20041114

Cheerio, Citizen 17


He was sopping wet and had no hair. Why was he even standing? He lifted his chin off of his chest and tried to scream for help, but his teeth were chattering too wildly to expel anything linguistic, and instead he just stood there squeaking pathetically. Five different warm towels began to assault him, wiping at the frost on every appendage, and he decided to open his eyes a little. Just a peek.

“He’s awake! Get the lights!” somebody said.

Fluorescent firecrackers blew big bay windows into the front of his skull, and he stumbled backwards, skidding on his own drippings. Somebody caught him and kept rubbing. The blood began to flow thickly into his arms and legs, and the prickling that woke him up was growing into hot static.

“Dimmer…much dimmer, please. Let him adjust.”

It was all coming back to him. It had been so dark for so long, but he was remembering everything fast. There was a strange, sick pulsing at his left temple that played tectonic counterpoint to his heartbeat, but his mind seemed to be otherwise entirely intact. He felt the lights drop, and he peeked again. It was fine, so he opened his eyes all the way.

There must have been thirty people crowded into the little room, all of them staring at him with nervous expectation. He was certainly the only one in the room who was naked, and he was most likely the only one in the room sporting a boner the size of a tire iron. There were women as well as men; all dressed in conservative blazers and dresses. A grinning man with hollow blue eyes held out a pair of sweatpants to his left, and he stepped into them and cinched them up tight. Someone hit him from behind with a fluffy matching sweatshirt and he wriggled his arms through and put the hood up.

Flickering heat was coming from the center of the room. On a card table with a festive foil tablecloth was a chocolate cake, ablaze with twisty red candles and book-ended by plates, cups, and three two-liter bottles of generic lemon cola. A banner hung down from the ceiling over the gathered throng, festooned with diaphanous polychromatic streamers. “GOOD MORNING!” it said in waist-high hologram. What time was it, exactly? He glanced over his shoulder. Behind him were more people and a foggy tube that reached to the ceiling like half fish tank, half Doric column. It was resting on a red dolly, and there was a slug-trail of water that led to a door in the room’s anterior.

A funny little man pushed to the front of the crowd. He had giant horn-rimmed glasses, a twisted nose, and a droopy mustache. He adjusted his glasses, and then threw out his arms dramatically.

“Welcome to the future!” he shouted.

The entire room broke into applause. Daniel Sloop smiled for the first time since the doctor had pronounced him terminal.

“Where did all of my hair go?” he asked. Everyone laughed like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. He laughed, too.

“Don’t you remember?” said the man. “It falls out after the first month. Don’t worry; it will grow back. It’s the first thing everybody wants to know.”

The entire room nodded like a sea of bathtub driftwood.

The man held out his hand. Daniel shook it.

“I’m Mr. Chastain,” he said. “Charles Chastain.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Chastain. Where am I exactly? This isn’t the LGT Lab. Is it?”

“This is the welcome room. There will be time for all of that later. Right now, you should have some cake and some soda. Get your strength back. Would you like a cigarette? Some coffee? Maybe some wine or whiskey? A glass of milk, perhaps?”

“Yes, please,” said Daniel. Everyone laughed again. A chair was passed to the front and Daniel sat down in it. The cake said “Welcome Back, Citizen Sloop” in red velvet icing. The grinning, hollow-eyed man started cutting out a thick slice and the room broke into a spontaneous chorus of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” Daniel joined in and shook hands all around. When it was over, he blew out the candles and then there was another excited session of lunatic applause.

A tray with goodies was presented. Daniel poured a glug of Bushmill’s into a cup of steaming hot Jamaican Blue Mountain. He added some whole milk from a stainless steel thermos and pulled a Parliament from an open pack. When he put it to his lips, three separate people held out flaming lighters to him. He leaned over and lit himself off of the silver Zippo of a beaming young girl in a short pink skirt and thigh-high boots.

“And what’s your name, pretty lady?”

“I’m Ms. Meerschaum,” she said. “I work in the Acquisitions Office.”

He took a deep drag and then blew a whole chest full of smoke out through his nose. It tasted so fucking good. How long had it been since he’d had a simple cigarette?

“It’s damn good to be alive, Ms. Meerschaum,” he said. “But I don’t like to eat alone. Have some cake.”

“Yes, let’s everyone have some cake,” seconded Mr. Chastain. The hollow-eyed-grinning-man cut out thin slices for everyone and plates were bucket brigaded around the room. The room began to fill with pleasant cocktail chatter.

“So what year is it?” asked Daniel through a mouth full of chocolate icing. He winked at Ms. Meerschaum and washed the sticky mosh down with lemon soda. Ms. Meerschaum flushed and took a dainty bite from her fork, flicking the piece between her lips with a perfect pink tongue. The cake tasted about like he remembered. He guessed the cake industry hadn’t received significant technological innovation since he’d been put under.

“Oh, that doesn’t matter in the slightest. What’s important is that you’re here, and that you survived,” said Mr. Chastain.

“Seems like a simple question to answer,” said Daniel. “Where’s my kids? Are they all grown up now? Are they still pissed at me ‘cause I left their no-good-bitch-of-a-mother and went out east with my brother to make a little scratch?”

Dr. Chastain cleared his throat and snapped his fingers. A file folder surfed through the crowd and landed in his hand. On the cover was the number 17. He pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose, and opened it. He read silently, and then let the folder drop.

“We couldn’t tell you what happened to your children, Mr. Sloop. We tried to contact every one of your living relatives for your awakening, but there are often difficulties involved.”

“Does it say anything in there about my brother Willy? I expect he’s dead by now. He’s only got that one kidney, and he was already pushing forty. Good riddance. Does it say what happened to him?”

“It doesn’t say anything about him in my folder, Mr. Sloop.”

“Eh, fuck him. Even if he’s alive, he’s still an asshole. My head kind of hurts. Does anybody have any aspirin?”

“That’s just routine temporal adjustment,” said Mr. Chastain. “Aspirin won’t do anything that caffeine won’t do.”

“It’s the grand old future, and there’s still no cure for the common headache,” said Daniel, giving Ms. Meerschaum a heavy eye. She smiled wanly.

“Sometimes it helps to try and remember the very last thing before you went down,” said Ms. Meerschaum. “That’s often what is rolling around up there and causing the ruckus.”

Mr. Chastain went very pale and shook his head almost imperceptibly. Ms. Meerschaum put a hand over her mouth and lowered her eyes. Suddenly, Daniel was feeling a bit claustrophobic. He cradled his forehead where his eyebrows used to be. If anything, the sickly pulsing in his temple was getting stronger.

“I remember showing up at the Lucky-Go-Tundra offices in Dallas. It was a whim, really. I saw their advertisement on the side of a bus, and I thought I’d give it a whirl. Cryogenic Solutions for a World That Won’t Stop Turning, is what the ad said. That’s exactly what I needed. I certainly didn’t have anything to lose.

The man working there was a Mr. Dupree. He told me how it all worked. About how I would pay them a lump sum of cash up front, and how I would then get an ID tag for the paramedics. I could have the procedure done at my leisure, but if my condition worsened unexpectedly, they would bring me to LCT instead of to a hospital. I told Mr. Dupree that sounded fine, and I definitely had the money. Money was about all I had. I wrote him a check, and I went back home. I didn’t tell anyone.

A week went by. I remember watching football on my couch and then I started to get dizzy. The room wouldn’t stop spinning. I picked up the phone and I dialed 911, but I don’t remember much after that. I remember the smell of carpet, and I remember feeling something cold on my cheek and thinking it was probably a penny. And then I woke up here. It’s all so crazy. But here I am.”

Everybody clapped again. But this time, Daniel wasn’t listening.

“You know, you look very familiar, Mr. Chastain. I could almost swear I’ve met you before.”

“Impossible,” said Mr. Chastain. He laughed. “Why don’t you have another piece of cake?”

“Are you sure? You look like somebody I know. Not a friend or anything, but somebody I’ve met before.”

The room filled with tension like a cat on a griddle. Daniel slowly stood up, wiping at his mouth with a napkin.

“You’re name isn’t Chastain, is it? It’s Dupree. Charles Dupree.”

Somebody coughed. The room seemed to breathe forward.

“Charles Dupree was my father. I’m not him at all,” said Mr. Chastain, turning his face away sharply. The false nose and mustache he was wearing flew across the room, landing in tube water with a splash.

“GET HIM!” said Mr. Dupree. But Daniel was faster than that. Before anyone could react, he upended the card table and snatched a spinning knife out of the air like it was a moth with one wing. He grabbed Ms. Meerschaum and put it to her throat.

“Tell me what year it is!” he screamed. “Tell me what year it is, or I’ll cut her head off!”

“It’s 2004,” said Mr. Dupree. “Don’t hurt her. You weren’t supposed to know.”

“2004?” said Daniel, puzzled. The knife relaxed in his hand. “What month is it?”

“February.”

“It only took them three months to find a cure for inoperable, malignant brain tumors?”

“Not exactly,” said Mr. Dupree. “Your check didn’t clear.”

Slow realization dawned on Daniel’s face. Willy, that bastard! His expression of shock was suddenly replaced by something more devastating -- a rictus of what must have been agonizing pain. He put his left hand to his temple. The knife fell out of his right hand and clattered to the parquet floor. The entire room watched as he fell to his knees, convulsed as if electrified, and then landed on his back in a pool of his own chocolate vomit.

“God,” said Ms. Meerschaum, poking at the still body with the toe of her boot and fingering her neckline, “This is getting ridiculous. Why can’t we just tell them outright?”

“Because human beings deserve to die with dignity. With a smile on their face. Not like paupers choking on a lifetime of regret,” said Mr. Dupree.

“That was a close one,” said the hollow-eyed man – a junior partner named Rudy.

“I honestly thought he wouldn’t make it five minutes,” said Mr. Dupree. “I take full responsibility. I wish we could just cut the life support, but that would be murder. They have to die of natural causes.”

“I’m so sick of cake,” said Juniper, the receptionist. “How many more deadbeats do we have left to do today?”

“Just two more,” said Mr. Dupree wearily, “Not counting comas and car wrecks.”



2 comments:

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the herb said...

So these patients are being duped. They get woken up a lot sooner than they expect, and they still have their terminal disease, then they get scared to death by something or other, and this outfit then collects the insurance money? Or something along those lines?

I mostly get this story, and it's pretty good, but I think you have to make it more clear there at the end what the con is. It could be scarier if you do so.