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Contemporary Fiction

The gravestone was unusually tall. It stood at the head of an unmade bed of earth. Tom had missed the funeral, but not by much. Filled but not finished, the grave still smelled of the turned earth. A pink worm flexed and headed into the heap. Tom thought of the grave he’d dug for Bruce. No headstone for him, just a spot under the tree where he’d played in the autumn leaves as a puppy.

Cleanly cut in rain-beaded granite were the words:

Samuel van Wyk

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

22 November 1963 – 8 October 2023

Tom’s mind immediately fell reflexively on the inevitable calculation. Sam had been 60, no 59, soon to be 60. Young, really, these days. Young enough for it to feel unfair. Everyone dies, but not everyone gets robbed of the responsibility vacuum of retired decrepitude. Tom had plans to drink more than was good for him and intentionally flirt with increasingly conservative views just to annoy young people. Sam would never know the gleeful life of a half-cut octogenarian troll.

Tom had hoped to meet Sam and have their first ever face-to-face conversation, not just use the span of his friend’s completed life as a slide rule to estimate the length of his own remaining time. They had planned the meeting for some time, edging towards arranging it in the awkward way of mature males who struggled to admit that a meaningful connection had been made between heterosexual men who were not related, were not work colleagues and had not know each other since childhood. They were not friends of friends or thrust indifferently together as the other halves of female friends. They were just friends, online friends. When the unusually phrased message had come, from one of Sam’s accounts, to tell Tom of his passing, he had decided to keep his ticket bookings and promised himself that he would travel to the grave. The pub where he’d booked a room would be the venue for a quiet one-man wake, instead of the planned meeting with his friend.   

Tom had ridden a ripped bus seat to the train station and boarded a much-delayed service with a blocked toilet to a ferry port more used to livestock and chemical shipments than foot passengers. The crossing, however, had been glorious. Mineral blades of saline air had flayed away the fug of the train. Tom had stayed on the deck, as close to bow as health and safety would allow, watching his destination glitter in the few bars of sun that had strayed from summer into autumn. As the land that now held the body of his unmet friend see-sawed closer he had prayed like a child that the spray of a rammed wave would reach him.  And now, after a short but nervous train ride through alien stations, here he stood at the newest row of a graveyard whose earliest weather-blasted sandstone slabs had seen more centuries than Tom had living friends. Sam’s clean black stone was an iphone to their abaci. A modest monolith, precisely cut and inscribed, narrow, but almost as tall as the markers belonging to the death-proud Victorians.

“Why is your stone so tall, Sam?” said Tom to the grave. He smiled at the imagined answer, not so much for the words, which hadn’t quite formed as quickly as the image in his mind, but because the response came from his 2D friend on his glitchy Teams screen. The words might come to him later as a text or a WhatsApp. He nearly collapsed when the answer came in a quiet voice from behind him.

“I thought I’d better leave plenty room. You never know.”

“Jesus Christ!”

The man in front of Tom was a complete stranger. He’d answered to Sam’s name, but the man who stood there, in three dimensions, with a photo-real background, and legs, was not even an approximate avatar of his friend’s online form.

“Who are you?”

“Sam van Wyk. Pleased to meet you.”

“Jesus. I nearly shat. Is this some kind of joke?”

“Not if you’re dead.”

“No, not funny. He was my friend,” said Tom, confused but making some space for anger, jabbing a finger at the grave. “Who are you?” His finger swung from the pile of earth to point at the timid man.

“That’s me I’m afraid,” said the man. “Sam van Wyk. Heart attack.”

“What? How?”

“Diet and lifestyle. Too much stodgy food,” said Sam with a guilty shrug. “I tried to get him to take up yoga.”

“No, you prick, how do you have the same name. Why are you pretending to be my dead friend?”

“I am Sam van Wyk. But so is he,” said Sam with a nod at the grave where an unafraid blackbird now dug for the burrowing worm. “I’m your friend too, we shared everything.”

“Is this some weird internet identity theft bullshit?” The idea didn’t even make sense to Tom as he said it. He had the overwhelming feeling that he was the victim of something but he didn’t know what.

“More of an identity gift. We shared, you see. Ever felt like life was too much for you?”

Tom stared, stuck with the victim feeling. The blackbird had some purchase on the worm and was testing its grip on the grave.  

“Me and Sam did. Life was far too much. So many expectations these days. Too much, too fast. Lives have just become far too complicated. So, we decided to share one.”

“Share a what?”

“Everything. Life. Mortgage, bank account, utilities contracts, name, joint will. There had to be a division of labour, obviously. Sam handled all of the online stuff. The profiles, the socials, banking. Not for me, all that stuff. Not for anyone, if you ask me. Humans weren’t built to exist as disembodied entities. Seriously weird, if you ask me. Sam was comfortable with it though. Me, I like fixing stuff, I did all of the cooking. My dumplings were Sam’s favourite.”

“You were a couple?”

“No. Nothing like that. We were a single.”

“What? You can’t do that.”

“We did do that.”

“You can’t just say you’re the same person as another person.”

“Do you know anyone with a social media profile? Of course you do. And is their profile an exact match for what they’re like in real life? No, of course it isn’t. But it is still them, isn’t it? Well, I am Sam, and Sam was my profile.”

“But a profile’s not real, it’s just stuff people put up there to make people like them and think they’re fun and interesting.”

“And he did such a good job you came to keep our appointment to meet, even though I’m dead.”

“You’re not dead.”

“Well, yeah, I am, sort of. It’s very sad.”

“Look, I’m sorry for your loss, but I think I knew the guy in the grave, and I have no idea who you are.” Tom started to walk away from the grave feeling the need to tell someone the story that was unfolding. It somehow didn’t seem to work as a Tweet. Maybe there would be someone at the pub to talk to.

“I’m Sam van Wyk, we’ve been friends for years,” called Sam after Tom.

“No! We haven’t,” said Tom, stopping next to a beloved grandfather who had lasted ten short years longer than Sam. “Actually, forget it, I’m going to go now.”

“If you don’t mind me asking,” said Sam “What are you going back to?”

“I do mind you asking, actually. None of your bloody business, whoever you are.”

“I’m your friend Sam. I know all about you. It’s so rare for people to make a connection like we did. And you cared enough to travel all the way here to meet me.”

The blackbird tugged with raptor brutality and the worm stretched, then snapped out of the grave.

“Look, I might not have much going on back at home, but I’m not some weird little nutter running around pretending to be a dead guy.”

“He told me everything, Tom. I wanted friends. I wanted the connections, I just couldn’t handle all of the stuff. All of the techy stuff that he did. It’s too much. We weren’t meant for it, but he filtered it for me. He translated it all, like a human, man to man. I know you as well as he did. For example, I know you lost the dog recently. I’m so sorry. Poor Bruce. So sad. He was all you had left really, wasn’t he?”

“This isn’t funny.”

“It’s not a joke, Tom. I wouldn’t laugh at you. You’re my friend.”

“Well, if it’s not a joke, what is it then?”

“An opportunity.”

“An opportunity for what?”

“You’re pretty good at all the internet stuff, aren’t you? Social media and such. All the stuff you have to manage online these days.”

“So what?”

“Well, I suppose, what I’m saying is; do you like dumplings, Sam?”

Tom turned and looked at the neat, shiny space under the first Sam van Wyk’s dates.  

October 20, 2023 23:11

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8 comments

Michał Przywara
04:32 Oct 23, 2023

I was wondering how people would approach this prompt. Had a lot of ideas about ghosts and insurance fraud, but this - this is very original. But Sam's proposition is a risk, isn't it? They might have the makings of a true friendship, but pulling back the curtain like this and asking if Tom wants in (especially given the death circumstances) it reads a bit like swingers testing the waters. Nothing wrong with it on the surface, but probably unsettling for many people. The idea is neat in principle though. It's not exactly a marriage or othe...

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Chris Miller
07:41 Oct 23, 2023

Yes, I think some kind of new structure to do it formally. People do it informally all of the time, but not in circumstances like this. Seriously weird, but possibly quite tempting? Thank you for reading, Michal.

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Mary Bendickson
00:15 Oct 23, 2023

A life set in stone.

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Chris Miller
07:35 Oct 23, 2023

Thanks for reading, Mary.

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Kailani B.
02:23 Oct 22, 2023

I don't know how I'd feel about meeting the "double" of someone I met online, probably a sense of betrayal. But if I really wanted the friendship I thought I had...I suppose I might give this new person a chance. Good job, very interesting idea.

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Chris Miller
08:59 Oct 22, 2023

Thanks, Kailani. I probably need to work on the idea more, but it raises a few questions about the changing nature of relationships. I think there might be a few people out there who would be interested in a shared identity if it made life less complex. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

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Robert Egan
21:50 Oct 21, 2023

A tall headstone makes perfect sense in this case. Wonderful take on the prompt, and I liked how you played with the idea of doubles before moving beyond it. The Song of Myself epitaph was perfect, and Tom's earlier musings gave me some ideas for my later golden years. Nice work, Chris!

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Chris Miller
21:59 Oct 21, 2023

Cheers Robert. I was only vaguely familiar with the poem but I went and reread the whole thing and there is some wonderful, timeless stuff in there. Pleased you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading.

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