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Half-Life

David L. Updike is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in the Philadelphia City Paper, the Toronto Globe and Mail, Ornament, the Satirist, and Razed.
***Editor's Note: Adult Story, Mature Themes, may be triggering. Caution***
You stand in front of the Major's casket at the Mortuarium. He's your father, yes, but to you he'll always be "the Major." Major Robert Sampson, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired. And now expired, too. Semper fidelis. Faithful to the end. For the Major and his eldest daughter, the motto goes both ways.
Your sisters, Sarah and Renee, are here with you. Sarah has draped herself over the casket like a flag--a black flag, no less. How utterly inappropriate, almost blasphemous. And how like Sarah, to want to own him in death, as in life. And yet, for all her wheedling, hovering, positioning, Sarah never was (and now never will be) really and truly his. No matter how much she clung to him, no matter how ostentatious her grief now, she will never know what it meant to be his chosen one. Nor will she know the terrible price it exacted--the one you paid, in the dark, night after night.
Still, her histrionics are getting on your nerves. "Give him some space, Sarah," you say. "You're suffocating him."
"That isn't funny, Kate," Sarah shoots back.
"It isn't meant to be," you say. But of course, it is funny, isn't it, given how he died? Accidental asphyxiation was the official story, anyway.
"Please, no fighting," says Renee. "Not here, not now." The middle sister dutifully stepping into her role as peacemaker. If Renee had a motto, you think, it would be "Peace through weakness."
"Renee wants us to make nice," you say. "Make nice for Daddy."
"Shut up," says Sarah.
You smile. No one ever called him "Daddy," not even when you were little kids. It was always "father" or "Major." But what difference did it make now? You decide to stay with it, see where it takes you.
"Maybe we should ask Daddy what he wants?" you say.
"Shut up," says Renee.
"Oh, so now it's two against one. But Daddy should have the deciding vote, don't you think? It's his funeral, after all."
"Kate, shut up!" shouts Sarah.
"Now, now. No need for an outburst," you say. "It isn't respectful of the dead."
You wonder if he's been listening. You've never really understood the mechanics--or the metaphysics--of the Half-Life. The explanations provided to laypeople are too obtuse, too full of paradoxes and psychotronic mumbo-jumbo. Is it even really him? Or just an amalgam of stored and recovered bits and pieces that add up to something considerably less--an approximation of a human being, and a rapidly dwindling one at that?
You look up at the monitor mounted atop polished steel tubes that project from the back of the coffin. "Daddy," you start, feeling a little frisson of danger at addressing him this way. But what is there to say to him now? Nothing, or too much. You settle for a simple question: "Do you want us here? Or are we just interfering with your journey into the Afterlife? Should we just say our goodbyes and let you get on your way?"
"You have to push the button for him to hear you," says Renee. "But please don't. We shouldn't use up his time. Not yet."
"Why not?" you say. "He's finished with us. He'll want to catch up with Mom now, won't he? She has a three-year head start, after all."
You find the red button on the side of the coffin and push it. The Major's face swims up out of the dark and into focus. He looks old, skeletal, disoriented. Weak. You want to shut it off before this vision of him as a vulnerable old man can replace the one you hold in your mind--where he is always solid, impermeable, a weight pressing down on you in the dark, pushing you ever deeper inside yourself--but then the clock appears at the bottom of the screen, counting down his remaining Half-Life: 7:47, 7:46, 7:45.... Better to let it run, get it over with. Speak now or forever hold your disease.
"Oh, it's you," he says. "What do you want?" He sounds tired.
You step forward and ask your question. The one that burned on the end of your tongue in the dark. The one that's been corroding your soul from the inside out all these years.
"Why, Daddy?"
No answer will ever be--could ever be--sufficient. The minutes and seconds drain away, but still you wait.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, March 7th, 2019


This short piece grew out of an exercise for a writing class I took with sci-fi and fantasy author Gregory Frost. I've always been interested in the places where science fiction and religion--seemingly at odds with one another--intersect and overlap. In this case, what would a technological notion of the afterlife look like? We seek to extend our physical lives through artificial means, so why not our consciousness as well? At what point in this process would we stop being ourselves? And, more importantly, what impact would this have on those we leave behind? This is a small window onto one possible scenario.

- David L. Updike
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