Short Story: Original Sin (Part 3 of 3)

(Part 1 here)

A loud noise wakes me up, two people hovering over me in the morning light. It’s daytime. The woman says: “Honey?” I growl and grab the knife, leap out of bed in my pajamas. It’s Sarah and some guy, a small runty fuck with glasses and an ugly nose. He’s just staring at me. Sarah starts yelling at me, telling me to put down the knife, please. She says please like that’s some magic word, like we taught Jimmy once except I can’t fucking remember teaching him that which doesn’t make sense, “UNLESS THIS IS ALL NOT REAL.”

Sarah says “Please, calm down, calm yourself. You’re not well honey.”

“What’s his name?” I jab the blade’s point towards the skinny guy. “Let me see your wallet you little shit, you fucking demon. WALLET. ID. LETS SEE IT.” The guy stares at me, his hands up, slowly pushing away, he’s saying “Sorry, look, sorry…look…”

I snarl and throw the knife at him. The handle smacks him in the mouth and he grabs at his bloodied teeth. Sarah screams. The guy’s running out of my room and Sarah’s too slow, I grab her by the arm. She tries to get away, pointless- she’s some kind of child in my hands. I can’t see the knife, heard it clatter across the floor. “YOU FUCKING BITCH.” I yell. Fuck the knife, my hands come up in a familiar way, I take her head with both my hands, and I smack it against the wall. Sarah is whining, “PLEASE. No. PLEASE….”

“LET ME OUT.” Smack. Something white and red falls out of her face.

“FUCKING LET…” SMACK I feel something give and a crimson stain appears behind her.

“…OUT.” SMACK. SMACK. SMACK. I let go. Billy is still there. I turn to him. He has the knife. I say to him: “I want to see Jimmy again. Now.” Sarah’s ruined head turns to me, looks up from the floor- impossible, she shouldn’t be able to move anymore, and her hand it touches my bloody leg and I look down at this woman, wondering how the hell I ever loved her, and I can’t see Billy, but something happens behind me where I can’t reach, something cold around my head, like a halo made of ice and the whole world goes dark.

And then white.

I’m lying down. There is a perforated Styrofoam ceiling, very high, maybe twenty feet above me, and the bed is comfortable, warm and made of leather. My body is aching, my head hurts so much and there is an iron taste in my mouth, like I’ve swallowed a battery, and then a face floats into view, a young man’s face speckled with acne that I’ve never seen before, and I can hear weeping in the background, Sarah weeping.

The young man looks down on me, and he has red eyes and the rivulet shadows of recently shed tears, and he says: “You sick fuck, you traumatized Anne.” And then another voice, with a musical accent- Indian says “His memories, it will take a while to restore them. This hasn’t happened before.” The man looking down on me brings up a rock then, like he’s going to smash my face in- no, it’s not a rock, it’s a VR headset, big, glossy, and he’s examining it. “Fuck the warden.” He says.

“Begin restoration.” the Indian man says, somewhere to my left.

Then the young man leaves, and comes back to inject something into the IV bag hooked up my arm and I sleep and have the most terrible nightmare. The fear begins, first, when I’m watching myself walk across the fifth floor corridor, my stomping feet muffled by the abrasive gray carpet. Past classrooms already in progress, students sat obediently, I walk towards the hum of chaotic children emanating to my shame, from the corner room where I teach. From the opposite side of the corridor through a lined pane Ruben gives me a dirty look whilst gesturing to his final year sociology class of six. I shove open the corner door with my foot, notices flapping on the door, hands clenched into fists, and now I feel my own anger, the stifling rage I can’t control, I want to hit something, smack something. The clumps of conversation mostly evaporate, the children stiffening in satisfying fear. In the front, Isaac, oblivious, continues to talk and balance a ruler on his nose, and I yell at him, from the board: “SHUT IT ISAAC.” and he doesn’t quickly, so I stare at him, beaming the hate I feel at this twelve-year-old I despise, always talking, always fucking around, always making my job so much harder.

I want to wake up now. I don’t know how to.

Isaac with his early stubble and his double chins is grinning at me, despite my stare, and I turn away, reluctantly, pen in hand I’m supposed to write something on the board, I can’t remember what it is, so I draw a red underline that curves downwards, it isn’t FUCKING STRAIGHT and with my hand shaking I toss the pen backwards by accident, right in front of Isaac. I turn to him, and the whole classroom is vibrating, I’m so angry, so angry because of what- the fact that I think Isaac is doing it on purpose, not picking up MY PEN, that HE MADE ME DROP, and a long list of trespasses by Isaac fill my head as I bend down towards that abrasive gray carpet in front of the little shit, and his shoe, somehow it touches my nose, his filthy dog shit ridden shoe, and I bark URGHH and fling an arm up, and I connect with something small and round- my open hand on something and I trip, sort of, it happens so quick, I don’t know why it happened- I slam Isaac’s head into the corner of the table, and fall backwards- I was just trying to not fall right? I was just trying to break my fall right? And all the children start screaming, even Jimmy in the corner.

My eyes shoot open, and I want to wipe away the tears but something binds my arms, keeps them from raising off the leather bed. The streams tickle my cheeks, I try to shake them off.

I turn my head right, and hear “Upload finished. He’s come to now.” says a bald brown man with a white beard, black spots dotting his face. He wears a wide open white coat, a crumpled polo shirt underneath. The ceiling is the same perforated Styrofoam. Something heavy on my head.

Sarah’s voice now, says: “Please don’t move, we’re removing the headset.” and two shaky hands grab something solid behind me, attached to my head, and there’s this strange suction sound as something big detaches from around my scalp- I feel it come off across my whole head, like I’m bald- I am bald, my head shaved of even stubble. That momentary sensation of a cold halo, then the beginnings of a throbbing head ache. A moan escapes me. Someone says: “Should I give him the pain-killer?”

Sarah’s voice: “NO. Because, it will dull him, he won’t uh, be able to talk…”

“Riiiiight.” Sarcastic voice, young, the one who said real smooth before. Sarah starts to say something, then the white beard he starts talking, he’s addressing me, asking if I can hear him, if I can respond.

I say “Of coz I cin reshponn ahhhhhhh.” My throat feels too solid, like wood, and my head, I close my eyes as spots appear to jab at my brain. There is a snapping sound by my ear: “Wake up, open your eyes.” I try. “Drink.” Someone holds a plastic cup to my lips, something sweet and warm trickles into my throat. “Can ye reshpon now?”

Sarah says “Stop it. Give it a few minutes, hell, give it a few hours. What difference does it make anymore? The whole thing’s botched.”

I relax my neck. Open my eyes again. Blink repeatedly to dispel the spots. They fade reluctantly. Young man says: “I think he’s fully conscious. Let me read it out.”

White beard says: “No forget that, damn thing is horribly written.”

A pale, veined hand waves in front of my face: “Hello there.”

“Ahhhh.”

“Do you know where you are?”

“Uhh. N-n-nuh. Ahhh.” My mouth isn’t working properly

Sarah says: “For christsakes.”

The Indian man says: “He remembers. The upload was successful.”

The sarcastic one has gotten all serious, it doesn’t suit him: “Hey I think maybe we should read out the thing. Even if it isn’t that well written. It’s the protocol right?”

Memories appear, small clouds of information. “Fuck protocol.” says the white bearded man whose name is actually Dr. Vishnu Chopra. He continues: “There’s no damn point. You think just because the literature says that we do this, and that, then the other, that is what we actually practice? This is almost as much art as science. And besides the treatment did not work. We’ll have to restart.”

Sarah whose name is actually Anne-Marie says “Seriously? I have to do that all again? This is bullshit, I had a contract for one only. I am not going through that again, you can talk to my lawyer. I am not going through that a second time. This man is psycho, you know what it’s like to have your skull caved in? I couldn’t feel it but Jesus Christ, I still died. And the hours? This guy, he keeps looking for me, I can’t catch a break. The whole thing was bent, and I’m done with it.”

Dr. Chopra sounds angry, he speaks in bursts: “Fine, fine, we’ll talk to your lawyer. You can have a new contract. The courts will provide for a bigger fee. Think about it, you could leverage this situation, get paid a lot more. It would make my life easier you know, I won’t have to scan another person in- they will understand that. I’ll argue you for you, you could get four times your fee. Four times, for sure, this is unprecedented.”

“Four times? Seriously? Has this happened before? I don’t know, this guy, he’s…and the son pattern he came up with- it’s fucked, it’s a too much.”

I say: “H-h-ello-I c..c…an’t”

They ignore me. Dr. Chopra says: “No this has never happened before. Ever. Which is why the justice department will pay you to avoid any trouble. Can you imagine if this got out? I mean truly. The whole thing could come down- and you know, and I know that this is a good program, it’s better than incarceration in a multitude of ways.”

Anne says: “Okay, fine, but first we sort out my contract. I’m not going in till that happens.”

“Yes, yes, yes I understand Anne.”

I find my voice “H-H-Ello?”

Dr. Chopra turns to me says: “You’re going to sleep now, for a while, and then we will wipe your memories and restart the treatment.”

The kid, Michael Lee, says: “Woah, are we allowed to do that?”

Dr. Chopra rounds on him. His cheeks puff out as he gives the kid a withering stare: “YES. We CAN. Did you not READ the contract, the agreement made by Dav…the patient? Yes, we have full rights to edit his memory…”

Lee continues: “…but that was for the eye for an eye not…”

“BUTTON IT BOY. If you READ the agreement you would see we have full rights. This has not happened before and we are doing this man a favor, so he can avoid a sentence in jail, and being raped and beaten. Do you know what happens to people like him?”

“..sorry doctor…”

“GO AND GET the DAMN FILES, so we can start all over.”

There is a sound of someone walking away, then shutting the door.

I say “Dr..Chopra? What are you going to do.”

He seems to take notice of me for the first time. He says: “We’re going to start again, delete your experience. The whole thing went to pot and I think I know why. Anne you said, what the kid was into VR games?”

“Yeah. Racing games. The patient here tried on a set.”

I say with as much mumbling rage as I can manage: “His name…was…Jimmy.” Not the kid. The doctor regards me like some kind of object then looks away to Anne. “That was the problem, a VR experience inside a VR simulation- it’s too much, the mind would revolt, turning on the very idea of simulation. Next time the kid will be into other things that focus on sensory experiences. The mind would summon up the feeling of a simulation then try to wake from it. In the next round the child shall like sports. Now help me prep the mem-wipe.

They are going to delete Jimmy. “W-wipe? WHAT DO YOU MEAN? NO. NO.”

Dr. Chopra tchh’s, and then looks at me with the same denigrating expression he unleashed on the kid. “We’re not going to hurt you know. You’re safe here. We’re simply going to edit your memory a bit. We’ve done it before, we did it before- you are in very safe hands, do not worry.”

I try to struggle, the Doctor steps back. “Calm yourself.” He says. “Let me explain fully…”

“I GET IT. I DON’T WANT YOU TO. THIS IS SICK. YOU’RE ALL FUCKING SICK, YOU’RE GOING TO TAKE AWAY JIMMY.”

“HE ISN’T REAL.”

“YES HE IS.” The leather straps are strong, real strong but I shake the bed, left and right, forwards, backwards.

The doctor shouts: “ANNE hold him down.” and Anne does nothing, just stands there in shock.

The doctor says: “Jimmy was a figment, a fantasy we helped you feel- do not worry, it was all a bad dream.”

“WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME?” One of the leather bands seems to loosen a few inches. The doctor notices.

“STOP. Mr. PAUL STOP. YOU VOLUNTEERED FOR THIS.” That checks me.

“Why…why would I do that?”

“You’ll find out at the end.”

“I want to find out now.”

The doctor hesitates, then looks at my left wrist, nearly free. Anne/Sarah says: “Want to know? It’s not a VR recording, just a video.” There is a humming sound coming from the seat as it begins to bend, till I am finally upright. I’m in some sort of large room, looks very much like an operation theater. There is a steel table with the VR headset and disturbing tools, and many screens surrounding a chair in the corner of the room. Dr. Chopra approaches one and pulls it over. He says: “Playback committal by D. Paul.”

My last name is Paul. The video starts up, with myself facing the camera.

Afterwards the fight leaves me. I say: “Do it. Wipe it all.”

Dr. Chopra begins to ministrate to the machines. When he’s not looking Anne dabs some tears from my face with toilet roll. She looks at me the way Sarah looked as me at the beginning, before Jimmy had to go to the hospital. “Thanks Sarah.” I say, and then bite my lip, I can’t take back the words.

Her frown deepens.

She looks back to Dr. Chopra: “Doctor, I…I don’t think he needs another treatment. I think it worked.”

The doctor doesn’t turn around. “No, he realized it was all a simulation, of course it did not work. His mind created too many idiosyncracies we should have controlled more of the parameters.”

“Doctor, he still felt like he lost a son. That’s the whole point right? I am of the opinion, professionally, that we succeeded. I think he’s ready.”

The doctor sighs. He comes over to me: “What do you want? Do you want to remember…Jimmy?”

“I don’t want to remember Isaac. And I want to remember Jimmy…I do. Please.” I weep, hands bounds to the bed, unable to move, I can only feel the water trickle off my face, plop silently somewhere out of sight.

Anne says: “See?”

The doctor says: “Yes.” He addresses me directly. “Understand now? There is a leaflet. It’s not very good.”

I say “Jimmy. Who was Jimmy?”

He sighs and pulls at his lab coat. Then he says: “The VR you just experienced interacts fully with your mind, which fills in the details- not unlike a dream. Certain scenes are scripted but everything else- how things look, the sensory experiences, these are created by you. Anne, she witnessed everything- perhaps…”

I turn to face Anne. She looks exactly like Sarah did. I know what she looks like naked, and somehow, I feel comfortable, I open my mouth, before I can speak she says: “David. Your image of Jimmy was taken from a memory of a student.”

“Who?”

“David, you will never be allowed to speak to the boy.” She says it with a look in her eye, one that I used to think of as kindness. She steps forward, says: “I saw it all David. The treatment is finished, that means you are free to go…soon.” I can’t stand the kindness, it doesn’t make sense. I say: “Jimmy was real.”

They both look at me like I’m some kind of idiot, some pathetic figure worthy of pity.

It’s too much. I say: “Give me the rest of my memories. And something to sleep. No dreams.”

Dr. Chopra does so.

Everything goes black.

The eye for an eye treatment dictates that I have my previous memories restored fully, whilst leaving my VR experience intact. According to the contract I signed I have to do a set number of interviews, in which I hopefully display contrition and true empathy for the victims of my mistakes.

The whole thing is a show. I carry it out, willing to do whatever I have to do because I deserve to suffer. The media will praise my rehabilitation as the answer to overcrowded prisons, the victory of technology over our archaic, barbaric judicial practices.

The final interview, with some organization ends with me having to watch for the umpteenth time my committal video. I watch it knowing it is for the last time:

“My name is David. And I…”

Anne’s voice interrupts from off camera: “State your full name please, and then in your own words.”

I look to the side, then look back myself. I brush back my head of short hair then say: “My uh…full name is David Paul, and I have been convicted of murder. I am a murderer.” I watch myself swallow. “I killed, by…accident.” I look to the side. Anne says:

“Good. Your own words. This is for your future self.” I nod, repeatedly, look back at me.

“I killed a little boy. His name was Isaac.” My eyes stop meeting the camera lens, look somewhere downwards.

“I have chosen to undergo the uh…treatment- sorry what is it called?” Someone too quiet to hear says something off camera.

I nod and say: “Right. The treatment they call an eye for an eye. I am a volunteer. In lieu of a long prison sentence. I will be uh…made to forgot, my memory will be edited and then I will experience the…death of my child. I don’t have one. He isn’t real.”

He is real to me.

“I do this with of own free will. And I uh…is that all?”

Someone says something off-screen: “And what I…hope…is that I will understand afterwards and be fit to rejoin society. Or yeah.” I look off-screen say “Yeah, that’s it.” and then it ends.

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Short story: Original Sin (part 1)

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!”

“…what?”

“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.”

“Oh.”

“She says she’ll come soon though.”

“Okay.”

“Sorry Jimmy.”

“Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“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.

(cont. tomorrow)