Carson tipped the coffee cup against his lips and took a long sip as he passed the protesters outside of the hospital. He was still unshaven, and his t-shirt was covered in wrinkles. He stopped next to a group of kneeling Catholics and looked over their heads to inspect himself in the hospital window’s reflection.
I look like shit, he thought, as he ran his hand through his hair. It was getting long and floppy, like when he was a kid. One of the Catholics looked up at him, holding his rosary in the air between them.
“Sorry, man, just passing through. Carry on,” Carson said, and made the sign of the cross. He took one last look at himself in the reflection and sighed.
When he got back to the hotel lobby, he nodded to Pete, the concierge. Before he met Pete, Carson had worked at The Meridian in Beachwood, which was about forty-five minutes from Cleveland. He had one, maybe two clients a month in Beachwood. Then he met Pete at a funeral; they went out for a few beers at the Winking Lizard, got talking, and struck up a deal. Pete got fifteen percent of the tips and payment, and Carson got a room at Driftwood and his post in the lobby.
Driftwood was perfect. The lobby doors were directly across the street from the hospital in downtown Cleveland. Turn right out of the lobby and the road turns into Restaurant Row, where there was every type of food, from Burrito King to Flannery’s Steak and Seafood. Turn left and it becomes Extreme Alley, where patients could sign up for any extreme sport they could dream of. Patients loved staying at the Driftwood, and Carson loved the patients.
It was Monday, and the weekend had been busy. He had accompanied an elderly lady named Martha to three musicals and an opera, and taken her ballroom dancing. He had stayed up until four in the morning listening to her prattle on about her life. She had been a ballerina, she had met her husband in the war, so on and so forth. Their last nights were usually like this. Exhausting.
He had walked her to her final appointment, kissed her on the cheek, and left to get his morning coffee. Back at his post in the lobby, he watched a few people check in from his armchair near the fake fireplace. He heard Pete go through his normal speech, telling them where the restaurants were, recommending they get to appointments early, pointing out where to drop off any clothing donations, and showing them the post office located at the far end of the lobby, should they want to ship anything home.
The first five or six people said they just wanted to be alone. Around noon, Carson was halfway through a submarine sandwich when a young woman came in. She was about thirty-five or forty and was wearing a black floor-length evening gown. She carried a small duffel bag, and her hair was piled in a towering updo. When Pete mentioned that he could arrange some company, should she want any, he heard the woman say, “That would be lovely.”
Pete gestured over to where Carson sat, and Carson tipped his sandwich in greeting towards the woman. She turned to look at him, and he saw her face pull back into a wide grin. She had big wide cheeks and even bigger eyes. Everything about her face was big, but it all fit together somehow into some kind of oversized symmetry. She had a small frame, but it was hard to see what her body looked like beneath her draping evening gown.
He got up and went over to the desk, extending his hand towards the woman.
“Carson Peterson,” he said, putting on his best smile. He was still holding his sandwich in his left hand; he wondered if he’d have time to finish it later.
“Is that your real name?” The woman answered, shaking his hand. “That sounds like a stage name. Miranda Waters. And no, that is not my real name.”
Carson held his smile, trying to size her up.
“Yes, that’s my real name. Maybe my mother wanted me to be an actor.”
“You seem like a good actor to me,” she replied. Her smile was still stretched across her wide face, so Carson couldn’t tell if she was joking. “I’m going to call you Craig. I always wanted to know a man named Craig.”
“Sure, nice to meet you Miranda, I’m Craig.” Carson said.
He took her bag to her room, and she didn’t attempt any small talk. Her ball gown swished along the floor, and she tripped on it several times. She’d straighten up and keep walking as if nothing had happened.
“I have a schedule for my stay all set,” she said, placing her bag at the end of the bed. “I printed an extra copy, just in case the rumors of the Hurrahs were true. And sure enough, there you are.”
She continued, unzipping her bag and pulling out tiny neat piles of shirts and dresses and a giant floral toiletry bag, laying them on the bed.
“I’m exhausted. I flew in from Florida and didn’t sleep at all. I’m going to take a nap. Consult the itinerary and meet me at dinner when you’ve . . . cleaned up a bit.”
“You don’t like my shirt?” he asked, pulling it out in front of him.
“Well, you could stand a shower and shave. I honestly could care less what you wear. I will see you at eight.”
Carson shaved after a hot shower, splashing his face with his spiced aftershave. He didn’t know what to make of this woman. So far, she hadn’t fit the profile of most patients. First, there was the ball gown. Then again, he’d seen some patients arrive in some strange outfits. But none so formal, as if this was a time to celebrate. Most wore sweatpants or plain jeans, not wasting any time on external appearance. Then there was the whole name thing. He’d never been named like that before. Usually, women found his name very sexy. Or so he’d been told. And telling him to shower was new as well. His “women like scruffy” theory was out the window. Lonely patients were usually so desperate for company that they never paid attention to what he looked like.
He decided to impress her by being early, so he left with enough time to reach the restaurant, A.C. Steakhouse, with ten minutes to spare. He was wearing his favorite slim-fitting blazer and a skinny black tie. He’d had the suit tailored with the profits from his first client. A few women whistled at him as he walked by, and he winked back at them with a smile.
He was disappointed when he saw her already waiting for him at the restaurant, but had to hold in a laugh when he saw what she was wearing. She had changed out of her black evening gown and had on what looked like a bright red ice-skating uniform. It had sequins along the top and a skirt made of fluffy pink feathers. He kissed her hand and she grinned. Her hair was wrapped in thick braids around her head.
“Before you ask, this was my grandmother’s competitive skating outfit. I promised her I’d be a skater and wear her outfits when she was on her deathbed. Well, I figured I’d hold up at least half of that promise. And who the fuck cares what I look like anyways. Soon enough it won’t matter.”
“I think you look beautiful.”
“Yeah, yeah, I look ridiculous. And these braids make me look like Heidi. But there’s a first, and a last, time for everything. First time I look like a flamingo at a steakhouse, that’s for sure. These sequins itch like hell.”
She turned and waved to the waiter who was waiting to take her to her table. They followed him to a small section near a fireplace. The fire burned year round, despite the thick July heat.
“I’ve been wondering this since I landed,” she began. “Why’d they pick Cleveland for this whole operation?” She hunched forward in her chair, leaning on her elbows. Her whole body was turned to him. He sat up straight, conscious of how closely she was watching him.
“Well, it makes sense if you think about it. They needed a place with a shitty economy and good doctors. Cleveland has been constantly trying to rebuild after their steel glory days, and the Clinic supplied the doctors. So now the city makes most of its money from the tourist industry, so to speak.”
“Tourists. Very funny,” she said, laughing. “So how did you get into your line of work?”
“I had just graduated from college when the law passed, so I came here looking for a job. After talking to a lot of patients I noticed that there was a constant need for companionship. So I decided to fill that need. I didn’t make much at first, but when I made it to the Driftwood, business picked up.”
“Isn’t it strange, though? You’re a companion for the nearly deceased.”
“I suppose so. But I don’t think of it that way. I think of it as being a companion to help people finish living.”
The waiter came and took their orders. Miranda ordered the surf and turf, the most expensive item on the menu, and Carson ordered the prime rib. He liked to order a mid-menu item the first night, to feel out how the bill would be paid. His pay was good, but not that good.
“You’re good with words,” she said as she plucked at a dinner roll. “You put them together well. Do you get that a lot?”
“No, not really. I’ll be honest though, I don’t usually do much talking with my clients.”
“Clients!” she shrieked, louder than she meant to. She covered her mouth and mouthed ‘sorry’ to the tables around her. “Is that what we are? Clients?”
“Well, what else would you be?”
“I don’t know. Johns? Sugar mamas?” She was using her teasing voice again, but her face was serious. He couldn’t tell if she was joking.
“You know I’m not a prostitute, right?” he asked.
“Well, no, technically you’re not. But you do exist off of the companionship of the lonely or alone. So maybe an escort?”
“A companion. You know, there are Hurrah Girls too. They have an even harder time convincing people they’re not hookers. We are companions,” he said.
“Whatever you say, Craig. So what do you mean you don’t usually do much talking with clients?”
“Well, most people who come to Cleveland as a patient and use my services want to talk. They want to tell me about themselves and their family and their lives. One of my biggest jobs is to listen.” She was leaning towards him again. She was listening so intensely that it made him a little nervous. He had a sudden flash of fear that she was a cop. He went on. “They don’t usually ask me this many questions.”
“Oh, don’t mind me, I’ve always just found people interesting. And you Hurrah Boys, well, you’re interesting. Even your name is interesting. Doesn’t it make you sad to be called something about death?”
“For the record, I don’t call myself that, only patients call me that,” he said, laughing. “I mean, if you think about it, we’re named after being happy before something ends. ‘The last hurrah’ implies some last burst of joy before the nothingness.”
“Last burst of joy before the nothingness,” Miranda repeated. She rolled the words around on her tongue, and she repeated it several times. “That sounds fancy and all, but I think it’s bullshit. But lovely bullshit. You spit lovely bullshit, Craig.”
“Thank you, Miranda.” He raised his glass to toast to her. “To your life,” he said.
“And to yours,” she said, and they touched glasses before emptying them. She paid the bill.
The next morning, Miranda had gotten a coveted 8:00 a.m. appointment. Carson knew that this one was the hardest. He waited for her outside on a bench near the hospital door. This time, he was wearing a crisp button-up with jeans and a gray blazer. He sipped from his coffee and listened to the chants of the protesters. They were lining the street in front of him, waving their giant poster-board signs and shaking their fists.
The chants had changed themes over the years. When he first began, there were chants to change the law, saying that it was unconstitutional. Then they became purely religious, as the lobbyists gave up and the pious took over. Recently, there was a strange mix of all types of protest. Religion, law, and social justice blended together, shouted by an array of clergy, families, confused high schoolers, and impassioned loners. Some protesters just stood with their signs and watched. Carson thought sometimes they just needed to see the patients going in to know it was real.
The chanting of “Don’t play God” had just started behind him when she came out of the door. He jumped to his feet and grabbed her elbow. She was stumbling a little, so he tossed his coffee cup aside and put his arm around her back to support her. A protestor called out to him to pick up his litter, and he yelled a few choice words back. He pushed her through the crowd to the other side of the street, where the hotel doors slid open for them. The whole time he whispered, “Don’t listen to them, don’t listen to them, you know what you want. It’s your choice.”
When he got her to her hotel room, he sat her on the bed, and he took a seat in the striped armchair across the room. He watched her. She just looked sad and weak. In this, she was just like the other patients. The “full disclosure” appointment left them all rattled.
She was wearing a dress with a tulle skirt, her hair in a high bun. She ran her hands along the creases of her skirt for a few minutes, until she stood up and went to the bathroom. He heard the water running, and then there was about ten minutes of silence. He knocked on the door.
“Miranda?” He said softly. “Are you all right?”
When she opened the door, he saw that she had changed into a man’s football jersey and had painted black stripes under her eyes.
“This was my dad’s jersey, he played football in college.”
“Was he any good?”
“He was great. His high school team won their state championship. He was recruited to Nebraska and he led them to two national titles. He was great,” she said. Her voice was quieter than it had been the night before.
“Do you want to talk about your appointment? I know that this one’s the hardest, if that’s any consolation.”
“What were you saying to me as we left? Don’t listen? It’s my choice? Something like that, right?”
He shrugged. “I’ll be honest, I just like to talk when you guys come out of that appointment to block out what those knuckleheads are saying out there. They’re idiots.”
“Do you know what they do at this appointment?”
“I’ve heard a few things,” he said cautiously. He didn’t want to push her.
“I know they want us to think about it from all sides. They want us to know what we’re doing before we do it, and make us wait the twenty-four hours afterwards to make our final decision. I get it. But they make us watch someone die. And then they make us watch the Tellers call his family to say he was dead. They make you watch him get cremated, and then they make you watch his family’s funeral for him. They make you watch the family crying. It went on for hours. It was awful.”
“I know, it must be difficult right now, after you’ve made this decision.”
She sighed. “That’s not it. You don’t understand. I have no family to tell. When I die, no one will know. No one will need to be told. My parents were only children, and I’m their only child. I don’t really have any friends, since I moved with my husband so much.”
“Is that why you’re doing this? Because you’re alone?”
“It’s more than that.”
Carson let the silence sit in the room with them. After some time, she got up and put her purse over her shoulder.
“Well, time for some extreme sports,” she said.
“You can wait a bit if you want. We don’t have to go out right away, you had a hard morning,” he told her, standing up as well.
“If they think I’m changing my mind after coming all the way up here, they’re nuts.”
“I think that was part of their plan by choosing Cleveland. Only the truly desperate would choose to come to Cleveland at all,” he said, and she gave him a weak smile.
“So, sky diving or bungee jumping, which is better?”
“Both are pretty fun. You feel like you’re flying. My absolute favorite is the hot air balloon, though. It’s slower and you can enjoy it longer,” he said, holding the door open for her.
“As you say, Craig. You’re the expert at dying, here. Or finishing living,” With that, she was out the door, and Carson was walking after her.
The wind whipped through Miranda’s hair and Carson could smell her shampoo. Her eyes were closed, and she had her arms outstretched like a bird. The man directing the balloon looked bored, but Carson couldn’t keep his eyes off of Miranda. Every ounce of her looked happy.
“It’s amazing, right?” he asked her.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before. You were right. I want to enjoy this feeling of the real air around me for as long as I can.” Her voice was breathy and high. After a few minutes, she looked back at Carson.
“Craig, do you think I’ll come back to Earth as a bird?” He tried to read her face again. She looked serious, almost pleading.
“I think you could. You look like you were made for the sky,” he told her. She smiled, and her cheeks looked round and wide, like the day before when he first met her.
“I think you’re right,” she said, and she turned back to face the wind. Carson watched the shoreline recede as they flew over the lake. There were several other balloons in the sky, taking their patients for one last ride. It was a beautiful sunny day, much less hot than the day before. He let the sun warm his face and he turned to watch the living woman enjoy her last day on Earth.
The day was going quickly. Carson wondered if she could feel the passing time as acutely as he could. He wondered what that would feel like, knowing each second was a countdown to the end. Knowing the number of seconds left.
They had agreed to meet in the lobby for dinner, so he made small talk with Pete while he waited. Pete was telling him about the increase in summer hotel guests when she tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around and saw her standing there in a tight black cocktail dress and red heels.
“Wow,” he said. “You look great.”
“Thanks, I wanted to look good on my last night out. My feet are killing me.” Her cheeks were rosy, and she was glowing. He offered her his arm, and escorted her out of the front door.
“Where to, miss?” he said. She hadn’t told him where they would be going for dinner. She said she wanted it to be a surprise.
“I’ll show you when we get there.” She was clutching onto him hard, wobbling a little with each step.
“I’m guessing you don’t wear heels often?”
“You guessed correctly, sir. I was a nurse for years and wore tennis shoes every day. But damn, heels make my legs look good. My husband used to tell me that on the very rare occasions I pulled these out.”
“He was right,” Carson said, squeezing her hand where it rested on his arm.
They turned a corner, and another, and another, until they were back on Restaurant Row, but walking the opposite direction. He realized she was trying to confuse him.
“You do know I know this town better than you do, right? It will be hard to deceive me.”
“I can try, can’t I?” she said. They headed down the stretch of fast-food restaurants. When they reached BurgerMania, she stopped and turned to him.
“I know this is supposed to be a ceremonial last meal, but I love fast food more than anything. I stopped eating it because I was worried about my cholesterol after Ted’s heart attack. But I have nothing to lose now.”
“It sounds perfect,” he told her, and opened the door so she could enter the restaurant. Miranda ordered a large fry and double cheeseburger with a chocolate milkshake. Carson got the same.
They sat near the window, and Miranda ate the food so quickly she choked a couple of times.
“Slow down, it’s not time yet,” he joked, and to his relief, she laughed.
“This is my last meal. I’ll eat it how I want to.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” she said, cramming another bit of burger into her mouth.
“You are someone who appreciates things. You like the way I use my words. You love fast food. And I’ve never seen someone enjoy the feeling of wind more than when I saw you in the balloon today. I’m not trying to convince you not to go through with it. I just want to know why someone who loves things so much would want to leave them.”
She put the last of her burger in her mouth and chewed for a moment. She took a long pull of her milkshake before answering.
“I do like things. But I love people. I loved people, I should say. This hamburger is fleeting. See, it’s already gone. The people I loved are fleeting. They’re gone too. I will never love anyone the way I loved Ted. I know that so deeply that it physically weighs me down. I will never see my parents’ faces at their front door as I pull into the driveway to visit them. I will never have these people again, and people are all we have. They’re all I had. I have plenty I could live for, if I chose to. But I have had enough love in my life to feel satisfied. I have had enough good so that I know that there is good. Isn’t that enough? What more could I want?”
She popped a French fry in her mouth and looked out the window.
She’s just the same, he thought.
Carson walked her home, thinking about what she had said the whole time. He went back to his own room and went to bed alone.
He woke up the next morning, put on his last pressed shirt and a pair of khakis. He shaved his face, but the stubble was too short, so he got a little razor burn under his chin. He splashed the aftershave on again and ran a comb through his hair.
He wanted to look nice for her on her last day. He realized he hadn’t asked her how she was going to do it. They usually told him after the disclosure appointment. He didn’t want to know.
She was waiting for him in the lobby, wearing jeans and a white tank top. She wore no makeup, and her hair hung past her shoulders.
“I dropped off my clothes, sent my jewelry to a couple of girls that lived on my street, and had some coffee. Oh, and I paid the disposal fee, coroner, and hospital fee. Did I forget anything?”
“I don’t think so,” Carson told her. “Do you feel ready?”
“I think so,” she said.
He led her through the front door and put his arm around her to guide her through the protestors. They were yelling, “Choose to live.”
When they got to the front entrance, they turned to look at each other.
“Well, it’s been great knowing you,” she said. “You’ve been a wonderful companion. I’ve put some money in your name at the front desk. Thanks for accompanying me while I finished living.”
“You’re welcome. I hope your end is the start of something great for you.”
She held out her hand.
“I’m Nancy. It’s nice to meet you, Carson.”
He shook her hand and she smiled with her cheeks pulled wide. He kissed her on the cheek, and she walked into the building.
He watched her go, and then made his way back through the protesters on his way to get coffee.
MADELINE WEINLAND got her MA in English from Arcadia University and is now getting her MFA from Arcadia as well. She is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, and often sets her fiction in the Midwest. When she’s not writing, she works in the psychology department at The College of New Jersey. Her fiction has appeared in The Rampallian, Scholars and Rogues, and most recently, Whisperings Magazine.