A Warm Welcome

Below is a sample of what’s coming. This particular excerpt comes from a novel I’ve planned. If you’d like me to work on this novel next, please vote here. 

terezin-crematorium-oven-61.4

A Warm Welcome

I stood by the door and looked through the high temperature glass into the chamber. The man had been no more than 50 years old when I ended his life. Not with the chamber, we are not so cruel as to burn our criminals. No, I had closed his eyes with a dose of morphine and a syringe filled with potassium. He’d felt nothing beyond the needle’s tiny bite.

We’d of course taken his clothes before cremation – no need to waste the fabric – his wedding band and wallet, his cufflinks and watch. We left his fillings in place; we have no need to demean him in death or rob him of dignity.

I pressed the red button called “start” and stepped back from the window. Years ago I’d made the mistake of getting too close and burned the tip of my nose. My neighbors teased me for several weeks after that and, indeed, I’m just now living down the Rudolph nickname.

The heat waves gained strength and warped the light. The room is programmed to proceed slowly from 40 to 99 degrees centigrade and then jump to 600 degrees in an almighty flash of sparks and flame. Doing so prevents the attendees seeing anything so disturbing as boiling skin or tissue caramelization and, in addition, it also serves to aid the combustant’s efficient burning.

I heard a beep and saw the “gas” button light up. The dead man’s eyes stared up at the ceiling. His face showed nothing beyond fatigue. The shower of sparks came down from the ceiling and trailed flame after them. The chamber blossomed red and orange like a tiger lily. I looked through the glass but, due to the chamber’s excellent design, could not see the man’s body through the heat and fire. After a few moments, I heard motorized doors at the center of the chamber open and let whatever remained slide unseen into the disposal systems beneath. I pressed the “open” button and went to clean anything that stuck to the floor. I found nothing and smiled. The man had found rest; he had surely not minded.

***

I walked from the chamber into the waiting quarters. My next assignment sat across the table and looked directly into my eyes. He was much younger, perhaps high school age. I was about to introduce myself but stopped when I realized I’d forgotten my papers.

“Excuse me, I’ll be back in a second.”

He did not answer but I did not even think before forgiving his rudeness. My assignments are often under a great deal of stress and it is natural that they sometimes behave erratically.

I found the forms, checklists and, most important, my personal notepads. In addition to my official duties, I fancy myself something of a memoirist. This assignment would, if he proved sufficiently interesting, provide material for inclusion in my third volume of essays.

I went back into the waiting room and saw that the assignment had quit his seat in order to inspect a ventilation fan. Perhaps he thought of escape? It mattered little at this juncture.

“Good evening. Most of our guests call me Mr. Reickhoff, but considering your situation, that is perhaps too formal. You may refer to me by my given name, Wesley.”

The assignment remained petulant and I continued.

“You have no doubt guessed the nature of my work. This worries you, I’m sure. While I understand this I want to ensure you that all guests will receive the most humane treatment possible. I know some of the other agencies have a reputation for brutality, for cruelty, and I condemn for this as much as I’m sure you do. As long as I’m around, the National Dispersal Service will conduct itself in accordance with the highest standards.”

The assignment finally spoke.

“That’s nice, but you should probably save this spiel for your bosses.”

I was delighted to break through the assignment’s wall of silence (for often these people refuse to speak at all) and went quickly to work expanding the necessary foundation of trust every portrait artist must build with his subject.

“They have heard my, as you say, ‘spiel,’ many times. You see, while I normally enjoy a good deal of freedom in the execution of my duties, your case allows me truly extraordinary discretion.”

The assignment nodded and I continued.

“The Department of Media Affairs has already announced your death and there will be no attendants present when I, as we say, send you on.”

“So I’m dead already?”

“You could say so. But this is a good thing. Because …”

At this time the assignment intruded with a most unnecessary and unwelcome “sarcasm episode.”

“Yah Wesley, it’s awesome that I no longer exist. I was sitting here in the fucking death room with you, thinking about how great it would be if, in addition to dying at the ripe old age of 19, you cock suckers could erase my entire life first.”

Times like these make me thankful for the training I was so blessed to receive.

“I understand your frustrations. I want you to know you can tell me anything.”

“What if I tell you to pick your nose with a high speed drill?”

“I would say that I understand you are going through a lot of stress, that I feel your pain and that I’m here to guide you through this process as humanely as possible.”

The assignment rolled his eyes and turned away. He would soon learn that it is impossible to fluster me with “sarcasm episodes,” or any other such childish tactics for that matter. But this was the beginning of our relationship and a reasonable man such as myself could not expect one so young to deduce so much in so short a time. I continued in the sort of gentle, respectful manner you would expect from a professional.

“While I understand how the, shall we say, ending of your existence outside this place leaves you feeling denuded, it is still good news. You see, since you are dead already, I have no set schedule for your actual sending on. If you interest me, and from what I’ve heard your situation is very interesting, I could delay the proceedings for weeks, perhaps even a month or two.”

The assignment looked once more to the ventilation system before speaking.

“What’s a week to me?”

I nearly burst with happiness when he asked me this question.

“You will have the opportunity to serve your fellow man, to serve art, to restore much of the existence the Department of Media Affairs has taken from you, although I must confess I will be forced to refer to you by pseudonym.*”

*Indeed I have replaced the assignment’s real name in the account you are now reading. I pray you do not think me dishonest, but I hold it vital that the interviews and insights contained herein are not twisted into justification for the real assignment’s crime.

The young man looked to a different ventilation duct and I continued on.

“I will also arrange new quarters for you where you can enjoy fresh air. If you prove cooperative, I’m sure I can convince the guards to dispense with your hand and leg restraints as well.”

Our facility is entirely secure and the assignment, were he to act on the impulse so obviously occupying his mind, would ensnare himself harmlessly in our security countermeasures. I felt some remorse in exploiting his ridiculous hopes, but if the assignment would only cooperate, even if on false pretenses, the whole arrangement would prove fruitful for all concerned. I expect you can forgive me this small manipulation, if on no other grounds than this; at least I am using the assignment’s delusion to extend his life and for no selfish reason of my own.

“Fine,” the assignment said. “I’ll play ball.”

“Excellent. First thing, please be so kind as to choose an alias.”

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