I heard about the house at the end of the old highway from a guy named Tony Gambino. Tony and I had our chemotherapy appointments at the same time, and we kept each other company, provided moral support, that kind of thing. We shared a kinship, because, well, we were both doomed, going through the motions but knowing it was just delaying the inevitable. It’s a strange foundation to build a friendship on, but that’s what we did.
I had lung cancer—the end result of smoking for thirty years—and Tony had leukemia. We’d sit in the outpatient clinic together, joking and trying not to vomit while they pumped radioactive poison into our bodies. I always gave him shit about his name. He always gave me shit because I’m a Reds fan, he a Yankees fan.
Tony and I were similar in a lot of ways. Both divorced, no kids, pretty good jobs, but we were facing our ends alone, except for each other. It was nice to have someone to share the experience with, even if that experience is literally the worst thing that could happen to someone.
Two months ago, Tony didn’t come into his chemo appointment, and I feared the worst. I asked the doctors, but they wouldn’t tell me anything. I guess it’s a HIPPA violation or something. I almost didn’t come into my next sessions last week. I had definitely reached the why-fucking-bother stage. The chemo wasn’t doing much for me, but my oncologist said I should continue. I went and found Tony waiting for me.
The last time I’d seen Tony, there wasn’t much left of him. He’d been a big guy, tall and strong, but the cancer had eaten the meat off him like a man sucking the flesh from a chicken bone. The guy waiting for me in the clinic didn’t look like a cancer patient. Tony looked like he’d put on fifty pounds of good, healthy weight. He smiled at me, big and toothy when I came in and wrapped me in a hug. I could feel the strength in his embrace. It made me simultaneously happy for him and so goddamn angry and envious. He clearly sensed the latter.
“Fuckin’ crazy, huh?” Tony said, holding my thin, wasted shoulders and looking me in the eyes.
“Glad chemo works for somebody,” I said, and laughed, which quickly turned into a hacking cough.
Tony led me to a chair and sat beside me. “No, buddy, this ain’t chemo. The cancer is fucking gone.”
“How is that possible?” I said. “We kid around, but, come on. We both know the score.”
He grinned. “Yeah, we were the Reds playing the Yankees, huh?”
I chuckled. Tony could always make me laugh, and I realized how much I’d missed him. “Fuck you, man. Now, will you please tell me what’s happening?”
“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “What I’m gonna tell you will sound crazy, but you need to keep looking at me, keep focusing on how I used to be and how I am now because that shit is real, okay?”
“Okay. Sure, Tony,” I said with conviction I didn’t feel.
“There’s a highway off I-77, branches off just south of Dexter City and heads into the woods,” Tony said. “Do you know where I’m talking about?”
“Yeah, it’s in the middle of nowhere,” I said. “Road’s closed and falling apart.”
“It is. That road runs through a forest, and, buddy, let me tell you, that forest isn’t like anything in Ohio. It’s fucking old, older than it should be.”
“I don’t understand.”
Tony laughed, and for the first time, I saw something besides joy in his eyes. I saw fear. “Yeah, neither do I, really. But you drive out to that road, you get out, and you walk to the end.”
“Man, I can’t walk five feet without falling down,” I said.
“You have to try.” Tony took my hand and squeezed it. “Because at the end of that road, there’s a house, old as that forest, and when you go in . . .” He trailed off and that fearful look returned.
“What? Tell me.”
He shook his head. “I can’t. I was told not to. But you get there, and you’ll have a choice to make. The biggest choice of your life.”
“I guess you made that choice.” I started to understand the fear in Tony’s eyes. It was the fear a man got when a big bill came due, the kind he couldn’t afford to pay.
“Is it worth it?”
“It’s different for everybody,” Tony said, deflecting. “Drive out there, walk down that road, decide for yourself. That’s all I can tell you.”
He left then, and told me to call him when I came back. He knew I’d make the drive. I guess I knew it too. I left the outpatient clinic and told my doctor I was done with chemo. That part’s true at least.
Tony was right. The forest was old, deep, and dark, the road paved with cracked asphalt that looked more red than black. Trees stretched over it, their branches like long fingers, painting everything in shadow.
I walked slowly down the old highway. I hadn’t seen a single car, a house, or anything. It felt like I’d stepped back in time. By the time I reached the end of the road, I hurt so bad I could barely breathe let alone walk, but there the house stood, just like Tony said. A decrepit one-room shack with a blood-red door.
I stopped, drew in a ragged breath, and thought about Tony, about chemo, about dying. Part of me knew what I’d find beyond that red door, or, more importantly, who I’d find. Behind me lay slow, lingering death, painful and undignified. Ahead? Something worse? Something better? Both?
To find out, all I had to do was knock.
Aeryn Rudel is a writer from Tacoma, Washington. He is the author of the Acts of War novels published by Privateer Press, and his short fiction has appeared in The Arcanist, On Spec, and Pseudopod, among others. He occasionally offers dubious advice on writing and rejection (mostly rejection) at www.rejectomancy.com or on Twitter @Aeryn_Rudel.