Walking down the stairs outside the Afterlife building, I looked over the crowd of people milling through the street, hearing the rustling of their plastic coats, while their device screens danced nervously between the dark clothes, dousing their faces hospital morgue pale.
Minna, the C.A.U.S.E woman, must have waited for me and surprised me, as she approached me from the left, «How was it? Disgusting?»
«No, not at all.» I kept walking, avoiding green eye contact.
«But you didn't sign anything.»
Hoping she'd miss the beat I needed to answer, I lied, «No.»
She did not respond right away, then she said, «Good, otherwise you'd be on the hook.»
«On the hook for what?»
«The seven-day trip without a return ticket.»
I blew my mustache up, «Isn't that the point?»
«No, you can live.»
I stopped, peered over her shoulder to the illuminated Julian Assange statue on the other side of the street and asked, «Are you following me?»
She wiped the wetness off her face, where the mist had settled, and I fell into her green eyes.
Seeing her this way, I had to admit, I wished, we would have met earlier in life, although in the end, it wouldn't have made any difference since at no point I was ever in a financial position to impress any possible partner, not even in my wildest fantasy.
A year ago there was Fadila, and for a while we thought, we could make it together, but down the road, we had to surrender to the fact, that it didn't work, that a real life needs some extras besides gym shifts, device time and sex. The fun we had at the beginning of our brief relationship eroded in the daily grind of the everyday drab.
«Hey, aren't you talking with me anymore?», Minna nudged me.
Her physical approach resonated throughout my body, especially in my stomach.
«Sorry, I was somewhere else.»
«You no say. Let's talk!»
It was too late, she had no chance to talk me out of it, I had signed the commitment, and it didn't make sense to meet new people, with only a few days left, «Goodbye Minna, it was nice meeting you, I hope you have a great life.»
I started walking again, faster than usual showing her that I meant it.
If she noticed that, she ignored it and jogged along beside me while paying attention not to run into anybody and looking at me at the same time. «What made you go to Afterlife Inc.?»
«I thought it was a restaurant.»
«Not funny, Arthur. Are you sick? Terminal ill? Your body seems fine, your mind... somewhat dreamy.»
«I'm fine, just a little tired, and I need to help my younger brother, he needs... a chunk of brain if you want to know it, and I have a chunk of brain. Now happy?»
Her palm found her forehead, «So you want to toss your perfect life away for…»
«What perfect life?»
«For your sick brother?»
We walked around a cutter sitting in the middle of the road doing his thing, cutting the back of his lower arm to see a fresh and bright primary colour: red, his blood, a trend that started last summer and gained quite a following since.
«Also sicker!», she said.
«Not for long. He'll be better with a corner of my sponge.»
«Things can go wrong, nothing's wrong with you.»
«Everything's wrong with me.»
I stopped, «I'm a gymmer, a gymmer! I am going to the gym, that's all I do, that's my job, that's it, that's all I have, nothing special, nothing new, no money to go out, no fun, no means to meet new people... hah... wait! No, for that I have to go to Afterlife!»
«Who did you meet?»
You! I thought.
Where did that thought come from?
We heard the siren of a Single Urban Cop Unit closing in fast. As we turned around, a big guy crashed into us, I flew against the house wall, Minna tumbled to the ground. The tall man struggled for balance clinging to other pedestrians tearing on their clothes, ripping on an umbrella, then the blinking lights from the cop's helmet spilled over all of us, and the SUCU's voice changed from imitating a loud siren to telling the man that he's arrested and charged with the possession of the colour blue.
The silent crowd formed a circle and filmed the scene. The cop confiscated the man's 55er and smiled and waved into the cameras of the bystanders.
The people looked like androids with a square head and a single eye in the middle over their shoulders, as they held their devices up in front of them. Minna and me were the only ones not filming.
I saw nothing blue on the man, he either must have worn or carried it underneath, or he had it stashed somewhere else or thrown it away. I cared more about Minna and helped her up. She snatched her hat off the pavement before somebody stepped on it. Without a word, we retreated from the situation. Two more SUCUs passed us to help their colleague, accompanied by a drone flying five metres over their head.
«That guy is in deep trouble», I said.
«And you are not. That's why I don't understand your decision.»
«And that's why we should split right here.»
'Congratulation to the 546 heroes that went on their journey today. Are you next?', flickered over the facade from a broken projector.
Minna said, «There's so much to talk about.»
«No, there isn't. Which way do you go? Because I walk the other way.»
«What if I don't, what if I follow you?»
My thumb pointed behind me, «Then I call a SUCU and let you charge with sexual harassment, stalking and triggering indecent thoughts, which could lead to a crime against society charge.»
«You are the escalation type of guy, huh?»
«Don't try me.»
«And at what point did I sexually harass...»
«Don't», I said backing away from her into the north-moving crowd.
She had to raise her voice, «And what kind of indecent thoughts do you...»
The people carried me with them like a steady current in a river, first slowly, then faster, relentless, and unforgiving.
: : :
I stood in my bathroom, my head tilted back, staring at the ceiling, and gargled with pure mouthwash for quite some time, when my device vibrated, an audio call.
I spat the grey liquid into the sink and said after the second vibration, «Take it.»
«Here is Sharon from the crisis helpline, I received the message that you signed up at Afterlife Inc. for your journey, congratulation on that decision! I just want to check in, how you are doing?»
«Thank you.» With my shoulder I leaned against the wall next to the window looking over to the dimly lit windows of the neighboring apartment buildings on the other side. How many stared back at me right now?
«Everything still pretty bad?!», she semi-asked.
«Your mood didn't change, no light on the horizon?»
«Not a shimmer of hope?»
«No, not a shimmer.»
«That's excellent, you're doing great, Arthur, and you have no doubts, no second thoughts?»
«No, not at all.»
«Sounds good, good, you are definitely doing the right thing, when I see your data. You will have the time of your life at the end of it, and in case you tend to feel better, for any reason, or you get any doubt about your decision, whatever it is, don't hesitate to call us, 24/7, we're here to help you anytime, okay!?»
«I appreciate that.»
«Okay then, have a lonesome evening, and don't forget, tomorrow's another bad day.»
«I know, thank you.»
«Carpe Mortem.» I repeated, ended the call, took a breath and said, «Call Berat.»
I held the 55 in front of me, he had his device again propped up on his bed, not holding it himself.
His voice sounded brittle, «Hi.»
«Good news, you will get the surgery!», I burst out as excited as possible.
He seemed not to have understood what I said, his mouth went like that of a fish on land.
«Berat, you will live, healthy, soon, your brain will work fine after the surgery.»
He swallowed, and he suppressed the pain he had, «How? What? How is this possible?» Chrrr-ing and smacking between the words, the medicine robbed him of his saliva.
«Aren't you happy?»
«Yes, I just don't know… We can't afford it. What did you do?»
«I just did some research, and I know a lot of people, who know a lot of people, and eventually… Well, I guess, it all boils down to luck.» There was no way I would tell him.
«What do you know about the donor?»
«Not much.» What wasn't even the craziest lie in my life.
«It's part of the deal, the main thing is, you get back on your feet, enjoy your future, and the match is 98%, that is good enough to pull it through.» If I would've told him it's indeed 100% match, he would've become suspicious. Between the two of us, he was always the smart one.
«So that makes... then... I have a 1 in 50 chance to die.»
«You have a 98% chance to live, yesterday you had 0%. That's quite a leap.»
He smiled, his eye twitched, probably because of the tube up his nose. Then he suppressed a surge of pain.
I treated it as a yawn, «Man, you are tired, I should better let you go.» And me, the biggest liar in the universe, too.
«W-wait», he thought of something, «Will you be here when I wake up?»
I saw that question coming, «Actually, I run extra shifts at the gym, for the next three weeks, I am buzzing.» I had to fight not to choke up, choke on my lie, my pity for him and for me and the sadness, he will feel, when he gets to know the truth. But he will live. He will have the chance of a career, a life, and maybe love.
«Have those extra shifts something to do with my surgery?»
«I'll pay you back, Art.»
«Sure», the tingling of tears in my nose.
«I will transfer every volt I can to your account, and you can enjoy some days in a lazy chair.»
«And not a volt short, you little conservative.» Seeing him getting excited and pulled out of his lethargic state, boosted my confidence.
«Haha, watch your mouth, calling me a conservative, wait until I'm back, then you get a bro-treatment.»
I missed our banters, «I count every single volt!»
«I bet, I will out-produce you.»
«I hope you do something better than going to the gym once you're back up. You have all the options.»
«I will do my best, my goal is to get you out of the gym.»
«I take your word.»
«You have it bro.»
«Take care and good luck.»
«Thanks, see you.»
«See you», I leaned my forehead against the cold window.
We ended the call, and I sighed out loud, the window fogged up for a moment. I wiped my wet eyes. My mind was churning with all the things I wanted to tell him, but I couldn't without making him worry, and if he would find out about his donor, there would be no way, he would accept it. So all I could do was casually end a non-casual call, no special goodbye or farewell, no death hug, not even virtually.
I felt sick to my stomach and tired in my head. All I wanted to do was to fall asleep, as deep and long as possible, but it was still early, and I haven't eaten anything, so I went to the sink. I took the bowl as I always did, next thing I knew, it slipped my fingers and sailed to the ground where it exploded into countless pieces, shards scuttling over the linoleum floor.
: : :
First, I saw the white sleeve of his long shirt as my neighbor dramatically slowly opened his door to my knocking. Sure, I could've eaten my dinner from my drinking cup and pick up a new bowl from the Goo tomorrow, but the last days of my life I wanted to enjoy with the maximum amount of dignity.
His face lit up when he saw me as if he hadn't checked through the spy, «Hello neighbor!»
«Hi Rastan, sorry…»
«What was the noise?» He opened his door wide and waved me in.
He had heard my accident through the walls. «My bowl slipped through my fingers...»
«Before you have eaten.»
I nodded, «Can I borrow yours, I bring it back in half an hour.»
«You ask the right guy.»
We etched our way into the living room, passing the digital picture frame with the withered face of his father who had worked as a plastic-fisherman and died at sea at a time when they still had fish as bycatch.
«How's your tap?», I asked.
«I got it fixed yesterday.»
«Really? They came?»
«No, of course not, I was joking, you believe in the tooth fairy? I said, I got it fixed, I, I fixed it, me!», he hammered his thumb against his chest, mustache in between.
The appliances looked brand-new, «You got a new sink?», I drifted in speechlessness. Especially in contrast to the grey mold on the ceiling half of his furniture seemed fresh delivered.
«Not quite, turn around.»
Next to his crosstrainer, on top of his studio Tesla battery in the corner throned a 3-D printer.
«Whoa, Rastan, what happened?», the presence of a luxury appliance freaked me out, this smelled illegal, and if I would get caught in the middle, the mission for my brother would be in jeopardy, «Did you steal that thing?»
«Well, it was a steal, price-wise, nevertheless I paid for it, in full. You can calm down.»
«Can I? H-how, how did you pay?» What was going on? He was a gymmer like me, on basic income as everybody else. Nobody had extra money to spend on a 3-D printer.
He enjoyed watching me, trying to find an explanation.
«Rastan?» Then it dawned on me, and I whispered, «Are you into the color market?»
«Hell no! I don't want to get locked away as a human cylinder. But, sort of, almost...»
«Rastan! What?» At this point I wished, I would've never knocked, I wanted to be as far away from him and the printer as possible, the luxury carried the stark stench of crime, and I didn't want to risk the brain donation to my brother and his other benefits after becoming tangled up in some police action with my demented neighbor.
«Shsh, it's okay, I just work a little under the table.»
«What? What. Do. You? Work? Under the table.»
«You'll never guess.»
«No, I won't, you are right. Because I'm out of here.»
«Wait, don't be silly.»
«It's not called silly, it's called sane.»
«Hey, you get your bowl, your own bowl, you don't have to borrow it, I make it for you with the printer, my treat, it's all yours, a present, between neighbors, friends, come on, you helped me out all the time, because of my shitty tap, this time it is my turn.»
«It's not necessary, a brand new bowl», I insisted, but he didn't deserve my cold shoulder. He wanted to do me some good, and this was his last opportunity. Rastan deserved my gratitude, the last memory he will have of me. «I don't have to pay for the material?»
«No, man, it's on me.»
«Because I can't…»
«I know, I know, calm down, all good, you are so nervous, why?»
«Sorry», I sighed, «Okay, I take the bowl.» These printers are fast, I am in here anyway, I might just stay a few minutes.
«That's my man.» He rubbed his hands in sweet anticipation of working on his new toy.
«Since when do you have the printer?», I asked.
«Yesterday. First, I printed the parts for the tap, including the tools», he smirked, «You really don't want to know what I'm working?»
«I earn serious volts.»
He stopped programming the printer from his device and turned around to me, «I freelance.»
I raised my eyebrows.
«I am sort of an internet custodian.»
«What does that mean?»
«I'm a cock shot deleter.»
Too late to cover my ears. «You are… what?»
«I clean up the social media feeds for three big platforms in town, I can't tell you their names, but you know them.»
«You are watching dicks for money.»
He corrected his tie, «I delete them.»
«Somebody's got to do it.» He finished the programming, and the printer started his work humming away.
«Do you have to do it?» I asked.
My neighbor knocked on his printer and rubbed his tummy looking towards his tap, «It definitely feels better. Maybe I become self-employed down the road. That's my goal.»
«And since when do you... delete...?»
«For two months... And how long... Every day?»
«Five days a week, two hours before and two hours after the gym. I'd like to keep my weekend a weekend.»
«I bet. After that. Four hours a day? How many dicks are out there?»
«Oh, there are many dicks out there. It's a dick-a-rama.»
«You must dream of dicks.»
«Makes me sick, by the time my bowl is done, I'm not hungry anymore, it's like... it is dirty.»
«44 seconds left.»
A white light blinked next to the lid of the printer. The slight smell of hemp plastic in the air.
«Based on your goal... Do you want to delete dicks forever?!»
«It's good money, who doesn't need good money?»
«Who needs to watch other guys’ dicks?»
«People who need money.»
To earn the price of a 3-D printer in two months working weekly 20 hours wasn't too bad, his job must pay royally. I asked, «One question: are you paid per hour or per dick.»
«Per size», and when he saw my reaction he quickly added, «I'm joking, per hour.»
«And you never run out of work? There are always enough dicks to delete in four hours a day?»
«Oh yeah, well, once or twice business slowed down, but when one platform contacted me to cut down on my hours, I had an idea.» He blinked with one eye at me, lifted his pants with his thumb in the front and pretended to take a photo.
«What the fossil fuel, Rastan!»
«In other words: a crisis-proof line of work.»
My bowl was ready.
: : :
There was no way I could steal myself away from him without a minimum of conversation. He really had helped me out this time.
We sat together down at his table, he also had taken half a bowl, he could eat constantly.
Eventually he asked, «Corpsebook?»
And down the rabbit hole we went.
Years ago, all social media and personal message accounts were melted into one giant platform called Corpsebook since most of these accounts were inactive. Their creators were dead, and they had left their digital fingerprints on the sixth continent for the rest of the world to see, forever.
Corpsebook was the only site accessible with content from outside Lethbridge, for pure entertainment reasons. Rastan and I ended up once a month browsing through the comments, rants, pictures and videos people had made of themselves, their loved ones, and their hated ones, all desaturated over time into a contrast-arm monochrome.
Lacking historical knowledge, we often guessed what they were referring to, sometimes we tracked down a long discussion, ending up more confused than before.
Mostly it was a window into another time, black and white nevertheless, but we could virtually visit places like Mexico or Sao Paulo, their architecture in the background, or their beaches, often without rain.
What clearly stood out, was why the world wide web became the city wide web: the sixth continent turned out to be too massive to comprehend for a large part of the world population, which wasn't capable to access its potential and instead regressed to post pictures of food, pets, fake smiles and conspiracy theories, with the effect that the former village idiots realized they weren't alone.
Clicking from one account to the next and witnessing the waste of time and resources, documented by the empty faces of their long deceased creators, sure was the most depressing leisure activity out there. Others, like us, got a kick out of it. Corpsebook was the Drizzly Land of online cemeteries, far more interesting than all the new ones.
A whole hour we spend scrolling and showing us our findings before I thanked him again for the bowl and the food and headed back to my studio.
I kicked off my shoes and washed out the bowl. It felt solid, almost better than the original.
After brushing my teeth, I threw my pants and shirt over the chair and went to bed.
The pillow I tucked against the wall, and I laid down on my tummy, the arms raised above my head, and my feet sticking out over the end of the mattress. I haven't washed the sheets in a while, they smelled like sleep and dried rain.
Sometimes I wished I didn't have to sleep on my tummy—whenever I did not, I was woken up by my vibrating mattress that had registered my unhealthy sleeping position, because I had turned to the side, and I rolled back on my tummy—this caused me to be tired half of the time. But I wasn't alone in that.