As promised last week, here is a complete chapter from my upcoming novel, Beside an Open Window. I’ve chosen this particular chapter (chapter 8) because it works well as a stand alone story (thanks to Hypatia Pickens for pointing this out).
At the reunion park, there was a man on the dead side and a woman with a young boy on the living side. The man was crouched down to the level of his son and the boy kept pressing against the divide between them as though it might give way if he pushed hard enough. The man put his fingers against where the boy’s fingers touched the ‘glass’. He was leaving tiny smears there from the melted ice cream he had been clutching just a few minutes earlier. “Where’s the door, daddy?” he was asking.
“There is no door, darling,” the woman said to him.
“This is where I live now,” the man said. “I can’t come over to your side any more.”
“Why?” the boy asked.
“Because that’s the way it is,” he replied, “that’s the way things happen sometimes.”
“Are you in heaven?” the boy asked.
“No,” said the woman, firmly.
“Sort of,” said the man, and he glared at her angrily.
Presently, the woman said, “Let’s go to that playground over there. Then you can play whilst I talk to daddy.”
“Can you play chase with me?” the boy asked her, hopefully.
“I’ll play chase with you,” said the man. “We’ll run on either side of the glass, ok?”
“Can we race there?”
“Sure we can! Are you ready? Get set… Go!” They ran.
Of course, the man could have flown there, but that would have been cheating.
Later, they sat on a bench that was half in, half out of the electronic world. The woman sat with her shoulder resting against the glass at the spot where his shoulder pressed from the other side. She wondered momentarily what actually was on the other side of this digital wall and thought of a dusty corridor with wires dangling from places, then a secret, overgrown garden with statues, then a place that looked like a garden in heaven, where everything was green and trimmed neatly; an exclusive garden club of some description, membership only. She wondered about heaven, which she believed in. She wondered what her real husband must have been thinking about her, down here, sitting with this digital imposter, this shadow, this footprint he had left behind. She hoped he did not mind. She hoped he understood how much she needed it. She hoped he did not feel betrayed.
Then again, the scan had been his idea in the first place. Of course it had.
“Are you sleeping properly?” she asked the man.
“Stop fussing,” he told her. “I’m fine.” The man was thinking to himself about things so far unspoken, about the nature of the relationship he now had with this woman. Let’s start with the words, he said to himself. Is it appropriate to continue to call her my wife or should I now call her my ex-wife? But an ‘ex-wife’ I would have separated from… except that we are separated, really… I should see if there’s a seminar on this topic. There must be. I wonder why no-one ever asked me about it before?
“You look like you’re cold,” she said.
“I keep telling you,” he replied, “there’s no such thing as cold here.”
“I can’t imagine what that’s like,” she said. “Don’t you miss feeling warm?”
“Actually,” he said, with sadness, “I can’t remember what it feels like any more. Isn’t that strange? You live your whole life in sensory dimensions you hardly even think about and then, once they’re gone, it’s like they never even existed in the first place. Except when I did have them they shaped the way I learned about the world I stood in, so it’s not actually like they never existed at all. Well. They’ll work out how to do it one day. Lord knows, there’s plenty of time.”
It often looked to him like nothing very much at all had changed from her point of view. In fact, it shocked him the degree to which she appeared to have accepted the situation. And absorbed it.
“I still think we should get the house converted.” She said and looked at their boy. “Oliver needs his father. He needs to see him every day. You could work from home. If we had a seeshow in the main room it would be like you were back at home again. You could sit with us in the evenings.”
“We can’t afford another seeshow, especially not one that size,” the man said. “We’ve talked about this before. I am at home many evenings; it’s not like Oli has to go any distance to see me when I’m in. The immersion room will have to suffice for now.
“In any case,” he added, “you know that’s not the way things are done.”
“So you keep telling me,” she said. “Although sometimes I think it’s like you don’t want to be with us any more.”
After a pause, he told her, “You know that’s just not true. I’m only following the standard advice. Trying to continue your physical life after you’ve died as though nothing has happened isn’t healthy. It’s one of the biggest factors associated with…” he paused again, broke eye contact, “…digital suicide. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t follow my own advice, don’t you think? I’m a new being now, Cathy. I have to move on. I have to evolve.”
She let the suicide comment pass. “And you call this so-called ‘plan’ of yours evolution?” she asked him.
“No,” he replied. “I call that retribution. I call that justice.”
“He got his picture done at school yesterday,” she told him. “I would have got his hair cut, only I forgot it was this week the guy was coming.”
“But I like his hair like that,” the man said. “It starts to go curly when it grows long.”
“I don’t understand why it takes them so long to get the proofs done. In this day and age, you’d think it’d be mailed to you before it was time to pick the kids up in the afternoon.”
“They usually take more than one picture,” he said. “They have to decide which one they want to send you.”
“They don’t think I can choose a good picture of my son?”
“They don’t like you to see that they can take anything less than a perfect photograph,” he told her. “That would detract from the illusion that they’re a much better photographer than you are.”
“Oh yes of course. I see. We were talking about it in the playground yesterday; I suppose I should have thought of that.” She tapped the glass absently a few times where his right hand rested against it. “Don’t forget, it’s parents’ evening next Thursday.”
“I know,” he said, a little impatiently. “You told me just this morning.”
“Well they’re going to a lot of trouble for us, darling. I don’t want to let them down by you forgetting.”
“If you’re logged on in the school IR and you message me,” he said, “then it’s virtually impossible for me to forget.”
“You might be asleep,” she said.
“I’ll give you waking rights, ok?”
“Really?” A smile broke out across her face. “Well, only if you want to.”
“It’s no problem,” he said. “It makes sense that you have them, after all.”
“Yes, you’re right,” she said. “It makes… sense.”
“Just don’t go letting Oliver use them!”
“Heh.” They sat for a full minute in silence. They both pretended to watch their son.
“Oh did I mention next door have got a new car?” she said.
“Yes,” he replied. “You said it was purple.”
“That’s right. They still haven’t got rid of the old one yet. I expect when I get home it’ll be taking up the space in front of our house again. I’ll have to park half a mile away, like I did last Sunday. I am a widow, you know. You’d think they’d be a bit more considerate.”
“It’s hardly half a mile,” he said. “And being a widow doesn’t make you disabled.”
“It’s the principle,” she told him. “What do they need with three cars anyway?”
“Have you listed mine yet? That’ll create an extra space.”
“No,” she said.
“But you are going to? Soon?”
“I suppose.” She sighed. “It just seems so final.”
“You need to get rid of it, Cathy. It’ll help you to move on.”
“Maybe I’m not ready to ‘move on’,” she snapped. “Don’t rush me, Stuart. I’ll do it in my own time.”
“Ok, fine,” he said.
“I keep thinking about the camping holidays we had in that car,” she said. “Oliver keeps asking me if we’re still going to go to France in the summer.”
“You should go,” he said. “I want you to. Oli needs things like that to look forward to. But go in the Peugeot. That’ll give you a chance to lay down holiday memories with a different car.”
She sighed again and started looking at her fingernails. “It’s all so easy for you, isn’t it?” she said.
Sometimes, he wished he could smash the glass with his fist. “Not even remotely,” he said. He had to refrain from spitting out the words. She heard the bitterness and looked at him again, her own anger instantly dissolved. Her lip trembled.
“I’m sorry baby,” she said.
“At least you can go camping again,” he reminded her.
“I know. I know. I’m sorry. I know how difficult it is for you. I’ll…” she paused, and this time it was her who broke the eye contact, “…never forget that note you left me; never. But you know how it is; it just won’t be the same without you. We both of us feel that way.”
Stuart thought about camping for a moment, and it occurred to him that this was an experience which it really was impossible to replicate in Dawn, in even the smallest respect. Sure, you could recreate all the visuals and sounds, and those could be done down to the smallest conceivable detail if you wanted. Trees could cast their shadows and swish, just like in real life, and canvas could ripple and flap in virtual wind, and the grass beneath your tent could be yellow when it was time to pack it away. But camping was all about the other senses: the smell of canvas, wet or dry; the feeling of grass beneath bare feet, sandy from the beach; the smell of tinned stew cooking on the stove and the match that was used to light it; the feeling of two glasses of wine inside you, caught within the rays of a setting sun; the smell of Oliver when he climbed out of the pool, dripping, and came over to be wrapped up in his towel.
“Anyhow,” she said, “my car’s too small for the tent and everything else. I would have to use yours.”
“You can get a smaller tent now,” he told her, brutally. “And you won’t need three sleeping bags or pillows any more. And you won’t need three beds either.”
“It still won’t fit,” she insisted.
“Fine,” he said. “Then keep my car and sell yours.”
“Maybe I’ll do just that,” she said, as though the idea had never occurred to her before. Which he very much doubted.
“Did you hear anything yet from Michelle?” he asked. “About Rob?”
“Oh yes!” she said. “I completely forgot. He’s coming home in a couple of days. And that reminds me, you said you’d ring John Timpson about his fuel cell problem; I spoke to him yesterday and he said he hasn’t heard from you.”
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I forgot about that.”
“Will you ring him? Today, please? It makes me look stupid if you don’t.”
He hesitated, then said, “Sure. But please stop telling people I’ll ring them about stuff. You’ve no idea how awkward it is.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“The whole receiving-a-phone-call-from-a-dead-guy thing,” he said. “People just don’t know how to respond to me. It’s like ringing someone you haven’t spoken to for years and then telling them every last detail about the meal you just ate. I get all these polite umms and ahhs and then out come the conversation wrappers, at the earliest possible moment. ‘Well, Stuart, it’s sure good to hear from you again.’ I hate it. It’s so embarrassing. Nobody knows what to say.”
“But John needs your help!” she insisted.
“He didn’t approach you about it though, did he? He happened to mention he was having problems and you just invited me upon him. You know, there’s nothing stopping any of these people from ringing me if they want to. It’s still the same old number. John probably wishes he hadn’t said anything to you now about his fuel cell. Next time he sees you he’ll probably cross over to the other side of the road before you get to him. People will stop talking to you altogether if you’re not careful.”
“You don’t need to be like that,” she said. “I’m just trying to keep you in touch with your friends.”
“I know you are,” he said. “But I’m dead now. I’m different from how I was. I’m not the same as they are any more. Maybe I should hang around with other dead people a bit more. They understand what it’s like, Cathy; that’s all I’m saying.”
“That’s not what you said when we first activated you,” she said
“Because I wasn’t used to being dead then,” he told her. “I was scared and I didn’t want things to change.”
“How things have changed since then,” she said.
“So did they look at your application yet?” she asked him. “They must have looked at it by now.”
“I haven’t heard anything,” he said.
“You didn’t chase them?”
“It’s too early to chase them.”
“It’s been four months,” she said. “How is that too early?”
“These things take time,” he replied. “We have the insurance pay-out for now. And selling the car will help.”
“The insurance money will last for another year at most,” she said. “I need to know that I’m going to be able to feed and clothe our child beyond a year from now. It’s all right for you: you don’t need to eat any more.”
“The application will be successful,” he reassured her. “I used to process these things myself, remember? I know the criteria.”
She looked at him helplessly, their noses just inches apart. “But what if they find out?” she whispered. “What if they find out about what you want to do?”
“They won’t find out,” he told her. “Not if we do this right. In any case, it’s not like it’s illegal activity.”
“How is it not illegal?” she whispered. “How?”
“Brain scans have no human rights,” he told her, flatly. “So they have no human rights to be violated.”
“It’s criminal!” she hissed. “And you know it!”
“It is nothing of the sort,” he replied, irritated, bitter. “What happened to me was criminal. The fact that bastard went unpunished is criminal.”
A tear ran down her cheek. “This is so unlike you,” she whispered. “Why did you have to go and get like this?”
“I got murdered,” he told her. “Things like that cause a man to look at things differently.”
It would soon be two months since he had finally approached his induction mentor and asked to be switched off. He regretted it now, regretted the outburst, regretted the things he had said in desperation, just so that they knew there was not one sliver of doubt in his mind. Because he knew what the criteria were: he knew they would insist on certainty.
He had not told Cathy in advance. He had not said goodbye to Oliver. He had written them notes and arranged for them to be sent automatically. A part of him at the time had assumed that Cathy would be relieved. I am worth only thirteen people, he had written to her. He knew that was hardly her fault (though a part of him blamed her, nonetheless). It was not up to her to determine others’ retrospective evaluation of his life and its accomplishments. But she had to understand how that had made him feel. It had destroyed him. It had taken everything he thought had from him.
And it had caused him to think. What was his footprint? What had his contribution been? What had he left behind?
His mentor had looked deeply unhappy at the news – more so than Stuart had expected. At first, he had thought it was the PR implications. He had noted the mentor’s youth and decided it was probably anxiety about how he would handle the inevitable media attention. But there were long and awkward silences which just did not seem to fit that hypothesis.
“Listen, Stuart…” he had said eventually, appearing to wrestle each word out into the open. “If things are really that bad… maybe this would make a difference, I don’t know…” The mentor took a deep breath. “Oh, what the hell. Look. There’s something you should probably know… something you haven’t been told about.”
“About what?” he had asked him.
“About how you died.”
“They told me I died of a brain haemorrhage,” Stuart said.
“Yes, you did,” his mentor replied. “But it’s not quite as simple as that.”
“Well anyway,” he said, “I should go.”
“Already?” she asked. “It’s only been an hour. It took us ninety minutes to get here in the traffic.”
“Not right now, then,” he said, “but I will have to go soon.”
“Why? Where do you have to go? You’re dead for Christ’s sake! Are you telling me you have some sort of schedule to keep to?”
“I have a meeting with someone,” he told her.
“Another meeting? To do what?!”
He started to say something, then paused and said, “Look, don’t be like this.”
“You know what?” she said, her voice breaking, “they know what they’re talking about, the Christians. You’re soulless, I swear to God. It’s like every God-damned thing has to revolve around you and nobody else.”
“Don’t cry baby,” he said, reaching out to touch the glass in front of her cheek.
But she pulled away from him, sharply, wiped her eyes. “You’re not my husband!” she cried. “You’re a digital… thing! You have no soul! I want my husband back! I want… my husband… back!” She started to sob, but then she pulled herself up straight, stood up, took a deep breath; she called Oliver over. Whilst he came, she rubbed her eyes once more. She looked at him, stared at him. “You’re not my husband,” she said. And she took her son by the hand and marched away from the glass.
He watched his son grow more distant. He watched how he struggled to keep up with Cathy as they cut across the grass. The boy had to trot to keep pace; at the same time, he kept trying to look back at his father. Stuart could see his distress even now. He remembered how Oliver used to get upset if goodbyes were not done in a certain way. On those odd occasions when he and Cathy had rowed in the morning, this was how she would march him off to school, and he would cry all the way there because he had not kissed his father goodbye the way he was used to. He watched as Oliver took another look back and then fell, because he wasn’t looking where he was going. Cathy stopped, waited for him to get up, shouted at their boy; but he couldn’t hear the words she used. It was unusual for her to shout at him.
When they were out of sight, he teleported home, hand-wrote a lengthy apology and stuck it to the seeshow so she would see it when she got back. His fingers still touching the back of the letter, he looked through the glass into the IR in their house, peered through the open doorway and into the living room beyond. He saw the arm chair he used to sit in. He saw Oliver’s toys on the floor. It made him feel oddly voyeuristic, looking at these things he could never again touch. More than anything else, he longed to be back there, back in that chair with Oliver at his feet running toy cars into his toes.
He wondered how it would be to look through from here when Cathy got a new boyfriend. He wondered how long it would be before they started keeping the door to the IR shut as a matter of routine.
Tracking people in Dawn was rarely easy if you weren’t the police or a private detective. The principle of anonymity still applied, as it had done ever since the very early days, before even voice had been brought to the metaverse. There were some who looked upon their death as an ideal excuse for starting again; it was possible to begin your afterlife with a completely new identity if you wanted. And then there were the alt switchers, because even the dead could have more than one account in Dawn.
Stuart had spent the best part of a month in search of the man he was about to meet. The month before that had been spent in study and in research and in thought, and this man’s metaverse name had been revealed to him at the end of it. The month before that had been born in despair and depression, and had ended in anger and determination. And the month before that had started with denial, and fear, and grief.
Stuart teleported over to Floating Point’s skybox five minutes early. He was greeted there by a man who looked cowed and sounded somehow tired.
“I got your message, yes,” he confirmed when Stuart arrived. “How exactly can I help you?”
“My name is Stuart Willis,” he told him. “Inworld, when I was alive, I went by the name of Lexington Greene. You and I have something in common, Mr Point: we were both killed by Jason Harlan.”
And grief. The why and the how had not mattered at first. Just coming to terms with the cold hard fact of it all being over had been enough for Lexington Greene, and the irony of this had not been lost on him. ‘Think of this less as an ending and more as a beginning,’ had been one of his favourite phrases of consolation, wisely offered over many iterations of the same meeting. Stuart was used to the look of disorientation and loss, and at the same time he had grown tired of it. How bad can it be not to smell, not to taste, not to feel? he would ask himself, reducing everything in his thinking to just input and output; to data streams; to variables; to numbers. Now that it was gone, the connectedness to the world that these ‘channels’ had provided (and to the things within which he had loved) was more visible than it had ever been to him during life. The feel of the sun… gone. The touch of his son’s hand… gone. The smell of his wife’s hair… gone. Even the sensation of the air upon his face as he walked… all gone; all gone, forever.
The jury was still out on the etiquette of attending one’s own funeral in virtual form. On the one hand, it could be viewed as a rite of passage for the deceased, a closure process that helped transition from one world to the next. On the other, it could be viewed as an intrusion on other people’s grief, an imposition on the mourners’closure process. Of course, newly activated avatars nearly always chose to go if the funeral had yet to happen by the day that they got switched on (they wanted to see what people said about them). Since activation dates were often set down in writing by the deceased at the time of scan, that meant it was usually incumbent upon reluctant relatives, therefore, to get the funeral organised as quickly as possible – before there was a digital guest to have to consider – and then to tell the deceased when they got switched on that there hadn’t been any other dates available.
Stuart had attended his funeral and it had been a mistake for him to do so. He had gone so that he could grieve for his passing with his family and friends; he had left distraught at how few people had turned up. Thirteen. Thirteen. His wife, his son, his father, his aunt and her new husband, Michelle and Rob, a couple of his colleagues, his line manager, the head teacher at Oliver’s school, and two of Cathy’s work friends. That was it. Even his own sister had failed to make the 300 mile trip from Glasgow to say goodbye to the brother she had used to jump on on Saturday mornings.
I am worth only thirteen people, he had thought, from his corner of the crematorium chapel; one of three digital frames on the wall kept for metaversian intrusions such as his. Even the other frames were empty.
© 2014 Huckleberry Hax