The Memory of My Shadow #01
Prologue & Chapter 1
My hands were tacky with rubber cement. I stuck and unstuck my thumb and index finger, enjoying the claustrophobic sensation of being caught and released over and over. The chemical fumes made my eyes water as I paged through a well-thumbed National Geographic magazine with my other hand, searching for lions. I would have settled for any beast.
It was Monday, second period, Mr. Schaffer’s applied arts class. I was working on a collage but not working too hard. It was a forest scene, the foliage, a mishmash of banana leaves from Ecuador, Aspens from Colorado, and house plants from the atrium of some movie star’s home. The rain was a thousand tiny fingers tapping on the classroom window, the perfect accompaniment to the Joni Mitchell song playing through the small speaker on Mr. Schaffer’s cluttered desk.
At the table beside me, Jill was on her phone texting with some college guy she met over the weekend. She held the phone down between her knees so Schaffer wouldn’t confiscate it as he was making his rounds. There was the slightest smile moving on her lips as she chewed on a strand of her hair. I never found out who the source of her smile was. She was dead before the song finished.
At first, it sounded like maybe the rain was coming down harder, like the fingers on the window were now fists. Someone closer to the door said, very clearly, it’s a gun.
What felt like an electric current moved through the nineteen of us and then, the room was no longer a room full of people, but of wild animals with bulging eyes, sharp elbows, choked screams, trampling feet, pushing in all directions, searching for escape.
The gunfire grew louder in the hallway, accompanied by shrieking, shouting and the sound of sneakers squeaking on the polished tile floors. Mr. Schaffer followed the protocol, fighting his way to the door which, according to policy was already closed and locked. He flipped over the table closest to the wooden door to begin making a barricade. He was gripping the tabletop and trying to wedge it up under the door when his hand exploded into a flower of red. He did not scream but stood there looking down at the wasted, raw meat and gristle of the instrument that only moments before he had used to guide the feather tip of a horse hairbrush in a perfect arch as he demonstrated to Jason Pittman how he could make better clouds.
He turned around to face us, his eyes wide, his mouth slack. He stood there for what seemed an eternity before the door splintered with a dozen angry holes and he fell to the floor. Three students nearest to the door were also hit, the bullets tearing through their bodies and tossing them across the room. The rest of us were all jammed up together against the windows.
A chair. That’s all it would have taken to break those windows. Over the years I think about this and a thousand other things I might have done to prevent what happened.
One of the bullets had destroyed the lock and the door was easily kicked in. The metal table legs screeched across the floor in futile resistance and then there was only the relentless repetition of gunshots and the acrid, metallic smell from the assault rifle. I don’t remember any more screams, only whimpers and pleading from small voices. The voices of frightened children. We were children, all the bravado of young adulthood stripped away. Like the others, I tucked my head between my knees and huddled in the herd, waiting. The gunshots were measured and thoughtful now, the cadence of someone making choices. It was a lurching call and response, an impossible metronome extinguishing a life with every beat.
Please, oh please, God no. BANG!
Don’t hurt me, please don’t. BANG!
You don’t have to. BANG!
I wanna go home, I just want my mommy. BANG! BANG!
“Yeah, me too. Shut up.”
I knew the voice. Without looking up, I knew the voice. How could I not? It was a voice that shared my first words, a voice that had always made me laugh and made me feel less afraid of the dark.
Time no longer existed. It was now a valley of dark silence punctuated by bangs. I waited until there were no more. I did not look up. I waited. I thought I must be dead. My ears were ringing beneath my clenched fists. My jeans were soaked in urine and blood. The smell is etched into my memory, but I cannot describe it to you. There are no words to describe what terror smells like.
I looked up, a rodent poking its head out of a hole. There was no movement from the warm bodies that lay bleeding out all around me. Someone’s leg twitched against my thigh for a few seconds and then it stopped forever. The emptiness was profound. The trough left behind a wave of souls departing all at once. Through the blur of my tears, I saw him standing there. Joe, my twin.
He stood with the assault rifle in his hands, the barrel smoking. Another one was slung over his shoulder and hung behind his back. I would learn much later that he had bought a kit online to modify the guns to make them fully automatic. Through the smoke, his eyes were empty holes, like the hollows of black olives. There was no reflection of light in them, no flicker of emotion. There was no recognition. He looked through me for so long, standing there, slack.
“Mare,” he said. His voice was my little brother’s voice, born two minutes behind me. “I’m uh… I’m sorry,” he said.
Just then, from somewhere back in the labyrinth of hallways, a scratchy amplified voice was talking to Joe. He turned his head to listen. I couldn’t make out what they were saying.
When the voice stopped, Joe turned the rifle around, put the barrel into his mouth, and with his thumb squeezed the trigger before I could even scream. Two final staccato BANG BANGs followed. His body dropped to the floor like a heavy bag of dirty laundry. I stared at the heap of him. I did not recognize the military-style black boots or the camouflage jacket. There was nothing familiar about him. His blood dripping from the drop-ceiling tiles of the classroom was not of my blood. I realized I did not know him at all. He was a piece of meat lying on a cold slab surrounded by other pieces of meat in this institutional room. The rain outside continued to fall.
Before I turned my eyes away for good, they lingered for a moment on his hand, poking out of the sleeve of the jacket. Around his wrist, I saw the faded bracelet I had made for him two years before when we spent the summer on a lake with Mom. The thing was frayed and so thin from wear that it was little more than a thread.
I don’t remember anything after that with any clarity. Someone must have come. It may have been minutes. It may have been hours or days. My memory is a reel of film cut and spliced into disjointed frames. Me lying in a hospital room with men in suits staring down at me, their hands busy scribbling into small notebooks. My father pacing back and forth by the window of the same room, now dark except for a streetlight outside. My mother wailing by my side, her arms across the white cocoon of my body on the hospital bed.
At some point later, I was home in my room with the curtains closed. The entire block around our house was a movable circus of media vans and reporters with microphones fixing their makeup. I don’t know how long that lasted but I never left my room, much less stepped outside of the house.
That was April 27, 2026, the day of the deadliest school shooting in American history. Forty-six people were killed that day by my brother, Joseph Espinoza, forty-seven if you count him. I may be alone, but I count him. I have counted him every day for the past 26 years.
I have spent my life trying to understand what happened in Joe’s brain. I never trusted the brain after that day, not mine, not anyone’s. I recognize it for the flawed instrument that it is, and I have devoted my life to finding a way to fix it. I think that I have.
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My name is not Mary Espinoza anymore. It’s Magdalena. Just the one name. I changed it when I turned eighteen and started my freshman year at MIT. I did not want my name to be the story of me that everyone heard before I even opened my mouth. When I have had friends, they called me Maggie, but I don’t really have any friends right now. Maybe one day when there is less to be done, I will have time for friends.
I started my story in the middle, the gruesome, fractured middle. I believe all stories start in the middle because none of us can speak with any accuracy to our origin. There was a time before when memory was malleable and fluid, like quicksilver. In the telling of our stories, we could take liberties. What choice did we have with such a flawed instrument as the human brain but to invent what was not properly recorded? Children born after 2052 will never know what it was like to have to remember, any more than my grandfather’s generation could imagine a time when numbers had to be calculated with pen and paper.
I have never told the story of my brother Joe out loud or in written form. When I read it back I even question if it is true. It seems unreal just as most of what I will tell you in this story will seem unreal. You may even begin to question what is real and that’s okay. I think it is a necessary point in our evolution as a species, to reach the end of our ability to understand and then to choose to leap and trust.
To understand what I am about to tell you will require you to make a leap. To make the leap, you will need a running start.
I double-majored in computer science and psychology and graduated a year early in the top five percent of my class. All my research, all my free time and energy I channeled into the pursuit of intelligence, specifically creating an intelligence equal to, if not greater than, our own. Before I even received my diploma, I had offers to work at companies all over Silicon Valley, from start-ups to the global monoliths that infiltrate and manipulate our entire population. I listened to all of their pitches and pretended to weigh their offers. Some of the signing bonuses were more money than my father made in a year as a tenured Physics professor. I accepted none of them. I was not motivated by money and my interest did not involve better ways to manipulate people to separate them from the money they didn’t have. I was young and full of ideals.
Instead, I accepted a fellowship and joined the graduate program at Georgia Institute of Technology. I did it for two reasons. For one, there was a professor leading a program in advanced machine learning who was making discoveries that seemed like science fiction. This Dr. Henri Choo had a background in biology and biochemical engineering, and all their work with computers was inspired by a fascination with the human brain and trying to understand the source of consciousness. Second but equally important was the fact that my father had taken a teaching position there and was not doing well.
When my mother passed the year after the incident, I thought I would lose him too. She could not bear up under the loss and guilt and anguish. It was like a molten iron anchor around her neck, searing into her heart even as it pulled her down. She overdosed using a bottle of prescription sleeping pills and my father found her on the couch wrapped up in an old quilt when he came home from work. There was no note. We didn’t talk about it. My father and I are alike in that. We can shut down when we need to. When it is the only good option.
Even shut down, Papa was nothing if not logical. He knew we could not stay in that house or in that town. He abandoned his tenured position at UCLA, sold the house, and moved us to Austin, Texas because it was a place he’d always wanted to see. He used to love to watch Austin City Limits and I think that was the draw. He rented us a two-bedroom house in Travis Heights near Lady Bird Lake, which was really just a wide stretch of the Colorado River and not a lake at all. This confused me, but I did love to walk along the river walk there beneath the trees. It reminded me of nothing, which was good. We lived there for the rest of the year while I finished high school. Some girls might have been upset about moving in their senior year, but I really didn’t give a shit. I lived in my head and moved through the world as if I was invisible, so it really didn’t matter to me where I was, as long as I had my laptop and some headphones.
The year we spent in Austin was a surreal way station for us both. Papa took up drinking with the same single-minded focus he had done most things in his life. I stopped waiting up for him, even though I worried. But every morning, he was there in the small kitchen making something for me to eat before I went to school. His thick, greasy hair, was a nest in the back from some deranged bird as he stirred a pot of oatmeal on the stove or a pan of scrambled eggs. Often, he was still wearing the same clothes from the day before, wrinkled and smelling of cigarettes and liquor. His eyes were bloodshot and hooded, his face a guilty mask. This was not who he was.
“Buenos días mi pequeño conejo.” He always called me his little rabbit.
I found the job for him at Georgia Tech. I knew I could not just leave him when I went away to college. He was a man who needed a purpose and without it, he would go the way of my mother. As I was applying for colleges, I was applying for jobs for him too. The week I got my acceptance letter from MIT, my first choice, I told him that he had an interview. He was not surprised by my boldness. He smiled in the tired way that was the only way he could anymore, and he nodded.
We both started at new schools in the Fall of 2028. I helped him get settled into a nice little apartment close to the lush green campus of Georgia Tech in this part of the country where we had never been before and had no connection to. It was like Austin in that respect, but better because there were trees and lots of rain which was something new and soothing for us both. I think something shifted for us by moving to the South. I don’t think either of us would have dared to call it hope but looking back, that’s what it was. During the week before I had to leave to go to Boston, we walked most evenings along the Beltline, a trail of greenspace encircling the middle of Atlanta along what was once a train track. On those evenings, the air was thick and heavy with humidity, but it was alive. We were alive.
In my presence, he did not drink anything stronger than sweet tea, which immediately became his favorite thing about the South. We ate barbeque and fried chicken and found a place that made tamales almost as good as my abuela’s. We did not talk of the past. How could we? We talked about my future and what I would discover, what I would invent. We talked about the great mathematical proofs, about String theory and about relativity. I tried to explain to him my love for computers, but he didn’t understand any more than he understood why my mother had loved them. In his mind, computers were tools and that was it. His phone was four years old and the only piece of technology he owned. He mostly used it as a voice recorder and a place to keep track of lists he was always making.
When the week was up, and I had to leave for Boston, he was sad that he would not be able to move me into my dorm. It was a milestone that he and my mother had always imagined was in front of them. I told him it was fine. I had plenty of money to get whatever I needed, and I was not afraid. So brave, he said. How did you get to be so brave, little rabbit?
At the airport, he had quietly cried. I hugged him for a long time and in that moment felt the reality of what we had both been avoiding for so long. We were two, not four, not three and, in a moment, we would be divided again.
My years at MIT were a blur. I studied, coded, ate, and slept a couple of hours a night, woke up, and did it all over again. That was the extent of my existence. I barely made it to Atlanta to see Papa except for major holidays but we kept in touch daily through texts and emails mostly. Once a week he’d force me into an AR chat so he could see for himself that I wasn’t starving. He was always excited to hear about my work even though I don’t think he really understood what I was trying to do. He was my biggest fan and supporter, my hype man. Any time we were in a public place, he felt compelled to tell a complete stranger about his brilliant daughter and how she was going to change the world. It was insufferably embarrassing at the time but looking back I can see how his words propelled me – they stoked the fire that I already had burning inside me.
Papa was actually the reason I ended up at Georgia Tech studying under Dr. Choo. He knew my keen interest in artificial intelligence and machine learning, so he had made it a point to seek out the eccentric Dr. Choo and to pick their brain about the work they were doing. Papa would then relate it back to me the next time we talked. He got in the habit of picking up an extra cup of coffee three mornings a week and going by Dr. Choo’s office on his way in to start his own day.
The two of them would talk, Dr. Choo telling Papa about the numerous setbacks the team had in their attempts to develop a functional prototype that would advance the already prodigious progress on A.I. that was happening on the West coast. Papa would in turn tell Dr. Choo about how well I was doing at MIT. This matchmaking went on for over a year. When I came home for Christmas break during my junior year, Papa invited Dr. Choo to join us for dinner. That meeting was a pivotal moment in my life.
When I answered the door that evening and stood face-to-face with Dr. Choo for the first time, I was not prepared. Papa had told me so much about his esteemed intellect but had neglected to tell me anything about the professor’s appearance. I can see why. Dr. Henri Choo was not someone easily classified, and Papa lived so much in his head that he barely noticed his own appearance so why should anyone else’s be of consequence?
Standing on the stoop in front of me was a beautiful, elegantly dressed Chinese woman wearing some strange contraption on their head. Dr. Choo was wearing what appeared to be a homegrown prototype that was a clunky marriage between a stylish pair of glasses, a tiny micro-computer, and a wide Velcro choker around their neck that reminded me of a blood pressure cuff. There were a couple of wires discreetly tucked behind Dr. Choo’s ear that connected the glasses to the choker. I could just make out another bundle of wires that disappeared beneath their blouse and connected to the small computer affixed to a black patent leather belt around their waist. I stood and stared for longer than I should have, but Dr. Choo did not seem put off by my rudeness. They simply stuck out their beautifully manicured hand, the nails of which were a delicate seashell pink.
“You must be dear Magdalena, I presume. I’m Dr. Choo, your father’s friend. I hope I’m not too early. I brought some wine.”
It took much of the evening for me to recalibrate the image I had in my brain of the esteemed professor. I had expected a serious, even dour, Asian man with thick glasses and ill-fitting clothes from Walmart not an elegant and eccentric non-binary person with a wicked sense of humor. They were beautiful and had exquisite taste in clothes, which did not pair with the Radio Shack appearance of their cybernetic accessories.
“Oh, it’s hideous I know,” they said very early in the evening as we were sipping wine at the breakfast bar off the kitchen and watching my father prepare dinner. “But it’s only a prototype, I have plans for something much… subtler.” Their eyes did a fluttering, coquettish wink with this last word.
It’s safe to say Dr. Choo was like no one I’d ever encountered, and I loved them right away. Henri (they insisted I not call them Dr. Choo) was brilliant, I’d expected that, but they were also incredibly funny and more self-aware than anyone I had ever met. They explained that today was a “she day” for them. They alternated days of the week as a woman. It was one of the many ongoing experiments they conducted on themselves.
“I’m fascinated by how our brains function differently based on how other people perceive us and how we perceive ourselves in social settings. I’m collecting some amazing data,” they said. “It’s really changing my previous limited appreciation for how much communication happens between humans at a non-verbal level.”
“So, you’re not trans, this is all just for science?”
“Oh, Jesus no, honey, I love a great pair of heels,” Henri whispered, leaning in, and placing a hand on my arm. They said this with a put-on southern drawl that made me crack up. “I just use the science as an excuse!” Their laugh was a decidedly manly guffaw and contagious.
The three of us ate dinner and drank wine. My father’s cooking had dramatically improved over the course of the past year. My mother had always done the real cooking. I remember he made a prime rib roast with garlic potatoes and a kale Caesar salad. It was cute to watch him so diligently following the recipes he had printed out and taped to the cabinets, insisting that he did not need any help. There was one critical oversight. Henri was a vegetarian. It had not occurred to my father to ask. Henri was easy though, as they were easy about most things I would find. I marveled at how anyone could be so comfortable in their own skin when I felt like an alien moving around in the body of a foreign host most of the time.
At some point in the evening, Henri tried to explain to me exactly what the prototype on their head was and how it worked, but I struggled to keep up. In fairness to me, the job was made harder because Henri was spectacularly hammered after just two glasses of wine. What I came to piece together was that the contraption was a digital assistant they cobbled together in their lab. The glasses were actually a heads-up display with an attached camera. This tech had existed for some time and was not the main attraction. For over a decade, a number of companies had been tinkering with these types of computing interfaces. What was unique, was the gear residing in the crude-looking choker they wore around their neck. Inside it was a collection of sophisticated sensors for collecting biometric data, but also a series of sonar and haptic devices that transmitted signals into Henri’s body, both through bone conduction and the nerves in the skin.
“It’s all very simple, you see.” This was Henri’s catchphrase. “Chinese medicine has known for thousands of years that the human body is an incredibly complex electrical network with input and output peripherals. You know acupuncture? Not magic. Science baby. This, is the same thing.”
Henri took another big swallow of wine, spilling some down the front of their blouse without paying any mind.
“The collar is how my digital companion communicates with me.”
I shook my head. I didn’t get it.
Henri reached out and took my hand across the table. They turned it over and pushed up my sleeve, exposing my wrist. They told me to close my eyes. Very delicately they touched my wrist with the very tip of their finger, no lighter than the stroke of a feather.
“You feel that?” they asked. I nodded. “How about this?” they said. I nodded again. “And now?” they said. I nodded. There was a pause. I opened my eyes. “I didn’t touch you the last time. Your mind simulated the touch based on previous input. I just hacked you!”
They guffawed and took another sip of wine without letting go of my wrist. Over the course of the next thirty minutes, Henri continued their exposition, teaching me how to interpret a series of light taps on my wrist – something like Morse code. They made their point quickly through a series of simple question, answer exchanges. I found that I was able to intuit more through haptic communication than I would have ever imagined, and my head began to explode with the possibilities.
“So, I did all this with just my finger. Very crude, like finger paint, right?” They held up their index finger and waggled it in front of my face. “Compare that to the head of needle, now imagine one hundred needles in a bundle, powered by a computer. It’s all very simple, you see?”
I did not see, but I knew that in time I would see. Henri was experimenting with a whole new form of kinetic language. It seemed an impossible leap at first, but when I was lying in bed later, long after they had gone home, I realized that all of language is an abstraction, a series of symbols, sounds, and gestures that our brains parse into meaningful messages. A Bach Sonata, a Van Gogh painting, these are just auditory and visual information until our brains decode them. Dr. Choo’s research, if it led to what he believed was possible, would make the invention of binary or “machine language” for computers look like cave paintings.
I would learn quickly that we were still a long way from the vision he had planted in my head that first Christmas. But the seed was there, and I was consumed with the notion that I could help him make it grow. This new way of communicating by tapping into the bioelectrical system of the human body coupled with the rapid advancements in artificial intelligence happening out in Silicon Valley would change humanity. I knew it with certainty that first night as I lay in the spare bedroom of my father’s apartment listening to him snore in the next room.
As I was trying to go to sleep, I thought of Joe. Didn’t we use to play a game when we were kids and couldn’t sleep where we wrote messages on each other’s backs using only a finger? Or did I imagine that? This inability to trust my memory, especially when it came to my brother, was common for me. I often tried to search for memories of him before that horrible day, but they were just beyond my reach, concealed in an impenetrable fog. He was the lost other half of me, and my brain would never stop pinging out into the void in search of a response, even as the exact same brain actively made him disappear.