"Are you going to kill yourself?"
Bethany wheeled around, the slack arm holding her briefcase pinwheeling and nearly hitting a fellow commuter.
"Am I what?" she brushed a strand of dishwater-brown hair behind her ear and stared straight ahead, incredulous.
"Are you going to kill yourself?" the man repeated eagerly, hungry for her response, like it would sustain him. He had thin-rimmed glasses made of a tortoiseshell plastic, and he clutched a sheaf of papers in his hands so hard that they trembled. Lips pressed into a thin, unamused line, he brandished his papers at her. "You don't have much time left, you know!" He passed one of the papers to another person walking by who nodded sagely and tucked the paper into their pocket, mouthing "thank you" in the man's direction.
"What are you talking about?" Bethany protested, setting her bag at her feet and crossing her arms resolutely. The man blinked slowly a few times, like he couldn't comprehend her not understanding his words.
"I mean," he said slowly, "that your time is running out, my dear. You're, what, 34?" he glanced at a wristwatch strapped to his right arm and gave it a shake and a firm tap on the glass front. He nodded to himself. "Yes, 34. You don't have much time left, surely you know that." Bethany wrinkled her nose and stepped forward, her bag flopping to the concrete.
"May I have one of those fliers, please?" The man shrugged and handed one to her. "It's too late for you, miss, but I'll give it to you anyway." He spun around on his heel and walked toward the subway, checking his watch one more time and handing a paper to a relieved-looking man on the sidewalk near the guard railing.
Bethany peered down, the wind whipping her hair around her face as she knelt down, pulling her reading glasses out of a side pocket of her briefcase and placing them on the bridge of her nose.
Your thirty-fifth year draws near! the ad proclaimed in large, bold letters. Our records indicate that you have not yet made any plans to deal with this. Please make your demise arrangements with the nearest death agency to avoid any further penalty from the bureau.
Bethany let the paper fall to the ground and squinted ahead, trying to see the man with the papers, but he was nowhere to be found. She took a deep breath and folded the paper in half, tucking it into her pocket. Surely this was some sort of April Fools joke ... in November. Shrugging, she walked down the street toward her office, lost in thought. Her birthday was next month, but nobody had ever said a thing to her about whatever this nonsense was - demise arrangements? Surely they just made this up, some sort of college drama department prank?
Rounding the corner, though, she saw it - a small, unassuming two-story building, somehow both narrow and foreboding, with a sign plastered in the front window and written in broad, urgent strokes - Death Agency. Bethany squared her shoulders and pulled her phone out of her pocket to glance at the time - she had a few hours of comp time, why the Hell not? Clearing her throat, Bethany pushed open the door.
A soft tinkling bell echoed through the room, which felt like the atmosphere of a massage parlor crossed with a church. A woman with her hair in a colorful wrap glanced up from the front desk and adjusted her glasses, smiling serenely.
"Ms. Cambridge?" she asked, standing up and extending her hand. Bethany glanced behind her, looking for someone else before realizing that this woman was saying her own name.
"Yes?" Bethany asked shakily, crossing the gap between the front door and the desk. As the woman shook her hand, pumping it up and down, a nearby fountain peacefully ran and a kitten skittered around on a play rug, chasing after a motorized laser pointer. Distracted by the cat, Bethany glanced down at her hands, which were shaking.
"Don't be afraid, darling. We're so glad you made it." Bethany peered back up at the woman, perplexed. "I am so sorry for not introducing myself, goodness, where are my manners?" the woman reached behind her desk and extracted a tall glass of ice-cold sweet tea and a soft, buttery crumpet - Bethany's favorite snack from childhood. "I'm Thanas, I work for the bureau?" Bethany nodded like she understood what was going on and bit her lower lip, confused.
"I don't understand." she said flatly. Thanas stepped out from behind the desk, carrying a box of tissues and a small saucer of milk, which she set out for the kitten.
"Let's sit down, you must be so perplexed." Bethany nodded slowly and followed Thanas over to some chairs near the window, where she set the bowl of milk down for the kitten and lowered herself into a large armchair. Bethany folded herself into a small beanbag at the armchair's side and bit at her cuticles.
"Well, dear, you know about the legislation," Thanas began. "and you haven't registered a thing! You must be so nervous. But it's nothing to worry about, I can take good care of you here."
"What legislation?" Bethany spat out. "What's a death agency? You made all of this up as a prank, didn't you? I'm on TV?" Thanas smiled sadly and shook her head no.
"You know it costs too much to keep someone alive into old age, and the older you get the more children you have - do eat your crumpet dear I baked it especially for you - so the government has decreed that anyone over age thirty-five ... well, you know the rest."
"It was never this way before!" Bethany screeched, her knuckles going white around each other. Thanas stared at her blankly.
Bethany shook her head, a soft noise issuing from her throat that sounded almost like a kitten's mewl, but the kitten was happily slurping milk across the room. She watched it skitter around, lost in thought.
"Would you prefer a puppy?" Thanas had her hands on her knees, ready to spring into action. "I've got a pug and a husky in the back if you find them more suitable." Bethany shook her head absently.
"I thought not." Thanas settled back into her chair. "Anyway, dear, you've got about a week here, but you've just had Thanksgiving, so today might be a good day?" She produced a pad of paper and a clipboard from beside the chair and held them out to Bethany. "Just sign on the lines and we'll get you whisked away." she beamed, as if Bethany had won some grand prize in a lottery.
"None of this was here last night." Bethany muttered under her breath. "I'm positive this is all new." Thanas just repeated that same, sad smile.
"Honey, it's been this way since you were a little girl." She handed a pen to Bethany as well. "Come on now, baby, it's time to go." Bethany felt a surge of emotion in her chest, a rise of bile and panic, but bit it down, swallowed it. What would happen if she didn't sign the papers? What if she lived to be 36? But there was no good in wondering, and being in this office, she felt so calm ... it was so safe in here, Thanas was so nice ... surely the kindly woman was right, it was time go to sleep.
Nodding dumbly, Bethany signed the papers on the marked lines and passed the clipboard back to Thanas, not even bothering to read the fine print.
"What's going to happen?" her voice was hollow.
"Well," Thanas said, standing up and offering a hand to Bethany, who let the woman tug her to her feet. "We're going to get you all cozy in some pajamas and go lay you down and watch a movie. You'll get a lovely dinner - oh, whatever you like, darling - and then before you know it, you'll be so sleepy ..." her voice trailed off and she shrugged. "That's that, really." She gestured at the kitten on the ground. "Would you like a cuddle buddy?" Bethany shook her head no, and Thanas reached behind her desk, pulling out a paper-wrapped package. "This is for you, my dear."
Bethany opened it to reveal a gorgeous pair of silk pajamas, identical to a pair her mother had once owned when she was just a child, when she would stand at the counter beside her and rub cold cream on her face to be just like her mother. Oh, how she missed her mother ... she clutched the pajamas to her chest and turned to look at Thanas, nodding.
"Any other questions, honey?" she asked, putting a hand on Bethany's arm and leading her down the hallway. Bethany felt her mind give a little kick, a butterfly's flutter. Wasn't there something wrong with this? Her forehead wrinkled, she just knew something was wrong, but oh, what was it? She shouldn't be here? No, that was ridiculous. Halfway down the hall, she remembered and turned to Thanas in a panic, frenzy on her face.
"What's for dinner?"
"Are you going to kill yourself?"