After-Life, by Diego Valdez

 

Tony came because my mother had been a valuable customer.  I guess there’s no other way to describe a woman who’s dropped that kind of coin.  He hadn’t changed much since the last time I’d seen him all those years ago. Time had been generous to Tony.  He had slivers of silver through his hair — that was new — but he wore the same style dark suit and red tie I had seen him in the first time we’d met.  He was cool, calm, and never let his smile drop.  The qualities of every good salesman.

“What’s going to happen to my wife’s soul?!”

“Dad” had come into my life when I was ten.  There wasn’t a wedding, announcement, or any hoopla with his arrival.  He just showed up, took his spot and I was expected to play along.  Now, here we were, twenty years later, having to make decisions about Mom’s health.  In my opinion, he had no right.  All I wanted from him was to sit as a spectator.  The choices were mine to make.

Dad continued to yell with no regard for anyone else in the waiting room.  He was being stared at like a fresh accident on the side of the road.

“When you put her in that abomination you call science, what’s going to happen to my wife’s soul?”

Tony’s timing had been extraordinary; he arrived just after the doctors told us they’d do everything to make Mom “comfortable.”  She’d been fighting for a long time, but it was time.

We all knew it was time.

Tony didn’t let Dad’s bulging veins and searing expression stop him from making his sales pitch.  And when Dad’s eyes weren’t exploding from his face, he paced up and down the waiting room, Tony following behind like a child arguing for his way.  All things considered, I thought Dad gave him a fair shot.

“Now you listen to me,” Dad started, his voice growing louder with each stressed syllable, “don’t hand me any of that bullshit.  I’ve read this,” he shook the crumpled pamphlet in Tony’s face, “seen your commercials, and it’s all bullshit.  BULLSHIT!”

“Sir,” Tony began, “I don’t mean to –“

“But you did!  My wife has led a good life.  If it’s time for her to pass on, she’ll go in peace.  And no talk about unfinished business is going to convince me that I should interfere with nature.”

“I understand, sir.  If you change your mind,” Tony pulled a business card from his suit pocket, “I’m available anytime.”

They stood there, frozen for what seemed like days, each challenging the other to make the first move.  Dad’s hand slowly lifted, his fist white like his grinding teeth.  I lunged forward just as he relaxed and grabbed the card.  I glanced at it, mainly to be polite.  After-Life was written in cloudy script across the top, and the title Life Consultant was under Tony’s name.

“You have a nice day, sir.”  Tony walked out of the waiting room, smiling at the families waiting for better news about their loved ones.

Dad’s eyes were locked on the pamphlet as he melted into the closest chair.  “Why did he come see me?” he said under his breath.  Then, after he slipped the pamphlet into his pocket, he looked me in the eyes, like a child does when looking to be reassured.  “A clone,” he started.  “Can you believe that, Soldier?  As if a fucking clone could replace your mother.”

It was the one thing we could agree on.

 

*****

 

After-Life had always been controversial.  The idea that humans had figured out how to cheat death (and make it as affordable as a new vehicle) had inspired debates in every arena.  Employment rates, food production, and population control usually led the pack, with rights of the clones sneaking in on off days.  After-Life faced opposition (and support) on every front, but their biggest opponents didn’t come from Capitol Hill, but the mortuaries next door.

Science versus nature was the argument, and although God was never mentioned, it was easy to see that He was crucial to the mortuary’s success.  Death was portrayed as natural as life, the end to a journey.  But After-Life had an appropriate response.

The commercial started with a man in his mid-sixties sitting at a dining room table surrounded by his children and grandchildren.  They all seemed to be having a good time.  After a moment, he turned to the camera.

“I know there are a lot of questions out there about After-Life,” he started.  “I’m here to answer the most important one, the procedure.  Take this glass of water.”  The camera zoomed on the glass he lifted.  “Pretend you’re this glass.  Now throughout life things are going to happen.”  He shook the glass so a few splashes of water spilled.  “But hopefully,” he put the glass down and refilled the water, “doctors can fix whatever happened and you can go on with your life.

“But what happens if the doctors can’t help you?”  He took a small hammer and cracked the glass.  Water seeped onto the table.  “Doctors will try to help you,” he placed a Band-Aid on the glass, but the water continued to drain, “but there may be nothing science can do.”  The camera focused on the glass until the water drained completely.  The man picked up the empty glass.

“Then what do we do?” And with that he dropped the glass into a trash can.  The glass fell slowly, taking it’s time rotating, until it lied among the rest of the garbage.  “There is a better way.”

One of his grandkids brought him two identical glasses, one cracked and filled with water, the other empty.  “With After-Life, you have a more viable option,” he said, picking up the cracked glass and then pouring the water into the new glass.  “And life continues.  You see, at After-Life we’ve found a way to replace the container.  All the water, your memories and feelings, the things that make you you remain intact.”  One of the kids gave the man a hug.  “Trust me, I know.”

The man returned to his enjoyable time with his family.  After-Life is superimposed across the screen and “Financing Available” appears at the bottom.

Dad would say the same thing every time he watched the commercial.  “I wouldn’t want to walk around as a soulless individual,” and he’d pound his chest.  “I guarantee that the guys who came up with this worried about transferring memories, but never thought about transferring a soul.  It didn’t happen once.”

I found his comments humorous.

Mom, however, was more concerned with the accuracy of “the glass.”  She didn’t agree with clones either; she was more concerned with the practical issues that headlined the news, but as she got older she voiced her opinions less.

 

*****

 

Dad had his hands folded in front of him, his fingers twitching frantically.  He couldn’t stay still.

“It’s going to be alright.”

He spoke pages with his silence.

Dad and I were never close.  It wasn’t for a lack of effort on his part; he never gave up on creating a bond between us.  He tried all the fatherly activities that should’ve worked, that had worked with my real dad, but I couldn’t find a place for him in my life.

Mom could never understand.  I held a lot of resentment for a long time because she forced me to call him Dad.  My relationship with my father had been very strong.  We did everything together.  She would hastily point out that Dad was just like my father.  But he wasn’t to me.  I couldn’t explain it, he was just different.

Dad just chalked it up to growing pains, and sometimes kids step away from their parents.  He may have been right, but he wasn’t my dad.  Dad was just his name.

Dad disappeared for about half an hour.  It was good not to have to watch him pacing and swearing under his breath.  I needed a break from him.  I kept looking toward the doors, waiting for the doctor to come walking toward me, jumping every time they opened just to see some other doctor walk toward a different family.  Sometimes the conversations would end in a handshake and hugs.  Other times …

Dad came back with two cups of coffee.  He handed one to me along with a pat on the back.  We sat, staring into our individual cups, occasionally taking a sip.  The silence wasn’t awkward between us, I think we both needed it.  Finally, I said, “This is shitty coffee.”  We both laughed.  “It is,” dad agreed.  He laid his head back, closed his eyes and let out a sigh.

“I hate hospitals.  The only time I ever liked being at a hospital was when you were born.  It’s the atmosphere.  No one comes here for a good time.  There’s always something wrong.  Some type of mortal peril isn’t there.  The only time coming here is a good thing is for a birth.  Only time.”

“Not much we can do about it now,” I said.

“You know, I remember when your mother and I went through some financial trouble.  I had to get a second job.”

“Really?  I don’t remember that.”

“Times were tough, Soldier. I had to do what I had to do so we could survive.   I took a job as a night stocker at one of the local department stores.  I never got to see you.  I was up for my first job before you were, and I was home from my second job by the time you were sound asleep.  But one night, I’ll never forget it, I got home and it was dark as usual.  I was quiet coming in, but as I walked past your room, I heard the oddest thing.”

I took a sip of my coffee, he’d peeked my interest.

“I heard a war.”

“What?” I said, practically spitting my coffee.

“Explosions, gun fire, screaming, things being blown apart, calls for help, the whole thing.  I slowly opened the door and peeked in.  There you were, sitting next to your night light, playing with your toys.  It must have been one in the morning.”

We both took sips of our coffees.  Dad looked down at his and smiled a little.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“What every responsible father should do.  I asked if I could join you.”  He laughed.  “It was a chance to play with my son.  We played until you defeated all my forces.  I was dead tired the next day, but it was worth it.  That’s when I started calling you Soldier.”

“I don’t remember that.”  I tried to recall the story, but I was drawing a blank.  “How old was I?”

He thought about it for a second.  “I’d say around four or five.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that story before?”

“I don’t know.  It never came up.  Just a nugget floating in my head.”

We sat in silence again.  We were always good at being quiet together.

“She’ll be gone soon,” he said.

“I know.”

“What do you want to do?”

I wished he’d asked me that when I was certain minutes ago.  I couldn’t take my eyes off Tony’s business card.  I started to think what nuggets was Mom holding onto that’d be lost when she passed.

“I’m going to get more coffee.  Would you like some?”

“No thanks, Dad.”

“Well, you know how I feel.  She’s lived her life, Soldier.”

“Yes.  She has.”

I could respect my father’s decision to let my mother go.  The decision couldn’t have been easy.  But I couldn’t help but wonder how Dad would feel if he knew that he was the reason After-Life had paid us a visit.

 

******

Diego Valdes currently resides in Boynton Beach, Florida, and works as a middle school language arts teacher. He received a BA in English from the University of South Florida, and is currently working on rewriting his first novel.

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