by Thorsten Nesch
-This novel will be published here in weekly chapters-
Content Warning because of the subject matter.
If you are in mental distress, please call the help line in your country.
If you wonder, what could qualify me to write a decent dystopian novel: my other dystopian novel “Der Drohnenpilot” is mandatory read in Language Arts at high schools in Germany (in English L.A. it is “1984”).
If you want to know, how I got the idea to the novel: many years ago I asked myself if society was really doing everything against suicide? My answer to this day is No. So what if there would be a society that even encourages suicide!? The idea for my next dystopian novel was born.
If you are in Lethbridge, Alberta or Canada, please don't take this novel personal; originally, 18 years ago, when I had the idea, I imagined it taking place in Berlin, Germany, but by the time I started writing, we had moved to Canada.
If you expect a depressing story, I hope I will positively surprise you: “Suicide Hotel” should serve as a testimony to the value of life and love. The novel is dark and light, it is the best of both sides.
Alberta Foundation for the Arts with a
Literary Arts Individual Project Grant
William Ramp, Dymphny May Dronik, Blaine Boisvert, Jake De Peuter, Teri Petz, Brian Edgar, Max Wuerden, Hannah Aubie, Kris Demeanor, Deborah Willis, Beverly Muendel-Atherstone and Hans-Henning Muendel, Robert Runte, Peter Bogmer, Jochen Rother, Stefan von Hatten, Marie Aitken, Brenna Lowrie, Brad Goruk, Clayton Smith, Lisa Murphy Lamb, Loft112, the Antilang Magazine, the Short Edition, Wordbridge Conference, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, the Alberta Media Arts Alliance Society, Sharon Stevens, the Lethbridge Allied Arts Council, my colleagues at the Casa Lethbridge & my family
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The novel was written on traditional Blackfoot Confederacy territory.
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If you stare into the abyss long enough
the abyss stares back into you.
- Friedrich Nietzsche -
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Trotting home from the gym through the city, staying close to the walls, I was dodging the rain. The forecast of drizzle turned out to be wrong, the water seemed to wash the grey and white lights off the gigantic flat screens and let them pool in the puddles and streams in the streets. Words, pictures and videos dissolved on the nervous surface, sputtered by the raindrops and crushed by the million soles of the people's rubber boots.
In front of me, the pedestrian light switched to stop, and I pressed my back against a house wall listening to the soothing ambient music emitted by the bouquet of loudspeakers on top of the traffic lights. Projected and reflected statistics, public service announcements and opinion polls results melted into each other, barely readable in the barrage of rain drops, jittery and mirrored, a riddle wanting to be deciphered. It let the time go by faster.
Lethbridge's population counter read '17,503,229', underneath 'Be loyal!' and then 'Do You make Sense? Not!? Then come talk to us!'.
Most people around me scrolled on their devices, their pale faces dipped into the digital bleach of their screens. A woman waved briefly back at a man who greeted her while flowing by in the crowd that crossed 5th Avenue on 13th Street North.
'Order the new Bawler screambag in the next 13 minutes and collect 10,000 watts'.
On our Go light, we plowed through the water. My boots were old, standard plastic, recycle-grey, but still pretty good. They fit the best with thick socks between autumn and spring. Today they sat a little loose. This year's July was somewhat less wet, merely two downpours so far had interrupted the constant drizzle, including the one right now.
A woman passed me by wearing see-thru rubber boots, it seemed her feet didn't touch the ground, walking on puddles, instead of through them. I had never seen boots like that before.
Behind her heels, a laser beam belonging to a new tattoo parlor zigzagged over the pavement. The only businesses that kept popping up.
Heavy water drops exploded on my hoodie. My device vibrated in my pocket with the sound of an incoming message: the automatic reminder from my advisor's account for my optional tattoo. Although only open for a minute, my device found the parlor already in the system. That wasn't a sure bet anymore since it was a 55er, the older generation.
Why not? Maybe the downpour would end by the time it was done. I weaved my way through the people to the entrance door, swooshing with my soaked sleeves over other wet arms.
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I stepped into the store to a retro-electronic door melody and flipped my hoodie back.
Tropical warm air enveloped me, like in a terrarium. Instantly I was looking for a reptile somewhere, a lizard or a snake, but the closest I could find was the public health minister from the Penguin Party in his 'Do It' t-shirt smiling from his framed picture over the shoulder of a woman with a sideways bent spine leaning with one hand on the desk. Her recycle-white tank top had an uncomfortably high collar.
«Welcome to Undertheskin's!», she said with her head at an angle, so her hair fell all to one side, covering one eye.
I nodded slowly and blew up my mustache to buy myself some time, for a moment the hair fluttered horizontal in the air. Any tattoo was a commitment, this tattoo was a verdict.
«Congratulation, you're my first customer! That means 20% off of your 2nd tat. I'm Zero, founder and owner of the Undertheskin's.»
«How did you find me, Arthur?»
I tapped against the pocket holding my 55er, displaying its shape clearly through the wet fabric.
«Sunny! I'm already in the system!», she looked down at her propped up screen on the desk.
Monochrome tattoo posters covered the walls: tribals, hearts and symbols, fake scars and real animals, fantasy creatures and writings, in all shades of grey.
She said, «Tattooing, scarring, burning, branding, beating, piercing, amputating, I can do it all.»
«I'm licensed for 3rd-degree amputations, phalanges... fingers and toes, including ears, nose, lips and tongue, but only one at a time of course.»
Ginger scent in the air.
«You're obviously not here for an ampu, so what can I do for you, Arthur?»
I still could just walk out of here, walk away from the terminating tattoo. Once it was done, it was done, a lifetime decision, a decision that had been a long time coming, and it came with a lot of perks, «Do you do… the No-Defibrillator tattoo?»
«The No-D, yes», disappointment fogged her words, rooted in the charge-free service she had to provide in her line of trade. «Do you want the No-D centered or over your heart?» Zero pronounced it Noddy and continued talking more to herself while she opened the door to a backroom, «My first job in my own parlor is a Noddy. It can only get better.»
«That means you are free… now?!»
«Yeah, yeah. A Noddy.»
«Sorry about that.»
«No worry. Are you tattooed at all?»
«Wow. A virgin, that's rare, I can hardly believe it.»
I winced and whipped my mustache to the side. When it fell back, it softly tickled on my chin. I liked that feeling.
In what could count as a non-verbal communication between us, Zero snapped her head to the right, so her hair landed there, the sides were shaved.
«No regret?», she asked.
«No. Well, at least not because of a tattoo.»
«Maybe you got one, a small one, a heart or a band name, and forgot about it.»
«No, really. None. Hey, I don't see any on you either!»
«I am into scarring, I'm a scarrer. Here», with a smooth move, she pulled her top up, front and back, «Check this out.» Slowly, she turned around like an ancient vase on a display table.
Half a dozen bullet scars marred her flat belly, with well-crafted exit wound scars on her back.
«Yeah, right!? A colleague helped with the ones on the back.»
«I bet. And why?»
«Is an eye-catcher at the pool, looks like I had beef with the mob and I survived a broadside from an oilieval Kalashnikov.»
She dropped her shirt again, «Anyway, let's get the Noddy done, and maybe it grows on you, who knows, maybe you come back.»
«Maybe I don't.»
I didn't want to give her false hopes.
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After the rather chatty welcoming, Zero turned out to be matter-of-fact, especially after I thwarted her up-selling attempts—she wanted to talk me into a fancy version of the No-D since it would be my first tat. But her service wouldn't be for free anymore, so I insisted on the standard.
For the procedure I took off my hoodie and the shirt, threw both over my coat on a chair, and laid down on a dark leather ottoman, which was too short for me, as it would be for most people, my feet touched the ashen linoleum.
Zero tied a sort of milk chair to her butt and grabbed the tattoo gun. With a plock, she sat down next to me.
At first, I twitched every time the needle penetrated my skin, and only when she finished the first paddle of the defibrillator, I could watch her do the rest. Her bent spine seemed to be an advantage in her line of work.
Frequently, she adjusted her position, each time to the sound of a pirate with a wooden leg hobbling over the deck of his schooner.
From my perspective, I couldn't see her from the belt down, and I imagined Zero wasn't sitting, but instead she had very short legs, one made of wood. Plock. I had to suppress a laughter.
Pop music poured out of the loudspeakers, sometimes she was humming along. By the third song, 'The One I tried to Love', I recognized the band. My question if she was a big fan of The Algorhythmares, she answered by mumbling a generic «Hmmh».
I took a breath to say something else, but I dropped it, obviously she wasn't in the mood to talk, probably hoping she'd had my Noddy done before the next actual customer would enter the Undertheskins' with a more elaborate and expensive wish.
Who knows why Zero became a tattoo artist instead of working in one of the Verticals, where fine motor skilled workers earned double the average, taking care of the inside farms of Verticalifornia? Maybe her spine played a role. Either way, she didn't have to go to the gym like me.
The ceiling of the store had remained untouched, an older white, no sign of the new owner. The tattoo parlor could have been anything before she moved in. Of course I didn't remember, although I went by this place almost every day of my life.
Boredom. Usually I'd play something, but my device stuck in the inside pocket of my coat by the stool in the corner. This room, her studio, as she called it, was profoundly smaller than the one facing the street, plastered with the same tattoo Olympics wallpaper. In the corner, next to the box with the first aid kit hung her lavishly framed tattoo master certificate.
She didn't even ask me why I wanted the No-Defibrillator tattoo. For her, this job was a bad joke of a self-employment startup, a twist of fate, an irony, if not a nuisance; for me it would mean—in case I needed to be revived, and the paramedics would see the No-D on my chest after racing through the streets and dramatically ripping off my shirt, that their work was done—that they just had to transport me to an organ donor clinic. I had my donor card since birth. This way childcare was free, and my parents could put me in a boarding kindergarten and pick me up three years later.
On the other hand, having the Noddy now meant, I could work an hour less at the gym each day. One hour less work. My advisor was right, and I should've listened to him a year ago when he first suggested getting the No-D. Sometimes I was silly this way, almost stubborn. What did I have to lose? I gained one hour of free time a day!
«Hey, are you dead?», Zero grumbled, «I'm ready with your Noddy, you can get up.»
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The door closed behind me, and the electronic melody played its last muffled tones. It chased the fat rat away that had hunkered down in the entrance. A wind gust drove the fine spray of an evening shower into my face, causing me to reach for my hoodie; I pulled it down deep almost over my eyes.
From my chest radiated a distinct warmth, filling every single cell of my body. If I wouldn't know it better, I could imagine my heart was the reason, but it was the slight burning sensation of the fresh tattoo.
I joined the northbound horde washing by the chain of Rent & Share shops between 6th and 8th blocks promoting their newest inventory from coats to boots in their dimly lit storefront windows. Inside, countless silhouettes milled around the shelves and clothing racks.
Eventually, the crowd came to a halt at a red light, and like everybody else, I checked my device; top story was the outcome of an opinion poll where 98% of the population stated that grey was their favourite colour, and over 70% felt symbolic yesterday. What the one thing had to do with the other eluded me, and I looked up, catching the glance of a guy next to me—who just read the same words and probably wondered as well.
The light of his device was swallowed by the pitch black contact lenses he sported, the newest fashion hype, in matte. The first Lethbian with it I saw a month ago, now I belonged already to the minority without. Every week I expected them in my backpack after visiting the Goo, so far to no avail. If next week was a no-show, I would write the Goo service department a message.
The guy's device shrilled, so did the device from the woman waiting behind him. He turned around.
Her face lit up, «66%!?»
«Yes!», he announced, confirming the number of shared interests, consumed content, food and clothes preferences detected by the Matchmaking app that many ran constantly in the background, and with the near field communication activated, it scanned other devices within ten feet around you. I just switched it on sporadically, and less and less often after merely finding three matches in the forty percent range—and they were clearly not my type.
This was an unusual high match factor, some people even applauded the two of them, who immediately introduced themselves to each other. I turned away and let them have their private moment in the horde while others began filming them.
The crowd behind us grew restless, and an anxious mumble erupted when we didn't start to move as soon as the people in front of them continued walking again. The newly found lovers shimmied to the sidewalk and out of my sight. I was happy for them.
We swerved by the roundabout on 13th Street and 9th Avenue. The silver, translucent figure of Kim, the androgynous poster person of the society, throned in the middle of the intersection on a cement column and waved from his elevated position to the surrounding hordes. Their face was the exact mix of all pictures of people posted on the old internet, in look and in sex.
Two years ago Kim appeared publicly, and I liked this part of my daily commute as they always was in a good mood no matter how everybody else felt. They also marked the halfway point between the gym and my studio apartment.
Four kids in shoes, no rubber boots, or proper rain gear, squeezed by us in a hurry, pushing and elbowing people out of their way to nowhere.
A man with a grey peppered mustache and sideburns grabbed the shoulder of the last kid, «Hey, be careful, will ya!?»
The kid turned around, walking backwards while staring at the old man, «Walk the plank!»
«All I was...»
«What are you waiting for? Die!»
«I was merely saying, you guys shouldn't be so...», his voice got quieter as the kid disappeared into the crowd in front of him, and he looked for approval in the pale faces of the other people, «I mean, that boy doesn't need to get coastal on me?!»
After nobody said anything, a voice was heard, «But the kid had a point.»
-This novel will be published here in weekly chapters, please subscribe if you like at bottom of the page-