank."

Alan thought the situation was slipping away from him. Everything was becoming sand and one could not control sand. One could not build on sand. The beach house would crumble in a few years, its foundations unable to hold up in the formless, shifting sand. And the humming... that damn black slug on the beach was still humming away, slowly creeping up towards the dunes. The pain behind his eyes clattered back and forth around his skull, heralding the beginnings of a migraine. He could see the black-suited figure at the base of the droning slug with several other men. The sea spat salt foam in his face and the universe suddenly seemed the enemy, an unknown entity against him with every ounce of its being. It was a betrayal – this was his world, his dominion – and it was enough to make him lose his temper.

"Do you want to know why you're doing this?"

"I know why."

"Why you're really doing it?"

"Please-"

"You've lost your humanity. You think you're wise, choosing when you're going to die. You think that's wisdom. Humans don't do that, Tom. Humans have survival instincts. You decide to die, you lose your humanity!"

"There's nothing more for me here!"

"There's more!" snarled Alan. "There's always more! You just have to grab it by the throat, Tom!" Alan turned to the ocean and spread his arms out wide. He spoke to it; spoke to all the people who had left him and refused to live on. "That's what nobody seems to get! There's always more. Have you walked on another planet? Have you seen a supernova? Have you seen civilisations crumble and new life drag itself from the primordial ooze? Have you, Tom?"

"You're not seriously saying-"

"Of course I am! The only ingredient missing is time, Tom! That's the one thing we've got the most of and nobody wants to use it! Jeff Moore, David Kerr, Feng Ning – they didn't realise! They were all damn fools. They didn't realise what our future holds. What inestimable beauty lies in front of us? You can't abandon it now, Tom, when you are so close to immortality. So close to never worrying about grief or love or apathy again! You can't give up now Tom! Not now!"

Alan felt his anger transforming into anxiety, roaring down long unused channels and sweeping away long redundant barriers he had built long ago.

"You can't do it Tom! I won't let you do it. I'll shut down every goddamn euthanasia clinic in the world if I have to, but I'm not letting you do it!"

"Then I'll just kill myself! I'll blow my brains out all over the beach-house! Would you prefer that?"

A particularly powerful wave swept up the beach, swamping Tom's legs and nearly drenching Alan. "Let me keep my dignity, please!" Tom continued. "Let me have that small shred of dignity that you've never let me have in my entire life! Let me have it, here at the end, where I can't think of anything that matters more."

"I don't give a damn about your dignity!"

Alan stopped suddenly. He realised something that had been nagging away at his mind all day. He had realised what Harvey Lyman had said, earlier on the phone. Big changes. His hair had flopped down over his eyes, and he was panting. The ocean lay unaffected in front of him. The sun dipped below the horizon and quite suddenly the beach was bathed in shadow. His heart raced, and in the back of his mind Alan felt good. He felt good that he could get angry, just like in past times. But with every breath, his heart gradually slowed and his arms fell back to their side. After a few long moments, Alan merely felt embarrassed, and he glanced at the convoy to confirm no one had seen him.

Tom looked frightened. "Why, Dad? Just... do you know what our greatest flaw is?"

"Both of us?"

"Everybody. We don't know how to say 'enough'. We've never needed to. We never needed to say 'that's enough wealth' or 'that's enough power'. You don't know what enough life is. It's this. Why do you keep going, Dad? Do you even know anymore?"

Alan didn't speak. After a moment, Tom snorted. "You don't have an answer for me. I don't think you have a reason anymore. You're a wraith. You're pointless. You just don't know how to die."

"I won't believe that."

As the now chill ocean breeze swept up the beach towards the dunes and the convoy, Tom started shivering. His lips had begun to turn purple and he looked towards the warmth of the house. "If you're going to stay, we're not going to talk about this." Tom said. "We're not going to keep arguing. We're going to talk civilly, like father and son, and we're going to make the best of the time we have left together. Alright?"

"I can't..."

"Alright?"

"Go back to the house."

Tom looked at him for a long time, and then turned and began to walk back up to the house. Alan got out his phone and dialled.

"Mr Lyman."

"Hello sir."

"Why the big changes?"

"Sorry sir?"

"Why the big changes in the press release? What was wrong with the first one?"

"Well, sir, the first one was for his accidental death, but a police source has reported a high dosage of sleeping pills in Lee's bloodstream, and an empty bottle in the house-"

Alan ended the call. He could picture it now. Lee getting out of bed, going to the breakfast counter. He would have had the pills set out, ready. Perhaps a glass of water beside them. He would have taken them at the last possible moment – perhaps even in the kayak. He would have paddled out and stopped and smelled the air and closed his eyes.

Soon, his son would stop and smell the air and close his eyes.

He felt nothing now. He sought for some emotion – anger, fury, even happiness. All he found in his core was a cold, deep pond that swallowed all feeling and left him, raw and naked to experience. He would endure, perhaps for as long as he possibly could. It could be millennia until his consciousness winked out of existence. He would endure, and for the life of him, he could not think why.

He was so very tired. His entire mind felt whipped, his thoughts travelling through the same channels over and over again, scraped into the very foundations of his brain. If they opened his skull, they would find stock figures embedded on his cerebellum. Why then, did he endure? Tom's question nagged at him. Why? When all has been seen and done and the world for the first time seems to have nothing else to offer, why bother?

In the distance, finally, the oil collector stopped its rumbling. Too late – the headache remained. The feel of sand under his shoes was distracting and he took them off, sinking his toes deeply into the beach. Above him, the first stars began to emerge, in now unfamiliar constellations. He had known their names, once. He had lain on warm grass with young Tom, hopeful Tom. They had lain under the sky, with Tom's mother. They had both rested on her warm body, eyes turned upwards, full of stars.