The clock on the dash reads exactly 11:00 a.m. as Mike and Grace Twigg pull up to the blue house just outside Zurich. The appointed hour. He parks the black BMW, hauls his massive frame out of the car and goes around to assist his wife. Both are dressed neatly but casually—he in a polo shirt and jeans, she in a blouse and cropped pants—and they might be taken for a typical middle-aged American couple on vacation.
But they aren’t on vacation.
Nor is the midnight-blue house a place where anyone lives, as such. People work there, and people die there, but it’s nothing like a home. A two-story box, rather severe in its plainness, it’s surrounded by trees and shrubs and abutted by a pond that’s filled with flashing goldfish. The Twiggs will use a planked, wooden walkway to cross the pond and reach the house’s entrance. Today is a “good day” for Grace, so with the aid of a cane and some support from her husband, she’s able to hobble along at a reasonable pace.
Grasping her elbow, Mike glances up at the sky, which is clear and cerulean. Postcard-perfect.
* * *
Thirty years before, they first met on a spring day every bit as clement as this one. Mike was walking through a parking lot at Indiana State University, having just finished a chem class. He was a grad student there, as was Grace. Not far from his own vehicle, which in those days was something less than a BMW, a young man was yelling aggressively, face-to-face, at a young woman. Though the young man was by far the louder and more active of the two, it was the young woman—Grace—who drew most of Mike’s attention. Petite and winsome, with curly brown hair that jounced when she bobbed her head to make a point of her own, she absolutely refused to take a backward step. From very close range, her adversary, a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, it would turn out, leaned down and shook his fist at her.
“You better damn well think about what you’re doing,” he said.
An old-fashioned type who still believed in chivalry, Mike went over and stepped between the two.
“No,” he said, poking the young man’s chest with a thick finger, “you better think about what you’re doing.”
Abruptly staring up at his opponent rather than down, his poles reversed, the young man seemed to find a grudging wisdom in Mike’s words. Within a few seconds he was slinking away, muttering to himself.
That evening Mike took Grace out for a drink, and she told him in that frank way of hers that she could’ve handled the twerp just fine by herself. Mike said nothing, though his eyes approved of her spunk.
“Still,” she said, “I appreciate your help. It was very good of you.”
Smiling, he held up his green bottle of Rolling Rock and offered her a toast.
“To a beautiful and brave lady,” he said.
It was the start of a happy union that would not only last but prosper for decades. And while neither had a taste for alcohol especially, from that first night on, if the occasion was special enough, they’d mark it by sharing a drink or two.
* * *
This isn’t the Twiggs’ first visit to the blue house (though it does figure to be their last). So they have a certain familiarity with the grounds, with the house itself and with some of the people inside. At the door they are greeted warmly by Dr. Katarina Engel, whom they address simply as “Katarina.” As always, she’s wearing horn-rimmed glasses and an immaculate white lab coat. With her cheery blue eyes and gentle manner, she might’ve done well, one suspects, as a childcare worker or a kindergarten instructor. Escorting the visitors inside the house, she banters easily with them.
“Did you sleep last night?” Katarina asks, her German accent barely detectable.
Grace answers: “Oh, yes.”
“And did you have some breakfast this morning?”
“At Maison Blunt,” Grace says.
“Ah,” says Katarina. “Of course. Not far from the Hauptbahnhof.”
“I enjoyed the Moroccan theme,” Grace puts in. “And the garden out back is marvelous, don’t you think?”
Katarina agrees and leads them to the kitchen—or what would ordinarily be considered the kitchen. She has them sit at a table. Apologizing for the bureaucratic nature of things, she presents them with two pens and a final sheaf of documents.
“It will take only a moment,” she promises. “I know it’s an imposition, but in these cases our government is—ah—very particular.”
“Perfectly understandable,” Grace assures her.
Quietly the Twiggs provide signatures, initials and dates where required. As the central player, Grace must use her pen more often than her husband, and, because of her condition, her hand moves more slowly and laboriously.
The paperwork finished, Katarina revisits the forthcoming procedure, even though she’s already discussed it with them several times. As the doctor speaks, Grace tilts into her words, listening it seems not just with her ears but with her entire being. Mike listens too, but his hulking body speaks a different language. Slouched in his chair, he moves his eyes restlessly from the floor to the ceiling to the Swiss railway clock on the wall, its red second hand pausing briefly at the top of each new minute.
“I will serve as a witness,” Katarina says. “Gretchen here will be our second witness.”
A flick of her eyes causes Mike to turn and see a young woman, tall and slim, her face expressionless, standing behind him. Until now, he’d been unaware of her hovering presence. She’s holding a small black camcorder, the device already operating.
“Everything,” Katarina says, “will be digitally recorded as well.”
Yesterday they had a dress rehearsal. Grace drank down without stopping a small glass of water, maybe six ounces, to prove that she could. Half an hour later she did so again. (Katarina warned that an inability to chug successfully would cause problems.) Today Grace will again drink twice: first a drug to prevent vomiting and then later a powerful barbiturate—a “poison,” as the doctor unambiguously calls it. The poison will result in a relatively quick and serviceable death.
“Now,” Katarina says, looking solely at Grace, “it’s up to you when we begin. Or even if we begin.” Her voice is soft as ever, but also clipped and precise.
Grace glances at Mike, a pro forma glance, not really seeking anything more than a moment’s contact, and then brings her gaze to bear on Katarina.
“I can see no point in delaying,” Grace says.
With that, Katarina rises and goes to a different table, a smaller one, on which various bottles, vials, glasses, napkins and the like have been carefully arranged. She opens a bottle and pours a murky orangish liquid into a glass. She then brings the glass over to Grace and holds it out to her.
“This is the antiemetic,” Katarina says. “Do you wish to drink it?”
As rehearsed, Grace accepts the glass, brings it to her lips and downs the liquid without hesitation. A steady succession of controlled and deliberate swallows. Next to her, Mike sets his square jaw tightly, clears his throat but says nothing. His rugged face, so like the face of a Marine colonel or a retired football player, is already beginning to blanch.
* * *
Within the past two years Grace had begun having physical problems—dropping things, stumbling, generally feeling that something peculiar and insidious was happening to her. She went to a series of specialists, two of whom, then three, finally diagnosed her with motor neuron disease. An unusually fast-moving form of it. At the time, she was fifty-one years old. Already she had difficulty standing and walking, sometimes her hands and arms would twitch, and she had to concentrate on enunciating her words; occasionally she would slur them.
“What can be done about this?” she’d asked.
Nothing, the doctors told her, though it took them a great many words to shape the message. No, the condition would advance continuously until in the end she’d be totally helpless. Death would occur by suffocation.
“Well, I can’t have this,” she told her husband. “I won’t have it.”
“So what will you do?” Mike asked her. “You can’t just … I mean, you can’t simply …”
“No, you’re right,” she said, and he relaxed somewhat. “I wouldn’t know how,” she said. “Someone who knows about these things will have to help us.”
Mike didn’t care for the idea of assisted death, and he told her so directly and repeatedly. It went against his principles. Then again, he didn’t care for the idea of her being gravely ill either; that also went against his principles. His wife being as determined as she was, he guessed she would ultimately get her way, and maybe that would be to the good. Or maybe not. Who the hell could genuinely know? He felt confused, and in his own way he was (and still is) almost as stricken as Grace.
Yet he felt no doubt whatever about Grace’s steely resolve. Her ability to make up her mind about a course of action and then stick to it was legendary, as Mike or anyone else who knew her could attest. Still in her thirties, she quit her job as a grade school teacher when she saw an opportunity to take over a local trucking company. Mike, who’d parlayed his chemistry degree into a respectable career in the perfume industry, was immediately skeptical. Why give up a reliable income to take such a risk? Besides, it was strange enough that he was in perfume; now his wife wanted to run a trucking firm? Something in this picture felt out of whack to him and his old-school values.
“What do you know about trucks?” he asked her.
“Not much,” she admitted. “So I’ll have to learn.”
Which she certainly did. Working fanatically, she built her company in the span of a few years into a multi-million dollar enterprise.
Then, over his protests, she turned around and sold it.
“Good God,” he said. “Why? It’s doing great.”
Because, Grace explained, the trucking project had merely been a means to an end—financial independence. Now, she said, they’d have the time and resources to do whatever they wanted. To travel abroad, for instance.
Mike, who despite his smarts was stubbornly provincial, didn’t necessarily want to travel; staying at home suited him well enough. “I’ll take the USA anytime,” he said. But she kept after him. “Just open your mind a little,” she suggested. When at last he gave in and spent a week with her on the French Riviera, he suddenly adopted a whole new outlook.
“Say,” he said, lounging on the golden beach in Cannes, “this is pretty sweet.”
* * *
As everyone in the blue house knows, it will take thirty minutes or so for the first drug, the one that prepares the stomach for the poison, to take effect. In the meantime there’s little to do but wait. For the most part Mike sits silently beside Grace; now and then he gets up to take a short stroll—to gaze at the potted plants or at the pastoral paintings that hang on the white walls. He would talk to his wife, but it seems to him that all the words—thousands and thousands of them—have been used up. Everything has been said; everything decided. Now it’s simply a matter of staying the course.
So he allows his mind to drift away to some of the wonderful and exotic places they’ve visited over the years. Paris. Rome. Barcelona. He remembers the time they walked the Ramblas, the main boulevard in the Old City of Barcelona. Starting at the Plaça de Catalunya, they went all the way to the waterfront, passing en route an old opera house, elegant cafes, fragrant flower stands and even an outdoor bird market. Quite a walk, and at the end of it, Mike, and not Grace, was a tad weary. After enjoying some tapas, they commemorated the day by sipping a glass of Tío Pepe.
Then there was the trip to Ireland, which they took just before the onset of her illness. One evening they’d concluded a delicious dinner in a Galway pub when, without warning, a band began to play a selection of Irish traditional music. Fiddle, flute, banjo, pipes. The music was loud and throbbed with energy, and at some point people got up and started doing a stylized folk dance. On impulse, the Twiggs decided to join them. Capering around with only the vaguest notion of what to do and when, they hoped that their sheer gusto might compensate for their obvious lack of skill.
Perhaps it did.
When eventually they returned to their table, a redheaded man approached them and said something to them in a joshing, lighthearted way. Mike couldn’t understand him since he’d spoken in Irish, not English. To Mike’s astonishment, Grace, laughing, replied to the man in his own language. The man chuckled and went on his way.
“How …” Mike stammered. “How the devil?”
“I did some research,” she said, “back home. Common words and phrases. I wanted to be prepared.”
Mike shook his head and ordered a pint of Guinness for her and another for him. They drank the “black stuff” in celebration of a memorable day.
* * *
Standing near his wife in the blue house, he is overtaken by a keen urge to speak to her—to say something, however trivial or banal.
“Grace,” he ventures with some awkwardness, “hasn’t the weather been fine lately?”
Blinking, she turns to peer up at him. Unlike his, her face seems relaxed and even serene. “Yes,” she says. “Very pretty.”
“Weather like this, you know, it takes me back to other times. Other places.”
In response, she inclines her head slightly.
“Yesterday,” he goes on, “when we were looking out at Lake Zurich, it looked so—I don’t know—so perfect. There was the pale blue of the sky, and then the deeper blue of the water …For the life of me I couldn’t tell which blue I liked better. They were both so …”
“It’s a nice color, either way,” he says.
“It is,” she agrees. She is smiling faintly, and he is smiling too.
He would summon something further to say, something richer and more meaningful, but the words elude him. He has the sense that he’s caught in an oppressive dream, and he wants—needs—to awaken. But he can’t.
Without a sound, and at a discreet distance, Gretchen has floated almost wraithlike into view, the black camcorder running. Seconds later, the horn-rimmed glasses and white lab coat follow her into the room. Automatically Katarina commands the Twiggs’ attention.
“It’s been about thirty minutes,” she says softly. Her eyes meet with Grace’s. “I assume you’ve decided?”
“I decided a long time ago,” Grace says.
“Do you wish to proceed?”
“You will drink the poison?”
“I have no choice.”
At this, Katarina frowns and raises her right hand, slender fingers spread wide apart. “You do have a choice,” she says firmly. “You do have a choice.”
“Well then,” Grace says, “I choose to move ahead. I choose to drink the poison.”
As scripted, Mike, his face pallid, helps his wife to her feet, and they move to a puffy white sofa in the next room where she’ll be more comfortable. The sofa will also be better able to accommodate her collapse than will a kitchen chair. Meanwhile Katarina lingers behind in the kitchen mixing the lethal drink. Gretchen has positioned herself between the two rooms, slowly pivoting her electronic eye in one direction and then the other.
When Katarina emerges, she is carrying a glass of water. In the water a white powdery substance, the pentobarbital, dances like a tiny snowstorm.
She stands before Grace, glass uplifted.
“This is the poison,” Katarina says. “Do you wish to drink it?”
“Yes,” Grace answers.
“Drinking the poison will cause you to die,” Katarina says. “So let me ask you again: Are you certain you wish to drink it?”
Without further comment from anyone, Katarina hands the glass to Grace. Much as she did thirty minutes before, she lifts it to her lips and consumes the contents in a strong series of gulps. The act takes just a few seconds. Politely, she hands the glass back to Katarina.
Seated at Grace’s side, Mike has been caught off-guard by the suddenness of her last act. He understood it would happen, but why so fast? Not that it would’ve changed anything had she been more deliberate. But he thought perhaps she might’ve made a statement first, a brief summing up or a valediction, or that Katarina would’ve conducted some sort of preliminary ceremony. Something! But poor Grace just swilled down that awful stuff so quickly. As if in a rush. And now—
Now will come sleep, then a coma, then death.
He watches her carefully. No change yet. Oddly, he feels in this terrible moment he must do what he can to aid her, to shield her from harm as he did long ago during their first encounter in that faraway parking lot.
But this is precisely what he’s forbidden from doing.
When Grace finally breaks her silence, it’s as if she’s been reading his thoughts. “It’s no one’s fault,” she says. “Certainly not yours, Mike. It’s just how it is.” She kisses his cheek and tells him goodbye. “Be strong,” she says.
Unable to speak, he holds her in his arms.
“You know,” she adds, as if from a vast distance, “I believed in Santa Claus till I was nine years old.…”
In a minute her head slumps, and she’s asleep, breathing lightly. Then heavily. In another minute the breathing softens again and then gradually fades away. Ceases. So smooth was the transition that Mike, still holding her, couldn’t have pinpointed the exact instant she died.
* * *
For a long while he continues to sit there, his brawny arms around her, his face virtually the same color as the sofa, the walls, the laundered lab coat.
Katarina nods at Gretchen, and the little light on the camcorder winks out, and Gretchen withdraws to another part of the blue house.
At length Mike gently releases his wife. He tries to stand but doesn’t quite make it. On his second attempt he succeeds, albeit shakily.
“I’ll certify her death,” Katarina tells him. “We’ll have some people come by to take care of the body.”
“This was her choice,” he says numbly.
“It was the right choice,” he says, as if testing the assertion’s merit.
“She felt it was.”
Mike runs his hand over his stubbly jaw but otherwise doesn’t move.
“Is there anything I can get you?” Katarina asks.
“I’m all right.”
“Would you care for a drink?”
Given the circumstances, the innocent question sends a weird shock, a frisson, rocketing through him.
“A drink!” he says. He stares down at her.
“A glass of juice,” she clarifies. “A cup of tea. I can get you a shot of whiskey if you like.”
He collects himself. Glancing back at his wife, he runs his hand over his jaw once more. “A drink,” he repeats.
“If you like.”
He requests a shot of whiskey.
“What kind?” she asks.
She goes away and returns with a shot glass and a bottle of bonded bourbon. Mike pours himself a full shot and turns to Grace, who’s reclining on the sofa, hands on her lap, eyes closed. A tableau.
He raises his glass, holds it toward her.
“To a beautiful and brave lady,” he says, and drinks the shot in one quick swallow.