(17 Aug 2006)
Walter Newman feared pain above all other things. In grade school he had begged out of playing football with his classmates, preferring to be teased by the other boys, in return for avoiding what looked certain to be a painful sport. It wasn't that he didn't enjoy sports - Walter was quite an avid tennis player - but his fear of pain kept him away from the more interactive games.
Walter had never started a fight, or even been in one. He had never been seriously injured, or had surgery. In fact, he had experienced very little pain in his life, compared to most, and none of it severe or chronic in any way.
He couldn't remember exactly the day that he had first become afraid of pain. It might have been in first grade, or second. Walter had been playing tether ball with a boy on the playground - James, that was his name - when James had gotten distracted and been hit in the face by the ball. James' nose was bleeding like crazy, of course, and Walter watched, paralyzed, as a teacher ran up and tsk'd over the mess and walked James to the nurse's office. James was sobbing. "It hurts," he wailed pitifully. Walter watched, and looked at the little spots of blood on the ground, and vowed never to play tether ball again.
Perhaps that was how it started. Walter couldn't be sure. He only knew that somewhere along the way he had developed a strong aversion to pain of any kind. He wore sunblock every day from May to September, dreading a sunburn. He was absurdly vigilant while driving, terrified at the thought of being crushed inside his own car. He avoided hot beverages for fear of spilling them in his lap. And he was even cautious around escalators and automatic doors, on the off-chance of being painfully crushed by one.
As he grew older, his paranoia become more noticeable. His fiancé, Angela, started to comment that he never seemed to cook much anymore - Walter had become afraid of cutting himself with a sharp knife or being burnt by hot cooking grease - and he had always been so fond of cooking when they first started dating. Now he just made sandwiches or burritos most nights.
Finally, Angela started to work out what was going on in Walter's head.
"I think you should see a therapist," she said. "I'm worried about you."
Walter was starting to worry a little, too - every time his imagination conjured some new horribly painful scenario that might befall him, a piece of his life would crumble away. It was starting to get very difficult to make it into the office each morning, and Walter had to admit to himself that it was getting ridiculous.
So, he took his fiancé's advice.
The therapist was not particularly inspiring, but she got Walter talking, and that got him thinking, and finally he was able to put his troubles into words.
"I just keep seeing these horrible things happening to me, and then I think about how awful that would feel, and suddenly there's one more thing that I can't do anymore," he explained.
"Here's what I think," said the therapist, looking slightly bored. She sat behind her desk, sipping coffee while Walter talked. "You say you're afraid of pain. But what you're really afraid of is death. Or, more specifically, a painful death. It's a very natural fear, but you've taken it to creative extremes. You fear all kinds of painful things that couldn't possibly kill you."
Walter thought of the hot coffee and kitchen knives and had to admit this was true. He then imagined himself trapped in a twisted car, the metal frame cutting into his flesh as the engine caught fire, and the flames spread to his clothes. He imagined the horrible agony of burning to death, screaming and writhing...
"Walter?" The therapist looked at him, her eyes a little less sleepy. "Are you alright?"
"Obviously not," he grumbled, wondering if he would ever be able to lay eyes on a car again, let alone get into one.
"Look," she said. "I want you to go see these folks." She slid him a business card. "I know it looks gimmicky, but their work is based on hard data and real statistical analysis. It's all very high-tech. And it just might bring you some comfort."
Walter examined the card. "Possible Outcomes" it read, with a logo resembling stylized runic symbols. He had heard of them. Some company that had gotten its start in Hollywood and spread like wildfire from there. They were supposed to be able to tell you how you were going to die, or something like that. Walter hadn't paid it much attention - it seemed like a trendy thing.
"Are you serious?" he asked, feeling a little offended at being put off.
"Yes, you should really try it. I think you'll find that it really gives you perspective." She glanced at her watch. "Time's up. See you next week."
Walter decided not to waste any time. The next day he went downtown to the offices of "Possible Outcomes," which turned out to be above a thrift store and next to a dance hall. In the waiting room, Walter could just hear "and a one, two, three" and the stomping of many feet coming through the adjoining wall.
The waiting room reminded him of his dentist's office. It was windowless, and the plants were all fake. There was a sort of hideous strip of wallpaper in a burgundy floral print, about halfway up the wall. The chairs were uncomfortable and the magazines were all for either working moms or business executives. Walter found himself wondering where the magazine was that catered to his demographic - the 30-something eccentric who likes music and cooking, and thinking deep thoughts - when he remembered that there was no such magazine.
There was a sliding window over where Walter had checked in. A young man sat behind it, listening to his mp3 player and rocking out. Periodically, he would start talking to thin air, or so it seemed, until Walter realized that he was receiving phone calls through the same ear buds, moving seamlessly between his music and taking calls. Walter still thought it was pretty unprofessional.
After a few minutes, a young woman came through the door to the waiting room, clutching several printouts. "You can always view your results online, of course," said the other woman who had walked out with her. "And share them with your family and friends if you like, free of charge." She beamed.
The young woman looked dazed for a moment, then flung her arms around the older woman and hugged her fiercely. Her eyes and nose were puffy from crying. "Thank you," she breathed, and rushed from the office.
The older woman, dressed in a tasteful burgundy-colored business suit, approached Walter. "Walter Newman?" she asked, consulting a clipboard. He nodded. "I'm Judy Scherer." They shook hands. "The technicians will see you now. Follow me please."
Walter followed the burgundy-dressed woman down a short hall to another small room, also windowless. There was a reclining chair that definitely looked like it belonged in a dentist's office, and two rolling stools. Along one wall was a counter with several things laid out on it: sterile needles, gauze, a pressure cuff and stethoscope, and non-latex gloves in a vibrant green. Next to the reclining chair was a large device on a rolling metal stand. It had a video display and some wires dangling from it. Walter guessed it was some kind of monitor.
Along the far wall there was a computer console. The keyboard looked strange - almost like a cash register keyboard, with abbreviations on the keys, the meaning of which Walter could not guess at.
"Please make yourself comfortable," said Judy, gesturing at the reclining chair. She handed Walter the clipboard. "And you'll want to fill this out."
High-tech my ass, thought Walter. They're still using paper?
"We're required to have a paper trail," said Judy. "And you'll need to sign the bottom."
She walked out and Walter started reading through the form. It was a pretty standard waiver, as far as Walter could tell, although he was pretty sure that the part about Possible Outcomes not being liable for the suicide of patients following their appointment was unusual. Walter shook his head. Suicide? He signed the waiver.
It was a few minutes before the technicians arrived. Walter sat in the chair and tried to relax. It was hard not to look over at the needles.
Finally, the technicians came in, both wearing white smocks. They were young men, perhaps in their mid-twenties, and both glowing with enthusiasm for their work. The taller one shook Walter's hand. "I'm Steven!" he grinned. "This guy here is Josh." Walter shook hands with Josh as well. His smile was not quite as frozen as Steven's, but he also seemed abnormally cheerful. Walter was suddenly reminded of the college kids who worked at the coffee hut and had always been "so stoked!" to see him.
"Alright, let's get started," said Steven as he began putting the pressure cuff on Walter's arm. "Here's how it works: I'm gonna get your baseline stats and run a few tests while Josh asks you some questions and inputs your answers into the computer. Then we'll have it crunch some numbers while you wait, and then you'll meet with our analyst - that's Judy - who will go over your results with you."
The procedure turned out to be as straight forward as Steven had said it would be. Josh started asking Walter questions about his family health history, his personal health, his hygiene, his lifestyle, habits, the lifestyles and habits of his friends and coworkers, his relationship status, his sexual habits, his politics - even what kind of books he liked to read. Meanwhile, Steven checked his blood pressure, listened to his lungs, took a swab from the inside of his cheek, poked and prodded him, and hooked him up to the monitor. Walter wanted to ask him what he was looking for as Steven frowned at the display, but Josh kept him busy with a barrage of questions.
Walter was not a shy or modest person and he answered every question as truthfully as he could. But some of them struck him as particularly odd. Questions like "Do you like to go fishing?" or "How often do you think your parents had sex?" caught him off guard. But he answered every one as best he could.
The blood draw came near the end, and Walter couldn't help but squeeze his eyes shut and clutch the arms of the chair. Steven was a pro, however, despite his youthful appearance, and Walter barely felt the pin-prick.
"Okay, you can wait in the lounge down the hall," said Steven, bandaging Walter's arm. "There's coffee and doughnuts if you like, and some cold soda."
The lounge was at the end of the hall and was like heaven compared to the waiting room. There were windows, for one thing, overlooking the river and the live oaks growing along it. Walter could see bicyclists and people pushing strollers along the cobblestone path below. There were real plants in this room and the walls were painted a soothing pastel blue. There was a coffee table surrounded by leather armchairs. Walter took a doughnut from the counter near the door, looked sadly at the coffee, and then eased himself into a chair and looked out at the summertime scene below.
There were no magazines in this room, and as a few minutes turned into twenty, Walter found himself thinking he should sneak back down the hall and grab the Business Week or Working Mom from the waiting room. Anything was better than just sitting there, waiting to hear how you were going to die.
At last, Judy came in and sat next to Walter. She had a small stack of printouts with her.
"Sorry that took so long," she said, frowning at the printouts. "I needed to verify your results with a colleague at our Los Angeles office. Your results were a little unusual."
Walter tried not to panic. He liked unusual food and unusual music. But with respect to matters of life and death, "unusual" was never a word you wanted to hear.
"Now," said Judy, straightening up and smiling. She passed a sheet to Walter. "These are your results. They show the likelihood that you will die from various causes, such as a car crash or from cancer. This page -" she handed him another sheet - "shows a breakdown of the likelihood that you will die from an illness versus an accident. The bottom section shows the likeliness of your death occurring during certain age ranges."
She handed him more pages. "These others show your risk of suicide, probability of being murdered, and chance of dying either alone or with other people. This page shows the chance that you will die quickly or slowly, and how much pain and what type you are likely to suffer."
This last caught Walter's attention, but before he had a chance to read it, Judy was giving him one more page.
"This is sort of a summary. And I don't want you to be alarmed. The results were a bit unusual." Walter tried to read the page but found it to be somewhat cryptic. Judy took a deep breath. "It seems that you are a very cautious person, and live a very health- and safety-conscious life. From your interview, it seems that you have even managed to surround yourself with other circumspect and conscientious people. So, you are at particularly low risk for all of the common causes of death in our country today - things like cancer, heart disease, car accidents and violence."
Judy paused and stared meaningfully at Walter. He nodded to show that he understood.
"So?" he said.
"Well," said Judy, leaning back in her chair. "Because you are at a low risk for conventional causes of death, and - well, because something has to kill you eventually - it turns out that you are at high risk for unusual causes of death."
Walter tried not to tremble. Unusual... death, he thought, imagining the worst.
"It's all right there," said Judy.
Walter read over the sheet again. Under the subheading "most likely causes of death" were listed: struck by lightning while boating, avalanche, earthquake, volcanic eruption, rioting, tsunami.
"This is... crazy," he said.
"It is odd," admitted Judy. "I have to say, I've never had a client in this region with anything more than a .01% chance of being killed by a tsunami, but you've got a five percent chance. Considering that you live here in the Willamette Valley and only visit the coast once or twice a year, that's remarkable."
"And you've verified these results?" asked Walter, staring at the sheet in disbelief.
"Yes, of course," said Judy. "I assure you, the process is quite rigorous. We've been following up on our clients since the business started twelve years ago and our accuracy rating is at 90%."
"So there's a chance that you're wrong?" asked Walter.
"Well," said Judy. "It's all probabilities, you see. You have about a fifty percent chance of being struck by lightning while boating. Now, that's based on current weather trends, current statistics on similar deaths, correlated with your particular risk factors, and taking your lifestyle into account. But there is still a good chance - fifty percent - that you will die some other way."
"But," said Walter, shaking his head. "I hardly ever go boating."
"I know, I know," she said, looking troubled. "I told you, the results are a bit odd. You are a bit of a unique character, apparently." She smiled warmly.
Walter read through the other pages, trying to make sense of the graphs and tables.
"What... what.." he took a deep breath. "What are the chances that I will die very ... painfully?" he asked.
"Oh your chances are good," said Judy, turning to the appropriate page. Walter stared at her. "Oh no! I mean the chance is good that you will die very suddenly - you see? Most of these natural disaster type deaths kill you pretty quickly. There's a 10% chance that you will die from painful smoke inhalation during a volcanic eruption or fire, but it looks like your chances of actually burning to death are low, for example."
Walter shook his head and smiled. "This is incredible," he said, suddenly grasping what this information could mean. "Do you ever have anyone change their results? I mean, by changing their lifestyle? Like quitting smoking or whatever?"
Judy sighed. "Sadly, no. Some people say they're going to turn their lives around, but in my experience, they almost never do."
"God," breathed Walter. "Why do they even come here then? What's the point?"
Judy shrugged, looking suddenly defeated. "I suspect they just don't like the uncertainty of it all - the fear of the unknown. Once they know what to expect, well, I think it's just a comfort to them. For the most part, they either deny the results entirely, or embrace them."
Walter turned to the summary page again.
"What if..." he scanned the list. "What if I eliminated my chance of dying on a boat by never going on a boat again?"
Judy considered. "Then I suppose your chances of dying via these other methods would increase. I mean, something has to kill you."
"Does it?" asked Walter, feeling giddy. "I mean, why doesn't this list old age as a cause of death?"
"That's a common misconception," she explained patiently. "People don't actually die of old age. They die of organ failure or pneumonia or a stroke. All of which, for various reasons, you are at extremely low risk of."
Walter flipped to the page that showed age ranges for death. "These numbers don't add up to 100%," he said.
Judy shook her head. "I know. I think it might be a bug in the software. The endpoint is based on the oldest known person's age of death, but the results showed you had a 25% chance of living past that age, which is 120."
Walter stared. "Are you kidding me?"
Judy ran her hands through her hair. She looked tired. "No. I'm quite serious. I never joke about death, Mr. Newman."
"Well, this is fantastic," said Walter. "I mean, according to this, I'll most likely live to a very old age and die suddenly from some random crazy natural disaster. Huh."
Judy smiled. "I'm glad you're pleased. Now, I'm afraid I have to excuse myself. We have another patient coming in. Please feel free to help yourself to some coffee and stay as long as you need."
And she left.
Walter read through all the documents, getting more and more excited. It was better than good - it was fabulous. The genetic tests showed he had no risk of diabetes or heart disease, two family diseases he had always feared he would get. He had almost no chance of dying from a wasting disease, from a virulent infection, or from being repeatedly stabbed - scenarios that had often filled his fancies. He had essentially zero chance of dying in a car. How do they figure this stuff? he wondered.
In his mind, he started making plans. Tonight, he would make a fantastic chef's salad for Angela like he used to make - with lots of chopped fresh vegetables and diced ham. He would fly out to his parents in Houston - he hadn't seen them in years, being too afraid to fly or drive, or even take the train (they derail, you know - but no risk of derailment here!). He was going to go out for burgers with his buddies at work tomorrow - damn the saturated fat! And later he'd take Angela out dancing - no chance of being paralyzed by a falling disco ball.
As Walter got up to leave, wiping doughnut crumbs off his pants, he saw the coffee pot again and thought hallelujah!
He filled the styrofoam cup with confidence, stirred in a little sugar, and strode confidently from the room. As he reached the waiting room, he held up his hand to the guy behind the counter in a mock high-five and said "have a good one!" then pushed through the door that led to the stairs, sipping his coffee.
As Walter took the first step down the narrow flight of stairs - the printouts tucked under one arm, the coffee cup in the other - a heavy latin beat came from the dance studio next door. Startled, he slopped some coffee onto his pant leg, where it soaked quickly through his slacks and singed the delicate skin beneath. He bent forward slightly, trying to wipe away the coffee with his other hand without dropping the papers, when he lost his balance.
When the EMTs arrived, finding Walter's ruined body at the bottom of the stairs, they told the gathering crowd that he had died instantaneously.
The little girl who had found him examined his face, wondering if he would look scared or surprised. But there was no expression at all.