No Country for Old People
It was at his 60th birthday when it came back into his mind: ten more years. He had ten more years until he would die. Back then, not even Theresa had made any clear statements about how she wanted to die, or if she wanted to die in the first place. They had met each other when they were 24 years old and had been together since. Being the same age made the decision harder, maybe, or so he thought.
The symptoms of old age were starting to show on both of them. Her bladder got weaker, and his back and belly made him slowly bend more and more towards the floor. He started to use a cone; it helped him more mentally than physically. They both were starting to forget or misremember minor details; their son and daughter made sure to remind them about it whenever they got the chance.
At his 60th birthday, he had made himself a vow. He wanted to use the next 10 years, the last 10 years, to pass the test. Get himself somewhere irreplaceable. Arts, sciences, whatever it may be. He had talked with her about it. She had the polar opposite in mind. She had already given up, or instead “accepted her passing,” as she phrased it. She did not stop him in his pursuit, though. As long as they both were happy, it did not matter to her what he was working on.
Those ten years had passed. And had he tried. He went from course to course, from lecture to lecture. He was obsessed with latching onto something. But now they were sitting here in front of them. A middle-aged black woman with her tablet and a slim man standing in the back of the room. He was pale and disinterested. She was sitting in their old armchair while they sat close to each other on their small sofa. She raised an eyebrow as she was browsing through his history.
His achievements up to his 60th birthday were summarized in one paragraph, then followed by four pages of certificates. All the classes he had passed over the ten years, all for nothing. She scrolled through the pages, barely reading it. Then she looked up.
“Yeah mate, does not look good for ya. Even with all these certificates, you are miles away from passing. You better enjoy the last weeks here and move on.”
The man that had come for Theresa three weeks ago was more considerate, but that was because Theresa had already accepted it a long time ago. They were only setting a date and had a friendly chat until he had to leave. It was bizarre. Now it was about his passing, and he did not want to accept it. How did he end up here? When he was young, he fully supported the idea, but now, it was unbearable with him on the line.
“Your wife already discussed things with my mate from company. You can get the same date if you want. ‘Collaborative Passing’ is the official phrase. Date is in 6 weeks from now. But if you want to stay longer, then you can get another two weeks. I think he already told you this. You made a decision yet?”
The woman looked thoroughly bored. She did not even bother to look at him when she talked while the man in the back was starring him into his soul.
“Ehhmm” he began. Theresa preferred them to go together, and he could understand why. But two weeks were two weeks.
“Ok. Then your date will be two weeks later, August the 12th. All your arrangements have already been made, and we have all the relevant documents. I’ll inform your relatives. Any other people you want to invite?”
It sounded like they were going to have a large celebration party.
“No. They are all on the list.”
The woman stood up and nodded to them both.
“Have a pleasant time, you two. May we never see each other again.”
Theresa smiled, and the woman wobbled to the door, followed by the pale young man.
“Douggy, why did you not tell me? I thought you wanted us to go together?”
“I did, but…”
He was sitting on a kitchen chair, looking at the floor. Theresa walked up to him and hugged him.
“It’s ok. I don’t mind, but you could have told me.”
He had decided on the spot but stood behind it. Two weeks were two weeks, no matter how bad they would turn out to be.
It was 50 years ago; he had just turned 20 when the bill passed. Everyone over 70 that is replaceable, has no importance in society, and is not in top physical condition will get euthanized. If you don’t contribute to the system and become a burden, you get cut. It was as easy as that. At age 70, there will be a test to check your importance and health condition. If you don’t make it, like 95% of the people, you will get cremated 8 to 12 weeks later.
The people opposed the most to the bill died first. Then, after a big chunk of the population had been euthanized over a few years, society and economy had bloomed. Today, everyone was used to the idea. Kids knew it, parents knew it, the elderly knew it. A new mindset had infiltrated the people. Use your life to create something meaningful, and you will live on. It was not the healthiest way of bringing people to explore themselves and their skills fully, but it worked to a degree. However, “meaningful” was purely defined by government interest.
The procedure was fast and painless. It was like slowly falling asleep. Everyone had time to say their goodbyes and give out their hugs. Then it was over, and they prepared her. He walked up to the recycled coffin that was standing at the entrance of the small church. There she laid. Dead as a fish, ready to get turned into Soylent. The whole procedure took less than an hour. Pretty efficient. The small urn of ashes replaced the coffin after only a few minutes. The urn was still warm when he picked it up. They scattered her ashes into the soil of the forest that she loved to visit, to the strange looks of nearby joggers.
“You’re up next, Dad. Any last things you plan to do?”
His son approached him while they were slowly walking back to the car. He sounded even more enthusiastic about their death than Theresa was. Did he want him to disappear so badly?
“You know, it’s your last two weeks now, so we want you to enjoy them. If there is anything we can do, let us know. We could take the kids and dogs and have a big picnic like we did last year. What do you think?”
He passively nodded. The idea of dying was so engrained into them; they did not even understand why he would want to live on. They drove him back to his apartment, and after a few words, they left.
He was alone. It felt so empty out of a sudden. He looked at the small picture frame of him and Theresa. The picture was made when they had just turned 40; them sitting on a bench at the sea. It was evening, but the light from the nearby shops was lighting up the scene. He had some hot chocolate, and she some cotton candy in her hands. They were smiling and looked tipsy. He remembered.
The door ringed at a surprisingly early hour. He was sipping his morning coffee in his bathrobe. It was a delivery.
“Package for Doug Holmes. Sign here, please.”
It was a parting gift from the company he had worked at for over three decades; sweets, photos, letters, and company-branded freebies. An old image of his department caught his eye. They had made a business trip to some eastern country in the early days of the company. In the photo, they were all sweating and their skin red from the sun. He had forgotten how big his department had been. 18 people. Now only five were left. Everyone else had been automated, just like him.
He did not mind. After all, the robots and AIs were way better at everything he did, and being unemployed was not a death sentence. His grandparents would be horrified at the idea of being unemployed, but a solid safety net made sure that people unemployed were covered. A large chunk of the population had no job but received enough money to have a relaxing and enjoyable life.
“I can’t let you on this flight. You’ve been marked for decommission.”
Doug was standing at the check-in counter, all his savings on him in cash, ready to fly to southern Thailand.
“It says your decommission is in 10 days. We don’t allow anyone to fly out up to 14 days before decommission. Sorry.”
Fuck. He turned around and made his way back to the subway. There had to be a loophole in the system. Somewhere. Back home, he got back on his computer. He was browsing a small forum on the dark web. For 5000€, they would pick him up from home and fly him out to a country of his choice, cash upfront and only through anonymous payment methods. It sounded like a scam that he had seen too many of over the past days.
He was about to give up for the day and go to bed when a video captured his interest. An old guy was making videos on how he escaped the system and lived in exile. Living on an undisclosed island, and his life was apparently fabulous. He was sitting on the beach with a striped shirt and shorts, and a drink accompanied him. The videos only had a few hundred views and no comments but seemed authentic. The madmen even showed his ID and the official documents of his decommission. Doug looked up his name, and it checked out. Six years ago, an article appeared in some local news about a missing 70-year-old. The guy looked ridiculous, but it was his best lead. Doug sent him a message and went to bed.
He received an email the next day, but it was not from the guy he had messaged.
“Hey Douggy, you messaged Jonah, and he told me about you. I’m Melissa from management, Jonah’s wife. I looked you up. Very impressive, blazing through every class in the country within a decade. Few would go so far to avoid getting turned into plant soil. Are you ready to go into exile? You want to join us?”
“I just want to get out of here and live the rest of my days in peace. How can you get me out? And how did you manage to avoid the government all this time?”
“Of course. You’ve already sent me your address, so I will see what I can do. The government does not care about exiled people as long as they cause no trouble. It is cheaper for them to not care about us than to get us back to our country.”
Was this his way out? A small grass-roots movement of exiled elderly? On the way out of the kitchen, he spilled his cup of coffee all over the floor. It was the third time this month.
“You can take this flight to Vietnam tomorrow at noon. If you book over the site I linked, it won’t ask for a decommission date and won’t flag your booking. Only works with this airline, though. They do everything online. They don’t even have check-in counters at the airport. You should be able to get through security without anyone checking. Just make sure you only bring hand luggage. If you go to check-in larger bags, they will check. Let me know if you are coming, and we will pick you up from the airport.”
He had nothing to lose, and the refund from his last ticket was enough to buy the new one. He was quite excited. It felt like he was going on an adventure.
A small white SUV drove up to him. The front window lowered, and a wrinkly woman with sunglasses smiled at him.
“In flesh and blood. What a surprise. Nice to meet you, Doug. I’m Melissa.”
She had short blonde curly hair, and her teeth looked way too white and clean to be her own. They loaded the little luggage into the trunk, then started driving over the newly built highway. Doug felt groggy and tired. The jetlag turned his brain into mush, and the food from the flight began to upset his stomach.
“I’m glad we are getting some new company. The others will be happy about it.”
“There are many people who want to escape the system. You are not the only one.”
They drove for almost an hour through less and less crowded towns and villages, then got on a bumpy dirt road, the sea to their left. Suddenly she stopped the car.
Several huts were lined up in a row next to the beach, all connected and standing on wooden planks. It almost looked like apartments from a posh hotel. Once they walked towards them, they started to come alive. Lights turned on, and somewhere, someone started to cook. Then the door of the closest hut opened. A man with a rollator walked outside. He was almost bald and had sunglasses on. His shirt was not buttoned up, so you could see the beauty of his untrained body. To top it off, he was wearing a white diaper around his hips. He was waving towards them as they approached.
“Hey, Macky. Were back.”
Macky seemed happy that Melissa talked to him.
“Old Macky may can’t talk, but he can still hear. Let me get you to your room while we prepare dinner. Then you will see the rest of the crew.”
Was this the company she was talking about? A bunch of senile diaper-wearing Alzheimer’s patients?
He closed the wooded door to his small room. It was located in one of the smaller huts standing further inland. He had opened his luggage and stored his things on the shelf next to the bed. He took a shower and laid down. What the fuck was he doing here?
A knock at the door was interrupting his contemplations. It was old Macky. With open eyes and a bright smile, he was mimicking an eating gesture. Doug followed him to the big hut closest to the beach. Was he going to need a rollator soon as well? His posture was so bad that an upgrade for his cone seemed unavoidable.
With snail speed, they reached the large table standing on the beach. Several people were already sitting at it. Melissa was helping a young Vietnamese woman bring out the plates and food, Macky had dropped himself into one of the chairs and started massaging his belly, and at the end of the table, Jonah was smoking a large cigar. He had the same clothes on as he had in every one of his videos. He was enjoying his cigar until he noticed Doug standing at the table.
“Hey Douggy! Nice to meet yah. Pleasure working with you. How was your flight? You are probably exhausted. We are going to freshen you up with some food and drinks. Gonna turn you ten years younger. Hehehe. Enjoy, enjoy. And we’ll talk about stuff tomorrow.”
Another woman found her way to the table. She was skinny and mumbled to herself while moving her chair.
“This is Margret. She is a clever one: a programmer and code-breaker. Knows all the tricks.”
She talked with a quiet and annoyed voice: “At least this one took a shower before delighting us with his presence.”
She filled her plate with rice and soup and started to shovel it into her mouth.
“You will meet the rest tomorrow. Now enjoy your meal. We need you strong and healthy!”
It was not even 8 PM when Doug was in bed. This felt like a weird mix of elderly home and vacation. But what were all these lunatics doing here? There is no way they could have managed to get here on their own. Hopefully, the rest of them would not turn out to be worse than the ones he had already met. He turned around and quickly fell asleep. He was taking a flight with old Macky to the seat in his right and Margret on his left in his dream.
“Oi, everyone. This is Douggy. He is our newest member. May he live long and prosper.”
Everyone made a small toast before getting back to eating.
“Hopefully, this one survives the first week and does not puss out on us like Harold did. Took a lot of work to take care of the body.”
Someone in the back laughed. Someone else farted.
“Poor Harold had forgotten to take his medicine. What a tragedy.”
Melissa seemed to be quite taken about the demise of their previous member.
“We can’t save everyone on our way to glory. But Douggy shall be an important asset. He worked in the administration of a tech giant. Knows how to coordinate and plan stuffs. Something we always need.”
The old black man with a long beard and sharp eyes sitting opposite Doug spoke up.
“I’m Lenny. Worked in the army for 30 years. They threw me out when I was getting close to 70. They did not want me to overstay my visit. I did some groundwork but was mostly responsible for internal communications. Planning and presentations.”
“They threw you out because you started a fight with your officer and ended up in the hospital. Then you went to prison for several years. Don’t forget to tell him that.”
The overweight white man at the end of the table had interrupted him.
Doug was confused at the view of the man at the end of the table. He looked way younger than the rest but might as well weighed as much as all of them together. With his tight shorts, socks in sandals, and checkered shirt, he looked like a German tourist, not like someone trying to escape the government.
“Uh yeah Douggy, I’m Herbert. Nice to meet you.”
“You don’t look like you are over your expiry date. What are you doing here?”
“Uuh. Long story. I was here on vacation and met Jonah. I thought I might as well stay here indefinitely. I’m only 60, but I know that I won’t pass the test. Nobody is waiting for me, and I’d rather stay here than take another long-distance flight.”
“Uh Doug, you already know me and my wife Melissa. We both planned long ago to escape. We were in Vietnam several times and scouted out this place. Built it from the ground up. We were both in construction before. I was doing heavy work; she was handling materials and distribution. We settled down here 11 years ago. Then we picked some of these fellas up over the years.
I knew Lenny from a work gig we once had, and we kept in contact. Old Macky here we found at the airport one day. He had been forgotten, and nobody cared for him. Must have been at the airport for several days by then. He does not talk and can barely walk, but he is great company.”
Old Macky toasted his mug and smiled brightly.
“Margret here was in an elderly home but deleted herself of their database and destroyed all of the files they had of her, then escaped and contacted me. Pretty smart girl.”
Margret commented too quiet for anyone to understand. She seemed to be angry with something.
“You just heard about Herbert, and our last member is Elisa. Our inside mole. She worked for the government itself. She still has access to some stuff and knows how to trick the system. You can thank her for getting the right plane ticket.”
“I know a lot of secrets Douggy. You would not believe about the things the government is lying to us about. You think the moon landing was sketchy? Uhh, you haven’t seen anything yet.”
Doug closed the door to his small hut. There was no lock, and the wooded walls were not evenly placed. The water in the shower was still slowly running through the drain, and it smelled of undried clothes. What had he signed up for? He was going to live with a bunch of lunatics and sick people. Was this really what he wanted?
It was crackling under his shoes. He was running. He could already hear their voices closing in on him. He was trying to stay out of sight by staying in the covers of the large oak trees. His feet were sore, and his back was hurt. He was sweating all over his body. He could hear several dogs barking. He was still running as fast as he could. Under his feet, branches and leaves.
Now he could hear them. They were shouting, laughing; they wanted him dead. The first shot missed him by a few meters and hit a tree. He jumped up. They were close. The voices were getting louder.
“Were gonna get you, old man.”
“You can’t escape.”
“You are overdue. Time to take the bullet.”
The dogs were barking, and he could hear them running. He had nothing to defend himself. He was just thinking about every next step he took. One step closer, one step closer to what?
The bullet hit him in his chest. His breathing instantly got heavy, and he could not keep up the pace. A few more steps, then he fell on his back. The dogs had arrived. One bit him into his knee and kept pulling, the other one gnawed on his right arm. He screamed.
“There he is, the old fella. Did you really think you could escape? Your clock is empty. There is no time left for you. I have to say, I always like hunting you fellas, but it always has to come to an end eventually.”
He holstered his rifle and pulled out the shotgun from his back.
“I love it when it splatters.”
Doug screamed up as the young man aimed at his head. A young woman laughed hysterically as Doug’s head exploded, and his brain splattered all over the ground, the trees, and on his hunters.
Doug was sitting straight in his bed. It was already morning, and the sun was shining through the small cracks of his hut.
“Good morning you too laddie. It sounds like you had some sweet dreams. Hahaha”
Herbert was outside his hut and had been spooked by the scream. Margret looked outside of hers.
“I was already getting excited. I thought we had the next dead body ready. What a shame.”
She closed the door, and Herbert wobbled to the beach. Doug took a shower. The group was munching happily on some porridge and buns at breakfast while covering the table with it.
“How are you able to pay for all of this? Food, water, electricity? Officially you don’t get any pension past your decommission date.”
Jonah was leaning back in his chair with his sunglasses on. Then Lenny replied.
“Herbert is still getting a pension, and we all have some savings that we pool together. Living here is cheap. We have many more years until we would run out of money.”
“And what about her?”
Doug pointed at the young woman who had prepared the food and was currently helping Macky find his mouth with his spoon.
“That’s An. She works for us and makes sure that we get food and don’t make a mess in our huts. You have to tell her if you need any help yourself with cleaning or other stuff. Her sister is doing her job over the weekend.”
“And they do not care that we are illegally here?”
“You mean illegally still alive? Hah”
Jonah joined the conversation. He looked over the top of his sunglasses while leaning slightly downwards so everyone could see his belly through the open shirt.
“They are trustworthy. It would be more of a hassle for them to report us than getting paid by us.“
After breakfast, everyone disappeared into their huts. Doug was sitting alone at the table while An was cleaning up the leftovers. He felt even more lonely than in his small apartment. He walked along the beach for a while till his back started to hurt, and he had to pee. He got back to his little room. He may be freed from being decommissioned, but what would he do now?
He knocked on the door to the nearest hut. Lenny was inside. The hut and the walls were covered entirely in newspapers, and several half-filled buckets were standing on the floor.
“So, what are you guys doing all day?”
“What do you mean? Don’t you have your stuff to do? I’m busy.”
Lenny pointed at a large stack of newspapers.
“Do you guys go anywhere together, have some activities, or something?”
“Look, Mr. Fancy Pants, you did not sign up for an elderly home here. We are not here to take care of you. Do your own shit and leave me alone.”
He visited the other huts and got the idea. They all ate and lived together, but nobody cared more than they had to. They were just living from day to day while their brains turned into vegetables.
Margret was thoroughly annoyed at his presence, and Macky was just getting his Diapers changed. He was standing outside, pants down with his feces all over him, asking for help. Herbert was lying on his bed watching a show on his phone. Elisa showed him her secret government files of UFO landings, bioweapon facilities, and population control measures. None of them even had the idea or motivation of going or doing something together. The daily meals seemed to be enough for all of them. All this did not appear any different from the elderly homes back in the day. Everyone was being cared for, but there was no community among them.
Melissa was getting groceries while Jonah was sitting at the beach. He made sure that Doug understood what he had to do and what to pay to stay here. It was not much, but once Jonah had finished, he disappeared as well.
It was chilly when he left the airport with his summer clothes. His apartment was still the same. Nobody had left a message. No Email, no mail. The family pictures on the wall had become dusty. He called them. They were busy.
It was still early morning, and the only people accompanying him were joggers running along the river. He had his thick coat on, and his back started to hurt after a while, so he sat down at a bench, overlooking the river, trees, and bushes, small building getting insight behind it.
Was there ever someone that really cared for him? Theresa had been a great companion, but everyone lived and died on their own in the end. The only person he ever had was himself. He massaged his ankles, then leaned back on the bench. The blind woman in black, sitting next to him on the bench had been silent the entire time.
“Many people come here to think. Have some time for themselves, but you came here to talk. So talk. I’m listening.”
It took him a moment to open up.
“I’m will die soon, by my own choice. Everyone I truly cared for is already gone. Everyone I will leave behind already has someone else to care for. There is no meaning left in my life. I feel empty.”
“There is always a meaning hidden in everything. If there is something without meaning, then you just haven’t found it yet. I will die soon as well. I long for what I’ve done and would love to do much more, but it is not on me to decide. I lived my life, more or less aligned with how I wanted to. Maybe your life felt meaningless, but that meaninglessness brought meaning to someone else’s life.”
“How can you accept your death so easily? Don’t you just want to get away from it?”
“You can either run away from it or face it head-on. My journey might be over, but it is only a new beginning. What I call myself will stop existing, but something else will bloom.”
He took one more look over the river that was glowing up from the slowly rising sun on the way back. He had seen so much beauty throughout his life. He was glad.
A small sip of the liquid made him fall asleep within a few minutes. He was getting sleepy, then slowly faded into a deep slumber.
His family watched after they had wished him their goodbyes. It was not new to them or him. Doug had realized many things over the past week, and one of them was the importance he had put on his survival. He wanted to live on but had no direction. Even the past ten years had not brought him any closer, but maybe his efforts had inspired others. The students being astounded at the old guy in the class being the most advanced in their field, rushing from lecture to lecture without a break. The professors were humbled by the notion of him wanting to learn new things at his age, and all the other people, his family, friends, neighbors, who could not help but watch what he was up to.
Maybe that was his legacy. Without him realizing it, he might have inspired dozens and changed their lives in some way.
But he was not getting any younger. Things faded, and his body degraded. Give it a few years, and he would end up like old Macky. Helpless and aimless. Was death the answer? It depends. Maybe for the society and the system. Perhaps for some parts of him, but he had made his choice. He had tried and succeeded. And like the blind woman said, this might turn into something new and beautiful.
He had a smile on his face, knowing that it did not matter how far he had gotten or if his family loved him or not. He had his fun in life and, at least for the last years, lived it to the fullest, with a purpose.
Without knowing, the efforts he had made would spark a small debate. People were useful and made an impact on their world if given the opportunity. Writing them off from the start made it a lot harder for them to develop and grow in the first place. And maybe the small debate about Doug Holmes would someday turn into something new. Perhaps grow, expand, and change something big.