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Spelunking in the Caves of Despair (originally written in 2017)

Canto IX

His Loves and Linage Arthur tells,

The Knights knit friendly Bands:

Sir Trevisan flies from Despair,

Whom Red-cross Knight withstands.

“A part of me still can’t believe he killed himself.” Arthur wasn’t looking at Red. He was watching the road as the two friends sped down the winding back road in a roundabout way toward Red’s apartment. The sunset painted the sky in rich orange and yellow, but between the trees that lined the road there were only short glimpses of light piercing through the dark shade. The contrast was almost blinding. Through a hairpin turn in the road time seemed to move from night to bright day back to darkness within a few seconds. Red could barely see, but Arthur kept his foot to the gas as the two hurdled back into town.

“What makes someone do that? What makes someone decide to end their own life? And now we have to deal with all the shit he left behind. So selfish.” Arthur still wasn’t looking at Red, he was focused on the winding road. Red decided to stop looking out the window. If Arthur’s erratic driving was to be his demise, he’d rather not see it coming. He looked at his friend. Arthur’s face was red, his eyes a bit puffy; a tear ran down his cheek.

“I miss that idiot. And I still don’t understand it.” Arthur sniffled. “And don’t get me started on Tristan deciding not to show.”

“It’s still too fresh for Tristan. Funerals are meant for closure, seems to me they’re also warnings. Here’s someone you loved who died, avoid what killed them. With Terwin what we’ve got to avoid is killing ourselves. Maybe back off the gas a little Art.” Red’s voice was quiet, barely making it over the roar of the engine constantly switching gears to make it through the twists and hills of the country road.

“Sure, okay, so how the fuck do you do that? Seems to me that suicide is like some kind of disease, one you are far more likely to catch if someone near you had it. Like an emotional flu, no, emotional ebola.” Arthur hadn’t slowed his old Honda Civic Hatchback.

Red turned his body to face his friend. “Arthur, are you happy? I know we just left our friend’s funeral, but before all this shit, were you happy?” The car began to slow a bit, though not quite down to the posted speed limit.

“Sure. I was happy. Nearly finished with school, nearly have an awesome job, nearly ready to start dating. Sure, I’d say I was nearly happy.”

“Nearly?” Red tried to answer this question for himself, and he’d come up with a similar answer, occasionally, but overall, not yet; almost, sure, but in general, no.

“Yeah. I guess that sounds bad. It does sound bad.”

“Okay, what will make you happy?” Red’s tone was that of a helpful friend, but he was honestly curious of the answer, secretly hoping it could make him happy as well.

“I guess the easy answer’d be a girlfriend. Some others: graduating college and getting a good job. I guess what will make me happy is some security, some consistency in my life. I can’t be happy now, ‘cause I’m not done yet. Sure I’m an adult on paper, I can buy alcohol and everything, but I’m not on my own by any means. I’ve got a shitton of debt from school, and I still need a bunch of help from my parents to be able to afford rent and food. It’s like I’m not a complete person yet, but I will be soon, so I guess I’ll be happy soon.”

The two sat there, the car speeding over rough asphalt, not paved in years, as the words really started to hit both of them.

“That sucks.” Red finally said out loud. The two stared out the windshield and wished Terwin hadn’t killed himself. More than that they wished they didn’t have the creeping feeling that they’d like to join him.

Arthur’s turned his head to look behind them. “Did you see that? Just now, I saw something moving in the rearview mirror. It looked like a dementor from Harry Potter.”

Red turned, “I didn’t see anything. Must have been a deer.”

***

The small glass bowl had glowing embers surrounded by the bright green of finely ground plant matter. Smoke twisted around the tall glass tube as water in the lower chamber bubbled like a boiling witch’s cauldron. Tristan removed the bowl from the glass bong and sucked the smoke into his lungs. Red watched as his friend’s eyes began to dilate. He replaced the bowl and turned to look at Red. He began to speak, seemingly forgetting his lungs were full of smoke. The heavier-than-air gas made his voice come out deeper.

“Red, you ever seen Catch Me If You Ca – “ He was interrupted by a fit of deep rasping coughs which seamlessly transitioned into a sort of laughter. “Fuck man, gotta cough to get off.” He picked the bong up from where he had placed it on the end table. The glass bowl looked like a pizza slice had been burned out of it, but otherwise it was still green. Tristan glanced around the room. He squinted his eyes.

“It’s still in your hand.” Red pointed to the purple lighter in Tristan’s right palm.

Tristan laughed. “That’s weed, man; terrible for your memory.” He flicked the steel against the flint and took another puff from the large piece of glassware. This time he remembered to exhale before talking. “So what brings you ‘round here? I haven’t seen you since. . .” His voice trailed off.

“Yeah.” Red didn’t look at him.

“But I’ve forgotten my manners, and what’s a stoner if he isn’t a gentleman. Puff, puff, pass and all that.” He gathered the various pieces of paraphernalia and presented them to his friend.

Red hesitated for a moment, but decided there were worse vices, and he hadn’t driven here, so what was the harm? He took the bong and proceeded to light the bowl for a small hit. He lay back on the couch and surveyed Tristan’s apartment. Not ten days ago it had been the joint residence of Tristan and Terwin. Now Terwin’s room was packed up in boxes. The posters of coffee he had bought at Ikea had been taken down. The nails still stuck out of the wall. Odd little reminders of what used to be; who used to be.

“Tris, why weren’t you at the funeral yesterday? Arthur and I were really hoping you’d make it. I know you and Terwin were clo-”

“Hey, don’t Bogart it, dude. Take another one and pass it along. Don’t talk in between hits. This isn’t ‘Nam, Donny; there are rules.” He laughed at his butchering of the Big Lebowski quote and continued to eye the dirty chemist’s beaker like a dog begging for a bite of ham sandwich.

Red wasn’t pleased with Tristan’s avoidance of real conversation, of reality in general, but he wasn’t in the mood to call him out on it. He was in the mood take another drag, to join his friend in the far more entertaining version of the world. One where the colors seemed brighter, the video games were more fun, the food tasted better. The world felt more like it should; more like it used to.

The bong was still in his lap. He bent over, placed his lips against the cold glass, sparked the lighter, placed it to the bowl, and inhaled.

“Snap it!” Tristan was requesting that Red finish the current bowl. The host had already removed another nug from the mason jar on the side table. He placed it in his grinder and began prepping the next while Red attempted to finish the first.

There was far more left than Red had expected. Tristan was excellent at avoiding conversations he didn’t want to have; weed another hammer in his toolbox. Red was coughing his lungs out before he had finished emptying the chamber. Tristan took the bong from Red’s hands before he dropped it on the carpet, and cupped a hand over its top before the remaining smoke escaped into the room.

“Heh, I’m sorry Red, I forgot how much of a lightweight you were.” He lied. “That should put you in a good place. Get you out of your head for a while.” Tristan picked up the lighter from where Red had dropped it on the couch and finished off the last few bits of black in the bowl; Red having burned the last of the green.

Our hero’s head was spinning. He sank back into the couch cushion and looked up at the ceiling. Even with his neurons’ cannabinoid receptors influenced by a hefty helping of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, he couldn’t shake his current stresses; he couldn’t forget about his friend’s recent passing. He saw all kinds of curious shapes in the textured plaster ceiling. He thought he could see a face; thin, stretched, and smiling. It sent chills down his spine. He stopped looking and watched his friend pack the next bowl instead.

Tristan held the grinder in one hand and the bong in the other, but he wasn’t moving. He was staring past Red on the opposite couch like he’d seen a ghost. His face was deathly pale; a harsh contrast to his bloodshot eyes.

Red did his best to speak, “Tris, you ok-okay?” He turned around and craned his neck trying to see what had startled his friend.

“Fuck man, weed can make me hella paranoid sometimes. Gotta remember not to buy this strain again.” He shook his head. “I thought I saw a crazy monster, like a big black cloaked figure. Real scary.”

***

Red found himself back in his apartment. He didn’t live alone. Through an odd set of circumstances he’d found himself renting the walk-in closet of a one bedroom apartment of a friend of a friend. It didn’t have any windows, no outlets, and barely enough room for his bed and dresser. When he closed the door he was in his own little box. He often thought about how this sort of space was the punishment the Dursleys had forced on poor Harry in The Sorcerer’s Stone. At least Harry wasn’t paying $350 a month for the privilege.

Red had attempted to make the hole-in-the-wall livable with a few posters and some extra pillows on his bed, but some things aren’t fixable. The National Geographic map of the world reminded him of how big the world was outside, and how little of it was his. Despite the heavy metal door, and the 1950’s concrete and asbestos walls, he felt like he could hear every apartment on his floor, the one above his, and the one below. He was frequently awoken by the sounds of lovemaking, or the crying of babies; further reminders of how lonely he felt.

A bundle of wires connected his computer and phone chargers to the outlet in the living room, snaking under the door, where a small band of sunlight creeped through. Red’s eyes weren’t on that organic glow, instead they were trained on the harsh light of his computer and phone. The computer currently displayed two women in a romantic embrace, porn; while his iPhone was on the Facebook app. It may have seemed like a curious juxtaposition, but to Red, both scenes were equally fantastic. The world his Facebook friends lived seemed as unreachable as the threesome that was beginning on his computer. For a moment he glanced up at the other tabs he had open on his browser: Three homework assignments, two already late; his student loan online bill paying, unpaid; his current bank balance, lower than he’d hoped, but about what he had expected. His phone showed a new event, a wedding he had been invited to. His peers were getting married and he was masturbating in a closet. He popped a tablet of Methylphenidate (brand name Concerta) that he’d bought off a friend, and told himself he’d use the drug-induced concentration to start climbing out of this hole he’d found himself in.

“It’s okay to be sad, Red,” he said out loud. “Your friend just died. It will take a while for things to get back to normal. Of course things have gotten a bit out of hand.” He looked at his computer where a man was doing something that couldn’t possibly be causing the sounds that were coming from the woman’s mouth.

This shit didn’t start when Terwin died, he knew better. This had been his life for a while now. Terwin was today’s excuse. There was a great difference between sadness and depression. One was an emotion, an intense one at that, and the other was a lack of emotion. Sadness was the color blue and depression gray.

Red felt a small pressure on his right shoulder. Turning his head he saw a hand; boney, pale fingers ending in long tanned nails, common of long-term malnourishment. The hand protruded from a deep black sleeve. Red didn’t move for a moment, stunned. When he regained his composure, he googled the drug he’d taken and saw “psychosis” as a possible side-effect. He exhaled, but it wasn’t relief.

“Friend, you can’t explain me away so easily. I’ve been following you for a while now.” Red turned his head back toward the hand on his shoulder, this time following it back to it’s owner. It was almost human; gaunt, draped in tattered black robes. It looked skeletal, pale skin stretched across bone. Two deep circles looked back at him, all he could make out of the creature’s eyes.

Red wasn’t alien to psychosis. Though he had never experienced the symptoms himself, he had an aunt who was institutionalized. He knew that interacting with a hallucination was what constituted a “psychotic break,” so he kept his mouth shut.

“Oh you brave soul. You have nothing to fear from me.” The creature said through cracked lips, held in a warm smile. “I am here to offer rest. I’m a dove with an olive branch; a warm bed on a Sunday morning.” There was compassion in his voice. “Your friend has taken his life, and left you hurting. But I’ve been with you. You were hurting long before.”

Red’s curiosity got the better of him. He spoke, but his words came out in a rough whisper, “Terwin was a coward.” He couldn’t believe he’d said the words, though he’d been thinking them since the funeral.

“Are you so perfect that you might judge him for deciding to stop playing this silly game? His flesh is dead, as it was destined to be, and Terwin made that choice for himself. A last bit of agency in a life otherwise ruled by fate. Poetic if you think about it. A final act of a free man after a life of slavery.” The creature’s voice was soothing. “And now he is at rest; his troubles ended. That we might all be so lucky. Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas, ease after war, death after life, in these there is peace.”

Red raised his voice, “No. Killing is murder; it doesn’t matter if it’s your own life. And murder is a sin.”

“My child, every day of your life is full of sin. Every hour that passes you sin the more. Simply put, the longer life, the greater sin. And what is in a life? Fear, sickness, age, loss, labor, sorrow, strife, pain, hunger, cold; all damaging to even the strongest of hearts. And all these bound in fate. Your action or inaction matter not to the vast majority of the events of your life. You didn’t choose the nation of your birth or the color of your skin. Fate chooses so much, why let it choose the day of your death? And make no mistake, all that lives must die.”

Often Red felt like a simple beast. His base cravings for food and sleep and sex disgusted him. Looking back on high school there were so many moments that seem to have been controlled almost entirely by hormones. It was foolish to think those days had ended, especially with porn open on his laptop. He didn’t feel in control.

“You are in control,.” the figure whispered. “All this is just a game. You get to decide whether or not you play. Life is so much work. Why not sleep instead? There’s only one way to actually stop sinning, and it isn’t asking God for forgiveness. The wages of sin is death, and death is the end of woe; so die soon friend.”

Red’s heart was beating fast, his breaths shallow. The creature, Despair, loomed over him.

“What’s a moment’s pain to end a lifetime of suffering? A small price to pay. Now you have but the method of your exit to decide. There are a great many options.” Red’s mind raced through the possibilities: the knife in his pocket, the rope with his camping gear, the pills in his bathroom. He was shaking. It was one thing to decide your life is not worth living, and another entirely to actually end it. He felt sick to his stomach.

Despair noticed his apprehension. “The worst is over, friend; you’ve discovered the ruse.” Red felt the knife in his hand. “One last little cut, followed by endless peace. As far as endings go, bleeding out is quite pleasant. It’s as if someone slowly turns down the lights, then the sound, and then all falls away. What a beautiful departure from this wretched place.”

Red held the knife in his right hand. Despair’s bony fingers helped guide the blade to his left wrist. It will all be over soon, he thought to himself. Or perhaps those were Despair’s words. He had forgotten the difference.

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Forever Emma (originally written in 2017)

It was a going-away party. A friend of Charlie’s was moving to LA in a common and often fraught attempt at “making it big.” Emma hadn’t cared enough to ask in what form. Friends had gathered at Karl’s Portland apartment, at this point mostly in boxes, to mourn his passing. Karl gave out some items he didn’t feel worth the trip south, but somehow worth something to his friends: a wine rack, an old pair of leather shoes, an end table, the complete works of Shakespeare with Barnes and Noble faux-leather cover and built-in bookmark. These objects weren’t important enough to take with him in his next life. As with many of Emma’s friends that had made the mistake of traveling to the oasis in the desert, the only relics of the northwest they brought with them were a closet full of now useless coats and rain jackets and an appreciation for good tap water; two curses in that arid place.

Emma had “dressed up” at Charlie’s prompting; though a Sunday night party didn’t sound particularly formal, she opted for a black dress that made the event feel far too much like a wake. She sipped at some pinot and took small bites from a piece of sharp cheddar; the last normal-sounding cheese from the plate. The party was populated by Charlie’s friends; a mixture of well-read unemployed millennials and well-read underemployed millennials. Throw a rock into the crowd and you were guaranteed to hit a tattoo, a piercing, a beard, a flannel and pair of Wayfarers, more than likely all on the same person. Alan, starbucks barista for the last decade, needed a rock thrown at him, especially with the way he was flirting on the cute Chinese girl in the sundress. He kept spinning his wine around in his glass, placing it up to his nose and then swishing it around his mouth. Earthy with notes of pure bullshit.

Emma had to remind herself that she was there for Charlie. Karl was his friend, and showing him a final good time before he made the Hajj to Hollywood was what friends do. Just because she was stuck in a shitty job in the rain didn’t mean everyone had to be. Emma had dragged Charlie to a similar event for her friend Katie not two months ago, though that party had considerably better cheese. Karl had been at that party. He should have learned how to set up a proper cheese plate. Karl’s girlfriend Tara had been there as well. She gave Emma a wave to get her attention. Emma approached her from across the party.

“Hey Em -cough cough- so nice you could make it.” The hostess looked like shit. She had dressed up in a nice enough dress, and her hair was done up fine. But she held herself in such a way that Emma knew from across the room that she was very sick.

“Hey Tara. Are you okay?” Emma didn’t walk up to her for the usual greeting hug.

“Fuck no. This is the only day we can throw this damn party before we leave. So it’s either be here feeling like I’m going vomit out all my insides and see my friends through fever induced delirium or not at all. Don’t worry, I don’t think it’s conta-” the leper retched into a napkin she had at the ready.

Emma’s phone buzzed in her pocket. She’d felt it throughout the evening’s festivities, but hadn’t thought the vibrations important enough to interrupt the party. Now, her health on the line, she was grateful for the interruption. She pulled her little pocket slate computer from her purse. The iPhone showed the failed attempts at contact by Emma’s mother: two missed calls, a voicemail, and two texts.

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Grandma was dying. In a manner of speaking she’d been dying since she was born, but the last few grains of sand were falling through the hourglass. Though they shared the same name and lived in the same town, Emma wasn’t close with her grandmother. Her relatives were always mentioning how accurate her name was, and when she saw pictures of her grandmother she couldn’t help but see her own  face with the bob haircut in the black and white. Emma had spent time with her when she was younger, but she had felt it odd to be around her namesake. Like in some way Emma was a replica of her grandmother, made and named for her good deeds. It’s odd to think yourself a living statue of someone else, a memorial soon enough. Looking on her grandmother’s face was to see yourself 50 years in the future. It had felt novel when she was younger, but time doesn’t give favors. Her grandmother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s nearly a decade ago, and her arthritis was far more visible these days. Emma’s human window into the future was looking more and more bleak.

Emma had left the party early. Charlie would take an Uber back to their place. Emma didn’t want him driving anyway; Karl’s “celebration of life” required the consumption of sacred elixirs, Eastside’s Marionberry Whiskey and Terminator Stout among them.

She flew back home, changed out of her dress into a pair of jeans and hoodie, and grabbed a toothbrush and a water bottle. The hand-stitched blanket draped over the couch put a lump in her throat.

She pounded the gas pedal and merged onto the highway. She’d been given a countdown of the final moments of her grandmother on this earth, time outweighed safety. The city was a blur, though everyone but Emma seemed to be having a leisurely Sunday evening. A gold Buick Lesabre going five under in the left lane blocked her way around a black Timex semi truck.

Emma flashed her brights at the car in front of her, revealing a head of gray hair with a bald spot on top behind the wheel. The gentleman’s speed did not change. Emma closed in on the vehicle, leaving less than a car length between them in the hopes of getting the old man to get over. Couldn’t this man see she was in a hurry? She would never be so inept. Surely this man was beyond the age of being allowed a driver’s license. Her right foot danced between the gas and brake pedal to keep her Toyota Corolla as close to the Lesabre as possible without slamming into it’s rear bumper.

An eternity later the man signaled and moved into the more appropriate lane for his prefered speed. Emma slammed on the gas at her first opportunity, anxiety blinding her to the reason for the old man’s lane change until her tires perfectly aligned with the obstruction on the road.

A quick thump thump scared the shit out of Emma as her Corolla flattened the already rotting carcass of an opossum. Her heart raced as adrenaline flooded her veins . After a moment of shock, her vehicle racing ahead of the Lesabre, she signalled and pulled over to the side of the road. She threw on her hazards, put the car in park, and let the floodgates open.

A dying grandmother, a little roadrage, a fuzzy animal now much more dead. Sometimes life really sucked. It sucked that you can’t drive a car while your eyes were full of tears. Windshield wipers were only for windshields and eyelids weren’t translucent. Not to mention she was shaking.

She blew her nose on one sleeve of her hoodie and used the other to dry her eyes. Why did her grandma have to die now? Was there a convenient time to die? Was she even going to die? The brief conversation she’d had with her mother seemed to point heavily in that direction. In the last hour her uncles and mother had moved their mother from the urgent care unit of the local hospital to a nearby hospice house. Apparently they thought it too much a hassle to take her home to die in her own bed.

Emma wondered why she hadn’t visited her grandmother more. What kind of granddaughter was she that she hadn’t been by in the past year? A hug on holidays and a phone call every few months to help with grandma’s iPad wasn’t much of a relationship, especially with the person she was named after.

The adrenalin began to pass, her heart rate became more normal. She wiped her eyes one final time and signaled back onto the highway. This was going to be a long night.

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Fighting between the pain of kidney failure and the euphoria of opioid pain management, Emmeline Emerson Wyatt looked up into a face she knew too well. It was her own face, but some 50 years younger. She had seen that face in the mirror every morning as she got ready for the day. Some days were better than others, that face held many expressions. She had watched that face change. As the years went on, that face shrugged and slouched and spotted and wrinkled. She was lying in this bed dying because of that slow change. The face in front of her had skin that was bright, though its expression was solemn.

“Grandma, how are you?”

Dying was how she was, and everyone in the room knew that. Grandma Emmeline had brief moments of knowing that too, and in those moments she would make it abundantly clear to those around her. It’s odd to be near someone who has only brief moments of consciousness, someone who is not at all used to that sort of experience, and someone who knows, just like everyone around them, that they are going to die. In those brief moments it must be maddening, fighting to get some last words at the people you love before you’re no longer something that can talk, perhaps not even something at all. Luckily, in between these moments of extreme realization about the nature of humanity and the need for connection and communication, you (if it is you that’s lying in a hospice bed) are flung into an incredible opioid high. There’s a reason Heroin is so popular, and there’s a reason we still give morphine to just about everyone who has extreme pain that will harass them to the end of this world.

The older Emmeline did her best to respond, which came out something like “hunnngff.”

Emma sat down in the chair nearest to the hospital bed. Her grandmother was lying in the bed with the upper half tilted upwards, so she could see everyone without straining her neck. She had a number of bandages around her, one on her left hand, another around her head. A tube went to her nose to supply extra oxygen. Emma wasn’t clear on exactly what it was that had pushed her over the edge, it looked like a combination of a lot of things. She didn’t have a heart monitor, she didn’t have any wires sticking out of her arm; she had a blanket. All those fancy wires and things are for people who might live. A blanket is to cover a corpse.

Emma gently held the unbandaged hand of her grandmother. It was cold, but gripped so tightly she knew there was still some life in her. This hand was apparently the same size as hers, yet holding it it felt so small, so bent from the years of arthritis that Emma was destined to inherit.

“Grandma, it’s me, your granddaughter Emma.” It felt weird to speak her name at her.

The eyes of her grandmother looked up with clear recognition. She looked exhausted to the point that she couldn’t speak, but she could look. She could sorta smile through the tube on her face. Her breathing was beyond forced. It came out as a crisp rasp. It hurt to hear; the combination of aged lungs and the pressure of incurable disease.

Younger Emma’s mother, older Emma’s daughter placed a hand on younger Emma. “Honey, she can hear you. Talk to her.” Her hand reminded Emma of what the vitality of others felt like. She could feel her mother’s heat through her cardigan. What a difference from the cold appendage she now held.

“Um, I got that job Grandma. I graduated college a few years ago, you knew that, but the job I was in was just poop. This one is far better. I actually like my co-workers.” She looked at her grandmother expectantly.

Her grandmother was looking her dead in the eyes. Sometimes she’d seem to lose focus for a moment, but then she’d be right back looking her granddaughter right in the eyes.

“I got a new car, and my apartment is uptown in a really cute neighborhood. There are big oak trees in the median between the sidewalk and the road. It makes the place feel matured, warm and rounded on the edges. I think I’ll pull Charlie’s leg until he ditches his place and moves in with me.”

After a bit her grandmother seemed to have fallen asleep. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing was incredibly crackly but measured, rhythmic. Emma could still feel the grip on her hand, so she stayed beside the bed. This thing she was holding was what she was destined to become. She was looking into a mirror that was 50 years into the future. No, she was holding hands with her grandmother. Not an older version of herself but a completely separate being two generations removed.

Suddenly her grandmother’s breathing became more like Darth Vader, to the point of waking her. She coughed and looked up at Emma.

“Karen?” That was the name of Emma’s mother, who had just stepped out of the room for a bit of air. “Karen, I don’t want to die.” Her grandmother looked up at her with pleading eyes. She gripped Emma’s hand more tightly.”It hurts Karen! Oh god make the pain stop!” She released Emma’s hand and started grabbing at the bandage around her head. She squirmed under her blanket like a small child. Her moans sent a chill down Emma’s spine. She felt so helpless. She couldn’t think of anything she could do to help besides sit there and hold her grandmother’s hand, if you could call that helping.

“Mother, it’s alright, we’re here.” Emma’s uncle got up from his chair on the other side of the room and walked toward the bed. “Emma, let me sit there a moment, and please get the nurse, it’s clear mom’s morphine is getting low.”

Emma got up from the chair as her mother and the nurse entered the room.

“Everything’s okay Mrs. Wyatt. I’ve got your medicine right here.” The nurse spoke as if to a small child. The tone made Emma uncomfortable, like her grandmother was already gone, replaced by a giant wrinkled baby.

The nurse administered the morphine and the elder Emma fell back asleep. The nurse dabbed her mouth with a small sponge on a stick that kept her mouth from drying out while she slept.. Emma thought it an odd detail to focus on for someone who was clearly dying. She was glad someone was thinking of details like that. Anything to make this transition a tad easier. Anything to bring her grandmother a little peace. The nurse left the room. Emma’s mother and uncles stood or sat around their dying mother. They spoke in low whispers.

“Karen, I’ve called into the office, they aren’t expecting me on Monday. I’m here until it’s over.” Emma’s Uncle John stood over his mother like a guardian angel, too little too late.

“I won’t be going to work tomorrow either, I don’t expect I will all week, regardless of how this ends up.” Karen looked up at John from her seat beside the bed. She couldn’t look at her dying mother. Emma watched her mother’s eyes dance around the room, to the Ikea painting to the JC Penney drapes to the oxygen tank on the floor, but never where they needed to be. Important things are often hard to look at.

Karen looked over at Emma, “Honey, you don’t have to be here. You have work tomorrow, you look more exhausted than all of us. Come back in a few days. The time for talking to mom seems about over anyway, I’m glad you got a moment with her before. . .”

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How do you go back to life after that? How do you look death in the face, look between your loved ones still holding on, look at your ancient facsimile and then shake your head and go back to work? How the fuck do you. . .  

“Emma, you don’t look so well. Are you alright?” It was Becky, a co-worker. Emma had made it home last night, late. She had planned to buy some McDonalds on the drive, but hadn’t found the appetite. She lay in bed until her alarm went off. She hadn’t slept for a second. Right now her job was waiting, just waiting for her grandmother to die. Once she was gone she could begin grieving. She wasn’t gone, yet she sorta was. She was basically gone, but not enough to be actually gone. So Emma was waiting. She wasn’t sleeping; she was waiting.

Emma half-whispered “My grandmother is in hospice. I. . .” her voice trailed off. She hadn’t used in a while; it sounded coarse, alien.

“Oh-my-god-I’m-so-sorry-to-hear-that!” Becky said the phrase like a single german noun while she put both hands to her mouth as if to catch some small fish she was expecting to issue from it.

Emma stared blankly at a spot just to the right of Becky’s head. Her eyes felt chapped. She couldn’t believe she drove to work this morning. How many cups of coffee had she drank today? She’d at least need one more to make it home.

Somehow she did make it home. Her boss had overheard her conversation with Becky, and forced her to go home and sleep, but you can’t force someone to sleep without narcotics or a baseball bat. Emma was beyond sleeping.

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What the fuck even was it to die? Like what does that mean? I know, one day your heart doesn’t pump anymore. Your lungs don’t breathe anymore. You aren’t you anymore. Your body stops being yours, and it just is. But when we talk about death we aren’t just talking about the physical body. You were never just a body. You were a character in the cast of every life around you. Death means you’ve wrapped your final scene in the final episode of the final season of your life, but you’ve also wrapped in the hundreds of other films of the lives of people around you. You’ve left their story but it keeps going on without you. After that moment, after you die, you exist only in the past tense. You were and can no longer be. So one day your body stops working, the you inside that body stops being, and the chatter and changes that being brought to the world around it stops. In time the things you’ve done are undone, the things you made, destroyed, maybe just decompose. Just like you, the ones who remembered you die, and eventually no one remembers your name. After that, after no one remembers you, nothing you’ve done still scars the earth, you have died.

By that definition Grandma Emmaline wouldn’t die for many years yet. Though her body was on the edge, the rest of her, her actions and memories, what she’s done to this earth, will outlive her body perhaps by a century. Her time for action was about to end, but her time for memory had really just started. Hundreds more may learn her name in the coming years; Van Gogh was far more famous after his death, maybe grandma would follow his footsteps, though she hadn’t killed herself, and Emma doubted she still had that option, regardless of Oregon’s laws on assisted suicide.

There was a certain peace to this version of death. Grandma’s body would be returned to the ground, to feed the earth. Her carbon, the creation of stars, the structure of prehistoric flora, and bones of ancient dinosaurs, would find new forms, maybe trees and flowers, eventually deer and birds. And that was just her body; the letters she wrote, the books she read, the movies she watched, they would spread out. You could say that these ephemera were children of hers, you could just as easily call them grandma. A Christmas card she wrote sat on Emma’s mantle. The gift that had arrived with it was draped across the couch. The quilt didn’t match anything else in Emma’s apartment, but at this moment it was better that it stood out. It smelled just enough like her, and there was something about love captured into warmth. It didn’t matter how sick, how dead grandma was, she could always give you a hug through these creations. The card that accompanied the quilt was something bought at Walgreens or Walmart or something, some Hallmark bullshit.

My Dearest Emma,

Watching you grow into such a beautiful and strong woman has been one of the greatest joys of my life. I can’t help but see myself behind your fiery eyes. I hope this blanket keeps you warm on those cold winter nights, and reminds you that your grandmother loves you.

Forever yours,

Grandma Emma

Her flowing, perfect hand somehow negated the false heartfelt nature of the Hallmark card. Emma had bent the card and placed it on the mantle inside-out to show it’s better half to the world, hiding the glitter covered kitten in a stocking on the front. These words were grandma, this blanket was grandma, in a way that felt less weird the more Emma thought about, Emma was her grandmother as well.

She was named after her, she looked like her, she was a part of her.

You can only think about the deaths of others before you start thinking about your own death; that’s just how the brain works. Emma had spent the better part of the weekend staring at the frail body she was sure to inherit. There is always some selfish string that winds through the mind in hospitals when visiting family: “Is this illness genetic? When will I be here for these same reasons?” There was a certain peace to visiting family in the hospital for lung cancer or heart disease from obesity. Sure those people were sick with serious conditions, but conditions they’d done to themselves. There was no foreboding feeling when her aunt had passed. Family by marriage didn’t leave disease in the family blood when they left, at least not in Emma’s.

It seems silly to say you know you are going to die. Emma knew she was going to die. It didn’t take her grandmother in hospice for her to make that realization.

Grandma’s things would be packed up, her old house would be sold. Her garden would no longer be tended by her gentle arthritic hands. Her possessions would be divided up by the family. Emma was old enough to know that her will was more than likely two lines long, giving all of her objects to her eldest son, and her body was to be cremated. The document was just a formality, the family knew her wishes, and if there were any special objects she wanted certain members of the family to have she had already given them to them. That still left all the things that build up living alone in a house for decades. There was sure to be a great deal of work ahead to send Grandma into the next life. She wasn’t going to be buried with all her shit like an egyptian pharoah, but all her stuff still had to go somewhere. A sealed sarcophagi sure would be easier than a yard sale and a U-Haul.

Grandma was born before colored television, before a great deal of modern medicine, before desegregation. Emma could barely imagine the world that different. Where was the world going to be when Emma was as old as her grandmother? Will robots take care of her in her old age? Will she even get old? We have quantum computing. How many decades until general artificial intelligence is created? When will Elon Musk’s neural lace be complete? Who says Emma was going to die? No one thinks they’re going to die when their young is a gross generalization that should be avoided. Death wasn’t just this big hassle, it was a necessary part of life. It was a punctuation mark to the sentence you’d made with your life. Socrates said death may be the greatest of all human blessings. Billions of people have painted with the brush of life and so far not one of them has made it longer than small moment of history. Emma feared that biologically imposed timer was about to be broken. Technology had in some ways already broken it beyond repair.

Grandma wasn’t big into social media. I don’t know too many from the Greatest Generation that were. She had an iPad and sometimes posted things to facebook, but her online presence was minimal. At no point in her visit was Emma asked to delete her grandmother’s browsing history. What a difference two generations can make. As Emma thought about it, she herself had a wildly elaborate online presence. A facebook with hundreds of pictures and posts, an instagram with another hundred, this time with fancy filters, thousands of posts on twitter, complete with hashtags. Now that she got to thinking about it, she had thousands of facebook messages as well as posts, along with hundreds of thousands of emails in her inbox, not to mention the ones placed in the archive. She had thousands of pins on pinterest and thousands of bookmarked pages on her web browser. On her phone she had a seemingly endless log of texts. They had followed her with each iteration of iPhone she bought. She remembered when her old flip phone couldn’t handle more than a hundred, now she had years worth. The list just kept going. There was so much of Emma online. What would happen to all that Emma when her own body died?

What about her history before social media? She looked toward her bookshelf where decades worth of journals traced her history back through middle school. The times before that were meticulously chronicled by her mother in a series of scrapbooks, all the rage back in the eighties and nineties, now near completely out of style with the introduction of facebook.

David Eagleman said: “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” How the hell would Emma realize that third death if there was so much of her in writing? The complete works of Shakespeare, all of Plato’s writing, every scrap of paper Da Vinci scribbled on that’s still kept in a museum, all that doesn’t even come close to the word count of Emma’s collective corpus. She thought about the insane level of detail it had picked up. Her phone tracked her steps, it knew her location. Maps could be made of all the places she’d visited, all the people she’d met, especially all the conversations she’d had over writing online. All this was saved. Would that data ever be deleted? She doubted it. She thought all of it combined could fit on a flash drive that could fit in her pocket, not that anyone really had those anymore, everything was on the cloud. This version of Emma didn’t take up any physical space, and it didn’t have a body that could decompose. Why would it ever go away? What could this incredible ledger of the minutia of Emma’s days be used for? How many text messages, journal entries, and facebook posts did it take to make a person? Could a digital facsimile of Emma be made from this log? Clearly. How accurate would it be to who Emma was? What the hell was Emma besides all those words? A body. A bunch of blood, bones, and organs stuck inside of sack of skin that thought itself unique.

It wasn’t like technology was getting less complicated. Everyday a new device, a new technique confused the boundaries of the self. Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher sure looked like they were in Rogue One. Tupak looked like he performed at Coachella. CGI wasn’t literally bringing anyone back from the dead though, not yet at least.

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A box of kleenexes, a few glasses of wine, a sleeve of oreos, a touch of ambien and a good cry later, Emma was fast asleep.

Anxiety-induced insomnia keeps you from sleeping, so you take some drugs to help. Ironically those drugs lead to vivid dreams, the subconscious you’re trying desperately to avoid projected in beautiful technicolor. You never remember the dreams you’ve had as they’re happening. They hit you all at once like a train upon waking. I’d argue that dreams aren’t lived at all, they are experienced exclusively in the past tense. You grab at the tendrils of them, the small disjointed aspects you can remember: a friend from high school, the house you lived in college, the cat that hung around that cafe when you were on vacation. Together these images stitch themselves together to make something new, some raw expression of the subconscious. Doesn’t matter if you’re Joseph with his colorful jacket or Freud with his brown jacket, these expressions say something important.

Her grandmother was alive, younger, healthier. The Grandma Emmaline that Emma held in her memory, not that twisted dying thing she had seen yesterday. She hugged Emma and showed her around her old house. She hadn’t lived there in years, but Emma didn’t notice, didn’t mind. You never know you’re in a dream while you’re dreaming. Lucid dreams aren’t in the same category. They tell different stories. They are the work of the conscious, not the subconscious. True dreams are uncontrollable. They happen like the weather. Emma’s grandmother was there. The two talked, she knew they did. Emma asked her about her life, who she’d loved and what she’d done, and glancing out the window toward the lush garden, she’d answered. Upon waking Emma couldn’t remember those answers, but she knew they were good.

Her phone buzzed on her nightstand. She guessed this is what had woken her. Squinting at the incredibly bright screen in the dark room she saw what she’d missed. A facetime call, a voicemail, and a handful of texts, all from her mother.