Everything is All Right

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic
A love story set in a world where immortality is possible.

Submitted: July 10, 2017

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Submitted: July 10, 2017

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“I will stay a day or two longer in Brussels,” Nicole said in a voice too similar to my Nicole’s voice, yet so different and alien.

I stared, still hoping the crying-for-attention approach would somehow bring her back and undo all the mess.

“Your behavior is not helping, Gene,” she said without looking at me. “I can’t say I really understand how you feel, but, anyway, I don’t have time to deal with it.”

“I love you.”

“Don’t be silly.” She smiled, or rather, moved her lips to mimic a smile. “You just think you love me. And it’s bad for you.”

“How can love be a bad thing?” I tried. She averted her gaze.

“Gene, the car is waiting. You must understand that the world doesn’t stop because you’re feeling bad. It’s childish.”

“Do you remember The Conjuring?” I was hoping to see a glance of her previous self, of my Nicole, but there was none. She fixed me with her eyes, looking right through me for a long moment. Then she grabbed her keycard and headed out.

“Do you remember . . . Shawn?” I tried again.

“Counseling is at three o’clock. Please, please go through with it. It will be so much easier for everyone.”

I sat in silence after she left, thinking about my final counseling session and the decision I had already made. When the wall LEDs displayed 14:15, I got up and walked out.

 

 

***

Leeland Elstad, a rather short but sturdy-looking man who had given me the exact same information in two previous meetings, was pitching the advantages of switching over. He didn’t even update his analogies.

“Do you know who Douglas Adams was?” He studied me with that hollow smile, like the one I was getting used to seeing on Nicole’s once lovely face.

“Yes.”

“He once said a smart thing about technology . . .”

“I know. Everything that existed when I was born, I take for granted. Everything they make when I’m thirty, I try to learn to use and make a career out of. Everything they make after I’m forty, I consider to be unnatural and sacrilegious.”

Leeland seemed amused. “Very good. And you are still thirty-five.”

I was not amused. “Look, Mr. Elstad, I know all the details about switching over, and the only reason I’m here is because I don’t want the cops coming to get me. I just want to get it over with and go home.”

His eyes sparkled. “So you decided to make the switch?”

“No, I don’t want to make the switch. I just want you to finish your presentation.”

He looked at his tablet, probably going over my case. “You are aware that this is your last free counseling session?”

“I am.”

“And that it’s unlikely you’re going to get another, even if you pay?”

This new information shook me a bit. Although I was pretty sure I didn’t want to have them insert those things into me, having options is always a good thing.

“Uh...no..”

“Well, the new legislation is on its way and the most likely result is that after three free sessions, the decision is final.”

“That doesn’t make sense. Don’t they— don’t you want more people to join?”

Leeland got up from his chair, walked over to the window and stared through it, giving serious scrutiny to whatever was down there. Blocking the afternoon’s mild light, his small figure cast a disproportionately large shadow over his desk.

“We don’t want anything, really. We are fine with the things as they are now.” He turned back to face me. “We have eternity on our hands, and this has been brought up more than once—from an efficiency point of view, it is much easier and makes more sense to let the old humans die on their own than to go through the change process. We can wait. It’s only eighty years in the worst case scenario.”

“Old humans? I’m only thirty-five.” I tried to make a joke. Leeland Elstad welcomed it with that strained smile of theirs.

“You know what I mean, Gene. Do you mind if I call you Gene?”

“That’s my name, Leeland.”

His lips parted, exposing rows of flawless, white teeth. “Conceptually speaking, you are an old human, Gene. A very, very old human. You,”—he made a grimace as if suddenly becoming aware of a cockroach in his mouth—“you age.”

I didn’t say anything; he had a point. Leeland allowed the sunshine back into the office as he sat behind his desk.

“So your decision is final?”

I looked up, meeting his cool, formal gaze. “Yes.”

He turned the tablet to me. “Put your forefinger here, please.” He pointed at a green rectangle on the screen. “Until it beeps.”

It beeped. The unique curves of my skin displayed. Leeland got up and offered his hand.

“I’m glad you made your choice, Gene.” Mr. Elstad paused. “Have a wonderful life,” he added and smiled again. I shook his hand, turned and walked out the door.

 

I was unprepared.

 

 

***

Nicole was never a big horror fan. Although highly receptive to storytelling, a wonderful person who cried for days after reading Les Misérables, she could never give herself over to any narrative involving a ghost, a vampire, a werewolf or any combination of the three.

“It’s just dull and makes no sense,” was her reaction to any of the genre masterpieces that kept me up at night and made me whimper in my sleep.

And that made watching horror movies with her the most intimate and heartwarming experience. Nicole’s complete lack of interest made me realize how lucky I was to have her. In those moments of being consumed by eerie, abominable worlds and their doomed inhabitants, her presence was a reminder of how bad things can work out and how precious it is to have someone to go to, a sentinel who can, with a single touch, a wink, a smile, make all the horror of the human condition show its true nature and disappear in a puff of simple love. She was a part of the story, adding to its appeal, taking it to the next level.

She was a character in all those movies. She was the world my character lived in.

One late August night we were watching The Conjuring, another take on the haunted house universe that was “dull and made no sense” but which I considered to be a fairly good scary movie. We were curled under the blanket, our empty wine glasses lying on the bed next to us. The dim light of a dying candle and soft blue reflection from the computer screen barely kept our faces from being ingested by the darkness.

She smiled as I gaped at the screen, forgetting to breathe.

“I love you,” she said and laid her head on my shoulder.

I paused the movie. Nicole kissed me on the cheek, rubbed her nose on my neck and put her head back on my shoulder.

“I’m going to close my eyes and pretend to sleep,” she said, and I felt her arm squeezing me, drawing me closer. She yawned.

I kissed the top of her head. “We can finish it in the morning.”

“No, G, you watch it. I don’t r-e-e-e-e-eally like it,” she said, yawning again.

I put the movie back on.

“Nicole?”

Silence.

“’Cole?”

Too sleepy to reply, Nicole ran her hand slowly down my ribcage. I could feel her body relaxing into mine, her breathing slowing.

“Will you marry me?”

The Conjuring was not scary anymore. August 21st was the happiest night of my life.

 

 

***

I wasn’t the only one who decided to keep my imperfect, dying body, but there were not many of us. Just five months after the Finnish startup made its breakthrough with nanotechnology, the UN’s International Telecommunication Union officially recommended world leaders offer the Upgrade to their citizens. Most people, especially in our part of the world, were ecstatic—you don’t often get free beer from your government, and a free beer that would make you immortal was, for many, a no-brainer. And in our nanny-state, we even got assistance to make up our minds through the three bi-monthly counseling sessions. But not everyone was happy about it.

The Herd, as it became known, reached out as soon as I made the decision not to live forever. The man was in the hallway outside Elstad’s office. The Herd started as a sectarian movement, founded by a group of orthodox monks in Russia. It soon spread throughout Europe, and within weeks all over the world. At first exclusively attracting the religious, the Herd quickly became an umbrella for outcasts, becoming more decentralized and secular. With the imminent danger of eternal life around the corner, it no longer mattered which doctrine one lived by—there were no more heretics and infidels, only a mass of old-fashioned, dying humans who at last realized how small and insignificant their differences were.

“I’ve seen you before. This was your third?” Alvin asked, looking back at me as we walked to his car, which was parked behind the Town Hall. “Why did you decide not to do it?”

Alvin was in his twenties, a handsome guy. Very tall and slim, wearing red velvet pants, a gray sweater and a black jacket, he reminded me of the guy who used to host stand-up comedy shows back when things were still funny.

“It’s my wife,” I said. He was looking at me over the roof of his car. “She upgraded last year.” I stumbled, feeling the grief building in my stomach.

Alvin’s mouth smiled, but his eyes kept the cold expression of a man who had witnessed too much for one lifetime. “I know, man. I know,” he said opening the door and getting into the car. I didn’t move. In the distance, I could see the park Nicole and I used to visit on weekends. My gut clenched as my gaze fell on a bed of hyacinths.

The window on the passenger door slid down. “We should get going.”

I wiped the tears before Alvin could see them, then got in.

“Everything okay?”

“Apart from eternity snatching my wife and everyone I know away from me, everything is fucking perfect.”

Alvin’s smile included his eyes this time. “Fasten your seatbelt. You’re not invincible, you know.”

We laughed.

 

For some time we drove in silence, listening to some cheesy Scottish electro-pop band. Alvin was obviously a fan, drumming his fingers on the wheel and humming along.

 

 

***

“Shawn?”

Nicole had that smile on, the smile that could alter orbits. She squinted in contemplation.

“Shawn . . . Shawn . . . Yes, I think I can live with that,” she said, sending her gaze through my eyes and beyond, giving purpose to everything I was. My hand rested on her belly. I could feel our son living in there, in his forty-two-week-old cosmos.

We called it our bench. It was the bench I had been sitting on during a lunch break when she came along and made me realize, for the first time, how beautiful the flowers are in the first weeks of May; how you can see myriad colors of scented air if you look closely; how easy and meaningful it is to give up and let optimism and hope carry you, leaving all the what-ifs and maybes behind; how you don’t need a holy book for faith to transform your life.

“Are you scared?” she asked, looking at the bed of hyacinths in front of us. An old lady with a dog walked by, nodding approvingly when her eyes alighted on Nicole’s past-due-date belly.

I held her hand and kissed it.

“Are you kidding? I can’t wait for the little guy to pop out.”

Nicole turned to me. “You’re shit-scared, aren’t you?”

I remembered all those times before Nicole, when I would sit on the same bench in the same park, no idea who I was or where I wanted to be. All those hangover-filled days, when the past was boring and meaningless, the present was unbearable and needed serious numbing with anything I could drink, smoke, swallow or snort, and the future was too abstract to grasp and take seriously. Days when fear was a constant background noise.

“Cole.” I kissed her hand again. “You know me, and you know I’m a wuss.” I let that sink in, wanting to see her smile; it worked. “I’m scared of Thai horror movies, scared of skinheads, scared of what my grandpa will say if he sees me smoking—”

“Seriously, G, you’re too old for that.” She laughed.

“And I don’t smoke anymore.”

She looked at me in anticipation. “But . . . ?”

“But raising this kid with you is probably the only thing I’m not scared of.” I moved my hand gently over her belly and realized that the world was becoming blurred.

“Oh, G.” She touched my face and wiped away the tears. She kissed my nose, then my left eye.

“Sorry, Cole, it just got to me.”

They say the last stage of completely opening to someone is when you can comfortably cry in front of that person. Nicole and I were way past that stage.

“You’re the sweetest man alive, G.”

I leaned down and put my head on her belly. Shawn seemed to be sleeping.

The old lady with her dog was coming back our way. The three of us looked at each other and smiled without a word. The dog was happy, too.

Out in the western sky, the last bits of daylight were dying out, giving way to darkness.

 

 

***

“That’s how we do it. They’re still not trying to stop us or anything, so a couple of us just wait in front of the counseling centers and approach those who decide to stay.”

“How do you know who decided to . . . stay?”

Alvin grinned. “It’s the way they walk.”

“I don’t get it.”

He pushed a button on the wheel, checking the car’s energy levels. “Imagine a guy who just found out his wife is cheating on him with his best friend, his dog had just died, and he got fired. But the guy also has a winning lottery ticket. And while all this new information was coming in, he was at a cross training session.”

“I see.” I didn’t see.

“It’s a wonderful combination of triumph and defeat, both emotional and physical. You should have seen yourself when you got out of Elstad’s office. That’s exactly how you looked.”

“You know him?”

“Leeland? Yes, I know him. We all do. His mom is sort of big in our chapter.”

For some reason I was surprised to find that the little man with the big shadow came to this world the same way we all did—and that his mother plays on the opposite team.

“Shit . . .”

“Oh, yes. His father had a stroke just in time, when the whole upgrade thing started happening here. So they injected him with those modifiers and voila!” Alvin clapped his hands. “In a matter of seconds, the cells in his arteries regenerated, the glow of life returned to his eyes and old Bob Elstad got to see death from the front row and live forever to tell about it.”

“Why did Leeland’s mom . . . stay?”

“Why we all stay.”

I stared.

“Come on, man. Your wife changed. She stopped caring and you didn’t want to be like her, right?”

The feeling of stomach acid chewing on broken dreams came back. “Not that simple, but you’re on the right track.”

Alvin shook his head, a gesture I didn’t know how to interpret. “See, Edna Elstad realized that Bob, having been awarded with eternal life, became too practical, overly systematic, insanely optimized.”

“What, a machine?”

“Sort of. It’s ironic, but it turns out that when you get all the time in the world, you lose the time to be human. To feel. As Edna wrote in one of her poems, Fear is a burden of the dying. Love is a privilege of the dying.”

Apparently, Edna was a woman of many talents.

“And . . . Leeland?”

He shook his head again. “Leeland witnessed a miracle and wanted to be a part of it, nothing more. Like most of them. Like your wife, I guess.”

I will break your fucking jaw if you ever mention Cole again! The thought emerged out of nowhere, causing me physical distress.

“My wife didn’t want to switch,” I said.

 

 

***

“How can you be so fucking selfish?”

Nicole was pallid, trembling and sobbing.

“G, please,” she managed to utter, “please don’t.”

“Don’t what? Don’t what?” I was out of my mind.

Her face twitched as her eyes futilely attempted to produce more tears. It was too much for her, but I didn’t care. My heart racing, I took two giant steps and grabbed her shoulders.

“Do you love me?”

“It’s not about you!”

“Do you love Shawn?”

Her body stiffened. She fixed me with those dark eyes, and in a split second drew back her hand and slapped me. The observable universe became blue and red and yellow, black dots prying their way into my field of view, the deafening noise of sudden neural discomfort ravaging my brain. It was the wedding ring that caused most of the pain. She pushed me away.

“You . . .” she strained through clenched teeth. It was the first time I had seen her like that. My sentinel went off-duty, letting all the horrors of the human condition in.

Completely berserk, in extraordinary focused and precise moves, the ballet moves of the wrathful, she laid her hand on a bowl we used to keep our keys in. With one finely tuned, almost gentle swing, sent it my way. The disturbances clouding my eyes were external this time, as the warm blood overcame my eyebrows to flow freely down my face and beyond. This was the end. I could feel it coming, its cold talons kneading my guts, reversing all the good and taking it back.

“Don’t you ever talk to me like that!”

I pressed the top of my head with both hands, trying to stop the bleeding. “I shouldn’t have said that.” My voice quivered.

She came closer. “Shawn is our son, my son, and I don’t want those goddamned things in him. That’s final.”

My mouth opened. There even was a beginning of a word, an indistinct “nn” sound, but she wouldn’t let me.

“Don’t test me, Gene. I’m serious. I’m fucking serious.” She turned to leave.

“,This might save him. This might save our baby” I said, and lost it, falling down to my knees. Nicole didn’t move.

“Or it might turn him into a fucking robot, Gene.” She looked down at me. “I don’t want MY baby to be a guinea pig.”

In a bizarre praying posture, defeated, I stared at the floor, not being able to say anything.

“This is not an experimental drug, Gene,” she went on. “We are talking about robots, goddamned machines racing through his bloodstream.”

My shirt was soaked. “I don’t want to lose him, Cole.”

Beyond my gasps and the sound of my blood dripping on the floor, I heard the faint sound of footsteps in the distance.

Some seconds, minutes, or hours later, I heard her car driving away. She took Shawn and left for her mom’s.

“I don’t want to lose you, Cole,” I said to the room.

 

Exactly thirteen days later, Shawn, a ten-month old, passed away. Childhood leukemia had crept into his innocent little cosmos.

He didn’t have a chance.

 

 

***

“Hell,” Alvin whispered. I lit a cigarette. Alvin rolled his window down. He was a non-smoker, but probably figured it was not the time to preach about secondary smoke. 

“She stayed with her mom after the funeral. I don’t remember where I was most of the time.”

Alvin looked at the road ahead, listening intently.

“I couldn’t call her. Didn’t know what to say.”

“She didn’t call you?”

“No. She just came home one day. Changed.”

He slowed down; there was a queue forming ahead of us. A cop was letting cars pass, one by one. There seemed to be a serious crash. We couldn’t see any bodies but there was something sinister about the metallic mesh ahead.

“I don’t really blame her. I just miss her.”

I was crying again, silently, tears rolling down my face, dripping on my shirt. It felt good. Alvin put his hand on my shoulder.

“I’m sorry, man.”

I smiled at him. It felt good. Really good.

The cop motioned, waving us on. It was messy. Alvin closed his window as the pungent smell of fresh blood invaded the car. Two men in torn clothes and an EMT with a tablet were standing next to a gurney where the upper half of a young woman was stretched, wincing in a strange manner, elbows bent in a way no elbow was ever meant to bend. Despite the closed windows and the jovial electro tune from the stereo, I could hear the wheezing sound her throat made, interrupted by rapid spurts of crimson that, once erupted, fell back on her dark blue face and the road. One bloated, indigo-glazed leg, a dead chunk of human flesh, lay by the roadside as if planted there by mistake. The EMT was talking to the younger of the ragged men, who pressed his finger against the tablet screen. After the formalities were taken care of, the paramedic knelt next to the twitching half-woman and, running his fingers on the screen, set the modifiers in motion.

Alvin made a groaning sound a split second before he vomited all over the wheel. He stopped the car next to the cop who looked at us and, after a moment of consideration, decided not to do anything about us bottlenecking the lane. He turned back to the proceedings. Alvin said something, but I didn’t catch it. I was too busy witnessing the miracle.

Like in a time-lapse video of a bud transforming into a rose, new tissue spawned out of the bloody stumps, extruding and shaping them, undoing the violent amputation, giving birth to a perfect pair of legs. The woman’s abdomen jerked as her ribs regenerated, her punctured lungs claiming their previous form, inflating her chest. The color returned to her cheeks, revealing a beautiful face underneath all the blood. She opened her eyes and slowly looked around, as if wide awake after a good night’s sleep. The three men helped her get up.

“Everything okay?”

Without looking at me, Alvin nodded, wiped his mouth and put the car in gear. We drove off, leaving the site of resurrection behind. “Everything is fucking perfect.”

 

We were on our way to meet the Herd.

 


© Copyright 2017 Dušan Lovre. All rights reserved.

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