Siphonophore — Emma Devlin

It’s raining. Two women come indoors. We have been expecting them: Sadie and Madeline. Sadie’s online application has been approved, pending a visit to the facility to sign the contract. Madeline is her wife.

Their voices drop when they walk into the waiting room. A furious exchange. We can guess what it’s about. The beat of these arguments is familiar.

Sadie is blonde. Madeline is a brunette. They wring rainwater from their hair as they talk, and it drips all over the floors. Raindrops spatter across our bodies as they whip off their coats. We don’t mind.

They look at us, at our name badges, and immediately forget which of us is which. Tissues and a glass of water appear at their elbows as if by magic. We might be dark haired, or blonde, or tall, or short, it doesn’t matter. To them, the employees of LIFE AFTER are all one. The invisible parts that get things done.

The name of our company is painted in bright red letters on the wall: LIFE AFTER. They take a seat in front of it. Their heads bow toward each other in front of the E in LIFE.

Madeline is making one last attempt to dissuade Sadie. Her body language is all desperation. She clings to Sadie. She points her finger in Sadie’s face. Her voice gets louder as she makes her points. Sadie taps her foot and sighs. She takes Madeline’s hand. E for Extension. We wait. E for Eternity.

Cryonics, Madeline says contemptuously. What a load of shit.

We have been trained not to respond to these remarks. We have heard them all before.

Please, says Sadie. It’s promising.

It’s expensive, says Madeline. You don’t usually pay dead bodies a stipend. No, you do not.

We keep a respectful distance, but remain available. We are at their service. Sadie takes Madeline’s hand and turns to us.

I’ve been through all this with her, she says. She doesn’t like the idea. There is a shiny, pleading look on her face.

Drops of rain are beaded along the edges of their thumbs. Sadie is our patient-to-be. She has green eyes. She weighs one hundred and thirty-six pounds. She is sixty-five years old. She is six foot one. Her shirt is crumpled. Her voice is deep and resonant.

Sadie will become patient FB003. Full-body arrangements. Date of admittance to be confirmed, but it always comes sooner than you’d think. A reasonable quarterly fee for upkeep, maintenance, and expenses. There are only two others: the founders of the company, the LIFE and the AFTER respectively, preserved safely in titanium containers down in the wards.

We are happy to answer any questions, of course. We are here to put your mind at ease.

The streets outside are brimming with rainwater. It has risen to the kerb. We can smell it. Faintly sulphurous, the smell of a beach. A beach, here, where the LIFE AFTER building is stuck between a distribution centre and an outlet store, as far away from the sea possible. Still, water always finds its way to us. We move around reception to hide the wet patches in the walls with our bodies, but the smell is everywhere. We try to think warm, serene thoughts of sunlight, sunburn, seashells.

We make wagers about her under our breath. Full-body arrangements aren’t cheap. Why is she here? Dementia. Cancer. Dread. Sometimes it is just dread.

The walls are damp to the touch. The LIFE AFTER on the wall glistens and sweats. Why has she chosen us?

Madeline’s right eye is glassy with a cataract. She opens her mouth to ask us a question. But she turns sharply to Sadie instead, and says, This place?

She is trying to keep her voice down, but her voice breaks. THIS place? This PLACE?, so accusative, echoes across the floor, right down to the basement, where the wards are, where we listen in. We are used to this. And we agree with her, privately. LIFE AFTER is cheap. So the floors are sticky. So the damp rises. So the smell of sea air, so far from the sea, permeates the building. There are small translucent mushrooms, out of sight, in the corners of our offices.

Sadie pats Madeline’s thigh. Sadie’s expression is wide and open. She has the faraway look of someone who daydreams. Plenty of daydreamers come this way.

We think, Dementia.

It’s a bargain, she says. Don’t you think it’s worth it for a second chance?

Dark, wet marks appear above Madeline’s head. They are brown and blue. They stretch horizontally over where LIFE AFTER is painted. These are the signs of the building’s oldest self.

You talk like you’ve got not hope, says Madeline.

No, says Sadie. I’m hopeful. I just want to get past all this.

Sadie, says Madeline. Just look at the place.

The marks appear at odd times. When it rains, when it snows, when the lights flicker, when our moods are up, when our moods are down. We joke that the building is haunted. It is a sort of haunting, after all. The building used to be apartments. The marks are the traces of previous floors and ceilings. They appear in strange places. A half-foot above our heads. At our ankles. In our offices there are marks of where bathroom tiles used to be. Taps. Sinks.

Deep in the wards, in a corner, there is the shadow of a headboard, of the place where two heads might have slept side by side. It would please us to see how it appears behind two of the vessels, as if the original sleeping pair belong to us now, and they are merely dreaming together until the rain stops. The thought would please us, only each time we worry that this time the marks are here to stay.

We have been experiencing minor issues with the paintwork in the receptions area, we say. Work has already begun on correcting the issue. The wards are not affected.

There now, says Sadie.

Madeline turns to us. She scrutinises us for a moment She asks, Are all the ones who get this done already dying?

We are not at liberty to say. We don’t know.

Sadie has no eyelashes.

Cancer, then.

LIFE AFTER offers full-body preservation at reasonable prices. All the same, some people can only afford to preserve the head. The wards are full of them.

We are saddened by the thought of all those heads stacked up against the wall, alone. We wonder at their future.

Sadie has saved up. We wonder where she got the money. Her hands are rough. Her mouth is set. She looks focused. The faraway look, perhaps, is only for Madeline.

A trickle of water has entered the basement. Those of us down in the wards quietly fetch mops and buckets.

So the idea is that she…she dies and then you stick her in a freezer?

Our team can be with Sadie within an hour of her legal death, and the process will begin, we say.

What if she dies on holiday? Or someone murders her? Or she’s in a terrible accident?

Sadie looks at Madeline, speechless.

I’m just asking, says Madeline.

We have links with international agencies that can assist with interim patient care. Transportation, we clarify. And as for the actual condition of the patient at the point of service, we are experienced and can respond to a variety of needs, from sudden death, to long illness.

She’s not ill!

Sadie says, No.

Then why…?

It is only sensible to make arrangements, we say. This is just one option among many, only there is no comparison between what LIFE AFTER offers and those other businesses. Funeral homes. That burying, burning business. The dreadful waste. The polluting, poisoning waste. The business of last chances and lost potential.

E for Emptor, as in Caveat.

And we are cheap, we remind her. We offer our patients the opportunity of a lifetime – of a life after time, of a lifeline, of having time at all – for less than half the rate of our competitors, undertakers included. And we currently offer TWO FOR ONE, we remind them, and point at the brochure. We only need to look out of the window, at the rain, to make our point.

Madeline asks us, Will you go for this when you die?

LIFE AFTER does not officially recognise death.

Legal death is only admin, we say. The founders enjoyed this turn of phrase, and had us repeat it whenever we could. It comes to some of us more readily than others.

Sadie says, I like that idea.

Madeline says, Ideas are fine.

Sadie says, I wish you’d join me.

Madeline runs her hands through her hair. Does it even work?

We say, Only time will tell.

The preservation of our first patient, the first patient who wasn’t one of the founders – head-only – was difficult and awkward because she collapsed suddenly at a hotel lounge over the border, and wasn’t transported for hours, The power failed often in those early days, often, and for long periods of time, which plunged the wards into darkness. We have taken it on faith that the patient – H001, whose details are anonymised on our website together with testimonial from the family about the success of our service – remains unspoiled. By the time the vessel is opened, by us, by force, by accident, all those who cared for them will be long gone. Only time will tell.

Sadie wants full body arrangements, says Madeline. What does that mean?

It means that Sadie will keep her head. The body will be frozen intact. The head will remain attached.

And you’ve never made a mistake?  

We have never, to our knowledge, made a mistake.

So you check? Madeline is squeezing Sadie’s hand so tightly that their knuckles are white. You check this, you wouldn’t get mixed up? Like, if she goes in, she’s not going to end up as a head without a body?

We check.

There, says Sadie. There now.

I mean, would you keep her safe?

Of course, we say. Patient care is our number one concern. You would be in good hands here. Cryonics by women for women.

We shouldn’t say ‘cryonics’, which is considered by the founders to be a slip of the tongue, a Freudian slip, away from ‘hysterics’. A pretty hysterical anxiety, as the two don’t share a common root, except here. We are supposed to call it life extension services. Life preservation services. LIFE AFTER. After what? Nobody quite understands the promise of the future like us, we tell Madeline.

Sadie nods.

And the terror, we find ourselves saying.

Sadie nods. Terror, she repeats.

The water in the basement is rising. We are aware, dimly, of a light on a panel somewhere, of an alarm sounding down in the wards. It registers in the waiting room as a quiet pulsing sound, which is lost beneath the noise of pummelling rain.

LIFE AFTER is sewn onto our shirts. Some of us read LIFE EATER while others read LIE FASTER. Some of us no longer read the words at all. We can see where the stitching has unravelled.

Is that supposed to be this place, says Madeline. She raises a shoulder at a photo of three blonde women in blue surrounded by mist. Photographs of the wards are arranged all over the walls. It’s supposed to conjure the thought of perfect bodies, of liquid nitrogen, of walking into the future. This thought is supposed to be communicated subliminally. We are told to project reassuring and comforting. The psychology of LIFE AFTER is not complicated. But Madeline has noticed the smell of the damp, and by now the wet patches on the wall are obvious. That’s not real, she is saying. That is not what you are selling.

But some of us are blonde, like those women. We are tall and lean like them. Some of us are brunette, like Madeline. We are also a woman with fine black hair that she braids, un-braids, re-braids all day, an unconscious habit, and whose hairs are found all over the offices, the wards, the lunchroom, reception. There is one, right now, suspended in the glow of the consultation room’s soft lighting, rising and falling on the drafts that come up through the floors from the wards. It’s cold down there. We watch it rise idly over Sadie’s head. It is swimming in cold, damp air. We are tall. We are young. We are often hungry. We are all of us, every single one, beautiful. We are relatable. We are the living face of LIFE AFTER. We wear black out of respect, but we do not grieve. We need the money.

But that is what we sell, we say.

The photos have been chosen especially for the front-facing parts of the building. In these pictures, the wards are attended by people dressed in cool, companionable blues. The wards they inhabit are as sterile and as sleek as any private clinic.  They are blonde, they are tall, they smile with their eyes. They convey degrees of night nurse, home healthcare worker, and maid. They care. Their reflections blur into the curve of the tall metal vessels beside them, that have been built for the patients.

Our patients know what we are selling, for a fraction of the market price. Sadie knows. Sadie wants her second chance.

The wards are dimly lit. They are located in the basement. They smell of damp, of the beach, of rusting metal and patchy, moulding cloth. The vessels which house the patients are scuffed and smeared with fingerprints. The lights from half a dozen control panels blink and reflect along the metal surface. We call them the wards because we were told to. Just like we’re told to call them patients. But there are no doctors here, or nurses. There is only us. We call the wards the basement, the dungeon, the crypt, the cooler. We check the settings on the vessels, and we make sure the liquid nitrogen keeps pumping, and we sell, sell, sell. 

By now most of us have received the alert on our phones: flash flood warning. And for the employees of LIFE AFTER there is another alert: business comes first. Some of us have been called away from our desks to assist with flood management. There is business with Sadie and Madeline too, and so some of us stay with them, and pretend there is no alert.

A drop of water crosses the window. The shadow of it crosses Sadie’s face. She fidgets. Her wide eyes blink. Blue-green. She is tired. Outside, the wind is up; the shadow of branches cross her face. We watch her, fascinated, because it seems a whole weather system passes over her, that her eyes and her hair are tinged by the lights of some place other than here, where the rain promises her something that we cannot hear. She is tired. We are tired. A stomach rumbles. Someone’s nails tap on their desk.

We must rein it in. Selfhood is undesirable at LIFE AFTER, at least on company time. Hunger, boredom, fear, despair. These are the privileges of the paying customer. For the paying customer, like Sadie, can afford to forget our faces, our names. They pay for us to smooth the way toward their futures.

Oh, we realise. Sadie has eyelashes after all. They are fine and white.

She says, I think about it all the time.

What, says Madeline.

Look outside, says Sadie. And it’s so warm. Warm rain feels so wrong, I think. Don’t you? I think about rainforests and beaches. Why do I think of beaches? Don’t you? I think about what the worst parts will be. Fires, I guess. Maybe rain isn’t so bad. But it is bad. So much water. And so many things disappearing. Sometimes I look at the clock and I think, how many things went and disappeared since I last looked? I feel like I’m disappearing. Do you feel like you disappear sometimes too?

Madeline asks us, What sort of place do you think she’ll wake up in?

Sadie says nothing. She looks at us.

We do not reply.

So, we think, dread, after all.

Madeline sighs. I can’t tell you what to do with your money.

Sadie replies, You can’t.

A pen appears discretely beside the paperwork. We are poised on the balls of our feet.

In the basement, some of the vessels, the ones containing the heads, are loosened by the rising water. They are cast adrift and for a moment they bob on the churning surface of slate-grey, rancid water, and we think, not again, and think, this time perhaps they really will float. We will them to float, this once. But they sink, of course they sink. We think, not again. It doesn’t matter, the bosses say. A little water damage shouldn’t dampen the spirits.

The lights above us flicker, a sign that the power is going to go out. The distribution centre and the outlet store both have generators that will have turned themselves on by now, along with dozens of other buildings throughout the city. Everywhere is like this, now. Everyone is used to it. There is money to be made out of those who are not. Heads will remain lowered to workstations so that the day’s work can continue. LIFE AFTER has not invested in a generator.

But the blackouts never last for long, and the water will recede. The vessels can withstand a power cut of up to twelve hours.

We have never, to our knowledge, lost a patient.

Madeline turns to Sadie. She leans in close, so we cannot hear. Sadie is saying, Yes, yes, yes to whatever she has to say. She removes the lid of the pen and pulls the paperwork towards her.

We pretend to adjust the controls, the lighting, our paperwork, ourselves. We pick at the stitching on our shirts. L FE AFTER. Sadie is only one of four prospective patients, who each have appointments over the next few hours.

Finally, Sadie signs the papers. She pays her deposit.

Your welcome pack will arrive in 3-4 days, we say, and will include a bracelet that has our contact information and your unique identifier, FB0003. You will find referrals to a number of LIFE AFTER-affiliated hospice care and nursing homes.

Sadie turns to Madeline and nudges her. Dinner is on me, she says.

Madeline asks us again, What do you expect the future will look like?

Sadie says, Don’t, it’s not polite.

It’s all right, we say.

Though we are not encouraged to answer these questions, we each have our own ideas. They are not on offer. We hand Madeline a brochure. Shining teeth, shining metal surfaces, plumes of liquid nitrogen, skin that reflects the light. Hope, a promise, a second chance.


 Emma Devlin is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing in Queen’s University Belfast. Her fiction has appeared in Channel, Banshees, The Irish Times and more. Her short story, ‘The Book of Jesse’, was broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster. She is currently working on a collection of short fiction. Twitter: @theactualemma