The Memory of My Shadow #06
Chapters 10 & 11
This is a serial novel with new episodes released each week. Start from the beginning, listen to/read the previous episode, or learn more about what went into the writing of the novel in the preview. You can also continue to episode #07.
My treehouse is just over the ridge on the south slope of the last mountain that’s part of my property before the national forest takes over. Yeah, I know. I’m forty-two years old and I have a treehouse. One of the things you can do when you have more money than you have a right to is to indulge in the fantasies that were gilded in early childhood. Having my own secret treehouse is something I dreamed about when I was a kid, but it was not exactly practical in the dusty patch of our backyard in Van Nuys that had one scrubby lemon tree which produced exactly two viable lemons a year.
I designed my treehouse to disappear into the canopy, but in the dead of winter, when the trees are naked wireframes against the slate sky, it will be visible to anyone hiking who happens to wander off the main trail and head down the side of the mountain. It’s not big, only two hundred square feet. I can’t see it at all from where I stand on the trail, and I’m only twenty-five yards away. There’s no path leading off to it and I’m careful not to take the same route every time, so I don’t wear one down in the undergrowth. The only way I know to step off the trail is when I see this large oak with two branches that resemble outstretched, cradling arms. I call it the mother tree.
I chose a one-hundred-and-twenty-year-old poplar to build the house in because they’re so straight, tall, and sturdy. The wood is extremely hard. There are no stairs and no visible ladder up to the base, which is forty feet off the ground. I reach into my pocket and pull out my personal remote – the one I use when I’m not tethered to the Nib. Onscreen, the device has detected my location and responded by showing the control panel for my treehouse instead of the main house.
Okay, I know you’re probably rolling your eyes by now, but I did warn you. A nerd who can afford to build a treehouse forty feet off the ground is not going to settle for some wood planks nailed up the trunk of the tree. I really do have a remote control for a secret treehouse. When I press the appropriate button, there’s a mechanical thunk above followed by a high-pitched, motorized whine as the trapdoor slides open and slowly lowers a rope ladder from a spool. When it reaches the ground, I clip the carabiners attached to the bottom of the ladder to a pair of anchors sunk into the base of the tree. I climb up, freaking out a little bit as I always do with the swaying ladder near the top where I can feel the significant distance between me and the earth. Passing through the portal of the trapdoor, I step off the ladder and onto the deck. If it weren’t for the fog this afternoon, I’d have an amazing view. Today there’s no wind and it’s eerily still and quiet.
You might be imagining a Robinson Crusoe-type thing with rustic wood planking and big hemp rope railing. It’s not that, quite the opposite. The wood siding is dark gray, the color of the tree bark and there’s a galvanized metal roof holding up six large solar panels that connect to a large battery that can store enough energy to last for up to three days of moderate usage, which isn’t hard given that all I turn on are a couple of lamps and a computer. The south-facing wall is dominated by a large window that frames the view. To unlock the door, I use a good old-fashioned key that I hide beneath one of the decorative river rocks sitting on the deck. I figure if anyone bothers to shinney forty feet up a tree, they wouldn’t be stopped by some fancy fingerprint scanner.
When I close the door behind me, I experience a familiar sense of peace and security. Something about the solitude and the fact that I can nearly touch all four walls when standing in the center of my space is comforting. This is my space, known only to me. It smells of cedar and pine resin and earth. The only furniture is a lumpy old couch that once sat in the lab at Georgia Tech where Henri and I started our work so many years ago. I can still sleep on it better than the finest mattress with Egyptian cotton sheets. I sit down on it, take off my shoes, and look out at the gray wisps of clouds floating past. I switch on the lamp beside me and the room warms in a buttery glow. Everything is as I left it. There’s a coffee mug atop the small refrigerator that doubles as a kitchen counter where I have a small coffee machine and a hotplate. To the right, half of the wall is covered in a bookshelf with some of my favorite books and some sentimental odds and ends. A bible my abuelita gave me on my confirmation, and a couple of honors medals from when I graduated from MIT.
The top shelf is devoted to framed photos and I study them as an intentional exercise whenever I am here, reaching for memories, trying to recover anything that might come. At the center is an old photograph of my mom and dad. They can’t be more than twenty-five and standing together at Venice Beach on the street at night beneath the famous lighted “VENICE” sign arched across Pacific Avenue. How did they ever fall in love? Just to look at them, it is a mystery. Her, with her pale white skin and strawberry hair, almost translucent next to him with his dark, bronze complexion and blue-black hair, long and straight as straw. Their eyes, though his are dark like chestnuts, and hers, chlorine pool blue, are the same, filled with light, twinkling as if to compete with the sign above them.
To the left of that photo is another, this one in a tarnished, filigreed silver frame. In it, my father and Henri are seated together on a bench in Piedmont Park in Atlanta. Henri is puckering their lips toward my father who looks straight at the camera, his lips a firm line that passes for a smile. I don’t remember seeing his teeth in a smile ever after my brother did what he did. He certainly never smiled as he did that night at Venice Beach.
On the right side of the shelf in a large, chipped wooden frame is a montage of pictures of me and Joe. The frame is damaged because I rescued it from the trash, along with a couple of other small things that belonged to my brother. My father had rounded up all of his stuff at my mother’s insistence and dropped them into the big metal dumpster at the end of our street. I snuck out later, after their door was closed, and salvaged what I could. I returned home smelling like sour milk and rotting cabbage, my jeans damp with a pungent fruity smell. I never got that stain out.
The picture in the top left of the frame is from when Joe and I were less than a year old. We’re seated in one of those double strollers with mom crouched beside us, squinting in the sun. I think it was taken in front of our house, but it’s hard to tell, the background is out of focus. As twins, we shared very little in our appearance, Joe with his straw-colored hair and light, freckled skin and me with my father’s dark hair and brown skin. We were the same size back then and I think we both inherited the same bow-shaped mouth from our father, but otherwise, no sane person would have figured us as brother and sister, especially as we got older.
The picture in the top right is of us standing in front of an enormous redwood tree. I think we are ten years old, both of us in yellow rain jackets, arms posing in a “tada” gesture as if to reveal the tree in a magic trick. I remember a hotel room from that trip. Joe and I always shared a bed on vacations because my parents couldn’t afford two rooms. I remember the comforting hum of the AC unit by the window, the starched, industrial smell of motel room sheets, and the warmth radiating from Joe’s sleeping body next to me. He was always hot, I think. Even when I was freezing, he would have the covers thrown from his torso and wrapped around his legs. His hair was always sticking up in the back, the double crown swirl made for a stubborn cowlick that could never be tamed. The memory steals my breath. It’s so vivid it doesn’t seem real. I don’t trust it. Maybe I’m inventing, creating fiction from these photos, but it doesn’t feel that way. He used to caress one of my ear lobes when we slept together, worrying it between his thumb and forefinger. I put up with it because it made him fidget less, and made him less anxious. Was he always anxious? Was there ever a time when he was comfortable in his skin?
The bottom right picture was taken at Christmas when we were fourteen. My parents rented a cabin at Lake Tahoe, so we could see snow for the first time, and have a white Christmas. I know this because it’s what Dad told me when I asked him about it a couple of years ago. I have no memory of that trip even now as I peer into the image of Joe wearing a new Forty-niner jersey and me holding up a new tablet. I do remember using a paint program on it. I used to think I was going to be an artist.
The fourth and final photograph in the bottom left of the montage is of us on our sixteenth birthday. It takes me a minute to be able to look at this one steadily. We are sitting in front of a birthday cake, ablaze with candles in the cramped kitchen of our house. Joe is not smiling. His eyes are dull and hooded. I have my arm around him, but he is leaning away from me ever so slightly, his hands on the table in front of him. He’s wearing this vintage Che Guevara t-shirt that’s faded and has a hole in the shoulder. My smile is big, forced, trying hard to smile for us both, to please Mom. I have an awful hairstyle. Sick of my unruly curls, I was trying to straighten my hair and used this iron that burned the life out of it. It looks like bristles from a dry paintbrush in the picture, like a spark from one of the birthday candles could just light me up. I look back into Joe’s eyes and I don’t see anything, but dark holes. I have to look away.
I swing my legs up and stretch out on the couch, tucking the pillow under my head so I can look out at the fog. I’m so tired.
I need to work, that’s certain. Work is good, work keeps me putting one foot in front of the other, (right off the end of the plank I hear Henri say in my head). That’s another thing I notice when I disconnect from Meela: I begin to hear my father’s voice and Henri’s voice and sometimes even my mother’s voice. These voices come to me with their words of encouragement and disapproval and sometimes just humor. I don’t think I would have lived without humor. Henri and I never would have worked together as long as we did if they didn’t make me laugh. Not just laugh, laugh, but pee-right-through-my-jeans-and-have-to-go-home-and-change laugh. I miss seeing Henri every day. It’s not the same to chat online, even in VR. They are a full-on visceral experience that can’t be simulated, no matter how good the gear.
I remember one day during my last few weeks at Commune, I was a nightmare. I hadn’t slept through the night in five days and anything I ate went right through me. I had been on a slow decline for nearly six months, transforming into a low-resolution simulation of my former self. I think I hid it pretty well and performed my critical functions, but Henri knew.
By this time, he had given up ‘she’ days for almost a decade. He never talked about it, but I think he learned whatever it was he had wanted to know through his experimentation, and also, he fell in love with a woman he could dress in all the exquisite clothes he enjoyed. He’s still flamboyant and larger than life and on this particular afternoon, when the crap simulation of me had deteriorated beyond passable, he caught me in only the way Henri could.
We were giving a “town hall” talk to the four hundred-plus Atlanta-based employees of Commune. These were always held in a small theater that could not hold everyone, so it was not uncommon for the steps in the aisles to be filled with people who showed up too late to get a seat. There was a ritual to these things that Henri and I had worked out over time with some expensive coaching from a douchey executive consultant. It was all about enthusiasm and passion and inspiration as we worked through the agenda of welcoming new Communers, giving updates on our product roadmap, and so on. I had no enthusiasm or passion, or inspiration left to offer. I was wearing the same clothes as the day before. My unwashed hair was a wild place that could harbor a small flock of birds and I stank of coffee and sweat and defeat.
Henri had been traveling for over a week and we had only exchanged emails prior to meeting that morning on the small stage to do our spiel. When they saw me slumping in front of them beneath the harsh lights, as one of the techs wired me up with the microphone headset, their face went through a rapid succession of emotions: disgust, fear, sadness, empathy, resignation, and finally a look I had seen in them many times – mirth. Henri’s eyes twinkle, nostrils flair and they frown ever so slightly. They made that face. They took my elbow and we turned to face our people.
“Good morning, party people!” Henri shouted, and the room hushed. “Today, for this Town Hall, we will do something different. Maggie is participating in a radical new social experiment to get in touch with her inner self – no talking, no bathing, no grooming… no shit!” they continued, nodding in an exaggerated show of sincerity to convince the audience who responded with a collective, reverent awwwww and nodded their heads in complete understanding.
Henri guided me over to a stool and had me sit down. They squeezed my shoulder in a loving, familiar way that communicated more than any words could. The gesture said I’ve got you. Henri left me and stepped swiftly back to the center of the stage taking the full throw of the lights and the upturned gaze of all those expectant souls hungry for direction.
I had always led these types of meetings. Our division of labor was such that Henri was the public face of the company, handling the big press engagements, interviews, and profile pieces. I was always included, but decidedly in the background. For my part, I handled most of the employee relation stuff and made decisions about benefits, policies, etcetera. I liked taking care of our people. It was a rewarding role for me and one that allowed me to fly somewhat under the radar publicly. But in these town halls, I was the main speaker and Henri, when they weren’t traveling would show up to add some color but little else. On this day, Henri turned up their color to full brightness and everyone was laughing so hard that no one could see me dying there in the corner. I don’t think Henri properly covered a single thing on my typical agenda. I seem to remember them saying that flying cars were definitely on our product roadmap. They asked all the new employees to stand up and tell us their most embarrassing stories, but for each one, Henri would challenge them with an even more embarrassing story of their own. I knew most of them already, but even I had no idea they once exposed themselves to an auditorium of two hundred freshmen. Apparently, Henri had been showing off an early prototype and in playing back some footage captured from the headset earlier that day, they forgot that at one point in their morning routine, they had made a last-minute wardrobe change because the underwear they put on initially had a large hole.
Throughout Henri’s performance, they would glance over at me occasionally and I could see, even at the height of their clownish antics, they saw me and saw my pain. Henri has done me many kindnesses over the years, but I think this one I will always remember because they did it with such ease and grace and completely unprompted.
I open my eyes and sit up. I reach down between my legs and pull my old laptop from under the couch. I open the lid and fire it up. Just a few minutes. I have time to spend a few minutes and then I’ll get back. I’ll get back and pick up the Evan project.
Once the laptop boots up, I start my programming interface and sync with the small private server that resides here in the treehouse, in the rack with my solar battery. It’s my own custom build, not as powerful as the cluster of machines in the cloud, but it’s enough to work. Once the sync is complete, a single dialog window pops up: Do you want to initialize the Wabbit project? I click the ‘OK’ button.
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