Nearly halfway up the stairs, Ben Turcotte heard the front doorbell. It being Saturday, he assumed it was one of the neighborhood children fundraising with candy, cookies, or candles. Instead, he was surprised to find a man in a suit holding a briefcase in one hand and a clipboard in the other. Rarely a good sign.

“Can I help you?” Ben asked warily.

“I’m with the Facile Group and would like to ask you a few questions.”

“The what?” Ben said.

“We are a research organization conducting a survey on the life experiences of the local population and would like to include you.”

“I don’t think so,” Ben said as he started to close the door.

“This IS the Turcotte residence. Correct?”

“How do you know that?” Ben asked.

“Public tax records,” the man replied and went on to describe the survey. “Broad demographic information will be augmented with specifics such as participants’ early childhood experiences, educational achievement, post-adolescent socialization, and work histories.”

Ben declined again.

Undeterred, the surveyor asked, “Does Mill Creek have any significance for you?”

The question stopped Ben cold.

For the first time in years, Ben recalled witnessing a horrific collision between a train and a car at a railroad crossing just south of Mill Creek. One of his third-grade classmates and her mother were killed instantly. Ben missed several weeks of school because of the traumatic incident and began his lengthy history with psychotherapists.

“What about it?” Ben said, trying to mask the pain that long-suppressed memory stirred.

“In researching the area, we scan old newspapers for various events that might be significant to local residents. Based on your age range, that was one of them.”

Offered a plausible explanation, Ben asked how long the survey would take. When told less than ten minutes, he agreed, more out of curiosity for what this stranger knew about his life, than cooperation for some innocuous study.

The men sat at the kitchen table where the surveyor opened a laptop computer alongside a folder of handwritten notes.

“I didn’t get your name,” Ben said while setting a glass of water in front of the man.

“Oh. Sorry. Here.” The surveyor presented a business card that read “Terrance Kastner the Facile Group.” No telephone number, no email, no other information. Despite thinking it odd, Ben continued, albeit cautiously.

Kastner began with several questions about Ben’s childhood. The events rang true. Most were common knowledge anyway. A few others were known only to a smaller circle of people. But a question about a fight at a high school dance involving Ben and some classmates startled him.

“How do you know about that?” Ben said, his hand rubbing his pant leg.

“Well,” Kastner replied, “we consolidate data points from multiple public and private sources. Friends, acquaintances, school yearbooks. You get the idea. Then we reconstruct timelines to trigger participants’ memories.”

The mention of friends and yearbooks had Ben suspecting the guy with the sketchy business card was part of some grand prank hatched by his golfing buddies, several of whom he’d known since grade school. Considering they had pulled some epic stunts on each other before, Ben figured it was now his turn in the barrel. “Okay, Mr. Kastner, or whatever your real name is, we’re done. And, by the way, tell whoever set this up: I’ll get him, and good.”

“Mr. Turcotte,” Kastner replied, “this is not some practical joke.”

Convinced he had uncovered the subterfuge, Ben leaned back in his chair, threaded his fingers behind his head, and grinned.

Kastner returned to his notes, saying, “When you were traveling on business in Europe 11 years ago, you spent a night in Munich. After your associate returned to the hotel, you visited a…”

The blood drained from Ben’s face even before Kastner finished his sentence. “That’s it! We’re done!” Ben shouted, his voice shaky, his skin suddenly clammy. He was glad neither Gwen nor the girls were home to hear even the slightest reference to that grim night in Germany.

Before the mention of Munich, Ben Turcotte presumed this all to be the work of his friends. But, now he wondered how this stranger knew of something so dark that Ben had never spoken of it. Not to his friends and certainly not to Gwen.

Shaken, Ben demanded, “Out of my house. Now! Or, I call the police.”

Kastner closed the laptop and looked Ben in the eye. “Mr. Turcotte, you are on the list.”

“What list?” Ben repeated angrily.

“The departure list,” Kastner said. “Everything on earth has a beginning and an end. For living inhabitants, it is birth and death. For inanimate objects, it is formation and erosion.”

Ben grumbled, “What’s that got to do with me?”

“I suggest you prepare for your departure,” Kastner replied. “Also, I recommend you not alarm your family. That would only cause them unnecessary distress, especially the girls.”

The image of his two teenaged daughters sent Ben over the edge. He leapt from the chair hollering, “Get out! Get out!”

As Kastner stepped through the front door, he turned to Ben. “Another representative will implement your departure.”

Ben seethed as the man vanished down the street.

With his back against the door, Ben reflected on pivotal moments in his life. The trauma in his childhood. That high school fight. Going off to college. Marrying Gwen. The birth of his daughters. When his parents died. The scenes raced by with increasing speed until everything stopped when that night in Bavaria replayed in agonizing, graphic detail.

With the mental movie finally over, Ben climbed the stairs; splashed cold water on his face, and lay down on the bed. Wondering what had just happened, Ben struggled to remember if he had inadvertently mentioned the Munich incident to his buddies on one of their golfing vacations when booze might have loosened his tongue.

Over the next few weeks, Ben took his family out to dinner several times, causing them to question why. Ben replied simply, “It’s been too long.”

He said nothing to his friends at the country club, waiting instead to see who would tip their hand about the deception. None did.

Ben put the whole matter behind him until the doorbell rang one Saturday the following month while Gwen was at the nail salon and his daughters were visiting friends.

A gaunt man with a face the color of beeswax said, “Mr. Turcotte, I’m here to facilitate your departure.”

With his 50th birthday only days away, Ben surmised the absence of his family on this particular weekend and the last minute cancellation of the usual Saturday morning golf foursome were not coincidental. A defiant Ben said, “And just how are you going to do that?”

“Well,” the man said, “you have options. A stroke right here, right now. Or you may wish to head over to Lakeview Park.”

It struck Ben as odd that a stranger would suggest that specific location because so many events in Ben’s life had occurred there. It was where he proposed to Gwen, where the Turcotte family took many summer and winter group photos, where the girls learned to ride bicycles. Ben said, “And what? I drown in the lake?”

“Oh, no. It would also be a stroke. Painless.”

“So,” Ben challenged. “What would YOU recommend?

“Well, the park would be peaceful. And you will not have to worry about your family finding you here, which, as you can imagine, could be very disturbing.”

The man’s precise recommendation had Ben convinced there was a sizeable gathering awaiting him at the park. Ben laughed, “I might as well go in style at the park.”

“As you wish,” the man said. “But you will need to drive as I do not have a car.”

“Sure,” Ben joked. He was anxious to see the satisfied smiles of his friends and family when this impressive charade came to a conclusion.

With the man in the passenger seat, Ben drove to the park’s south entrance where he stopped, waiting for the left turn signal to flash green. When it did, Ben accelerated, aiming for the entryway and the crowd of well-wishers he knew would be yelling, “Surprise! Happy Birthday!”

Distracted by a woman pushing a stroller near the entrance, Ben did not see the delivery truck run the red light. A violent explosion sent Ben’s car skidding across the intersection. Its sickening trajectory ended only when the vehicle wrapped around the streetlamp like a piece of post-apocalyptic sculpture.

Blood flooded Ben’s eyes. He heard nothing beyond his own breathing. Oddly, he felt no pain. Ben tilted his head to see the passenger seat crushed by a truck bumper that projected several feet into the car. The seat was empty. He was alone.

Ben tried to speak to the people who rushed to help him. But, with little air in his lungs, the words would not rise. Nor would his arms or legs. Only his head moved.

Then, it hit. I’m paralyzed.

With his worst fear now reality, Ben recalled having told Gwen he would rather be dead.


Ben Turcotte adjusted his tie; checked the laptop computer in his briefcase, and approached a modest two-story home in the quiet Chicago suburb. When the front door opened, Ben introduced himself to the surprised homeowner saying, “I recently joined the Facile Group and would like to ask you a few questions.”