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Tell a Stranger What You Do


"…to ask about the syllabus later. This morning, we'll get to know each other." The professor interlaced his long white fingers and cinched them tight across his chest. "First, I want to know why you signed up for our program."

The other students turned in chaotic wavelets, seeking each other's expressions, wincing or smirking or comically widening their eyes. Not Christine. Her gaze was fixed on the professor's left cheek, where a quarter-sized, perfectly white circle was set into his dark-chestnut beard. Otherwise, the beard was barely touched with gray. The professor's smile settled over her.

"Riddle me this," he said, tapping his thumbs against his chest, right—left—right. "How many of you, when you finish this program, will tell a stranger what you do?"

There were uncomfortable coughs. Christine kept her throat loose, her expression empty. She wanted to focus on the question, but instead she was drawn into the whirlpool of Mom. She had to call Mom after class. And thinking about Mom drew her, naturally, to Janet.

"This is a serious question." The professor released his hands and stretched, pulling his shoulders back with a brief wince. "Let's imagine you're at a party. Or a bar, let's say. Some clever and appealing stranger walks up and offers to buy you a drink. You're in a fair mood. It's a Friday night. And you know you're looking all right."

The professor paused for a few early-morning laughs.

"So. This appealing stranger asks, 'And what about you? What do you do?'"

The room was silent.

"All right then." The professor stretched up an arm. "Show of hands. How many of you tell them: 'I'm a death coach?'"

Christine glanced over her shoulder. The other students were looking around, and a few raised their hands, halfway.

"What about you?" the professor asked. It took Christine a moment to realize he was asking her. She turned back and smiled. Gave her head a little shake.

"Christine, right?"

She smiled again.

"So there you are, Christine. Standing in a bar with this handsome stranger. He's brought you a drink, and things are going pretty well. Then he asks, 'Well, Christine, what do you do?'"

Hot blood surged into her face. She was annoyed with herself and tightened her jaw against it. "Health care."

The professor's eyebrows rose. He had to be past fifty, she thought. He looked older than he had last Friday night, in the bar's weak light. His features were tighter than she remembered, the skin looser on his throat.

"Okay, Christine," he said. "Health care. But what exactly do you do in that very—*large—*field?"

Someone behind Christine snorted, and she tensed her shoulders. "Palliative care."

The professor backed up a little, his mouth sliding into a mock-impressed O. "I gather you don't want to talk about death with your irresistible stranger." His gaze narrowed to encompass only her. "Why not?"

"I think that's pretty obvious," a guy on her right—Bassem—said. "Most people don't like to talk about death when they're out on a date."

Bassem flicked a sympathetic look at her, and Christine wanted to reach back with a tiny grateful smile. The professor looked down at his screen, and she gave Bassem a quick, earnest nod. He nodded back.

"Plus," Bassem said, "we aren't doing this job so we can brag about it at a bar. We're—"

"I'm sure I didn't say anything about bragging." The professor's head swept up, but he wasn't looking at Bassem. He was looking at her. "I am suggesting you tell the truth. Because, as you all know, some people don't believe in what we do. Some still think it's a Chinese conspiracy. Clearly, the weight of global scientific evidence is on our side, but a lot of man-on-the-street types still associate us with charlatans."

"Like climate change a hundred years ago," someone drawled from the back, and several students laughed, even though it didn't strike Christine as either accurate or funny.

The professor nodded, and the weight of his attention finally lifted off her. She breathed in. It had been a mistake to go out in the university district Friday night. It had been a mistake to pretend she was one of them.

"What do you say to the doubters, Lila?" The professor's gaze swept around the room. "I imagine we have some doubters here among us. We always do."

As soon as class was over, Christine would check on Mom. Everything was going to be okay. Not great—but—you know, okay. Mom would ask: How was your first day? Then: Have you called your sister? Mom's voice would be thin and paper-sharp, and it would slip in beneath the skin of Christine's heart.

"It totally depends on the doubter, right?" Lila asked. "Some people seriously—like—they aren't worth the breath. Besides—I mean—it's not my responsibility to convince them. If they don't want a good death, that's kind of their problem."

"Yet aren't we the ambassadors of our profession?" The professor leaned sideways against his desk. Then he pushed off and walked past Christine, wafting spicy cologne down the center row. She didn't turn to look. Instead, she glanced over at Bassem, who gave a chagrined smile. She felt a little better.

"Through this program, you will be granted an access to Death that most of your American peers will never have. Not, at least, until they meet the Grim Reaper for themselves. So: Is it not your responsibility to help them understand? To use your example, Lila, we could argue climate scientists abdicated their responsibility. And we all know how that turned out." The professor gestured vaguely toward the window. As a group, they turned to look at the gray haze beyond.

"I think this is different," another woman's voice said from the back.

"Oh? How is that—" The professor paused, looking down at his screen "—Nianzhen?" He continued to pace through the room, weaving between the desks.

"Our job isn't exactly…life or death," Nianzhen said, with an uncomfortable laugh. "We aren't responsible for the future of the planet, Sir. Nor billions of human lives. We're just doing this moment of—"

"Is that it?" the professor's voice went up eagerly, and Christine turned to see him holding up a hand, like he had at the bar Friday night. "You enrolled yourself in this program. You plan to spend the rest of your life in this profession, and you think it's justabout a moment?

"No…" the woman said, her voice slow and offended. "I'm talking about, I mean, how other people see us. I mean—the people you said. Doubters."

"How…other…people see us," the professor repeated, and he paced back to the front of the room. He stood, feet planted, hands linked behind his back. "I assume most of you spun some 屎 to get into this program, but I don't care what you said on your application. In here, we're going to be honest. We're going to say what we really think."

Internally, Christine rolled her eyes.

"Chris-tine." The professor broke her name into two distinct pieces. "Tell us what you think happens when a person dies."

A hard gall rose up in Christine's throat, and she swallowed. She'd done a year of cram school to get into this program. She had memorized vocabulary, wrestled with formulas, written essays, practiced for the interviews: sometimes with Janet, mostly in a mirror. The professor must know how hard she'd worked to get onto this perch. He definitely knew how simple it would be to flick her off.

"When a person dies," Christine said, "their systems fail in a generally predictable order. The nervous system remains alone at the end, without input."

"Yes, and?" the professor said.

"And we can take nuanced readings from the brain in those final minutes, which is how we've been able to establish the science that underpins death coaching." Christine had to stop for a moment. Breathe. She remembered how, when her father's body had failed, the machines beeped in increasingly high-pitched tones, like ever-larger stones being thrown at her.

"It's time," a nurse had messaged them, from somewhere else in the building. The machines beeped even louder, and Christine's mom pressed both hands to her throat. "I love you, Camden," she'd shouted, as if Christine's dad had been far, far away. Then she turned and mouthed to Christine: "Where is Janet?"

Dad had sucked in a loud, wet breath, and they'd both turned to him. His eyes were open, but they stared at nothing.

"Yes," the professor said, startling Christine back to awareness. He turned to look at Bassem. "Do you know how many people still believe in an afterlife?"

"Globally?" Bassem asked. "Or—"

"No, not globally." The professor looked pained as he tugged at the hairs in the white circle on his cheek. It was the first thing Christine had noticed about him, at the Hakka Bar on Friday night. She'd stared at this odd quarter-sized circle, and he'd smiled. Her whole body startled as he lifted a hand and walked over. He asked if she was staring at his deformity. She bent her knees a little and laughed. When he asked again, she'd admitted yes, she had been staring. "Sorry."

"All right, nationally," Bassem continued, undaunted. "Here, belief in an afterlife hovers around eighty-six percent. According to—"

"So nearly ninety percent of your fellow Americans" The professor pushed off his desk and walked between Christine and Bassem. Bassem turned to watch him. Christine did not. "Nine out of ten yokels think what we do is useless. So then: Why do so many sign up?"

"It's a just-in-case thing," a man's voice said from behind Christine.

"Just in case?" the professor said, his voice bright with disappointment. "That's scarcely an answer, Mr. Linehan. People don't smear their bodies with shit just in case, do they? They don't pray to the Norse gods or put crayons up their noses just in case. So why this just-in-case, among all the infinite just-in-cases?"

"Because it fits," Bassem said, leaning angrily toward the professor. "Like… like a lot of contemporary science, this doesn't displace other beliefs. It complements. What we offer doesn't prevent them from reaching their own heaven, instead it—"

"And yet there isn't a heaven," the professor said, taking long strides back toward his desk. "Is there?"

Bassem said nothing. He picked up a pen, twiddled it for a moment, and set it down.

Christine's mother had spun in circles during those final moments. "Find your sister," she'd said, both hands pressed hard against her throat. Christine had walked to the door. She'd called faintly for a nurse.

The nurses had known what Christine was doing. If Christine had been caught, of course, they would've feigned ignorance. One of them had said as much: "You're his family. Not even the director can stop you sitting with your dad, talking about whatever you like. But don't do anything unlicensed when any of us is nearby."

The two of them had discussed his afterlife in halting whispers. They kept the details a secret from everyone: even Janet, even Mom. Christine's dad wanted to spend his final minutes—his "forever"—at the docks. He wanted the scent of fish in the air, the sun on his face, and Christine by his side.

He had understood, from the literature, that you had to keep things simple. If you tried to build an afterlife with a dozen loved ones, it wasn't likely to hold. Your final moments would crumble into a confusing, nightmarish mess. If you wanted it to work, you had to focus on a handful of things. Three or four. Christine's dad wanted 1) the docks, 2) the smell of fish, 3) the sun on his face, and 4) his daughter Christine. Those four things, forever.

They had practiced endlessly, in the tiny room by themselves. He gripped the fishing rod while she wafted the smell of the lake beneath his nose: fish, algae, and sunscreen mixed with sweat. She switched on an artificial sun lamp and held it above his forehead. Then she sat beside him, talking calmly, using a script to weave him deep into the memory.

She'd quit both jobs for this, and they practiced every day for hours. "It's like rehearsals before our big debut," she told him, and he gave her a lopsided smile. During the last ten days, Christine had slept in a hard chair at the facility, and both of them dreamt of the lake. Sometimes, she dreamt it was her afterlife. In the dream, they'd died together. They were sitting on a wooden bench, the air around them curdling with fish and algae and cheap sunscreen. Sometimes, she asked why they couldn't be in armchairs, smelling coffee, eating sweet red-bean soup.

Christine had always been close with her dad. She'd never wanted to immigrate, like Janet. After high school, she'd stayed near home. Her scores weren't high enough for university anyway, and she wasn't as smart as Janet. Working in retail fulfillment was a decent life. Two five-hour shifts, six days a week. But then suddenly, when she turned twenty-five, her back problems started. She could barely work. She was having a spasm when she and Dad watched a documentary about a famous scientist who had dropped out, then went back to cram school.

Christine didn't want to move to Beijing or win a HSTA. All she wanted was a practical profession. High demand, good working conditions, financial security.

Death coach.

She was halfway through cram school when the diagnosis came. Dad told her first, before Janet or Mom. For a while, she went on working both jobs, doing cram at night, sitting with her dad during off hours. He talked about his doctor visits, the books he was reading.

Then she finished. She passed her exams and was accepted into the best death-coaching program in the state. Her dad was post-surgery when they celebrated. She wept, and he held her cold hand against his cheek. That night, he asked if she would try it on him. "I know it's a lot to ask," he said. "But maybe you could walk your old dad down the aisle?"

She stared at him, unsure what to say.

"If it doesn't work, that's all right," he'd said. "But we might as well try."

"Christine," the professor said sharply. "Do you believe in an afterlife?"

It was the same question he'd asked at the bar. Or no, he'd asked: "Do you believe there are whores in the afterlife?"

"I'm undecided," she said now. He seemed to delight in her answer.

"Un-de-ci-ded." He tugged on a different finger with each syllable. "How many of you are undecideds?"

Christine didn't look around, but nobody in her field of vision raised their hand. Then Bassem did. She gave him the faintest of smiles.

"Would you hire a death coach?"

"Absolutely," Bassem said. "It doesn't matter whether or not I believe in an afterlife. No matter what happens, the moment is critical."

"Christine?" the professor asked.

Out of the tail of her eye, she saw Bassem tense, and it made her stronger. It made her shake off Friday night. "Can you believe," the professor had told her, while she'd looked around for an escape, "that one fellow wanted an afterlife of eternal orgasms? Of course—well—once he'd said it, I couldn't believe more men didn't ask for that. Just imagine, his death coach practiced with him every day." The professor laughed as he drunkenly mimed oral sex. "You'd think the story would have a happy ending, wouldn't you? But alas, by the end, he grew bored of her. The girl wasn't even pretty. So there he was, at the…"

Christine turned away, searching the bar for a back door.

"I'm sorry," the professor had said. "Is this boring you, young lady?"

"Not at all." She looked back, smiling brightly. She didn't know who he was, but she knew he must be important in the field.

"You look bored," he said.

She re-fixed her smile. "Definitely not. I just have a lot on my mind."

His smile shifted, reptile-like, as he leaned in with his baijiu breath. "What exactly do you have on your mind?"

Electricity had pulsed through Christine's spine, blanking her thoughts.

"It's all right," he said, conspiratorially. "How about we go somewhere else? I've got a place in the University Quarter, near the old Witch's Hat. It's a lovely old house, built before the Storm."

"Sorry, I have to go. My mother is…ill."

She turned, and he reached out and squeezed her ass. She scuttled away, and he lunged after her, grabbing it a second time, holding it like a fish.

"Your loss," he said, when Christine got free. She kept walking, her body stiff with mortified fury. An arm caught her at the door, and she almost screamed, but it was the bouncer, shouting at her that she hadn't closed her tab.

"If you can't pay," he shouted, "then I have to take you to the station."

"I can pay," she shouted back. "I just forgot."

The man with the white circle in his beard sauntered up, smiling, asking the bouncer what was wrong. The bouncer explained that the young lady hadn't paid her bill. Christine was fumbling with her purse, with her phone, looking around through a haze of confused tears. The bearded man put her drinks on his account.

"Now don't you worry about it," he said, draping a heavy hand over her shoulder. "No strings attached. Not for a girl as amorable as you." He laughed.

She walked out of the bar, head down. She cried all the way home, her face turned toward the bus window so that no one would see.

"Christine?" the professor asked. "Would you hire a death coach?"

"If I could afford it. Yes."

The professor smiled. "And have you imagined your afterlife?" He raised his gaze to encompass the rest of the class. "How many of you know what you would choose, if you had only a month left to live?"

Christine had no idea how many hands went up, but the professor looked mildly surprised. A beep sounded, and a few students jumped in their seats. Nervous laughs echoed through the room as the lights dimmed and an advertisement came on. It was for Baidu-Xiaomi Merging Services, and Christine wondered why anyone would pitch that to teens.

On the screen, an attractive man spoke about "what Baidu-Xiaomi can do for you," and Christine reminded herself that she had to call Mom when class was over. Things were getting worse. In the weeks right after Dad died, there had been so much to do. After that, Mom had focused on Janet's mental health. But now Janet was dating that twat Justi—and she seemed okay. But Mom was drifting. Grasping. Yesterday, she'd suggested Christine could teach her. "I could do it, too. For my friends."

Christine couldn't believe it. "Did you forget what happened with Dad?"

"Anyone can do it," her mom said. "If you don't leave the room."

Later, Christine's mom came knocking on her door, probably to apologize. But Christine didn't open up. She left for class early Monday morning, a lump of guilt frozen in her throat.

When she'd crossed through the checkpoint and got to campus for the first time ever, it felt like the Land of Make-Believe. Most of the other students were just out of high school: the brightest and the richest of those who hadn't gone abroad. When one asked Christine what prep school she'd been at, she lied and said she was from Utah.

"Oh," a boy said, putting on a sympathetic face. "Sorry."

She didn't answer. She looked down at her phone and said she had to get to class. Which was true. She walked to the room, sat down, and looked up at the professor. For a few seconds, she thought she was hallucinating. It must be someone else. Some other man with a perfectly white circle on the cheek of his chestnut-brown beard.

"Good morning, Christine," he had said, and she startled. But then she saw he was reading off his screen, which recognized each of them. "Good morning, Bassem," he'd said. "Good of you to join us."

Now, the advertisement ended.

"That's enough getting-to-know-you," the professor said sharply. "For the rest of today, we'll talk about who's who in a hospice system. We'll start with the private hospice, since that is where most of you end up. Some of you will work at hospitals, of course. Some will emigrate. And a few will go rogue. Christine, for instance."

She didn't react. The professor's face went momentarily blank, as though even he knew he'd crossed a line. He launched into a talk about typical staffing structures at a mid-level private hospice. Christine was surprised that they would cover this in a university lecture. This was the sort of thing she could cram on her own.

Christine's dad had been at a public-private facility. By using his savings, they had managed a single room. Janet had resented it, once she realized what they were doing: "your little daddy-daughter voodoo project."

Where had Janet gone on that last afternoon? It was a question that still needled Christine. "What difference does it make?" Janet had shouted. "You guys didn't care about me. I went out all the time and nobody cared. You were his princess. You were the one he needed."

But Christine hadn't been there when he needed her. She'd been looking for Janet. At first, she looked around the nearest nursing station, one eye on her dad's door. Anyone seen my sister Janet? The nurses shrugged or shook their heads. Christine walked down the hallway, and quickened her pace down another, putting her head into the shabby waiting rooms, the self-serve cafeteria, the broken-down rec room where people went to smoke up. She couldn't find Janet anywhere. Confused, she spun around and raced, slippers flapping, back to Room 277. Mom and Janet were in there arguing. By the time Christine was at her dad's side, breaths heaving, trying to push the fishing rod into his loose grip, his last sensory system had let go. The brain was out on its own, cast off like a boat pushed to sea. There was nothing she could do to reach him.

"If you do this right," the professor said, kicking at something invisible on the floor, "then all of you will make a good living."

That first and last Monday morning of university, Christine imagined herself in a decent apartment, maybe in the Bloom district. Her building would be sinking into quicksand, just like the rest of the nation. But since she wouldn't be sinking as fast as other people, she would seem to be rising.

She grasped at the rope of his words—and held on.

Notes from the Author
The literary threads I try to weave together are the classic master storytellers, particularly al-Tanukhi, and those who re-imagined the world, such as Octavia and Ursula.