“Say this city has ten million souls, Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes: Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us.” ~W.H. Auden
There were statues down here on the edge of the bay, starving grotesque figures that looked up at the lake, long stick-people around huddled skeleton children made from bronze.
They stood in the grass outside the vast, imposing granite of some huge factory that had run back when cities held people who could work in factories.
The paperwork had been processed; the date was set, invitations sent out to the relevant inboxes, a bland reply-all hit.
Yesterday I’d put Charlie in the ground, and signed off on their last will. I’d come to the water to search for the dream of my friend, and the memory of two little children hiding from their enormous wealth on a starving planet.
This was where we’d watched the rockets heading out past heaven. I’d once thought the statues had represented people coming to this new world, who were thankful to be here, thankful to be in a place full of medicine and electric heating and indoor plumbing. But their outstretched arms reached up to the sky, conjoined metal fingers trying to touch the smoke trails that never leave the air.
I couldn’t summon a memory of Charlie’s voice. I couldn’t remember any of the things we might have said to each other. I had only the vaguest impressions of the friend I’d left behind. I’d left them, and I’d left the cities, to hide just outside of civilisation because it was too loud for me. Charlie had stayed because it wasn’t loud enough.
I sat on the ledge, my feet dangling inches above the open water, which looked up at me with a rainbow sheen of chemicals, punctuated by the many ripples of the raindrops, finally beginning to slow.
In their will, Charlie had left me a ticket to another world. I didn’t know what to do with it.
Without meaning to, I felt myself accessing the recent history of my internal logs, letting the video spark up and replace the world in front of me.
“No, turn it off!” Charlie said. Her smile flashed at me as she tried to hide her face in the bed sheets.
“Smile,” I said. But it wasn’t me saying it.
It was someone else, somewhere else. We had never gone to bed together. We never smiled those smiles. It was a dream of what wasn’t.
I washed my face in the bathroom of a vegan fast food restaurant with advertisements for synthetic cheeseburgers and soy based milkshakes on the side of the highway. I rubbed at the irritated edges of my face, and the red-purple rings around my eyes with wet napkins, I brushed my teeth with the toothbrush I kept in the inside breast pocket of my coat. I didn’t have any toothpaste to use.
I tried to trim my beard with the two-dollar disposable razor I’d bought for six dollars at the convenience store fifteen miles behind me. I pressed hard against the line of my neck, the lump of my adam’s apple bobbing swollen and grotesque on the edge of the blade. It wasn’t sharp enough to even cut the skin. There wasn’t hot water. I let my cheeks go numb as the cold pressed through me, dampening my collar.
Someone had written a phone number on the corner of the bathroom mirror. Under the number were the words: Swallows cum for free.
The motor of my red antique rental car whined as I drove out of the restaurant parking lot, moving under the archway with the neon sign and the fast food empire’s slogan in garish pink light-up American typewriter font: wholesome and healthy treats!
I was still half an hour from the graveyard city of Toronto. On the left of the highway, I could see the endless trailer park rows of Canada’s Wonderland; I wondered how many children I used to know were there, old and bent in homes made from used parts, cowering in the shadows of the super-rich. Outside my open windows, I could feel the storm beginning to brew on the air.
I didn’t want to go back to the concrete jungle. I’d wanted to stay out in the home I had built for myself, the last patch of farms on Planet Earth where less than half the trees were synthetic, with my dogs, with my silence. I’d wanted to stay far away from the rockets, from the 3D billboards for the mining colonies of Mars, commercials for the University of Titan, or vouchers for the aerobics classes on Phobos.
But the phone behind my eyes, which could never be disconnected or interrupted, brought me back again. It brought me back with the letter of notification that slipped through, a single byte at a time, with the symbols that formed the date of death of a friend I didn’t have anymore, of a friend I always thought I’d have back in the end.
The signal had brought me back to the city, only to say goodbye.
I coughed. I couldn’t help it.
The sterile air of the hospital basement was choking me; the smell of antiseptic spray and formaldehyde with mothballs surrounding stale tuna sandwiches and half empty room temperature cups of coffee, made my stomach churn. I could feel the underground stinging my eyes, lingering in my nostrils. I buried my hands in the pockets of my coat to hide trembling fingers.
It was surprising to be led down to the morgue by a human coroner. He was fat, small, and squat, built more from a mass of acne than of humanity. What black hair remains atop his head was slicked back with a grease I could smell if I stood too close. He kept one eye on the real world, to watch where he was going, watching me. The other eye was glazed over, with implants I didn’t recognise. They must have been a new model. Maybe he was watching cartoons, or sports, or slideshows of family photographs. Most likely, he was watching pornography.
I asked him how there was still manual labour on this level in the city. He told me the unions fought hard to keep these jobs. He told me that they argued that machines don’t have the appropriate bedside manner to deal with the dead and dying. I wondered what kind of cruelty a machine can do to a corpse.
I was there for Charlie’s body – the body that had been Charlie. I’d come to claim the body.
Standing in the small, steel room, I leant over the steel bench. Contorted, perverted reflections of myself peered out from every surface. Charlie had died in a female body. I wonder if that’s what they’d wanted. I wonder if Charlie would approve when the obituary with their final set of pronouns hit the cloud. I doubted it.
I asked the coroner how they died. His response was canned and rehearsed. I knew as he said it, he’d said it a thousand times.
“She was brought in with a gunshot wound in her left lung. Died of natural causes.”
This means there will be no formal investigation. There will be no charges, or faults. For Charlie, dead is dead. Nothing will come after.
He asked if I could officially identify the body, I said yes. He asked for my thumbprint; I gave it. He asked for a retinal scan; I gave it. He asks for an electronic signature; I gave it. He asks for my phone number; I gave a fake one.
The funeral date synced up with my calendar, and I could see the electric countdown in the corner of my vision as I looked down at Charlie’s still face, trying to find an echo of the friend who I’d almost forgotten. I didn’t cry.
I didn’t do anything.
I just walked away.
It was raining at the end of May. The water was freezing, hanging icicles inside my head that tricked me into thinking the frost is still on its way, not on its way out. There wasn’t wind.
The world was flat, pressing down over my head. I held my hat in my hands, letting my hair become matted, letting the water obscure my vision. I didn’t mind not being able to see the world so much. I didn’t want to see the world anymore.
Near the edge of Chinatown, the pedlars started to harass me. They could see the cleanliness in the shape of my footsteps. They could smell the potential of a customer. I should have put on poorer clothes. I could feel their eyes on me. I didn’t change my pace. I keep my eyes fixed at some point straight ahead. One by one, they all started crying out, on their knees, keening up at me from cardboard beds and grey standard jumpsuits, each hoping to be the one to trade my money for my mind.
“Hey sweetheart, would you like to buy some belonging?” One of them asked me.
“Would you like to buy job satisfaction?”
“Would you like to buy a dream?”
“Would you like to buy faith in God?”
“Would you like a year’s subscription of purpose?”
“Would you like to buy an orgasm? Twenty-five percent off till Tuesday!”
I pulled out my pockets for the one I wanted, and the man looked at me, smiling with a mouth full of metal teeth, chewing on nothing. The others tried to grab at the edges of my coat; I ignored them. My footsteps in the rain followed me down the end of the street. I left the pedlars behind. They kept on howling, selling a dream of a good life.
There was a young man singing outside the café in which I’d spent half my childhood; his blond hair swept back behind his ears, his hands held over his chest. At his feet was a large non-brand metal coffee tin with the words tuition fund printed in black marker. Tuition was spelt wrong.
As I reached the old blue wood doors, some familiar hologram of a half-remembered celebrity of the ancient world flickered to life in front of me, light sliced into a million pieces per second by the rain.
The voice of the hologram welcoming a new patron was drowned out by the auto-tunes of the youth singing a pop rendition of the Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne in a high, unwavering voice. I flick a twenty-five-dollar piece into his tin as I stepped inside from the rain. I didn’t hear it hit the ground.
“Would you like anything to eat today ma’am?” Asked the hologram over the counter in a thick, honey voice. Something about the shape of its face reminded me of my mother. I tried hard not to look.
“No, thank you.”
I moved to the cash register. My bill was ready, floating in the air.: $350.45.
It’s more than I’d remembered.
I sat at my table, holding the coffee in both hands. I could see the flashing mail icon of my inbox. I knew it couldn’t be avoided forever. The paperwork for Charlie’s body began to flow smoothly into my memory bank. I tried not to read any of the files before they’d been completely converted for my eyes.
There were thirty-seven different documents I had to sign to collect the body Charlie used to live in. This was what I needed to do to bury them, and there was nobody else. All the family Charlie had long since left this world for a new one. Any relatives they left behind just didn’t give a shit.
An alert informed me that the file I was downloading would take up too much storage. I deleted a few old memories to make room.
I sipped the coffee. I could taste the extra flavour shots, the silky touches of the synthesised beans. I didn’t know what kind of difference actual coffee beans might have made. I put the coffee down and waited. The youth out on the street had finished his song. The only sound was the flash of distant thunder
I couldn’t remember what Charlie’s voice had ever sounded like. I searched my local files for recordings, for videos, for old voice messages. I found nothing, except for imprints of old letters. I hit the browsers, I typed in our names and took the first link, to find some old streaming upload of the friend I’d come to bury. I let the first link play, and wish that I hadn’t. I didn’t see any version of Charlie or any version of me. Instead, there were two women lying in a bed that hadn’t been mine.
The timestamp on the feed told me it was over two hundred and eighty years old. It had been out there in the cloud that is the remainder of everything that once was. The image of the faces of two women smiling in an overlapping embrace had survived the end of history.
The woman who was never Charlie said, “No, no! Turn it off.”
The other woman who wasn’t me said, “Smile.”
“No.” But she was smiling.
I was embarrassed by their nakedness, by eavesdropping on the footage that I knew was meant for nobody but themselves.
“I’m not decent.”
It was a beautiful smile. It is nothing at all like Charlie’s smile. Charlie’s smiles were always sad. The old, preserved moment of that smile took up almost the whole of my vision, and I wanted it to stay there just a little longer.
“I love you,” Said the woman who wasn’t me, who hovers just on the edge of the frame.
“I love you too,” Said the woman who wasn’t Charlie.
She said it with her smile. A shiver ran through my body that had nothing to do with the cold wetness of my clothes. I shut off the ancient feed. I searched for any record of whether I’d ever told Charlie I loved them. I found nothing.
I shut down all my searches, and focused on the cup of coffee, half empty. In the corner of my eye, the status bar continued to grow, byte by byte, giving me the right to bury my last dream of a friend.
I was tired again. My head hurt again. That was my life.
I left without finishing my coffee but saved the video of the women from history.
“Can I sketch you?” The old woman asked.
This was a long time ago. We are twenty-two. I couldn’t understand her accent. Charlie understood.
Charlie said yes. We were sitting together, ignoring the sweat, ignoring the stink. Charlie was eating something soft and gooey. I am touching nothing at all. The woman was made of wrinkles and pock marked skin. Her fingers are black and stained.
Charlie stayed very still while the woman worked. She stayed still then like she stays still now. The old lady sat, working on an eight by five piece of lined three ringed binder paper with a piece of charcoal no larger than her fingernail. She looked broken and dirty and tired. But I know how much paper costs.
The finished sketch wasn’t more than an outline. The shape of Charlie’s face was too long; the hair wasn’t swept back correctly, the chin jutted out more forcefully than the real thing. The details of the face were only the faintest of lines, of eyebrows, of a nose, of lips. The eyes were empty; nothing looked out at us from the paper.
February 10th, 2320, Bloor/Spadina, Toronto Canada I. Wu was written in Mandarin on one end of the paper. Even then, my implants had given me an easy, instant translation. To a beautiful girl, was printed on the other end. Charlie didn’t correct her. They thanked the old woman and told her it was perfect. They even paid her for it.
That is what Charlie was like when we were young. But we didn’t stay young. We found each other when we were young because we shared a sameness in knowing who we were. We shared a sameness in being proud of who we knew we really were.
But time kept moving, and the gaps in the world between people kept getting bigger. For Charlie and me, it meant we kept getting richer. Everything was becoming nicer, and everything was becoming ours. This whole world was ours. For everyone else, it meant the end of a good life on planet Earth.
I don’t remember the sound of Charlie’s words as we walked down the street one day, and saw that same old woman lying frozen in the snow. It was a year after the charcoal sketch. The woman named I. Wu lay in the same clothes she had the year before. She looked up at us, without seeing. I asked if Charlie recognized her.
I don’t remember the sound Charlie’s words made. I remember what they said.
“Someone should do something about them,” Was what they said. She didn’t mean to help.
I left Charlie, and I left the city, and I left my enormous wealth behind. I thought maybe I’d be happy out on the edge of civilization in the Canadian wilderness. I thought I could be happy if I was far enough away not to see anyone begging anymore.
Charlie stayed because they couldn’t see them at all.
I was mugged the day before the funeral, on the front steps of my hotel. They took my wallet; they took my watch. I didn’t fight back. They didn’t know to take my eye, which was the most expensive thing in my body. They didn’t know to dig out the chips in my wrists or at the base of my skull. They didn’t even check for the gender modifiers that reside on my waist, two dark twin tattoo spots of genetic engineering allowed me to be whatever I know I am, whatever Charlie knew they were.
They’re only children. I let them take from me what they can. I received a notification asking me if I’d like to hire the police. I’m told that surge prices in my area are only at thirty percent. I’m told there is a discount on use of deadly force. But I could see how skinny the children are. None of them looked older than sixteen.
When we were sixteen, we were fat; we were soft. When we were sixteen, Charlie had ordered ice cream from a server and tried to eat it while walking in the far west of the Junction on Davenport, right on the edge of the city. I’d told them it wasn’t a safe thing to do. More kids like these kids came and went. They took our ice cream. They took the only printed photograph of my mother in the universe. Charlie paid for the police time. I had watched as the drones descended, and the rounds of carbon and plastic made holes in small bodies. Charlie had said they deserved what they got.
I dismissed the call. I let them take what they could.
I found a scanned copy of the sloppy charcoal drawing in the car on the way to the funeral, and I pulled it up to fill the vision of my left eye, to let the faded lines make an imprint over Charlie’s still face as I followed the coffin along to the furnace. I could see all the differences now, all the little ways the memory of my friend was not the body lying in front of me, being propelled towards the concussive blasts of air, onward into the only ending it could have.
I could see the changes in hair; the tightness of the jaw, lines around the eyes where once there were none. I searched one final time through the data vaults that were implanted into my brain when I was nine years old, the memories preserved in perfect quality that would keep running long after my grey matter is dust. I found no memory of Charlie’s voice anywhere inside my head. It was a voice I would never hear again.
I left the funeral in the same state I’d arrived. Charlie left as ashes in a small paper bag. The ashes were buried in the grass.
I was told a marker will be installed over the wet earth later in the week. I was told that Charlie was very lucky, that not everyone can afford such luxuries as a gravestone today. I was told they are sorry for my loss. I was given the bill. I was asked how I would be paying today. I asked to use the bathroom.
I threw up in the space between the toilet and the door. The charcoal image was still playing out between the tiles and lines of my sickness. In the sketch, Charlie doesn’t smile. I wish they would.
I sat with bare feet in the sludge of the bay. Sunlight yellowed the pavement around me in the post-rain world, and the statues on the bay were lit up. The bright afternoon illuminates the raindrops hanging from the hands and the faces and the genderless forms.
I could superimpose pictures of us over pictures of them, two boys who wanted to be something else standing in the grass under a sky that had finished raining. The patch of a good dream I’d bought from the peddler itches against the underside of my sleeve. I can feel the chemicals pumping through my system, trying to make me believe in dreams I don’t remember anymore.
I could hear the contents of Charlie’s will playing out in my ears. She’d left over thirty million dollars to the city’s police department. I’d learned finally, that it had been a police drone that had shot her. Faulty wiring had made it think she was an illegal. I had begun to laugh during the reading. I had been asked to leave. I was sitting behind the wheel of my car in the parking lot behind the cemetery when I received what I did not expect. The notification came through as if I wasn’t thirty feet away behind blocks of concrete. There was my name; there was my legal receipt.
Contents: 1 ticket and interplanetary visa
Destination: City Arcadia; Heinlein Crate
When Charlie and I had been young, we had talked about flying away to a cleaner world. Charlie never left the penthouse suite of their family home. I never went farther than two hundred kilometres.
I wanted to tell myself that I will take the ticket. I wanted to say I’d go. I wanted to say I could leave this world. I left my car in the middle of the road. Someone stole it before I’d turned the corner.
I walked down to the bay to be alone.
I pressed the faces of two women into the statues at the harbor of Toronto. I pushed the charcoal dream of my buried friend into the bronze that was older than us both. She watched the fields of rockets that would leave planet earth for newer, better worlds. I want to say that I’m capable of trying to be happy. The memory of the two women from centuries before with our names spoke to each other.
“I love you,” I wanted to say. My ghost said it for me. It wasn’t my voice.
“I love you too,” Charlie would never say to me.
I wanted to cry. So, I did. It felt good
The sun was shining on me, because the storm is over because Charlie was over. I wanted to say that I will take the ticket. I wanted to say I was leaving again. I wanted to be able to tell that lie to nobody. But I didn’t.
“No, turn it off!” One ghost said.
“Smile,” Said the other.
I switched the video off and deleted it forever. It wasn’t anything at all. It was just a dream of a good life.
Author Bio: Ben Berman Ghan is a writer and editor living in Toronto, Canada. He studies at the University of Toronto, and fiction editor on The Spectatorial and Associate Editor on The Goose.