After the Flash
I am tired of editing people’s lives. It used to be my colleagues and I heard only amazed exclamations from the few people who unexpectedly returned. Each hoarse voice was filled with blurred awe and celebration: “my entire life flashed before my eyes.” These words–often said from a cranked-up hospital bed, or later, into a lapel phone on nightly news– assured us that our editing was a success. But now with post-90’s modern medicine, more people are returning from that bright light at the end of the tunnel. They are not happy.
“As an art form it’s all over. We’re a dying breed,” Juanita, my cubicle partner and long-time lover says. She is peering at her screen and simultaneously reviewing 2,374 lives in forty-six different countries. For the last eighteen years she has held the company record for delivering beautifully–edited, flashed lives to people at the end of the tunnel. That’s a huge responsibility and you can see how one could make mistakes. So far, omissions have been minor, but sooner or later greater errors are bound to happen: a debut in Verdi’s Idemeneo will be replaced with a minor role in Cats; loved cats will be replaced with Rottweiler’s; or worse, triplets will show up as twins.
We’re both depressed. Science has intervened, sending people back to the living at an alarming rate. EMTs rush to the scene, a defibrillator at hand. Or charcoal roams around the shocked stomach, soaking up the entire bottle of Valium, Lithium or Zantax. Or a heart surgeon successfully completes an impossible quadruple bypass just after we’ve hit “send.” That final flash used to be an event that everyone looked forward to as they expelled their final wobbling breath. But now, science allows more and more people to delay, often to reverse, the fruits of our labor, the “crossing over on judgment day” as religious souls inaccurately describe it, which always sets us laughing. For obvious reasons, company policy disqualifies job applicants with, to quote the CEO, “even a smidgen of religion.” Though I’ve wondered if the concept of heaven and hell, or nirvana, or reincarnation keeps tragic and horrific things from happening with greater frequency.
It caught us by surprise, this stream of complaints from our digital-age clients. “Too few pixels.” “Where were the 72 virgins.” “The flash was more a series of fractured slashes.” “Instead of Technicolor, it was the grainy black and white of my childhood, as if someone was holding age against me.” “My second step-son from my third marriage was missing.”
Clearly, respect for the editing we do is gone. I feel like telling that last person ‘okay, next edit you get the time you killed the cat.’
Today, we’ve been called to a special meeting by the Vice President in charge of production. A solemn desperation pervades the atmosphere.
The VP says that we life/death editors need to be more diligent in our research. A late-night talk show is soliciting discontented accounts of “my entire life flashed before my eyes.”
He tilts forward in his polished wingtips. “Our ‘clients’ are not grateful that they are back on this–” he hesitates, then continues, “–this side, still capable of voicing complaints, instead of on the other side where their lives are a thing of the past.”
There is a collective gasp in the room, a few titters. “Side” is a word we are forbidden to use. Horst, from two cubicles over, begins coughing uncontrollably.
Juanita leans against me and whispers “side. Siiiiiiiiiiide.”
I return the pressure and for few sweet seconds think ahead to tonight.
The VP goes on to say there’s talk of a reality show that ferrets out secrets not revealed in that “flash.” I think: like who really killed the president, or the cat.
My co-workers and I peek around the room as we’re told the worst is yet to come. Soon there will be an influx of all those unpublished graduates of MFA Programs or the refugees from Film and Media Arts, or the unemployed PhDs who demolish texts of the great writers, but they can really do research. We’re told to be more careful with rich people who seek extreme medical interventions. We’re told to take less revenge on villains who can be charismatic or eloquent.. We’re told to give likeable people better lives. “And be warned,” he says. “The secret is the secret.” On that note the meeting ends.
All six hundred of us dejectedly return to our cubicles. Beside me, under her breath, Juanita chants “Side, side, other side. Side, side, other side…” People giggle in adjacent cubicles.
As I sink into my seat still laughing, coffee splashes my transparent screen. Juanita throws me a paper napkin, with one last “side.”
I pull up #1732. I’m working with 1836 lives, and I do not aspire to add more to that number. My eyes are giving out. There are too few plots, too many colors, a new format but the same damn characters.
“There’s no joy in it any more,” I say. Juanita nods, and places her hand on my wrist, a gesture that will take me through the day.
Returning to her screen, she says, “Yesterday a man said he could have done better with Adobe Photo Shop.” Juanita and are hunched-over husks of our former selves. “There’s no going back to the good old days—“
I finish her sentence “–except for the two of us.”
We’ve done the first roughs of each other’s life, minus my ex-wife and her ex-husband. We did our lives at the old speed with slippery slurred sound, the bright white light at the end of the tunnel, and then the elegant gradations of black and white before the onset of what only we in this business know: the secret of what comes after the flash, what is on the other side.
Nothing. Nothing but endless, irreversible night.
Pamela Painter has written two story collections, the award-winning Getting to Know the Weather and The Long and Short of It, and is co-author of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and Quick Fiction, among others. She has won three Pushcart Prizes, an NEA, and Agni Review’s John Cheever Award for Fiction. Painter teaches in the MFA Program at Emerson College in Boston. Her new collection of flash fiction, Wouldn’t You Like to Know, was published by Carnegie Mellon in 2010.