Claudia was ready.
The list was in her tablet, which she carried in the nook of her arm.
She knew what she was doing: a slight hint of makeup, curled hair, and flats with a short heel that clicked pleasantly when she walked. Instinctively, she drew out a shawl of classic black lace and put it on, the last piece to make her funeral-perfect.
She knocked on the door, expecting no one to come, even though she knew for a fact he was home.
It was all part of the sale.
She’d sold so many plans, so many Memory Plus lines, that it was hard to remember what it was like when she started. But this, this was her first time knocking on a door in real life. Her heart was running fast.
Her second set of knocks was chipper and rhythmic. Like clockwork, she heard a stirring inside.
“Mr. Ball, sir,” she began, bleeding just a touch of sorrow into her practiced line. “We’ve heard. About your illness.”
She cupped her hands in front of her as if praying. “Yes. And I cannot tell you how sorry we are, I am, that you need to suffer through these last days this way.”
The door opened, slowly and half-way.
“How’d you know?”
The man standing in the cracked door was in dirty work clothes, the kind with stains that wouldn’t self-clean no matter how many times you put them through the electric field. The one sandal she could see had a broken strap, and his bathrobe had a loose cotton weave that looked ready to fall apart. Wisps of gray hair graced his temples.
“We monitor the imminent death announcements in the Feed,” she said. “That’s all.”
“I’m kind of shocked they’d announce it.”
“I mean, everybody gets them,” she said, trying not to let her surprise bleed through. “We’re all in the Feed in one way or another.”
“Well, we can try not to be, at least.” He bowed his head a little further.
Claudia clutched her tablet tighter. “I’m from the Life Eternal group. We specialize in digital memorials.”
“I’m Leo,” he said from behind the cracked door. “Good to meet you.”
“Claudia,” she said as she nodded her thanks. “Good to meet you too, Leonard,” she said as she took a breath. “Have you given it any thought?”
“No, I mean your legacy.” She paused for extra effect. “You see, we think of ourselves in the legacy business. Our memorials will never grow old, never grow neglected, forever remain as a testament to your time here on this world.” She closed her eyes and opened them, the tag-line pumping in her veins. “So long as there’s Life Eternal, nobody will ever be forgotten. Anybody you know will be able to visit and remember you. All of you.”
“I mean, no, thanks.”
Claudia could feel the sale slipping away on her fingers. The trip was on the line. “An existing social media presence can be incorporated easily into a memorial. It’s a very painless process.”
Leo took hold of the doorknob. “I already told you I’m not in the Feed.”
You must have a legacy presence, or something like that? Close kin? Friends?”
“Shutting the door now,” he said. “Thank you.”
The door shut slowly, and clicked shut behind the screen door meant to keep the bugs out.
She put her business card in the screen door before she left.
Claudia decided to wait another week before going back to Leonard’s, no, Leo’s house.
She’d done a bit more research, even paying an information broker out of her own pocket. It was nearly useless. There were no employment records, no Social Insurance records, nothing. The researcher found his birth certificate, which Claudia already had.
For all the money she’d shelled out, the only thing the broker could find was that he’d gotten a delivery last May of lemon coconut chocolates. That was it.
She’d bought a box and brought it with her. She still wore her Mainline outfit and brought along brochures and pamphlets, things she could physically hold and give, seeing as Leo didn’t like the Feed and didn’t seem like the kind of guy who stayed up all night building hobby AIs.
She knocked. The expected silence followed.
She knocked again. But there was no stirring, no sign that anyone was inside. She waited patiently. She couldn’t be sure how long, but she waited. She called out to him, in a voice both pleasant and wanting.
Her hand started to move, almost on its own. She opened the screen door, the business card she’d left fluttering to the ground. She reached for the doorknob. And, while her mind protested, she opened the door to Leo’s house.
What struck her first was the smell.
As soon as it hit her, she retched. Usually, she worked with clients remotely, but her clients homes usually had systems or workers that kept them in good shape. Leo didn’t have either.
The house was familiar as soon as she opened the door, because it was a stock house with a simple layout, the cheap kind construction printers built. A few workers probably built this house in a week after they’d dug the foundation.
She clutched her gifts to her chest as she crept inside.
There were piles. Claudia had never seen so much paper in her life. Books, printer paper, even old newsprint was spread everywhere, looking like the rolling hills of a place much more lovely. There was a workout machine, collecting dust in the living room; there were cans and plastic packaging of half-finished meals; there was furniture and a mattress; there was clothing. It was like the man had shed his life over the floor.
She walked down the hall, past the kitchen, the smell’s source. Her eyes watered as she past it, and her heart jumped as something scurried across the floor. She was thankful she’d worn her Mainline flats, in case she needed to run.
She called out to Leo again.
The door to the bedroom was half-open. She clutched the doorknob, ready to slam it back again. But she opened it all the way, and looked inside.
“You all right?”
The medical examiner was wearing a lab coat, and blue booties over his feet. They’d loaded what was left of Leo into the van. His transport team was loading up the body to be taken to the morgue for examination. He was taking down notes on a paper notepad.
“Sure,” said Claudia. She lied through her teeth. “I’ve, I’ve just never seen someone like that.”
“Oh you mean a hoarder?”
“No,” she said, almost too quickly. “I mean a body.”
“You next of kin?”
“No. I’m in sales.”
He kept scribbling. “What do you sell?”
The examiner raised an eyebrow. “How’d you get his name?”
“It was in the Feed. He had a cancer diagnosis and stopped treatment.”
“Ah. Probably renal failure then. It’s peaceful. You just go to sleep and don’t wake up.” The examiner clicked his pen shut. “You got a card?”
She handed him one.
“All right. We might give you a call. Hope you’re all right.”
She clutched her arms. Her body shivered, even though she wasn’t cold. She called out to the examiner as he was walking away. “So, what happens now?”
The examiner turned back. “Oh, well we try to find next of kin. If we can’t do that we sell off the estate to pay for cremation and burial. Everybody gets one, though. Social Insurance.”
“What if you can’t find anyone?”
“Oh, that happens all the time. More since I first came on. Don’t worry about it. We got guys that take care of it. No need to worry about that. ”
“Can you tell me,” she said. “When they bury him?”
The examiner said: “Oh, he’s not getting buried,” he said. But he saw Claudia’s face. The scratched the back of his neck and said: “Uh, sure. Sure thing.”
There was a brass dove with his Leo’s name on it and the years that he’d lived.
It was on the wall of the city crematorium. Its entryway was a small place lined with gray stone and windows made of marble thin enough to let the light through.
The place didn’t impress like a church did, especially the American Prosperity ones. Claudia had seen the insides of those, the inner sanctums. They were garish with gold and paintings of the rich men who’d built them. There was nothing like that here.
Claudia pressed a button as soon as she walked through the door.
“Be right there,” said a small voice from behind the counter. It was a small woman with thin skin and a well-built smile. “Welcome. Do you have an appointment?”
“Yes,” said Claudia. “I’m here to pay respects. For Leo Ball.” She looked around. “Is anybody else here?”
“They couldn’t find anybody. No next of kin or anything like that. Every once in awhile we get one like that, but it seems like we keep getting more of them these days.” She lost her train of though, then regained it. “Well, the process won’t be done for a little while yet. You can wait here if you like.”
“If it’s not too much trouble, I’d like to see it. The process, I mean.”
The volunteer shrugged. “Ok, sure. They’re setting Mr. Ball in the retort right now. I’ll have to follow you back. If anyone else comes, we’ll have to go out together. Not too many volunteers, unfortunately.”
Claudia followed her back into the crematorium, the sound of fans and burning propane echoing off the concrete walls.
Two workers in overalls and face-masks had set up Leo’s body in a cardboard box.
They both waved hello to the volunteer, who waved back.
The three furnaces where the bodies were burned were running full bore. There were bunches of bodies, bushels of them, waiting to be turned into ash. They pushed the box that contained Leo’s body into the furnace. Flame began to eat at the cardboard.
“Well, they’re on time today,” said the volunteer. “Sometimes they get backed up.” The volunteer pointed. “Mr. Ball is the one in the middle. See?”
“Thank you,” said Claudia.
The volunteer stood with her hands clasped in front of her. She rested for a moment before she said: “How did you know him?”
Claudia was turning pale. “A sale I couldn’t make.”
“Sales, interesting,” said the volunteer. “What do you sell?”
Claudia could see it now, the cardboard catching light, the brilliant burning of the vault. Everything, all of him, was becoming ash when the vault door came down on Leo’s chamber.
Soon, Leo’s body would turn to a fine white powder. The workers in overalls would break up the rest of the bones, maybe remove a pacemaker from the dust. They would put his remains into a small canister and keep them vaulted in this place. Nothing would mark that Leo Ball had been here, aside from his name on the brass dove in the lobby.
And there were thousands of brass doves. Tens of thousands, all lining the place, a frozen flock forever.
“I don’t know,” she said.