The Birth of Death
Absovle Me Iff Yuo Can
Within the early months of the twenty-first century, before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, hospitals, nursing homes, and police departments in the United States, except for rural outposts too remedial to be computer-equipped, were mandated to join the Vital Statistics Data Collection network. This cyber-system instantly downloaded all inputted information to a division of the Census Bureau known as the American Model of Lineage and Dimensions, or AMLD, often dubbed A Matter of Life and Death by those who, back then, could afford black humor. Be it either one—a birth or a death—the event was entered by a doctor, nurse, or registrar, who simply clicked a link that uploaded the statistic to the VSDC.
John Doe’s VSDC case number, 129–46–9875, was recognized by the system twice on the night he died: October 23. It was initially and unremarkably input by St. Michael the Archangel, a Catholic hospital in San Diego, California. The second entry, the one that made the case notable, came three and a half hours later from the Medical Examiner’s Office in San Diego County. It reached VSDC central computers at 10:36 p.m., Pacific standard time, but went unnoticed for another forty-eight hours, until a quiet, offish AMLD statistician named Etta Hoffmann found it while searching for abnormalities in recent files.
Hoffmann printed a hard copy of the record. Even then, she had a sense of foreboding about the systems upon which humans had come to depend.
No matter what program, typeface, or font size was originally used by an entrant, a default conversion was made, for the sake of standardization, by the VSDC system. John Doe’s file was spat from an AMLD printer in a font called Simplified Arabic, Years after the launch of VSDC, there had been a Senate spat over whether it was appropriate for a government agency to adopt a typeface designated as “Arabic.” The Democratic majority defeated the Republicans lobbying for Franklin Gothic. Upon prevailing, the Democrats indulged in satisfied winks and jolly backslaps.
None who survived the weeks after John Doe remembered this petty victory. It was but one of a million tiffs that had been tearing the country into pieces for generations. In the dark days to come, some former Congress members would wonder, if they’d only listened closer, if they might have heard America’s tendons pinging apart like snapped piano wire and been able to do something to heal the wounds before the whole body politic had been ripped apart.
Thousands of files sharing similarities with 129–46–9875 were received during the three days following John Doe’s death, Etta Hoffmann discovered John Doe’s file while trying to determine the starting point of the phenomenon. The VSDC system did not organize entries by date and time; the original designers hadn’t believed that function would be needed. Hoffmann and her coworkers had to search manually, and only later, when comparing the findings they’d thrown into a folder labeled Origin, did the time stamp on John Doe’s dossier indicate it preceded all others. She was not 100 percent confident of it, but at some point, even she had to stop searching.
There were other, more pressing matters.
By the end of that third night following John Doe’s death, only two men and two women remained at AMLD’s Washington office, clicking, scribbling, and filing, The quartet pulled together adjacent desks and worked in ragged, lopsided shifts, none more tirelessly, or with such enviable composure, as Etta Hoffmann.
Hoffmann had always been AMLD’s oddball. Every statistician forced to work with her presumed her personal life, like her work life, was full of leaden, blank-stare interactions.
Unlike Hoffmann, the other three lingerers had knowable reasons for staying. John Campbell’s recent years had been traumatic—the death of a child, a divorce he hadn’t wanted—and he had no one left to run to. Terry McAllister had gotten into government work with dreams of single-handedly saving the day; he wasn’t going anywhere. Elizabeth O’Toole had a husband she feared, especially during stressful times, and the hope that this event could be her escape kept her bolted to her seat.
In addition, Terry McAllister and Elizabeth O’Toole were in love, Etta Hoffmann had figured that out some time before the crisis. She did not understand this. Both were married to other people. That was something Hoffmann understood. Marriage revolved around legal documents, co-owning property, and joint tax returns. Love and lust, though, had always been illogical puzzles to Hoffmann. They made the afflicted unpredictable. She was wary of Terry McAllister and Elizabeth O’Toole and gave them additional space.
Etta Hoffmann’s reason for staying? The others could only guess. Some at AMLD, miffed by Hoffmann’s lack of emotion, believed her stupid. Those aware of the staggering volume of work she did speculated she was autistic, Others thought she was simply a bitch, though even that gendered slur was suspect. Besides her first name and choice of restroom, there was little evidence of how Hoffmann identified. Her features and body shape were inconclusive, and her baggy, unisex wardrobe offered few clues. Watercooler speculation was that Hoffmann was trans, or intersex, or maybe genderqueer.
A temp worker, under the influence of his English major, once referred to Etta Hoffmann as “the Poet” because she reminded him of Emily Dickinson, pale and serious, gazing into the depths of a computer screen as Dickinson had gazed down from a cloistered berth, Perhaps Hoffmann, as inscrutable as Dickinson, found in everyday monotony the same sort of vast morsels.
The nickname served to excuse Hoffmann’s distant manner and deadpan replies. Such were the prerogatives of the Poet! Who could hope to understand the Poet’s mind? It was fun for the whole office. It attributed sweeping, romantic notions to an androgynous, sweatpants-wearing coworker who joylessly keyed data while drinking room-temperature water and eating uninspiring sandwiches assembled in what was undoubtedly the blandest kitchen in D.C.
During the three days after John Doe, the Poet proved herself the best of them all, stone-faced when others broke down, eyes quick and fingers nimble when others’ heavy eyelids slid shut and their hands trembled too much to type. Hoffmann, the least inspiring person anyone had ever met, inspired the other three holdouts. They dumped cold water on their heads and slapped their cheeks. Powered by cheap coffee and adrenaline, they recorded what was happening so that future denizens might find evidence of the grand, complicated, flawed-but-sometimes-beautiful world that existed before the fall.
Forty-eight hours later, five days after John Doe’s 129–46–9875 report, John Campbell, Terry McAllister, and Elizabeth O’Toole agreed that there was nothing more to be done. Although AMLD’s emergency power kept their office fully functional, the VSDC network was in collapse. The reports still dribbling in were little more than unanswerable cries for help. John Campbell shut down his computer, the black monitor reminding him of his lost child and lost wife, went home, and shot himself in the head. Elizabeth O’Toole began obsessively doing push-ups and sit-ups, preparation for an uncertain future. Terry McAllister, his dreams of heroism faded, made a final entry in his work log. It strayed from the usual facts and figures into something, should anyone ever find it, that might have read as gallows humor: “Happy Halloween.”
It was three days before that spooky holiday, three weeks before Thanksgiving, two months before Christmas. Millions of pieces of candy, instead of being doled out to trick-or-treating children, would become emergency rations for those too afraid to leave their homes. Those who bought Thanksgiving turkeys early would jealously hoard them instead of inviting loved ones over to share. Thousands of plane tickets, purchased to visit families for Christmas, would molder in in-boxes.
Terry McAllister and Elizabeth O’Toole did not shut off their computers as John Campbell had; the overheated hum sounded to them like breathing, albeit the strained gasps of hospice-bed bellows. Before they left for Terry McAllister’s apartment in Georgetown, Elizabeth O’Toole asked Etta Hoffmann to come with them. Terry McAllister had told Elizabeth O’Toole not to bother, but Elizabeth O’Toole did not want to leave the other woman alone. Terry McAllister was right. Hoffmann stared at Elizabeth O’Toole as if her coworker were speaking Vietnamese. The Poet showed no more emotion at this final appeal than when being handed a cube of cake at an office birthday party.
While Terry McAllister and Elizabeth O’Toole prepared to leave, they heard the dull clack, clack, clack of Hoffmann’s robotic typing. Elizabeth O’Toole decided that Hoffmann’s lifeless, dogged work ethic reminded her of the lifeless, dogged attackers described in the reports that had flooded into the office. Maybe Hoffmann, already so much like Them—even this early, Them and They had become the terms of choice—was the perfect one to understand, process, and respond to Their threat.
On the seventh day, inside Terry McAllister’s apartment, Elizabeth O’Toole used her phone, which clung to a single bar of signal, to text her cousin, a priest in Indianapolis, to confess her sins. She added that she and a lover, who was not her husband, were going to try to get out of Washington. Because she had little time and battery to spare, the text was rife with misspellings. Elizabeth O’Toole wasn’t watching when the phone died, so would never know if her confession had been sent or if it were one more unheard whimper at the end of the world. As she and Terry McAllister stepped from the blood-smeared foyer of the building onto a sidewalk scorched with gunpowder, with no plan other than to follow his hunch to “head north,” Elizabeth O’Toole saw her final message everywhere she looked, the letters like carrion birds daggering the November sky.
I parobalgy wont see yu agaon so Absovle me iff yuo can dfrom where you are if it is legal8 bc I hae tried to make an act of contritiojn but I cant mreember all the owrds and isnt that the scareiest thign of all how lilttel I can remember alreyad like none of itever happened? lieka ll of the life we evre lived wsa all a dream?
A Gray Murk
Luis Acocella was chasing white beans around his caldo gallego when the front window of Fabi’s Spanish Palace exploded. As San Diego’s assistant medical examiner, Luis was versed in all manners of glass contusions. He knew the meaty, grinding pocks left in cheeks by windshield safety glass, the chilling, swanlike beauty of a suicidal wrist slash performed with a chunk of broken mirror. Fabi’s front window promised the latter, with its typhoon of translucent lancets catching glints from the cheap chandeliers before arrowing toward him like hornets.
Any other meal, eaten anywhere else, and Luis would have been half-dead to the world, scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and Reddit. But caldo gallego was too messy, so his phone, for once, was stowed. At first, its absence kindled something like panic; his eyes kept flicking to the phone’s rightful place on the tabletop, and his fingers twitched to scroll. In five minutes, however, he’d settled down and found the lack of sensory input intriguing. The piped-in mariachi music had ended and the staff hadn’t gotten around to restarting it, and in its wake were the noises of real life: feet scuffling, people sighing, or laughing, or simply breathing.
Luis sat near the kitchen when he ate alone. He liked to scroll, like, comment, and post along to the comforting sizzle of kitchen sounds, and when he made an observation in Spanish, the Spanish-speaking staff became different people. The waitress would relax her neck and hips; the cooks would beam from the kitchen in a way that made Luis think, Ah, now I’m going to get the goods. It warmed him as much as any earthen bowl of caldo gallego. Language: it connected people. He wondered if his beloved phone might actually be counterproductive.
For all these reasons, Luis was too far from the window to be hurt by the detonating glass. He covered his face anyway and bailed from his chair. His instinct was good: concurrent with the deafening shatter was the chesty bellow of a gunshot.
It was 5:54 in the afternoon, early for Fabi’s on a Thursday, and the other customers were protected by the tall-backed booths. No one in the restaurant had been injured; Luis knew that immediately, He’d lived long enough in San Diego—and excavated enough bullets in the course of his work—to know that rarely was one shot not met by several more.
He squatted under his table, eyes fixed to the sugar packets used to steady the table’s gimpiest leg, and listened to a spray of gunshots, followed by a man’s scream. There was a pause before the bubble-wrap rippling of police returning fire, too many shots for Luis to count. He heard a moist crunch—the chrome pop of one vehicle ramming another—and that was the end of it.
Luis stayed with the sugar packets. For how long, he wasn’t sure. Time had a different quality when life was under threat; the seconds ticked by like little knife cuts into his flesh.
At last, he got up and dashed toward Fabi’s door, glass scrunching under his heels, and plunged into the looser acoustics of a cool, violet California dusk. He unlocked his car and withdrew his emergency med kit. He’d heard a man scream, and that man might still be alive. Luis jogged along the line of parked cars until he reached Mission Bay Drive and the classic post-shooting tableaux of burned rubber on pavement, clouds of exhaust gone red and blue with swirling police lights, and abrupt gridlock beneath traffic lights blithely unaffected by the violence.
Maybe it was because of his phone-free dinner, but the next thing Luis noticed was the utter lack of reaction from pedestrians. Gunfire had ripped through the area only minutes ago. At least one car had been struck. Yet people had already returned to their gadgets, preferring bullets of information they could control with their flicking thumbs. Some took photos of the glut of police cruisers; a few framed them as selfies. They’d upload these pictures instantly, as Luis had uploaded so many of his own, proof of life in captioned boxes.
Hitting the street, Luis saw the perpetrator’s vehicle, an old panel truck with south-of-the-border plates, its front fender interlocked with the side of a station wagon. The truck’s passenger door was thrown open, and a man was perched on the edge of the seat. Luis knew a dead man when he saw one. The butt plate of a rusty Uzi was jammed against a chest black with blood, yet the corpse clung to the magazine as if unwilling to relinquish the behaviors that had driven him while alive.
The pedestrians had their gadgets, the shooter his Uzi. Luis wondered why, tonight, both tools looked so much alike.
There was movement in the cab, but the black-and-whites had the truck surrounded, and officers had guns pointed from behind SDPD cruisers. Dismissing the confrontation from his thoughts, Luis swept his gaze from curb to curb, searching for anyone who wasn’t staring at a gadget. Ambulance sirens had intensified by the time he spotted what he was looking for. Luis trotted into the shadow of an overpass, where a man lay crumpled amid moist grime and the gleams of discarded snack bags and broken bottles.
The man was sixtysomething, and from his soggy clothing and sour odor, Luis judged him to be homeless, though he felt certain the streets hadn’t been this man’s home for long. There was a T shape to his shoulders and spine the lifelong destitute rarely had. Beneath the beard scruff were lips that, rather than draping over gums, rested upon a full set of teeth, Even his overgrown hair kept to combing contours. Most telling of all was the man’s bedraggled clothing: a tailored suit, leather shoes, and a dress shirt, complete with one surviving cuff link. This man, Luis thought, had once been wealthy. He’d once had everything America had to offer.
Luis felt none of the serenity of his lab work as he set down his med kit, took the man by the wrists, and began articulating the limbs to get a better sense of the overall situation. He noted four bullet holes, all on the right side of the body. One high on a thigh, one high on the belly, one low on the shoulder, and the fourth low on the neck. He pushed aside the shirt collar and pressed his fingers through slippery blood to check for a pulse. By the temperature of the flesh alone, he knew he might be too late. He glanced at his watch. It was 6:07 p.m. Based on body temperature, death had likely occurred in the last couple of minutes. If Luis was filling out the standard paperwork, he would have given the ETD—estimated time of death—as 6:05 p.m.
Fuck—those extra minutes Luis had spent cowering under the table.
A detective was already hovering. He gruffly introduced himself as Detective Walker. He had the straight, sandy hair of fairy-tale princes and seemed as eager to get out of there as the pedestrians and motorists. He barked for a subordinate to string up police tape and then, after getting Luis’s name and qualifications, ripped a sheet from a clipboard and tried to hand it to him.
“Pronounce him dead,” Walker said, “He’s part of my crime scene.”
Luis stared at the form while anger foamed in his gut. In a few hours, this dead man would be a one-sentence news item people scrolled past in their news feeds without a prick of emotion.
Copyright © 2020 by New Romero Ltd.