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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.