"Honey?" she shouted from the top of the stairs.
"Did you see this headline?" He raised his voice so that his wife might be able to hear upstairs.
"Headline? I already read the Culture section." She craned her head around the corner of the staircase.
"It's about the Committee!" George's voice was tense and he was short of breath from yelling.
"What?" Meredith said gasping. She saw the worry on her husband's face and came down the stairs halfway so she could see him fully at the kitchen table. George's eyes scanned the wall-mounted computer screen furiously. His hands were angrily gripping the table and he was even shaking.
"The Committee, they . . . they." George couldn't get the words out until he scrolled down through the article and finished it. "The Age has been lowered again," he said as he pushed his chair away from the table.
Meredith sucked in her breath and sighed happily. "Oh, honey, how long will we have to wait? Not long I hope." She had already shuffled into the kitchen on her house slippers and poured herself a cup of tea. She contentedly blew the steam off the top of her piping hot drink. "George?" He was still staring intently at the screen and hadn't answered her.
"We have no time left. We have to report next week," he said curtly.
"Next week? Oh boy, do I have work to do!"
Meredith put down her tea and headed for the stairs, but then stopped and grabbed George's hand. He turned away from the screen and looked up at her. She was about to speak.
"Oh, George, I was so scared that I might have to feel, you know, what it would be like to die." Meredith paused and brought her thoughts together. "But now we can be together, comfortable, with our memories, forever. I'm excited. Aren't you, George?"
"Of course, I can't wait," he said without feeling.
* * *
The spacious office was warmly lit and furnished with more than immaculate taste and culture. Meredith was softly and slowly adjusting herself into the large, cushioned, high-back chair to get the most out of its comfort. George sat rigidly, and the overly cozy cushions seemed to trap him rather than put him at ease. He turned his head slightly and quickly went back to staring at the wall. What he had seen disgusted him. How could Meredith look happy when they were giving up all they had built together?
He was interrupted from his angry thoughts by a squeal and Meredith laughing like a schoolgirl. George jumped from his chair expecting to help her to keep from falling. But Meredith was reclining in the huge chair with her feet above her head on the footrest. She had unexpectedly found the handle that converted the chair into a recliner and caught herself by surprise. She was grinning like a fool.
"George, you should try this! It's great!" She was still laughing. But, she could see that he was not amused. She relented to his unapproving gaze and returned the chair to its original position. "I don't understand why you aren't the least bit happy about this. We have nothing to worry about . . . "
The door to the office swung open with a flourish. A young man with perfect hair and an exquisite suit strided forward between the chairs and leaned comfortably on the front of his Tudor desk. "That's right folks, you have nothing to worry about." He picked Meredith's thoughts up right where she had left off.
George was annoyed by the man's smugness, but Meredith smiled warmly at him, totally convinced that what he said was true. "Oh, where are my manners?" the man said. "I'm Thomas Wraithmeyer." He flashed his thousand-dollar smile and offered them his hand. Meredith quickly took it; George did the same out of embarrassment.
Good handshake, George thought. This guy thinks he's hot stuff. He's polite enough though.
"Well, Mr. and Mrs. Ardorson, here are your information packets. In here is everything you'll need to know, including your memory choices." He handed them a thick manual. Meredith stared at the cover in awe. George studied the first page and then flipped through the book, not stopping until he reached the back cover. "I'll give you more time with these later. But now it's time for a tour of our fine facilities."
Meredith bolted from her chair and clapped her hands with excitement. Thomas and Meredith were already out the door by the time George had struggled to his feet.
* * *
Every wrinkle of the old man's face was relaxed. His chest moved slowly up and down with mechanical breath coming from the mask clamped over his mouth and nose. Were it not for the machines and tubes that encircled the man, George might have thought the man peaceful, even serene. But something about the monotonous, mechanical processes that were keeping the man alive repulsed him.
Meredith came over and locked her hands around George's arm. Her eyes were red and swollen with tears. She had been talking to the family of a young woman who had just passed. Actually, the young woman's time to die had been chosen by her husband and family. "Oh, George, it was sad . . . and wonderful . . . she is now in a better place." Meredith's sobs punctuated her sentence into incoherent parts.
"Now, now Mrs. Ardorson. She was one of our extreme cases," Thomas explained patiently. "This is our terminal ward. People come here if they have been diagnosed with a deadly disease. Instead of putting the patient through painful procedures, the doctors recommend they spend their days here--in peace." Again Thomas flashed a cool yet caring smile and Meredith began the long process of drying her eyes a dab at a time.
"If you don't mind my asking, what was her memory? What did she choose?" Meredith got out the whole question without crying. George knew that she was very concerned about being comfortable and carefree.
Thomas opened his mouth to answer, but then turned away. He pretended to choke back tears, but George could see the remoteness in the man's dark eyes. "I don't mind you asking. She chose skiing. That's right, she was forever doing the Olympic slopes in Lillehammer."
George looked again at the old man on the respirator. Thomas was letting it all sink in for Meredith, so he joined George by the bed. "So what do you think of our place here, George?" Thomas asked.
"I think it's sadistic," George said. Though he said it quietly, there was so much force behind it, Thomas retreated out of harm's way.
"You just need a little time, time to understand. That's what you need," Thomas said curtly with his dark gaze locked on George.
Meredith sensed the tension and parted the strained atmosphere. "Oh this poor fellow, what happened to him?" Meredith asked with genuine concern. Thomas squinted his left eye and gave George one long, last look.
"This man was in a car accident twenty years ago. His family has kept him breathing so they could celebrate his eightieth birthday. Sweet, isn't it?" Thomas neatly wrapped this horror story up with paper and a bow, and Meredith gladly accepted it.
For all his toughness, George was almost on the verge of tears. Today, this morning, he had seen a young woman murdered, and an old man forced into a vegetative state long after his body had died. What peace was there in that?
"Can we see where we will be?" Meredith asked timidly.
"Of course, that's why you are here. This way please." Thomas strided off with Meredith close behind. George again scanned the rows of beds and the curtains that separated them. How could someone choose this?--he did not understand.
George still had his freedom, even his health. As he passed the last bed and went through the sliding doors, he decided. He would never return here--or to the world that could create such a horrible place.
* * *
Outside the bay window a maple tree was losing its leaves with each soft breeze. The fading afternoon sun illuminated the dark mahogany paneling in the eclectic office. George paced the open area in front of the colonial-style desk. The slightly worn carpet muffled his footsteps. His upper arms throbbed. George could still feel where the guards had clamped onto his arms as they rushed him into this new office. The last few days flashed through his mind.
Endless hours hastened by him as he was taken from one room to the next. George never knew whether it was day or night, if he was dreaming or not. The only event that was vivid to him was when he had broken away from Thomas and begun running down the endless corridors. Bed after bed of comatose people. His heart was pounding, and nothing but the thirst for escape had driven him.
George stopped pacing and ran his fingers over the carving on the back of the cushioned chair. It so intrigued him that he sat in the chair and put his arms proudly on the armrests.
"You watch those armrests, sonny," the old man wheezed. "That's a one of a kind you're scratching there."
George craned his head around his chair to see where the voice was coming from. An old, gray-haired man with a cane came shuffling forward through the doorway. The man's fingers were bent odd directions and his back even more so. As the man hobbled his way forward to the desk, George jumped from his chair. This was the oldest man he had ever seen.
The man lowered his frail body into the large desk chair. George caught the man's eye. His eyes were clear and alert, though surrounded by lines and wrinkles. They were like windows in the middle of an ancient, cracked wall.
George was about to launch into a tirade and let all his anger rush out when something brought him up short--he could see that the old man was not going to argue.
"Young man, if you have made it to my office, you've obviously made quite a nuisance of yourself." He reached down and grabbed a handkerchief. He coughed violently into it and George was frozen in fear. The old man's frame shook so badly, George thought his fragile body would fall to pieces. He had never seen anyone in such pain. The old man was suffering so horribly that George realized an ugly truth: Old age could be painful. For a moment, George had doubts about his passion to live longer.
"I never meant any harm. I just do not want . . . " George was cut off short.
"Of course you meant harm. You don't like the system. Tell me this, who was your first love?"
George was embarrassed by the question, but answered quickly. "Sarah Lawrence. I met her when I was twenty."
"Where is she now?"
"Married to someone else."
"Oh, and how did you handle that?" The old man grinned as he asked the question. His clear, gray eyes met George's. George felt safe, neither lied to nor trapped.
"We are still friends," George responded quickly. He sat back down, keeping the old man's gaze. "And who are you?"
"Well, now the question comes. I'm the Counselor. I'm the one the papers never quote."
"I never thought you really existed. No one has ever seen you."
The old man began coughing again. When at last he stopped, he said, "You've seen me now." There was a pause as George let it all sink in. This was the man who was the voice of experience that countered the opinion of the Committee. This was the man that they would show people like George who didn't want to comply with the system. The Counselor broke into his thoughts.
"I disgust you, don't I? My pain frightens you?"
"Yes," George answered quickly. He was ashamed. He had come all this way and was beginning to fear what old age would mean for him.
The Counselor studied him for a moment. "You can go now. Your wife is waiting for you to join her," he said with firmness and finality.
"No, I don't want to go back." George's heart was racing again.
"Maybe I was wrong about you."
"Please, give me a chance. I have never seen anyone sick like you, that's all." George was not pleading, but being gravely serious. The old man smiled.
"I need my pain; it makes me tough and wise. Pain will not change you, but it will teach you. Can you understand?"
George nodded and the old man continued. "Now, tell me what you see outside that window."
George looked out the window for a long moment. The maple tree was a brilliant red. A few of the leaves were brown and some were blowing around on the ground. "It's a tree."
The old man grabbed his cane and struggled out of his chair to the window. "No, think harder."
"It's a tree losing its leaves."
"Yes. But is it dying?"
"No. It's changing."
"Good." The old man smiled wide, but was doubled over with wheezes. George got out his chair and came around the desk to help the old man back into his chair. George was very concerned.
"Are you going to get better?"
"No, George, I'm dying," the old man said slowly. "But who is that tree?"
"Who?" George thought the old man was senile.
"Who? Tell me." The old man again locked eyes with George. But, now they were dull and tired.
"I don't understand."
"I thought you were smarter than that. But, I'll tell you. It's you."
George was silent. The meaning was still out of his reach.
The Counselor continued. "Shall I cut you down now just because your leaves are falling?"
"No, no," George answered quickly. Suddenly, he understood.
"Correct. You have many years left, good years. But you'll first have to learn to let go of your leaves if you're to bloom again."
George searched the old man's eyes for a time. He put out his hand and the old man shook it strongly.
"I can go now," the old man said quietly.
"Go?" George said with surprise. He wasn't expecting this.
"Yes. You are going to be the next Counselor." The old man reached into a desk drawer and brought out a file. "We have been watching you. You have done many humanitarian deeds."
"Me?" George was stunned. What was the man talking about?
The Counselor chuckled. He handed a sheet of paper across the desk to George. Year by year was listed things George had done. The boy he had saved from drowning, the house he had helped his neighbor build, the girl that he and his wife had adopted, it was all there. "Should I add humble to that list?"
"But other people help each other. Why me?" George was confused why he should be so important.
"Yes, but few do what you did to show what you think of our system." The old man paused. "You will be the voice of reason and age that keeps the Committee in control. Will you do it?"
"Meredith?" George asked quietly.
"No. She is gone already. I'm sorry."
George studied the lines of the old man's face again. Years of sun and rain showed there. But they were years of experiences and joys and sorrows, too. No longer were the lines ugly, but beautiful.
"I will follow you," George said finally. He helped the old man from his chair and walked him to the door. As the old man left, he grasped his hand once more and smiled.
When the Counselor had disappeared down the hall, George went back to the window. Children were playing now in the shade of the old, fading tree. Their laughs reached his ears. George smiled. He was no longer afraid.