Cryonics n. the process of freezing a body at the moment of its death with the hope that it will be brought to life at some future time.
~ The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary
This definition was like a sick amen burned into Reggie’s synapses. It was a prayer already dead and robbed of spirit before escaping his lips. A buzz in the ears. Not always loud, but always there. A second shadow. He needed it to stop. And tonight, standing in a field, he would mark his hundredth transaction.
The clients he received were different. They weren’t near death. They didn’t suffer any fatal diseases. They weren’t billionaires and business giants dreaming of shedding their last strands of mortality like a divine skin. All of his client’s symptoms revolved around a sharp terminal boredom with a world they felt out of place in, and a desperate lethal hope for an exciting playground of the future.
They froze themselves in the midst of life. Reggie was their assumed conductor. Slabs of ice were his locomotive. It was easier to think in these terms, almost fun. It was all smoke and mirrors anyway.
Reggie had another definition for this procedure scrawled on the back of his business card, which no one ever bothered to read. Cryonics n. The art of playing chicken with death.
The first definition battled with the second one in his head. There was a tap on his shoulder. A patient stood in a suit, tie, and dress shoes that gleamed like polished glass in the Iowa moonlight. He had jelled black hair curving up toward the wide sheet of sky and Reggie could see he was far too young to be making a decision like this.
There was no chitchat, he didn’t bother asking for a name, medical information, or semantics. It was simple and unfeeling, it had to be, and he liked it better this way.
The patient tiptoed across the grass. They always walked like this during the final hour, especially the young patients. It made Reggie uncomfortable, as if the ground were an imposter breaking under his feet, a thin pocket of ice on a pond.
They moved like ghosts through mazing stalks of corn, leafy rows bending onto a distant hill. They passed a scarecrow. Rigid flannel and button-dead eyes. Thoughts of angular hallways, disinfectant, and his palm against a pane of ice, it all flooded through him. He hated these tiny wisps of memory. They were worse during working nights.
Reggie reminded himself where he was, and the coldness in his head melted away. It was summer. It was warm and the world was green. There were only farms here, and bushes, and crops, and a barnyard that stank to the high heavens. They entered it. The barn was filled with stables, smelly animals, and the creak of old timber. It was worn, hot, and the wooden walls and rafters were trees capturing them in a milled and shellacked forest. The patient stopped.
Reggie craned his neck back. His body ached from even such small efforts.
“Are you coming?”
The patient searched the darkness, switching his eyes back and forth toward the door and curls of shadow that would become rolling pastures by morning.
“Shouldn’t this happen somewhere–” the patient floundered over the right words. “Different?”
“Different?” Reggie laughed inside. This one would be easy to take care of. “What’s one place to another?”
The patient eyed his own clothes: smooth, professional, expensive, useless things. Everything was hay and dirt. A horse neighed. Another clopped, shuffling an inch in its stall.
“I thought this would happen in the Arctic, somewhere remote.”
Reggie shook his head. They were all so stupid about it, every time. They wanted senseless parades of wonderment to lead them to their tombs.
Reggie shut the door, but didn’t lock it. The kid would be running for the hills soon enough. The way he figured it, the promise of death had kept man going for epochs. Death equals survival, it keeps people living, structures existence, perhaps even gives it meaning. But now death was compromised. There was no more certainty of death. The zero K cathedrals had seen to that. Yet immortality was still an ambiguous cloud, a game of chicken, who would move first. Man or nature. Life or death. Humanity was losing the only certainty it had ever known; it would soon lose its mind to this process as well. He was sure of it. He was also sure he could make a buck along the way. This was his sickly deformed piece of revenge, a spite against the future of all mankind.
“Iowa is plenty remote,” Reggie replied. “Nothing ever happens here.”
The smell of manure grew once the door shut. Chickens clucked, and an animal somewhere snorted in its sleep. The patient was suddenly sweating through his button-up.
An image appeared of a hard murky surface, a slab of deepening frost, Reggie shook it out of his mind.
“It’s a scorcher tonight, maybe you want to get out of all those uppity clothes.” He couldn’t have been very old; he probably still used a fake ID to drink.
“I will not go in rags,” he motioned to Reggie’s clothes and then played with his own cuffs. “They’ll think I’m a caveman.”
Reggie was watching a nervous toddler cling to his binky. That was all.
“It’s like you’re dressed for your own funeral,” Reggie said, pulling an item from his bag. It clanged and he grinned. His smile was a bright beam. A Jimmy Carter smile. That’s what she had always told him.
His patient gave a nervous twitch when the shovel appeared. Reggie kicked at the hay in the center of the barn, pushing it aside with thin bony legs. Underneath was a wide area where floorboards had been ripped up and the solid stark earth showed. He scraped at the last of the straw, placing the shovel in the patient’s hands, then he sat on a bale and pulled out the newspaper.
His patient gazed at the shovel and let it slide from his fingers to the floor.
“This is crazy.”
“Just make a large pit about – ” Reggie looked his patient up and down, “oh, I’d say five, eleven; six feet deep.”
“What are we digging for?” there was a tremble in his patient’s voice.
This should have made Reggie glad, but those odd reels were turning in his mind. Definitions stumbled by.
The police were standing outside his door. It was sleeting stupidly. Their words had lost all meaning after “your wife”. They escorted him to a decadent hospital, hidden away on an island, camouflaged. It was a corny sci-fi film, and he was living it. There were stairs. It was deep underground, and he felt like he was passing through circles, vestibules to some nameless horror. His mind snapped back to bales of hay and floors of manure.
“Buried treasure,” Reggie said. “Fact, we aren’t digging for a thing, you’re digging a hole while I sit and read my paper,” Reggie said, pulling out sunflower seeds from the bag, sucking on them one by one by one before spitting them into the dirt. His patient didn’t move.
Reggie sighed, “Kid, you're digging a hole, not reinventing the wheel. Now get a move on it.”
A long moment passed in which Reggie was convinced the whole night’s work was wrapped up right then and there, but his patient picked up the shovel, and went to work, muttering, cursing, and digging.
It was never hard to guess their thoughts. It was actually very simple. They were always the same disappointed brats. It was all clay and straw. There were no gadgets, or cryonic laboratories, or chambers of sublimation, or pools of liquid nitrogen, or tanks onto a zero K platform of eternal existence. There were no secret underground systems, no bright screens of data, no clean waiting rooms sliding out from behind walls, no divine analytical conversion from porous life to solid crisp sheets of ice. This is ultimately what made all of them back out, when the grandeur was stripped away and there was nothing left to save them from themselves.
Heat lightning flashed outside. The sky buzzed, sweating out power and godliness. Quick jagged drops of heaven flicked into the hefty slow-burn of a charcoal night.
“Finally,” his patient said. The senseless outfit was already dirt-covered, with no way to tell where the suit ended and the earth began. “Something dramatic. I feel like we’re having the Super Bowl in a cafeteria right now, it’s pathetic.”
Reggie spit up another seed, puffing his cheeks out. This was because they were playing a game of chicken, not football.
“Sights like those make you appreciate life an awful lot. Be a shame to never see a pretty glimpse of heaven like that again.”
He wouldn’t respond. Reggie knew why. What he wanted wasn’t life. He wanted the glossy formation of a 21st century afterlife, new chemical-frost angels and ice-chunk deities to carry him away. He wanted the Styx to cramp up around him and sweep him downriver toward unimaginable visions. What he got was the smell of pigsties and natural fertilizers in his nose.
A long time passed with only the clang of the shovel. The kid stopped digging. Reggie eyeballed the hole’s depth. This would do fine. He covered the pit with tarp, a wrinkled plastic sheeting, laying it unevenly like a blanket. Reggie used duct tape to cover places where the tarp had torn or frizzled at the seams. There was an assorted group of bricks. He dragged several of these to each corner to pin the tarp down.
Reggie checked the rafters for birds, shooing off the remaining pigeons. They settled a few feet further away.
“Don’t want to be getting rained on by birds while we freeze you stiff.”
The kid turned to him and sighed, “You really know how to ruin a mood.”
“Hand me that bucket.”
His patient handed him a rusty tin. Reggie scooped up water from a trough. Muck, and soggy hay, and dead bugs, trickled over a dented rim. It was dumped into the hole and exploded against the tarp before settling in a coffee-colored puddle. Reggie repeated this action to ensure there weren’t leaks. He moved slow, joints hurting.
When he’d entered the room, with the hum of gears and shock of glass cylinders staring back out, his knees had buckled. They reached his wife’s bed. There were metal parts and tubes everywhere. But she was already encased in a deep tomb. This made no sense. He’d been talking to her, a day ago he’d gone to the diner with her, twelve hours ago she’d woken him up to breakfast, six hours ago she’d waved from the window as he mowed the lawn, scraping the green from the earth and letting it jump to the air. Five hours ago, she’d gone out for groceries. Three hours ago the driveway was still empty. Two hours ago, there was a violent knock at his door.
The kid was asking him something. The words came out as a dull buzz in his bad ear. The damn kid had to speak up. Kids never knew how to talk to old men.
“Isn’t that water for the animals?”
Reggie nodded, “A little dirt won’t kill you.” He stared at the two-cent hole in the ground, like a clumsy fort he might have built with a friend on a rainy afternoon as a child. “Probably won’t kill you,” Reggie added.
“I know what you’re doing,” he said. “Why are you trying to scare me out of this?”
Reggie told him the near-truth. Afterward he didn’t know why, only that he felt sick tonight from feverish heat and memory.
“Kid, I get the money whether you go through with this or not. There aren’t refunds for this kind of process. Saves me a lot of time and energy if you don’t actually freeze. You see, in an underground job like this there is one thing you tend to learn, and it's got very little to do with the scientific and philosophical mumbo jumbo.” Reggie leaned in, whispering his secret into his patient’s ear, letting it pass through him as a heavy shadow. “The world is full of chickens, kid.”
His patient frowned and glanced at his shoes. “Is that why we’re standing in chickenshit?”
These kids were all so cheeky and ignorant. Reggie gave another beaming smile. He grabbed a hose, turned the spigot. Cool water filled the pit.
“You’re a mean man,” said his patient. “And my name’s Tim, not kid."
Dammit, why’d he have to go and tell him a thing like that?
“I could’ve done this in a graveyard.” Reggie replied. “Now keep your complaints to yourself.”
Minutes spouted by. He didn’t take in a word as he scanned through the Sioux City Journal in his lap. Tim, no, no, no… his patient… the patient had gone awfully quiet. He kept checking his flashy watch, as if he was in a hurry to get somewhere far away, his only words were to ask what came next.
“We wait,” Reggie replied. “It’s part of the job.”
His patient leaned over the tarp edge. Brown mosquito-laced water slowly diluted with tap. The heat, and walls, and dusty cobweb rafters pressed down on everything. The patient took long steps backward and turned toward the window, to the gloom of crops and monoculture fields. His face was red, his eyes grew large, like saucer plates.
Reggie braced for the explosion. There was always an inward explosion, anger intertwined with the paralyzing fear. Tim was yelling now.
“The job? You’re a cryonicist! I mean damn did I take a wrong exit getting here? Did I enter some blooper reel in the Twilight Zone? This is crazy. You should be in a lab wearing specks, reporting on modules and data, analyzing and preparing deep-freeze capsules. What the hell kind of backwoods operation is this? Walmart cryonics or something?”
It was actually called Cheap-O Cryonics. It said so on his card. The daydreams of billionaires for a layman’s price. This ignorance didn’t bother Reggie as much as the incessant buzz of Tim’s voice. Definitions thundered through his brain.
In a room built like a computer chip, he laid his palm on a slab of ice. She was encased completely. It was like she was taking a long nap. Soon she would awake and scold him for letting her sleep too long, she would promise to make him dinner, she would read a book in bed, and he would pretend to be asleep while listening to her calm wonderful breathing as she leafed through pages of a hardcover. He was sure this was true. He was trembling. His palm on the ice was like hot metal, and he pulled the hand away cradling it like a hurt animal. The scientists were saying something long and complex. It had been prearranged, there was a letter. She hoped he would understand. She was just too afraid of this disease, she didn’t want to lose her memories, to one day forget who he was while she sat beside him. There was a word, cryotics, or cryogenics, or cryonics, something mysterious and terrible. He would learn what this all meant later. For now, he just sobbed.
Then came a buzz, the return of the barn and stables. His patient was still going on, giving a great fit. Reggie cut him short.
“Listen kid, this is black market level stuff. You want to freeze into oblivion while standing under a chandelier? You want me to make slush out of you while sipping champagne? You’ve come to the wrong place. This isn’t another shin-dig you can go tell your friends about afterward. You come in here dressed like you're heading to an evening ball. You’re making the most important decision of your life. No amount of sideshows and visual charts are gonna change that, or lighten the load.”
The hose gurgled and Reggie sucked on more sunflower seeds. He knew he’d upset the kid. A deep, small part of him felt bad. But something wasn’t right. Tim was still eyeing the pool, like a man preparing to take the polar plunge in the depths of winter. Reggie nearly choked on his seeds, coughing them up. Tim was still going through with it.
“You don’t know what it’s like. To be invisible, to be so invisible that fading away sounds like a luxury.”
Reggie ran through options in his mind. He would walk the teenage angst in this kid through the illogic of it, that always got the tough ones. He handed his patient a bundle of seeds. Tim took the olive branch and didn’t eat them, instead running them through his fingers like sand.
“Got any plans for the beyond?” Reggie shooed away the pigeons again. “You’ll have to recreate everything, new house, new people; probably have to get a job to afford anything.”
“Job?” Tim stiffened like an electric volt had whipped through him. “I won’t need a job. I’ll be a novelty. I’ll be rich and famous. Think of it, celebrities, and beings of the past come to haunt the future. I’ll be interviewed, guest speaking everywhere, my name in pixelated 3-D lights.”
The splendor of it all gave Tim a dazed look as he foretold his superstardom.
Reggie shrugged. “There’s lots of people like you these days, otherwise there wouldn’t be guys like me paying my groceries under the table with your wild dreams to turn yourself into a human skating rink.” He turned off the spigot and the water stopped gushing. “Seems to me you’re all gonna wake up a long ways from now, confused, blinking at each other, half-witted, asking for the new wifi password while the rest of the world turns and laughs at the new batch of clowns.”
Water spun in a dark whirlpool. Reggie pulled out a Ziploc bag full of powder. He told his patients it was a mix of several chemical substances, mostly sodium acetate, that would get diluted in water and then freeze on instant skin contact. This was technically correct, but in the world of cryonics this all would have been useless. Sodium acetate acted more like warm snow or clay. The substance wasn’t sodium acetate anyway, only salt and sugar. Reggie liked the way it sounded though, like a substance combusting on the tongue. It was the small parts of this job he enjoyed. The large parts were too terrible to think about. He gave them the word sodium acetate because it was simple, unquestionably scientific, and useless. Just like all of this. He poured the salt and sugar in. It diluted, as if spirits were dancing beneath a liquid vat.
“Now,” Reggie said. “You get in.”
Tim didn’t move.
“What? You need me to adjust your tie?”
“This isn’t how I pictured it.”
“Yeah,” Reggie was already gathering up the shovel and zipping up his bag. “You said something like that already.”
“Not at all how I pictured it. I thought there would be more finesse.”
The kid wouldn’t do it. From here it was just a matter of toying with him, beating the terror and folly into this snot-nosed shoe-polished brat.
“If you’re getting cold feet, I can hit you over the head with my shovel and drag you in myself.”
He wished she was there to smack him on the shoulder and remind him how unfunny he was being.
“Cold feet?” Tim asked. “My everything is cold all the time, haven’t you been listening?”
His steps were clumsy as he inched back toward the water in the hot sarcophagus of the barn.
“It’s very warm out. I don’t want to melt afterward or anything.”
Reggie had to suppress the laughter and nearly didn’t this time. Tim thought he was Frosty the Snowman.
“I got a high-powered ice saw. When you go under, curl into a ball at the bottom while you freeze. Don’t want you flailing your arms and feet. Don’t want your limbs all over, you know?”
“No, I don’t”
“Well with the limbs everywhere… I can do a pretty hack job with the saw.” Reggie grinned. His big toothy grin was like Jimmy Carter as a door-to-door salesman. That was what she always told him. She called him Jimmy sometimes instead of Reggie. It was their personal little joke. This tiny stupid thing only they shared, this humor in the face of a peanut farmer.
What they were telling him didn’t make sense. She’d been planning this for years. Since she found out it ran in the family, saving up money. She was scared of her oldness, what it meant each year when she blew out the candles or forgot where she put the keys. She had kept it secret. Wanted it to be a surprise. They would sleep into the future together. If he would be so willing, they would like him to lie on the platform so they could freeze him too. They would have to “lull” him to sleep first. That meant euthanize. Then it was all a buzz in his ear. Why had she done this? Why did she think he had the courage to face such a relentless oblivion? The doctors assured him everything was state of the art.
Why was she abandoning him?
Reggie swore at himself. The images weren’t going away. He needed it to end. God, he needed it to end. Watching someone turn from the brink for the hundredth time. Orchestrating the whole collapse of these dolts' Jetson age fantasies was his only thread of joy, a last vengeance to the icy patterns that had taken his world away.
“Once I get the ice chunk out of this barn, I’ll load it onto the bed of the pickup. My people, they’ll take you to a freezer.” Reggie was speaking mechanically; his mind was elsewhere. “It isn’t in the Arctic or on secret islands, just a good old walk-in freezer. Like burger meat.”
The thought rose out of stuck faces, eyes staring dead or numbed, pleading at him through the everlasting cold. In his imagination the eyes turned an emerald green. She had done it to escape the fear. He could understand this. He couldn’t forgive this, and least of all repeat this. The scientists had reasoned with him, flashed him her last will and testament. Points of data. The facilities' disaster plans. They were offering him something sacred. He stormed out confused, already feeling the chill of the place following up his spine, promising to end him. He couldn’t tell if he’d witnessed slow-motion reincarnation, or murder by a sleek scientific new name. The definition roared in his head.
Reggie snapped out of his visions.
“What’ll it feel like?”
He never got this far with clients; they didn’t contemplate. Jesus, the patient –Tim, was still ready to do it. Reggie felt distracted tonight, he was sure that was why it was all going to hell.
“A plunge into December water, a brain freeze all over, a blanket of packed snow, falling asleep. How should I know?”
Tim spoke up, “I’m ready to be frozen into the future.”
These were wonderful prophetic little words and Reggie was, for an instant, sorry they would be wasted on this dirty little trick.
Tim was standing tall, as if he’d just walked through a storm. His knees weren’t even buckling. They always buckled at the end. Reggie’s had.
This horrified Reggie, and it made him laugh.
“You don’t want to be frozen; you want the experience of being frozen, and those are two very different things.”
“You don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
Jesus this was bad.
“We’ll see,” Reggie said.
“If you hate this so much, why do it? Why suck the fun out of it?”
Reggie gazed around at the trampled hay and metal grates where animals huddled in corners and flies buzzed around dim lights, and he thought of his wife who had deserted him for a mistress named the Future, and he thought of metallic contraptions and chemical concoctions. His fists were balled up and the full truth spilled out, the one he reserved for his head.
“Because, there has to be someone to show people that the future isn’t fun, it’s merely the present, a little less certain of which nightmare it chooses to be. These things you wish to escape. You won’t find them in your cutting-edge afterlife. You could go to the nicest lab and sleekest chambers, all decked out in silicon and strontium. You won’t find happiness there by fleeing a moment while it’s already passing.”
“But,” Tim stared longingly at the pit. “What if I want something better–”
A long uncomfortable silence descended.
He was sobbing outside the facility; none of it made any sense. He was supposed to be lying in bed next to her, falling asleep to the sound of her breathing. Now he might never sleep again. Now he wasn’t scared of death, only the calm motionless ice.
Tim was at the edge. His face was mixed, like he couldn’t decide if he was plunging into heaven or hell.
There was a brief moment when Reggie believed he would step back. It passed. His patient leaned in, stepped forward, and dropped.
No one had ever done that, and now Reggie had misread everything. This wasn’t a snot-nosed kid, this was someone hurting. Someone badly hurting in the same inconsolable way he’d been perhaps. Blind spots were a killer.
Tim didn’t flail or tread water, instead he sank like a rock to the bottom. Just as Reggie had instructed. But there was no freezing, no crackle of ice, no blast of life into a fossilized cool. It was a scam, and the scam was more complete than ever before.
Moments passed. Air bubbles appeared. The kid would come up once he realized nothing was freezing, he would have to. More moments passed. A horse whinnied. More moments passed. Reggie swore at himself and paced. More moments passed. Reggie leapt into the pit. It was narrow and he had to avoid stepping on the ball of flesh and clothing at the bottom. He sucked in a breath, and dunked under.
Cold! Cold! Cold! He wrestled with the tarp, and chills, and growing darkness only a few feet below. He wanted to stay under and freeze, never leave her side. It was no use; all this hoodwinking would never be of any use to anyone. He should’ve known that from the start, perhaps he always had.
It was funny, the obvious things a person could keep secret from themselves.
Reggie forced his bony legs to move. He grasped a soggy collar and pulled. There was resistance at first, but then it was like dragging up a buoy. They both burst through, coughing.
Reggie pulled the kid out slowly, with nothing to grip but the tarp. Reggie was shaking. The water had soaked through to his bones. He was getting too old. Tim was coughing. He’d be okay. Soon there was only the sound of dripping. The kid was curled up like a small wet dog.
“I’m sorry.” It was all Reggie could think to say. “This was fake. All fake.”
He waited for yelling, to be struck down by the clods of heat lightning still illuminating the wide fields outside the window, like some beautiful storm from a silent picture, but Tim just blinked at him.
“I feel like death.”
Tim stood up wobbly, took a final look around, and sprinted out the door. This normally made Reggie laugh, but now he took no joy from it at all. He saw himself sprinting into the night, becoming one of the patients, and fizzling out when dawn came.
At his rusted pickup he found Tim in the back soaking his wet face against the seats. He was shivering, even in August heat.
The sky crackled, turning a chill murky blue in the cloud-cover. It was the whirling of sirens outside his door. The definition would never leave his mind, the memories, the everything of human pain. He told the kid to hang in there and turned on the radio so he’d have something to occupy himself with. You always had to keep them occupied.
“What do I do now?” Tim was sobbing. “The future is gone.”
He sighed, “The future comes a day at a time kid.”
The kid, Tom, Todd, Tim, whatever it was, nodded and for the first time it looked like some of what he’d said had finally broken through. Reggie grabbed the keys but hesitated. He returned to the barn where horses and pigs now slept silently. The water remained cool against summer heat. It would have been so easy to just slip in for a brief forever.
He pulled his hand out and watched the wad of business cards sink into a wet clump, vanishing in muck, feeling something coming dislodged in his chest. An overcast slipped out of his soul, and he walked back outside into the American frontier of darkness, thinking how at last he might be able to bear it, this vicious thing called tomorrow.
— FRANCIS F. ROSA
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