by Tim Boiteau
Dawn at O’Hare, foggy autumn morning, waiting for my connection. Spent the night on a bench with my jacket pillowing my head, tie pulled loose, tossing the platinum wedding ring into the air, trying to catch it on the tip of my finger.
Eventually it caught.
Coffee and bagel for breakfast. Pull out my tablet and stare at the photo of us in Thailand, the sea and sky contending blue. Make it my new wallpaper. A superficial gesture.
The woman on the bench beside me eyes the picture for some time before finally saying, “She is so adorable,” and then looking at me: “Looks just like you.” The woman is dark-haired, thin, but with all the wrong facial features, as if there had been some glitch in replicating my wife.
“Thank you.” The noncommittal response ends the conversation.
We look out over the tarmac at the fragile jet, its nose poking out of the rolling mist, written in the stars to deliver us to our destination.
She holds in her hand a tablet as well but after having pulled it out had merely paused forgetfully, her finger hovering over the surface. There is a picture there on display for me to see, obscured by the desktop icons: her, a man with a cleft chin, two sons, neither with cleft chins, all precariously set on the edge of the Grand Canyon, a gust of wind threatening to disperse them like spores over an impregnable land.
I look back up at the jet vanishing into the mist, appearing safer now with its frailty cloaked.
Four thousand feet, en route to Detroit Metropolitan, by coincidence she is still beside me, her tablet out, awaiting my response.
“Good-looking kids.” I offer, thinking I should add something to that delayed reciprocity. But maybe it’s enough. She’s smiling anyway.
“How many is this for you?” I say, turning, engaging her.
She purses her lips, sighs, her tongue feeling around the teeth. “The big 2-0.”
I nod. “A seasoned pro.”
“Weird during this in between time, a little nerve-wracking, invigorating, then . . . you adjust.”
“Sure . . . then comes 21.”
“What about you?”
I pause. “Lost count.”
At times I feel like I exist at the junction of hundreds of conflicting memory lines, a disconcerting feeling, an inappropriate topic for light, get-to-know-you conversation.
Probably she feels the same way.
“Come on. Don’t be shy,” she says, her hand flirting with the fabric of my jacket.
“Let’s just say I’m getting up there.”
“That’s either charming or pathetic. Not sure which.”
The flight attendant comes by.
“She’ll have a screwdriver, I’ll do a greyhound, both light on the juice.”
“That’s a bit presumptuous of you.”
“What? I’m buying you a drink. If you’d like it can be the toast to the end of our brief relationship. You do like screwdrivers, don’t you?”
The flight attendant hands us our drinks.
“I gotta ask you something—”
“Let me guess: did we ever . . . ?”
“You look so damn familiar,” I say, snapping my fingers.
“To be honest, I don’t know. I thought the same thing about you.”
“If I really focus, close my eyes, I can see your face, I can see our daughter, Jenny, seven, wearing a white dress for her first communion, her knees are scabbed, you pull up these—uh—these little white stockings to cover the scabs, put these small, white shoes on her feet, she kisses you on the cheek . . .”
I open my eyes and find her smiling, shaking her head. “I’ve never had a daughter.”
I look into her Eye. “Maybe you just haven’t closed your eyes long enough. Cheers.”
McNamara Tunnel, Detroit Metropolitan, leaning against the moving walkway rail, massaging my eyes against the rainbow light art.
Twenty feet ahead of me is the woman, hand resting on the handle of her carryon, not turning back to acknowledge me. What did I say exactly? The memory of our conversation had already faded into uncertainty. Whatever may have happened, she has ignored me ever since I woke at landing. No matter: she’s already fading out of focus, the words that passed between us cooled air.
A relaxing pulse throbs out of the tunnel walls. Shut my eyes and envision my family. How long has it been?
A scrambling force knocks me over onto the tread, shocking me out of the trance.
My eyes flash open, stare into one large blood-red Eye, prodding me with urgency. After having satisfied itself with me, it removes a distance, and I can see the whole head of the man, disheveled, scraggly bald, the other eye static, diminished and gray with the sagging atrophy of neglect.
“Where’s my family?” he mumbles as I push him off and then, as an afterthought, help him up. “Have you seen them? Flew all night here to see them.”
“Christ, buddy. Don’t know if I can help you there. What do they look like?”
He stares at me for a moment and then says, clawing at my jacket to reach my full height, “I’ll remember when I see them.”
Then he veers away, knocking into the woman first, and then, it seems, by turns into everyone else in the tunnel, as if whatever kind of attack had done that to his Eye had rendered him blind as well.
When she has recovered, the woman turns toward me, and then—something in the way she looks at me in her moment of recovery: a buried memory—I know it for sure.
Four feet, the desolate city rolls past: crumbling graffitied walls, urban prairies, abandoned skyscrapers, boarded up groceries, iridescent black clouds of grackle swirling above, splintered roads rendered lunar by neglect and merciless winters, wind pounding against the car.
“Headed home, man?” the cabbie asks.
As I look out at the remains of the city, I superimpose images of my family over them. Tech doc advice: first few weeks, cycle through as many images of them as possible, play and replay recordings of their voices, vacation videos, every chance you get, until the word vacation is a beach in Thailand, home an abandoned city you’ve never cared for, wife a long-haired woman you’ve never touched.
“You use an Eye?” I ask after some time.
“No, don’t believe in that kind of thing.”
“Tell that to my wife,” he laughs.
Late Sunday morning, my car, a Ford Taurus, gleaming red in the early light, my lawn neatly trimmed, surrounded by a tall wrought-iron fence, my house, an immense three-story sprawl, well-maintained, several Japanese maples spaced around it, their leaves reddening with the weather.
Next door, a black-fried mutant spider of where the neighbors used to live, wind gusting through the remains into our yard—cold—the grainy odor of carbon.
Across the street, the windows smashed, the place looted, maybe thirty dead dogs strewn across the overgrown lawn, the corpses in various states of decay, but the weeds alive with other things—oily rats, skittish bugs, unapologetic birds—feeding on the reeking piles.
I walk up the brick path to my home and present my Eye to the peephole.
The door opens.
“Welcome home,” the house intones.
I lay my suitcase at my feet and wait for a minute in the foyer, listening for the sounds of family. My daughter does not scramble to greet me. My wife does not bear a bottle of cold beer to me. The place looks as I remembered: clean, polished wood; minimally decorated; bathed in sunlight. The layout, however, is off: doors in doorless walls, halls for rooms. How is it that these sorts of things slip by? Smells different as well, but then odor is such a difficult thing to pin down and maintain, a more ancient system than sound and vision, like some druidic cult shrouded in myth and rumor inaccurately catalogued in history texts.
Experiencing this house and comparing, reconciling it with the memory house is one of those moments surreal in the junction, but then, as the woman from the plane had said, “you adjust.”
“Where’s my family?”
“In the living room,” the house replies.
“What a homecoming,” I mutter under my breath, turning vaguely towards where I remember the living room to be.
The hallways in this house interminable, after passing under several staircases and making a number of wrong turns, I eventually find the living room and spot the back of their heads, separated by a great distance on the long couch, Daphne with crow black hair, Chloe blonde.
“Hi,” they say out of turn, their heads still directed towards the far wall.
I shrug my shoulders, dropping my luggage. “What’s up?”
“Catching up on news.”
“All right.” I pause, expecting something more. “Well, I guess if you need me I’ll be in the study doing some work.”
I roam around the house for an hour or so, finding several kitchens, guest rooms, libraries, before I finally find the study just as I remember it: a long wooden desk by the window; a bird’s-eye view of the course at The Dunes Golf & Beach Club hanging on the wall behind the leather couch; an eye-brain schematic on the other; a giant torch cactus planted in the corner; a few odds and ends strewn about the desk.
I sit down and for several hours code and analyze Eye data, replaying memories from the trip and categorizing them according to valence, arousal, and a number of cognitive dimensions. The episode with the woman I rate as highly arousing but neither positive nor negative, highly thought-provoking as well, but with only a small number of memory associations. The incident with the man I spend several minutes pondering over, and in the end mark it neutral, sensing I could deliberate over it for the rest of my life without ever coming to a firm conclusion. With the image of the man now paused in my field of view, I can zoom in in great detail until the near-transparent circuitry of the Eye lens is apparent, yet there is nothing telling in the appearance of the network, and certainly no analyst would be able to decipher problems so superficially. The man’s problem must be originating from some source higher up in the system. I send a short message to the Eye troubleshooting department.
Next I examine the scene of my homecoming. Upon entering the living room and spotting the back of their heads, the pupil responded by dilating several fractions of a millimeter, triggering a series of autonomic interactions eventually leading to a nearly undetectable increase in heart rate and skin conductance, and following this an over-compensatory constriction of the pupil and subsequent slowing of the heart rate to below baseline, the entire physiological event recalled as being the subjective experience of familial intimacy.
Nevertheless, I rate the scene as unpleasant, though certainly rich in memory associations.
“Honey?” a voice calls out from behind me.
“Yes?” I respond, staring into the computer monitor, at the reflection of my wife’s silhouette, my breath catching: a reaction that will have to be analyzed later.
Daphne, my wife, a flood of bittersweet images and sounds.
“Just wanted to let you know Chloe and I are doing a girls’ night out tonight.”
I spin around in the chair and regard her. “Girls’ night out?”
Tall and delicate, her eyes bright gray, just as I remember her, she leans into the doorway. My first reaction is to stand, walk forward, and slide a hand around her waist. Instead, I remain seated, staring at her.
“She’s going through something right now. I think we need some one-on-one time.”
“Fine. I guess I can rummage up something around here.”
After an evening of wine and cheese and reading in the cool air of the back porch, I finally call it a night and wander around the house until I find the bedroom with my wife in it. She is wearing a white silk robe I bought for her years ago while on a business trip in Japan. Everything else from that trip has now faded from memory—business contacts, hotels, food, temples, prostitutes—but I remember clearly the robe and the market where I purchased it, a touristy, lantern-lit street sunken into the crevasse between obelisk skyscrapers. I remember the pink cherry blossoms stitched into the back. She is simultaneously reading—a kind of unnatural green sparkling in the Eye—and watching me as I unpack.
“How was dinner?” I ask her.
“Chloe likes Italian,” I mumble to myself.
“I’m worried about her.”
“Hold on,” I say, entering the bathroom and turning on the shower. Thirty minutes later I re-emerge clean, fresh-shaved, naked, and climb into bed.
Daphne is asleep, her back turned to me. I pull up close and wrap my arms around her, feeling beneath the silk her soft body against mine, her scent exciting, long hair stimulating my skin and nose.
“Can we not?” she murmurs.
“Honey . . . I just got home. I missed you.”
“I need some time to adjust,” she says, her voice more limpid.
“I have a very sensitive nose. You just don’t smell right. I’m sorry, but not yet. I know me, it’s not going to happen. For me this kind of thing takes time.”
“I used the soap you like,” I say into her neck.
She turns toward me, her face a crescent moon of streetlight and shadow. “You know what I mean.”
I pull away from her and let the cool air cleanse me. In one final attempt my hand reaches out to touch the back of her neck, but she recoils from the touch.
My eyes, dry and red, crave to be shut.
Eye clicking with overuse, my mind fades fast with sudden jetlag blackout.
When I wake I update my Eye, lying still for several minutes in complete blackness, which begins to fill with those nebulous submemories and primordial hallucinations, images and sounds by turns disturbing, peaceful and cathartic, some flies flitting in and out barely discerned, others lumbering behemoths unfathomable in scale.
When I come to I find the bed empty.
Two in the afternoon.
I brush my teeth, standing naked in front of the window, watching the wind tear across the crumbling, verdant flyovers looping in and out of the city. Somewhere in the distance there are fires: the horizon underlined in brown.
Downstairs I find a kitchen and make some eggs and coffee.
Daphne appears wearing a sports bra and pants.
“Busy day?” she says.
“Where were you?”
“The gym. Must have lost track of time,” she says grabbing a bottle of water out of the refrigerator.
“Listen, I feel kind of bad about last night. It was really, uh, insensitive of me.”
“You were fine.”
“Well, even so—”
“Buried deep in the dark,” she says.
“Great. I was thinking we should, I don’t know, do something together.”
“What do you mean?”
“Go out somewhere, maybe see a movie or something.”
“What’s the point?”
“What do you mean, ‘What’s the point?’”
She leans back against the counter, guzzles the water, and shrugs her shoulders. When I don’t respond, she decides to help me out.
“With us, at the beginning, it’s like this,” she says, struggling to find the right words, “and then just when I feel our time is the most ripe, there’s no fruit, there’s nothing.” She shakes her head and takes a sip. Finally she says, “I’m making dinner tonight. Any preferences?”
“Well, I’m allergic to shellfish, so maybe steer clear of that, huh?”
“No shellfish. Good to know.”
Chicken and sesame noodles for dinner. My two girls stare at their plates as they eat, only occasionally glancing in my direction.
“So, Chloe, how’s school?”
She shrugs her shoulders. “Last week a new girl joined our class.”
“Oh yeah. Where’s she from?”
“From here. Sort of. It’s complicated. I don’t really want to talk about her.”
“Suit yourself,” I say, rolling my eyes, and turning towards Daphne. “Great dinner, honey.”
She licks her lips. “What do you think, Chloe?”
“I decided today I’m going to be a vegetarian.”
“I’ll use tofu next time,” she smiles, looking at her.
“Okay, guys, what’s going on? Fill me in here.”
“Chloe, do you want to tell your father something?”
Chloe looks up from her plate and turns towards me. “Dad, are you going to leave us?”
“What?” I pause mid-chew. “What are you talking about?”
“I don’t want you or Mom to leave anymore.”
I turn to Daphne. “Did you two already discuss this?”
Daphne nods slowly, her eyes still on Chloe. “We had a little talk at dinner last night, just us girls.” She reaches out and squeezes Chloe’s hand.
“Come on, guys. Lighten up a bit. Honey, have you been doing your updates?”
“I never forget to update. Mom, I’m not hungry anymore. Can I be excused?”
“Sure. Go finish your homework.”
After she leaves, her footsteps faded up the stairs, I say, “What the hell’s going on?”
“She’s tired. Her mind is scattered. I don’t think she knows what she wants, and how could she?” She prods a piece of chicken with her chopsticks, then sips her wine. “Haven’t you noticed that after a while, not everything takes? Little pieces slip through. First a lamp disappears, then a rug, then one day there’s a new door in the hall, opening up into some wing you’ve never stepped into. People are trickier in some ways, but in the end it’s just like finding new doors in your house.” She looks up at me. “Sometimes I feel . . . like a jellyfish, like a jellyfish with impossibly long tentacles, dropping down so far into the abyss you can’t be sure whether or not they have any relation with each other down there in the past, only that you know they connect in the present up above because you can feel them tugging on the bell, but maybe they’re joined in a web if you travel down far enough into the dark, meeting at the vanishing point, or maybe they taper off into nothing without ever connecting.”
Junctions, I think, realizing what she is requesting is help, but all I can do is chuckle, “Honey, a little weird—”
“You don’t sense it? Almost like we are living with multiple memory realities where we aren’t whom we say we are, and our family aren’t whom they pretend to be. But then at the same time, we must be, we can’t be anything else than what we say. Otherwise, what else is there? What else can I be? I can’t be connected to so many inconsistent memories, so I have to pretend the others don’t exist. Can you imagine what it’s like for her? What are we doing to her?”
“She’s updating. It’ll be fine—”
“She’s too young,” she protests. “Her mind is growing too fast, maybe faster than she can update. What would that mean? Waking up and having outpaced the update? How would that feel? We need to do what’s right for her, for all of us.”
Later that evening I am sitting on the back porch in the cool autumn air, drinking a beer and reading a paperback thriller from one of the libraries: a vintage amusement. As I read, snippets of what Daphne said suddenly burst out of the darkness like fireworks, and, though I flinch at first, they fade just as fast, ignored by my undeterred mind.
“Dad? Can I talk to you?”
I look over my shoulder and find Chloe standing in the doorway, wearing a sweater and jeans. Small for her age, her skin a little too pale, faint bags under her eyes. I’ve never seen her so clearly before as I do now in the dim light.
“Hmm? What’s up, honey?”
She approaches, sits down on the wicker chair beside me, and gazes out at the backyard.
“Dad, I want to go on a Fugue.”
I choke on my beer and put it down on the side table.
“A Fugue. I want to do it.”
“Where did you hear about that?”
“You know the new girl at school I mentioned?”
“How could I forget?”
“She told me. She remembers all of us from before. She says she was a cheerleader here last year. She won second place in the science fair with a tsunami model. I remember Sam did a tsunami model last year, and she got second place for it.”
“Was Sam a cheerleader too?”
“Did she tell you what it means to go?” I proceed cautiously.
She nods. “She says it’s exciting. Everything’s new, but at the same time you remember everything, except it’s not like really remembering. It’s like remembering anew or like a memory from so long ago it feels new. And then when the new becomes old, you move again. That’s what I want.”
“She says she was finally reunited with her parents.”
“She sounds a bit melodramatic.”
“What does that mean?”
“Oh. She’s popular, even though no one believes what she says. Boys like her.”
“Well, they like her because—”
“Honey, forget what she told you about Fugues. Just at dinner you were saying you don’t want us to leave anymore, and now you want to do a Fugue? This is something for grown-ups. One day, maybe after college, you might decide to try it out, and that’ll be fine. If at that time you want to give it a try, I promise you I’ll pay for it.”
“Except it won’t be you, will it?”
“It won’t be you when I’m in college.”
“Well, who else would it be?” I laugh, hearing and denying the falter in my voice.
She shakes her head, confused. “Someone else, but someone like you. I don’t know.”
“Hey, don’t talk about your Dad that way,” I say, running my hands through her long blond hair. “You know he loves you. He’ll always be here for you.”
“I’m not happy here with you and Mom,” she cries, burying her head in her hands.
I sigh and take a sip of the beer.
In the morning I update.
Afterwards I discover Daphne’s spot on the bed empty, still warm. I go down to the kitchen and have eggs and coffee, sitting in the breakfast nook with the paper, looking out over the front yard. More dead dogs across the street today. Even from inside you can start to smell the rot in the air when the wind blows right.
As I clean the dishes, I notice a post-it from Daphne on the counter: “Took Chloe to get a makeover. Don’t wait up.” Why she would write a note and not just send one is beyond me.
I proceed to the study and spend several hours working, when my Eye becomes irritated and I feel I must nap before it projects hallucinated memories or other unwanted oddities into my mind.
I dream my Eye has swollen to the size of an apple, pushing its way oblong out of the socket. I am afraid to touch it for fear of making the obtrusion a reality. Inside, interfacing with my brain like some parasite feeding off its host, is an infected network, wherein live my wives and kids, hundreds of them, maybe thousands, all altered by degrees from several prototypes, the real ones perhaps, the originals, sources so ancient, so far removed in time from the present, they seem more like the Eves, Cains and Abels of human genetic memory, and somewhere deeper still in the untested extremes of consciousness they fuse together into something both incoherent and unpleasant in its unattainability .
The Eye balloons outward even more, and I clench the bed sheets in pain, calling out for Daphne, but she does not respond, pulling away from me and receding to the door where she and Chloe whisper together, their faces growing into blank swaths of flesh. Then long hair sprouts out of the blankness, their chests flatten, their arms and hands, legs and feet invert, till their fronts are their backs, and that is all I can see of them.
Finally, when the Eye pops in a hot rain of blood and aqueous humor, and the fibrous peels of sclera lash against my face, I scream out once again, except it is no longer Daphne’s name I am calling out for, but some ancient word from a dead language.
It is dusk when I wake.
Time for an update. For the first moment in years, I stare at the light blinking in my periphery without immediately reacting, wondering what would happen if I waited and then just continued to wait.
After a time a lanky, dark silhouette appears in the doorway of my office. My peripheral vision recognizes it as Daphne, but as I turn and as the voice calls out, that perception is shattered.
“Dad, Mom said dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes,” the boy says in a voice cracking with adolescence.
Tim W. Boiteau has published stories in a number of journals, including Every Day Fiction, Write Room, Kasma Magazine, and LampLight. He was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2013 Fiction Open contest. He is currently finishing a PhD in Experimental Psychology at the University of South Carolina.