The Day You Died

by Jonathan Doctorick

 

I

This was the hour the collective world was to die while living to know another day. One of those forever kinds of days, where man played God.

Dr. Brigham, tense with this knowledge, asked in a soothing, nearly whispered way: “Are you in pain?” The hooded lamps the reporters had erected caused the beads of sweat to glisten on his forehead. The doctor’s aides scuttled in and out of the hospital room.

Around Mr. Kapila’s bed, pencils and pens frenetically scritch-scratched, microphones recorded, three cameras stood on tripods and transmitted. Objective: catch every nuance of sight, sound, movement, emotion. Every last spoken word and sighed breath was jotted down to be catalogued, reviewed, and experienced by more people than were watching live. The viewing audience, though, could not perceive the singular scent of ethyl alcohol, Lysol, fresh flowers combined; a sterilized-funeral-parlor aroma. The media described such superficial items with well-written and spoken accounts, and allowed the world to become intimate with the scene. Admittedly, only the kin truly experienced the day’s full range as Mr. Kapila’s death clock ticked and tocked, his life strung out behind in one endless experience, leaving the world as he entered it—helpless in a hospital room.

This day was promised to be remembered more so than the infamous inferno of Hindenburg, the media’s declaration of VJ-day, or that dark day in Dallas with the slain JFK. The ratings challenged those of the replayed vaporization of Challenger, Columbine, and suspected O.J. with glove and chase scene. More sat captivated than had watched the invasions of the Middle East that had started with Iraq. The audience was bigger than any Super Bowl’s. It even overshadowed the revelatory days when the world, with lightened hearts, heard of the cure for cancer, the cure for AIDS.

Some feared the shaft of the abyss was being needlessly pried open with a medical hand. They claimed we were, once more, daring God—playing God, being God—to lay down our race in eternal slumber, setting us to dream apocalyptic dreams. Others felt it was a vital, natural, and logical step as they embraced the technology’s—now as common as cloning—potential. Both polarized sides had one underlying thought they in common shared: with curiosity, they wanted to know what was next. In some ways, humans never changed.

“No,” Mr. Kapila said. “S’okay,” between shallow, mechanized wheezes. “S’fine.”

Scratch, record, and video tape; live feed, satellite dishes, and Internet simulcast: experience and remember. Die with him today. The four reporters encircling the bed at the four points of the compass were the heralds for the U.S., Asia, Europe, and UN. A lottery, a name pulled out of the electronic hat, allotted each the role of hospital-room, historical scribe. The European rep was scolded, however, when later seen on replay secreting away a washcloth that had been removed from the patient’s head and put at the edge of the bed. He returned it to the family, publicly apologized, and chastised himself for not blocking the shot; the rag would have brought him a small fortune if sold at electronic-auction.

Mr. Kapila’s breath hitched once (the rest of the room’s breath drew in with a start), twice; a third time then caught. Rhythmic and paced it resumed again. All eyes together shifted to the screen mounted left of his bed. They could see themselves as he perceived them. He was, in a way, an organic mirror.

“Mr.—” Dr. Brigham began, watching himself as he nervously fidgeted. Only recently had he become immune to the peculiar situation in which a patient was transformed into a camera.

“Goin’ soon, I think,” Mr. Kapila interrupted.

His two children quickly bent over the bed. His frame was so gaunt, his skin so stretched and shrunken, nearly translucent (liver spots and cobalt veins the only dark coloring), that his sex seemed indeterminate. The walls of his failing heart were, like his skin, trace-paper thin, every beat one more (and one less) in his life. It seemed a brief, puffed breath could have blown to fine dust his body matured one hundred and one years, scattering it like dandelion spores floating on a balmy, summer zephyr.

Reuben, the son, brushed a hand across his father’s cool brow. A tear threatened, fell, one bead rolling to his lip. A camera caught this in high definition. Mr. Kapila’s daughter, Madison, next of kin, made the same motion, pushing back two thin wisps of hoary hair. Her hand stopped short of the wire threaded into an opaque, dime-sized bandage on her father’s temple. The skin-toned wire was taped across his head, draped behind the ear. It ran to a small computer standing vigil beside Mr. Kapila’s bed. The computer translated with a quiet whirring of internal hardware the meaning of the input. It transformed the information into comprehensible pictures which flowed across the screen beside the bed like a familiar film. Mr. Kapila could not see the screen as he could not twist his head.

Outside the hospital room in the neuroscience ward, billions kept watch as well. The Mind’s Eye Cam, patent pending, would win Dr. Brigham a Nobel Prize. With Mr. Kapila’s eyes open, the world saw his room, saw through his eyes. The viewer could see the family, the reporters, Dr. Brigham; wherever his glance fell. With closed eyes, any scene was possible, limited only by his mind. Understood in functional detail by few—Dr. Brigham and aides could hardly explain in lay terms the workings of the MEC—that slender wire, inserted deep into the gray, spongy tissue of his brain (no pain), gathered up cognizant thought and conscious perceptions. Packets of pulsed electronic data shot down the wire, permitting all to see what he experienced, reality or not. His eyes, dreamy (yet bright and aware) with drugs, slipped shut. A hush befell the hospital room, dorms, dens and offices, family rooms and kitchens, school houses and diners, every one tense, as if God’s hand was squeezing tight the globe.

“It’s working,” Dr. Brigham said, sighing relief. “Wonderful, simp—”

“It is,” Reuben and Madison interrupted gently.

“Amazing, Doctor,” the UN rep said.

“Shhhhhh,” the rest pushed out between tight lips, like a patched rubber seal leaking.

His unfolding thoughts, unreality seen on TV: A white, cube-like space, a serene room overly bright yet not harshly lit. Edges defined at right angles, perpendicular lines somehow seen. An elderly woman, standing still, smiling. Her gaze seemed trained on the viewer. The kin recognized her at once. Her garnet lips parted, moved, shaped words. Her tongue worked behind her teeth, creating soundless syllables and speech known only to him, Mr. Kapila.

“Missed ya, too,” Mr. Kapila whispered, his speech feather light. “Comin’… home.”

“It… it works. My God—” Reuben said.

“It’s Mom!” Madison cried out. “Doctor, we can see what he sees!” Rivulets of hot tears rolled down her cheeks, pattering drops on the linen draped over her father, drawn to mid-chest.

“Indeed, we just can’t hear what he does,” Dr. Brigham said. “Yet, anyway.” Onto his face worked a broad, proud grin.

“Missed… you…” drifted on Mr. Kapila’s last, aided breaths.

The reporters were speechless.

Mr. Kapila’s eyes opened, the white room vanished, their images seen on the screen once more. “See her?” he asked.

“Yes, Dad,” Reuben said.

Madison: “Oh, thank you. Thank you, thank you.”

“We did,” added Dr. Brigham.

“How’m I doin’?” Mr. Kapila asked, beryl-blue eyes taking in the room.

“Doing just fine.”

“I’ll be… remembered?”

The reporters nodded, not a dry eye among them.

“You will,” said Dr. Brigham.

Reuben said, “Of course, Dad… of course.” He patted his father’s dry, limp hand. “For all time.”

“We thank you,” Dr. Brigham said, blotting his brow and eyes with a handkerchief. He sidled next to the bed. “The world thanks you.” Madison and Reuben tilted their attention up to Dr. Brigham, both smiling through joyous tears. “You have provided a great service.”

“Water, please,” Mr. Kapila said. He swallowed a small sip from the waxed paper cup his son held to his lips. His inhalations became ragged, irregular. His chest began to spasm, jerking out each phrase: “I think… then… that it’s time… for me to… to go.” A weak smile pulled up the corners of his lips. “Son?” He lifted up his hand, as if in blessing, and touched Reuben’s cheek.

“Yes, Dad.”

“Love… always.”

“I will, Dad. I love you.”

“Daughter?”

“I’m here, Dad.”

“Don’t fear… death. He spoke… of it as… a rest. Sleep. Love… always.”

“Always Dad, I promise. Hey, say hi to Mom, okay?” She managed a cracked laugh.

“I’ll.”

“Give regards to God.”

On his last exhale he said, “I—”

His chest did not rise again. His life—running down the corridor of existence non-stop since birth, this the culminating, set point to which every choice and decision had lead—ended. All eyes in the room and the world over jerked to the screen beside the bed.

 

First you saw blackness. A void so total it suggested only the infinite. Like a creeping dawn, grey began to filter in. Then the picture was white, a blinding white, as if showing a silent, cataclysmic destruction of a star. It lasted one infinitesimal moment.

 

II

What was seen by those watching TV during that moment: in Orlando, a terminal cancer patient saw a stunningly grand, snowcapped mountain range. The sky was washed in the velvety purple of twilight. Evergreens climbed the sides of an immense valley carved out of the rock below. It was beautiful. In Pittsburgh, a mother saw an azure sea marching out into the distance from white sand, merging with the heavens at a point unseen. Sunlight shimmered across the tops of swells in bursts of fool’s gold, and seagulls—only Vs in the distance—glided on the steady breeze. The clouds looked like soft cotton balls glued to the sky. Her breath caught. Her daughter, cross-legged in front of the TV, saw the circus. High-walkers tip-toed, trapeze artists flew through the air. In Santa Monica, a teen saw a misty forest of Sequoias, stretching forever upwards, disappearing like the legs of giant, placid sentinels into the morning fog. He could smell the damp carpet of needles and leaves, almost feel drops of cold dew forming on his skin. In Anchorage, a woman swam with orcas, touched their smooth skin, hunted with them, called to them, was them. She smiled. In Tokyo, a businessman saw a towering waterfall spilling over a ledge far above his head, and all around was dense foliage, the air heavy with tropical humidity. The roar resonated in his ears while a caul of mist caught the sun and exploded into a rainbow, coloring his vision with a heavenly, kaleidoscopic spectrum. In the languidly moving river at his feet, innumerable numbers of koi swam in flashes of orange and white speckled with black. His mouth momentarily dropped open, and only when the picture left his mind a split second later did he think to close it.

In Paris, a man howled in alarm and clapped his hands over his face, dropping the garrote he had been fondling. He saw the girl he had been stalking for weeks, all the while plotting and fantasizing. She was stripped nude, her face was purple and bruised, and there were ligature marks on her throat. The flesh there was scored open. She pointed an accusing finger. He would not follow her again.

In New York, a firefighter winced as he saw the charred out remains of what he thought was an abandoned apartment building. One crisp, blackened body was curled upon the floor. Its arm was turned up, fingers bent into a claw, the mouth forever open in a painful scream. Cracks covered the scorched skin, the red muscle underneath exposed and forming a gruesome roadmap. He deserted all thoughts that his pyromania told him were sane.

In Columbus, a man saw clouds and white; in Boulder, a woman saw an inferno and black.

Reuben, Madison, Dr. Brigham, eyes wide, gasped and smiled broadly. The reporters cried out in concert, two in terror, two in ecstasy.

What he, Mr. Kapila, experienced: The brilliant flare of white ceased. The white was the boundless infinite, a reality beyond human comprehension, all. He now knew his erstwhile world, where billions glimpsed what could not be seen or understood with mortal perceptions, had been a façade stretched like a piece of canvas over the white. Now part and particle of the white, fused into it like a drop of water in an endless sea, an overwhelming sense of completion, an end so sure and gracious, became him. Like his audience, not able to perceive of the white’s true form, foreign to the finite human mind, limited by the confines of lived experience, he understood and became the Truth in a way forced by structured conception: stretching out beyond his vision, surrounding him in total, was a scarlet sea. Roses; every rose; a floral carpet over all. The ground’s crimson pelt wavered in the gentle wind which peacefully sang in his ears like a conch. The red sea became one with a cloudless sky without a definitive horizon. The heavens above were of a blue so deep it looked thick enough to touch. The air’s sweet florid incense was not overpowering, but soothing and right and the apotheosis of every humanly sense. Arms lowered, palms outstretched towards the copious flora, he felt the silky tops of the blooms tickle and comfort. He saw it all, felt that it was good. Triumph filled him, he was happy. He began to walk. Like the breadth of his eternal panorama, the moment is forever.

 

Imagine what you love most; you saw it that day. Or imagine your keenest, whetted hate; you might have seen it that day. Each person’s interpretation of the white was there and gone so quickly that most were merely left with a feeling lacking explanation.

 

Then, ending almost as it began, the white on the screen beside the bed where one man had breathed his last breath gave way to the frantic electronic snow of a channel’s signal lost. Silence. Memories already fading like early morning dreams drowned under conscious thought. Around the world, video tape replays were being queued. They showed black… grey… white. Simple colors, and nothing more.

 

III

“Thanks for sticking with us through the break and welcome back to Morning Views,” the anchor said. A cheerful smile exposed straight, bleached teeth. “With me again is the creator of what ya’ll remember as the Mind’s Eye Cam. So, as you were saying Dr. Brigham, you still have hopes that we may one day get a glimpse of what waits for us, if anything?”

“Of course. We haven’t been successful yet, but I’m sure with some more refinement of the process, we’ll one day have a glimpse of someone’s last thoughts,” Dr. Brigham said.

“The world was sure ready that day almost a year ago when you first televised your MEC in action. When,” the anchor paused, looking up at the teleprompter as the name slipped his mind, “oh yes, Mr. Kapila let us in on a very private occurrence.” He chuckled, “Sorry… name almost got away from me there.”

“It happens,” Dr. Brigham said. “But yes, we were very grateful of him to let us broadcast one of the first trial runs of the MEC.

“Any more volunteers since then?”

“A few, but most are still quite young. It’s something very personal to lay out in front of the world, you know?”

“Very tough indeed. In the meantime, any other uses for the MEC?”

“Psychologists everywhere are making great use of it,” Dr. Brigham said. “Very useful for learning more about the dream process. That’s really the main reason I was honored with the Nobel Prize.”

“Ah yes, I can imagine. We only have a few moments here, so let me just wrap up by asking what you think happened that day with Mr., uh—”

“Kapila.”

“Yes, Mr. Kapila,” the anchor said, smiling.

“Honestly, I’m not very sure. While he was still living, after we had implanted the MEC, we were able to see whatever he saw with eyes open or what he conjured up with his eyes closed. Remember watching as he showed us his wife?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“Well, when he passed on, the signal just sort of cut out. So at this point I don’t think we’re sure enough to comment.”

“Here’s a quick shot,” the anchor said. Footage of Mr. Kapila’s eyes closing, chest settling one last time, cut into Morning View’s live feed. The screen beside his bed goes from black, to grey, to white, then to electronic fuzz. Dr. Brigham and the anchor reappeared into view.

“But wouldn’t it be plausible that we should’ve been able to see any sort of thoughts his mind created, or experienced, right after death?” the anchor said, weighing the last three words.

“Certainly. The brain functions for a few minutes after the heart has stopped.”

“But nothing.”

“Correct, signal lost.”

“Not to bring down the importance of your wonderful invention—it certainly is a feat of modern science—but doesn’t that suggest something to you?”

Dr. Brigham hesitated, then said: “Not… yet.”

“That day sure showed us something, I suppose. Something so… final in that black then nothing at all.”

“I suppose.”

“Well, I almost forgot to congratulate you on your Nobel Prize—!”

“No harm done.”

“—and I’m sure you’ll have plenty of success in the future, Dr. Brigham.”

“Thank you.”

“Thanks for being here.”

The camera swung away from Dr. Brigham, leaving just the anchor in frame. “Well,” he began, “we certainly appreciate the Doctor being here with us today to talk about the creation of the MEC. I’ll never forget the excitement I felt that day, being able to peer into the mind of a fellow man. Our thanks go out to the Kapila family as well. Though we weren’t able to catch a glimpse of an afterlife,” he said dully, “only time will tell.”

The camera changed angles, and the anchor twisted to face the audience. His somber tone turned cheery as he said, “Coming up next on Afternoon Spotlight with Jennifer Lynn Rice is a segment about the inexplicable drop in global crime rates, which have been plummeting now for months. It’s an intriguing story, so make sure to stay tuned through the news at the top of the hour. As always, it’s been a pleasure. I’m Neil DeHubris, see you tomorrow.”

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