by Alex Puncecar
A single moment of silence is all it takes for Ben to start daydreaming again. This time he’s deep in memories, deep in the movie Vertigo. The Hitchcock film. The tree ring scene. “Here I was born,” Kim Novak’s character says. Her gloved hand points to a ring on the smooth underside of a fallen tree in the middle of the woods. “And there I died. It was only a moment for you. You took no notice.”
For some reason, Cody Crock – Ben’s boss at Laven Cybernetics Corporation – and his nasal voice enters the scene. His very presence ruins the film.
“Benjamin,” Dream-Cody says in an almost sing-songy way. “Benjamin.”
The movie screen in his mind washes away like watercolor paint, and the physical, completely real Cody Crock stands before a very tired Ben, who sits in his little working station. Cody’s face is one of confusion, as if he suspects that he was part of the dream with Ben
“What’s up, Cody?” Ben rubs his tired eyes. He rubs them until the whites turn pinkish red, and tiny veins almost encircle his grey irises. His dark hair is unruly, and he hasn’t shaved in a week.
Cody looks pissed. Angry-boss pissed. “I was just checking up on you, is all,” he says, clearly annoyed. “Your monitor is beeping.”
Ben doesn’t even notice it until Cody tells him. He looks at the silver watch on his right wrist and sees now that the face is blinking blood red and warning him like an alarm clock.
The Ambrosia Cell on his back, which is, essentially, a human battery, is at a seven percent charge – dangerously low.
“Fuck,” he says. He forgets Cody is there for a split second. “Is the charging station on the third floor still broken?” This time he’s talking to Cody.
“Yeah,” Cody replies, and then a moment passes. He looks around at the other cubicles on the office floor. “You know what, it’s been a slow day. Whatever you got going on there can wait, I think. You take the day off, okay? Go home and charge up.” And just like that, Cody leaves.
Maybe Cody heard about Abi and was throwing Ben a bone. He smiles, and Ben grabs his light brown jacket. He walks to the elevator and plans on how he’s going to waste the day away.
* * *
“I’ve never seen this one,” seventeen-year-old Ben said as Abi popped a movie into the player. It was the year 2020.
“If you’re going to be my boyfriend,” she said as the main menu popped up on the television, “you have to watch every Hitchcock film with me. I love this one.” Her blonde hair was in a ponytail that night. Ben loved they way she nervously untied it then tied it again.
“Is it better than Psycho?”
“No. Nothing’s better than Psycho.”
He was a stupid kid who didn’t know a thing about girls, let alone remember how he got one to agree to watch a movie with him. Her leg inched slowly towards his as they sat on the dark green beanbag chairs in her room. She looked straight at him.
“Hey,” Abi said. “Hey.”
Ben looked over when Abi poked his shoulder.
“Kiss me,” she said.
“Kiss me at this scene. I don’t like it very much. It’s too sad.”
The movie showed Kim Novak’s gloved hand touching the tree trunk, and Ben leaned over. He was hesitant, and he stopped partway. His heart was jumping in his chest. Abi just smiled and pulled him close to her.
“It was only a moment for you,” the movie said as their lips touched. “You took no notice.”
* * *
Ben slips out the back door of the Laven Cybernetics building, a small blue door that nobody thinks twice of looking at. Every employee uses it at the end of the day – even the janitors – due to a horde of protestors yelling and shouting at the front of the building, holding signs like:
IMMORTALITY IS IMMORAL!
YOU’RE JUST HUMAN EXPERIMENTS!
DOWN WITH CHARGERS!
Chargers. Ben likes that term. It evokes a sense of irony as well as vitalization. It’s a word used to describe those with the Ambrosia Cell installed on their backs and the way they “charge” up. Ben’s body aches for a charge, like how the body aches for a good cigarette.
New York is lively, as usual. Hovercars overhead crisscross the skyline, while ancient electric powered cars trudge along the streets. The various skyscrapers and buildings glow anew after the citywide purge of graffiti three years back, making every construct look like the models in a diorama.
Ben sees Jacob’s One-Stop. The liquor store. The sudden tang of alcohol on his tongue almost eclipses his need for a charge.
As Ben strolls through the front door, the owner Jacob is standing behind the counter, grinning as always.
“The usual?” the burly, bald man asks. Jacob pulls out an unlabeled bottle of whiskey from underneath the table.
Ben smiles back. “This is why I always come here,” he says, and he lays down his money and leaves with the alcohol in a plastic bag. “Thanks, Jake.”
The little bell by the door of the One-Stop rings as Ben heads onto the sidewalk with his bounty in hand.
“Benjamin Hile?” comes a voice from behind him.
Ben spins around. There’s a wiry man ten feet behind him.
“Ben! That is you, isn’t it. Holy shit.” The man extends his arms to either receive him or hug him.
“Oh,” Ben says as he backs up slightly, suddenly aware of the whiskey in his hand, but reminding himself that there’s no shame in it and that he doesn’t have a problem. “Hey, Oscar.”
“How you been, man? I haven’t seen you at the meetings these last few months.”
Ben hasn’t been to one of those things in years, and the meetings were a nice way of keeping people like Ben and Oscar from killing themselves whenever they got tired of living forever. The doctors from Laven Cybernetics set them up, but Ben always thought that it was more about checking up on the batteries rather than the emotional problems of the subjects that the batteries keep alive.
Oscar went to every meeting, as far as Ben could remember. Oscar creeps him out. He’s like a junkie, only his drug stops him from aging. Just like Ben.
“I don’t think I need that stuff anymore. I’m feeling pretty good, actually.”
Oscar smiles. “Is that why you’re drinking again?”
Busted. “It’s a reward. For getting out of work early.”
“A reward, huh? Come on,” Oscar says. “Let’s head to that new charging café over in West Village. I’ll buy.”
Ben is hesitant, but he goes with him to humor the guy.
“Hey, by the way. How’s Abi doing? You see her at all?” Oscar asks as they walk down the street.
“No,” Ben replies. “Not anymore.”
* * *
Ben and Abi held hands as they walked across Central Park. Nighttime in the park was beautiful, especially with the freshly fallen snow looking like wintry sand dunes. They stopped in the middle of the park, the snow rising up to their ankles. Abi giggled and fell backwards, her fall buffered by the inches of snow. Ben allowed himself to fall too, lying right next to her.
It was 2026 and they were both twenty-three.
“I think a trip to New York is exactly what we needed,” Abi said as she looked at the lights from the tops of the skyscrapers. Ben thought they looked a bit like stars.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t mind staying here for a bit longer. New York is so beautiful during the winter,” Ben replied.
Abi cuddled up to him and kissed him hard, and Ben pulled something out of his pocket. She gasped, seeing the diamond ring he bought the week before glinting between his fingers.
“Abi Newenthal,” he said. “Will you marry me?”
She said yes, of course. The two embraced and kissed and cried right there on the ground, telling themselves how much they loved each other.
Ben’s phone vibrated, interrupting his thoughts. Abi held him around the waist, and he around her shoulder. He ignored the vibration at first, but it just kept massaging his leg, almost to the point of annoyance.
“You gonna get that?” Abi giggled, and Ben pulled out his phone, his bliss fading a moment later.
It was his mother. She had to be calling about his father.
The father who had spinal cancer.
“Mom,” Ben asked as soon as he answered. “What’s happening?”
There was nothing but silence on the other end.
* * *
“I am so sorry, Ben,” Oscar says as he sits down with his coffee. “I didn’t know.”
“It’s alright. I’ve been doing okay.” Ben has his own coffee. Black.
“I suppose drinking it away is okay sometimes,” Oscar says. “I couldn’t go back to the bottle, though. The bottle or the needle. I’d never get out of it.”
The two men sit in a booth at a coffee shop that has A-Cell generators for paying customers. Behind their booth is a long, cylindrical dynamo with a lengthy cord running from the generator to a conductor the size of a railroad spike. The machine is painted in the reds and browns of the coffee shop, making it look like an atmospheric prop. It’s placed within a small garden of fake plants behind their booth.
Ben brings the conductor to the back of his neck and holds his breath. A circular hole, a perfect fit for the conductor, is in his neck where his shoulder blades connect and where the spinal casing of the cell begins. He shoves it into the hole and a sharp pain ignites his nerves. The pain lasts for maybe two seconds, but it feels like an eternity to Ben. He’s done this hundreds of times before, but he’s never been used to it.
The pain is searing.
The pain brings him life.
His watch stops glowing red, switching to a pale yellow, meaning the slim, metallic battery on his back is charging up.
Ben looks over at Oscar, who has the same stupid look of elation that some chargers get when they plug in. He has to be one of those types that gets a kick out of the pain that comes with the charge.
“So how have the meetings been?” Ben asks, mostly to kill the silence.
Oscar sips his coffee. “The same, really. Sure, they help me, but support groups can only do so much. You know?”
Ben nods. “Yeah. They stopped helping me years ago. Saw no point in them, really.”
“How long were you going to those?”
“So long I can’t even remember. Decades, probably. My memory got a bit fuzzy after ’37.” Ben reaches down under the table and unscrews the whiskey. He pours some into his coffee, then offers the bottle to Oscar, who refuses.
“You at least remember Charles, right? The fidgety one who always sat up front?” Oscar asks.
Ben nods. Yeah. Guy would always blurt out whatever came to mind. He talked too much, and he knew it. I remember he used to say it was because he thought his A-Cell was malfunctioning and it was affecting his speech patterns.”
“That was Charles,” Oscar says. “What a goof. The last few years, he locked himself in his room, refusing to take out his cord. He was afraid of ever losing a charge, so all he did was sit on his bed and watch TV all day.” He laughs, but his smile then turns somber. “I heard he jumped off a bridge three weeks ago.”
Ben takes another drink and sighs. “Not everyone can be helped from those support groups, you know.”
“Yeah, I know,” Oscar replies. “But Abi, man. I’m really sorry to hear about her.”
Ben finishes his caffeinated cocktail. “Yeah, me too.”
“When is the funeral?”
“It was yesterday.”
* * *
The snow storm was a bad one. Ben blinked tears as another torrent of wind smacked his face. He stood with his mother and Abi, and they surrounded a gravesite, watching as a brown lacquered coffin was slowly lowered — painfully lowered — into an earthy hole. A priest in black stood in front of them, and he recited a eulogy that Ben didn’t pay any attention to. He was so lost in thought that he didn’t remember the priest even being there.
Ben watched his father’s coffin stop at the bottom. The old boxer, Allen Hile, lost his fight with cancer. He just stopped trying. The thought of dying crossed Ben’s mind over and over again. His mother had stopped crying before the funeral had even started. He could see her surviving without her husband. She was a strong woman.
He had witnessed his father crying as he was dying, as if he was afraid to find out what belonged on the other side. Fear was his emotion in those last days of Allen’s life. Ben feared death too, more so now that he saw it take his father away.
Ben looked at Abi.
I’m sorry, her eyes said.
I know, Ben’s said back.
Behind the tears, behind his gray eyes, Ben thought of how he would die one day, how he would be lowered into the same ground as his father. He never wanted to die.
The snow did half the work to bury his father as it piled high in the grave.
* * *
Ben leaves the charging café, waving goodbye to Oscar. The poor man had written his phone number on a dirty napkin. Ben tosses it into the first trash can he sees when he’s out of Oscar’s sight. He’ll never call it. He doesn’t need that stupid support group anymore, or anyone trying to get him to come back to it, for that matter. He’s doing just fine.
He checks his watch, and the face says that he’s got a forty-three percent charge. Ben decides that he might as well head home and finish off the charging process. He’s still holding the whiskey. It’s half empty.
Ben takes the hover metro home. He always does. The suspended car almost floats along a magnetic track and sends him to Broadway, where he’s got an apartment thanks to Laven Corporation. He checks a real-time satellite view of his apartment from his phone to check if there are protestors waiting there. Sometimes, they line up outside the complex to yell at the chargers who live there. He’s been screamed at before, sometimes even a tomato or a bottle was thrown at him.
Luckily for him, the protestors aren’t there today. The rail makes a stop near the complex and Ben practically runs into the lavish building. The snow white walls and boxy furniture in the waiting lobby were made to calm and sooth, but Ben feels like he’s in a lab rather than an apartment. Every guest here is a charger, and in every corner there are charging stations, waiting to be used. Ben ignores all of it and takes the elevator up four floors before getting to his room.
His place is a sty. It’s not the extravagant bachelor pad that it once was: clothes thrown about, the Chinese takeout from the night before flake and cover the unfinished dishes. Dust everywhere. He doesn’t have anybody to impress these days, so he leaves the mess for another time.
He comes to the bedroom and puts the bottle of alcohol on a drum table where he keeps the drinking glasses. Ben strips down to his boxers and heads over to his closet with a large mirror covering the sliding door. He turns around, twists his head, and looks into the mirror to examine the cell that’s implanted onto his back.
Like a metal snake, the spinal casing slithers, starting at his lower back and rising to his neck. The silver finish on the device gives it a glowing sheen, but one that is starting to dull. Ben keeps forgetting to get it rebuffed. The device is thin, and doesn’t protrude at all. It’s a machine that moves along with him, and sometimes Ben forgets that he has one installed.
He slides open the closet and pushes his hanging clothes aside. Deep inside is another A-Cell generator. It’s an older model, not like the one that was in the café, but just as effective. It resembles an oil drum, one that gives life instead of petrol.
Ben unhooks the cord and turns it on. A touchscreen bleeps to life and mimics the same display as his watch: forty-three percent charge. He unhooks the generator’s cord and plugs it into the back of his neck. Again the pain, again the sensation of life.
The cord has enough slack to allow him to walk about his room. As he does so, he pours himself a drink and sits at the edge of his bed. Whenever Ben sees the cord following his every move, he imagines himself as a puppet on a string. He sometimes believes that it’s true.
His black pants from yesterday’s funeral are there on the floor. In the back pocket is a folded up note, something he forgot to read, something someone gave him at the funeral.
“She wanted you to have this,” someone had said. Her friend? Her caretaker? The nurse that watched over her? Ben couldn’t remember.
It was from Abi, and so he read it.
How have you been…
* * *
Ben hardly remembered the conversation with the doctor, a man named Jennings. The room he was in was a stagnant white, filled with shelves of books and important-looking plaques on the walls. Doctor Jennings looked stagnant himself, with his pepper gray and surgically grown hair and milky white skin and disposition.
“Seems like our ad did its job,” Jennings had said to Ben when he walked into his office. “You’re the first person who’s volunteered.”
Ben didn’t talk much throughout the clinical speech that Jennings gave him. There was talk of bioelectricity stimulating and elongating the telomeres inside Ben’s body. He heard the doctor say that the telomeres were the cause of aging, but after that Ben started to zone out.
“Are you sure you want to do this? he asked Ben after a time.
He said yes, but Ben’s mind was elsewhere. He was still at the funeral.
“Do you understand the risks?”
He remembered nodding, but not to the doctor. It was at the grave.
“This device will be a prototype, and it’ll do strange things to your body, like–”
Ben didn’t care what the doctor was saying. The outcome of the project didn’t matter to him. What it did to his insides, his very core, didn’t matter to Ben.
“If this works, you’ll outlive a lot of people. Possibly everyone you know. You understand that, right?”
Wasn’t that the point of this? To live? To outlive it all? Ben nodded, and he signed papers telling the hospital he wanted the surgery. He drove through a light snowstorm after that, and he eventually came to the end of the line.
His father’s grave site was only three months fresh. He talked to the mound of dirt, to the father below it.
I’m gonna do it, Ben thought. I’ll live through everything.
The only thing Ben remembered from that was how warm the snow felt on his face.
* * *
I can’t say much has happened to me over the years. I married someone. Did you know that? His name was Harold, and we raised two beautiful children together before he died fifteen years ago from a heart attack. He was like you, in some ways.
Ben tries to imagine Harold with Abi, and how happy they might’ve been.
What happened between us was everything I had wanted. But you changed that when you stopped aging. I couldn’t live with you. I couldn’t even look at you after the operation. The thought of you turning from the man I loved into something entirely different made me sick. I guess I can’t blame you. A long life. An unlimited future. All the opportunity in the world.
And here came the kicker.
But that’s not how things work, Ben. Humans aren’t supposed to live like that. You live a life of broken rules. And I can’t love anyone who chooses that life. Humans were meant to have one shot at greatness. One. The path you chose was a greatness you could only have for yourself, something you could never share with me.
* * *
Abi threw her ring on the maroon rug of their cheap apartment in Cleveland. Ben watched blankly as she did. The thin band of gold he bought four months back fell almost magnetically to the ground.
“I can’t believe you,” she said, reaching for her cell phone. “Call the doctor and tell him you reconsider.”
Ben told her he wasn’t going to do that.
“You didn’t even talk to me about this?”
“I tried. I wanted to.”
“Y’know, I believe in science. We could live all the way to one hundred and fucking fifty, if we really wanted to.”
“Then why don’t you–”
“But I will not believe that a human can live forever. They shouldn’t be able to.” Abi was close to crying.
“I don’t understand. Wouldn’t you want to live forever? People won’t have to die from old age ever again.”
“That is not how the world works, Ben.”
Abi grabbed her bags and walked out of the bedroom, slamming the apartment door.
Ben held his head in his hands and he felt nothing.
He felt nothing for a long time after that.
* * *
The A-Cell on Ben’s back quietly whirs as it continues to charge. Ben still has the letter in his one hand, the half-empty whiskey bottle in the other.
Seventy-six percent charge.
We are not simple creatures, Ben. We have a finite set of time to do what we need to do. Have children. Have memories. Leave something of ourselves behind and give the next generation a chance. I couldn’t be with a man who could – and wants – to defy that. I am 89 years old now. I know I don’t have much time left, and I’m okay with that. I don’t know how long you intend to keep that thing on your back, but eventually nothing will be left for you. I love you. I still do.
Here I was born.
And there I died.
It was only a moment for you.
You took no notice.
The letter falls from his fingers. The silky paper floats down to the carpet near Ben’s feet. He finishes off the whiskey. His brain feels like it’s trying to tread water. The room swirls.
“I’m afraid,” Ben says. To Abi. To his father. To no one in particular.
He stands up and walks toward the generator in his closet. The rhythmic beat of the quiet A-Cell continues to play in his mind. Like music, it sings a song only he knows.
He’s getting sick of the tune.
The display on the machine tells him he is almost seventy percent charged. A single sigh escapes his mouth. He’s tired.
Ben slowly withdraws the charger from the back of his neck. He lets the cable fall to the ground, and he closes the closet.
This time, Ben sees himself without the cord in his neck. The marionette is gone, and the puppet is without a string.
He punches the mirror. Hard enough that it cracks and shatters. He lets the sharp, reflective shards stab his skin and pierce his knuckles. Large pieces fall to the ground, and Ben’s blood begins to drip onto them. He picks up the largest, sharpest shard of mirror he can find. It’s durable and deadly.
“I’m afraid,” Ben repeats.
He opens the closet door and stabs the charging station right through the touch screen. It cuts through the glass and the machine crackles and sputters before shutting off. Ben starts to dig into the machine, cutting wires with the mirror shiv and causing tiny sparks to form. He doesn’t care that his fingers are bleeding.
Ben’s watch beeps and flashes. Words scroll across the tiny screen telling him that there’s a malfunction and that he should order a new station as soon as possible and get assistance. He silently considers it for a moment, then shakes his head in defiance. He doesn’t need assistance anymore.
“I’m very afraid,” he says.
Ben picks up the bottle of whiskey and drinks from it, forgetting it’s empty.