Final Grains of Sand

Chapter One

“James, would you step into my office, please?”

At the doctor’s appearance, Jim stood up. He had been scanning, but not reading, a tennis journal. Jim flopped the magazine on the side table and followed the doctor down the hallway. He was apprehensive about why Doctor Nolan wanted to meet with him—face to face—on short notice.

During the quick drive from his business office, Jim was distracted as he mentally ran through the various reasons why he might be here. He wondered if it was a mistake to cancel his important sales meeting this morning. He’d had a physical a few weeks ago, but it was routine. Most likely the doctor was following up on test results—perhaps the blood tests or the PET scan. Jim felt confident he’d get a glowing report, since he was in excellent health. Surely there wasn’t anything the doctor couldn’t tell him in a few days.

“Please have a seat, James.”

The office felt warm, and Jim’s mouth was dry. He was suddenly thirsty.

“What’s the urgency, Doc?” Jim tucked his long legs under the chair and watched Dr. Nolan close the door before walking around to the other side of his desk. Sitting up straight, Jim edged forward in his seat.

Dr. Nolan removed his glasses and rubbed the red spots on the bridge of his nose before speaking.

“James, we need to talk about your lab test results because they’re concerning. I ordered so many tests because I wanted to be sure of the results.”

“Everything is fine, isn’t it?” Jim shifted uncomfortably, his cocksure, business attitude deflating at the sight of the doctor’s grave face.

Dr. Nolan looked him in the eye. “James, we’ve been friends a long time. I’m going to give it to you straight. It appears your body has an invasion of three different cancers that are feeding off each other in several vital organs. Cancer has invaded your liver, pancreas, spleen, and possibly your kidneys. I can’t begin to tell you how exceedingly rare your condition is.”

“Wait a minute, Doc. This makes no sense. I feel fine, and I’ve never been sick a day in my life.”

“You feel fine now, yes, but I’m afraid those feelings aren’t permanent.”

Jim shook his head and then ran his hands through his dark hair. This couldn’t be happening. But he’d known the doctor for decades; he wouldn’t lie.

Dr. Nolan sat back and waited for Jim to absorb the enormity of the situation.

“I have three cancers? I…I…How is this possible? I’ve always been so healthy.” Jim began to pant, his breathing labored. “Okay, wait a minute. So, I’ll need to take some time off from work, but you’re saying chemo, radiation, surgery—they’re an option for me, right?”

Dr. Nolan got up and sat in the chair next to Jim, putting his hand on Jim’s shoulder.

“The cancers are fast-growing and widespread. You could go that route. We might buy some time and maybe add two or three months at the most. However, you would have to decide if the side effects are worth it.”

Time came to a screeching halt for Jim. Frightened, he inquired in a nervous voice, “What kind of time are we talking about?”

“After seeing the scan images, I conferred with several friends and oncologists around the country. Short of a miracle, the consensus is three to maybe four months. I wish I had better news, James.”

Jim shook off the doctor’s hand and stood up. “What caused this? Why don’t I feel anything drastic?”

“Those are questions I can’t answer.”

“I know I’ve felt fatigued a lot lately, but I just figured I was working too hard and not sleeping enough. Everyone has fatigue, right?” Jim paced, rubbing his face. He stopped. “What if I hadn’t come in for the physical?”

Dr. Nolan did not sugarcoat his next edict, and his voice was kind. “You would still experience your illness, but you would face it thoroughly unprepared.”

Jim suddenly felt faint, like someone had sucked all the oxygen from the room. He collapsed into the chair. He was unprepared for the dreaded word cancer. Random thoughts hit him in machine-gun succession. Normally self-reliant, Jim was quickly devoid of immediate answers. He bent over at the waist and placed his head between his knees and slowly began to rock.

Dr. Nolan’s hand hovered above Jim’s back.

“James, are you in any pain at the moment? Can I get you something?”

Jim shook his head but continued to rock.

“If it’s okay with you, I’d like to confirm my findings with a couple more biopsies—perhaps run another PET scan with contrast.”

Jim stopped rocking and sat up, staring at Dr. Nolan.

“Doc, I mean no disrespect, but poking holes in sensitive areas of my body, yanking out tissue or bone, and pumping me full of radioactive junk doesn’t sound pleasant. Will it help rule out cancer?”

“It will confirm my findings.”

“This can’t actually be happening. Why now? Why me?”

“James, you’re not even sixty and—”

“No, unfortunately, I turned sixty last week.”

Startled, Dr. Nolan said, “Seriously, James? Has it been that long? I remember delivering you. I know you have three lovely children, but you should be looking forward to a full life with grandchildren and retirement.”

Jim put his head in his hands again, making a wordless, groaning sound.

“I would recommend reaching out to family and getting some support. In less than two months, your organs are going to start to fail, and before the third month is finished, you’ll be needing twenty-four-hour care. Right now, while you can, make some decisions by planning and making arrangements.”

Jim blankly stared at the doctor.

“Well, I guess that last part is easy. When I’m dead, cremate my body, and scatter the ashes to the wind.”

“James. I’m serious. If you want, I could contact your family.”

“Please don’t! Your information is a lot to digest, and it appears I haven’t much time to spend it casually.”

Jim stood and turned, facing the door.

Dr. Nolan reached out, grabbing Jim’s shirt sleeve.

“If you need anything, anything at all, please get in touch with me. My receptionist will give you my personal cell phone number, and you can call me day or night. If you’re in pain, I’ll immediately arrange for something at the hospital or your pharmacy. If you don’t mind, I would like to see you again in one month.”

Resting his hand on the doorknob, Jim stood frozen, staring at the closed office door. His voice was flat, monotone.

“I need a little time to figure some things out, and I appreciate your concern. You’ve been a terrific doctor, but I think I need to spend some time alone. Please do not discuss my condition with anyone or make any family calls. I beg you.”

“Of course. You have my word, James.”

Jim walked out of the office to the parking lot. After dropping his full weight into the leather seat of his BMW 540, Jim looked at his watch.

Three o’clock!

In a fit of frustration, Jim yanked the Rolex off his wrist. He tossed it on the passenger side of the car’s floor. Clenching his fists, he hammered on the steering wheel with eyes tightly closed.

“I can’t be dying. I’m too young.”

Peering in the rearview mirror, Jim studied his chiseled face, looking for signs of any sickness. He pulled down on one lower eyelid, staring at the steel-gray iris, and then opened his mouth, inspecting everything with his tongue stuck out.

Jim shook his head. He then started the engine and ignored the seatbelt warning indicators. The BMW screeched backward from the parking stall, and then jerked to a stop. Heading for the exit, the car leaped from the curb like a cheetah. The tires squealed as Jim drove off in a rush, speeding down the boulevard.

 

 

 

Dr. Nolan gathered the lab reports and various papers associated with his patient. He took his time as he slid the papers into a thick folder. Sitting down, Dr. Nolan let his finger trace out the name, James Kreider, printed along the edge.

Dr. Nolan buried his face in his hands and wept. Choking on his words, he began to pray.

“Our Father, Who is in heaven, great is Your Name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done—”

 

Chapter Two

Changing his mind about returning to work, Jim steered the BMW toward his house. Thoughts and actions were in slow-motion. On the ride home, Jim spent time reflecting on his life.

Of his three children, only Stephanie, his oldest daughter, showed any promise. Steph, as Jim called her, was in her fourth year at Stanford, studying economics—a degree which Jim and his daughter argued about until they were both blue in the face. It was careless of Stephanie to start college three years after high school just so she and her friends could tour Europe; but her degree decision was incredibly off-base, and Jim saw no future for her.

All of Jim’s logic fell on deaf ears because Stephanie was determined it was the right choice for her. Jim finally conceded, acknowledging she had her mother’s stubbornness and her father’s tenacity of challenging the norms. Stephanie was dating a medical student, and the two were already planning their future.

Will I live long enough to see them get married? Jim thought.

Robert, the middle child, was in his sixth year of college and studying business law at Santa Clara University—a Franciscan college in northern California. When Jim questioned Robert’s decision to attend law school after spending the first four years of college in computer technology, Robert’s excuse was more money.

“You mean more of my money?” Jim remembered asking his son over the phone.

It seemed Robert had inherited his mother’s stubbornness as well.

Staci, the youngest daughter, was the problem child, and it was her mother’s fault for spoiling Staci when she was young. Constant trips to the doctor for ear infections, runny noses, and a sundry of the ancillary ear, nose, and throat conditions plagued Staci for her first seven years. Then, as if by some unidentified miracle, she was instantly healed. From that point forward, Staci’s rebellion developed.

Now living with some jobless poet four years her junior and in dilapidated section-eight housing, Staci had refused any monetary support. Studying art at an obscure college in Houston, Texas, Staci was also the visual poster child for tattoo and metal piercings. She was a beautiful little girl, and Jim could never understand why she had to destroy her beauty with “body art.” Her last Christmas card included a photo of her and what’s-his-name sitting completely unclothed somewhere in the middle of nowhere and looking like two circus freaks. Jim tore the picture into shreds the moment it escaped the envelope.

Jim and his wife, Samantha, had been married only ten years when their marriage showed signs of severe fractures. They were high school sweethearts, and everyone had predicted a long, happy future on their wedding day. But starting out at age twenty and nineteen respectively, Jim and Samantha matured along two divergent paths.

They added children, thinking this would improve their relationship, but it only made things worse. As they entered their thirties, it was apparent that their love was lukewarm at best. It never improved, and this frustrated Jim, but he also refused to seek help from an outside counselor. They kept the relationship alive for the sake of the children only.

Jim and Samantha eventually agreed to live separate lives under the same roof—again, for the benefit of the children. Polite and courteous, all external appearances to friends and relatives presented a picture of an ordinary family. Inside the home was the opposite, with Jim and Samantha fiercely arguing over which direction a chair should face in the family room. They regretted the pettiness of their arguments but also refused to yield to one another or find any common ground.

All of Jim’s children had spread their wings immediately after high school graduation, leaving Jim and Samantha alone in their four-bedroom, two-story suburban monolith. Meanwhile, Samantha had started quietly dating a younger man from her workplace. Jim knew about it, but at least Samantha was respectful enough that she never brought the kid around the house. As time slipped by, Jim and Samantha worked out their love-hate relationship and agreed to be roommates. At least Jim had someone to talk to at the end of a day, and Samantha had a solid business mind she could bounce ideas off of. With very limited interaction, they made their dysfunction function.

Ten months ago, Samantha and her boyfriend had gone out for dinner one evening. On their way home, a drunk driver plowed into their car at eighty-miles-an-hour and headlights extinguished. The vehicle that Samantha and her boyfriend were driving was immediately reduced to an unrecognizable mass of metal, and their bodies were unrecognizable as well. It was so horrible that even hardened emergency medical rescuers had difficulty maintaining composure during the cleanup process. Despite the carnage, the drunk driver walked away unscathed.

The funeral was simple and attended by Jim and most of Samantha’s work associates. Term papers, finals, and sheer laziness prevented any of the children from attending. Staci stated, in no uncertain terms, that it was a sham anyway, that her mother was unfaithful, and that she did not deserve any recognition. Jim sat through the service in a catatonic state; and, in spite of all forced attempts, he could not make himself shed a single tear. Time had evaporated too fast, and he supposed he wouldn’t be attending any weddings for his children or meeting his grandchildren.

As he was lost in his thoughts, Jim suddenly found himself parked in the driveway of his home. After a forty-minute drive, Jim had no clue how he had arrived or the journey from the doctor’s office. Jim was instantly overwhelmed with regretful sadness. His body felt encased in sludge as he dragged himself into the house.

Chapter Three

For over fourteen hours, Jim sat in his living room easy chair staring at the blank screen of his behemoth, flat-screen television in a darkened house. Seated in the same clothes he went to work in, he sat like a statue. Unmoved, Jim could neither think nor not think. Random thoughts came and went without any processing, and he spent hours sitting in a neutral, trance-like state. Praying silently, he cried, swore at God, and exhaustively ran every possible scenario through his mind.

The telephone rang several times, and the doorbell rang twice. Just before midnight, his neighbor Joe banged with his fist on the front door, calling out Jim’s name. Unfazed, Jim never moved his eyes but focused on the blank screen of the television in his pitch-black house. The pendulum of the antique wall clock ticked off the seconds like a metronome. Around five in the morning, daylight was struggling to breach the day when Jim’s eyelids felt like lead, and he fell soundly asleep.

The transition to slumber gradually enveloped Jim. One moment, he was blankly staring at the television screen; the next moment, he was relaxed and unconscious.

A reoccurring dream appeared, and the recognizable moments played out like reality inside Jim’s brain. The geographical location was different each time he had this dream, but the theme was always the same. In his nightmare, and completely unaware of his surroundings, Jim eventually noticed something was shadowing his footsteps. He would quicken his pace, but who or what was behind him matched each step. Suddenly, Jim found himself running for fear of his life in a full sweat.

Despite efforts to identify his nemesis, Jim could not maintain his running pace and also see the unknown monster over his shoulder. He could feel its breathing just inches from behind him, and he knew it was gaining momentum. The monster produced a wheezing, raspy sound. Jim’s blood pumped wildly throughout his body, and he could hear the sound of his heart drumming inside his ears. After an eternity of running, all sounds abruptly stopped. Typically, at this point in his dream, Jim would find he was on the edge of a cliff, teetering and struggling to maintain his balance. The abyss below appeared endless, and Jim would eventually slip over the edge, falling for eternity. Then abruptly, Jim would awake from the terrible dream, drenched in sweat.

This time, though, Jim wanted the outcome to be different. He wanted to identify the monster. In slow motion, Jim lost his balance and started to fall over the cliff’s edge, as usual. However, Jim took this opportunity to twist his body and face the monster that had bedeviled him all these years. A look of shock and then amusement crossed Jim’s face as he finally saw his adversary. A pair of lungs, liver, heart, stomach, and intestines loomed above. The organs were spotty and disease-infested, making them hideous and black. Tentacles of the intestinal track reached out to grab Jim as he fell backward, but it was too late. Jim watched the scene fade away as he silently dropped into the abyss. This time, for some unexplainable reason, Jim felt relief and closure.

At precisely seven in the morning, an internal clock inside Jim instantly jerked him awake, forcing him from his easy chair. Jim never needed an alarm and stuck to his routine with military precision. After a long, hot shower, a shave, and breakfast—consisting of black coffee and toast—Jim roared off to work.

Jim’s day proceeded as usual with business meetings and phone calls as if nothing had changed. Generally, most of the mid-level managers would gather at Charlie’s for cocktails and a bite to eat around one in the afternoon. But today, Jim declined. Staring out the glass walls of his office, which faced the interior of the department floor, Jim watched the muted employees move about. People attending to their routine activities were entirely unaware of Jim or his condition. Tired, he dropped his forehead to the desk, dangling his arms at his sides to rest, and he fell asleep in seconds flat.

 

Chapter Four

“Mr. Kreider? Mr. Kreider?”

Soundly asleep, Jim felt his body being shaken, and, in the distance, he heard his secretary’s voice.

“Did you check to see if he has a pulse?” asked a male voice.

“Oh dear! He’s not dead, is he?” asked a female employee.

Jim opened his eyes and slowly raised his head.

An immediate gasp emitted from the crowd crammed into Jim’s office.

“All right, people, get back to work. All of you, now! Give the man some space.”

Jim’s focus finally returned, and he saw his boss, Nathanial Martin, the vice president of sales and marketing, standing in front of Jim’s desk.

“Did you have a little too much fun last night, Jimmy-boy?”

Jim frowned, his voice groggy. “What? Huh? No. I had trouble sleeping last night. What time is it?” His last words sounded almost panicky.

Perplexed, the secretary glanced up at Mr. Martin and then back to Jim Kreider.

“A quarter past two, Mr. Kreider, and your two o’clock appointment is already waiting in the conference room.”

Jim stared at the sheer walls and could see a crowd of employees with their noses pressed against the glass, watching Jim as if he were a fish in a large aquarium. Mr. Martin followed Jim’s stare and yanked open Jim’s office door.

“Any employee still standing here in the next two seconds is immediately fired!”

Like a flock of birds resting on a high-tension wire, the employees instantly scattered in various directions, bumping into each other as they scrambled to escape Mr. Martin’s proclamation.

“Here, Mr. Kreider, I poured you a hot cup of coffee.”

The secretary set the steaming cup on the desk, and Jim could “smell” the caffeine. He looked up and gave her a faint smile.

“Thanks, Michelle. Please let my clients know I’m on a call and will join them in a minute or two.”

She smiled. “Already done, Mr. Kreider. They’re busy typing away on their laptops, and I believe they forgot the time.”

“Thank you.”

“Jim, are you okay?” asked the vice president.

Jim stood and sipped the hot coffee, which tasted fantastic. He made a face as the hot liquid scalded the insides of his mouth.

“I’m fine, Nate. Honestly, I am. It was a long night of little sleep, that’s all. I’m terribly sorry.” Jim stretched his body, which was stiff and achy.

“Well, you look like something the cat dragged in.”

“Thanks, Nate. That really helps.”

“You scared the daylights out of everyone. Michelle came running into my office, white as a ghost, and said she thought you were dead. To tell the truth, when I first laid eyes on you, I thought the same thing. You’re our number one sales executive. Don’t go checking out on us like that again. Do you understand me?”

“Got it, Nate. Again, I’m terribly sorry.”

His boss headed for the door but paused. Turning, he said, “After your two o’clock appointment is finished, do me a favor and go home for the rest of the day.”

“Nate, I said I’m okay. It won’t happen again. I promise.”

“It’s not a request. That’s an order! If I come back in one hour, and you’re not gone, and the light’s out, you’re fired.” Nathanial turned and walked out.

After watching his boss disappear around the corner, Jim set the cup down and placed both hands on the side of his desk. Dropping his head, Jim shuddered and gave out a long, heavy sigh. What was he thinking? He needed to pull himself together.

Jim looked up and grabbed his jacket from the chair back. He slipped it on and adjusted his tie and shirt collar. Bending over the desk, Jim swilled the remnants of the hot coffee. Snatching a notepad and pen from his desk, Jim darted out the door, heading to the conference room.

 

 

 

Three weeks later, Jim tendered his resignation, claiming personal matters demanded his immediate attention. Mr. Martin was beside himself and knew the loss would impact the sales figures. He outright refused the resignation but agreed to give Jim three months leave of absence instead if Jim would be available for consultation calls. Most of the employees figured Jim was grieving the death of his wife or that the emotions had finally caught up with the man. Either way, it would be the last time any work associate would ever see Jim Kreider alive again.

Initially, Jim conducted his life at home as if nothing had changed. He shunned his neighbor Joe, and would go shopping at midnight to avoid running into anyone he knew. On Sundays, Jim took Samantha’s makeup and colored his face and hands, so no one could see his gray skin. He sat in the back row of the church, and as soon as the service was over, he’d slink out the door and rush home. It was a large congregation, and no one seemed to notice Jim anyway.

By the end of the first month, Jim woke up with pain coursing throughout his body. Fumbling to get the morphine bottle open, Jim would suck down three pills with fresh, hot coffee. His clothes were so baggy, Jim resorted to wearing sweat pants and loose-fitting shirts to hide his sagging skin. Every time he stepped on the bathroom scale, the digits displayed a precipitously lower number. Jim finally called a realtor and listed his home on the market, refusing to allow the agent permission to place any signs in the yard to indicate it was for sale.

After a few weeks, the frustrated, but surprised, agent had a solid contract with a family who had been dreaming about Jim’s house every time they drove through the neighborhood. An arrangement was agreed upon, whereby they disposed of Jim’s furnishings as they saw fit. The new homeowners were ecstatic and supplied their favorite thrift store from Jim’s bounty.

The next week—packing nothing but a toothbrush and paste—Jim drove to the BMW dealer and closed out his lease. He then shuffled two blocks south to Woody’s used car lot and cash-purchased a lime green 1967 Dodge Dart that consumed more oil than gas. Motoring to the outside edge of town, Jim arrived at an obscure hospice facility to check himself in. After tossing the keys on the floorboard of the Dodge and locking the car, it required every last drop of energy for Jim to walk from the parking lot to the front door of the facility.

Just inside the lobby were several empty wheelchairs, and Jim lowered himself into the nearest one, sitting askew. Breathing hard, Jim witnessed a sympathetic nurse rushing over to assist him into a seated, comfortable position, for which Jim was immensely appreciative. Earlier, Jim had discarded his wallet and any credit cards through his home office shredder. He had no identification whatsoever and provided the administration nurse with his name, social security number, and the name and number of his attorney.

After paying off all his debts, closing all his bank accounts, and making final arrangements upon his death, Jim had the bank write out a certified check to the hospice for what remained of his investments and savings. He handed the administration nurse the folded check.

“I believe this should cover any expenses. In addition, anything remaining should be considered a donation to your organization.”

When the nurse opened the check, she saw that it was for two hundred ninety-four thousand dollars and seventeen cents. Gasping, the nurse quickly located the hospice administrator. Jim was immediately situated into a private room in the far corner of the building with a massive window facing the green space of their grounds. It was a lovely view of a large pond, a huge oak tree, tons of flowering plants, and a meticulously manicured lawn, which would cause most golf course owners to be insanely jealous.

For the first few weeks, Jim relaxed and was starting to feel slightly better, but then the convulsions started. Food and liquids refused to remain in his stomach, so the hospice staff placed Jim on a feeding tube. His pills were replaced with saline and morphine drips that soothed Jim to sleep most of the day. At first, two male nurses were needed to lift Jim off the bed while they changed the sheets. In no time, his six-foot-one frame was so reduced in size that one female nurse could accomplish the same goal alone.

The attentive staff murmured and gossiped outside Jim’s room, trying to determine why no one ever visited or called on the man. Two days before his death, Jim had the hospice summon his attorney, who dropped everything and rushed to Jim’s side. The lawyer was unprepared for the horrifying sight he beheld when he laid eyes on Jim. He had last seen Mr. Kreider in his office a little over three months earlier, but the skeletal corpse speaking from the bed at this exact moment was entirely unrecognizable.

“For goodness’ sakes, Jim,” he exclaimed.

The dying man commanded in a raspy voice, “Shut up, Tony, and close the door and those curtains first.”

The attorney was aghast because his client was shriveled and emaciated. Despite nearly losing all his muscle mass, Jim, remarkably, was able to move his arms and hands.

How can this man even be alive?

The sight was sickening and almost caused the attorney to use Jim’s restroom and regurgitate an earlier-consumed lunch. Slightly more than one hour later, the counselor emerged from Jim’s room. Shell-shocked, ashen, and crestfallen, the lawyer walked away from the hospice without uttering a single word to anyone watching him leave.

Two days later, the morning nurse arrived for her shift at six a.m. As usual, she started her rounds near Jim’s room. Jim slept for long periods of time, so the nurse followed her regular morning routine. In a cheerful, affirming voice, she greeted her patient.

“Good morning, Mr. Kreider. How are you feeling today?”

She didn’t wait for an answer because she rarely received one. The nurse opened the drapes, letting in the early, warm rays of sunshine. She performed various small housekeeping chores, humming a soft, religious tune. When she walked over to the bed, she checked on the morphine and saline bag and noticed it was no longer dripping. A look of concern crossed the woman’s face, and she stopped humming.

“Mr. Kreider?”

She opened his left eye with her fingers and shined a small penlight into the void and saw nothing. Checking his wrist for a pulse, she found none. Reverently, the nurse then pulled the bed sheet over Jim’s body, covering his face completely.

Sometime during the night, James Kreider had slipped from this life into the next in a peaceful process that involved no other human being. Without fanfare or relatives to mourn at his bedside, Jim’s life and suffering had ended. For Jim’s book of life, there would be no more chapters or pages written.

There, in the solitude of his hospice room, Jim had taken his final breath, and his heart had given its closing, soundless beat. Like other countless souls over the millennia before him, Jim had finished his human journey. Sans any witnesses, Jim had crossed over to a place known only to those who have tasted death.

 

Chapter Five

“Good morning, sir. How may I help you?”

An attractive receptionist in her early sixties, nicely dressed with silvery-white hair, looked up and smiled.

The man standing before her redefined the term “big and tall” and was dressed extremely casual, with his bold print Hawaiian shirt hanging out to hide an expanding waist.

“The name’s Joe Langley, and someone from here called me regarding an appointment.”

The woman typed on her keyboard and scanned the screen. “Mr. Langley, yes, you have a ten o’clock appointment with Mr. Toncetti. Please follow me.”

“Can you tell me what this is all about?”

The woman ignored Joe and walked through the large, frosted glass doors, holding them open for her guest. The names Toncetti, Silva, Barnes, and Smith were etched into the glass. As the woman walked down the hall, Joe couldn’t help but watch the receptionist. Her body was toned, and she was tall and particularly attractive for her age. Joe suspected the beautiful lady had been a model in her earlier life. She displayed an air of class.

She led Joe into a large, well-appointed conference room. A long table of solid teak, with fourteen luxurious, leather chairs surrounding it, dominated most of the chamber. Two conference telephone speakers divided the center of the table. The room was walled on three sides with teak paneling, and tall, frosted glass panels completed the final enclosure. The woman held the door open, and Joe slipped past her into the room. He could smell her expensive perfume, and his head felt dizzy. Across the far wall on a long credenza was an assortment of pastries, coffee, juices, and a mixture of deli meats and cheeses on silver platters.

“Please have a seat, Mr. Langley. The others will be joining you shortly. My name is Betty Thurgood. Please help yourself to coffee and juice only.”

Joe surveyed the smorgasbord of delicious food, and his mouth started watering. “So, can you tell me what this is all about and why I’m here, Betty?” When Joe turned around, the woman was gone, and the large glass door was slowly closing.

Joe looked back at the credenza. “Well, I don’t mind if I do.”

He grabbed a monogrammed china dinner plate and began filling it up. He helped himself to ample portions of everything, including two juices and a cup of coffee. At each end of a long conference table were two larger leather chairs with arm rests. Joe selected the end farthest from the door and plopped his substantial body down into one of the larger chairs, causing the leather to squeak under protest.

When the glass door opened again, two men walked in and froze, staring at Joe, who had a forkful midway to his open mouth. “Hey, come on in—the food is delicious.”

Betty glared at Joe and then said, “You gentlemen take a seat. The others will be joining you soon. My name is Betty Thurgood. Please help yourself to coffee and juice only.” Betty emphasized the words coffee and juice when she spoke. As she walked out, she narrowed her eyes at Joe.

“The name’s Joe Langley.” Joe stood and stuck out his hand.

“Pastor Michael Richards. Pleased to meet you.”

“I’m Dr. Nolan.” Tom could not help but notice the telltale signs of obesity and high blood pressure on Joe. “Tell me, Joe, how often do you visit your doctor?”

“Me? Nah, I’m healthy as a horse.” Joe patted his fat tummy with one hand. “I come from a family with big bones.” Joe’s plate was almost empty, so he reloaded it, since he was close to the food.

Dr. Nolan was a slender man, remarkably fit and healthy. His smile always involved pursed lips—almost as if he were grimacing. Although his hair was as white as snow, Dr. Nolan had no less than his youth. He sat in the nearest chair, which blocked half of the credenza containing food. This forced Joe to end his feeding frenzy and retreat to the end of the conference table.

Dr. Nolan was wearing dark pants, a white, short-sleeved shirt, and a tie. Sitting next to the doctor, Pastor Richards was dressed in a nice, tan suit with a crisp white shirt and dark brown tie. He was in his middle-to-late sixties, clean cut, with unusually large receding hairlines that curved on either side of his widow’s peak. His face was slightly rigid, and Pastor Richards kept his chin held high. Carrying a few extra pounds, he appeared to be someone who ate well but lacked the exercise to maintain his physique. Pastor Richards got up and poured himself a cup of coffee.

“Would you like a cup, Doctor?”

“No, thank you.”

The door opened again, and a tall, distinguished gentleman walked in. With coal-black hair that was turning white at the temples and a permanent tan from his Eastern European heritage, the gentleman was handsome and fit. Standing six-foot-two, his lean frame gave him a healthy appearance. He looked as if he worked out in a gym several times a week. He wore a six hundred dollar, dark blue, tailored suit, and his hand-tailored white shirt with French cuffs was silk. The initials N.D.M. were embroidered in blue on the left cuff, which barely covered an expensive Rolex watch that the gentleman regularly checked.

His blue eyes scanned the room to size up the others. A perfectly-folded handkerchief of white silk was nestled in his jacket pocket. The silk, red, printed tie he wore starkly contrasted the white shirt. When he saw Joe, the gentleman made a face. Clearly, this was a man of importance, with an impatient and commanding demeanor.

“My name is Betty Thurgood. Please have a seat, sir. Two others will be joining you soon. Please help yourself to coffee and juice only.” Betty again emphasized the words coffee and juice. As she walked out, she also narrowed her eyes at Joe, who was still stuffing his face.

Quickly wiping his face with a napkin, Joe, with a full mouth, introduced himself.

“Hey there, the name’s Joe Langley.”

He stuck out his hand, but the gentleman ignored Joe, who then shrugged and went back to attacking his plate.

“I’m Pastor Richards, and you are?”

“Nathanial Martin” was his firm and direct response.

The pastor nodded.

“I’m Dr. Tom Nolan.”

“Doctor” was Nate’s brief summation regarding introductions.

Everyone sat back down, except Nate. He paced in front of the frosted glass wall and kept checking his watch.

Pastor Richards asked, “Does someone have a clue as to why we were called here?”

“No, and I don’t care. I haven’t got time for this, and, quite frankly, in my business, time is money!”

“I’m sure you feel the importance of your responsibilities, Mr. Martin; but I assure you, as a doctor, my duties are no less important. I’m certain the explanation is forthcoming.”

“Well, it better be because I’m about to—”

The conference room door opened. “Gentlemen, please have a seat. I’m sorry for the delay, but we are waiting for one more individual.”

The man set a pile of oversized, white envelopes on the table and ensured a single piece of white paper covered the stack. He was dressed in a dark business suit with faint pinstripes, indicating the man’s intention to dress well, but not in an overstated fashion.

“And who are you, and why have we been summoned like this?” demanded Nate.

“Mr. Martin, please be patient. There will be answers. My name is Tony Toncetti, and I am one of the principles with this law firm. I represent a client of personal interest to each of you.” Tony looked at Joe, who was finally finishing his third plate of food. “I see you found the food reserved for lunch this afternoon; please help yourself to juice and coffee.” He enunciated the last three words.

“This was lunch?” asked Joe. “Oops.” He shrugged.

“Why don’t we all take a seat, please? Our last guest will be arriving any moment and can join us.”

Nate resisted and continued to pace, while the others sat in their chairs. Ten minutes of grueling silence elapsed with Nate clearing his throat several times. Tony stood and poured Nate a glass of water from the pitcher, setting it on a coaster in front of Nate. Nate bent over and took a sip, then set the glass back down. He refused to sit. Nate’s patience was at its limit.

“Look, Mr. Toncetti, I’m afraid I can’t wait here any longer. I have a busy day, and I’m afraid I need to leave.”

The glass door opened again, and a tall woman with strawberry blonde hair walked into the room. Nothing was out of place. The woman captured everyone’s attention. The woman was perfect elegance on display, and she appeared as if she were cut out of a fashion magazine. Her matching, large brim hat complemented her outfit, giving her an air of European influence. Her age was perhaps fifty, but she looked to be in her thirties. Tony offered her the first chair on his right, and then he sat at the head of the table with Pastor Richards to his left. Dr. Nolan sat next to the pastor, and the next six chairs were empty. Joe sat on the opposite end of the conference table, and finally, Nate took a middle seat, leaving two empty seats on either side.

“Excellent. Thank you all for coming today. We will begin with Mr. Richards and introduce ourselves. Please state the name by which you would like to be addressed during this meeting and your nature of business. And please indicate your relationship to James Kreider.”

Just the mention of this name caused immediate and varied reactions around the room.

“Minister?”

Tony held out an open palm in the direction of Mr. Richards. Immediately, Dr. Nolan felt a lump swell in his throat. He felt sick.

“Hello, my name is Pastor Michael Richards. I am the lead pastor of the downtown First Baptist Church—the oldest church in this city, I might add. I have been the pastor for thirty-eight years and met Jim Kreider a few years after I moved into the pulpit. Jim is a member of our congregation.” He then turned and faced Dr. Nolan.

Racked with guilt, Dr. Nolan took a long minute to gather his thoughts. He spoke slowly and deliberately.

“Good morning. My name is Dr. Thomas Nolan, and I am comfortable being called ‘Tom’ or ‘Doctor.’ I think we can dispense with the formalities today. I was present when James’ mother gave birth and delivered him, as well as his three brothers.”

Nate interrupted. “Excuse me, Doctor, did you just say you delivered Jim when he was born?”

“That is correct.”

“But you can’t be more than seventy years old. What were you—a doctor at the age of ten?”

Dr. Nolan smiled. “No, sir, I’m actually eighty-seven.”

“No way!” blurted Joe.

“Well, Doctor, you look fantastic for your age. I would have never guessed.”

“Thank you, Mr. Martin.”

“Nate. Call me Nate, please. I have too many employees that address me as Mr. Martin already.”

“Okay, Nate, nice to meet you. Anyway, as I was saying, I’ve known James since he was born and have continued to be his personal physician all these years.” Tom paused and looked at Joe.

“Hey, everybody. I’m Joe Langley, but everyone calls me Joe. I’m a retired sixth-grade teacher and a neighbor to Jim. He and I have been buds for thirty-some years. Is that why we’re here? Because of Jim Kreider?”

“Mr. Martin, I mean Nate, you’re next,” said Tony.

Nate leaned forward, making his shoulders seem even larger. Folding his hands on the table, the gleaming Rolex peeked out from under his shirt cuff.

“You’ve just heard my name. I work for Tynedex Corporation, and I’m the vice president of sales and marketing. Jim is my best sales executive, and I’ve known him now for almost forty years. He’s on a personal leave of absence from the company at the moment.”

“Excellent, Nate. Thank you. And now, I guess we saved the best for last, Miss.”

When she spoke, her voice was soft, eloquent, with a hint of a French accent. “Good morning, gentlemen. My name is Arleen Chenair, and I am an executive with Chanel S.A. of France. I have known James for less than thirty years. Please, call me Arleen.”

“You work for Chanel? Nate interrupted. “You’re one of our clients?”

Arleen nodded.

“Excellent, folks. Now, before we get started—”

“Okay, okay, since everyone is being informal, you can call me Michael. No, that’s still too formal. Oh, fiddlesticks, Mike will be just fine. I guess for the purposes of this meeting, I’m okay being called Mike.”

“That’s excellent, Mike. Thank you. I introduced myself earlier, but please address me as Tony. I am meeting with each of you for the first time. In fact, I suspect all of you are meeting each other for the first time as well. I was given instructions to contact each of you and invite you here today. Unfortunately, I have some unpleasant news to share this morning. This past Friday, the fourteenth, I’m sad to report that Mr. James Kreider passed away.”

Immediately, the room erupted in soft chatter.

“Tony, did you just say that Jim is dead?”

“Yes, Nate.”

“But how? I know I haven’t seen him around his house lately, but I figured he was on one of his business trips,” Joe interjected.

“He sold his house, Joe.”

Nate stood up and slammed his fist on the table, making everyone jump. “Why wasn’t I informed about this?”

“You’re being told right now, Nate, along with everyone else. Other than me, you folks are the first to know.”

“This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of. Who in their right mind dies but doesn’t tell anyone?” Nate started to pace the room.

“Please have a seat, Nate. We have a lot of business to address.”

Tony waited for the room to calm down. As everyone composed themselves, Tom cleared his throat, raising his hands slightly off the table.

“I’m afraid James was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago. I’m the bearer of the unfortunate information.” Tom looked down at his lap. “I called his house several times, and then, eventually, his number was disconnected. I stopped by his house numerous times but received no answer, and he never returned my calls.” Dr. Nolan slowly shook his head in disbelief as his voice trailed off.

“I don’t understand, Tony. I’m Jim’s pastor, and he never said a thing to me. Why?” Pastor Michael rubbed his head in concern.

“I’m afraid I only discovered his condition two days before he passed away. He summoned me to the hospice, where he spent the last month of his life.”

Everyone expressed varied emotions, including anger and frustration. Suddenly, the room went quiet. Arleen’s gaze was fixed on the opposite teak wall. Unhindered, tears streamed down Arleen’s cheeks, splashing on the teak conference tabletop. She was fighting her emotions, but the tears flowed like rivers.

Tony reached behind his chair and obtained a box of tissues from the cabinet. He slowly slid the box on the table, gently placing it near Arleen. The woman looked down and gingerly plucked three successive tissues from the box and softly patted her cheeks and chin. She looked at Tony and gave him a small nod. No one spoke. The tears continued to flow, so Tony stood up.

“Gentlemen, I’m sure all of you must need to use the facilities. Will you please follow me?”

Tony opened the glass door and ushered all the men from the room. As Dr. Nolan passed Arleen, he gently patted her shoulder.

 

 

 

For well over thirty minutes, everyone waited in Tony’s office. Despite their pleading, Tony refused to discuss the nature of the meeting without Arleen. When Betty entered the room, the men immediately jumped to their feet.

“I think she’s ready, Mr. Toncetti.”

“Thank you, Betty. Gentlemen, this way please.”

The group filed into the conference room and sat in their respective chairs. Arleen was now wearing rose-colored sunglasses. Clutched in her hand were crumpled tissues. Tony waited until he had everyone’s attention before he continued to talk.

“Over the years, as Jim’s attorney, I have prepared various documents for Mr. Kreider. When I was called by the hospice, I was thoroughly caught off guard. Jim requested my presence, and since it was a hospice, I felt there was some urgency. I immediately rushed to their address, which was on the other side of town. What I witnessed that day was incredibly horrific. Jim was barely sixty pounds; and if the man had not spoken, I wouldn’t have recognized him. We met for an hour, and he gave me a key to a safe deposit box at the downtown savings and loan. He asked me to remove the contents and close the box, which I did. Inside the box was a notarized letter addressed to me with instructions for the people sitting in this room.”

“Is this some sort of joke?” demanded Mike.

“Who plans their demise in this fashion?” asked Nate.

“I don’t understand why Jim didn’t think he could tell me,” said Joe.

“I only wish I had called the man, but, out of respect, I didn’t,” said Dr. Nolan.

“Look, I went there several times and even banged on his door. How did I miss the fact that he sold his home?” bemoaned Joe.

“Miss? You? I worked with the man every day and had no idea of this crazy plan,” said Nate with regret.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, please settle down. Please. Thank you.” After the room quieted down and everyone took a seat, Tony cleared his throat. “I will now read the letter Jim prepared for us.”

Tony pulled a letter from his inside jacket pocket and unfolded it.

 

My dear friends,

If this letter is being read to you by my attorney, Tony Toncetti, then I am no longer among the living on this earth. This news will be shocking to all of you because I chose not to involve anyone during my unpleasant death.

Tony, thanks for being the caretaker of this mess I’ve created. No one deserves to clean up after me, but I paid you handsomely, so that should count for something.

First off, Dr. Nolan, do not feel guilty about how this came about. Obviously, you were only the messenger, and I appreciate you telling me the truth.

Joe, my buddy, I pulled another fast one on you, pal, and all because I didn’t want you to own my problems. Thanks for everything you did for me. I really mean that. You’ve been a terrific friend.

Nate, what can I say? You’re going to be very upset about all this. But please check out Dean Thompson; he’s got enormous potential! I’m sorry I dropped the ball on you, but, hey, this was kind of serious.

Pastor Mike, I have felt lost in your church for some time, and I honestly appreciate all the lunches and walks you and I took together, but nobody in the church even noticed I was gone. Wow!

My dear, sweet Arleen, of all the people sitting in the room, I wish I could hold you and tell you what you mean to me. My love for you is deeper than anything I’ve ever experienced. You are my best friend, my true love, and the only person who actually understood me. I’m so sorry we cannot be together, but perhaps in another time and place. That is my hope. Your voice, your words, your soft kisses, and being able to hold you will be terribly missed. Please know I have gone to my grave with the knowledge that I have found my soulmate and that I count the sweet times we shared together as immense joy. With you, I’ve received the greatest blessings God could ever give a man. Please remember, I have not, and never will, stop loving you.

Now, the five of you have been selected to tell the story of my life at my funeral. You are the speakers chosen to represent me. Do not fail me, my friends, for you know who I am. Celebrate my short life, and remember me. I know I will dearly miss each of you.

Sincerely,

Jim Kreider

 

Before Tony had finished reading, Arleen quickly rose from her chair and darted from the room. She was mopping tears as fast as possible and hiding her face. No one spoke, for they were each processing Jim’s words just spoken from the grave. Tony jumped from his chair and rushed to check on Arleen. He returned a few minutes later.

“I’m sorry, gentlemen, but we must adjourn until eleven o’clock tomorrow. Everyone needs to be present for us to proceed to the next step. I will see you at eleven tomorrow.

“Are you kidding me? This is the dumbest thing I have ever heard of. I’ve got better things to do with my time than sit around in some funeral meetings all day,” Nate fumed.

In a matter of seconds, Dr. Nolan rounded the conference table. Although he was at least eighteen inches shorter, Tom pressed into Nate’s personal space and pointed a finger up at the man’s face.

“How dare you, Nate. This man worked for you for what? Almost forty years? And you cannot even give James a few hours of your precious time? Are you so utterly void and soulless that you cannot honor a man dedicated enough to work that long for you? Good grief, Nate, we’re talking about a man’s life, not some baseball score!”

Nathanial Martin was inflamed. As a retired United States Air Force colonel with combat experience, Nate had never experienced such insubordination before. He was the one who gave orders. Men jumped when he said jump.

Nate glared at the doctor, thinking how he could crush him with one hand.

But the doctor never backed down and stood there with his finger shaking slightly and pointing in Nate’s face. Nate then realized he was acting like a jerk.

“You know, Dr. Nolan, I’m way out of line. Please accept my sincere apology. You’re absolutely correct.”

“Apology accepted.” Dr. Nolan was shaken from the conflict but stuck out his hand.

Embarrassed and humiliated, Nate spun on his heels and dashed from the room.

“Tony, I’m afraid I have patients until eleven tomorrow. Can we adjust the time of our meeting until around noon?”

“No problem, Doctor. I’ll have my secretary contact everyone. We’ll meet here tomorrow afternoon. Thank you.”

Tony, Pastor Mike, and Dr. Nolan left the room, leaving Joe to linger, still examining the buffet of food sitting on the credenza.

Thinking that the food would spoil just sitting there, Joe made himself a snack to go.

After looking around, Joe grabbed a fresh plate and loaded it up. It was bursting with food, so Joe grabbed another piece of china and set it on top of the pile. Holding up his treasure trove, Joe beamed with pleasure as he proudly held his “sandwich plate.”

Holding the plates between his hands, Joe started for the door, but then glanced down at the stack of envelopes on the end of the conference table. Curiosity got the best of him, so he sought to investigate this mystery stack. Manipulating his trophy and balancing it with one hand and his chin, Joe attempted to reach down and move the top sheet of paper hiding the pile of envelopes. It took several attempts because he almost dropped the plate of food. On the third attempt, he was able to get his finger close enough to peek under the sheet. He saw some writing and started to lift the paper off.

“Mr. Langley!”

Joe spasmodically jumped from the intrusion and almost dumped the entire contents of his two plates. A flash-move in the last second, he managed to get a hand over the top plate, while supporting the bottom with his other.

“Whew, that was close.”

Betty scooped the pile of envelopes off the conference table and, with both arms, pulled them to her bosom. Her eyes narrowed once more as she observed Joe’s cache of food. Clearing her throat, Betty could not believe this brazen act, not to mention stealing two perfectly fine china plates.

“Mr. Langley, I suppose you’ll require a doggy bag for your ‘collection’?”

Joe looked down at the massive mound between the two plates.

“Oh, hey, that would be great.” Joe flashed his best smile. “Would you mind, darlin’?”

Betty turned and stormed out of the conference room, but not before rolling her beautiful green eyes.