The Three Birthday Rule
Dale watched the cop car negotiate the tough three-pointer in the skinny alley, and cruise past them, and off. The driver didn’t run his lights out of respect to the poor bastard on the back seat, and the whole affair just struck him as too sad for words.
Dale had tried to catch the guy’s eye when he was at the closest point, and gave him a little reassuring wave. The guy never saw it, though. His head was down the whole time. Dale knew he was already counting off the days till he could die.
“You know that fella?” Said Jeffers, offering him a cigarette as he spoke.
Dale took it, and looked off to where the car had been. Satisfied that it was gone, he let himself drop his weight against the rail that edged the three short steps between Slumbers Inc’s rear fire-exit and the rest of the backdoor world.
He didn’t speak until he’d lit the cigarette and taken his first deep drag.
“Nah.” He said. “Why you ask?”
“Ah, I don’t know. Looked like you were waving goodbye, or somethin’.”
“Hrm, nah.” Dale replied. “Never seen him before today.”
“Then why you wave like you give a shit?” The kid said. Jeffers was the new guy, and he was working out okay, so Dale didn’t hold a grudge about the questions, but sometimes the kid talked like he didn’t still have a lot to learn. It tired Dale out, but he couldn’t get angry about it. He’d been like that when he started the job.
“I just feel sorry for the guy. That’s all.”
“That guy? The guy who just got hauled downtown for blowing holes in our place of work with a piece?” He took a long, sharp breath on his own cig. “The killer? That guy?”
“Yeah.” Sometimes the kid talked like he didn’t still have a lot to learn, but he did. Dale knew that. “Him. You really see the man as a killer?”
Jeffers thought about it.
“Well, I guess. I mean, the ads and the Docs say that them folk are still alive, so yeah. You shoot one of them tanks up, stop them doing what they’re doing, when what they’re doing is keeping those folks on ice and alive, I guess the man’s a murderer.”
Dale laughed. A cold, short laugh.
“Jeffers, man, you haven’t been working here all that long, so you’re still working a lot from the brochure. But you’re going to pick things up down through time. If you’re taking what the Docs say as gospel, you need to take a step back. The Docs tell you the people that come here to be frozen are retrievable somehow, somewhere in the future – that they are one hundred percent certain that those people don’t feel nothing, no pain? Or that there’s anything left of them in there? Or that really, they even have the slightest clue what they’re really doing to those people?” Jeffers nodded absently at him, listening close to every word, eager to learn. “Next time one of them tells you that, you take a good look at their face, before you take what they say at face value. You’ll see.”
Jeffers looked confused.
“See that they know as well as you will, a few years of working maintanence in this place, that none of these people are ever going to get thawed out. None of them are going to live out new lives in some bright future.”
“You don’t know that!”
“No-one knows that. That’s my point.”
“Oh.” Jeffers thought about it. Slumped back against the same rail as he smoked. “So what was that guy’s deal?” He said, seeming to let his doubt lie for a second. “And why are you so soft on him?”
Dale waited for a moment, thinking about it, before continuing.
“It’s not the first time it’s happened, is what it is. Some of us old hands call it the Three Birthday rule. Some of the doctors call it that too.”
“The Three Birthday rule? What the fuck is that?”
“It’s this thing that happens to the people left behind. Some bright spark out there decides that the best way for them to meet the future is to sleep till it gets here. Maybe they got cancer, or Parkinsons, or the AIDs, or maybe they’re just a wild and free thinker that for some nuts reason thinks that getting themselves frozen in a borderline fatal procedure that there’s no guarantee they’ll ever wake up from is some kind of neat idea. Neat.”
“Well, some of those people are just rich and lonely, but some of them have friends, or families. Families who don’t often understand how their loved ones could do such a thing, but try to be supportive anyway. You’d be surprised, actually, how many people try to keep an open mind about it.”
“So, anyway, almost always, loved ones will try to make an effort with the first year of anniversaries. They come visit their frozen love’s canister at Christmas or New Years. They’ll either come on the birthday, or the anniversary of the date of freezing – for some reason, they hardly ever do both.”
“Isn’t it? But then, think about where we work for just five minutes longer than you normally let yourself.” He grinned up at Jeffers, then put his head back down. “So, the first year, everyone still up and about, and warm, they’re acting like it’s all cool, making conversation with the blue head behind the glass, like they think it’s going to talk back. Some of them – though pretty damn few – bring along the kids, even. Like a kid needs to see something like that.”
“But at this point, I guess, they’re still trying their hardest to think that that’s still the person they love behind the glass.”
“The second year, it’s a little harder. They might have visited a few times over those twelve months, but each holiday they come in, it’s still the first time round. They can still pretend that it just feels creepy and weird and numb because it’s new.” Jeffers shifted on his feet a little. Dale noticed, but didn’t stop. Figured that if it was bad form to disillusion the new kid, it was worse form to leave him to his daydreams, work this stuff out for himself. “The second anniversary visit, that’s where the fairytale starts to slip away for them. The next year starts from the low point of the realisation that this is how it’s going to be from now on. That cold blue face isn’t changing when you tell it a joke. It isn’t changing at all. And if experience is any judge, most of the visitors have put on a few pounds, gained a few grey hairs, from the effort of a year of kidding themselves that this is okay somehow. The frozen partner, their hair hasn’t even grown, or even got untidier.”
“They don’t generally visit much, the next year.” Dale finished off the cigarette, and looked at it. Threw it on the ground, and crushed it out. “More often than not, we never see them again.”
“Right. But when we do?”
“Yeah, when we do, they aren’t normally trying to make nice with the departed party any more. Often there’s rage, and we’ll see that coming, security will stop them, send them on their way. But sometimes, there’s resignation. These people, they can’t feel anything for their frozen partners any more, but they can’t say goodbye to them, either. If it’s hard for us, trying to work out what to call our clients – alive, or dead? – imagine how hard it is for the people that they left behind.”
“This guy, the one who just shot up his wife in her tank – his wife probably wasn’t a real person to him any more. She was just an anchor to the feeling of abandonment and regret he had, and it wasn’t like she’s in a coma or something. Like she might still die before him, let him mourn. All he had was that she was going to be there, frozen, for the rest of his life. He wasn’t even going to be able to die without knowing that she’d still be half alive somewhere. And he had no control of any of it.”
Jeffers looked at the crushed butt at their feet.
“So what he did, that was his way of trying to get control?” He said.
“Maybe. But looking at his face, it didn’t look like it worked, did it?”
“No, not at all. Man, that’s depressing.”
“Yeah, isn’t it?”
The two watched their shoes for a little longer. After a while, Dale took a look at his watch, tutted. That was their signal.
The two went back to work. Dale thinking about the warm and loving woman waiting for him at the end of the day, Jeffers wondering whether it was too late to look for an office job somewhere.
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