Original Sin (part 1)
“Jimmy! Son, watch this!” I slide my finger down the cold hospital window, the slider in the touchscreen activating, and virtual blinds appear, black slats that block out the gray day. As my index finger trails down, the virtual blinds descend, and I take notice of the smile on my face- this reminds me of when the tech first came out, and I lowered those blinds as some twenty something who still thought he knew up from down. When was the first time, what was I doing? The exact memory escapes me, and I remain here.
“Jimmy!” is bundled up, those faded floral hospital covers up to his chin, one shriveled arm on top. I creep over, and in the halogen light try to see if a crack is open- no, the eye lids are sealed shut. At least let him dream goddammit. No movement underneath his pale lids, maybe he’s just tired of me trying so obviously to cheer him up. I bend over, a shadow falling across the bed, and stroke his hairless scalp as carefully as I can, think: Get Better Get Better Get Better.
Going home to leave him behind for a petty reason, for some groceries feels like some kind of atrocity.
Shopping bags in tow, rucksack from work threatening to slip off my shoulder, I press on the door pad, find it unresponsive. Head butt the imitation wood instead and a muffled: “I’m coming.” eeks through. She opens it with red rimmed eyes and with some violence, enough to shake my glasses. Turns and lets go of the knob and I have to step forward and shoulder the door, the plastic bags crackling all the while. I stand in the doorway as it closes behind and watch her speed walk back into another room, her bare feet slapping the floor. Try to judge her mood through the fatigue- is she manic, or depressed? Difficult to tell. I remember how she told me that she likes if I pay attention to her when she’s like this. So the longer I wait to see her the worse she might feel. Drag my feet to the kitchen and unload the food first. Her voice from behind: “Where’s the instant dim sum?” I jump. She can be so quiet. Like when we first met, when was that again?
“I said, where’s the instant dim sum?”
“I bought real food this time!” Try to sound chipper to pre-empt any kind of argument. She snorts. I have to focus to keep my voice at the right tone, above a certain pitch, whilst turning away to bury myself in a crinkling bag so she can’t see my face strain from the effort. “So, pasta tonight? I’m thinkin’ of a bit of mac, a bit o’ cheese. What do you say?” I turn, and she’s gone, silently. I hear the guest room door whine shut. When she’s gone I allow myself the luxury of standing there in the silence, feeling sorry for myself for a few minutes. Later, I bring her a share of the mac and cheese shortly before nine, her face covered up by the simulator, probably watching one of her shows. I don’t interrupt. The VR soaps make her happy, or at least, keep the misery away. I leave the bowl next to her unmoving arm, try not to think about it getting cold soon. In my room, on my own I wait, eating slowly, staring at the open door. Even after I finish she doesn’t show up. I turn off the lights, leaving the door open, and staying on one side of the bed. Just because she hasn’t come in for a week doesn’t mean she won’t tonight.
Sleep delivers me with little preamble.
I dream maybe, of terrible mistakes, decisions that tighten like hands around my neck, till I’m running from a shadow, darting up and down staircases knowing fully well that it’s about catch up to me and if only I could just somehow turn and fight it, and then I say: “WHY.” mumble it in the real world, and wake before the thing can kill me. Bedroom barely lit by some haze of light coming from some corner, and standing over me a dark figure. SHIT. I keep my breathing steady, the figure is right there standing. Watching me. Don’t let it know I’m awake. Why is she? “Sarah?” I manage. I’m afraid of her, I realize it now- she’s been so off lately, what if she blames me, and wants to hurt me is she holding something? “SARAH?” I manage, shouting, then I wake up again, and realize I barely mumbled her name. Empty room. Just another nightmare. No one watching. I get up and close the bedroom door anyway. It’s nearly four A.M. I change the position I lay in the bed, and try to sleep again- avoiding the memory of a silhouette like some half-forgotten shadow.
My alarm goes off on my wrist- I forgot to take off my phone before sleeping. I want to smack the thing against the wall, relent, I doubt I could afford another wearable phone. I’d have to get some cheap pocket one if it broke. I get ready as quietly as I can, try not to wake Sarah. Pass by Jimmy’s room, pristine. Sarah still cleans it. My own crumpled shirt protests as I stretch it across my chest. I’m putting on weight, probably all that takeaway at the hospital. No matter. Things change. I’m beginning to get used to the bus, it seems more sociable, less isolated than my old smart car. Take some small comfort in the marginal decrease in carbon emissions from the use of public transportation. Today, on the bus I see a family of three. Father, mother, daughter. I think Sarah used to say we ought to have a daughter, and we’d joke when I reminded her what a terror two boys might be- what did I used to say to her? Did I use the word terror? I can’t quite remember.
At the office as I pass my phone over the reader I almost run into Jeff. He asks me in that uncertain way if I’m okay. Everyone knows. I brush him off with the usual dismissal, wondering what an awful picture I must look- red eyes, creased clothes, and my hands won’t stop shaking. Sit down at my cubicle, start up the screen then suddenly- a silhouette over my shoulder, unbridled fear takes me as I swivel so hard I knock Mr. Lighter’s shin. He curses, and I try to look sympathetic, but really I’m happy I got away with some violence, accidentally means it isn’t really my fault. He had come to check up on me. I hate that. I can’t be curt, I can’t be rude, I have to indulge him and his superficial queries- the real question behind them all; when will I get my shit together because I am not really adding value anymore. I tell him the truth, that Jimmy is going to try a new treatment, experimental, so that will be that, and then we can put this all behind us and move on. He says it sounds great, really great, and then he reminds me about the deadlines, and I don’t quite like that word- it brings the fog. I close my eyes and remember a figure above my bed.
I ought to do enough to not get fired. So I do, watching the time count down till it’s reasonably early enough for me to leave.
Compared to a taxi it takes twenty minutes more to get to the hospital via the bus’s, so I stand in line to splurge on one of the new cabs. It’s a self-driving one, autonomous. The lack of a driver suits me just fine. A bit more expensive but the solitude is worth it. I can talk to myself inside the cab, and no one can see. Tell myself everything is going to get better. The first thing that comes out of my mouth is: “What did you see last night?”
“Was it a ghost?”
“Was it Jimmy’s ghost?”
I sink down in the seat and weep, I can make noises in here and no one can hear.
The hospital arrives sooner than I expected. I dry my eyes whilst the voice drones on, repeating- “Please pay your fare and alight or choose a different destination. Please pay your fare and alight or choose a different destination.” When I was in college these things were just prototypes. So many things changed. When I was in college, I wanted to be a history teacher. Didn’t I? No, I’m confused. I was with Sarah. I think. Can’t quite remember. Trying to hurts. “Please pay your fare and alight or choose a different destination.” All this technology. The new treatment will work, I just know it will. We’re on the cutting edge, we’ve been there my whole life and this one thing, this one thing will go right. I can feel it. “Please pay your fare and alight or choose a different destination.” I pay my fare and alight.
Inside the hospital I jog, skipping the lift I take the stairs two at a time, almost tripping. No matter. I knock on Jimmy’s door. No response- so he’s probably asleep. Inside Jimmy’s sitting up, several pillow propped against his back. “Hey hey champ I…” trail off- he’s got the VR headset on, he’s playing a game. The door, heavily counterweighted, slams shut behind me. Jimmy doesn’t say anything though his lips are moving- he’s talking to someone in the game. That doesn’t make sense I don’t think they allow wireless here. Check the red light, and yeah, he’s online. Well fuck it. It’s good that he’s online, like it’s a way out for him, a way to experience a real life. No, that’s wrong, he just needs to be patient and it will happen all on it’s own. I pull up the chair- I know all it’s creases, how it shifts, this fucking chair, I know it better than I know my wife. Or my son.
I slap myself across the face. I don’t get to think things like that. Shake it off.
There’s another head set here, for multiplayer games. We brought it from home- Sam, Jimmy’s friend, he plays with him. Racing games I think. Where is Sam now? Maybe I should ask if he wants to come visit. It’s understandable though- how it might be hard. I run my finger over the smooth plastic- it’s sleek and minimalist. Not like the keyboard, mouse, and controllers I grew up with. Now everything hides behind shiny veneers, no one wants to know how things work, or how things got to the way they have. That’s why history is so important. Cradling the thing like some bowl, I flip it, put it on my head. It’s a bit tight- been adjusted for a child. I sit down, dial the immersion setting to low. If a nurse comes in I’ll know, that way Jimmy won’t get into trouble for going wireless. A sharp intake of breath- I don’t quite find these normal, then I switch on.
The HUD, with it’s mini screen detailing the outside world, flips on. The health warnings, the instructions- are you seated comfortably? Yes. Are you calm? No. Projected in front of me, foregrounding Jimmy’s room, is a virtual keyboard. I type in my credentials, trying to picture my fingers moving in mid-air, like a pianist fantasizing. Login, wireless on. Jimmy’s location is there. Now he knows I’m on. He’s playing some racing game, Formula Own- but why would you be talking in a racing game? I wait for an invite from him. He must have got the notification that I’m online by now. My background is set to a library, and the books are programs. I continue to wait. He’ll get around to it, maybe when he finishes the race or something. I am tempted to dial up the immersion a little, enough so I can use motor functions, no controller, to walk around the room. I could escape to this library, with it’s chestnut wooden shelves, graphics so detailed, so beautiful- the feel of real leather, and even dust particles on programs rarely visited. My real life finger goes up to the setting. Just a little bit- I dial it up so I can think of walking, and do it, no controller required.
The feeling- I never seem to get used to it.
A sharp, sudden chill up my spine, around my head like I’m wearing some ice cold steel halo, and then the screen explodes forward filling up my peripheries- there is a small window still, showing the hospital room I’m in.
And I leave it, like some kind of forced dream- I’m inside my library.
Want to cry here too? Shut up. If I tear up virtually, the same thing will happen IRL. The library is magnificent. Impossibly high shelves, each with books randomly generated. I take in the details in a way no one does in real life, simply marvelling at the fact that we can do this. A knock on the grain of a tan wooden shelf produces differing sounds depending on how I knock. The ground beneath me- sometimes sagging slightly due to random deformations, imperfections in the floor generated. A glass dome for the ceiling, bright moon light and stars above. I pick out one of the books, tempted to watch a video, Jimmy still hasn’t invited me. I send a voice request, to Jimmy. “Hey son! Want to invite me to your game?”
I stand in this library, shelves eighteen stories tall, passages labyrinthine and geometrically impossible, suspended in a black space with no promise of a sunrise, and wait for Jimmy to say anything. He doesn’t, but he does send an invite.
I use one finger to tap the accept button floating in mid-air.
A loading screen as Formula Own prepares. Some ads for more VR gear cycle above a small progress bar, three dimensional that I can walk around, a sad little gimmick that was fascinating the first ten times only. VR force feed back gloves, facial tracking software so your friends can see your expressions, enough enabling hardware that you could replace the real world if you had the time, money, and motivation.
The software finishes loading and the sounds of engines blast through me. I curse and turn down the volume, hand flailing across the virtual interface. Cars soar by, below and across from the stands I’m in, high pitched whining subtly modulated, reproducing the exact sounds. Funny thing I realise, the tech for those cars just about peaked- materials made in zero-g factories, cool, but honestly, you can only go so fast till a human can’t process it.
I blink, no, I think I blink, shielding my eyes from a virtual sun as the crowds roar around me. Faces everywhere- real faces, judging by the lack of expressions- ironically, real players wouldn’t be as animated as the virtual spectators. Next to me, standing, are two kids. They’re decked out in racing clothes, the kinds that drivers wear with all the sponsored ads dancing on them- both wear the exact same cap- some team called FIRE1, with some logo, blue flame animation twirling in mid-air. Jimmy’s got his back to me whilst a girl with dark hair all the way down to her waist literally disappears. Jimmy turns to face me; his avatar looks just like he does except his arms and legs are filled out and he has his hair- gelled out to the sides so they stick out nearly three inches. He even has some pubescent wisps on his chin; it’s all too much, he looks just like he did a four months ago and so I can’t help it- the immersion is low enough that back in the hospital I can feel warm tears detaching from my own stubble clad face. It’s some kind of miracle, some kind of sick distortion. My virtual face will be blank and emotionless and that’s a small mercy. Jimmy says, flat: “Hey Dad.”
“Sorry Jimmy was I interrupting?”
“Nah it was just a…friend of mine, and I umm, told her she might as well come back later ‘cuz you were coming to visit. So…”
“Sorry Jimmy! You can call her back if you like.” Should I tease him, ask if she’s someone special? I would if I was certain he’d get to see her in a month.
Jimmy says: “…nah…but…the race, it’s kind of like, the finals, so can I watch the end?”
“OF COURSE! Son, I’ll cover for you!”
“Cuz you’re wireless, right? It’s technically against the hospital’s rules, but I think a little bit can’t hurt, between you and me.” I wink then remember my face can’t move here.
“Oh. Okay right.” He turns away to watch the race. I also stare at the tiny blips of receding cars and highlighted moments on hovering screens that hang above the crowd. There must be thousands of people here. I guess FIRE1 is some kind of pro-gaming team, and this is some kind of championship. Jimmy does like those things, I think. He follows the scene. Doesn’t he? Can’t quite remember when he got into it. I stand in the virtual crowd with him, watching cars speed by. I’m kind of hoping he’ll get actually excited- yell out, or shoot his hands up in the air, something, like all the others.
Instead we only stand within the cacophony, without touching or speaking to each other. I get a thrill as some car, blue flames trailing it suddenly, whizzes past and Jimmy actually goes: “WOAH!” After that I’m smiling, suddenly wishing I was rich enough to afford the facial animation stuff. Suddenly Jimmy says: “HEY Dad? Is Momma here? I’m just gonna go off for a little while to say hello okay?”
I feel sick.
Tell Jimmy: “Momma’s not here…yet. I came from work but she says she’s coming soon, like she just had to…”
“Oh.” he says, and he sits down in the stands, pulling his knees up.
“…She had some work to do but…”
He looks up at me, his face an unmoving mask whilst his voice emanates clearly; tone low and plaintive: “Dad? Can you call her to come? Please?”
“Of course son, of course.”
I sit down next to him, pull my knees up in the same way.
“…Like now? Please?”
I get up. “No sweat Jimmy. I’ll give her a ring now.”
In the room I rip the VR helmet off my head. Wipe my wet face. No one’s come in. There is that hospital smell again, I didn’t register it during the race. Immersion settings were higher than I thought. I bring up my wrist, “Call Sarah.” and wait. It rings. And rings. And rings. And rings. I know she’s home. She’s got to be home. It goes to voice mail.
“Sarah, hon, Jimmy’s asking when you’re coming to visit- I was thinkin’ I could come pick you up or you could come by yourself? It’d really make him happy- I think he’s missing you so…please Sarah, just today, come. I know you’re home. Jimmy needs you okay?” My voice cracks towards the end- the voice mail cuts me off before I can say I Love You. I used to say that, I think. I probably wouldn’t have said it anyway.
Jimmy half lies, and half sits, the VR helmet keeping him away from the room. After thinking for a minute, I put mine back on that ice cold chill and then the roar. Jimmy is still sitting with his arms wrapped around his knees. The spectators are still yelling, the cars still racing. He doesn’t seem to be watching the race, his head is tilted up, facing away from the highlight reels and towards the virtual sky.
“Jimmy, son, momma can’t come today and she says she’s awfully sorry, she’s got a fever and doesn’t want you to catch it, and there are people in the house fixing a broken window so she has to stay and watch them. She said she’ll come soon though, really soon.”
“A window broke at home? Seriously? It’s like the 20th floor.”
“Yeah. A bird flew through it.”
“She says she’ll come soon though.”
“Is it okay if I call Michelle back? She’s the friend who…”
“Oh totally champ. Sure thing…”
“…maybe you could like, keep a lookout…the wireless…”
“Sure! Jimmy I’ll keep a lookout. If you need anything just…”
“Yeah I know Dad.”
“Just ask and I’ll get it…”
“Sure Dad. Cya later?”
“Cya later son.”
I turn off the helmet and sit on my own in the hospital room waiting for something to change.