The Mausoleum, Part 3.

Part 3 of the short fiction series, The Mausoleum.

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Cassie followed behind and just slightly to the left of Cody.  He was tall, but young.  She thought he was maybe just out of high school, and still awkwardly thin and lanky from teenage growth spurts.  She wondered briefly how one chose a job like this, or what qualifications were sought by the Mausoleum.

They were walking down a corridor that seemed to be separated from the Hall of Remembrance by a sturdy wall.  The floor gleamed.  The hallway was softly lit from hidden sconces.  The effect was dim, without seeming dingy.  Rather, the lighting felt comforting. The walls hosted a number of potted plants along their length.   There were no windows, and she wondered how the plants lived back here.  Maybe the Mausoleum paid someone to come and switch them around every day so that they all got exposure to the sunlight, and none had to spend more than a day or so in the dimness of the hallway.

“If you’ll follow me through here,” he said, gesturing her through a door, “I’ll show you around our control room.”

Cassie stepped through the door, into a room that was even quieter than the rest of the center was.  She looked around.  It wasn’t a large space, but it was full of keyboards and monitors and buttons.  One entire wall was taken up by row upon row of numbered switches.  In one corner, on a raised platform, was a single wheeled office chair.

“What is this?” She asked quietly.

“This,” Cody said with a pride that seemed genuine, “is the brains of the Mausoleum.  This is where we control the computers that make all of this possible.”

“Make what possible?”

“Oh, the digital memorialization of our loved ones that have passed.”

Cassie peered over a rack of black plastic toggles, with her hands safely clasped behind her back.  “I guess I still don’t know what exactly you do here.  I’ve never been inside before.”

“Well, for a long time, we’ve buried our deceased friends and family in the ground at places called cemeteries…”

“I know what cemeteries are.”  Cassie had been to a cemetery once, on a trip with her parents.  It was an old historical site, no longer in active use, but still maintained by the city that owned it in order to preserve a piece of a long-ago era.

“… yes, well, there are problems with using cemeteries.  They become full, they take up what would otherwise be usable land, and there were sometimes problems with ground pollution.  The Mausoleums are intended to help alleviate those issues by replacing the old custom with something similar, but new.”

“So do the dead people end up here?” She asked.

“No.  They’re cremated at a separate facility.”

“So how is this similar to a cemetery?”

“Well, when someone dies, and when we have enough advance warning, we have the technology now to scan the brain of the person dying.”

“You scan their brains?”

“Yes, we need to in order to create the digital memorials.  It has to be done before or immediately after death.  The structure of the brain changes irreparably after death, and the information cannot be recovered after that happens.”

“What do you… record? Store?”

“It might be more accurate to think of it in terms of storage.  Recording is so static.  We target pieces of information to help make the memorial richer and more detailed.  Associations, memories, things like that.  We store them and use a piece of software to use that data to create the memorial.”

Cassie thought back to the moving images on the screens in the Hall of Remembrance.  “So it’s like a video of the person’s life?”  She thought that didn’t quite make sense, because Sam’s father wouldn’t have memories of his own face staring, like had been pictured on the screen.

“No, it’s a dynamic likeness.  Videos can only show the same things over and over again.  The software produces a sort of a simulation, with more autonomy than a video.”

“Why?”

“Because using this technology, we can produce a memorial that is more vibrant than visiting a headstone in a cemetery.  People often seem comforted by having the opportunity to see the deceased as they were in life.  It’s a far better option than wasting time and resources preserving the body.  You are in essence celebrating the living memory, rather than mourning a death.”

“What’s this?” Cassie asked, running a finger along the big wall of switches, carefully, in between the rows.

“Look with your eyes, please, miss.”

Cassie jerked her hand away and clasped it behind her back again.

“This,” he continued, “is where we control the monitors in the Hall of Remembrance.  When you come in, we get you checked in at the front, and you’re assigned a monitor. Then we use the control room to call up the stored data, and the switches help us direct the program to the assigned monitor.”

“Why are there so many switches for each one?”

“Well, one is for the video, and one is for the sound, and…”

Cassie interrupted him.  “These have sound?”

“… well, yes, but we largely leave the sound off.  It can make the Hall of Remembrance quite noisy, so to be fair to everyone we just leave it off.”

“I see.”

“Do you have any more questions about how the center is run?”

“I don’t think so.”

Cody clapped his hands together, seeming pleased that he had done his job.  “Wonderful.  If you’ll follow me back into the hall and to the right, I’ll show you where we keep all the data.  It’s amazing!”

Cassie followed behind Cody.  She had the oddest feeling that things just didn’t add up.

The Mausoleum, Part 2

Cassie sat still in the living room of Sam’s house, trying not to be a bother while he freshened up and while his mother got Rebbekah tidied up for the trip to the mausoleum.  Sam’s mother was pretty and harried, and Cassie thought this elemental state perhaps made her all the more lovely.  Sam’s father had died many years ago; Cassie didn’t remember ever meeting him, and she knew that looking after both Sam and Rebbekah must be time consuming.  She admired Sam’s mom, and tried to help out whenever she could, even coming over to help Sam babysit his younger sister, who admitted herself that she could be quite a handful.

The small family came into the room, Rebbekah in a fresh dress, with her hair tied back, and Sam in slacks and a button-down shirt.  Cassie felt suddenly self-conscious about her own clothes.

“Mrs. Jacobsen, I’m sorry…” she trailed off, looking down at her overalls.

“Don’t you worry about it, Cassandra, I wouldn’t change you for all the tea in China,” she said, with a reassuring smile.

The Mausoleum was a short drive from Sam’s house, in the civic complex downtown.  It was a large rectangle, faced in black glass, and looked anachronistic nestled between the library and the courthouse.  The technology the Mausoleums used was relatively new, but over the last decade they had been going in all over the country, first in smaller towns, where it was less expensive to build them, but also in larger cities.  The bigger cities usually needed several, just like old fashioned graveyards.

Cassie had never been to the Mausoleum before, and she found the sleek facade intimidating.  She held back behind Sam and his mom, holding Rebbekah’s hand as much for her own comfort as for the child’s. She couldn’t turn back now, though… to do so would be to allow her fear to limit her curiosity. She had a burning need to know, to understand, a need that would smolder in the back of her brain until she satisfied it.  Such curiosities sometimes kept her up nights, lying in bed in her dark bedroom, turning things over in her head again and again.

The doors were near-silent as they opened to admit the family and their hanger-on, and Sam’s mother checked them in at the front counter.  Inside the lobby it was much brighter than Cassie had expected, given the dark color of the glass from the outside.  It was a peaceful place, with comfortable chairs for waiting in, a discrete fountain burbling in the corner, and potted plants growing in any unobtrusive spot.  Everything was decorated in dark neutral tones, and the lobby had a complete lack of electronic screens.  There were signs on the wall every so often reminding visitors to be respectful of those who were there to see dead loved ones.

They all had visitor badges pinned neatly to their clothes, even tiny Rebbekah, and they were escorted back.  The staff member guided them to a screen labeled “231,” and told them to wait.  Cassie could see that the wall hosted similar screens all down the length of the visitor’s hall, some dark, and some casting their blue glow over the faces of attendant family and friends.  They sat in the provided chairs and waited.  It was only a few minutes before the screen brightened.

The image resolved into an image of Sam’s father.  It was a face she’d seen in family photos. She thought the image was moving, and as she watched she was proven correct.  The eyebrows, the eyes themselves quivered in the way that living things do, never still, always moving.

“Hello, Jim,” Sam’s mom said, with an expression on her face that spoke of both sadness and happiness.

The lips on the screen moved, but there was no sound, and Cassie couldn’t interpret the movements into anything sensible.  The entire visitor’s hall was strangely quiet… there was the occasional hiss of a whisper, and somewhere the soft clatter of something accidentally falling to the floor.

Cassie quietly got up and slipped away from the family.  She walked back out to the lobby and up to the desk.

“Excuse me,” she said politely to the woman at the desk, standing on her toes in an effort to seem older than she was, “I have some questions about the Mausoleum.”

The woman smiled.  “Yes, of course.  We have an informational pamphlet here, and I can also have a guide show you around.”

Cassie reached out and took the pamphlet.  The woman had bright red nails.  “I think I’d like a guide as well, please.”

“If you’ll have a seat for just a moment, I’ll have someone right out for you.”

Cassie took her pamphlet and sat in one of the chairs in the lobby.  The copy filling the glossy pages was intended for mourning families, and took pains to emphasize that the services offered by the Mausoleum were “tasteful” and “respectful.”  The photos that accompanied the copy were of beautiful model families, a husband and wife and two kids, a boy and a girl, all neatly dressed and all smiling, but not smiling too much; no distasteful displays of happiness to disturb grieving clients.

“Hello, miss?”

She looked up from the pamphlet to see a young man in well tailored slacks and a button down shirt.

“Oh hello,” she said.

“I understand that you requested a guide,” he said with a smile.  “My name’s Cody, and I’d be happy to show you around.”

The Mausoleum.

Cassie and Sam walked along the tree-lined lane toward the elementary school, just as they did every afternoon.  It was Sam’s responsibility to pick up his younger sister, Rebbekah, from school each afternoon, and Cassie, as his best friend, accompanied him on the task.

Cassie couldn’t sort out how or why they were best friends, it had always just kind of been that way.  They had met in class four years ago, before Rebbekah had even been in school, and it had just stuck.  They understood each other in ways nobody else seemed to, and trusted one another in a way that they could not even trust their respective parents.  It was the way things were, and perhaps on some level, the way things had always been destined to be.  It felt like that to Cassie, some days… there was a rightness to being around Sam that was comforting, that brought her peace even among the most chaotic teenage tantrums.

Cassie didn’t keep a lot of friends.  She found that in middle school, it was difficult to know for sure who to trust.  The other girls looked askance at her anyway, at her baggy overalls and dirty fingernails.  They watched her trapping bugs in old pickle jars and walked away, giving her the eye and tittering among themselves.  They were disgusted by her swearing and unimpressed by her short, untidy hair.  That was fine; Cassie didn’t pay them no never mind.  Cassie broke rules, and to those girls, that made her a threat. Because maybe, just maybe, her refusal to be bound by those rules meant that the game they’d been raised to play just didn’t really exist.

Sam, on the other hand, wavered between fascination and amusement at her use of crude language, and while he had no interest himself in catching bugs in old pickle jars, he had no problem waiting a few minutes while she did so.  Sam had been there two years ago when she’d broken her arm climbing the big oak tree behind the school.  Her parents couldn’t fathom why she’d do something so dangerous when there was an enrichment gym on the corner, complete with a tree analogue and plenty of safety features.  They didn’t understand that it was different somehow to climb a real live tree than to scramble up an aluminum and foam structure that was built for climbing.  One was the simple human use of a human tool; the other was a triumph over adversity.

Her arm had been in a cast and a sling for the rest of that summer.

“Do you want to come over for dinner tonight?” She asked him.

“Nah, I can’t.  We have to go to the mausoleum tonight to see Dad.”

“Oh,” Cassie replied, stung suddenly with curiosity.  She had no deceased loved ones, and had never had a reason to visit the mausoleum.  She wondered what it was like.

Sam glanced down at her.  This was a recent thing, this looking down.  Prior to his most recent growth spurt, they had been the same height, more or less. “What, you want to come?”

She shook her head. “I wouldn’t impose on something that personal,” she answered.

“No, it’s not a big deal.  Just let me check with my mom.”

“Okay.”

Sam paused to dial his mother, but Cassie kept walking a few paces, and then stood, digging idly in the dirt along the sidewalk with the toe of her shoe.  She never liked listening in on other people’s conversations, so much so that she preferred that it not even look like that was the case.  She had grown up without any brothers or sisters, so it seemed strange to share space so closely with people that one couldn’t even have a conversation in private.  So that one didn’t even expect to have a conversation in private.

“Hey,” Sam said, walking up to her.  “Mom says it’s okay.  So we’ll get the kid, and then head to my place?”

“Sure!”

“Have you ever been there before?”

“No,” Cassie admitted.  “What’s it like? Is it sad?  Is it scary?”

“It’s not bad.  It’s just lots of screens with people on them.”

“So why do you go?”

“My mom says that it’s a nicer way to remember dead people than visiting a pile of old bones in the ground.  I don’t know, you can’t talk to them, they’re not really there.  Mom seems to like it, though.”

“It sounds weird.”

“Yeah.  I don’t know.  I mostly go for mom’s sake.”

They had reached the elementary school, and Rebbekah came bounding up the driveway, a whirlwind of sticky hands and light brown curls.

“Sam! Sam! Sam!” She yelled as she ran, excited to see her older brother.  She threw her arms around him and hugged his waist.

“Hello, Bekkah,” he said, “you’re going to have to get cleaned up before we visit dad tonight.”

Rebbekah sported grass stains on her dress, and dirt smeared across the white toes of her shoes.

“Why?  He doesn’t care.”

“Because if you don’t, you’ll just fight with mom all evening and I don’t want to wait on you.”

She wormed her little hand into his, and Sam rolled his eyes, but didn’t pull his hand away.  They were only a few blocks from the house, it was a small concession for him to make to his younger sister.

“Cass, you too!” she called out, thrusting her empty hand out to the side.  Cassie obligingly switched sides, and took Rebbekah’s hand for the remainder of the walk home.