Callie had always imagined Death as a dark, hooded figure with a skeletal frame and a deep, low whisper of a voice. She couldn’t have been more wrong. The plump little man who stood waiting on the doorstep was blonde and smiley. If it weren’t for the big clock in his hands and the name badge pinned to his chest, she’d never have picked him out as an authorized collector of spent lives. She couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed.
“Hello,” he beamed. “I don’t believe we’ve met. Mind you, it’s only my first week on the job so I’ve barely met anyone yet. You must be Callie.”
“That’s me,” she agreed. “I’ve been expecting you. Would you like to come in?”
“Thank you,” he said, stepping lightly through the doorway. “It’s funny, you’re not at all like I imagined. For some reason, I pictured you much taller with long dark curls.”
“My parents didn’t have enough credits left for decent hair,” explained Callie. “Which is why I ended up with this.” She tugged her fingers through her spiky white tufts. “They skimped a little on the height as well so they could buy me another few months.” Fifteen years—that was all her Mum and Dad had been able to afford on their paltry Service Worker wages. And now Callie’s fifteen years were up.
She led him into the primary room, apologizing as she did so for its odd appearance. It had jammed on its dining room setting three weeks ago and they were still waiting for the engineer to come and fix it. The sideboard had completely disappeared beneath the porto-kitchen kit that had become their makeshift food preparation area. A king-sized insta-bed stuck out from underneath one of the chairs and Callie skirted around it, motioning Death to do the same. It was funny how quickly you got used to things. Moving the heavy wooden table to create enough room for her parents to sleep had become something of a nightly ritual. She’d missed the comfy sofas and the viewing screens at first, but had quickly come to appreciate the evenings spent around the dining table, long after the camping dishes had been cleared away, just talking. Somehow it seemed like a fitting end to her life.
“Can I get you a drink of something?” she asked. In truth, the last thing she felt like doing was making small talk over a cup of tea. But she had promised her parents she would be polite and welcoming. They had repeatedly petitioned the local Service Team Leader for the day off, but their requests had been denied. It would take more than the termination of their only child to warrant the loss of a day’s labor. So, they had said their last weeping goodbyes before they left that morning, together with a few final instructions: Be brave. Be ready. Be polite.
“No, I’m fine thanks,” said Death. “They don’t really like us drinking on the job. But don’t let me stop you…” He checked the clock in his hands. “You’ve got time for a quick one. My next appointment isn’t until 11.00.”
“I’d rather just get on with it, if that’s okay.”
“Of course. I take it you’re familiar with the process? You’ve read the terms and conditions?”
Callie nodded. She practically knew them off by heart. At the end of the allotted time span, she would be decommissioned with immediate effect. The procedure would be instant and painless, her body reverting back to its constituent base parts ready for recycling. Her memories, her essence, everything that had made her Callie for the last fifteen years, would be wiped clean. It would be as if she had never existed. Like Anka, her best friend, whose contract had been up two months before. One day she’d been there, laughing and joking and mooning over Paulo, the new boy with the dark curls and matching eyes, like a regular flesh-and-blood teenager, and the next she’d been gone. Shwoop. Just like that.
Callie’s class had shrunk considerably over the last few years. Theirs was a relatively poor neighborhood and not many Service Workers could afford more than thirteen to fourteen years on their contract. She was lucky her parents had managed to stretch hers out to fifteen, even if did mean that she was ridiculously short for her age and saddled with the kind of white hedgehog hair that meant the likes of Paulo wouldn’t look twice at her.
“Any last requests?” Death asked. “You’re entitled to one extrasensory experience of up to three minutes.” He smiled. “All part of the service.”
Callie bit her lip. She had given the matter a lot of thought over the last few weeks. Anka, she knew, had opted for three minutes kissing a virtual Paulo. It was certainly a tempting proposition. At least then, she wouldn’t die without knowing what it felt like. But it wouldn’t be real, would it? Another girl she knew had chosen to spend her allotted time in Park Paradiso, surrounded by real-life trees and vegetation—or at least a virtual copy of them. Another opted to meet the grandmother she had never known. Everyone had their own dreams and unfulfilled desires. But how to pick just one longed-for experience out of a whole unlived life? Fifteen years hadn’t been nearly long enough to do all of the things Callie had fantasized about. She had never seen the sea. Never touched a flower. Never heard birdsong. Never traveled beyond the city of her “birth.” She had never mastered the piano. Never learned to speak more than three languages. Never met anyone from another planet. Never tasted honey. Never been kissed. In the end, though, she had decided against all of them.
“There was one thing I wanted to experience,” she said hesitantly. “But I don’t even know if it’s possible.”
“We can do most things these days,” smiled Death, his eyes crinkling like tiny black caterpillars. Callie knew all about caterpillars and butterflies from history lessons. It was her favorite subject, and she’d been top of her class every year. Her parents might have skimped a little on her appearance, but there’d been no corner-cutting when it came to intelligence and learning aptitude. It was funny to think that all that information—every last bit of knowledge currently stored in her brain—would soon disappear, along with the rest of her thoughts and memories. Though, maybe “funny” wasn’t quite the right word.
“Go on,” said Death. “Try me. I’ll see what I can do.”
Callie took a deep breath. “I’d like to see my parents afterwards. I mean after I’m gone.” She was slightly concerned about how they were going to cope without her. Every day it seemed there was a new story about someone who’d gone to pieces after their child’s contract had expired. It was understandable, really. Parents these days were becoming as attached to their geno-kids as previous generations had been to their human offspring. And with low wages and rising living costs, it might take a grieving couple years to be able to afford a replacement. Callie just wanted to see that they’d be OK without her—to witness them coping for herself. Even though she knew full well it would only be a virtual approximation of the future, it would still be some comfort.
Death was quiet for a moment as if he was thinking something through. “Well, they never mentioned that one at training college,” he said at last. “You’re a funny one, aren’t you?”
Callie blushed. “Can you do it?”
“Well,” he said. “Hmmm…it’s just a hunch…” He gestured to the nearest dining room chair. “Please. Sit down.”
She did as she was told.
He set the clock down on the table in front of him and retrieved a thin silver disc from his jacket pocket. He held it up to his right eye for a few moments and then smiled. “Yes,” he said. “I think we’re in business.” He slotted the disc into a discreet panel at the back of the clock.
“Okay,” he said, his face tense with concentration. “Now I want you to close your eyes and relax. I’m going to count slowly down from ten and then…” He started to count. “Ten…nine…” Already Callie’s eyes felt heavy behind their lids. “Seven… six…” Her body was sinking deeper into the chair under its own immense weight. “Four…three…” She was drifting into a light, silvery nothingness. “…one.”
Callie opened her eyes. The dining table and chairs had vanished and the room had reverted back to its lounge setting. Her parents must have got it fixed at last. And there they were, sitting side by side on the sofa, eyes glued to the central viewing screen. Her Mum looked happy and excited; her face seemed to have lost some of the weariness and stress lines that had gathered around her eyes in the last few months. Her hair was different as well—shorter and darker—and it made her look much younger. Callie noticed that her Dad’s face was less lined and frowny too. She felt a momentary pang to see them looking so relaxed and happy without her and had to remind herself that this was exactly what she wanted for them. Just because they’d moved on with their lives didn’t mean they hadn’t loved her.
Her gaze shifted towards the viewing screen, with its large blue menu and the Geno-Kids logo flashing in the top left hand corner. With a jolt of recognition, Callie realized what she was looking at—this was the selection screen for a new geno-kid. Her Mum and Dad were choosing her replacement.
“I can’t find the right hair,” her Mum said, scrolling remotely to the next screen with her finger. “We don’t want long glossy curls. Where have the white spikes got to?”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have something different this time?” asked her Dad.
“No. Callie has white spikes,” said her mother firmly. “She always has and she always will.”
Her Dad grinned. “She won’t thank you for it. You know how much she hates them.”
“Oh, girls never like their hair. It’s just one of those things. Besides it’s less credits, which means we can stretch to the full fifteen years again.”
“Or we can wait another few years while we save up and then keep her for a bit longer this time.”
Her Mum shook her head. “I’m sorry. I can’t wait. I don’t think you can either. Every time she goes, it’s like a huge hole in our lives, and neither one of us will be happy until we fill it. We need our Callie.”
“You’re right,” agreed her Dad. He pointed to the screen. “Look, there’s the white spikes option. Oh, and don’t forget to put in that birthmark by her left ear. I love that birthmark…”
Callie closed her eyes, just for a moment, and when she opened them again she was back in the dining room, opposite the smiling face of Death. She smiled right back at him.
“Thank you,” she said. “That was a far nicer future than I could ever have imagined on my own.”
“You’re very welcome,” he told her. “But between you and me, that wasn’t the future.”
“Oh I know it wasn’t the exact future,” Callie said. “I realize that no one can be one hundred percent sure of that until it actually happens. But it’s the future I’d wish for them.” She paused. “And for me, come to that. It’s like I’ll still be here even after I’ve gone.”
“No, I mean it wasn’t the future,” explained Death. “It was the past.”
Callie’s mouth dropped open as she tried to take in what he was saying. “So, you mean I’m not the first Callie they’ve had…?”
“And I very much doubt you’ll be the last,” he agreed.
“And they always make me just the same every time?”
“So it would seem. They must love you very much.”
Callie nodded. “You’re right. They do.” She took a deep breath. Be brave. Be ready. Be polite. “Thank you again,” she said, running her fingers across the birthmark by her left ear, for luck. “I think I’m ready to go now. After all, it’s not like it’s forever.”
“Very good,” said Death with a little bow. “If you’d just close your eyes one last time, then. Don’t worry, this won’t hurt a bit.”
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