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Lie Pill, Death Pill

by Owen Traylor

As he enters the living-room, Jeremy notices that the TV is on, but the screen is frozen with the familiar images of Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves. He sits down in his father’s armchair, picks up the remote control, presses the ‘rewind’ button briefly then hits ‘play’. He leans back, closes his eyes, and allows the words from his father’s favorite movie to wash over him:

You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Jeremy supposes that leaving this for him to find was his father’s final joke, just between the two of them. He hits the ‘pause’ button, and once again the scene from The Matrix where Morpheus offers Neo the choice between the blue pill and the red pill, is frozen in time

Jeremy lets his mind run back over the morning’s events. He made every effort to make it appear like a normal day at the office; well, as normal as it gets in the world of a London advertising agency. He was in the middle of a difficult call with a client — not unusual, most calls with clients were difficult — when his cell phone rang. As expected, it was from his sister Pamela, so he muted the office-phone and pressed the green button on his cell-phone.

“You’ve got five seconds, Pam,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Jeremy, Dad’s dead. The police just called. They need us at the house.”

Thinking back, it amuses Jeremy to recall that his first thought was the value of the account that he was about to lose. He tried telling the client that he had to go because his father had died, but the client, a minor Russian oligarch, assumed he was lying and told him it was a lame excuse. Jeremy told him to go to hell and slammed down the phone.

The reaction from Jeremy’s boss Alan was not exactly full of empathy either, but he did agree that Jeremy could leave the office provided he made sure he was in bright and early the following day.

Jeremy reached the family home in the London suburbs about an hour later, having phoned Pam back to tell her he was on his way. She opened the door to him, her eyes red-rimmed and her nose sniffling. They hugged silently, and Jeremy’s heart went out to his poor sister, who had always striven in vain to earn her father’s affection, and who now saw her last hope of paternal love die with him.

“How did it happen?” he asked.

“The cleaning lady — Mrs Brown from the council estate, remember her? — comes at 10 o’clock every Wednesday morning to clean the house. This morning she rang the front doorbell and there was no reply, so she let herself in with her key. She found Dad slumped in his armchair. She called an ambulance, but it was too late.”

Pamela gushed out the whole story, apparently determined to bring Jeremy up to date without taking breath.

“No need for a post-mortem because the doctor who came soon afterwards was our old family GP — Dr Mason, you must remember him. Anyway, he was satisfied Dad died of a heart attack, so he signed off the death certificate. The undertakers will be here soon to take Dad away. Do you want to see him?”

Jeremy nodded wordlessly, and led his sister by the arm into the ground-floor bedroom. Their father was lying on the bed where the ambulance men had taken him so that the doctor could conduct his perfunctory examination.

Pamela went over and smoothed her father’s hair, then began to sob, turned away and buried her face in Jeremy’s chest. Their final moment of connectedness in their father’s presence was broken by the doorbell ringing. Mrs Brown, still in rather a state of shock, had returned from having a soothing cup of tea with the next door neighbour.

Jeremy realizes that it was perhaps a little cruel of him to insist that his sister drive Mrs Brown home, rather than offer to do so himself. But he needs to have the place to himself for the next step.

Still sitting in his father’s armchair, he reaches into his jacket pocket and retrieves a small plastic box. He opens the lid, and checks the contents — a single blue pill. Made by one of the country’s leading pharmacologists — his father. He closes the lid, leans back in the chair, and recalls his last conversation with his father, three days ago on Sunday afternoon, when they finalized arrangements.

“It’s all set, son. You and Pamela are beneficiaries of my life insurance policies, and I’ve put the house in your joint names. That mountain of debt hanging over me will die with me — there’ll be nothing in my estate to claim against.”

“Look, Dad, I know we’ve been over this a hundred times, but are you sure that little red pill will make it look as if you’ve had a heart attack?”

“One hundred percent. As I’ve told you, I developed it myself in my own lab. I have complete faith in it. I’ll take it as soon as I hear Mrs Brown’s key in the lock, and that’s when the clock starts ticking. Oh, that’s funny, my ticker stops and the clock starts ticking!”

Jeremy smiles at his recollection of his father’s joke. His father was always cracking jokes, and some of them were quite funny, even Jeremy has to admit.

“Just make sure you are available on Wednesday morning. Here’s the box with the blue pill inside it. All you have to do is get the pill down my throat within three hours, and I’ll be right as rain. Joe the undertaker will bring the coffin to the house, seal it up ready for cremation, and no one will know I’m not in it. You make sure he gets the fifty grand I’ve promised him, and I’m on that night’s plane to Rio!”

Thinking back to his father’s jokey optimism, Jeremy shakes his head slowly. How could his father, a supremely clever scientist, be such an idiot when it came to money? He supposes things would be different if his mother were still alive; she was the practical one, who always ensured that bills got paid and their money was wisely invested.

Jeremy looks at his watch. Pamela will be back in about ten minutes from dropping off Mrs Brown. So he has to make up his mind. He presses the ‘play’ button on the remote control, and once again hears the voice of Morpheus: “Remember, all I am offering you is the truth, nothing more.”

Jeremy lets the movie carry on running, stands up from the armchair and walks slowly into his father’s bedroom, the weight of responsibility heavy on his shoulders. Should he collude in his father’s fraud — of the insurance company, of his debtors? And what will Pamela say when she finds out? Jeremy recalls his father’s dismissive reaction to that question when he posed it:

“Oh, she’ll be fine with it. Overjoyed probably to discover that I’m not dead after all. And she’ll be able to come and visit me in Brazil once the dust has settled.”

Jeremy stares at his father’s round, almost childlike face. Such apparent innocence and playfulness, yet it masks so much irresponsible behaviour, and such an uncaring attitude towards the feelings of others.

The pill-box in his hand is causing his palm to sweat. He makes his decision. “Well, Dad, your hero Morpheus didn’t offer Neo both the red pill and the blue pill. Neo had to choose. Like Neo, you chose red. Now you get to face the reality of your situation. Returning to your fantasy world by taking the blue pill is not an option. I’m sorry.”

The doorbell rings, and Jeremy goes to answer it, the pill-box still in his hand. He wonders if it’s Joe the undertaker, and decides to play dumb. After all, what is Joe going to complain about?

In fact, it’s Pamela, back from Mrs Brown’s.

“Hi Pam, look I’m sorry about making you take her, I just felt a bit sick frankly.”

“No problem, Jeremy, I needed to get out of the house anyway. What’s that?” She points to the pill-box.

“Oh, it’s just one of Dad’s pills I found. I guess he forgot to take it.”

“Well, he won’t need it now. Let me flush it down the toilet, that’s what Dad always taught us to do with old medicines.”

Jeremy hesitates, then hands the box to Pamela. He walks back into the living room. On the TV, Morpheus is showing Neo the truth about his existence, of which he and the rest of mankind were unaware.

Jeremy breathes a sigh of relief at the sound of water sweeping away his father’s fantasies.

Copyright © 2013 by Owen Traylor

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