Delia passed away during the night, ushering in an air of secrecy. Her death was to be kept hidden from their three-year-old son, Sean. He paid off the reporters and the press, tied them down with the law, so that no whisper of the horrendous shooting could ever surface. Later that day, in the morgue, he thought of a plan.
There was always a plan, at first made in jest, over cups of coffee.
“If either of us suddenly dies, we should have a library of lessons to teach our boy, so that he could still have a part of us.” Delia had a corny grin, having seen it once in a movie. “We should record the lessons, and play them back through a screen, so he thinks it’s a real person,” she laughed, “and all you can see is a silhouette. Oh! We should hire an actor to play the part, an Alfred Hitchcock lookalike. We could find a stunt double.”
“Or maybe a twin.”
“Nah, my twin is evil.”
He laughed out loud, and the sound echoed through the morgue. Embarrassed, he glanced at the morgue attendant’s desk, feeling both relieved and vaguely abandoned to find it empty. He thought of the twenty or thirty volumes Delia wrote during her pregnancy. Nine months of lessons. If they were spread out, a voice actress could read them to Sean until he’s five. Eventually, scripts would need to be invented, to gently tell Sean how his mother…
He stopped himself. Looking over at Delia’s corpse, he suddenly thought of something to stop the tears from welling. With a pained breath, he recalled an article Delia had read to him from the New Scientist, about a testing facility in Portland holding the most advanced sound system ever created.
After I drop Sean off at the kindergarten, he thought, I’ll get started.
“You want me to pretend to be… your wife?” Shrieked the voice actress. “To your three-year-old son?!”
“No, no, from behind a screen, Sean won’t see you,” he said calmly. This was the eighth applicant that day.
She sat back, drumming her fingers, before lurching forward. “And you want me to do that for the next two years?!”
“You sound just like her,” he said.
“I dunno man.” For a moment she appeared to reach for a cigarette, but instead started chewing on a pencil. “It’s a job… so okay.”
“Great.” Downing his coffee, he produced a contract.
“But, shit, this is… I’m sorry man, but this is fucked up.” She looked him in the eye. “I have a kid, so I know, just hear me out… alright… You should tell him the truth… the sooner the better.”
The sooner the better, apparently.
What a nightmare, he thought to himself, what a bloody nightmare. He dreamed he was in a sound facility, flat sandy carpet, with towering legs beside him. Someone enormous was holding his hand, and before long, he was standing in front of a dark cavern.
“Mummy’s in there,” he said as he walked in.
The black oval disc had a rim of weak light emanating from its edges. It was said to be the most lifelike sound system ever invented, and took up three quarters of the room. He could barely see over the top of the disc, his nostrils fogging the shiny glass with steamy breaths as he searched for Mother.
“I’m here,” said Mother.
“Where?” He ran around the disc.
“I’m here silly, come here.” The voice bounded off the ceiling.
“Where are you?!” He ran, giggling, “Mommaa!”
Hours passed – he was unsure how many – until he heard her sound echo off the walls for the hundredth time. “Can you find me Sean?” it laughed. He didn’t move. He just shut his eyes so the dream could end.
“Behind you,” said Delia, and she caught him in a warm hug as he turned around. “Love you, bumpkin.” Relief was followed by a jolt, as he woke to the sound of Sean crying. The sound of his heart beating.
He looked over the lessons Delia had written while Sean sucked his thumb with his fist against his chest. Even children of Sean’s age will need to be told that death is not the same as sleeping, that Mother isn’t coming back. He’ll need to listen to Sean, and he’ll also need help. Delia could keep influencing their lives through her lessons.
After putting Sean back to bed an hour later, he experienced, while standing in the kitchen gazing into space, the revelatory sound of brave silence.
the big wake
During the documentary shoot last week, Herzog Jr recounted a native Canadian myth about a gigantic strawberry one would meet in the afterlife, and how tasting it would trap you in the land of the dead. Well, I could be meeting that strawberry today.
Strawberries are my favourite food.
Strawberries are probably the only reason I didn’t off myself at 14. I took a few from time to time like a prescription treat. Did the other kids tease me for that? Well, no, actually they didn’t. Strawberries are universally cool.
My first band was christened ‘The Strawberry Sirloins’. It was during one of our cyber tours decades later that I came across an ad for the ‘8760 hours’ program. Their catchphrase was, “What if you could work for a year 24 hours a day?”
At first I didn’t pay them much notice, but when my band wasn’t doing well and I learned that the program was offering a free trial, I decided to go for it. Spend a full year being productive, without having to sleep.
Lab coats attached a metabolic device with a year’s worth of the necessary revitalisers and suddenly I’m seeing sun and moon spin by endlessly. People withered and curled up before me like an inferior alien race.
There were drawbacks though. You’d think you could just keep going with no cooldown, but sleep wipes the slate clean, relaxes the rules. Music needs that. I ended up spending more time finding alternatives to sleep than working.
And I couldn’t forget the taste of strawberries. Literally.
I mean, they got boring. You had to wait a while before they became something special again. The wait got longer each time, first weeks, then years, and usually I end up eating one by accident.
This time it took ten years of plain foods just to be able to taste their sweet goodness. It’ll be twenty or forty next.
Oh, I forgot to say, I’m still on the revitalisers.
Towards the end of the program the guys at 8760 said they discovered a problem with my brain chemicals, that if I stopped I’d fall into a permanent coma. I sued, made the news, and now I’m in my thirtieth year (I’m now 60). That’s when Herzog Jr approached me about the documentary. I agreed primarily because she wanted to make it about the strawberries. She wants to be there filming, when I’m tasting my last one. They’re gonna call it ‘The Big Wake’.
After that, I dunno. I’m hesitant about eating this strawberry to be honest. I still remember the last one I had, ten years ago. I was at Ferdowsi train station, with a pack of smuggled Japanese ‘peach strawberries’. Just knowing I could eat them was glorious. I should have enjoyed that anticipation for longer.
I suppose life is all about the anticipation.
Actually, maybe I’ll skip the strawberries for today. Somebody just drive me home.
The tarnished copper plaque read “Nakayama returns home 1946”. The frame was smooth as driftwood.
There was dramatic flair, immediately recognisable from a million other oil paintings. In the foreground, a rabble of Japanese peasants on a shelly beach helping a thin sailor at death’s door. Or is it a soldier? In the background, a patchy trail of footprints leading back to a rowboat, with two oars jutting into the wet sand. Several rags providing a makeshift shelter.
Not quite convinced by the scene, my eye caught something else next to the painting. It was a Zippo lighter, with a plain metal case and severe rusting. More mysterious.
I wasn’t intending to buy anything from the junk shop at first, but just outside there was a self-proclaimed clairvoyant, who offered to tell me the story of any object I bought from the store. It was obviously a tourist ruse, but I thought it could be fun.
“I see ten shoppers,” she said, weighing the lighter in her palm, “grasping a single parachute in the air.”
“The shoppers are trying to buy the parachute,” she coughed, “at a hu-u-uge discount, and so have agreed to play a little game where the more people holding on for dear life, the cheaper the parachute will be.”
“This can’t be real,” I laughed.
“At first, everyone held on firmly, and the mood was good. The parachute would cost peanuts at this rate.” Her eyes widened. “But a gust of wind blew three of them off, lowering the discount.”
“Oh no,” I said unconvincingly.
“Suddenly arguments and discussions broke out over whether the parachute would now be worth buying. Some let themselves drop, not wishing to pay.” She frowned. “With each person who let go, the price rose, convincing yet another to commit suicide.”
“The last two shoppers agreed to hold out until the end, but when the parachute ripped a seam, making it fall faster, one of them sacrificed himself” – there was a sullen pause – “because he’d rather die, than pay for a ripped parachute.”
The tale ended without so much as a whisper of the lighter. I felt cheated, but amused.
She handed the Zippo back with a sniff. “The man who survived walked away… In the end, no one bought it.”
“So what happened to the parachute?”
She gave it some thought. “It was picked up by the owner of a climbing resort.”
The travel guides mentioned a climbing resort near town – dinner there seemed like the perfect way to round off the evening. Subsequently, I met Jack, the owner of Mizumi Climbing Resort. He laughed when I told him about the clairvoyant.
“My grandpa did in fact crash through a school roof when he parachuted out of a B-29 back near the end of the war.” He shook his head. “After the townsfolk patched him up, saved his life, he rebuilt the school roof, the town, everything, but everyone knows that story… That ‘clairvoyant’ knew too.”
“I’m guessing I’m not the first to come here asking about a parachute.” I smiled.
He confirmed it with a sly grin. “How much did you pay her?”
“Oof, that’s steep.” He scratched his chin. “Look, we’re really sorry about that.”
“No, it’s fine, it was fun.”
“Yes, well, this town don’t need the likes of con-artists, and liars… It’s a good place, we don’t want a bad rap.”
“I did feel kind of cheated.” I immediately regretted saying that.
Jack snapped his fingers and pointed at me, with puckered lips. “Dinner’s on us.”
“No, that’s unnecessary, but thanks.”
“I mean it, don’t worry about paying, your steak costs about 1000 yen anyway.”
“Okay, thank you.” I felt embarrassed. “It’s a good steak.”
The sound of a bell emanated from the entrance hall. “Enjoy your meal!” He marched off as I thanked him again with my mouth full.
Without Jack, the eating hall suddenly felt very large, and quiet. Large wooden beams stretched out above, meeting over the large fireplace next to me. Seafaring ornaments hung on the wall in a symmetrical fashion.
That’s when something made me stop chewing.
An enormous framed case occupied the mantlepiece, exhibiting two oars, a number of antique collectibles, such as water bottles, a compass, rags, bits of wood, a newspaper clipping of a man in a boat… and an empty rectangular space. About right for a Zippo lighter.
Under the space was a label in Japanese written in neat calligraphy:
“On the Ocean, we are all equal – Nakayama, 1946”
a sauna moment
Several men sat in a humid hotbox, salt at their feet. To pass the time and galvanise their willpower they awkwardly passed tales of endurance.
After a few had gone through amusing stories of camping whilst hanging off the sides of cliffs, or trekking through cold weather, they turned to a man who they realised had been sitting in the hotbox longer than everyone else.
He was Rendal, the owner of the sauna. They asked for his story, guessing he must have endured even more than the rest of them.
Rendal started to explain, “A year ago, I met a woman who wore 347 layers, of cashmere wool… I was the social worker sent to convince her to take most of her layers off.”
With this remark, many of the men chuckled, but Rendal stayed silent.
He continued, “She said that each layer of wool represented someone who died in her care, and that she would only remove a layer if I’d listen… so I went, and I listened.”
“Was she a nurse?” asked one of the men.
“No, she was my schoolteacher,” Rendal coughed.
Rough fur floating off the matted walls hung in the air like a dusty film.
“She was my schoolteacher,” he repeated, “and for 347 minutes, I listened to her describe every child that died in a school fire.”
“Do you remember that fire?” asked a burly man, probably a lumberjack from the adjacent woodland.
“No,” Rendal replied, “it was during my high school years, so I had left the year before.”
“Fire took out part of the forest last week,” murmured one of the men.
The first lumberjack caught Rendal’s attention, “So you took off all 347 layers of wool?”
“Yes, and she was just a skinny old lady underneath… I was glad to finally get out of there, but I thought I’d help her wash the sweaters, pack them for the laundry.”
Rendal prepared for the clincher. “But just as I was leaving, I found her dead.”
He let it sink into the hum of the stove before continuing, “In the autopsy, she was said to have died of cold shock.”
“Shit,” he heard from somewhere in the room.
“And that’s why I can sit in saunas for such a long time.” He stroked the fibres of the wall. “The memory of how cooked she must have felt all the time… It helps me endure.”
Rendal remembered her. She was cold as snow. There was an odd powder wafting off her skin. At the time, he thought it was dandruff.
“It’s made of sweaters isn’t it,” asked the first lumberjack, when they were back outside in the snow.
He played dumb. “What is?”
“The sauna, you turned those 347 sweaters into the insulation layer of the roof.”
“Well… I…” He wondered how the lumberjack had figured it out. He turned to go. Better not say any more.
He noticed that all of them were blue with cold. Which must have meant the special fungus was taking effect.
It was something he discovered after his school teacher died. Somehow, her prolonged existence in extreme heat allowed a certain skin fungus to mutate. It got in the nerves, made you feel cold. The sweaters were inoculated with the stuff.
He’ll drive back this way in a week, he thought. These guys will by dying for his hotbox by then.
home is where the heart is
A man was painlessly tearing himself to pieces under a spotlight.
The last piece of flesh flopped onto the stage, and the performance was over. The now-naked skeletal form gave a dramatic bow to a morbidly amused audience, before walking behind the curtain to where I stood.
Dust floated in torrents under the make-up artist’s headlamp as she picked remaining bits of meat from Fez’s face.
“Like educating chickens,” he remarked. “My next body will come tomorrow, which I’ll also destroy in the evening.”
“I take it you’ll be getting the same type of audience?” I said, dictaphone at the ready.
“Tell me, what would your paper like for a headline?” He was spraying soap onto his plastic arm and scrubbing it with a towel. “That the people who come are ordinary fare, or eccentric?”
“I suppose it doesn’t matter, since you make the headlines regardless.”
The Extraordinary Fez sat down for a well-earned smoke. Dust exploded out of the old velvet chair, and I sneezed. I realised I hadn’t seen him this still in the last 24 hours. He resembled an exhibit from Planet Hollywood, but uncannily poised and vivid.
Fez breathed smoke. “People used to make art” – he waved to a painting by Kirchner on the wall – “a globe full of dreamers, all meeting on the interweb, to meekly show off their trove of work… mostly rubbish, but still.”
“People don’t need to make art anymore,” I said, “not like they used to.”
Fez looked up at me, with this annoyed expression, or maybe his cyborg face always looked that way. “Machines can make great art,” he said, “but is it the right art?”
To prove the point he reached over and showed me a painting anthology of works done by the artistic program Pablo.
“I’ve seen this everywhere,” I remarked, unimpressed.
“Yes, Pablo is everywhere, on station walls, in museums, on clothes, shoes, discs, and droids.” Fez got up into my dictaphone. “Just like the other AI programs, Jackson, Leonardo, Ren… They’re everywhere…”
I raised an eyebrow. “But?”
“… But, does it speak to you? Does this art conform with your soul?” He paused. “Because if not… then this mechanised culture we call home, is not really home… It’s just where we live and die, nothing more.”
He patted his chestplate twice, as if to say, “Home is where the heart is.”
Fez finished his cigarette. “So if the crowd tomorrow end up being ordinary folk, like you… then they must be in search of something beyond the ordinary, meaning this mechanised culture no longer satisfies their spirits.”
“And therefore must change,” was what Fez didn’t say.
The road back was mottled with ice. I thought about how a skinny bastard like Fez would feel in this weather. To avoid the wind I changed course, heading past a team of Art Deco carpenter droids, loudly carving into the surrounding architecture. The steps into the subway shone blue. I felt as though I had stepped into the ocean. Swirls floated off the staircase.
The events of the evening had me naming the artworks around me as I walked, but the blue swirls brought no artist to mind. It could have been Jackson, but no, these swirls were too clean. Following the trail of swirls into a spiritual boudoir, I saw a machine, clanking and moving, shaped like a stove.
“This is beautiful,” I said to the operator.
“It’s great isn’t it? It’s my own program… Haven’t thought of a name for it yet though,” the young man replied.
“Are you a programmer?” I looked at his face through the rings of blue haze.
“No, I’m an artist,” he said, quickly followed by a laugh, “but yeah, I’m usually a programmer…”
An artist who uses machines to create art. I was momentarily interested. “Don’t you find machines stop culture from progressing?”
“Nah,” he looked at his creation slowly paint, and carefully tune the swirls. “Machines are like brushes – we just need to know how to use them.”
As I thanked him and continued walking he shouted, “Don’t forget! The only thing stopping culture is us!” I turned just in time to see him smack his chest twice.
“Home sweet home brother!”
dars to be recommissioned as popcorn jockeys
Zweitech announced the decommissioning of their ammunition robots (DARs) last fall, but with nowhere to store the husks, they have started throwing them away.
“We built them to last, but now they’re just taking up space,” says Nicholas Vera, head of Cyclical Engineering. “Carbon fibre armour is difficult to reuse, so we decided to bury them.”
As billions of taxpayers’ dollars have gone into the production of these war machines, citizens are concerned that precious resources and technology are going to waste. Some have come forward with plans for how to reuse them. Sculptor Imran Uel Kant plans to galvanise an entire DAR to be erected in Central Park as an ambitious children’s slide, and the government plans to build a war memorial out of as many DARs as possible. However, the public wants the machines to be reused to their full capacity.
“With an advanced Artificial Intelligence system, they could easily follow complex instructions, even empathise with civilians,” said a spokeswoman for Colorado Polytechnic. “We have a shortage of ambulances in this city – we could always reprogramme them to deliver first aid.”
Putting them on the road seems an obvious solution, but experts have warned that accidents would be inevitable.
“They’ve just never been tested for civilian use – we’re not even sure they could stop when the light turns red,” says Jeremy Allchin, Minister for Transport and Policing.
Zweitech, though, is reluctant to put funds into reprogramming and research, as this is likely to put the company in the red. Several other firms have come up with offers to purchase the ammunition bots, but most have been turned down due to energy costs.
However, Disneyland already owns three DARs, all of which have been reprogrammed to load out popcorn.
“We wanted people to know that science is sacred and should be protected,” says Anne Rice, owner of Disneyland. “These ammunition robots helped us in a tight spot, and got us through. We owe these fine pieces of engineering a debt of gratitude – also, if they ever truly break down, we could always do with a few more surprises on our ghost trains.”
When I returned from my jog in black jeans a row of traffic cones stood in front of the hotel. It wasn’t obvious then, but I knew something had happened to the hotel that put it off limits. Not something malicious, no – nothing that drastic. I stood around near the traffic cones, all connected by a strip of red and white tape, wondering what this aura meant. Touching the edge of the perimeter didn’t do anything immediate, but you could definitely feel a force reeling you back like a strong undercurrent in the ocean.
My parents were inside. I hoped they were okay.
Back in town I wandered, talking to people about it. A bakery was running an emergency ration service.
“Last time this happened I was just a kid,” said an old-timer. “Must have been a few days before it let up.”
“It was a transitional time for me,” the bakery owner explained. “I was a teenager but I learned how to fend for myself… The town was completely different after it ended… stronger…grateful…”
“Didn’t the government do anything?”
“They did everything,” was the reply I sometimes received.
I couldn’t just wait around for a few days without knowing how my parents were doing. Calling the hotel did nothing. I tried yelling from the edge of the bubble but my voice echoed oddly over the space between me and the building as if an invisible wall barred the way.
The surrounding village was on quite hilly terrain, and with some excitement I noticed a way onto the roof of the hotel via a cliff face.
However, just as I made it halfway down the cliff, I found myself floating above the hotel, eventually hanging twenty metres over the the apex of the roof, and fifty or sixty over studded concrete. I waited bitterly through the night, sleeping in weightless transience.
Fear took new shapes during my night in the sky. At first it was vertigo, then it turned to boredom. Now I was afraid of starvation and exposure.
Moving my limbs to shake off the shivering, I noticed the ground below me shift position like a fast-moving cloud. With a mixture of horror and relief, I realised that by swimming I could move side to side… and dive.
A crowd formed as they watched me fight air, kicking and thrusting with large sweeping motions toward a television antenna. I eventually caught the metal tendril with my fist, and before I knew it I was pulling myself into the hotel. First the drain pipe, then the window frame, then the fire exit, and finally the staircase railing.
I imagined the most unreal experience waiting for me in the heart of the hotel as I pulled myself further down. I finally had a chance to rest once a ceiling was over me, and I took my time, methodically tracking my arms and legs like how I imagined a professional climber would.
It was nightfall by the time I reached the banquet hall. That was where I saw the first hotel patron. Frozen in time, like a statue in mid-step.
I vaguely thought that perhaps swimming into the hall would freeze me in time as well, but I decided to be reckless and moved in. Things were too dreamlike for hard decisions. Immediately, as I entered the doorway, an inaudible popping noise cut all measure of surreality from the air, and I dropped to the ground, grazing my knee and twisting my ankle. People gasped all around me, as I hit a table of buffet dishes.
In hospital my parents looked on with astonishment as I described the events of the past two days leading to the injury. They couldn’t believe the part about being frozen in time, but the dates proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt: it was Monday, not Sunday.
Sometimes now, when a major life incident with no explanation occurs, I think back to that day. It has to have been the most confusing incident ever to occur, yet it also came with a phenomenal sense of clarity. The kind of clarity where one could say, “This is happening, and I know what I’m doing.” No one had to tell me what to do, and I didn’t have to think too hard about what to do next.
It’s ironic that ordinary life, which can be just as mysterious, is rarely so direct. Nothing was learned, nothing was explained, yet the experience was extraordinary.