From the author: What happens when you're the last generation to know death? Much like "The Moon Illusion" (also available here at Curious Fictions), this story was one I wrote to cope with caring for my aging father. It first appeared in Abyss & Apex (2010), then featured in Toasted Cake (2013).
Approximately 21,973,000 people will die this year. Roughly 19,775,000 will die next year. In five years, around 96,243,000 total will have died.
My father is one of these people. He is going to die. Sometime soon.
Today is not that day. Today, we go grocery shopping.
My father stares into the freezer case at pints of ice cream. "There weren't always this many," he says, looking saddened, somehow, at the abundance. He picks up a few, reads their names out loud, and then looks at me. "What kind do I like?" he asks.
"Chocolate, dad," I answer. "Anything chocolate."
"Listen to this," he says. "Crème brulee. Chipotle caramel." He puts back the container and selects another. "Chocolate brownie sensation."
"That one's fine," I say. "You like that one."
I push the cart through the rest of the aisles with one hand. The other hand holds my father's arm. Strangers smile at this public gesture of affection. I do this because I love my father, but it is also because he is prone to vertigo and it is easier for me to match his speed this way.
We pick up a loaf of the special light rye he likes, fat-free mayonnaise, some beautifully modded tomatoes. A gallon of unsweetened cranberry juice, good for his prostrate.
I don't enjoy thinking about my dad's prostrate, but I've become good at remembering for him. Remembering he should drink unsweetened cranberry juice, for instance. Remembering he needs to rest every fifty meters, that chocolate is his favorite, always. Remembering when he asks "Why is this happening?" he means two different things: "Why is this happening to me?" and "Why won't this ever happen to you?"
Remembering not to speak too often of the nanobiobots that repair and regenerate my cells, remove accumulated toxins, oxidants, and extending the telomere in every nucleus.
Remembering he does not have the nanobots.
The young checker looks at my father's hands as he pays, grey hairs sprouting from his knuckles, age spots deeper than freckles, black bruises typical of blood thinner medication. Age is becoming foreign territory. I am the last generation that will know death personally.
I gather up the grocery bags with one hand. The other gently steers my father towards the car. "Let me help," he says, clumsily swiping for a bag. "It's too much."
"I'm fine," I tell him. "I'm strong as an ox."
"Never get old," he says. "It doesn't pay."
I won't. "Come on, dad," I say. "Your ice cream is melting."
The speed limit slows immediately when you cross into the Senior Quarter for good reason. We slow to a stop while a wizened old lady struggles to cross the street. My father closes his eyes. He hates living here, and I hate that he has to, even though we found him a nice one-bedroom as close inside the borders as possible.
"This place is a shtetl," he says.
"It's not that bad," I say.
"A ghetto," he says. "No one ever comes here. They leave us here and forget."
"I come here," I say.
My father opens his eyes and pats my knee. "You're my good girl."
When he goes down, he goes down all at once. Even though I always expect it, it is still a surprise. I manage to catch his fall and lower him gently the rest of the way to the ground. My father looks substantial, but is slight as a bird. I catch his fall, I drop the grocery bags, and I yell for help.
The paramedics arrive almost instantly. One clamps a mask over my father's face, another slips a stretcher beneath my father. A third begins to scan him.
"He's not chipped," I tell the scanner. "He's 78."
He nods and answers, "It's procedure, miss."
My father hisses, muffled by the mask, "Don't you point that goddam ray gun at me."
"They just need to scan you, dad," I explain, taking his hand. "For bots. Stay still." He looks at me, afraid, confused, his eyes going milky around the iris. "It's going to be OK," I tell him. "I'm right here."
Tubes and wires twist a nest around my father in the hospital bed, but he still smiles broadly when they finally allow me in to see him. "There's my little girl," he announces, to no one in particular. I lean in to kiss him, and he catches the oxygen tube around his head. When I pull back, he points at himself and says, "A tiara to go with my hospital gown," and laughs at his own joke.
The doctor talks loudly and slowly to my father, then quieter and faster to me. He explains transient ischemic attacks, brief neurologic dysfunctions caused by occluded cranial arteries. In my father's case, most likely caused by some dislodged atherosclerotic plaque. "You'll be fine, Mr. Bloom," the doctor says. "We're just going to keep you overnight for observation." Then the doctor takes my arm. "Watching the transition must be hard," he says to me. "I don't envy your position."
"You do what you have to," I say. "I love him."
The doctor sighs. "It's a small comfort future generations won't have to go through this the same way."
"Yes," I say. A small comfort.
When the doctor leaves, my father makes a face. "Everyone here is a child," he says. "He couldn't have been more than 22."
"He's probably my age, dad," I remind my father. "Maybe older."
In ten years, almost 186,345,000 will have died. Within twenty, everyone past the threshold age for implantation and chipping will be gone forever.
Including my father.
My father will die.
But today is not that day. Today, my father's eyes have returned to their normal color.
He pushes the remains of his dinner around on the tray. "All this progress and hospital food still tastes horrible."
"What did you have?" I ask.
"I think maybe it was chicken." My father shrugs. "I was looking forward to that ice cream." He pushes the tray away from him. "It's probably gone, yes?"
"Yeah," I say. "I dropped the bags when you fell."
"What a waste. I was craving that ice cream." My father shakes his head in time to the heart monitor. The he peers over the bed at me. "Are you tired?" he asks. "You must be tired."
I feel many things, but exhaustion is not one of them. "I'm OK, dad," I say. "Do you want me to find you a little something?"
He waves the arm without IVs. "I'm fine. Don't worry about me."
But I stand up and gather my purse. I'm grateful for the break, for a task. "I'll go see what the cafeteria has, OK?" I nod at him. "It's no problem."
"Sure, yes," he says. "But don't go crazy looking around for it." He settles back into the tangle of tubes. "Ice cream, pudding, something like that. You know what I like."
The hospital's cafeteria is closed, but I hear clanging from inside the kitchen and so I knock. A woman peers out and smiles warily at me, a stained apron bagging at her waist. "We're closed," she says. "There may be a few cold sandwiches left in the case."
"I'm actually looking for dessert," I say.
"There's a vending machine on the second floor," she says, and turns to go.
I grab her arm. "Please," I say. "For my father. He's a patient. Upstairs. He's going to--" and I can't finish my sentence. I drop her arm.
The woman meets my eyes. She nods. She also knows death, loves someone condemned. "Enjoy it," she says. "He's going to enjoy it." She wipes her hands on her apron. "I'll see what I can find."
"Some ice cream?" I ask. "Or pudding. Like that."
"I'll check." She disappears through the doors, then pokes her head back out. "What flavor?" she asks.
"Chocolate," I say. "Anything chocolate."
This story originally appeared in Abyss & Apex.