The following was written for the essay “the best thing to happen to you.”
It was the song of metallic death that woke him. High pitch and shrill, the door cackled throughout Mort’s room. He tossed in his bed like a fish out of water, his rhythm matching the frequent creaks of the hinges.
Mort yawned. He was dead tired, though the phrase didn’t mean much anymore. Pulse Corp had affected even simple idioms, not to mention the meaning of life itself.
Mort, though, still used such sluggish language. He couldn’t help it. Early mornings brought on his exhaustion, and ever since the door was a rickety mess, every day was an early morning described in vulgar inaccuracies.
Unable to fall back asleep, he rocked himself out of bed to the tune of the door’s cry. Darkness blanketed the room. He had beaten the sun to rise yet again.
His legs lumbered towards the door. The uneven floorboard underneath him made his walk look and feel as though he had been raging drunk the previous night. The rotting hardwood mashing against his feet didn’t help either; he stumbled left then right then left again. His hands outstretched themselves in front of him as he jostled with the enemy of his balance.
As Mort passed his bedroom window, he could see Thanos lit up extravagantly. It was the nineteenth week that the town’s lights had not been shut off. Ever since Pulse Corp had arrived, people no longer maintained strict sleep schedules. Instead hours were more chaotic and businesses were always open. Soft sounds of music – probably the fury of another festival – crept into Mort’s home.
He sighed, closing his eyes to avoid the light. He opened them again after stubbing his toe on the leg of a desk. A picture frame fell onto the ground. Bits of glass focused an image a younger, smiling Mort beside his home. One word flashed in the picture. Sold.
Years ago, Mort decided to relocate here. Youthful exuberance had made him want to escape the confinements of the city with its decay and rejuvenation, its large buildings and its squalor so neatly packed together.
“What better place than the middle of nowhere,” thought a young Mort.
Thanos was supposed to be this place: a serene blend of quietude and relaxation. It was advertised as an idyllic town nestled in the Italian Alps where the sun was endless and the people friendly. Sometimes they were and sometimes there was sunlight, this much was true, but Mort’s initial reception was hardly welcoming. The picture was taken and then the question was asked and the answer was received: what do you do? It was a question that summed up an entire existence, a career that described a person and their vulnerabilities and happiness and why they were here in Thanos where dawn was always present.
“The population isn’t large, but it does have its needs. Among them, a funeral home. That is where I come in. The business of the dead is my vocation. It is in my name.”
“See that building there with the bright yellow font.”
“That’s my funeral home. ‘Mort’s Mortuary. We put the fun in funeral.’ A joke so good it could kill you, hopefully.”
“Yes, I must be going now.”
“Well, alright. Thanks for the picture. See you soon. Or one day in the professional sense.”
He stepped over the picture. Mort could see the silhouette of the mortuary in front of the main town center. It was a decrepit structure with window shutters lose and chandeliers hanging lazily. Vines crawled up the side uncontrollably. Even the sign itself, with Mort’s name written in fading yellow, had only a few lightbulbs left illuminated. After the door of his house, he’d have to fix the place up too.
Where would he find the money? He wasn’t sure. Business had been tough even before Pulse Corp had arrived. The town was annoyingly small where everyone knew each other and no one died. There had been a few accidents here and there, and that kept Mort busy from time to time. But in such a beautiful place, everyone grew, lived, and lived some more; everyone was too happy to just lose it all – the Sunday morning strolls, the simple rustic lifestyle, the scenic downtown – to a pancreatic condition or hypothyroidism.
That’s why Pulse Corp came to set up headquarters here, Mort reminded himself just a child’s muffled laughter stumbled into his ear. This was the perfect town to experiment with the theory of Lingering Incidence Furan Escape treatment, or LIFE for short. The corporation’s lead researcher, Dr. Schubert Bog, had found that furan escape, particularly of the active trypanocidal diamidine, in cellular respiration led to radical oxidation of DNA, which, in turn, caused the aging of humankind.
Mort knew every word of the prominent studies and clinical trials. Most did. It was all anyone spoke about because once the mechanism was elucidated, glory more praiseworthy than the Nobel Prize was in the sights. Immortality, it was said, was now just a test-tube away.
There used to be a time, Mort remembered while shuffling in the dark and bumping into this piece of furniture or that like a stranger in his own home, when such longevity was not the case and where death was a certainty. A time of the future. A time of comfort.
Before Pulse Corp, 100% of people died. It was the only thing life absolutely promised. Accumulations of birthdays were among the leading cause of death, followed by heart disease and soda-machine flattenings. These three causes alone made for a relatively steady morgue business – the human capital would never dry out. People would always age. They would always have faulty hearts. And they would always drink sodas – and hopefully, Mort used to think, they’d also be flattened by the machines in the process.
The thought left him. Again, he stubbed his toe. It pulsed but he continued to walk towards the garage. He’d rather be dead than not make it. Thanks to Pulse Corp, he only had one choice left.
Even in the dark, he could tell the dank hole of tools and worn coffins and forgotten garbage was a mess. Newspaper clippings stapled against the walls met his eyes. “Dr. Bog Tells the Grim Reaper Nadda”, “Dr. Bog Does Not Drink Soda”, “Is Dr. Bog a God?”, “Dr. Bog’s Tips for How to Organize Furniture for Forever.”
Each article he could recall in detail. Such bland memorization was Mort’s attempt to have an edge on his competitors. He could quote every word of Dr. Bog’s original finding. He had poured over it time and time again, though himself having no more than an elementary school education. He tried to find the flaws, tried to ensure that the funeral business would remain vibrant, but he was limited to every second word and a few prepositions, and sometimes, not even those.
This is because Pulse Corp’s Dr. Bog was not a competitor. He was, as one paper hanging above a rusty tire frame, an “angel sent to cure us from life.”
Shining journalistic fervor went on: “For three years Dr. Bog developed furan transport shells entitled Philosopher Stones. The first trials used polymer microencapsulation systems to transport furans to the sweat glands of the dermis. The second group ensured antibiotic capabilities, anti-cancer reagents, and anti-viral materials. With these two types of treatment options, furans escaped, cell degradation was minimal, all types of diseases were cured, and people’s lives were extended indefinitely. The only noticeable side effect was a yellow skin tone and the smell of lemons that resulted.”
The words tumbled in Mort’s mind as he sniffed the air of the garage. Even without the sun baking his skin, the summery smell of lemonade saturated his nose. Another quote of Pulse Corps came to him as he fumbled with a rickety hammer and a wrench he hoped was the right size for the creaky door: “When life gives you lemons, just live forever.”
For Mort, eternity was a long time trying to figure out what the hell to do. He was a tired, fifty-six year old man, though that number meant very little now with people predicated to live well until the Earth died or the Sun imploded or a meteorite banged humanity with a cosmic knuckle sandwich. Mort didn’t have much hope for the mortuary business in the future, either. Pulse Corp advertised that the greatest minds would be able to be great for much longer, so in time – all time conceivable, that is – all our problems would be solved by immortal human ingenuity.
Great, Mort replied when he first read the words.
Mort stepped over unopened mail at his doorstep. A volunteer leaflet caught his eye. He picked it up as the door continued to creak beside him. “Thanos is the first city in the second stage clinical trial for the Philosopher Stones. Congrats. Together, we can solve aging. Together, we can live.”
He threw it aside. Mort was among the few who didn’t volunteer at first. Among the other dissenters was an a ninety-two year old woman with seven cats, an anti-vaccine naysayer, and for a month, a thirty-six year old priest who stated that Pulse Corp was interfering with God’s divine plan. A woman in the congregation replied that it was God’s hand that invented this blessing as a way to ensure Heaven here on Earth. “He would’ve made us live forever Himself,” she said, “But he wanted us to appreciate death first. Look at Jesus.”
The priest, after preaching three Sundays to empty seats, joined the treatment plan a few days after.
This was all a year ago, and since then, subscription to the plan was no longer optional. Water in Thanos was infused with little soluble polymer beads that dissolved in the blood stream. Hydrogels, they were called.
At first Mort tried not to drink water, but the protest was to no avail. He was too much of a coward to watch himself die by his own hand. That wasn’t his business. Watching others die was.
Besides, who would do his funeral if he kicked the bucket? So with no other choice, he unwillingly began life forever months ago.
He didn’t feel immortal this morning, though. As Mort found himself at the door with the grating sound of metal moving back and forth, he couldn’t help but feel tired. Usually the exhaustion from the pre-dawn wake lasted only a few minutes. Today, it lingered in his step. Each movement was like an anchor splashing against water.
No matter. He’d have to keep working. Keep doing. There’d be no sleeping with this door anyways. No good sleeping, at any rate.
His hands reached for the canister of oil on the far side of the front of his house. It felt heavy, but he raised it to his hip. He would need to fill it up again, he assumed.
He slugged it towards door. A little was poured on the bottom hinge. Still, it creaked up and down and up and down. Little affect.
With chubby fingers, Mort grabbed a Pulse Corp pamphlet from the stack of mail. He scrunched it into a ball. The words “Happiness Always” were visible. He scrunched it again, and wiped it against the metallic hinges.
Brown rust came off like dirty snow. Bits of it fell onto Mort’s bare shoulder. He threw the paper on the grass, grabbed another brochure, and repeated. A small world of rust sprinkled its way onto his doorway in a matter of minutes.
Next, he grabbed the canister of oil. With both hands, he tried to lift it to the top hinge. It wobbled in his hands. He steadied the container with his head. Black oil that had leaked to the bottom seeped into his hair. A drop of it landed on his nose.
Mort breathed heavily. Yesterday wasn’t so arduous; the day before that even less so. He couldn’t understand why he was so tired all of a sudden. Was it something he ate?
He tried to remember, but he felt too tired to even do that. Still, the day would go on. “All days would go on,” a Pulse Corp saying scratched its way to his lips.
He grabbed the container and tried again to raise it to the faulty top hinge. He made it halfway to the top before his arms gave out. The canister of oil crashed against the ground. It landed on Mort’s foot. He cried out in pain as the black puddle began to pool in numerous blotches on the tilted hardwood floor of his home.
Mort tried to regain his balance to pick up the canister, but he couldn’t muster the strength to grab it. It seemed that his arms had worn themselves out. He moved his hands to the wall, but with oil splashed over them, he slipped. Unable to catch a ledge or a bit of the wall on his way down, Mort fell onto a stack of Pulse Corp pamphlets.
Mort was sure that the fall had caused bleeding in places. Nothing the Philosopher Stones wouldn’t be able to fix, he reminded himself. The thought made him more tired. He felt numb in his fingers. Only a little rest. He told himself. That’s all he’d need. His strength will return. Nowadays, it always does.
As he waited for his vigor to bounce back – a product of little machines doing little tasks to make a big effect in his body – he couldn’t help but think that if life was forever going to be a tale of continual futility with its useless doors and its early mornings and the inescapable feeling of being so terribly unhappy in a place where everyone else was anything but, then it would hardly be worth living. As far as Mort was concerned, it wouldn’t be life at all.
The door squeaked in return. Mort took that as an agreement.
Still, he would have to go doing, feeling, and acting. There was no other alternative with Pulse Corp inventing an anti-suicide pill too. Something to do with serotonin. Mort didn’t follow the headlines anymore. Little comfort came from memorization anymore. All he knew was that after this mishap, he would have to wait to get up and begin the day again like the sun does, where each morning is a little birth and each night a little death.
It was still dark now as he thought. He wondered, though, if he were given the chance how would he kill himself if he could. It was a miserable thought, but there on the ground, bleeding and suffocating in the inky night, it brought him comfort. He ensured himself that he would do it right. No ifs, ands, or buts. Life’s precious, and to end it, the job has to be done effectively.
Perhaps a hanging? No, too uncertain. Jumping off a cliff? The canister hurt enough as it is. Imagine landing and not dying. How terrible.
Maybe I can think of better? Come on. I’m not that corrupted with life to not be able to even think of death, am I? Think. Think. Got it. How about being torn alive bit by bit by fire ants while being paralyzed? They’d start to climb over you and they’d investigate you and they’d vomit chemicals on you to make sure you were food and then they’d start ripping you apart bit by bit by bit and they’d cauterize the wound with poison and keep you alive until you’re nothing but a head…
Suddenly there was tightness in his chest. Quickly, it spread to his head with a searing pain. His eyesight blurred and his breaths became rapid and short. He felt like he was about to implode.
Mort was stiff. Then he started to convulse on the floor. His fingers scratched the pavement. His toes flexed and relaxed. He bit his tongue.
It was happening again. Mort knew the signs. Heart-attack. Mort was having a heart attack.
He smiled. The blood tickled his lips. They were wrong. Pulse Corp was wrong. Finally after telling himself it couldn’t be true, Mort was right in the end. Better yet was that Mort’s business would thrive. Funerals would still happen. And Mort’s would be the first among them.
This is the best thing that has ever happened to me, Mort thought.
That made him smile wider. Though his vision was worsening, Mort looked up at the sky. The Thanos sun was rising. It was a small line, barely visible, but it was there. It was enough. Dawn was coming. It would be a beautiful day.
Mort laughed – a big, red-teeth laugh. The door laughed with him. Creak. Creak. Creak. To anyone nearby, the two of them together sounded like a person scratching their nails against metal and drowning at the same time.