I don’t even bother with the door pad this time- I’m ready for a fight as I open the front door. Words cocked and loaded, the right expression and the right motivation- self righteous anger on Jimmy’s behalf. Past the balcony door open to the night, past the yellow sofas and the bill laden coffee table into the corridor I yell: “SARAH?” I’m not going to look for her. She’s coming to me. “SARAH?” I cup my mouth: “SARAAHHH?” Silence. Fear grips me. I start running, looking in the guest room- messy but empty, my- our room- the same as the morning, the kitchen, nothing. Jimmy’s room is untouched. She’s actually not home. Where the fuck could she be? A bit of tension releases from my body- I don’t have to fight anyone right now.
Yet I’m alone, again. I fall onto an arm-chair covered in laundry. This is the opposite of what a family should feel like. I try to go backwards in my head but I can’t seem to remember the good times, it’s as if a fog persists when I try to look back. I can remember being alone though, that’s crystal clear. Not specific moments but the horrid feeling, that lingering hollow that seems to echo.
I go to bed shortly afterwards hoping for good dreams to escape to.
In the dream I’m teaching history to a class of kids.The classroom isn’t a classroom, it’s some kind of virtual environment. Someone in the class puts up his hand and asks what a plow is. With a flick of my wrist I generate a virtual farm with hovering red text for all the different implements. I tell the students to start working and we teleport to an open field. I make them work and experience the drudgery of farming and then I really wake up.
Wake into a dark room, my bedroom. No Sarah but three figures standing over me- terror takes over. I mumble something. Fuck. Now they know I’m awake. Fuck. They are my wardens and I am powerless against them. One says: “He’s coming to. Give him some more, quick.” And there is a bit of movement and then I feel so peaceful, sudden serenity; I drift away.
If I had dreamed of anything else I cannot tell, as the alarm on my wrist shivs me awake again. I let it ring, and ring, and ring, and ring. The same awful dream. Again. It felt so real. The alarm rings and I notice no urge to shut it off. It rings, and rings, and ring. Who are those people in the dream? I wished I reached up and touched one. Reached up and grabbed one of their necks. What if I had just gotten up? The alarm continues to ring.
Loud stamping sound, sudden storm approaching, it breaks when my doors flies open and Sarah shouts: “TURN IT OFF!” And then swivels and flies away. I look at the phone on my wrist, detach it, let it ring, and ring, and then I turn it off. Sarah brought the anxiety with her, left it behind.
It follows me all the way to work. After the meetings, in which I said little and heard less, on my screen a line of inquiry, a thought grabs hold: why did it seem so real last night? Not the class, which I remember, but those people, the silhouettes always watching. I start to search for similar nightmares- maybe it’s one of those things, like how being trapped in a tight place is a common sort of dream, or your teeth falling out. Nothing really comes up in the search. I do some work, just to mix things up, then later, after lunch try another idea. I start reading about these syndromes, these disassociative reality disorders that come from spending too much time in VR. The problem with VR is it’s too real. Once we figured out how to use the brain to do part of the processing we no longer had to design every single level, every single detail. Like a dream, the VR utilizes our own minds to both perceive and create the reality.
I read stories about kids who play too many games they no longer can handle the real world. Paranoid articles about again, kids, who go on violent killing sprees or kill themselves, too reckless in a world where you only have one life. The question, broached in every article that doesn’t read like a piece of shit, the old question: how do we know which is really real?
I’m reading an interview with one professional gamer who “disdains the meat and all it’s needs.” when a shadow falls over me. I’m too tired to switch programs, manage to only resize the article. Mr. Lighter says: “What are you doing? What’s all this?” A final thought surfaces: If the real world isn’t, then who gives a fuck what I do?
I turn and face him. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
Mr. Lighter’s tone doesn’t soften despite my dying son. “It looks like you’re spending time reading about…VR games?” So. Fucking. What I’m going to say and it looks like you’re being a massive flaming jerk as usual Mr. Lighter. Have you really got nothing better to do than walk around pissing aloud on people? Are you such a useless dangling prehensile fucking growth that you don’t have any real way to add any real value so you get off on this sad little power trip?
Mr. Lighter’s face suddenly changes, goes from frowning to a sad, almost piteous look. His voice lowers: “Oh, it’s for Jimmy isn’t it? He likes games huh? Man, just like my daughter, she loves this VR stuff.”
I wasn’t prepared for a human moment. My fists unclench whilst something sticks in my throat.
I stutter: “Th…that’s right Mr. Lighter. Jimmy, he loves racing games you know? There is this one, Formula Own, he follows the E-sports leagues for it and all the rest.”
“No kidding? I play Formula Own! It’s heavy stuff, simulation level racing physics. Does Jimmy have a favorite team?”
“Hah! Crowd favorite, everyone loves them. The blue flames am I right?”
“Listen, you telling me Jimmy really loves them? ‘Cuz no joke, I have something for him then, be right back.”
Mr. Lighter jogs away. I’ve never seen him do that before. I want to fucking cry again. Of course this is real. How can this not be real? What the fuck is wrong with me. I slam my head onto the table so hard, I hear Jeff mutter and get up from his seat, he’s probably looking over the cubicle wall. No matter- he has the decency not to ask me what’s wrong. I hear him sit back down. I try to slow my breathing. I’m always getting angry so easily. It’s a bad habit.
I feel as if I owe Mr. Lighter something so I tab back to some actual work and spend roughly thirty seconds on it before Mr. Lighter reappears, puffing slightly and brandishing a cap, red with blue flames animating on the sides, holograms emblazoned FIRE1. It looks so familiar. Incredible. I get up and take it with two hands. This is it I just know it is, this is how I make Jimmy a little bit happier today.
“Mr. Lighter, thank you, thank you so much. I can’t begin to tell you what this means to me. Jimmy is always so down you know, and I find it really hard to…ah…ah…”
One big hands clamps down on my shoulder. Mr. Lighter looks me dead in the eye. He says “I’m a father too.” His cheeks wobble a bit.
He hugs me. I think the whole office is watching.
Mr. Lighter says: “Go now, don’t worry. This is more important.”
That does it. I dig my head into his jacket’s shoulder, but only for a moment, before getting my shit together, packing up and going. Eyes avert. Every negative thought I’ve ever had towards my boss has been a crime. I hold the hat like the prize it is. In an empty lift to my own, scratched reflection: “I can do this. I can do this.” Do what? Don’t answer that question. Focus on the now, the today, not what could be or might. Downstairs I head for another auto-cab, no bus, no waiting, nothing to stall my inertia. Input the location on the interface, it feels like I’m definitely in control. The auto-cab zooms off, taking advantage of the mid-day lack of traffic.
When my wrist vibrates I answer in one- it’s Sarah: “Sarah! I’m on my way to the hospital and you should come too.”
Fucking Sarah. I find the courage to tell her the truth for the first time in weeks: “Look Sarah I know you’ve got problems but you’re his fucking mother. Get yourself together just for today- he needs you. Yesterday I called and you didn’t pick up, you didn’t even call back. I was calling because Jimmy asked for you. We might not have all the time we need. We have to value the days…
“Stop.” She’s in tears, I can hear it. Again. She’s always in tears. We can’t have a goddamn conversation without her crying.
“SARAH. STOP IT. YOU STOP IT RIGHT NOW.”
She starts to wail- I’ve not heard her do that before.
“Please…listen.” She manages.
“SARAH!” The auto-cab breaks suddenly and the hat flies out of my hand and I hesitate as I scramble on the floor to pick it up. It’s just long enough for Sarah to get her words in:
“Jimmy’s gone. Jimmy has passed away.”
“Jimmy’s gone. He’s…” I hang up.
There is nothing left. Somehow the hat is crumpled up in my claw. I release slowly, smooth out the top. Then I put on the hat because I don’t want to just let it fly around on the seat. It fits and there is no one in the cab so I scream. I scream and I grab my shirt. I scream and punch the leather seat. I stop screaming and punch myself in the leg. There is nothing left. This is too much. The memory comes then:
A policeman shouting at me, telling me that a boy is dead and then telling me to shut it as I start to cry.
And it’s gone.
That is what this feels like, what it felt like, but this is worse, much worse. Than. What. Much worse than what? What was the other? Thought. There are no thoughts. No words. There is nothing left.
When the cab arrives I pay my fare and alight, so slowly. Nothing is real. It doesn’t feel real. There is no group outside the hospital waiting to receive me and explain everything. The entrance is the same- two automatic doors and an awful smelling lobby and then a lift. I press the floor to Jimmy’s room. I tap it after it lights up. Once. Twice. Three times. When the door opens I run out with the hat on my head trailing virtual blue flames because nano-technology has come so far but not far enough to fix the cancer and his door is open and I stop.
His room is empty. Then I realize there is a chubby nurse with a hand on my shoulder. I want to throw her off, but I don’t have the strength. She’s telling me that Jimmy’s gone, but I know that already it’s obvious. I go inside the empty room and lean over the empty bed with the smoothed out floral hospital covers and finally, now, here, so close to where he should be- now I weep like a little boy. There is nothing left to do.
Eventually I can hear someone else, eventually I care enough to listen. It’s the same nurse, talking in her strange drawl about where my wife is. I don’t care where my wife is.
“Where is Jimmy?” She seems at a loss for words. I clarify: “His…why isn’t he in the room? Where is he?”
She says “Sir. Your wife, she said we should move him, he was here for half an hour and…”
“What? What do you mean he was here for half an hour? I don’t understand.”
“Sir, your wife, we called her forty-five minutes ago she came and…”
“What are you telling me that my son- I only got a call fifteen minutes ago.”
“Your wife’s number was listed. We called her…” She’s actually backing away from me. Why? I’m told I’m a big guy. Six foot seven, over two hundred and something pounds. I’m told that I intimidate people when I stand over them and twitch like I do. I try to relax the expression on my face, it resets to strained after a few seconds. They called my wife forty-five minutes ago. “Where is she?”
The nurse hands out a slip of paper, her arm trembling. I grab it and start walking. It’s directions to some other floor. I try to remain calm on my way there, I really do. When I arrive I see her, her hair’s a mess, and she’s talking to a doctor like a normal person. “SARAH.” She spins around, her hands up. The doctor is a big guy too. “WHY THE FUCK DID YOU HAVE JIMMY MOVED?” The doctor gets in the way. He puts up his arms or something and he’s big too, so I have to yell over his shoulder: “WHY DIDN’T YOU FUCKING CALL ME? I SHOULD HAVE BEEN HERE AND HE SHOULD BE IN HIS ROOM. HE SHOULD BE IN HIS FUCKING ROOM.” The doctor is yelling something. Help I think. He’s got his arms around me now, like a rough hug. The hat comes loose and falls to the floor. I stop and grab it- catch it in mid-air.
I just stand there.
The doctor says I need to calm down, and he is very sorry but I need to calm down.
Sarah is crying some more.
The hat- Jimmy would have died before I even had it in hand. If I’d been told at the right time I wouldn’t have brought it with me. I sit down on the tiled floor, hands flat, absorbing the cold. The doctor is telling the people who came to help that there is no need anymore. He’s right. The hat looked familiar- now I remember it, finally. The day of the carnival Jimmy gave the hat he loved away and I didn’t know he even loved it that much. That was a good day. The memory comes, unbidden, it flows through me- summoned right in front of me, I’ve never felt this way before. It begins to play out, that perfect day, only two months ago, and a part of me somehow thinks this might be my favorite memory of Jimmy because I feel so calm all of a sudden as I see him laugh and eat cotton candy except, that…except…that…it’s not my favorite memory of Jimmy. The red hat. I put it down.
Close my eyes. I can taste cotton candy. No, that isn’t what I want to remember. I mumble: fuck off. Someone outside says something like “What?” but I ignore them.
My real actual favorite memory of Jimmy has nothing to do with a carnival at all. It was a simple conversation.
It was a terribly smoggy day, a poor weekend and I was at home with Jimmy. Sarah was out, I can’t remember where. I must have been very nosy at that moment, perhaps because I wanted to know Jimmy more, and directly approaching him had at some point become so difficult, which is why instead I stood in the doorway of his messy room watching him from behind as he did things on his screen. With his back to me, his ears covered by headphones, he would start and stop different videos, all these videos online. It looked so random at first, like how my parents would channel surf on televisions, he would load up a Youtube video and watch it for a few seconds before shaking his head and starting another.
I remember imagining for a moment that all those disparate videos with all their kaleidoscopic motions were like a projection of the inside of Jimmy’s head, his thoughts. The videos seemed so unconnected. Sometimes they looked like music videos, other times clips of stand-up comedians and once and awhile truly inexplicable things such as this one guy juggling pineapples and another one, which caused me to gasp- some woman jumping off a skyscraper in a wing suit. Most were cut short before I could appreciate them- and all the while Jimmy would intermittently shake his head in some kind of disapproval, or tchh out loud.
I wanted to know so badly what he was doing, and my solution was quite lame- I knocked on his door frame, eliciting a swivel from Jimmy in his chair as he tore off his headphones and glared at me. I said something like “Can I sit down for awhile son?” and he, puzzled, relented, and I did, I sat on his bed to his side, and stared at his profile, and his own eyes kept snapping to the side, as maybe he wondered what the hell I was doing. After a minute he asked me- “Are you okay Dad?”
Funny that being something he asked me, back then. He was already ill but it was before we had to commit him to the ward.
I really had no idea how to say it, so I acted like I was mesmerized and clueless and asked him what exactly he was doing. He told me, dismissively, that he was “Making a playlist.” A play list of videos.
I asked “Who is it for?” He answered with a shrug. I had never heard of someone making a playlist of videos, but after considering it I supposed it was a pretty good idea. I thought, at first, that it was for a girl. Then out of nowhere he said, “Hey Dad, want to see something cool?” And I was pretty thrilled. I can’t remember the last time he said something like that to me. He showed me a video about the sizes of things, from people to the stars, and how large they were relative to each other. It started with a person and then zoomed out, until we’re dwarfed by jets or skyscrapers then mountains then countries, the moon, the earth, the planets, then the sun, and then the part that struck me most were the stars. The sun reduced to a tiny dot in relation to the largest stars, and the earth, a dot compared to the sun. It was honestly kind of awe-inspiring.
I told him so.
He told me afterwards that he was making the playlist for his nemesis. I laughed when he used that word- “nemesis” and he clammed up afterwards, I felt so bad. Patiently I got it out of him, and he told me, that he was making the playlist for someone who hated him, and was quite mean to him.
If I hadn’t felt bad for laughing I think I would have just gotten upset, for sure I would have been all protective and demanding. But I was chagrined, so I just listened- and that’s probably what I should have done other times too. Jimmy called it “A playlist of the coolest vids I’ve seen. The top twenty-five.” I wish I had that playlist now. Goddamn it, I wish I did.
I asked him why he would make something for someone who treated him so badly. I was confused, I wanted to tell him he had to stand up to this guy, or barring that, I’ll take care of it, but instead I was, I guess, humbled a bit by all those stars and maybe the laughing- who knows. I’ll never know why, but I’m so glad because he told me then:
“Dad. The bully is like, angry. And anger is caused by pain Dad, it’s caused by suffering or having some kind of grudge. I don’t know what I did, maybe I did something to offend her you know?”
Her. I remember now, he said her.
“Like I caused her pain. And Dad, I just know, well you know everyone does- suffering sucks Dad. It really sucks. I think there are always only a few possible decisions I can make. I could choose do nothing, I could choose to be mean right back, or I can choose to be kind.” He had three fingers out, and he ticked each one. His hands were shaking then- most of the muscle had already faded but he still had his hair. I didn’t know what to say, which was good, because he went on.
Jimmy said: “There are only a couple of things that could be true.” He ticked his fingers again, this time the other way around- left tapping his right hand. All the while there was some video playing in the background, something to do with ancient Rome, I remember the temple of Jupiter, the coliseum and something to do with Augustus Caesar. Barley audible music eked out of his headphones that lay listening on the table. “One, what if they are hurting you because you hurt them. Two, everyone wants people not to hurt them, and if the one causing harm could identify with your pain- like, if they could feel what you feel, then they probably would not. Three, If you hurt them they feel worse which you yourself can’t identify with unless you’ve felt a similar pain. Four, if you are suffering then you know exactly what it’s like to feel pain. So I know what it’s like Dad. Do you understand?”
And the truth is I didn’t, I found it hard to follow. I was still more concerned with the fact that someone was messing with my son.
Jimmy ended it by saying “So Dad, I could do nothing. I could be mean back to her, and she could get angrier. Or, and like, this is the thing- I’m in the best spot to do this, I could be nicer. That’s the best choice right? It’s most important that someone like me, who was being hurt, is the one to be kind. I only have the choice to respond because she hurt me first.”
I thought he was looking to me for approval, but I didn’t have anything to say. I barely understood what he meant. He had conviction in his eyes, despite my silence. I thought a bit about what he was saying and that’s when I felt pride, so much pride it hurt. He was a better person than me. Jimmy had a bigger heart. I hugged him is all I did, and he let me, without tensing up, and the whole thing felt, I guess, sacred. It was the best hug he ever gave me- I can’t quite remember enough to prove it but I have faith anyway.
I stand up in the morgue, everyone else having backed away from me. “My wife will handle the rest.”
I walk slowly and wait in line for the bus without stirring. I’m in no rush to go back to home. There just does not seem to be much of a point. Once at home I go straight to Jimmy’s room. Standing in the doorway I try to picture him with his back to me, on his screen, or with the VR set on his head. I’m imagining, constructing an image of him- it’s not the same as remembering but it’s close. I try to, I really try to summon some specific day- I stare out his window and paint it gray, or blue, or orange, to create a context, maybe something tiny, like me telling him dinner is ready; but none of it is real. I can’t remember. Just some video of Rome, and a perfect hug. Is there something wrong with my mind? Why can’t I remember? I begin to feel nauseous. This could be trauma. I’m not thinking straight. Sure. I go to my room, Sarah and I’s room, and I close the door, lie down in my clothes and begin to pass out, my last thought; maybe I’ll see him.
The black takes me. Then there in front of me is an archaic chalkboard and I’m writing on it with my finger, chalk marks appearing wherever I stroke the rough surface and then I wake up. The world is still dark, my eyes stay shut but I’m awake, I can tell, that electric surge running all over my body. I can fucking hear them.
One saying something, need to focus, he’s saying “…This is far too complex. It’s not going to hold.”
Another one says: “Oh ya think? ‘Cuz it’s going real smooth.”
A third voice, a woman’s, Sarah’s? “Stop it. Schedule says Billy shows up in three days. Then we wrap up.”
There is something vaguely familiar about these voices, something about them that starts a ringing, deep inside. A terrifying association. Try to keep my breathing steady.
The woman who may be Sarah says: “Shit, he’s coming out of it again. What the hell? Michael fix it, now.” There is a bit of movement, an arm maybe, and then nothing. Serenity.
When I wake up its morning. Two names surface as I stretch out my legs. Micheal and Billy. Another nightmare last night, I wonder what they mean. I think it’s to do with a fear of being watched whilst helpless. Being judged, yeah, like all the time I’m being spied upon, my every action tallied up. Head hurts somewhat. Rest of the body needs more stretching, so I do. When I finally work up the motivation to go outside it’s nearly noon. Sarah isn’t home. I walk past Jimmy’s room and the reality hits me someplace hard. When did we get him that bed? I can’t remember. What was it like when he was born? I can’t remember. Still it hurts, goddamnit it hurts so much. I lay down in the corridor between rooms, the cold wooden floor freezing my unclad back.
I can’t take being on my own right now. After some hesitation, an internal argument that goes back and forth, I decide to call Sarah. When she answers it sounds like she’s out somewhere, a hum of conversation backgrounding our awkward dialogue.
“Sarah. It’s me.”
“Yes. I know that.”
“I’m at home. On my own.”
“Where are you?”
“With a friend you know, just eating some lunch.”
“Can you come home afterwards, so we can talk, you know?”
“I don’t know. I need to be with a friend right now.”
“What about later?”
“No. Not tonight. Tomorrow maybe.”
“A friend Sarah. Singular. One. Is his name Billy?”
She hangs up. I flex my wrist, open and close my fingers. The anger’s back. Billy. I just know she’s with some guy called fucking Billy. She’s fucking some guy called Billy. The revelation possesses my arm, makes it punch the stained cushions on the couches, her hair ridden pillow in the guest room. I call her back afterwards. It rings a long while, and I’m dedicated to at least leaving a message. Before I can she picks up, says nothing. That background hum only, I’m speaking to the restaurant she’s in. “Sarah who are you with? Are you with someone else? A guy? SARAH?”
Suddenly her voice, high-pitched, panicked: “Yes how the hell do you know that?”
My turn to hang up. It occurs to me now, with all this reckless energy that there is nowhere for me to go. I can’t go to work and face everyone. I can’t see Sarah and I haven’t got anyone else I can call. In my own apartment, I can’t enter, I can’t even look at two of the three small rooms. I’m fucking trapped. I know I’m supposed to do things now that Jimmy’s gone. I need to tell people. That suddenly doesn’t seem so important. The rage brings clarity. None of this is real. How could I know about Billy? I never knew about Billy till those people, those people who are watching me said so. This is all some kind of bad dream.
I go to the dining table and pick up the VR set, spend the rest of the day learning how to play Formula Own. I crash often but it’s exhilarating with the immersion dialed up to the highest setting. The thrill down my back when I turn a tight corner, it’s like some sort of communion with Jimmy’s spirit. Since none of this is real he isn’t really dead.
I spend all day jacked in, and when I finally come out of it I’m starving. Haven’t eaten all day and I feel so sleepy. Try to tell myself I shouldn’t feel these things, that it’s all some kind of illusion. I slap myself, trying to wake whilst the sun sets outside. It just hurts and in the bathroom mirror I see red marks. Very realistic, yes. I lie down on the couch. I’ll see those fuckers tonight, I’m sure of it, and this time I’m not going to be scared. This time I’ll ask them questions.
I wake around noon, the previous night a completely blank space, no memories of dreams, nothing. I fly off the couch and smack the wall. FUCKERS. On my wrist a plethora of messages, pleas from Sarah to handle somethings with the hospital, and a few messages of condolence. I ignore them- these people aren’t my fucking friends. Alone in the apartment I scream in my underwear:
“LET ME OUT. I KNOW THIS ISN’T REAL.”
I scream at the top of my lungs: “I FUCKING KNOW.”
No answer. I go lie down in Jimmy’s room and play Formula Own there, pausing to cry for in between races. By the afternoon I feel calm, so calm, and very sleepy. Strange, since I slept so much the night before. Why am I so listless? Is it because I didn’t eat? No. It’s those people, the ones watching, somehow they are keeping me down. I know I need to get mad. I need to feel something despite this inexplicable emptiness. I go on Jimmy’s screen and on his desktop I see a file: Formichelle. It’s the playlist. That girl, the one from the race, was the very same one that bullied him. I thought she’d be fat or something. I stand over Jimmy’s empty seat and try to picture him there with his playlist, with Rome and some woman jumping off a building. That’s what I should do. I should jump off the building. If I die I’ll wake up for sure.
I go to the balcony, stand outside in the wind. A sudden fear grips me as I begin to contemplate jumping- what if I just wake up and the whole thing starts all over again? I need an intervention. I need to see them tonight.
I spend the evening working out, eating well, preparing myself for a good night’s sleep. I pass out around midnight clutching a kitchen knife by the handle. I’m going in armed.