Life Beyond the Setting Sun: A Short Story

The tales speak of a strange phenomenon where the shadow of a person who has loved deeply throughout their lifetime may on the day of their death wander the earth until the disappearance of the setting sun. Of those tales, the one below is, in my opinion, the most convincing.

Last year, the first Monday of April, at roughly eight o’clock in the morning. I was sitting on my balcony enjoying a leisurely breakfast when the call came. I picked up, irritated – I don’t like being disturbed on my days off – and asked who it was. “I need you to come over to Bren’s place,” the voice said without any introduction. It was our manager. I said fine, hung up, and sat there for another half hour finishing my cereal.

Looking back I can hear the pain in her voice – or maybe that’s just reconstructive fantasy. Whatever the case may be, I didn’t think anything was wrong that morning. I had no idea that my life was changing right before me, totally spinning out of control, everything I had built in the past fifteen years completely falling apart. I thought that I had all the time in the world – and so I sat there, eating cereal, rereading my favorite book, savoring a cup of coffee, while my partner hanged himself.

People in our line of work commit suicide all the time, but you don’t hear about it. I’d never imagined Brennan would, but in a strange, retrospective way, I’m not surprised. There’s more to us than you think. 

When I got to his apartment the police and paramedics were already there. Even at that point I had no idea of the tragedy that had befallen us. Some of our younger colleagues were there too, standing outside the building, and when they saw me they started to stare with faces full of horror, grief, and pity. None of them spoke to me, and I got irritated with them because I thought they were being disrespectful. Then I pushed past the police line and went up the stairs to Brennan’s room. The door was closed, guarded by a pair of stoic policemen, and Kiara, our manager, was standing outside.

I think that at that point I knew. I saw the look on her face and this horrible feeling started forming in my gut; my chest tightened and for a moment I couldn’t speak. She stared at me with tear-filled eyes, said hoarsely, “Henry, I don’t think you want to go in there.” 

Of course I went in. How could I not?

I don’t think words can even convey everything I felt that day. We’ve known each other since first grade, Brennan and I, and we’d entered this business together straight out of high school. We pulled each other through the first few years of scarce work and low pay. At one point he paid the rent for my apartment, and another time I bought him dinner for two weeks straight. After that, because of some immensely kind senior colleagues and Kiara’s hard work, we were able to make it. The next ten years went by in a flash. Our popularity wasn’t always steady, but for the most part, we survived – or at least I thought we had. Clearly, I was mistaken.

You know, we didn’t always have the greatest relationship. It’s hard to work with the same person, to see them almost every day, for years and years on end. We got angry with each other at times. But we also cared for each other more deeply than most people realize. I was best man at his wedding, and became godfather to his kids. When his wife died of cancer I cried an ocean and then spent a couple of weeks practically camping out at his place, helping take care of his daughters. He was also the first person I came out to about being gay, and the reaction I got from him was the most loving and supportive one I’ve ever received. Honestly, I don’t know who I would be or where I would have ended up if I had never met him. That morning, standing in the middle of his living room, I couldn’t imagine my life without him in it – and that’s why afternoon found me once again at the edge of my balcony. Sitting on the rails, staring out into the self-manufactured darkness, I was in that moment utterly devoid of thought or feeling. Of course I hadn’t really “planned” this – I think most people don’t – but whatever the case may be, I was completely ready to die. I was just waiting for the right moment to do it. 

And that’s when he appeared.

I thought I was hallucinating. He stood a little to my left, leaning forward with his hands on the railing – not a ghost but a silhouette, a dark gray shadow with depth and form, at once both faceless and recognizable. When he spoke his voice was deeper and more full-throated than when I’d known him in life. With a slight tinge of anger he warned me, “Don’t you dare.”

I choked. “Bren?”

“I didn’t kill myself just for you to follow me, idiot,” his shadow replied. “Get off there.”

I swung my legs back over and joined him on the safe side of the railing. “How…”

“Listen, Henry,” he said abruptly. “When the sun sets, I have to go. I just came to ask you to take care of my kids.”

I swallowed hard, still trying to comprehend what was happening. “Wait,” I managed to say. “What?”

He shifted so that his face – or what would have been his face – was looking my direction. “Take care of my kids,” he repeated, and this time he really did seem angry. In all the years I’d known him he had never spoken with such force. And it worked – I couldn’t refuse. I mumbled some kind of agreement, and from then on, knowing he had guaranteed my life, he seemed to relax. 

I stood still for a minute, trying to form my thoughts. It was a good thing that I had already cried my heart out that morning, because now there were no tears to break my voice. I asked slowly, “Why’d you do it?”

“You of all people know why.”

“No, that’s not … I meant, why did you leave me? And your kids? Why now, without any warning?”

His shadow rippled with gentle, sorrowful laughter. “If I warned you, you would have stopped me… And listen, you know, I got in too far, for myself and my family. I’ve been dealing with some dark things for years that I’d rather my children not have to be a part of. Look, don’t misunderstand. I love you and I love my kids and I love all the work we’ve done. But I couldn’t escape it, and in the end I think it’s better for you all that I move on. Don’t be angry with yourself, Henry. It is what it is. Just let me go.”

After that he refused to talk anymore about his death. Instead, standing together on the balcony watching the sun lower itself to the horizon, we reminisced for four hours about his life. We talked about the time we first met – sitting across from each other in the same first grade class – and about the time we mutually decided we weren’t going to attend college. We talked about his marriage, his wife and kids, and about my boyfriend and our plans for marriage. We talked about our work, the minute legacy we had left behind. We talked about all the beautiful things we had seen and done together, and all of the suffering we’d endured together, and what I thought the rest of my life would look like. Towards the end, as the red-orange sun hovered just above the horizon, I asked him, “Are you happy?”

He thought about it. After a minute he said carefully, “I’m not happy, but I am content. How about you?”

“I don’t know,” I started to say – and then darkness enveloped the world and he was gone.

And so it was. My partner died, and I lived.

Since then I’ve quit my job – I realized I couldn’t do the work without him – but I’ve found another one, relatively low-paying but simple and fulfilling. My boyfriend and I got married, and we adopted both of Brennan’s kids. Now we’re a happy family of four. I still think of Bren often, and time has not soothed the hurt, but in a way, I’ve found peace. 

As they say, life goes on.

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