Death and Other Mysteries [A Short Story]

Death and Other Mysteries
By Joel Nickel

Alex was distractedly loading a bowl as he watched an episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit on the computer while Cassie scrolled through her Tumblr dashboard on her laptop.
<<You’ll never die>>
“What?” Cassie stopped scrolling and looked up at the monitor.
<<Nobody can die unless they believe in death>>
<<If we do another forty or fifty seasons of Bullshit, we’ll have the pleasure of proving him wrong>>
Cassie closed her laptop and came to sit closer to Alex who was now sparking up the bowl and pulling in a lungful of smoke. He passed the pipe to Cassie.
<<But he’s not the only person claiming immortality>>
<<I’m Dark Rose>>
<<I’m Donald LaDesque. And we’re vampires>>
<<Yup, LaDesque and Dark Rose. They call themselves vampires. They claim to embrace the death aesthetic>>
Cassie lit the bowl and pulled hard on the pipe. They’d run out of screens for the pipe and the one they were using was thick with resin. She started coughing.
<<I feel to embrace life is to embrace death. If you’re not afraid of death, if you know what’s coming, you can push the boundaries in life>>
<<Any why aren’t they afraid of death? They believe in reincarnation. We’re pretty sure that’s some sort of Buddhist thing but Buddhist clothes and teeth aren’t nearly as sexy cool>>
Cassie passed the pipe back to Alex.
<<There is an energy inside you. It’s the life energy and when the body dies the energy has to go somewhere else or turn into something else>>
<<Energy can’t die. It can only be transformed>>
Cassie reached out and pressed the spacebar to pause the video.
“I had a moment the other day where I was literally trying to find out … ’cause energy … is a force, right? Or so they say,” Cassie said. “Would it still not be made up of matter. Yah, you can destroy like … but you can’t, it’s matter. I don’t know. I would have to go back to Shay and see what the conversation was. ‘Cause I was trying to figure out … ah, I can’t even remember what it was, but it was something about whether or not there were certain forces that you could or could not … do, like manipulate because they’d be made of solid matter and … I don’t know. It was super weird.”
“Sorry, explain one more time,” Alex passed the pipe back to Cassie.
“Yah, I’m trying to remember it and I don’t remember specifically what it was but it was something like that,” Cassie said and paused to take in a deep lung of smoke and slowly force it out her nose. “Energy can’t die. It’s like: woah.”
“Oh yah, ’cause energy equals-”
Cassie continued: “I guess you can cancel out energy but the you can’t really destroy it because it’s made of matter. And you can’t destroy matter. And so it was just really weird. I can’t remember. I’ll have to ask Shay.”
“What if reality is just one big thing,” Alex said. “And within that, the changing is just the inside, going from a unified state to disorder.”
“Entropy!” Alex exclaimed. “There we go! Entropy. Thank you.”
“I had this conversation with Shay,” Cassie said. “What if everything we see … you know everyone says ‘this is molecules’,” Cassie pointed to the couch. “And ‘this is molecules’,” Cassie pointed to the bookshelf. “But the only reason the molecules are different and things like that … what if literally, all our life is just … atoms connecting, colliding, and disassembling in new forms and the only … we feel we have these experiences and we live life and stuff like that but we actually aren’t. And the only reason we kind of feel like we experience this is, like, because generating electricity is connecting certain atoms and we feel like we’re experiencing things, but we’re not real.”
Alex looked off into a space beyond the off-white wall and into the nothingness behind it.
“Like, we’re just more atoms in a tangled mess of shit that’s happening and it’s like, so then when everyone’s like ‘what’s the meaning of life?’, well there is none,” Cassie sparked up the pipe again.
“Existence is the meaning,” Alex said.
“No,” Cassie coughed. “Because then we’re just more molecules. Like, what makes us different than this?” She touched the wooden bookshelf. “It’s just that our molecules are assembled differently. But with the electricity … see when things collide there’s always energy generated and so that energy generated is generating what we believe is a consciousness but it’s not. It’s just energy. It’s just happening. It’s just a force.”
“So consciousness is just another force,” Alex said.
“Like gravity, it’s just another force that exists,” Cassie said. “The only reason we think it is something is because we as humans are built to detect patterns in chaos. That’s why we see constellations. That’s why we see patterns in numbers. We see patterns in things and so we’ve made ourselves believe that this is pattern of molecules and it makes a can. This is a pattern of molecules and it makes a bookshelf. And that’s a pattern of molecules and it makes Alex.”
Alex shivered.
“We’ve made these patterns ourselves,” Cassie said. “They don’t actually exist. Everything is all the same. Everything is all molecules and we can’t comprehend it because we’re molecules and we don’t actually exist.”
Alex’s mind was buzzing.
“Does the consciousness make the atoms-”
“But there is no consciousness. It’s just energy,” Cassie interjected. “It’s like electricity. There’s nothing.”
“But in perceiving … a space … are we giving it … like … okay, so are all the molecules, when people aren’t observing them, just like a stationary … or like … a set distance apart but when viewed they constrict to build physical structures? Like, okay, form ‘this’,” Alex pointed to the computer monitor. “Form ‘this’,” Alex touched his chair.
“I followed this train of thought for a really long time and it really got me going until I hit this wall where it was like ‘but how is it that you and I both perceive that this set of molecules is a book case?’,” Cassie said. “At the same time … that’s where my theory starts to fall apart.”
“But maybe consciousness is the same one,” Alex knocked the ash out of the pipe and started to refill it. “Since it’s a force. I mean, gravity is the same force. It’s all one force called gravity. So then maybe consciousness is exact same consciousness for everyone it’s just that our experiences, since we’ve had different ones that have shaped us over our lifetimes-”
“But there is no consciousness because we’re all molecules,” Cassie said. “It’s not a mentality, it’s not a rational thought process, it’s not anything, it’s literally just another natural force like electricity. It just happens. It’s not like electricity thinks, or rationalizes, it just does. And that’s what I mean, with all these atoms colliding in the universe it just generates a force but we’re just more atoms generated so there is no thinking, but we think we’re thinking. Because that’s how we process the world around us. How we’ve been programmed to experience reality, but literally, nothing exists around us. It’s just a set of molecules like … we’re not having this conversation.”
“But we are,” Alex said.
“We think we’re perceiving,” Cassie said.
“But where’s that perceiving coming from?” Alex wondered.
“The energy,” Cassie said.
“So the energy is perceiving-”
“For every action there is a reaction,” Cassie said.
“And that energy is observing that reaction,” Alex contemplated.
They both sat in silence for awhile until Alex remembered he had a green pipe in his hand. He cornered the bowl to make sure Cassie got some green.
“Weird, right?” Cassie smiled as Alex passed her the pipe.
“I love our conversations,” Alex smiled at her. “So okay, what if this energy is like … so, off is zero, right? So flick the on switch and it goes to one. And that flicking on of the switch is the Big Bang. And suddenly the expansion is just like <<POW>> like, now it’s now. Now it’s working. Everything inside existence is the same thing right away.”
Cassie stared at him with a furrowed brow as she handed him the pipe back.
“Cause you know how when inflation happened it was a split second after the Big Bang, well it’s like turning on a TV. There was ‘nothing’ before God created the universe,” Alex made exaggerated air quotes and Cassie giggled. “And then <<TING>> it’s on. Everything is there. Right? So all of the things in reality are just as it is instantly, right? So it’s just going from order to disorder. Right? Going through entropy. And so that’s why I think reality is a simulation.”
Alex pulled hard again on the pipe.
“The architects of reality were thinking, ‘okay, how does reality go from order to disorder?’,” Alex coughed. “And what does disorder look like? I think that order is just math. And that they put these things in and okay ‘this is what-”
“Donald Trump is a bug in the system,” Cassie giggled. “He needs to be patched out.”
“Oh my god, yes! Please architects,” Alex motioned to the ceiling of his basement apartment suite. “Please if you know how to deletes bugs, deal with Trump. Oh, but then will they have to shut down reality while they fix the bugs like with World of Warcraft. ‘Sorry, but the servers will be inaccessible between 1 a.m. And 5 a.m.’.”
“But they only do certain servers at certain times,” Cassie said. “Is that when we’re sleeping?” Her eyes grew wide.
Alex chuckled. “Is that what dreams are? Are dreams screensavers?”
“Screensavers!” Cassie clapped and let out a single throaty laugh.
“That’s trippy,” Alex knocked the cashed ashes from the pipe and filled a third bowl. “It does explain a lot.”
They resumed watching the episode of Bullshit on Death.
<<This is where we do the embalming>>
“Oh fuck,” Cassie gasped. “Also, don’t ever let me be embalmed. Like, if I died tomorrow, don’t! Just don’t. Like if you have to steal my body, don’t let me be embalmed.”
<<It looks a lot like a smoothie machine>>
“Okay, you’re dead. You decompose. Why would you put shit in your-”
“Because people are afraid because … you want to know what it is?” Cassie interjected.
“They want to kee-”
“Whichever writer came up with the idea of feeding the worms, using the phrase ‘feeding the worms’, whoever coined that phrase originally is brilliant but also fucked with the collective human psyche for the rest of time. Because nobody wants to think that they’re the bottom of the food chain and that that’s what’s going to happen to them after they die and that’s why they want the box,” Cassie said.
“I wonder sometimes if it’s, uh, religious people thinking ‘oh, God’s going to come back anytime now and he said he’s going to raise the dead to join him in Heaven and I wanna make sure that my body isn’t decomposing and-”
“Yup, very much so,” Cassie nodded.
“But you have to be in so much denial to what happens to you after death to buy into the idea of like-”
“Preservation,” Cassie said.
“Preservation!” Alex nodded. “People are buying these fucking vapour sealed coffins and shit. It’s like, you’re essentially creating a pressure cooker.”
“When your skin decomposes it releases gases and that’s why they explode,” Cassie said. “Even when you take all of the blood out, there’s still organic. No matter what, that will decompose and that’s why they explode.”
<<Most people haven’t been around a dead body and there’s a lot of fear and apprehension. The first time you see a dead body you’re not sure how you’re going to react. ‘Is it going to be creepy?’>>
<<The reality is that being in denial doesn’t stop death>>
“Right?” Alex had finished packing the third bowl and was lighting it and inhaling.
“And that’s the thing,” Cassie started. “Being in denial about death will only make sure that you’re unprepared for it when it comes. You’ll never come to terms with it. You’ll only make it a more miserable experience for yourself and for others.”
<<Nearly every family is ripped off by nearly every mortician in every community in the United States>>
“Well, fuck,” Alex passed the pipe to Cassie.
<<I was about 20 years into my priesthood when I realized that morticians were ripping off every family we had>>
<<This industry has a history, and it continues today, of not really informing consumers of all of the options that they have>>
<<For 35 years, he owned 35 funeral homes and now he’s working on the other side to make sure that funeral homes behave. He probably just flipped to get on Bullshit’s good side>>
<<There’s so many tricks of the trade in the funeral industry. Today as we go under cover, we’ll probably see a few>>
<<On their price list you can see they sell something called the Silver Pearl casket for $3,095>>
<<On the worst day of your life, what you’re not going to is go price shopping>>
“That’s so fucked up,” Cassie shook her head and handed back the pipe.
<<Cremation runs from $339 to $3,800 for the same thing>>
<<Holy shit. In other words, you get burned twice>>
“Fuck,” Alex chuckled. “That’s savage.”
“If I’m going to be paying $3,000 to be cremated James Doohan better be there playing fucking bagpipes as I get shot out into space,” Cassie laughed. “Problem is … that physically can’t happen because James Doohan is dead.”
<<By law, we have to put the body into an alternative container to be cremated>>
“What the fuck?”
<<Meaning, you can’t be burnt up unless they put you inside something first. So you’ll probably want some kind of cardboard box, right? I mean, who cares? It’s just going to get burnt up anyway>>
<<We have the standard container and that’s $55 and they go up from there. There’s an alternative container that’s a little more sturdy->>
“Sturdy?” Alex coughed. “What the fuck! You’re dead!”
<<They have the “Serenity” and that’s priced at $1,350>>
<<$1,350! And you chuck it in the fire? That doesn’t sound too serene>>
<<You might as well just set a big pile of money on fire>>
<<If the consumers were not operating under such an emotional stress they would probably make different decisions>>
<<Yah, when we’re emotional we make bad financial decisions. Same thing when we’re horny, but that’s another show. And there’s very few bad decisions more expensive than Cryonics>>
<<Cryonics is the process of freezing people after they die so that maybe they might be restored to life at a later time>>
“Nope,” Cassie shook her head. “Nope.”
<<Okay, here’s Cryonics in a nutshell. Die. Get frozen. Maybe, possibly, un-fucking likely, get thawed sometime in the future when humans have a cure for what killed you. Why?>>
<<The chance to come back to life. You have the chance. If you’re buried, or if you’re cremated, there’s no possibility that you’re going anywhere>>
“Um, one: wouldn’t you want to be frozen before you die?” Cassie said. “If you’re sick, they could cure you of what you’re sick from. But death.”
“You can’t cure death,” Alex rolled his eyes.
“Two: do you really think that society will sit around and think ‘oh we’ve had the cure for this particular disease’ or whatever, and ‘let’s revive every single person who had this disease’ … yah, they’re not going to,” Cassie said. “It’s so hubristic to think that that’s what a future society would do.”
“And, at that point they’d probably have a way higher population and why would they thaw out old dead people to add to the already high population of humans?” Alex said.
<<The physical process of cryonic suspension involves taking a person that wants to be suspended and as soon as they’re declared legally dead, lowering their body temperature to cryogenic temperatures, which is 321 degrees Fahrenheit below zero>>
“Woah, so they know that the cells in your body, because they consist of water, will expand as water expands when frozen and will totally destroy your cellular makeup. When they ‘revive’ you, you’ll be mush,” Alex said.
<<And how is going to bear the expense of reanimation? The most likely candidate is some future evil scientist looking for untraceable slave labour>>
“Holy fuck!” Alex gasped. “Whelp, I think that needs to be a short story.” He took out his journal and started making notes while Cassie took another drag on the pipe.
“’Cause really, who’s going to pay for that expense?” Cassie asked through held breath.
<<Cryonics is an untested science>>
<<No guarantee? Untested? Not smart! Unwise!>>
<<Cryonics is a problem because it can’t deliver. They’re banking on someone from some distant future answering the problems of thawing and the problems of the degeneration of proteins that have been damaged by ice crystals>>
“Fucking exactly!” Alex clapped his hands together once and then Cassie handed him the pipe.
<<All you have unthawing is mush>>
<<And how much does it cost to be filled with anti-freeze, put in a giant thermos, and have my proteins damaged by ice crystals and turned into mush when I thaw?>>
<<Between $130,000 and $150,000>>
“Fuck!” They said in unison.
<<Icy momma! That’s a lot of bags of ice!>>
“That’s so messed up,” Cassie shook her head.
“Those people have too much money,” Alex said.
<<The most egregious things that the industry does is to sell sealers caskets or quote ‘protective caskets’>>
“That’s so fucked,” Alex said. “Pressure cooker.”
<<It cost $200, $300, or $400 more than the very same casket without this protective seal>>
<<It’s a stupid idea. But obvious stupid aside, guess what? It doesn’t even work. Putting the gasket on does absolutely nothing to prevent the ordinary decomposition of the human body>>
<<But they can sell it by saying ‘you would like to have your loved one protected, wouldn’t you’>>
“Fuck, that’s evil and manipulative,” Alex shivered.
<<It keeps the moisture out>>
<<What she fails to mention is what the gasket keeps in>>
“Right?” Cassie said.
<<This turns the casket into a pressure cooker>>
“Thank you!” Alex threw his hands up. “Right?”
<<And you know why you use pressure cookers? You’re trying to tenderize the meat>>
<<Get this! When you spring for the extra gasket to seal up your casket, your digestive enzymes and bacteria that normally inhabit humans everyday continue their work. Instead of digesting your food, they digest you. Your internal organs liquify within two weeks of death. All this bloody, digestive goo comes out any opening in your body. The gases inside of your body that don’t make it out of your … nose will build up until your body splits open spilling your mostly digested inside into the coffin. So much for that extra comfort padding. The gases begin to build up and, well, if the gasket is as secure as say a champagne cork, the caskets explode. What do you think? Worth the extra 300 bucks? We think so>>
<<The gases inside the casket, since they cannot escape, in some instances will absolutely explode>>
<<And your arms which are now mush will explode outward out of the casket>>
<<It may be hard to admit, but the dead are dead. Nothing you will do can please them. Ashes don’t know if they’re in a marble urn or an old Starbucks cup. The time to treat people right is when they are alive. A ham sandwich, a soda, and a joke now mean more to your loved ones than a $10,000 coffin after they’re dead. Which brings to mind one more thing, if you’re still lucky enough to do it, call your mother. Yah, right now! You don’t know anyone in the credits and they’re pretty much the same next week, so call your mom. Now>>
Alex and Cassie stopped and looked at one another.
And then they picked up their phones.


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