"Don't you try to talk me out of it." Sitting up straight at the kitchen table, Mary stared at Gwen through wire-rimmed glasses as if the bosomy blonde were a rowdy third-grader at the Brickpot School. "I've made up my mind, Gwennie."
"Of course you have," the young woman cooed, toying with her necklace of pink plastic beads (the latest fad from Shanghai). Whenever she touched them, they made a faint crackling sound, like fire.
The corners of Mary's mouth drooped, and she fluffed her snowy hair with knotty fingers. "Now would you like more coffee, dear? Or another slice of green apple pie?"
"I'd love more pie, Auntie, a giant slice. You know it's my favorite." While Mary fussed with the pie, Gwen's blackly eye-linered eyes flicked around the kitchen, the old-fashioned counters of real wood, the windows brimming with home-grown spices. On the sunniest sill sprawled William, Mary's sleek, grey robo-cat. Popping open one eye he gazed back at Gwen like a jeweler studying a stone for flaws.
Having served her more pie, Mary poured herself a second half-cup of coffee. "Now that the government can't pay Social Security anymore, at least seniors like me get a tax credit for choosing an early departure. A good thing, too: it should cut the estate tax on this house by half."
"But Auntie, you know I'd rather have you than this old Brooklyn row house." And Gwen dug a silver fork into her juicy slice of pie.
"Well my dear, you can't have both." Mary turned to her assistant. "William, would you like a saucer of milk? It's almost 3 PM."
"Oh yes." The robo-cat sprang lightly to the floor and padded over to her slippered feet. "Mistress, I've been thinking it over. I wish that you'd get a second opinion. Just because one DNA clinic said you have an 89 percent chance of developing a sinus tumor ..."
"An inoperable tumor," Gwen said firmly.
"Oh hush; it's too late to make a fuss. I've made up my mind." As Mary stroked his back, William hesitated, peering up at her, and then took a delicate sip of milk.
Gwen hid a belch behind her plump hand. "Auntie, would you like me to drive you over to your meeting with the overtaker?"
"If it's not too much trouble, dear."
"Oh it's no trouble at all."
* * *
Saggy-faced and pale, with beady eyes that looked too small for his face, the overtaker wore a stovepipe hat and a suit of shiny black. Leaning forward over his faux-ebony desk, he grinned at petite Mary like a salesman trying to close a difficult sale: "Mrs. Quince, your questionnaire indicates that you've been feeling depressed."
She sighed like a sob. "Last fall I retired from the Brickpot School, and now I feel I've got nothing left but baking pies. I don't have a family; just my grand-niece, Gwendolyn Appletrap, a student at the Institute of Fashion Glory. I'm leaving her my row house on Brooklyn Heights."
"It must be worth hundreds of thousands of yuan these days." The overtaker licked his lips.
"It's in the Historical District," she said proudly. "Just a few blocks from the river promenade."
"Mrs. Quince, I'm sure you'll make your grand-niece very happy." He raised a crooked eyebrow. "Now let's discuss the preparations for an early departure. You know we offer you a choice of comfortable departure lounges in New York City."
"Yes, I read about them in the glossy hologram my DNA clinic gave me."
"So you know we perform an impressive ceremony, like an old-fashioned marriage. And you can invite all your friends and colleagues to a banquet in your memory."
"Oh no. Please." Mary fluffed up her snowy fringe of hair. "I don't want to spend a fortune here, depleting my estate. I'm more interested in the dream that comes along with your ceremony."
The overtaker chuckled like a greasy drain. "Ah yes, the dream of a lifetime."
"I have a question," she said shyly. "Can't I book it separately from my -- departure?"
"And how could it be the dream of your life, if your life went on and on?" He smiled with all his teeth, as if to devour her, and Mary gulped.
"Well, do I have to wear funny glasses? They give me such a headache at the 4D movies."
"No, we don't burden our customers. We can produce your dream with the implant you swallow at our departure gate. You'll feel it in your mind then, better than real life, because we can give you whatever you want. When else will you get such a chance?" His crooked eyebrows rose so high they vanished under the brim of his hat.
"But this dream will be the last of my life ..."
"When you're already 97," he wheedled, "and you've taught mathematics for 70 years, according to your questionnaire. You deserve a break, Mrs. Quince. You deserve the dream of a lifetime."
"I guess it's a chance for someone like me." She hung her head. "Sometimes I feel life has passed me by. I was always too busy for romance." Dreamily she gazed up, at the peeling ceiling, and after a while he cleared his throat:
"Mrs. Quince, may I suggest our Autumn Special in the Oriental Lounge?"
"That's on Flatbush Avenue?"
"Yes. And we have an opening next Tuesday."
* * *
"Where's William?" Mary cried, sitting up in the black plastic coffin, which rolled backwards on its frame for a couple of feet. "William knows I want him to ride along with me right up to the gate. Gwennie, I don't understand it. That robo-cat is never late."
"Oh don't worry, auntie, he'll turn up." Gwen fussed with a scarlet, silken scarf, winding it loosely around her neck, and tucking the ends into the gaping cleavage of her black velvet gown. She'd designed this maid of honor outfit for herself. "He probably just got stuck in traffic."
"Ladies, please; aren't we ready yet?" Doffing his stovepipe hat, the overtaker brushed drops of sweat from his pasty forehead. Fragrant with sandalwood incense, the blue-lit departure lounge felt stuffy as a sauna. "I'm sorry our air-conditioning isn't working, now -- in the middle of August. And I'm sorry that we really need to start. At 11 AM our organist has to play for a famous mobster."
"I guess we should start then," Mary said sadly. She straightened the lapels of the modest grey suit she'd ordered from Bloomingdale's basement sweatshop. Lying back down, she folded her blue-veined hands. Gwen took her own place at the coffin's foot.
The overtaker snapped his fingers, and the organist broke into a thunderous rendition of Rachmaninoff's Island of the Dead. Loudly Gwen started to weep, melting eye-liner into inky streaks. In the soft, bluish light, the silver apparatus of the "departure gate" gleamed like a mysterious promise. Just beyond it the aisle slanted downwards to a dark hollow: the liquidator.
"Oh auntie your dream is just moments away." Gwen rolled her slowly up the aisle, past the rows of empty seats.
"What are you saying, Gwennie? My hearing aid's buzzing like a bee."
Suddenly William came bounding past them, clutching an envelope in his jaws. He dropped it on the carpet, blocking their path: "Mistress, I stole your toenail clippings; I took them in for a second opinion, and Rockefeller Clinic said your DNA is fine. Here's the report."
Gwen snatched it up and stuffed it down her cleavage, dislodging her scarf, which slid to the floor. "You meddlesome bot." She twisted his ear to shut him off, and shoved him under the nearest chair.
"Was somebody saying something?" asked Mary. "This music's too loud; I can't hear myself think."
"Oh auntie, don't try to think anymore. Just relax and enjoy your dream of a lifetime." Gwen rolled her faster towards the gate. "You can't wait to have sex with Ronald Reagan."
"That was supposed to be confidential," Mary shouted, sitting bolt upright. The music stopped, and white light came on full strength, like a lab's. "So how do you know?"
"I was just guessing, auntie dear. Please won't you calm down?"
Mary's eyes flashed like lightning behind her glasses. "No I will not calm down. Do you think my mind is a pudding? Why, you're already wearing my mother's necklace from the safe deposit box ..."
"But it's so pretty," Gwen said lamely, covering the gold cross with her hand.
"After all I've done for you -- paying for your schooling and your travel -- and you can't even wait for the lawyers at Cheatem & Squeazem to read out my will."
Now William came tottering on three legs, and sank his steel teeth into Gwen's ankle. Shaking him off, she howled: "Get away, or I'll kick your circuits down Flatbush Avenue."
"Leave him alone, you lying wretch. You're in cahoots with the overtaker."
"And maybe the first clinic too. Mistress, I need a tune-up; I should have figured all of this out before."
"I'm sure we can explain ..." The overtaker bustled towards them, sweat dripping down his jowls.
Leaping out of her coffin, Mary faced him like a furious Chihuahua: "You get away from me and my cat."
Her coffin rolled forward, slipping down the slope into the liquidator -- where it vanished with a golden hiss, in an odor of stewed prunes. The overtaker grabbed Gwen by the hand, and they stumbled out of the lounge together.
"Good riddance!" Mary shook her fist at them. "Oh my poor kitty, you're hurt."
"Mistress, you'll find my other leg under the seventh row from the door. I can be repaired. How about you? Gwen's treachery must be a terrible shock."
"I feel wonderful." Mary flexed her fingers, as if feeling them anew. "I guess there's nothing like a fit of rage to get my old juices flowing."
"Let's go home," he suggested. "I sure could use a saucer of milk."
Standing on the lounge's steps outside, Mary squinted up at the sunny smog. "Looks like a beautiful day in Brooklyn. Let's bake another green apple pie."