“It was a good surprise, yes?”
Harding was smiling to himself. Replaying the evening’s events in his mind, staring off to his right, at no particular point on the ceiling of his banquet room.
“Yes,” replied Roman.
Roman was smiling to himself. Replaying the evening’s events in his mind, staring off to his left, at no particular point on the ceiling of Harding’s banquet room.
Harding stopped smiling. He uncrossed his right leg from over his left, planting his hands on his legs as he turned to face Roman. Leaning in, louder now, firmly, enunciating each word:
“I said. It was a good surprise…Yes?”
Roman turned his head towards Harding, his legs still crossed, his face registering that he had made a mistake.
“Yes,” replied Roman, loud and firm.
Satisfied, Harding smiled, re-crossed his legs and turned back to the right. Relieved, Roman smiled and turned his head back to the left. They sat at their table, the banquet room now empty around them, smiling and thinking, floating through a stream of memories.
The lights shown down like stage-lights, spotlighting each table with gaps of darkness in between. The tables stood as they had been left. Plates scattered with last bites left uneaten. Knives and forks and spoons, strewn about, food starting to harden around their edges. Glasses empty, half-full, a quarter of the way full, overturned. Deep purple tablecloths stained with wine, covered in crumbs. Bottles and corks everywhere: on the tables, on the seats, on the floor.
The empty room was quiet. Harding turned again, beaming; the sound of his clothes ruffling and his chair creaking filled the room. The light reflected off his moist forehead.
“They all made fun of me, didn’t they?”
Roman turned, another set of clothes and another chair ruffled and creaked.
“They all said I was wasting my time.”
“But I wasn’t, was I?”
Harding’s brow furrowed.
“What did you say?”
“I was agreeing with you.”
Harding’s brow relaxed.
“There is nothing like a good surprise!” His voice quivered in excitement. “I mean did you see the look on his face? How happy he was? Did he not thank me? Did he not thank me and say it was the best thing that happened to him in a long time? In a long long time?”
Harding nodded his head and looked down, at no particular point on the rug, lost again in his own thoughts.
“Everyone said I was silly. That I was being a child, trying to keep this secret, trying to keep them quiet. Jealous. They were jealous that I thought of it. Yes, I could tell when they saw how happy he was at my surprise how jealous they were.”
Harding’s head snapped back to the left, his thought interrupted.
“I was agreeing with you.”
Harding smiled and leaned back in his chair. Roman smiled and leaned back in his chair. The lights above them flickered and buzzed. They leaned forward, stared up at them, their eyes darting from one light to the next, their mouths agape.
Harding yelled, “Stop!” And they turned back on. They leaned back in their chairs smiling. Their clothes ruffled and their chairs creaked.
“I think we need Miller.”
“Miller would be good.”
“Miller!” Harding’s voice filled the room and then disappeared. Nothing. “Miller!” Louder, again, there was no echo and the sound vanished into the still air. The sound of footsteps on the carpet filled the room, growing louder as Miller came into view. Miller scooped up a chair as he walked towards them and dropped it down carelessly, so that it faced them. He took a seat.
“Miller, Roman and I were just talking about the surprise.”
“Oh yes sir. It was a good surprise. Classic.” Miller nodded his head as Harding smiled.
“Indeed. And I think we should prepare another surprise.”
“Already? I mean we just did a surprise we can’t just do another one straight away.”
“Well it won’t be very surprising sir. And we’ll just become a laughing stock. Oh there go the boys who cried surprise. Wave hello to them. Hello!”
Harding sighed, trying to cover his frustration, pressing his fingers forcefully into his own forehead.
“Miller, we are not going to surprise the same person. Moreover, no one will expect us to do two surprises in a row. And, and this will be a very different type of surprise.”
Miller paused to think about this. He turned to Roman, and looked at him expectantly.
“Roman, what do you think?”
Harding turned away and covered his mouth with his hand.
“I don’t like it. I mean, one surprise is enough for now. We want to be known as the guys who give the good surprises, not the gratuitous ones. I don’t want people waving at me.”
“Will no one even listen to what I propose?” Harding mumbled into his hand.
Miller and Roman looked at each other. Miller bit his bottom lip, flicking it past his teeth while counting seconds. Roman pulled the skin on his neck until it slipped out of his fingers, again and again.
“Yes,” said Roman letting go of his neck. Harding turned to face them, his hand coming down off his mouth, the light returning to his eyes. Miller shifted in his chair, sending a bottle spinning across the floor with his foot until it collided with a loud “chink!” with another bottle, the second bottle spinning lazily. They watched, even after the bottles were still. The three heads turned away from the bottles.
“Jeffrey’s wife is dead. Jeffrey has a birthday next month. I say we bring Jeffrey back his wife.”
Miller, incredulous, “But she’s been dead for five years now!”
“Are you insinuating that Jeffrey would not welcome her back?”
“What? No, I am insinuating that she has been dead for five years now! Sir.”
“He has a point Harding.”
“He most certainly does not have a point. He just repeats a fact, a fact we all know and that has absolutely no bearing on this surprise.”
“How’re we gonna go about doing this without my fact getting in the way?”
Harding reached inside his inner jacket pocket. When he felt the newspaper he pinched it in between two fingers and slid it out slowly. He unfolded it with care and held it up for them to see, rotating his arm first in Miller’s direction, then in Roman’s then back between them both. The edges were worn and holes dotted the lines formed by the creases. Miller and Roman jumped their chairs with several loud thuds until they were facing the newspaper. They craned their necks forward to read the faded print:
We Bring Your Memories Back To Life
Water Damage? Mechanical Malfunction? Age? Fire Damage? High Fall? Dust? Magnetic Exposure? Extreme Heat? Extreme Cold? Extreme Use? Extreme Whatever!
If It’s Dead, We’ll Bring It Back To Life…Guaranteed!
Below the print there was a large picture of a man, white, sitting at a gray desk. His hair was gray and a thick gray mustache sat above his lip. He had on thick, horn-rimmed glasses, and he was smiling uneasily. His shirt was white with thin stripes, short sleeves, and a black tie covering it down the middle. His hands were clasped together, resting on the desk in front of him. To his left stood a messy pile of desktops, hard drives, cables, laptops, all broken. To his right stood several computers, neatly arranged, with their screens displaying a logo, RJ Rejuvenation, in thick bold letters, surrounded by an imperfect circle that trailed off at a point, as if it had been hand-drawn. Roman and Miller looked at each other, and then at Harding. Harding smiled victoriously.
“So, have you changed your minds yet? Roman?”
“Are you fucking crazy?”
“Miller, I don’t appreciate that. I don’t appreciate that at all.”
“Well of course you don’t sir. You are fucking crazy!”
Harding sighed audibly. He reached back into his jacket pocket, sliding out a thin black marker. He removed the cap, placed the ad down on the table in front of him. Roman and Miller watched as he drew something on the ad. Finished, Harding placed the cap back on the marker and the marker back in his jacket. He held the ad back up. A dark black blotted out parts of the words Age, Cold, Extreme, Use, and High.
Roman nodded his head in appreciation. Miller began tapping his leg in exasperation, barely able to contain himself. Harding smiled, a crooked smile, with only his left lip curling up.
“Aaaaaah! Fire damage? Fire damage? What the fuck does that have to do with anything?”
“Did you know, Miller, that Jeffrey has never been to a graveyard?”
Harding was calm now, confident, smug.
“He just doesn’t believe in them.”
“What’s there to not believe in? They exist.” Miller sneered as he spoke. Harding bit his lip, holding something back.
“He doesn’t believe in using them. Not for him, and not for his family. And if someone he knows is buried in one, he won’t go.”
“Well, thank you. Thank you for that lesson on Jeffrey’s funeral going habits.”
Harding continued, undisturbed.
“Roman knows what that means doesn’t he? Don’t you Roman?”
“What does it mean Roman?”
“It means she was cremated.”
“That is correct Roman. And if she was cremated then RJ Rejuvenation can bring her back. Point of fact, they guarantee it.”
“RJ Rejuvenation fixes computers. Commm-pyooo-terzzz. Hard drives. They don’t know the first thing about people. Tell him Roman. Roman knows.”
“He’s right Harding, these people don’t know about people. They only know computers, machines.”
“They guarantee it!” He banged his fist on the table. “They can bring your memories back to life! She is a memory that Jeffrey has. She has her own memories. RJ Rejuvenation will bring-”
“-Mechanical equipment, not people, not a box of ashes. Not a bunch of dirt. How will you get her ashes anyway? You think Jeffrey will just hand them over to you?”
“No. We will have to take them from him.”
“Great, steal her ashes.”
“It is not stealing. We plan to bring them back. We plan to bring them back better than before.”
“I want no part of this.”
Miller stood up and walked away. The sound of his footsteps trailed him as he disappeared out of the room.
“Don’t you dare ruin the surprise!” Harding yelled after him. “Don’t you dare tell Jeffrey or anyone else! Don’t ruin this for Jeffrey! He needs this!”
“You understand Roman don’t you?”
“You are my only true friend in life Roman.”
“Jeffrey has no surprises left in life. He goes to the same job every morning where he puts the same type of door on the same type of car and then comes home to the same empty house every night. We owe this to him.”
“But we mustn’t tell anyone. It was tough enough to keep everyone quiet last time. No, we mustn’t tell anyone at all.”
Harding tapped his fingers on the table.
“What to do about Miller…”
“I was agreeing with you.”
“Maybe it would be better if we didn’t talk at all.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Harding stood up. Roman stood up. Harding whispered something in Roman’s ear and Roman disappeared, leaving Harding alone, with his hands in his pockets. Harding grew nervous. Harding grew calm as he heard Roman’s returning footsteps. Roman brought with him a long piece of black rope. Harding and Roman walked out of the room, leaving it empty and quiet. The room waited patiently for life to return. It buzzed and flickered its lights in uneasy anticipation. Finally footsteps and muted screams brought it solace. It heard someone yell, “Stop!” from a distance and returned its lights to working order. Harding and Roman returned, dragging Miller along with them, his body mummified with black rope, a black sock in his mouth, muffling his screams. Without pause they dragged him across the room, knocking down chairs with loud thuds, spinning bottles to collide with other bottles with sharp “chinks!” They walked straight towards the back of the room, Harding reaching his hand out only to turn off the light as they disappeared. The room sat silently, in the dark, and waited.
Later that night, dressed in black, Roman picked the lock on a large wooden door. He greased the hinges and pushed the door open slowly. Retrieving a flashlight from his belt, he scanned the room in front of him, following the beam of light as it crisscrossed the room. He let the light linger for a few seconds on the mantle above the fireplace. Once he felt confident he knew the layout of the room, he turned off the light and walked straight to the fireplace. He picked up the simple urn that stood on the mantle, a thick layer of dust rising with it. He tiptoed out of the house, just like Harding had demonstrated when they practiced, after Miller was secure, and closed the door behind him. The room did not notice.
The following morning, Harding walked into a small, glass front store. In front of him was a high black counter. No one was standing behind it. On the left side of the counter stood a computer and on the right side a small silver bell. Harding reached slowly for the bell and then tapped it once. “Ding dong,” rang out electronically from behind a wall. And then twice: “Ding dong ding dong.” Footsteps scurried from behind the wall. A young woman appeared from behind the counter. Harding thought she might be Chinese, but wasn’t sure, and didn’t ask. If he had been sure, he would have asked. She asked if she could be of any help today and he told her that she most certainly could. He explained to her that in exactly four weeks his good friend Jeffrey was turning 48 and he wanted to do something truly special for such an important milestone. He explained to her that poor Jeffrey’s wife had died five years prior and that poor Jeffrey was just all alone now. On top of that, someone had just broken into poor Jeffrey’s house last night. She awwwwed sympathetically and asked what she could do to help.
Harding lifted a small cardboard box onto the counter, opening the flaps one by one. Then, with two hands, he reached into the box and slowly pulled out the urn, placing it gently on the counter. He removed his handkerchief from his jacket and quickly wiped away the dust from the urn. He stood, smiling, and waited. She stared at the urn, then at Harding, then at the urn, unsure what to say. After a few seconds of silence Harding pushed the urn gently over to her side of the counter. She asked him if this was a computer. He said no. She asked him what it was. He said it was an urn, an urn with the ashes of Jeffrey’s lovely wife S – he had forgotten her name and bit his lip. She asked him what he expected her to do with this urn. He said that he expected her to bring her back to life of course, and in no more than four weeks, as after that it would be useless. She turned and walked behind the wall. Harding heard two people whispering; he had expected this.
Several minutes later a chubby white man with gray hair and a thick gray mustache came from behind the wall. His black tie was tucked in between two buttons on his white and black striped, long-sleeved shirt. His smile was easy and friendly. He had thick horn-rimmed glasses in his hand and he put them on as he approached the urn. He shook his head, muttering nos and no I don’t think sos and no I think nots. Harding had expected this. Harding reached into his jacket and pulled out the newspaper ad. The man behind the counter watched as Harding unfolded it and placed it on the counter. Harding tapped his finger twice on the circled words, and then turned the ad so it faced the man behind the counter. The man leaned down and read the words, scratching his thick gray mustache. He looked up at Harding and again said no. Harding’s eyes narrowed as he stared at the man behind the counter, shaking his head. “But you guaranteed it!” He exploded, grabbing the ad as he turned and walked out the door. The man behind the counter stared at the small cardboard box sitting on his counter. And then at the urn sitting right in front of him. He turned towards a small phone behind him and started dialing.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Exactly four weeks passed and the banquet room in Harding’s house again was filled with life. The tables had been set, clean plates next to clean silverware next to sparkling glasses, and uncorked bottles stood at the center of each table. The tablecloths had been washed and ironed, and lay crisply beneath the place settings and the bright lights. Miller had been retrieved and Harding and Miller walked around, arm-in-arm, greeting the familiar faces. Roman stood by the bar, drinking with unfamiliar faces. Jeffrey arrived, happy. Harding saw him and spread his arms out wide, his smile stretching just as wide. Loud enough for all to hear he let out a charmingly disingenuous “ah the man of the hour!” People turned to say hello. A bell rang and Roman left the room, descending three flights of stairs to answer it. Harding and Miller began to make there way to Jeffrey, stopping to shake hands and kiss cheeks as they walked. A woman came into the room, behind Jeffrey.
A deliveryman stood in the open doorway. Behind the deliveryman, on a hand truck, stood a large cardboard box. It was taller than the door and almost as wide.
“Delivery for Harding?”
“Will you sign this for me?” He handed Roman a small electronic pad and a small pen with no point. Roman signed. Roman pointed up the stairs.
“Three floors up please.”
The deliveryman grew sullen. Roman handed him a one hundred dollar bill he had been holding in his left hand. “The third flight is very short.” The deliveryman smiled, and went to fetch some rope.
Harding shook another hand and Miller kissed another cheek, turning again towards Jeffrey. The woman behind Jeffrey reached out her hand to catch his trailing fingers. Harding’s smile dissipated. He leaned over to Miller and whispered:
“Who is that woman, that woman behind Jeffrey?”
“Oh, that is Jeffrey’s new wife.”
“Yes sir, Jeffrey eloped two months ago.”
“Miller you idiot! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Well sir you had me locked up. I had a sock in my mouth. Couldn’t speak sir. They’re very happy together sir.”
Harding stood, speechless, staring at no particular point on the floor. He breathed slow, shallow breaths. He felt something creep up his insides, from his stomach up to his chest. It tingled. Something was alive in there, tingling about. The room began to spin. He heard faint thuds and his eyes widened. He couldn’t move. The thuds grew louder. A thud and then a pause and then a thud and then a pause. “Thud.” The room grew silent. “Thud.” The guests began to murmur. And then the sound of something sliding across a wooden floor. Then nothing. Harding fell back into a chair. “Thud.” Roman came through the door. “Thud. Thud. Thud.” And then the sound of something being dragged across the carpet until it stopped, just past the entrance to the banquet room. The guests grew quiet. A large cardboard box lay on the ground, blocking the entrance. The box began to move; something began to bang at it from the inside, ruin its rectangular form. A hole was punched through as an arm shot out. The arm stood there feeling the air, twisting. Harding saw a long crude scar running down the forearm. Another arm joined it, on the same side. Another long crude scar running down the forearm. He didn’t know…
“Harding did you bring us a stripper?” Someone yelled. The silence broke and the crowd waited in eager anticipation, murmuring about the stripper and how excited they were to see her and how very melodramatic this all was.
The arms retreated back into the box as Harding slowly retreated out of the room. No one noticed. The box stood still for an instant until, with a flurry of noise, Sylvia ripped her way out of the box, standing up straight, naked, gathering herself, looking around. Everyone was quiet. Jeffrey stared at Sylvia. Sylvia stared at Jeffrey. Everyone stared at Jeffrey. Everyone stared at Sylvia. The room turned off the lights.