by Holden Molotsky
C:\Users\[REDACTED]>chkdsk /r c:
crap coming out of the speakers?” I had to fight with the howl of summer air at sixty miles an hour as we coasted down the One. The sea was a crystalline sheet of glittering, writhing shapes, and the sun hovered over us like an operating room lamp. At times I was blinded by the glint coming off the huge metallic desalination plants that lined the unused or re-appropriated beaches.
Kate glanced at me in the rearview, smiling bright. Framed by her obsidian hair, whipped in every conceivable direction, her face had the luminosity of a dark star. “It’s classic rock, and I’ll have you know that it’s quite fucking good.”
“‘Good’ is a relative term. Completely subjective.”
“You know exactly where you can put your subjectivity.” Her words radiated outwards, trying desperately to attain escape velocity, only to be lost in the deep void of Southern California air. Luckily my ears caught them first. Sensory organs are good like that.
I did, in fact, know precisely what to do with my subjectivity. Kate and I had had this exact conversation on several occasions. Maybe in some parallel universe there are versions of us that never dated, and thus never had our infamous discourse on the nature of subjectivity. I pitied those other-selves. I’d rather be a vegetable.
A mile and a half down the road Kate pulled car into a public lot, finding a space between a pickup of obnoxious size and a jeep, sans doors. Kate’s sundress flowed in the light breeze coming off the Pacific. Ari wore board shorts, old school California sandals and a white tee with the logo of a surf shop printed in front. I always wondered why he wore that stuff, considering he had never surfed in his life despite growing up a stone’s throw from Malibu. Whenever I gave the matter any thought, such as that moment, I came to the conclusion that if it didn’t matter to Ari it didn’t matter to me.
I have something of a beachgoing ritual. I always put on sunscreen first, without fail. I then kick off my shoes and grab a can of beer from the cooler. Today’s choice was a light session ale brewed with “Malibu Fresh Water!” By the time I popped the tab on the can my chair had finished unfolding itself. I took exactly three sips in as many heartbeats, letting out a sharp breath after each. After the third sip I poured one more out onto the beach, the patch of sand darkening as it absorbed the liquid. I had watched my grandfather do the same thing as a kid, at beaches, parks, backyard gatherings, parking lots before Eagles games. When I asked him about it, he said it was something he had picked up while stationed overseas, that he did it out of respect for people he had lost. I started doing it after he died, his rough, stony face with the bushy gray beard always the first one I pictured. Kate and Ari always make fun of me for it and call it obsessive, but they don’t know why I do it. There’s a certain pleasure in the tedium of doing the same thing every time, without fail. Like a trick a man could use to fool himself into believing that there are constants in the universe. It’s a comforting thought.
Ari was settling himself into his own chair, beer in one hand and handscreen in the other. At any given time, his device was loaded with hundreds of terabytes of books, movies, and shows that he could indulge himself in whenever he liked. He had everything from literary classics, to the epic fantasies of Tolkien and Erikson, 1960s French noir to late-career Tarantino—a bold choice among film buffs. But at the beach it was always a book.
Kate took off her sundress, revealing a bikini whose color matched her hair. She probably knew that I was staring at her; when we were together she could always sense when I was looking at her. She had liked it, then. Not so sure about now. But if she did feel my gaze on her she said nothing. I was somewhat grateful for that.
“So when will you be back?” It was Ari, the first time he’d talked since we left my house an hour ago. He was normally quiet, so the fact that he was talking meant that he hadn’t started reading yet.
“A couple weeks at the latest,” I replied. I took a swig of beer. The chill contrasted perfectly with the summer heat. My muscles loosened, relaxed in anticipation of the coming buzz. “I hope this whole thing doesn’t take too long. I can’t stand the weather over there.”
Ari chuckled and sipped at his own beer. “You’ve turned into a true California boy, haven’t you?” He was completely deadpan.
“Lived here long enough, I guess.” The beer was cheap but did the trick. “You can take the boy out of Philly…” “Yeah, well, maybe you need to absorb some of the cold back into your bones while you’re over there.”
“Says the guy who’s never seen a snowstorm.”
“Take some flax seed with you while you’re at it. Wouldn’t want you to go into withdrawal.” He smirked.
“That was one time,” I said, feigning righteous indignation. “Fuck me for wanting to add a little nutrition to my smoothie, right?”
He laughed before turning to his handscreen to select a book.
“Just come back in one piece, okay?” Kate said from off to our left. She was sitting upright on a sprawled-out towel, rubbing sunscreen into her arms, eyes hidden behind her sunglasses. “I hear the east coast can be rough.”
I smiled, shrugged. “I’ll try.”
Of course it’s raining. It always has to rain when I come here. Gray, wet, and miserable. The set of circumstances that led me to this place, to this moment, are as bleak as the ancient mausoleums that surround me. Not because I’m particularly sad. Mostly because I don’t want to be here, with these people. They remind me of a darker time. I look at them and see visions of myself crawling neon-lit streets in a haze of dopesmoke, toking in a back alley off South Street as death metal blasted around the corner, of a crushing weight on my chest and the familiar scent of futility
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba.
The rabbi intones the Mourner’s Kaddish. I have never been very religious. It just never clicked with me, chanting words in an ancient language to some invisible man in the sky. But for all my skepticism, these words that the rabbi spoke over the dead struck a chord. Each syllable carried with it a thousand generations of sorrow. Pain, longing, broken bloodlines.
B’alma di v’ra chirutei.
The words were supposed to create a sense of togetherness. Collective mourning. Comfort in the fact that we are all here grieving together. I stand behind the crowd gathered at the gravestone. Present, yet utterly absent. These are old friends and family. I recognize almost everyone here.
And I feel nothing for any of them. Not even the dead mother in the casket. To me it’s just a corpse. Is that cold? Does that make me a terrible person? Son? Grandson?
Do I care?
Even before I left here a few years ago, I never had much of a relationship with any of them. We would see each other at family gatherings, for Passover and the High Holidays, the occasional weekend dinner. The questions were always the same. Never an ounce of genuine interest.
Uv’chayei d’chol beit Yisrael.
I can just barely see the casket through the crowd. Certainly not cheap, made of a fine mahogany. Not the most expensive thing in the world but that was good. It was probably too much for her anyway. I can’t help but wonder who managed to pay for it.
One of them turns around, as though she can feel my gaze. It’s my grandmother, father’s side. We haven’t spoken in almost three years. There are tears in her eyes.I don’t know why. She gives me a small, sorrowful smile before she turns back to the casket and the rabbi.
Baagla uviz’man kariv. V’im’ru: Amen.
I try to feel something other than genuine relief. I fail. What does that say about her? What does that say about me? What kind of person feels nothing at the death of a parent? The feeling simply isn’t there. I can’t help it.
Once, when I was very young, I became seriously ill. Or at least I thought I had, but that was enough for her. She had me sent to every specialist in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and New York. No one had the slightest clue what was wrong with me. I remember one day when I got so sick, or she told me I was so sick, that I took a helicopter ride to New York. I thought it was fun; my father did not. Eventually we ended up at a GI specialist who diagnosed me with a toxic megacolon and Hirschsprung’s disease. This resulted, at my mother’s insistence, in the complete removal of my colon and a significant portion of the large intestine. I nearly died during the procedure.
I was five years old.
There was nothing wrong with me.
When my name was called they led me to an examination room. The nurse ran through her routine: blood pressure cuffs choking off my circulation; the tap tap tap of her fingernail as she prepped the otoscope; “Say ahhh,” followed by the taste of dry wood and pressure on my tongue. She had some paperwork for me to sign, too.
“This is industry standard,” she said, handing me a folder thick with pamphlets and waivers. “I can answer any questions you have.”
I looked through the folder at the various papers calling for my signature. “Liability waivers?”
“In the event of an unforeseen complication,” she said, nodding. “We cannot be held liable, as this is a voluntary procedure.”
That was not comforting in the least. “Okay, but if something does go wrong, how are you not responsible? You guys are the ones doing the operation.”
Her face was blank, no hint of what she was thinking. She had probably been coached to handle people like me, people with too many questions: get them to sign the waiver and get on with it, or get them out. “Unfortunately, we require all patients to sign the waivers before continuing with the procedure. If you would like to opt out, you may do so now.” Perfectly diplomatic.
I shrugged, sighed, and signed the waiver.
The nurse brightened. “Excellent,” she said, collecting my paperwork. “Now, let’s go over some of the side effects from receiving the implant.”
Now she tells me.
“First, the implant is designed to store memory data. This means that, upon installation of the device, your memories will be downloaded and stored to the device’s internal drive. While this is happening, you may experience…,” she hesitated slightly, looking for the right words that would not send me running for the door. “You may experience certain sensory hallucinations. These may include, but are not limited to, visual, aural, and olfactory hallucinations. It is important to remember that these are not real sensations, merely echoes of things you have previously experienced.”
“What if there are certain things I don’t want to remember? Can we just ignore those?”
She smiled that empty, condescending smile adults use when talking to a child who just doesn’t understand. “Unfortunately, there is currently no way to selectively filter out memories. It’s an all or nothing deal.”
“So, what made you come in today? If you don’t mind me asking.”
I paused for a moment, struggling to form a coherent sentence out of the raging storm of thoughts in my head. It took longer than I thought.
The nurse had stopped filling out my paperwork at some point and was just looking at me. She didn’t react to anything I had said; her face was completely unreadable. I noticed for the first time how deeply blue her eyes were, how her blonde hair made me think of the yellowed soccer fields at home in Autumn. There was no romantic attraction, though she was certainly pretty. Instead it was more of a comforting feeling.
“Sorry,” I said, breaking eye contact. I felt embarrassed. “That was probably TMI.”
She just smiled. “It’s okay. I’ve had patients tell me much worse in the exam room.” She set her clipboard, with all of my paperwork attached, on the counter beside her. “Can I ask whose funeral you’re attending? It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it. But I get the feeling you do.”
I gave a small, rather pathetic nod. My eyes could meet only the tiled floor. “My mother,” I said.
I heard a sharp intake of breath from her direction. “I’m so sorry.”
Again, I shook my head. “No need.” My voice had become quieter. This all would have been easier if she had never existed. “We didn’t exactly have a great relationship.”
“Still, losing a parent must be hard. I can’t even imagine how you must feel.”
The air circulator kicked in again and I felt a rush of that cool, sterile air hit me like a wave. If only I could have packaged that stuff, taken it with me, used it to cleanse the badness from my mind.
“I can’t either. Hey, what’s your name?”
She smiled that comforting smile. “Amy.”
“Hi Amy. I’m–”
*.exe – application error
The instruction at 0x00007ffee39ecc60 referenced memory at
0x0000000000000000. The memory could not be read.
She was worse than normal. Drunk, as usual on a Friday night. Though lately it was becoming typical for her to be drunk during the week. Or whenever she felt like it. I started running through escape strategies, but it was too early to tell which one would be most effective. For the time being I settled into my default, head-down-and-quiet mode. Avoiding detection was the first step to survival.
She was yelling at me about something. Something I didn’t care about. I was sitting at the kitchen table with my handscreen watching streams. It was late and I was just trying to be at peace, trying to enjoy my days off from the graveyard shift at the airport. Instead what I get is this dragon screaming in my ear about how my father is an asshole who can’t be bothered to pay for some bullshit or another. As always, I sat there, trying not to listen but she has this incredible talent for piercing through whatever it is you’re trying to do. And, as always, because I had to listen to it, I felt a rage mounting in me that caused my hands to shake and my furious blood to pump.
Until I reach critical mass.
“Can you stop?” I snapped. “I’m trying to watch something.”
“Don’t you dare,” she said in that overly dramatic tone, her face flushed red with intoxication and anger and whatever else, “Speak to me like that.”
“I’m just trying to relax on my day off and watch something. I really don’t care to hear your opinions about Dad.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said with mockery and venom. She took a sip of wine. “I didn’t mean to speak poorly about your perfect father.”
Every. Fucking. Time. Time to implement the Calm Down protocol. Deep breath, clear the head, don’t respond. I tried. I really did.
This time, though, something snapped. Maybe it was the stress of putting up with her for twenty-something years. Even a strong foundation is bound to crack a little under the pressure. So, it came out, unfiltered, unrelenting.
“You know what?” Damn, I was loud. “Fuck you. All the fucking time I have to listen to this bullshit, ‘Dad is an asshole,’ ‘You only like your father because he has money.’ Meanwhile you sit here on the fucking couch all day smoking cigarettes and getting plastered while he actually works for a fucking living.”
She stopped everything. She just sat there on the couch looking at me. I knew it was a mistake as it was happening, but it couldn’t be helped any longer.
“Maybe if you weren’t such a goddamn narcissist,” I snapped, “you would realize that maybe some of this is your fault and you’d take some fucking responsibility. But no, everything is his fault, he’s the liar and the bastard and the deadbeat. I’m sick of hearing this shit. Just fucking stop, stop badgering me about this stuff, please. That’s all I want.” I collapsed my head into my hands. I was spent.
“You ungrateful little shit,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “You think that I badger you? After everything I’ve done for you? After your grandparents signed off on a thirty thousand dollar loan for you to go to school that you pissed away?”
I said nothing and walked toward the stairs. “Where are you going?” I ignored her. I got to my room and took my backpack and a duffle bag out of the closet. I filled the duffle with as many clothes as I could reasonably fit without busting the zipper. My backpack I filled with my laptop, my phone charger, There wasn’t time to take anything else. I grabbed my wallet and keys from the desk. Time to go.
When I got back to the ground floor I went into the kitchen to grab my handscreen. She saw the bags. “Where the fuck do you think you’re going?”
“Out of here. Away from you.”
“Fine. Go live with your father. See if I fucking care.” She rose a couple octaves. The waterworks were coming, I could tell. Sad Drunk was coming. “Tell him how horrible I am, that I’m a fucking terrible mother.”
I made for the door, but stopped before I turned the handle. I turned around to face her again. “You’re supposed to love me,” I said, calm and quiet. “I don’t have room in my life for someone like you. Someone who speaks to me the way you do. Honestly, if I could forget you ever existed, I’d probably be better off for it.” I opened the door, walked out, and made for my car. Shut it behind me. I could hear her wailing from inside. She never held back when she felt like crying.
That was the last time I ever saw her. The last time I ever spoke to her.
An occasional irritation, the doctors had told me. Nothing too serious. Despite their assurances, some days it felt like having a tiny bug that lives behind your eye, and most of the time you forget he’s there but every so often he makes his presence known, biting and clawing away at the optic nerve. An itch that was impossible to scratch.
IBS called it the “New and Improved!” version. —that one blew out people’s eyes. Literally. During the initial phase of alpha testing, in which IBS offered parole-eligible prisoners the chance to try new tech in exchange for a full bank account on release, some of the testers’ eyeballs burst out of their skulls in a shower of blood and viscera and dangling nerves. Not exactly a strong selling point. The FDA was none too pleased, but they weren’t able to do much about it. IBS had enough financial backing and lobby support to get off light, promising to pay reparations to the victims’ families and establishing a fund for improving prison conditions. It turned out to be a solid PR move, and the Stod Act of 2037 established more rigorous testing procedures and regulations that eased the minds of most of the public. MIST 2.0 was supposed to have eliminated those issues. Like the doctors said, the worst side effect was the occasional itch. It would go away in time, even, as the body adjusted and accepted the device. So they say.
I tried my hardest not to scratch at the scar at the base of my skull, but sometimes temptations get the better of us. I knew I wasn’t supposed to do it but goddamn did it feel good. I had gotten the procedure two days before and the wound was still fresh.
I stood out in the cold across the street from baggage claim, waiting for the Airport Line train. I’d barely set foot in the city, and already I was done for the day. Coming back to Philadelphia was always an exercise in frustration and misery. I could have attributed the feeling to an early start that morning (what kind of monster gets up before eight?) or the pronounced lack of caffeine in my bloodstream. In the back of my brain, somewhere deep, I knew the real reason I felt so miserable. No matter how much I love that city, stepping off the jetway into terminal A and seeing the overcast sky outside, the despondent faces of the airport employees, gave me an overwhelming sense of dread.
Even so, part of me couldn’t help but reminisce over a childhood spent not far from here. The Birds at the Linc, summer heat and hot dogs at Phils games in July, cheesesteaks and Wawa and water ice down the shore. There were some bright, warm, happy memories here. Almost enough to outshine that one aching feeling in the base of my skull.
The train finally arrived, and I rode the familiar SEPTA line to 30th Street Station. It still had some of that ‘30s glamor, but was now overlaid with the undeniably modern. The stairs linking the platforms to the central grand hall had been completely renovated sometime in the last five years to make them look cleaner and well-maintained, but had managed to retain the coppery hue of early 20th-century aesthetics. The automatic sliding doors were a much more recent addition. Sleek flatscreens loomed over the info kiosk in the center of the cathedral-like main hall, displaying departure and arrival times. The towering, squared glass windows that lined each wall were covered in a rotating selection of holographic advertisements. The central hall echoed with the hustle and bustle of a still-crucial urban transit hub, the snippets of conversation and announcements amplified by the massive, open interior. An automated self-service station beside the entrance to each platform provided self-service ticket sales, route information, and passenger assistance. A friendly female voice perked up over the PA system with boarding times and station announcements. The place hardly needed humans to work it any more. An autonomous train station.
A chime sounded in my ear–no, my brain–reminding me of the numerous messages I had yet to respond to. I was still getting used to that. With handscreens I can just put the thing into vibrate mode, or better yet mute it entirely. Every now and then a guy just needs some time unplugged, away from the constant contact of the grind. But the implant knew better. I supposed I couldn’t put them off any longer. I looked up toward the ceiling, which brought up the implant’s in-eye HUD. The left half of my vision showed three missed vidcalls and a scroll of text transmissions. The vids were from Kate and Ari, while the missions, six or seven of them, were from work. I called Kate first.
“Finally,” was her greeting, beamed directly to my auditory cortex. “I was getting worried. Thought you might’ve gotten sucked into a black hole.”
“No such luck,” I said, feigning disappointment.
“Make it there okay?”
“Still in one piece, I think. Though I might have lost a little sanity on the way.”
I heard a sigh come from her end. “I know going back there is hard for you. How’re you holding up?”
I took a moment. How did I feel? Losing a parent is supposed to be difficult. “Alright I guess, all things considered.”
“You can talk to me, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. Thanks.” A warm, comforting glow took root in the barrows of my body. A thought occurred to me. “Want to grab coffee when I get back?”
I listened to the dead signal for a few moments, surrounded by noise but taking comfort in silence. Standing in the heart of the city brings back a host of emotions I had worked long and hard to repress. Memories surface. Not the kind that are a pleasure to relive, either.
When I was five years old I became a Power Ranger.
I was sitting on the couch in the living room of our tiny two-story town house somewhere in South Jersey. We didn’t have a backyard, or much of a front yard for that matter, but it was still a nice place to live. There were trees everywhere, a strip mall with a pizza place and a Chinese restaurant and the preschool I went to. There was a lovely elderly couple across the street who adored me and made me snickerdoodles at least once a week. All in all it wasn’t a terrible place to live.
On that day I was full of pain and confusion. My body hurt and I knew something was wrong with it, something wasn’t quite right. Dad asked me what was wrong but I couldn’t explain it. All I knew was that there was something wrong with my gut, and I knew this because the pain was sharp and vicious. So I sat there on the couch, with the back of my head resting against the cushions, as my parents paced frantically back and forth in the kitchen, on the phone with Nanny and Bubbe and whomever else they decided to call in the midst of a crisis.
Sometime later, I’m not sure how long it had been, the Power Rangers came. It was a glorious spectacle for a five year old, especially one who so idolized and looked up to these teenaged heroes. I always watched the show on TV when it was on, and I owned all the games for our Mac, and Dad had even managed to get tickets to the one-off stage show in New York. When the movies came out a few years later I was first in line to see them. So, yeah, one could say that I really loved the Power Rangers.
They burst through the windows in a mesmerizing shower of shattered glass. I was transfixed, utterly captured in the moment of their grand entrance. Through the broken windows I could hear the deep humming of what must have been their Megazord, which was odd because it sounded like it had a helicopter rotor attached to it. They were so graceful, too: in true Mighty Morphin’ style, they did backflips and somersaults and always landed on their feet, striking a mean pose. If Rita Repulsa had been in that room when the Rangers came to rescue me, she would have cowered in fear.
One of them, I think it was the Pink Ranger, dramatically pointed at me with a white-gloved hand. “Hey, kid! We heard you need help!” Her head bobbed as she spoke, not quite in sync with the words she was saying. It felt just like the show.
I stared at her, dumbfounded. My body was still a mess of pain, my brain still trying to make sense of what was happening, but I managed to nod at Kimberly the Pink Ranger. “Okay! Let’s get you strapped in!”
The door opened forcefully as Jason the Red Ranger and Billy the Blue Ranger came in pushing a stretcher. I thought it was a little odd for the Rangers to have a stretcher with them, since I had never seen them use one in the show, but I was far from the proper state of mind to question their rescue methods.
The next thing I knew I was being lifted up from the couch and onto the stretcher by Zach the Black Ranger and Trini the Yellow Ranger. They were all shouting encouragements at me, like “You’re gonna be fine!” and “You’re with the Rangers now, the putties can’t get you any more!” I have to admit, it made me feel better as I felt the velcro straps closing over my wrists and ankles and chest. The Rangers made the whole thing a lot less scary.
And then we were outside, and I could see the Megazord that looked a lot like a helicopter, with odd markings that didn’t seem like they belonged to the Power Rangers. But it was okay, because I was with them, and I knew that nothing bad would happen to me while they were around. So they loaded me up into the Megazord, and when they put a mask over my face that blasted air into me I didn’t try to fight it. I could see in the pilot seat that Tommy the Green Ranger was driving the thing, and that caused an instant surge of relief. The Green Ranger was my favorite (next to the Pink Ranger, of course) and the fact that he was here meant that everything really would be fine.
The Pink Ranger was crouched over me as the Megazord lifted off of the ground. I looked up at her. I was getting groggy. I could feel myself starting to slip off into sleep, but I couldn’t. Not yet. There was something important I needed to ask them, and it couldn’t wait. “Can I be a Power Ranger?”
Kimberly laughed in surprise, one of those half-laughs that someone makes when they’re also about to cry. Her eyes looked a little red. She must have taken her helmet off at some point. I could see a tear start to fall down her cheek, but I had no idea why she might be sad. She patted me on the head, stroked my hair a little bit. “Of course you can,” she said, but her voice was different than it had been in the house. It was heavier, sadder.
I managed a little nod, finally letting my eyes close. I felt several sets of hands on me, rubbing my head and checking the security of the mask thing. I drifted off to sleep.
That was the day I became a Power Ranger.
Fresh coffee scorched my tongue and palate. A burnt mouth was not going to make the impending conversation any easier. Advice for the future: don’t try to calm yourself with stimulants.
A sharp gust of cool morning air hit me as the door opened. She walked into the shop with a brisk stride, obviously aware that she was running late. Exactly how late she was I couldn’t be sure of; it felt like hours, could have been minutes. The rising sun served as her backdrop. I shivered, and reached out in desperation for another sip of hot coffee. It was absolute bliss.
Tea was her drink of choice; she didn’t like coffee much. Which is ironic, considering how often we used to go out for coffee. Eventually she looked in my direction, as though just at that moment remembering that we were supposed to meet here. We made eye contact, I smiled. I hoped she couldn’t tell that my heart was running a marathon. She smiled back, and I like to think there was the faintest hint of nervousness underneath its warmth. For some reason the thought was comforting. Finally, drink in hand, she took her seat across from me.
We stared at each other for an eternity. Empires, entire civilizations, rose and fell and rose again and died in nuclear holocaust in those precious moments. Galaxies heaved their bulks across the infinite void of extragalactic space, stars were born and grew and died in glorious novae. Her eyes contained a thousand tiny universes full of hope and dread.
“Hey,” I said, more a choked-off breath than a spoken word. I threw my whole weight behind it.
“Hey,” she said, and her voice was like music. Soft, melodic, meaningful. I was lost in it.
“Thanks for coming,” I said, searching for anything to break the silence.
“Of course.” She looked down at her coffee.
Again, silence. Painful silence. I sat there in an awkward ball of anxiety until I could no longer bear it. “So, I just need to know,” I started, hesitant. “I just–It sucked. Three months of not talking to you flat out sucked. I hated it. And finally I decided, hey, I really miss this girl.”
She smiled, still avoiding my eyes.
“So I guess I just need to know if the door is still open? Like, we kind of left things open ended. At least from my perspective they were open ended. So I just need to know, one way or the other.” There. It was out. I sat back, expecting the worst. A clean break: Fuck you, we’re done, I don’t want to talk to you again. At least then it would be final.
“Honestly,” she began, “No.” She wrung her hands together.
There it was. Dagger to the heart. No more need to worry.
“I need to be my number one priority right now. A relationship just isn’t in the cards for me.”
I had expected to be wounded by this outcome. I had run through all of the possible scenarios in my head, and this was the one that was supposed to be the most painful. But, in a startling twist even to myself, I felt a surge of calm. It was like a burning hole in the center of my self had been filled with cool water. I had no other way of explaining it. It just felt right.
“Honestly,” I said, breathing easier. “I think I’m okay with that.”
A dull throb began at the base of my skull, where the chip was. Before long it had blossomed into a full blown ache and metastasized like a cancer, spreading through the rest of my head. I massaged a temple, trying to relieve at least some of the pain. A futile effort.
With a deft flick of the eyeball up and to the right I brought up the text mission interface. I typed out–no, thought out, I have to get used to that–a quick message to Kate. “Did you say ‘L-V- Y–’.” The letters flickered as they appeared on the HUD at the same time that my mildly inconveniencing headache erupted into a debilitating migraine. What I thought I had type-thought not only was not present in the text field, it physically hurt me to think about it. As if my brain were trying to force itself to believe something that it knew was impossible.
I remember everything.
I remember the way it felt when I fell on my bike, and the little pebble that had cut through the tire of my 3-speed sent me reeling, and the feeling of dizziness and flight I felt as I landed on the cement, the hard ground that I had been riding over, and the way that stupid fucking pebble ended up lodged in my knee, blood oozing out around it, and how I had to pull the pebble out slowly because I didn’t know if I had just ripped through a tendon or something. Actually I’m not sure thinking back that I even knew what a tendon was at that point, I was only maybe 10 or 11, I guess, and the bike was a red, white, and blue 3 speed that I’d gotten for my birthday, and the pebble came out and it was covered in my own blood and specks of dirt, and when I looked at my knee I could tell something was really fucked up because there was this little white stalk sticking out that wasn’t bone, and wasn’t flesh, and wasn’t bloody, and even though I was obviously pretty hurt it didn’t seem all that bad, didn’t seem all that painful, even, or bloody, as I sat there, and even as I saw the sky darkening above me and I wondered how long it would take me to walk home from here since my stupid bike was now pretty well fucked up, it occurred to me that I was probably going to get rained on and at this time of year it would likely include some pretty horrific wind and thunder as well. And when I stood up, and looked down at the hole in my knee where I’d ripped out the pebble, and I saw that little stalk of white sticking out of my knee, the ripple of fear that went through me was not that I was going to get in trouble for screwing up my brand new bike, or that I’d arrive home 45 minutes later than I was supposed and get screamed at for not showing up on time and scaring my batshit crazy mother–the ripple of fear that went through me like a wave was something much deeper, that at the time I really couldn’t even understand very well, but I knew that it was related to that bloody, open wound on my knee that would have to be closed up, would have to be mended somehow, and that little white stalk sticking up out of the open gash, which at the time my fifth grade biology lessons told me could only be one thing: a severed nerve.
I would never feel anything in my right knee again after that. It’s still numb.
I remember everything.
. It was neon sensory overload, and it was the best feeling. We walked hand in hand through the indoor space, utterly enraptured by the sounds and smells. Grilled steak sandwiches, roast beef, subs, pastries. They hit us all at once, an unrelenting assault. Her hand in mine felt real. Tangible. To this day I can feel her soft skin, the solid mass of her bones.
“Can we get cheesesteaks?” She tugged at my hand.
I smiled. “Of course, babe.”
We walked over to Covino’s at the west end of the terminal. It was our favorite spot for steak sandwiches. The sizzle of the grill was met with the aroma of the thin-sliced steak, the grilled onions, the melted cheese. I approached the counter and ordered two American, with. The cook nodded without looking up from his grill, slicing the meat into thin strips. It was a divine Philadelphia ritual preserved through time.
I paid the cashier and we stood off to the side waiting for our order. The music in the terminal changed and she started dancing with the rhythm. She moved to the thump of the bass, letting her black hair swirl around her in chaos.
“You actually like this stuff?” I said.
as the temp increased. “So what if I do?”
“It’s not good. I mean, it’s just a bunch of bass overlaid with synthesizers. There’s no artistry to it.”
“Music is subjective, you know.”
“Yes, but this is objectively bad.”
“Maybe you’re just objectively bad.” The song ended, and she gave one last twirl. She looked up at me, playful. “You have terrible taste in music. That death metal shit you listen to? It’s so old. And angry.”
I laughed and stuck my tongue out at her. “Yeah, well, music is subjective. And it’s not death metal. It’s Norwegian black metal. There’s a difference.”
Pixels started to die en masse. The structure that held up the chip’s interface, all of those millions of lines of code, every last bit and integer and function call, disintegrating. The migraine was so intense that it felt hot, a searing pain. My hand reached automatically for the surgical scar, at which time I discovered that there was real heat coming from the implant. It was overheating itself. In my head. Inside of me.
Then the things I was seeing were neither from the HUD nor in any physical space in front of me. I was seeing scenes, like an old movie reel clattering away in my head. Memories, because of course the thing stored memories. It had nearly unlimited storage space and tapped into the grey matter of the brain; of course it would store a person’s memories.
Hadn’t they told me that? When I got the damned thing?
I don’t know any more.
Black smoke filled the chill night air, filled my lungs. Its thickness induced fits of coughing as my body tried to expel the wispy remnants of history. I could taste the burning wood, a smoky pine that was both foreign and familiar. I knew the wood was local, came from the surrounding pine forests. This thing that was burning, this thing that was dying in front of me, had stood here for centuries. Nearly a thousand years. A thousand years of foreign oppression and lost pride.
The thing was a church. A stave church, to be exact, an unholy perversion of our noble bloodline. They built them from our wood, on top of our ancient temples. And then, as if that weren’t enough, they had the audacity to put dragonheads on them, as if to ward off the evil spirits of the old way. They took everything from us.
In a way, I suppose, burning the church was revenge. How else could I have fought back? Gone is the golden age of our ancestors, when we could take up the sword and set sail in our longships across the sea for plunder and renown. And, in any case, the fight is not on foreign shores. It is here, in our homeland. This land is ours by right, by blood.
I could see by the flickering light of the fire the bones of the church. It had been burning for a good while now and was beginning to fall in on itself. The tall spire, the one that reached toward God’s Kingdom in a cruel appropriation of the World-Tree, had already collapsed. Its broken husk now lay in the ruined sanctuary. These charred remains would be perfect to use as an album cover. I think I’ll call it “Ash.”
To crush the altars of the Christ God with his own house of worship would be a glorious victory.
I’m going to go to prison for this. No, wait, not for this. For something else. They will try to pin this on me, though, but I wasn’t here. I’m not here. I was never here.
No, I was here, I did this, but they won’t be able to prove it. I killed Øystein, that much they can prove, I admitted to it, but they can’t prove this. So what if I used a picture of the church for an album cover? Artistic license. Hell, Øystein took a picture of Dead’s shotgun-blasted corpse and used it for an album. How can this be any worse?
The trial will start on May 2, 1994. Nearly two years from now. Just a few weeks after that, I’ll be sentenced to twenty-one years. I won’t be the only one, though. Others will be on trial at the same time. I think Faust killed someone. Samoth burned churches with me. They will all serve time. They can lock us away for the rest of our lives. It won’t matter. Norway will remember us. The world will remember what we did. We said, loud and clear, that the Norsemen are alive. We will fight for our heritage.
“On June 6th, 1992, a small wooden church was burned to the ground outside of Bergen.”
I can hear myself saying it. The room is bright, an intense projector light shining in my eyes. I’m at a podium. Why am I here? Presenting my research. There are people here, looking at me, expecting me to be intelligent and coherent. What have I done to deserve this?
However insecure or anxious I feel, I can at least take comfort in the fact that I look good while I’m standing here. Kate took me shopping for “nice” clothes, since apparently band shirts and jeans are are not acceptable attire for an academic conference. We got a pair of beige slacks, a light blue button down shirt, and a vibrant, deep blue sport jacket that would not be out of place at a wedding. She is here, in the audience, looking at me with all of the encouragement she has within her.
“The churches were representations of the violent conquest of Christianity over the old pagan tradition,” I am saying, “and by burning them to the ground, the members of Norway’s black metal underground were making a grand statement of resistance against what they felt was an oppressive Eastern conqueror.” It’s pretty good, I have to admit.
The touch screen computers in the library are a wonder to behold. Some see them as redundant. Most of the library’s collection is digitized, and students can access everything on their handscreens or, now, through their MIST chips. Thousands of books, movies, articles, instantly downloadable into the brain. So, if we have such technology, why bother with print books anymore? Why have computers set up in the library when everyone has one in their hand or in their head? Sometimes a guy just wants an old school feel. To feel the haptic feedback of the LED keyboard as he types, to hold something tangible in his hands as he reads.
I look around at the people here in the library with me and I can’t help but wonder how many of them are actually here. Not physically, because obviously their bodies are here. Mentally, I mean. They sit here and type away or stare into space, reading whatever happens to be scrolling past their eyes on their HUDs, but are they really here? Are they living?
It’s no wonder that vinyl records are making their third resurgence in the last fifty years. There’s something about the feel of the music in your hands, the tangible sense that you possess that record, the crackle and the pops and the utterly flawed recording. It gives the experience an authenticity, a sense of reality that it might otherwise lack. When I listen to my first pressing of Dark Side of the Moon, a true retro classic, or my second reissue of Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger, nearly forty years old at this point, I feel the music in the earth. It reverberates through me and grounds me firmly in the real. Some people call it meatspace and want to transcend beyond their mortal coils. That’s all well and good, but I like being where I can feel things.
Tap, tap, tap goes the keyboard. The guy next to me is typing furiously, but I appreciate the fact that he is typing at all. His hair is close-cropped, with a little length left at the front. It’s an interesting style. Not one I would choose for myself, personally, but I suppose he pulls it off. True to form for the week before finals, he looks like he just rolled out of bed and threw on whatever clothes were on the floor closest to him: white undershirt, bright orange gym shorts. These are the fashion stylings of people who no longer care about their appearance.
It’s hard to think any more.
My vanilla latte is keeping me going, but just barely. I can feel myself fading, slipping out of this reality and into some other one where I don’t have a mountain of obligations and assignments to finish. That world sounds nice. It sounds like a place I would like to go to. I take the cup to my lips and drink in the sweet stimulation of caffeine. It tastes like burning wood, charred smoke and ash. It tastes like centuries of oppression and Italian hoagies lit by neon.
I miss her, even though I know she’s not far away. She leaves for home next week, and even though she won’t be far away I will miss her. It’s not something I can help, really. When my brain isn’t otherwise occupied by thinking about schoolwork, it is occupied by her. I think about her all the time; her striking symmetry, the deep icy blue of her eyes, the shirts she wears and her favorite dresses, her long hair and the way she plays with her piercings, the way she curls up on the couch when we stream to the wallscreen in my living room and the way she curls up in the passenger seat of my car reminds me of her scent and how it feels to hold her. I know these things are real, I can feel them in my soul, down deep where we hold things close to us. I know that they are happening now and I know that they have yet to pass.
I’m in the lecture hall, and she’s here congratulating me and smiling with pride. I take her hand and I’m buying her food at the night market in Norway, bit by the cold of winter, and I’m going to ask her on a date in two days. She’ll say yes.
Then she’s gone and I’m standing in a place that I know is my home but it looks like someone else’s. The walls are the wrong color and my shoes are under the bed instead of in the foyer but that doesn’t bother me so much. I walk outside into a field of ash and burning wood–
I can’t think anymore everything is so jumbled and I don’t know which way is now and which way is then and where is here and what is there I can’t feel my face or my hands or my anything where is my body what is this feeling that I can’t feel
My muscles seized. I couldn’t move. The last thing I remember before waking up in a hospital was my paralyzed body dropping to the floor, a sickening crunch as my head made contact with the floor.
Two weeks and a number of painkillers later, I was back in California. Ari would come by every couple of days to check in, watch a movie and hang out for a little while. Kate was with me every day. If it weren’t for the mild concussion and anti-seizure meds, those would have been the best days of my life. Engulfed in her presence, her familiar scent, the brilliant aroma of the chicken soup she made, and the sterile taste of rubbing alcohol in my mouth as the Phillies won the World Series.
Where am I?ABEND 0CB
Pop open the cooler, empty two bags of ice into it. Shove a six pack of our favorite beer at the moment inside, with some sodas and water for good measure. Everything has to be done just right. We don’t get to do this very often.
I’m just about to finish dumping the first bag of ice into the cooler when Ari pulls up in his old Honda Civic. To call it “old” is technically an insult to cars that are actually old. It seems old because he’s had that thing for as long as I’ve known him, and that’s a long time now. But it’s still newer than the majestic piece of vintage automobile that Kate will be driving us in.
He walks up to the front of the house with two six packs in hand. I raise an eyebrow in question.
“Given the circumstances, I thought you could use a little extra this time,” Ari says.
I pour the rest of the ice into the cooler. “You sure that’s not just an excuse for you to drink more than usual?”
“I’m always looking for an excuse to drink more than usual.” He sets both six packs down on the concrete, waiting for me to finish dumping the ice. He puts his hands in the pockets of his board shorts, which means he wants to talk about something that he knows might make me uncomfortable. I have an idea of what it might be but I let him start the conversation. “So,” he says, hesitant, treading carefully. “How are things with you and Kate?”
I honestly can’t blame him for being a little concerned. The three of us have been friends for ages. When Kate and I started dating, there was always the threat implicit in the backs of our minds that if we broke up, the three of us might not be friends anymore.
So when we broke up, things were a little strained.
Now, though, it’s different. We spent some time apart, not talking, and that was difficult for the both of us. “We talked it out,” I say. “We know how we feel about each other. There might be something there in the future, I don’t know, neither of us knows really. But for right now I’m happy with where we are.”
The sigh that escapes Ari’s lips is like a gas valve at critical pressure finally getting relieved. “That’s, um,” he starts, clearly at a loss for words. Sentimental stuff really isn’t his strong point. “That’s really good to hear. I’m relieved. For you guys, obviously.”
I pat him on the shoulder. “The two of you are my best friends. No matter what happens with Kate and
He smiles. “Thanks, man.”
“I meant to ask, how’s that MIST thing?”
He reaches up to touch the back of his neck, almost instinctively. “Honestly,” he says, his tone growing somber, “it’s great. I’m finding things that I didn’t even know I remembered. And I can visit places. Any time I want, I can go back to the pier with my mom. I can help my dad fix his car. It’s like they’re still here, and with me all the time. Just in my head.”
“Wow,” was all I managed. “That sounds incredible. I can’t even imagine what that’s like.” Except that I could, and did.
Ari nods, just as Kate rolls up in her dad’s vintage convertible. She’s blasting some god-awful “classic” pop on the radio. “You two need a ride?”
“I guess, if you’re the only one offering,” Ari says with a shrug. Kate sticks her tongue out at him.
We load up the cooler and the towels and the beach chairs into the trunk of the convertible. It’s kind of amazing how much that little car can fit. Ari takes shotgun, while I gladly take the spacious back seat with no responsibilities. She pulls away from the house, and pretty soon we’re on the freeway heading to Malibu.
I can’t resist any longer. It’s almost unbearable. “What’s this