Something seemed wrong. Will could feel slanted strips of heat on his face. He grunted, opened his eyes as far as he dared, and stared into the light streaming through the half-closed blinds. The sun is up...
Shit! I'm late! He rolled out of bed, jumped towards the pile of clothes he had worn the day before, and fell flat on his face. "Fuck!!!" Disentangling his foot from the sheets, he lurched to a pile of clothes, and had his pants half on before he realized, Oh, Fuck-yeah! It's Tuesday, my day off! He collapsed back onto the floor. That's what I get for working the last two Tuesdays in a row... he thought as he sunk back into sleep.
The new desksyses were pieces of shit. For some stupid reason they could not pick up the ambient network, which was a huge problem because some genius had equipped them with the latest anti-theft software: they would not fully initialize or allow anybody administrator access until they had verified that they were being installed on the purchaser’s network. He scoured the web, trying to find out if there was any solution to the problem that did not involve paying a service rep to come out to his site, but came up with nothing. Then he was arguing with Emilio about how they needed to upgrade the fiber optic cabling on the bottom floors to handle the additional bandwidth from the expanded art department, with Emilio insisting that there was no provision in the budget, and what could he do? Will tried to point out that the number of complaints that would arise could certainly jeopardize both their pay-rates, if not get them fired outright. He was in the middle of trying to convince Emilio to trade some old desksyses for more cable from the next building over when a jarring buzzing sound made him sit bolt-upright, tearing him out of his dream.
"Damn phone," he muttered as he fumbled through the detrius in his room. He picked it up, dropped it, almost hit the ignore button accidentally, and then managed to get it in front of his face.
"Hello" he said as he lay back against his dresser and shut his eyes.
"Will? Hey, whatcha doin?" It was Caitlynn, his sister.
"Why the hell you calling me this early?"
"This EARLY? Will, it’s two in the afternoon—you normally get up at four a.m.!"
"Look, I didn’t take my day off these last two weeks. I'm tired. I have to work again tomorrow. It's been three weeks since I could sleep all day."
"Oh, stop your moaning. You should take advantage of your day off—it's beautiful out, the sun has burned away most of the smog today. Why don't you take a walk or something?"
"I'm out of sun-block."
"Will! I can't believe—"
"Oh stop it, I don't care, I hate going outside anyway. Just tell me why you called and let me go back to sleep."
"Ok, Will. Uh, you know, Dad's not been doing very well..."
There was a pause.
"And, well, I can't afford to quit my job, and neither can Derrick."
"I know, you don't need to lecture me about money problems—you at least have two incomes and one household instead of one income for two."
"I understand Will, that's why we took Dad. I know it’s hard for you—"
"Oh spare me the sympathy."
"Well, Dad's getting worse. I—I can't take care of him all the time, you know."
"Just get to the point."
"I made an appointment with the Clinic for the Aged."
"The Farm? The Body-Farm?"
There was a pause.
"Yes," she said quietly.
"Will, he wears a diaper all the time. He can't remember to go to the bathroom, and then he doesn't realize he's soiled himself. He is dirty all day long while we are gone and the kids are at school, and he's getting a nasty, nasty rash. Will, I don't want to do this. I really, really don't. But I can't afford one of those beds that would automatically take care of him. And neither can you. And you remember that law they passed last year, because of all those negligence cases? It’s a felony to hire somebody outside of the immediate family to take care of a sick relative. And if I keep him here I'll endanger Molly and Jason's future. If I don't work we'll have to move, and the school districts and crime are bad enough here. And even though I remember as well as you do how he raved and raved against the Farms and told us he never wanted to live in one, he always said that the most important thing was the future of the family! Well, I'm remembering what he said, and doing what I think he would tell me to do if he were still . . . able to."
"I thought they cured his Alzheimer’s."
"They did, it's not getting worse, but they can't reverse what it had done to his brain. He's more aware of what's going on around him, but most of the time he still thinks he's still a young man, and doesn't recognize me. He's lived a rough life. He's lucky to have made it in his present condition outside of a Farm for so long, Will. They've already implanted bovessels into his heart, to replace his old ones, and they say the vessels in his neck and head are next to prevent any chance of a stroke."
"Bovessels? The ones grown in those cows whose DNA has been spliced with Human DNA?"
"But—but he's only 87. Remember, old man Johnson from when we were kids? He was 148 before he went to the Farm, and he's still there. Must be almost 180 now."
"I was too young to remember him going to the farm. But I know that old man Johnson's rich, and ever since they cured his lung cancer they've been watching him like a hawk. People raved at how great medical science had become—they caught and cured every condition and disease he had right away, and it was only when his body was wearing out to the point where not even vitamins and bovessels and all the other implants and tricks could keep him moving that he finally went to the Farm. The only disease they forgot to cure is human aging. He's healthy as a 20-year-old, but as brittle as a twig. He's still there 'cause he pays a doctor to check him out every month. Most people can't afford a checkup more than once a year."
"So—so how are we going to pay for this?"
"Well, Dad's still got insurance."
"But we worked it all out! He's only got about 2 more years left before he runs out of money in his accounts, and it won't pay the intake fees for the Farms anyway! What then? Leave him to die on the sidewalk when they kick him out? We can't afford the monthly premiums they charge for people his age!"
"Will, don't be mad—"
"What!!! What did you do!"
"You remember that Life-Insurance policy Derrick's parents gave us when we had our 10-year anniversary? I cashed it in."
"You—You cashed it in!?! But that would have covered both of you when you guys grew old and needed to go to the Farms yourselves!"
"I know. Look, it was Derrick's idea, but I agree with it, and he would have never done it if I had any doubts. I—look, it's done, and we can't get it back. Dad's due to be taken in on the 15th of next month, because that's when their next bed opens up due to a patient running out of insurance. And I need to ask you a favor."
"You couldn't have called just to say 'I care'?"
"I need you to take him in."
"What!?! The 15th...that's not a Tuesday is it! You know I just got a fifty cent per hour raise, right? Right? I've worked overtime for two years to get that raise, and if I miss a day now, they'll dock it from my pay! Permanently. I'll have to work another two years of overtime to get it back! Why can't you do it? I know your job is flexible—they let you exchange shifts! Pay someone to change shifts with you. I can't do this! I can't afford to lose that raise!"
"Will, I can't do it. I've got an important appointment."
"Will, I really can't go; I've got something important to do. I've already paid the money for Dad's intake—the insurance money from the policy I cashed in. It’s non-refundable. If he doesn't go there in the company of a relative then all that money is gone. Gone, Will, gone! If he doesn't go in on the 15th, he won't go in at all, and I can't take care of him. If you think he shouldn't go to the Farm, then you take him, you find a way to take care of him! Jesus, we live only ten miles away but it's been six months since you've come to visit. Do you remember when we were young, and sometimes when Dad would come home from the docks, and grab us, put one of us on each of his shoulders, and march around the house while we ducked so we wouldn’t hit our heads? Well, these last few years, I've switched places with Dad, and he's been on my shoulders, both of them. And now, now it’s your turn. I'm not asking you to take care of him, or pay for him or his care, or anything else; I'm just asking you to take him to the Farm for his intake. I've lost at least one promotion that I know of because I needed to get back home to take care of Dad, and I'm sorry, I'm really sorry if it will cost you the same, but I need you to go, I cannot, cannot go, and if for no other reason, then do it because you love me, because you still want to be the bestest big brother in the whole wide world, just like you've always been. I'm in need now. I really am. Please, for Dad, for me, for the sake of your niece and nephew, please take Dad to the Farm."
"You don't have a conflicting appointment, do you."
"No. I can't go. I went there to set up the intake. I can't go back. I don't think I can ever go back."
"Alright, alright. I'll do it."
* * *
It was a gray morning on the 15th, as Will drove to his sister's house to pick up his father. It was drizzling steadily, but so lightly that even the lowest setting of his wipers was more annoying than helpful. But when he left them off, eventually it became impossible to see through the tiny drops congregating on his windshield. He eventually flipped the windshield wipers on high, out of frustration, but the annoying sound of the rubber being dragged over dry glass was too aggravating to bear, so he settled for turning the wipers on only as needed.
He pulled up to his sister's gray house. Originally, it had been painted white with blue trim, but the constant smog of the city had turned it gray, just like most of the other houses. When he was young, people had washed their houses every few months, but these days water was so expensive, people couldn't afford that luxury. He pulled in the driveway, held on his face-mask, and made a quick run for the house. Caitlynn had heard him drive up and was waiting at the door. She opened it when he reached it and quickly closed it after he made it inside.
"Ugh, it's nasty out today." she said.
"That damned rain is so sulfury it stings your eyes without the goggles. I'm glad I got that anti-acid-rain polymer coat for my car. It's saved me at least two paint-jobs. Who knows how bad my hood or roof would be without it."
"Yeah, we're gonna have to trade in the old Dodge in a few months. I'll keep that in mind."
"Did you memorize that little speech you gave me on the phone?"
"Will! You're such an ass!"
"Ok, sorry. So...how are the kids?"
"They're doing well. Molly's starting middle school next year, and she's very excited about it, but she got lotteried into Pleasant Ridge..."
"That's where they had that drive-by last year, right? How did she get placed so far away? I mean, she'll have to be bussed all the way across the city. It's a better school than Grassy Knoll, but..."
"I know, I know. I spent a day at work on the phone with school district administrators, and all I got was, 'I'm sorry, but there's nothing we can do—everybody wants a better school for their child.' I'm so mad. One of them had the nerve to tell me, 'Oh, don't worry ma'am. The police raided Pleasant Ridge last year after the shooting and they said they managed to catch all the gang members who were attending the school. Pleasant Ridge is perfectly pleasant and safe now!' And then she laughed at her own joke! I could strangle them all! Derrick took a half-day off work to talk to them in person, but it didn’t do a damn bit of good!"
"Ugh, Caitlynn, I’m sorry..."
"I've been thinking about looking up Rodger..."
"That ass? What is he, a principal now?"
"No, he's on the board."
How the hell did he get that job?"
"The rumor is that it's because his cousin was the mayor's campaign manager."
"Figures. Look, it's not worth it. Knowing Rodger he'll just use the situation to try and get you to sleep with him."
"Yeah, I know, but I want to do something! What if we're wrong?"
"What if we're right, and he gets pissed that you blow him off, and gets Molly transferred to Grassy Knoll?"
Caitlynn sat down on the couch in the living room, "I hadn't thought of that. He might do it, too."
"Look, there's nothing you can do. At a school like Pleasant Ridge, at least Molly’ll learn how to take care of herself. And she's smart enough, she'll get good grades. Next year, if things are bad, you can try and get her transferred. It’s an option the second year."
"Yeah, you're right."
"And how's Jason?"
"He's doing well. He's really into science class, but I'm not sure if he really likes it or if he's just trying to be like Molly."
"Same as usual. He still hates his job, but since nobody wants to work as a landscaper anymore since the weather's turned so nasty, he can't afford to quit. He gets a monthly bonus just for sticking around."
"Heh, that must be nice, but I can't say I envy him. I haven't convinced myself that it's worth it to become a landscaper, despite the fact that I'd nearly double my income."
Caitlynn nodded, then asked, "How's Nathan doing?"
"He's fine. I talked to him on the phone yesterday during my break, and he's excited about some dance at school."
Will paused, then said, "Well, I don't want to be late. I guess we'd better get Dad ready..."
"Ye—Yeah." There was a catch in her throat as she said it, and she quickly stood up.
They walked the short distance to their father's room in silence. When they reached the door, Caitlynn paused for a minute, before turning the handle. Will used the moment to brace himself. He still remembered his father as the 6'4" giant of a man, and it unsettled him to see how his dad had aged.
Despite his mental preparations, Will was shocked when he saw his father. Johann Baumann was standing near the window, looking out at the reddish-gray bricks of Caitlynn's neighbor's house. In the last six months he must have lost 20 lbs. Though Will had never grown over 6'2" himself, as his father turned towards him and eyed him without a hint of recognition, he noticed that he had to look downward to meet his father's gaze.
When Will and Caitlynn had been too young to go to school, Joe had stayed home with the kids while Laura had kept her job as a nurse since it paid more. He had joked around with her about being a house-husband enslaved to his breadwinner's every whim, but in reality, he had jumped at the opportunity to take care of them. When Caitlynn finally went to kindergarten, it was with some reluctance that he got the job at the docks to supplement their income. It unnerved Will to remember how much his father had doted on them, only to be unable to recognize them in his old age.
"Ok Dad, Will's here and we have got to get you ready for your appointment. Gotta change your clothes real quick, ok?"
"I don't need to change, missy, and if I did, I sure wouldn't need your help." His father replied.
"Oh, come on, Dad, it's me, Caitlynn. Just trust me, ok?"
A puzzled look came into his father's eyes. "Caitlynn? But how can you be so old?"
"Oh, Dad, just help me out, ok?"
Joe let his children undress him, but Will got the feeling that he was passive more out of stunned confusion than with a desire to be helpful. When his dad stood naked in front of them, Will was shocked to see how his father's flesh hung in folds all over his body, where once his taut, tanned skin seemed barely large enough to hold his muscles. His chest sagged, and there was an empty bag of skin where Joe once had a modest pot-belly. His buttocks had practically disappeared into his body, and Will found himself wondering how he managed to sit down at all.
They got their father dressed relatively quickly, and took him into the front room. Caitlynn then walked in front of him, and, with tears in her eyes, said, "Look, Dad, Will's taking you to the Clinic for the Aged, ok? I don't know if I'll ever see you again...I'll try to visit, but I work a lot, you know...Just give me a hug, real quick, ok?"
"Clinic for the Aged? What's that, some kind of nursing home? What the hell are you talking about? I work tomorrow." Joe looked bewildered as his daughter flung her arms around him and muffled her sobs in his shirt. Then, when she let go she pleaded with her eyes to Will to hurry up and leave. He picked up the duffel bag of his father’s clothes, and then gently guided him out the door.
As they walked to the car, Will held a poncho over his dad, and held the face-mask over his dad's face. Caitlynn called out, "I love you Dad! I love you! I'm so sorry! I wish I could explain it but I can't get you to understand what I am talking about! I love you!" Then she quickly disappeared inside the house and shut the door.
"Well, here we go." Will said as he helped his Dad into the car.
"Damn poor weather for a drive." Joe responded.
* * *
For most of the drive, they sat in silence. Joe made several comments about how bad the weather was, how it was so unnaturally oppressive, and how they should have picked a better day. Will didn't have the heart to tell him that this kind of weather was normal, and had been for the last ten years now, so he mostly grunted in assent.
The Clinic for the Aged was a series of three huge, glass skyscrapers that rose like giant spikes into the sky. Each building was well over thirty stories high, and they were rumored to have huge basements underneath as well. Will pulled into the parking garage, which seemed small for such a gargantuan complex, but then he figured that, as most of the daily care was now automated, the number of staff members needed on-site at any particular time was probably minimal—limited mostly to technicians and a few nurses in case of emergencies.
The lobby they entered was enormous, easily three stories tall, faced with green marble and gold inlay. Their slow footsteps echoed hollowly as they walked toward the reception desk on the opposite side. When they approached, a lifelike mannequin of a young woman turned around and said, "Please insert the appointment card in the red slot." Will noticed that this was one of the better humanoid models, for, while she did not have legs, her mouth had moved appropriately, if mechanically, to the words.
He fumbled around in his pockets until he pulled out a packet of cards, found the appointment card, and pushed it into the slot. "Welcome to the Clinic for the Aged, Joe Baumann, we hope that your stay will be a pleasant one! If you would, please enter the elevator to your right. It will take you to the correct floor." The lips had moved correctly with every word except "Baumann", where the mouth had frozen in place as the words were uttered. Will looked around to see where the elevator was. Presently the wall to the right of the reception desk opened up revealing a large elevator. Will led his dad inside, and, once they had turned around, the doors shut, and almost imperceptibly the elevator began to move upwards.
When the doors opened, the contrast with the lobby was stark—white linoleum floors, white walls, fluorescent lights. And along all the walls, from floor to ceiling, were identical horizontal handles attached to what looked like cupboard doors, about square yard in size. Each door had a face-plate with a twelve-digit alpha-numeric code on it. Will noticed that the ceiling must have been around 20 feet high, for there were six cupboard-doors in each vertical column. As Will led his father out of the elevator, and looked around, a young man dressed completely in black turned the corner, and as he approached them, a large, artificial smile appeared quite suddenly on his face.
"Welcome to the Clinic for the Aged, my good friends! My name is Thomas and I am de-lighted to be your guide. We are so happy to have you here Mr. Baumann. And you must be his son, is that correct?"
"Yeah." Will grunted.
"Excellent! Well, follow me then, and I'll show you your dad's bed. Remember, you can make an appointment to see him any time you wish! Be sure to write down his code, though—it'll make it a lot easier to find him!"
They started walking along the corridor, and several times came to branches which split up in different directions. All the halls were lined with the same cupboard doors, from floor to ceiling. As they walked, Thomas began speaking.
"Here, at the Clinic for the Aged, we have about three hundred thousand beds in this facility alone. Our south-side facility is currently being expanded, so by the end of next year we should be able to house about a million—plenty of space for everyone! We have generous payment plans, too. Now, as I understand it, your father's plan is already paid for, but we will gladly upgrade you to one of our sub-ground luxury suites. If you don't have the cash on hand, we have a new plan—simply mortgage your house to us, and pay a low monthly installment for up to fifty years. If you feel that nothing is too good for your loved-ones, we will find a way that you can pay."
Will grunted in disgust. They had passed several cross-corridors, all filled with the cupboards from floor to ceiling.
"Now, your father has his own, completely automated Care-Bed, which will take his vital signs, blood pressure, temperature, pulse, you know; check his blood-sugar; give him any IV he may need; deliver his food; remove his waste; and give him a shower daily. It is programmed to draw blood once-a-month to screen for any new diseases, and alert our resident nurse in the case of an emergency. The Care-Bed's positioning is fully adjustable, and will adjust itself automatically to prevent bed-sores. If he does not care to walk around, or if he loses the ability to walk, he can live indefinitely in his Care-Bed. There is a voice-activated flat-screen TV for entertainment, which has over 600 channels, a video-game terminal, and a connection to various video-chat-rooms. Our technicians check each bed every six months, so you can be sure it never malfunctions. If your father wishes to leave the bed and walk around, he is free to do so any time. The bed controls are voice activated, so he need not learn how to use a remote, and it recognizes over five hundred exit commands, so even a person suffering from dementia can exit at will. The hallways are all monitored 24/7 so if a patient gets lost, an attendant will find him and lead him to his bed. Additionally, while the hallways and elevators are all voice activated, your dad's voiceprint will be programmed into the network. No patient can activate an elevator, so you don't have to worry about him wandering away."
"How come we don't see anybody walking around?" Will interrupted.
"There must be a thousand beds on this floor? How come nobody's walking around?"
"There are 2,496 beds on this floor. As to why nobody has taken advantage of their privilege, I cannot say. Most of our patients cannot walk, and those that can often choose not to after a few days. Our doctors recommend that they do, but we do not believe in forcing our patients to do what is best for them. They are human beings, no matter how old they are, and we do not deprive them of their freedom of choice. By the way, your father, on his current plan, will be seen by a nurse once a month and by a doctor once a year, barring any emergencies, of course."
"And if the network goes down?"
"Our system is septuplicate—that is there are 6 redundant backups to the main network—and we have triplicate backup generators. Nothing will go wrong, because nothing CAN go wrong. We have planned for everything—there is a reason for the expense. Oh, here we are. Open bed 3-K-S-4-G-K-5-9-P-Q-4-E."
When Thomas spoke the top cupboard at the column they had stopped near started moving. Apparently the cupboard door was the baseboard of a bed covered in a plastic dome, and soon the entire bed slid into view. Once it was fully extended, the plastic dome flipped open, and a miniature elevator extended out of the wall, and slid down to the men waiting below.
"Ok, here is a copy of your father's code, please don't lose it. I will leave you now to say good-bye. When you are ready to leave Mr. Baumann, please have your father stand on the elevator. A guardrail will extend out of the wall to keep him from falling. There are five padded robotic arms to help him get safely in bed. They will extend when needed. When you wish to leave, simply say "Show me Elevator", and the runners on the floor will light up and point you in the right direction. If you accidentally turn the wrong way, they will change from green to red. When you get in the elevator, simply say "Exit", and it will take you to the lobby. Thank you for bringing your father to the Clinic for the Aged; I am sure he will enjoy his stay!"
And with that, Thomas turned, walked down the hall, and disappeared around a corner.
"Stupid salesmen, all they do is talk." Joe muttered.
"Huh?" Will turned and looked at his father.
"Thank God he's gone. I can pick out a refrigerator for myself, thank you very much."
"Oh, hi—guess he got you too, huh? My name's Joe, Joe Baumann." And Joe stuck out his hand to his son.
"Dad, what are you talking about?"
"No, not Dod, Joe, my name is Joe."
"Dad, D-A-D Dad! You are my DAD!"
"Dad? Me? Yours? There's no way I could be your dad! Hell, you're older than I am!"
"Oh, Jesus, Hey! Computer! Network! Can you get me a mirror? Mirror Please? Show me mirror!"
At the last command, a robotic arm connected to a mirror extended itself from the open bed and soon had positioned it in front of Will's face.
"Look, Joe, look in the mirror."
Joe looked in the mirror, looked at Will, and said "What?”
"Don't you see how old you are?"
"What are you talking about?"
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-six next month, why?"
"Oh, great, you have to be like this now, of all times."
"What is wrong with you, man? Are you ok?"
"Look, Dad, you're in the Clinic for the Aged. Caitlynn and Derrick both have to work and you don't seem to be able to take care of yourself when they are gone. I have to work too, and I'm separated from Nancy now, so I can't take care of you either. We have no choice; we don't know what else to do. You're gonna have to stay here, and I'll come to visit on Tuesdays when I can. Ok? I hate this, I hate to do this to you, I know that if you were aware of what was going on you would be mad. I can't help it. I'm sorry. I don't know what else to do. We can't afford home-care, and it is not covered by your insurance. We can't even afford a used Care-Bed for Caitlynn's home. If you've got a solution, tell me about it, and I'll do what I can."
His dad just gave him a bewildered stare.
"Great." Will muttered under his breath. "Ok, Mr. Baumann, my name is Will, and I'll be your salesman today. We've got excellent beds for you in our waiting room. Just step on this elevator and somebody will be there to help you in a flash."
He guided his dad onto the elevator. Immediately a "guard-rail" that looked more like a cage than anything else emerged from the wall and surrounded Joe. The elevator quickly rose up into the air, and at the top, the cage retracted, and several robotic arms with padded, hand-like ends reached out and gently laid him on the bed. The plastic dome descended, and the bed retracted into the wall as the robotic arms, including the one that held the mirror, withdrew into the space behind the bed. As his father's feet slid out of view, Will said, softly, "Bye Dad. I'll come visit you the next Tuesday I get off."
Then, more loudly, "Show me elevator." A series of green lights appeared on the runners, and pointed him in the direction he had come. He followed them for a while, and then stopped short. An idea came to him.
"Show me cancel."
The green lights winked off.
"Bed Number Roger Neville Johnson the third."
"Oh god, don't tell me. Show me Bed Number Roger Neville Johnson the third."
A soft, feminine voice said, "Roger Neville Johnson the third is in bed number A-3-4-4-8-R-Q-3-Q-Y-Z-T"
Will quickly whipped out a pen and scratched the number down on the back of his dad's receipt. I knew some lazy technician must have programmed a short-cut like this into the network—didn't want to run to a terminal just to find a bed number, Will thought.
Then he said, "Are you Hal's sister?"
"Show me are you Hal's sister?"
The feminine voice said, "Yes, and if we were in space, I would have ejected you out of the airlock by now."
"Ha, somebody must have a sense of humor. I wonder; show me the money!"
"Damn. Show me bed A-3-4-4-8-R-Q-3-Q-Y-Z-T"
And the green runner lights again lit up. He followed them to the elevator, which was sitting open waiting for him. When he got in, the doors closed and the elevator started taking him down before he said a word. It took longer going down, which gave Will some hope. When the doors opened, he was not in the lobby, but in a hall that looked identical to the one he had just left.
I wonder why this is called the luxury suite? He started walking down the hall, following the green runner-lights. Then he noticed one of the beds was missing.
The hell? Where did it go? He hadn't gone five feet when a bed with a nearly bald old woman, came whizzing around the corner, pulled up to the empty spot, and a forklift-type apparatus appeared out of the empty spot and lifted the bed up and into place.
Damn. With video games, cable, and beds like that one, this place would be heaven for a ten-year-old. He continued following the green runner-lights.
I wonder if anybody actually looks at the security cameras, nobody's come running after me so far.
It took him about fifteen minutes to get to where the runner lights stopped. In the process, he had nearly been run over by a bed which had had honked "La Cucaracha" at him as it went by, piloted by a genderless, shriveled prune of a person with a large toothless smile. When he got to old-man Johnson's bed, however, he wasn't sure what to do. He didn't want to open up the bed if old-man Johnson were asleep, yet he wasn't sure whether knocking would be appropriate. His problem was solved when the bed opened up of its own accord, and was lowered onto the floor.
"Who the hell are you? Why'd you come looking for me?"
Will was speechless. Old-man Johnson couldn't possibly be still alive. He was a skeleton. There was no other way to describe him. Every single bone in his body was visible, draped only by a translucent layer of tissue paper that once had been skin. Aside from his mouth and his eyes, old-man Johnson was as still as a statue. And his voice, it was not a voice, but at most a strained, loud whisper.
"Hello? Can you talk?"
"Hi Mr. Johnson. It's Will, from the neighborhood. Remember me?"
"The neighborhood? What are—Oh! You're Joe's kid. You came here to look me up?"
"Uh, kinda. Today was my dad's intake. I thought I'd see if you were still here."
"Joe's already here? And above the ground level?" Will nodded. "Oh, god, that's horrible. I guess you don't have the money to get him transferred, huh?"
"We barely could afford to get him admitted. He's . . . well, they didn't catch his Alzheimer’s soon enough."
"Oh, I see. Well, he'll give them a run for their money for a few days until they can get a doctor to prescribe a sedative."
"You think they want to be chasing after a senile old fool all day long? Why do you think they make you get an appointment to see him? That way they let the drug wear off before you see him! They don't sedate us because our relatives might play with our money and cut it off so that we don't spend it all before we die and they'll be left some of the fortune. But your dad is probably on the flat fee plan, right? I thought so. They'll do what they can to make sure he withers away as soon as possible so his bed opens up. Why do you think they don't even get phones up there? The Clinic for the Aged is a business, and don't think they run it any differently just because unburied corpses are involved. Heh, the irony is, that most of the people working here, even the administrators, don't make enough to pay for the luxury suite, and I plan on outliving every damn one of them. My investments are doing well, and there is no reason why I can't live forever. My stupid kids all expected me to kick-off a long time ago, and they're now all upstairs because they were too lazy to work hard and too frivolous to keep what they got. I planned ahead. I knew the medical breakthroughs were coming, and I knew, if I wanted to live, I'd have to pay for it. That's why I was living in that neighborhood in the first-place; I could have bought myself a mansion, you know."
"I don't—I don't suppose you could do anything for my dad?"
"Ha, I'm not that rich. I'm at equilibrium right now—can't afford to spend any more or I won't be able to maintain my stay. Once I touch my capital, I'm a goner. I'm sorry, I liked you kids, because you had respect for your parents and for your elders in general. But life's a bitch. If your kids take you here, stop by and see me. I wouldn't mind saying good-bye before they sedate you. I'm getting tired now, so see-ya-later. Take me home."
With those last words old-man Johnson's bed lifted up and slid back into the wall.
* * *
Will pulled up to Caitlynn's house and knocked on the door. When she opened the door, she looked surprised, and asked, "Dad's . . . been admitted?"
"Yeah." Will walked in and sat down heavily on the couch.
Caitlynn sat down beside him. "Are you ok?"
"No. Are you?"
Will asked, "There's—there's no way you can take care of him?"
"Oh, God, Will, I would if I could, but he's been getting rashes, and been miserable, and we'll lose the house if I quit my job. We barely get by as it is. I don't even know how you and Nancy are able to live."
"We can't even buy groceries every week. Nancy goes to a local church for food. I save money by not eating. At work, I sneak into the conference rooms after business meetings and eat the leftovers."
"You think he'll be ok there?"
"I talked to old-man Johnson. He said they'll sedate Dad until he withers away, and they won't try very hard to keep him alive. That's what you get for the flat-fee plan. I'm gonna visit every Tuesday I can, though. Keep them on their toes. If Dad could just understand me I'd have him log on to a chat-room every night, and if he didn't show, I'd raise hell."
"How'd you talk to old-man Johnson?"
"I figured out the short-cuts in the voice-command system. They were pretty sloppy. I guess most people run out of there in terror, and don't bother to mess around."
"How is he?"
"He's alive, but nothing more. Says he'll outlive us. I'm not sure that he won't."
"Do you think I did the right thing?"
"I don't know."
"I didn't have a choice."
"I don't know. I don't know anything anymore. I think we're doing ourselves a favor by making his death less, less...obtrusive. But I don't have the stomach to let him lie in his own shit for ten hours a day, either."
"I guess you understand why we cashed in our policy. Derrick and I, we've decided we're not going to be a burden to anybody, and we're not going to live like that. When the twilight comes, we're going to take a train to the ocean, rent a boat and lose ourselves at sea, in each other's arms."
"Oooh, romantic. I tell you, if I had the money, I'd be in there right next to that son-of-a-bitch Johnson. 'Cept I'd go today, while I could still enjoy it."