THE LAST MAN TO DIE
My brother, Ash, will be the last man to die.
The silver box reminds me of Dad’s glasses case, the hinges resisting, until they relent and hold open the lid. No one wears glasses anymore. Inside is a blister pack of pills.
Jeremiah is humming the Dinosaur Crispies jingle, his legs swinging between chair legs. He slurps, spooning cereal dinosaurs and milk into his mouth.
Fumbling, I push one of the pills out of the plastic and place it on my tongue. It tastes metallic, heavy. I swallow. I have no idea how long it will take to work, or whether it will work at all.
On the TV, the doctor uses a stethoscope to listen to Ash’s heartbeat. I feel my own heart beating, its thump: the double bump, bump. All the equipment, all the medicine, all the advancements, and the doctor uses a stethoscope. Taking his hand from Ash’s chest, the doctor nods at the nurse, who in turn can’t help glancing over her shoulder at the camera. Those I speak to say they don’t watch, say it’s not right to watch. I tell them I don’t watch either, but everyone does.
* * *
The last time I saw him was a Sunday; I know it was a Sunday because it was raining.
‘You don’t feel it do you?’ he said.
‘You don’t feel it working — the Placement. The oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin. You don’t do you? Christ Edan, what is all this?’
‘You’re too cynical. Don’t see its benefits.’
He shook his head. ‘You’re like… you’re a machine Edan.’
‘We’re not doing this again,’ I said, looking at the door.
‘Wait.’ He tried to stand, his arms shaking on the arms of the chair. ‘Wait. Listen. I don’t know what’s going to happen. And you’re my brother.’
I looked out onto the garden, then again towards the door.
He gave up trying to stand, fell back into his chair. ‘I’ve been thinking about the time I spent in hospital.’ He closed his eyes. ‘That’s when I found out we were different.’ He opened his eyes, moved a finger between us.
‘You fell from the rope swing,’ I said. ‘I told you it was too high.’
He smiled. ‘You did it though. My little brother. I had to do it.’
Gazing at the floor between my shoes, I remembered how scared he looked. But he did it anyway. Went too high, couldn’t hold on.
He held up his arm. ‘Broke it. But it was one of those superbugs that kept me in for so long.’
I recalled him lying in the hospital bed, Mom beside him.
He looked down at his lap where he rested his hands. ‘When she told me, about you, about the Placement, I hated it — hated you.’
I recalled the conversation with Mom in the hospital. You’re going to live forever, she told me. But Ash… Ash is different. You can’t let him do the things you do. You hear me? She looked back at Ash, feverish in his hospital bed. She gripped my forearm, He’s not like you Edan. We’re not like you. You hear?
Ash moved forward in his chair, ‘You noticed how no one has sex anymore?’
I don’t know why I pretended otherwise. ‘Of course they do.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘Do you know why?’ he asked, ignoring me.
I shook my head.
‘Sex isn’t about children anymore. What’s the point if it’s not about making babies?’
‘But we’ve been having sex for years knowing full well it doesn’t lead to pregnancy.’
He sat back in his chair, rubbed his nose with a shaking fist. ‘No one ever believed that — not really. Deep down, really deep down, it’s always been about children.’ He rubbed each side of his head, smoothing two clumps of grey hair against his scalp. ‘Even when it wasn’t, it was.’
I closed my eyes, imagined Sally in our bed, on her side, her back to me.
‘And I don’t think that’s even the main reason,’ he said. He waited, before asking, ‘When was the last time you had sex?’
The urge to tell him it was none of his business rose and fell in my throat. ‘I don’t remember.’
There was no judgement in his eyes, because he already knew. ‘The Cloud,’ he said. ‘It’s because no one dies anymore. People don’t have sex because there’s always tomorrow. Back when people died, in the back of their minds, was the idea that one day they’d no longer be around. Sex was a way of forgetting all that. No one ever thought about it in that way — consciously. But they knew it; deep down, everyone knew it.’
He looked at a framed photograph on the coffee table of himself and his wife, Stella.
‘In the end, she wanted to go to the Cloud,’ he said.
‘But I thought she hated the idea.’
‘She did. But when it came to it… when it comes to it… it’s hard. To leave it all.’
The way he looked to the floor made me ask, ‘What about you?’
‘Sometimes I wish I’d started the Recording.’ He shrugged, one of his slipper-clad feet sliding across the carpet. ‘Only sometimes. When I’m feeling sorry for myself.’ His face altered, rising to an expression of defiance. ‘But then I think about it. The thought of always being here — always being. Never leaving. What does it all mean if there’s no end to it all? Each day the same as the one before, for ever, and ever. Over and over.’
‘Second Life is a heaven,’ I said.
He scoffed, ‘Heaven?’
‘Edan,’ he said, the way Mom said it when disappointed in me. ‘Edan, it’s control. It’s a prison. It’s a hell, not a heaven. Do you think anyone who doesn’t follow the code in this life will have a chance at a second life? It’s total control.’
‘A lifetime of data,’ I said, ‘leading to an algorithm that determines a Second Life filled with everything you loved in the first. Without the pain, the problems, the—’
‘Stop.’ He sat forward in his chair, his head shaking. ‘Everything you love… it means nothing without everything you hate. Think about it, how long can that last? And what is any of that without this?’ He struck his chest, making a dull thudding sound. ‘Without a body.’
‘You’re given a digital body. For all intents and purposes, it feels identical to—’
‘Christ Edan.’ He gathered himself. Then, lowering his voice, said, ‘You’re not serious?’
I turned to look out onto the garden. I knew it was midday because the rain had stopped.
Ash said, ‘Have something for you.’ Between the arm of his chair and the cushion, he took out a smooth-edged silver box.
‘Are they…?’ I knew what was inside before he opened it.
‘Listen.’ He showed them to me.
‘They’re illegal.’ I looked about the room, walked over to the patio doors and closed the blinds.
‘Edan. Please. Take them. No one will know. I’ll feel better knowing you have them.’
‘They don’t even work.’
‘That’s what they tell you. Quickly, before the Placement kicks in. In your pocket. You might never use them. But please, take them.’
Already, I felt my body relaxing, the Placement working.
‘Please, for me. It’s only temporary, but you’ll see the world as it is.’
I knew, if I was going to take the pills from him, it would have to be within seconds – before my body equalised. I snatched the box from his hand and pushed it into my trouser pocket.
‘Thank you,’ he said.
He sat back in his chair, looked out onto the garden. ‘I think this will be the last time I see you.’
All I could think to do, was nod.
* * *
I should be with him. Shouldn’t have listened.
The pill’s working: the Placement disrupted, the Nano-Tech hindered.
I’m dropping, free falling. My stomach is empty, my chest burns. I want to hold onto something. Closing my eyes, blood thuds in my temples, an ache weaving through my spine. I want the doctor and nurse to leave Ash alone, to leave his room because he looks frail beneath those sheets. Dad all over again — beneath white sheets, body thin, arms overturned displaying the white of forearms and wrists, fingers curled like talons. He’s the same Ash who was in hospital as a child, Mom next to him, kissing his forehead. Me in the doorway, watching, ashamed of my health and strength, envious of him and Mom.
Should be with him. But none of it matters because he’s dead. And there’s no Second Life for Ash.
These new sensations are concave, are hollow. I’ve glimpsed them before, in the time between experience and the adjustment. There’s the feeling of loss, of not having everything I have now — a paranoia that it will all vanish. It’s been so long since I last made love to Sally. Can’t remember the last time we kissed.
There’s a new rhythm in my chest, a new sickness in my stomach, a new erratic mind, jerking from one catastrophe to the next. The past appears brief, but not as brief as the time to come – when all will be taken apart.
I imagine Sally beneath me, her loud breathing next to my ear, her words describing the mechanics of sex. Jeremiah is all mine, all Sally’s, all… something added, or something taken away, can’t see which it is. His green eyes, like grass after rain.
At night, in bed, sometimes Sally whispers: Do you remember asking for his eyes? They’re so green. Where did they come from? Did we ask for green eyes?
I explain: We told them we didn’t want any of that. The fundaments only. We told them.
But what if… she whispers. But we don’t know whether he’s really…
He’s ours, I tell her. I see you in him.
You do? She asks, and then sighs, before falling asleep.
We made love pretending we could make a child. When we were younger, our bodies worked faster than the Placements; we raced ahead of them and didn’t look back until it was over. There’s a wetness on my fingertips as I slide them back and forth against my thumb, feel the hard fleshiness at the base of my thumb wrinkling. I sniff the flesh and the meat of my hand, examine the blue veins between knuckles. Stretching my fingers, each fingernail is curved, exact, transparent. I close my eyes and see Sally naked, lying on her side facing me. I follow the rising flesh of her calves, her thighs, the arch of her hip, the rise to her chest, to her shoulders. An arm falls across her chest, altering the shape of her breasts, full, hanging, one resting on the mattress. With her head propped on her hand, she looks at me. With a slow finger, I move hair from her face and kiss her.
On the TV, there’s Ash’s face, already grey, already disappearing.
‘Daddy,’ Jeremiah whispers. ‘What’s wrong Daddy?’
He points to my face, his eyes narrowing on something beneath my eyes.
‘What champ? What is it?’
He holds my face and his hand is warm. His thumb slides across my cheek, beneath my eye.
‘It’s crying,’ I tell him, like I’ve done it before.
I see he understands and feels what I’m feeling. But when they’re young, the Placement works so quickly.
The TV fades to black.
I see the end of time, see what it means to not be alive. I know what it means to miss Sally, to miss Jeremiah, to miss Ash. I don’t know how memory works, but I see Ash reach for the rope swing, all those years ago. He pushes himself away from the tree, soars through the air. He knows he’ll not be able to hold on, but does it anyway. My brother, the last man to die, was always more alive than me.
Adam Lock writes in the Black Country, UK, waking far too early in the morning to find time to write. He’s had stories published in various publications, such as STORGY, Fictive Dream, Spelk, Here Comes Everyone, Retreat West, Fiction Pool, Ghost Parachute, Syntax & Salt, and others. You can find these stories on Adam’s website. The writer is also active on Twitter: @dazedcharacter.
Edited by Maria Omena