“Have I ever told you the worst thing about witnessing death?” said the father.
“You haven’t.” replied the son. He was nervous. His father was in a recognizably good mood. This was something that had never happened before in the son’s memory. They were climbing stairs. Endless steps, up and up and up. The son followed the father, the way he had his whole life, never asking questions or wondering where they were going.
“I saw a lot of death in my day. The entire population of the world died while I lived, so I know a thing or two about it. Now, the thing you probably don’t know is that once you die, your body starts losing all it’s heat right away. When you’re living, your body makes it’s own heat, but as soon as you die you turn into nothing, and your body isn’t you anymore. It’s just an inanimate object like anything else. It can’t keep it’s heat. All that warmth and energy that made you up starts to get sucked away by the environment around you, because you’re not a person anymore, you’re just an object, you’re nothing.”
The son remained silent, continuing to follow his father up the stairs. This was the most the father had ever spoken at one time, and the son was starting to wish he had never started talking. He had always wondered whether his father was insane, with his weathered skin and long unkempt hair, his beard that was tangled and dirt encrusted. There were sores on his body, and his hands were cracked and bleeding, his wounds never quite healing properly.
“That’s why the worst thing you can do is touch someone just after they’ve died.” said the father. “Because the living cling to life, and you steal all the heat and energy from the body. You take whatever was left of them when you hold them in your arms after they die, because all that heat slips from their skin to yours, until they turn cold. There’s nothing worse than touching the skin of someone that you loved, only to feel that all the heat has gone away. Then it turns real. They’re not like you anymore, they’ve left you behind. They’re nothing. But this is the most incredible nothing.”
They reached the very end of the steps, going through one last door, onto the roof of the skyscraper. The son looked around him, momentarily forgetting the mad ramblings of his father. This was the top of one of the tallest buildings in the empty city. The son had never seen a view like this before. Beside him, the father grinned, laughing as he stepped closer to the edge, looking over the side.
“Why are we up here?” asked the son. He didn’t want to seem ungrateful. This was probably the most interesting thing that had ever happened to him, outside of the books he’d read. But still, his father was acting strangely, euphoria emanating from him.
The father turned to his son, the deep blue sky behind him. “We all came from nothing, you know.” he said. “And when we die we become nothing. So in between, what else could we be but nothing?”
“I don’t understand.” said the son. He wasn’t used to having conversations with his father that didn’t involve brief instructions about survival. This was a new kind of interaction he didn’t know how to take part in.
“I kept my promise.” said the father. “Now I can finally be free.” He looked at the son, his eyes crazed, unfamiliar. “You can choose to be free, if you’re ready.” he said. “If you aren’t that’s for you to decide. I did all I could.” The father looked over the edge once more as the son stared at him in bewilderment. Watching the father whisper to himself, so low that the son could hardly make out the words. “The most incredible nothing…” he whispered, trailing off before turning his attention to the son once more. “You’re the last straggler now.” he said. “If you don’t want to follow me, then make sure you don’t touch me once you climb your way down.”
Those were the last words the father said to the son, the last words the father ever said. He moved without hesitation, taking a calm, sure step off the side of the skyscraper. One second there, the next gone. And the son couldn’t find it within himself to weep.