By Jez Patterson
I open my eyes at the sound of Dee’s voice and I’m sitting at the kitchen table. At the end that doesn’t have the view to the garden but of the door leading out into the hallway and then our front door. “You’re crying,” I tell her.
“Yes. It was the girls who asked for you back. Them that kept asking and asking.”
I try to cock my head but it doesn’t obey. I’m paralysed.
“What’s wrong with me?” I ask her.
“What’s wrong? Hah. You died, Malcolm. You died and there was a funeral and I cried and the girls cried and I told them about life going on, about it being better that we looked to the future now, but ... They begged me, Malcolm. They begged me to bring you back and now here you are. They’ll be here in a minute. I wanted to talk to you first.”
Dee nods, sniffing back tears, and from my vantage point I see our front door open, pigtails and white school socks and blue sandals swing in.
“Promise me you won’t make them cry!” Dee hisses at me before the sandals pound down the hallway and Janet, always Janet first, thunders into the kitchen.
“You’re dead,” Dee tells me and there doesn’t seem much sympathy behind it and I tell her so. She sighs, actually sighs.
“We have this conversation every time we switch you back on, that’s why. Sometimes the girls themselves explain it to you. That’s how blasé we’ve all become. You’re not able to remember anything when we switch you off and on. It’s like each time is the first time.”
It explains why her hair is different, the hallway wall is a different shade of cream, why the girls are taller: Janet has discernible bumps under her school sweater; Leigh is lanky and clumsy with her longer limbs.
“Then why don’t you just leave me switched on the whole time?”
“Because the device would just burn out if we left you running the whole time,” Dee says and I see this is also something I’ve asked before.
“Can’t you upgrade me somehow?”
“No.” This too. But I detect it’s won’t rather than can’t and so don’t push harder.
“We went on holiday,” Janet says. Leigh hasn’t come down. “Leigh’s doing her homework,” Janet says and fidgets.
“And so you switched me off for a fortnight?”
Janet’s just dropped the bombshell that I died, but it seems to be taking me longer to come to terms with their holiday without me than that fact.
“You won’t remember, Dad. I wish I hadn’t told you now.”
“I bet! I’m hurt that you could leave me for so long. People find someone to come in and feed the cat—your mother could have found someone to look in on me.”
Janet shifts in her seat; uncomfortable, itchy to be away. She’s a teenager when she should still be in pigtails and sandals. She has earrings and I wonder if she got them during her holiday, if there’s a boy in her life. If she—
“Where is your mother?” I ask. Janet looks behind me, so Dee might be in the back garden. I wish I could turn around to see.
“She had an errand to run. I do too. I need to go, Dad.”
Her hand reaches towards me and I want to lean in and touch it, take it, hold it, but my own limbs don’t want to move. Then I realise she’s reaching for something near my chest which will turn me off. She avoids looking at me.
“I told you,” the girl says.
“Wow. My Uncle Pete had it done to my Aunt Claire,” the boy says.
“Who are you?” I ask, looking at the boy and the girl that are in my house. I must be dreaming. It’s why I can’t move and why the kitchen looks different, that fridge not the one I know should be there. My nose tickles and I see the edge of a cobweb on my cheek. On. My. Cheek!
“Why doesn’t he decompose?” the boy says.
“There’s a pump and it’s not real blood in his system but a synthetic substitute. They tried it on living people once, to do transfusions, but it caused tumours. Dad doesn’t have that problem.”
“Neat. Pity they ever stopped selling these kits.”
“You had to have it installed, it wasn’t exactly self-assembly. Cost Mum a fortune. But the virtual models are far better. He just forgets things.”
“Deserves to be in a museum,” the boy says.
“Yeah, but doesn’t everyone’s father?” She lowers her head so I don’t see her eyes and leans towards me. I want to rear back, protect myself, but nothing works.
She looks a lot like Dee. Younger though.
“Malcolm. It’s me.”
“Who are you?” I ask again. For one awful moment, I think it’s my mother-in-law sitting there. The way she was back when Dee and I first started dating in school. The woman resembles my mother-in-law enough that it could be Dee’s aunt, but I’ve never heard of one existing. A long-lost, distant relative?
“I’m Dee,” the woman says. “Your ... wife.”
“What? I don’t under—”
“Understand. Yes. I know. You never do. You died, Malcolm. The girls—they were smaller then—begged me to bring you back. They just never stopped crying, never stopped asking for you. I thought it would help them. Help me.”
I only have a view into the hallway that leads to our front door and I see someone’s out there, leaning against the wall. The wall’s a different colour and I don’t remember anything hanging on it before.
“Who’s out there?” I ask this woman who says she’s Dee.
She looks behind her, a trick I find I can’t do, then back at me.
“His name is André. He’s ... a friend. He’s advising me on what we should do for you. What’s best.”
As her look hardens, I know she really means with me. What they’ll do with me. These two strangers in my house, who’ve drugged me or tied me to a chair. I start to shout then, as best I can, and when she leans forward I scream and—
I open my eyes and there are three women sat around the kitchen table. I recognise the table, despite the fact it’s scratched and worn in places I’m pretty sure it shouldn’t be. Some of the kitchen fittings are different, but the kitchen door is the same and it’s shut.
I can’t see who’s beyond it, but I know they’re there. Maybe it’s a Feng Shui thing that lets me know they’re out there. Maybe just because this is my house, dammit.
Two of the women are about my age: one of them attractive, the other thin, moody-looking. The other woman is old enough to be my mother-in-law. Older, in fact.
“I’m Dee. These are your daughters: Janet and Leigh.” Like the actress. But my wife’s and my cute joke is being twisted by these strangers. They each speak in turn, showing me photos of themselves growing up, explaining to me that they are indeed my family.
“Has ... has someone invented a time machine?” I ask and Dee and Janet share a look and burst out laughing.
“You know, in all the time we’ve been switching you back on, you’ve never once thought of that one,” Dee says and wipes her eyes. “You tried coma, some form of amnesia, but never a time machine.”
“Then I really did die?”
“Yes, Malcolm. Yes, you really did.”
“Then why keep bringing me back? “
“That’s what we’re here to decide. We have several options we wanted to discuss with you. But, in the end, we agreed ...” She stresses the last word, Leigh—the older version of moody Leigh—scowling more tightly. “That it should be your decision what happens.”
“You never remarried?” I ask and Dee smiles.
“Then who takes care ...?”
Leigh slides down in the seat in a way I recognise from when she was a little girl. From times before I died and was resurrected. Whenever she was told to do her chores, tidy her room, not to irritate her sister. Janet, the more obedient, the easier. Janet is smiling warmly at me and I see she’s become the adult version of that sweeter child.
“Are there others like me?” I ask. “What did their families do with them when they got tired of them?”
“No one’s tired of you,” Dee says, but it doesn’t convince. “And no: there’re none left and no more coming. They stopped doing physical resurrections some time ago. Now they virtually reproduce the individual. They don’t forget things that way.”
“Maybe you could convert me too?”
“It’s not possible. And what would be the point of such an expense? The girls are grown. Look for yourself.”
Janet looks at me and smiles sympathetically. Leigh is so far down in the seat she might slide under it at any moment.
“So, it’s a question of expense?” I ask, trying to elicit guilt, but these are strangers to me and Dee sighs.
“There are various options open to you, Malcolm. If you wish to remain in your current state, there are places which would be interested in hosting you. Museums, galleries, private collectors would offer a lot.”
“You’re the last remaining example using that technology. They simply don’t make it anymore.”
“You’d sell me?”
“We’re asking you what you want,” Dee says pointedly and I look at Janet who’s backing up her mother with eager little nods. Janet looks just like her mother but she always loved me and was always so sweet and gentle. I look at angry Leigh and remember her snatching toys from her sister’s hands, the way she grabbed handfuls of plastic coins when playing at shops, always asking me for an ice cream, sweets, a new dolly.
“Please don’t sell me,” I croak at my youngest daughter, and Leigh looks up as she feels the words batter against her cheek. Her eyes widen.
“It’s them who’d sell you, Dad! It’s them who want you out of their lives! Them! Who do you think looks after you, talks to you every day, cleans you and this house?”
I look at Dee, who’s exchanging looks and a lot of information with Janet, and I see it’s the truth, and that I’ve got things wrong.
“Every day I sit and talk to you, Dad. You listen and then you talk to me. It’s helped me.”
Dee and Janet’s lips tighten and I see how truly alike they are. Leigh’s angry: but showing the type of anger that only comes out when emotion is involved.
“You need to move on, Leigh,” Dee says and I see the relationship between youngest daughter and mother has not been good. It happens. In fact, I should have known this would happen the day my second daughter was born. That the odds were that one of them would be my princess, one would have conflict with her mother.
I’ve not been there for my daughters or my wife. Worse, I’ve apparently been here like some awful, one-track, wind-up gramophone that keeps playing the same scratchy tune about days that no longer exist.
“You need to decide, Malcolm,” Dee says.
“Dad?” Leigh asks.
Janet drums her fingers impatiently and the thing that hurts most is that my daughters have drifted apart. Inseparable as infants, and now one’s allied herself with her mother, the other with a dead man.
I don’t know what’s best, but the notion that I should have any say would make my decision selfish, particularly to those who might still need me.
“Leigh. You shall decide.”
“You died forty-one years ago, Dad,” the woman who’s just explained that she’s my daughter tells me. “You’re fitted with a mechanism that lets us turn you on, but you forget everything.”
“That’s why the kitchen is different?”
“That’s why everything is different, Dad.”
Leigh slides her hand through her thin, wiry hair and its curl springs it back into place. But there’s not enough hair and I can see too much of her scalp. She’s so old. I keep thinking it, over and over, and don’t know whether the pity is for me or for her.
“Your mother? Your sister?”
“Both alive. Both send their love.”
“Thank you.” She’s my daughter and perhaps I haven’t witnessed the intervening years’ development, but I can still read the signs when she’s lying. I’m grateful for it though. “You never married?”
“Married?” She smiles at the word. “No. I never found someone to ... share my life with.” She shrugs. “It happens. I was born to be a daughter and an auntie.”
“I have grandchildren?”
“Yes. Janet has three boys.”
“Has it been difficult? I mean: have I been a burden, looking after me all these years?”
“You’re very low-maintenance, Dad.”
Yes, I thought. You just have to dust me off like another piece of furniture. But it isn’t what I meant.
“Have I kept you back? Am I the reason ...”
“No. Maybe you’ve been an excuse I’ve made use of. But the choice has always been mine.”
I can’t help but marvel that Leigh is the one to have stayed behind to look after me. Janet ... Janet was the attentive one, the one who ran for hugs, kisses, who always took my hand and wanted to show me things. Leigh was quiet, sullen, difficult.
Do I learn this lesson each time Leigh switches me on?
If so, it’s a lesson that deserves repeating.
“Dad, I’ve got something to tell you. I’ve been to the doctor’s and ... It doesn’t show much yet, but I’m not well. They won’t tell me how much time I’ve got, but the end will be painful and that’s not how I want to go.”
It’s all too much, too sudden, and I’m blocked for what to say.
But when you repeat a conversation every day from scratch, you must learn how it proceeds, refine it until it goes better. Leigh is thus ready and gentle with me:
“I’d like to end it with you, Dad.”
“How?” I croak.
Leigh sits one end of the table, me at the other.
It’s like receiving the visit of the ghost of one’s past, or one’s future, or ... I’m not sure. Time, our relative ages, have become mixed up by what my ancient daughter has just told me.
“It should just make me woozy, then go right off to sleep, then my heart will stop. I don’t know how long it will take. I don’t want you sitting here a long time alone, Dad, but ...”
Her voice catches; I urge her on. It’s the least a father could do. Especially one who’s probably always done the absolute least: actual dying being the ultimate escape from the responsibilities of parenthood.
Leigh nods, comes round and kisses my cheek, the other cheek, my forehead, my lips.
I can’t effect tears but I can feel the ghosts of those that I shed when I married Dee, when each of my daughters were both conceived, and again when they were put in my arms.
Leigh sits back down. A strong woman, even with the illness—my Leigh could never be anything but strong. She takes out two syringes, injects the first, breathes out through her nose and then empties the second into her other arm. She places them both back down, and we hold each other’s eyes.
It happens too quickly for me. Her pupils dilate hugely before the lids come down. She doesn’t slump to the table-top but slides onto it. One arm, the one she’s resting her head on, is stretched out across the table-top, the fingers reaching for me.
What I would do to reach out and hold them.
Instead, I sit and watch my daughter silently die. No one else is going to come and switch me off, and so I will burn out. I don’t feel pain, so it shouldn’t hurt. There was no way we could synchronise our two endings, Leigh and I, and there was no way I would allow my own daughter to watch me die.
The door behind her is open and I can stare down a hallway that is the same shape, dimensions that I remember, but has different colours on its walls and floors. I experience repeated images of Leigh and Janet running in after school, though they must be false memories because I was always at work during their school hours.
But in these memories, they’re both running, always running, and I wish, before I die, I’d ran more like that myself when I was alive.
Jez Patterson is a British teacher and writer. His work has appeared in “Daily Science Fiction,” “Stupefying Stories.” “Mythaxis,” and elsewhere. His previous story for us, “Tells of the Block Widowers,” appeared in the 12-JAN-2017 issue.