One part of Cora prayed that Billy would hurry, while one part of her prayed that he would not come at all. Through it all she knew that it did not really matter what she prayed for, because he would come, as he always did, and he would not be late. No, he was never late.
She stood at the parlor window throughout the night, hoping and dreading as she looked down into the darkness at the spot where the dead rose garden lie. She could not see the garden in the darkness, but she could see it perfectly in her mind’s eye, the image engrained there in flawless detail after decades of looking upon it in the sunlight. She prayed again, this time asking only for the strength to do what she knew she had to do.
The grandfather clock ticked behind her like someone tapping on her shoulder. She did not turn to face it. She did not want to look at the time and know how close Billy was to arriving, because then she would have to admit how terrified she was, and if she admitted that then she might lose her nerve. She could not let that happen. Not this time.
The sun broke over the hills and lighted the yard, the dead roses, the broken trellis. She pressed one hand against the window and tried to remember the times she'd spent with her mother in the garden, but the memories would not come. They had not come for so terribly long now. Cora stiffened, pulled her hand away from the glass, and waited.
The doorbell rang in the same instant that the clock’s seven o’clock chime sounded, startling Cora so badly that she nearly cried out. She composed herself and walked briskly to the door, opening it quickly so as not to allow herself any hesitation, lest she lose her resolve altogether.
"Mrs. Fiortura," Billy beamed a toothy smile. His sandy hair, blue eyes, and gleaming teeth all looked exactly the same as they had the first day she'd met him, over one hundred years ago.
“Hello, Billy," Cora stepped aside.
“How is my favorite customer?” Billy asked, walking into the parlor.
“Fine. And you?”
“Excellent. Business has been booming, even with the present challenges to the economy. Luckily for us, our business is one hundred percent recession proof. People always want to live to see better times, right?”
He took a seat at the table in the parlor, set his briefcase down, and took out a file. “Well,” Billy said, "I don’t want to keep you from your business, so I’ll just get the paperwork going for the standard annual plan, again. Unless you’d like to upgrade to our decade option?" He lifted his eyebrows at her. "It’s actually become the company standard. It offers substantial savings."
"No. No, thank you," Cora muttered.
"Well, my philosophy has always been to give the customer what they want. Nobody likes a pushy salesman, right? I'll get the paperwork going on the standard annual plan,” he set out the paperwork, whistling quietly as he worked.
Cora stood opposite him at the table and watched him flip through the papers. She was paralyzed, the same way she'd been during the salesman’s last dozen visits. She could feel herself losing her grit, but then she thought of another year of staring out that window at dead flowers, another year of being unable to remember any of the people that she had once cherished, the ones that made life worth living in the first place, and from that sad and fearful feeling a little "no" squeaked out of her.
"Pardon me?" Billy smiled.
Cora cleared her throat, "I don't want the standard annual plan, either. I don't want any plan at all." Billy sat looking at her, an uncomprehending smile frozen on his face. "I'm sorry," Cora said, hating herself for apologizing. She walked back to the window and looked outside. She knew he was going to try to talk her out of it, and if she looked him in the eyes he might succeed.
“Ms. Fiortura,” Billy said, “you’re one of our oldest customers. You’ve been with us practically since the beginning.”
“I know, Billy. And your company has always upheld its part of the bargain. Physically, I’ve felt great for the last hundred years. Not a negative spot on my health that I didn’t bring on myself. You have fulfilled your part of the arrangement admirably, and I thank you."
"What’s the matter, then?"
Cora shook her head. Her throat tightened as she fought back her tears, “I'm just tired, that's all. I'm ready to leave the world, now." The words surprised her. Only after she said them did she realize how sincerely she'd meant them.
Billy was quiet. He got up from his chair and walked to her, slowly, as though not to startle her. Cora could see his blurry reflection in the glass. No features, just the smear of his blue suit. He spoke tenderly, “Ms. Fioritura, please don’t say those things. Life is worth living."
“Of course it is,” Cora said. “I hope people go on living forever, falling in love and bringing babies into the world, but I’m not part of it, anymore. I'm just an old woman staring out a window at dead flowers,” she choked and nearly cried.
Billy rested his hand on her shoulder, “You're still beautiful. Gorgeous. Look in the mirror. No one would ever guess you to be a day over 40.”
“But I’m very old inside. I used to jump out of bed into my day, and I thought it would be that forever. But now I realize I jumped like that because I knew that I had only so many mornings to do so. Now, there just doesn’t seem any reason in any of it. I’m just bored.”
“We can help that, too, you know. And with much cheaper means than the life extensions.”
“I know,” she sighed. “You can cure it all.”
“Yes, we can," Billy smiled, the bright white reflection of his teeth stretched across the window. “These feelings that are happening to you, they’re not your fault. It’s chemicals, that's all. Just chemicals floating through your body. No matter how real they seem.”
“Oh, what does it matter?" She cried in exasperation. "Everyone I love is dead. Do you know how I've spent the last ten years? Standing at this window looking down at a dead rose garden. It used to be beautiful. My mother would spend hours grooming the roses. She was an artist with them. She really was. She used to take me out there when I was a little girl. She showed me how to care for them. They were the best memories of my life. The best. And I can't even remember them, anymore. Can't even remember her."
“All curable," Billy said enthusiastically. "We can have those memories fresh as the day they happened. Or erased altogether.”
She jerked her shoulder out from under his hand and snarled, “You will never touch those memories.”
Billy held up his hands deferentially, “Okay, no memory work. But how about that life extension? You can go and make new memories. Think about it. The whole world is open before you."
“The time for making new memories is over. This is the forgetting time."
Billy was quiet. When he finally spoke, he did so very gently, “Do you remember the first time we talked, Cora? I do. I remember how hard you were crying. It was the day that your mother died.”
“I remember it, vaguely, though it's more like a story I've told many times than something that actually happened to me.”
“Do you know what you said to me that day? You said that after you found her dead, you never wanted to look like that. Do you remember?”
“What does it matter?”
“What’s changed since then?”
“I have. The way people are supposed to.”
“Have you thought about changing your lifestyle? I’ve been around substantially longer than you, Ms. Fiortura, and I’m still happy. Do you know why? Because my work gives me purpose. That’s what life’s all about. Purpose.”
“I’ve thought about that, and I think that maybe my purpose now is to make room for someone else. I'm not scared. I'm so thankful for the life I've had, but nothing is meant to last forever. There are too many people already for some old woman to use up what’s left of the Earth so she can stare out a window at dead roses all day. I've seen all there is to see here and I'm excited to see what's on the other side. Even if it's nothing,” Cora looked through Billy's reflection at the dead garden beyond.
“It’s quick, you know," Billy said. "Without a new extension it will be very, very quick. All of these past years will come upon you in a matter of hours. Bones disintegrate. Cells shrivel up and die. Even if you change your mind, it comes too quickly for us to do anything about. Much too quickly.”
Cora thought about the reality of dying. She was afraid, and it was such a familiar taste that she knew then that fear was the only thing that had kept her going all this time. What a stupid way to live, she thought. What a waste. She turned and looked in Billy's eyes, just to prove to herself that she could, “My decision is final."
“Cora, I understand you’re going through a rough time, but this isn’t the answer. Turning down an option to mortality is the same as committing suicide."
“Call it what you want, Billy. You have your word for it. I have mine.”
“Please, Cora. Things are getting better. Now that the population is stabilized, our services won’t be so financially selective. We are working on becoming the norm. This will be the new way of human life. Imagine it. One family, here on Earth, together forever. What a world it will be!”
Cora was quiet. She turned away from Billy and pressed her fingers to the windowpane, again. Looked down at the dead roses, “I never thought of you as evil, Billy. Not until just this moment. The way you talk is frightening. You may have been on Earth longer than I have, but there is something that you seem to have failed to learn."
There was a slight strain in Billy's voice, “Oh, and what’s that?”
“No matter how big you or I get, life will always be bigger. And we should be thankful for that."
“I’m sorry to hear you say that,” Billy said curtly. He went back to the parlor table and closed up his briefcase. “Thank you for your business, Ms. Fiortura. Good day." He walked briskly out the front door, shut it quietly behind him. The house was very quiet, the only sound being the ticking of the clock.
Cora stood by the window and waited. Not long after Billy left she felt it. It didn't hurt, yet, but she could feel it beginning. She looked at the clock and knew that she would never hear it chime seven, again. She wasn't afraid. For the first time in many, many years, she didn’t feel any fear at all.
As she stood calmly at the window looking down at the rose garden, a memory came back to her that she had dearly missed for a long, long time. It was so clear that it was as if she was living it, again, as though she was really there. She was 9 years old, standing in the rose garden with her mother on a clear, summer day. The roses were in full bloom and their scent filled the air. Cora's mother, smiling, handed her daughter the shears and guided her young hands through the bushes. She showed Cora how to cut the stems just right and explained how cutting off the right parts of the bush at the right time helps give new roses life. The little girl Cora stood quietly in her mother's arms and let her hands be guided and listened.