The Hour of the Dead (FICTION)

Hey, buddy! No, it's not taken. Hey, what are you drinking? 

Not sure? Don't do this much? Here, let me get something. On me, if don't have a big macho thing about a woman buying you a drink. 

Hey, don't worry, you're not my type. I like the occasional man, but this is about the occasion. I'm very close to cracking a tough case. Anyway, I have an expense account. 

I mean, not really, but I am here on business and I am definitely writing off this evening if I can. 

Not sure how, exactly, but I am here on business and my accountant's a real wizard.

I mean, she's a wizard at accounting, because magic isn't real and there's no such thing as wizards. Obviously.

Anyway, it wouldn't be the first time I write off an evening in a bar. 

Hey, can you believe this? The dead rise and the first thing they do is post a status update on Facebook. It sounds like a joke about millennials, but of course millennials will tell you that it's grandparents who post on Facebook. And also some millennials are grandparents now.

Which sign of the apocalypse is that, do you think? 

The dead posting on Facebook, I mean, not the having grandkids. That's just normal passage of time stuff.

You know, if it happened twenty years ago -- the dead thing, not the grandkids -- it might have first popped up on the local news broadcasts in the "on the lighter side" or "news of the strange". Ten years ago it would have been in the offbeat news section on your browser's landing page, but the people who hang out in places with names like Reddit and Fark would already have known about it.

But of course, it couldn't have happened twenty years ago, or even ten. It happened now. 

To everything there is a season, you know?

I read this Heinlein book about time travel once, and the main character was an engineer, and he had this saying he repeated: when railroading time comes, you can railroad, but not before. Something like that. I don't think that's an exact quote but you get the idea.

Oh, you're an engineer? Hey, good for you. I never would have guessed.

So, the book didn't really stay with me but that line did. You know, it's like when the tools and technology are there, when the materials and the know-how are available, people will bring them together. That's why there was a race to the patent office when the telephone was invented. We remember Alexander Graham Bell for winning that race, but he wasn't the only one who had the idea. He might not have been the first. The technology was there, and so it was bound to happen sooner or later.

But talk about a sign of the times: when the dead started talking through Facebook, I guess it was inevitable that we would first learn about it through Twitter. I mean, where else are you going to get the news from?

I wasn't paying attention when it started, so I guess what the first incident was depends on who you know and where you were paying attention. Someone's grandpa or grandma or aunt or uncle or parent popped up and said "I think you look rather smart" or "I didn't raise you to use that kind of language" or "hope you're keeping warm" on a loved one's status, which alarmed them when they got the notification because the person in question was dead. Clicking on the name or picture led to an archived memorial page.

The rationalists wanted to chalk it all up to malicious pranksters or a spouse who had never bothered to sign their dearly departed out of the browser, but the company insisted the former hadn't happened and the latter was impossible -- once a page gets put into memorial mode, it became static and silent as the grave itself.

I could have told them that the grave isn't always silent.

Oh, I should explain. Or at least introduce myself.

So, my name is Marnie Masterson. Well, it's Grand Marnier Masterson. Doesn't mean anything to you? Christ, you really don't drink much. Look over there. On that shelf. No, above that. Yeah. No, my family didn't invent it. My mother likes to tell me -- and everybody else, mostly everybody else, in fact -- that she named me after what she was drinking when I was conceived.

I don't know why I tell people that, except that she did, and maybe telling her story helps me feel like some part of her is here.

But I prefer Marnie. Go figure.

This? It's an Irish mule. Like a Moscow mule but with Irish whiskey instead of vodka. A Moscow mule? It's vodka with ginger beer. The vodka is the Moscow, the ginger beer is the mule. Because of the kick.

Grand marnier is orange liquer. Yeah, I don't really go for it. If I want my booze to taste like breakfast I'll order a screwdriver.

That's vodka and orange juice.

I am... well, that's a bit tricky to explain. If you think a dead grandparent posting on social media is obviously a hack or a glitch or a bug, then I'm a hack, too. A con artist. A fraud.

You really don't come here often, do you? Just got the idea in your head, huh? Well, it couldn't hurt. I mean, it can and it probably will. But who knows? Maybe it will all be worth it, somehow.

My business cards say "Paranormal Consultant and Investigator" on them, because I've learned there's little point to having business cards if you don't have something that sounds business-like on them. 

See? Here's my card. I keep it nice and simple, no nonsense, because the word "paranormal" is nonsense enough for most people.

Go on and keep it, I have a ton. I don't get a lot of call for handing them out.

I still have most of a box of my original ones, which I like better. They say "Marnie Masterson Mystic." That's what it says on my Facebook page, because people who look for help on Facebook respond to a whole different set of cues than people who look for help in a business card. 

My professional page, I mean. My personal profile is under G. Marnier Masterson, because a vengeful ex reported that I was using a "fake name" and they only unlocked it when I sent them a copy of my ID and agreed to change my name to something that more closely matched it.

I'm not sure, as I tell you this, why I've never just got a legal name change. I don't know. Maybe if it had occurred to me while Mom was still around, I would have. 

Anyway.

So, when it started, Facebook denied that their system had been compromised, but they also swore up and down that what was happening was impossible to explain by any other means. That was the thing that got my attention. When stuff happens that the very smart, very connected people insist is not possible according all the laws of God and man, my ears perk up.

I got my first firsthand look at a case when a grief counselor I know referred a family to me. I say grief counselor... that's what it said on her door, but really, Gemma's more of an exorcist. When someone dies, it's not always the survivors who need to learn how to let go. She gets regular clients, I'm sure, but most of her business is referrals from other counselors. 

See, when Little Timmy can't accept that Grandpa Mike is dead and gone because he still sees him sitting in his favorite chair and nothing else works, she'll go and talk to Grandpa Mike. Help him realize he's dead, if he doesn't get it, and make him see what he's doing to his family if he does. Reassure him, help him resolve any issues. Help him move on. 

I guess that's what therapists do, isn't it? Broadly? Help people move on.

So she had a client who was upset because her mother, who had died months ago, was posting on her Facebook wall and she thought she was going crazy because she was sure it was real, that it was really her mother. 

By this time the mainstream media had caught on to the existence of the phenomenon and the prevailing theory -- based on expert text analysis of the posts and comparison to the previous postings under the same names -- was that someone was training a neural net to imitate people based on years of social media activity. Their writing style, their behavior. If your Great-Aunt Imelda posted her Google searches on her own wall and private messages to you on your wall, ImeldaBot would do the exact same thing in exactly her voice. 

That was what everybody said was happening. They just argued over whether it was an undocumented feature being tested by Facebook, or Russian bots sowing chaos, or trolls from the dark web, or a top-secret government program. 

No one seriously thought it was the dead coming back for one last comment on their grandkids' pictures, though. That was obviously impossible. Who could believe it?

It's the kind of explanation that makes everybody happy except for the people who know why it wouldn't work... yeah, don't get all hot, I know. I'm not saying I believe it. Trust me, I know better.

So the woman who did believe it sought therapy, because even though she believed it she knew how it sounded, and she was referred to my friend Gemma, who referred her to me after she couldn't make any headway.

In all the months since the whole thing started, no one that I'd heard of had ever found a solution beyond deleting the memorial page, which no one liked to do but it was the only thing that had worked. Therapy didn't. That was the one thing that stopped me from thinking we were dealing with a mass haunting of the internet. Most people who die just move on. Even most people who don't do so immediately do so shortly thereafter. Confrontations sometimes worked, especially when done by a skilled individual.

But I had not yet located a case of a Facebook revenant who moved on without being deleted, and my Gemma's efforts had been in vain.

Some people think that the supernatural is not logical; that if it does not obey the laws of science, it must be illogical. But logic is a matter of premises. If your premises are wrong, all the logic in the world won't get you to the right conclusion. If you start from the right premise, even magic is logical.

Spirits of the dead tend to move on. Whatever awaits us after death has a pull on our souls like gravity. If a spirit doesn't move on, then something is keeping it here.

And as soon as I thought about that, I knew what was going on and I knew how to fix it. The answer to the most pressing problem facing a multibillion dollar multinational corporation, and I had it. Can you imagine?

Hold on, I'm getting there. 

See, the only problem was I couldn't tell them, not in a way that they would believe and not in a way that would get me paid. They would never give me money up front. I'd sound crazy. And even if my solution worked... I mean, from their end they couldn't even prove the thing was happening. They could see the end results but nothing in their servers, nothing in their philosophy, nothing in their whole theory of reality could account for it. 

If it suddenly stopped happening, how could they be sure what had caused it? How could they be sure it was even done happening? There was no rhyme or reason to it. It wasn't like it affected every account. What if it went quiet for a week and they paid my fee and then it all started up again?

Occupational hazard of working with the paranormal: even when you deliver exactly what you said you would, people get angry and call you a fraud. Maybe especially when you deliver. Oh, the real phonies will string people along for years, decades, lifetimes, always holding out hope and promising results are just around the corner. They're smarter than I am. They know that once they solve the problem their marks have no more need to believe.

So, there was no logical way for me to either convey the solution to them in a way they would believe it, nor for me to get paid. 

I care more about the latter than the former, because honestly, the dead aren't hurting anyone. As far as I am concerned, if people could get over the shock and accept what's happening as genuine, then Facebook would have a new feature to advertise. 

Forget social media, they'd be the first social medium. 

And maybe we'd all be moving into a bold new realm of intellectual inquiry, one where people could maybe get paid for doing magic.

But on the other hand... a lot of people are scared and confused, and maybe that isn't, historically, the best backdrop against which a woman can make a living practicing  the mystic arts.

So I passed up on angling for a real share of Facebook's billions and had my friend put together as many grieving families as she could find who would offer a fee to put their loved ones to rest. A drop in the bucket, but my solution has to be all or nothing. So most of the grieving families and Facebook and whatever sap they put in charge of fixing this would get a freebie.

But that's okay. I'm a giving person.

Where was I? Okay. Right. So, I realized right away that there's no logical way for me, an obvious crackpot, to get the answer into the hands of anyone who could use it. 

I mean, unless I could arrange to be sitting at the very bar where the harried and beleaguered network engineer who was charged with finding a solution to this yesterday would impulsively decide to go when he was at his wit's ends. I'd have to be some kind of psychic or witch to even know that, obviously, much less wind up with an open seat next to me right at the moment he looked for one.

But you know, if that happened, I could start talking to him about Facebook's problem, and about my background in magic, and grief and moving on. I could explain how ghosts don't want to stick around, how even though we cling to life with both hands while we have it, something changes when we die and ultimately we all just want to move on, and we all will unless something keeps us here.

I might mention how some people believe that a person doesn't truly die until their memory fades and how memorials do keep a part of us around, in a sense. I might talk about how Facebook itself is engineered to be the perfect spirit trap, an endless parade of unfinished business designed to pull your attention back just when it starts to slip away, a repository of graven images and people invoking our names.

People put themselves into those pages, you know, bit by bit. They pour their hearts and souls into them. 

And then they die, and Facebook freezes that page in amber, and they're trapped with it.

Oh, it's a fanciful notion, alright. But you can't deny that nothing has fixed the problem except deleting the pages. Oh, no, you're right. There was one case. When they had that outage a few weeks ago and the whole site went down? When it came back up, everybody thought the problem was fixed, because none of the ghost accounts were posting anymore. 

But then new ones showed up, and the whole thing started up again. 

So maybe it's nonsense, but if it's not, that would be the solution, wouldn't it? A brief and temporary interruption. A respectful pause. A gap in continuity between when the living page goes offline and the memorial comes back on. Say maybe an hour. An hour for the dead to move on.

Oh, you could sell it -- generic "you", obviously, I know you don't work for Facebook personally -- but if you did, you could sell it as time to prepare the memorial. If somebody makes the obvious connection you could explain it as an extra step to make sure the profile remains secure. 

You wouldn't even be lying.

I mean, if you were the one who was in charge of finding a solution, you might have a hard time selling your bosses or your co-workers on it, but I think you'd all have to basically be at the "willing to try anything" point right now, and anyway, aren't there a whole host of problems that can be solved in I.T. by turning something off and turning it back on again? Same principle. The bad stuff piles up. You need to lay the ghosts in the machine to rest.

That used to happen regularly, whether you wanted to or not. I remember the bad old days where growing pains meant it seemed like all the social media sites were down as often as they were up. Regular downtime for maintenance, or the whole thing would crash anyway.

But now it's uptime, uptime, uptime. Twenty-four access for a twenty-four hour world. No rest for the wicked. No sleep for the dead.

Anyway. Listen to me, going on and on about my weird pet theories and I haven't even asked you what you do for a living. That's okay. You really don't have to tell me.

Hey, I'm just about finished here but I'm just going to leave this card, okay? Because if for whatever reason you see cause to believe I know what I'm talking about, maybe there'll come a time when you have another use for my expertise.

You know, maybe you want to buy me my drink after all. If you want to settle up for me... hey, maybe I'm a little psychic after all, because I had a feeling you might. Keep that card.

I'll be seeing you.