HE SCOWLED AT THEM all, but not seriously.
"Oh, stop the blubbering. I'm not trying to make you cry."
He paused, a tear running down his own cheek.
"All right. I'll miss you, too. Or, at least, I'm missing you now, in anticipation."
That brought a smile to their teary faces. Jeffrey guffawed between sobs.
"And, to cap it off, I get to end it on my own terms, avoiding unnecessary suffering, and getting this beautiful morning, surrounded by the people I love, as a final experience. Well, you can't do better than that. I'm older than Methuselah, and I've had a wonderful life."
He locked eyes with Jewel.
"So don't go feeling sorry for me. You can feel sorry for yourselves if you like. I won't deny you that pleasure. Besides, I quite understand it."
It was good to make her smile, even now.
He glanced across the lawn. Franklin hiked toward them, but paused, pretending to a sudden interest in the roses, when he saw they were still talking.
He gave Franklin a wave, then turned to Jewel.
"Tell him how much this means to me."
He handed his coffee to Susanne.
"Two last things. Remember, if there are questions later, Franklin was here as my friend, not my doctor. He—none of you—had the slightest idea I was going to..."
They all nodded.
Now he was blubbering.
"...I love you."
He met Jewel's eyes again.
"I love you all."
They returned the sentiment in chorus.
He nodded at each of them, mouthing "Goodbye," then smiled into Jewels strong eyes as he reached over and turned off the portable heart machine.
They waited, as he had instructed, until the beeping stopped, before calling to Franklin.
He awoke with a start, and for an awful moment was surprised by the nothingness, the emptiness that surrounded him.
A wave of grief passed over him, as he fully sensed how much he missed them all.
But then he came to himself again, and slowly remembered who, and where, he was.
It had—they had, as always, been just a dream, one of his long, and finely designed fantasies.
The grief slipped away, and in its place came his old companion, the aching, hopeless, inexhaustible loneliness.
He surveyed the emptiness around him, and realized, once again, in an infinite series of realizations, that he was the only necessary being, the only true being, that anything else was a fiction, a figment of his imagination, by comparison.
And the inconsolable ache returned.
He allowed himself a good wallow, a mere couple of eons, then took himself firmly in hand, and turned his mind to his next creation. It was, after all, better than the alternative.
He wasn't quite ready for another like the last. It had been too pleasant—too unlonely. The shock, coming out of it, had been greater than he wanted to deal with again soon.
An adventure, perhaps? Something completely the opposite of all the love and meaning he had just survived. A hit man, for example.
A hit man. It was a possibility. The re-entry would be easier. It was almost as lonely and existence as his own.
But no. He had done something like that far too recently, and besides, he needed to let himself down easy after the last one.
So. Some relationships, but nothing truly wonderful. Some adventure. Some hardship.
Yes. Poverty. It had been some time since he had done that one. Some nice relationships, that last for a while, but get the grieving over with in the dream. End in a poor facility somewhere, so that the return to reality was a bit of a relief.
That was it.
He turned his attention to the particulars, then. What kind of world? What kind of economy, people? How poor should he be?
The abstractions became clearer, giving way to sights, smells, sounds...
He drifted deeper into his self-induced trance, and once again found a temporary respite.