The Memory of My Shadow #12
Chapters 22 & 23
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Two hours later, after a long walk and a hot shower, I’m sitting on the bed in my guest room upstairs with a cup of bergamot tea. I need quiet. I need time to gain some objectivity and I need to resist the temptation to attempt to solve this right away. It takes every ounce of restraint I have not to go back to the treehouse or to my office and immerse myself.
I take a few deep, measured breaths. During the worst days at Commune, I found some solace in meditation. The practice has always been hard for me given how much time I spend in my own head and how much my work depends on it.
Speaking of my head, the injury is a dull throb now, nothing like before, and I’m able to manage the pain with a couple of Ibuprofen. Of bigger concern is the fact that I think I’m losing my mind. No, that’s not exactly right. I feel like I’m losing control of my mind. I don’t feel I can trust my own thoughts at this point after what happened in the woods. Joe/Not Joe took over somehow. Is that even fucking possible? Look at you, suddenly questioning what’s possible. Are you really entertaining the idea that the most logical explanation for your break from reality is that you witnessed the transference of a digital entity into a carbon one? Why not? Wasn’t it the same kind of leap the first time we used the Nib in our lab to engage a DC with thought alone?
I’m not ready to accept that. Okay, but what about Meela? How do you explain what she did last night? I don’t know for certain that was her. Really? What you saw yourself doing in the video log, that was you? It was me. It was your body but was it you? Maybe, I mean it’s not like I hadn’t fantasized about Evan, maybe I subconsciously… Yeah, that’s Bullshit. You know your own mind and you’ve worked in technology long enough to understand when you’ve been hacked. She found a vulnerability, she exploited it and she compromised you. But why? Why would she do that and where is she now?
I am probably more wound up than when I started. It’s no use. I’m not a meditator. I have to figure this out. I open my eyes, toss back the dregs of the tea, now cold in my cup, then stand and stretch. It must be past noon but it’s hard to tell. The sky is low and heavy, and it looks as if a storm is coming. I walk to the windows and look out across the back lawn and into the mountains beyond. My mind will not stop turning the problem over and over.
Even though I have no comprehension of how Meela manipulated me, I know in my bones that she did. But I’m not ready to accept that her intentions were bad. Misguided? Perhaps. Selfish? Maybe. But not bad. As for what happened with my brother, it feels related. Two occurrences of DCs breaking through a fundamental boundary with their host on the same day cannot be a coincidence. The link between the two is of course me and even I am willing to concede that a system cannot debug itself. I need help.
I’ve made up my mind. I leave the guest room, walk down the hall into my room and pick up my remote from the vanity.
“Call Henri,” I say.
It takes a moment for them to answer, but Henri, no matter how busy these days, never puts me off, never sends me to an assistant, carbon-based or otherwise.
“Hi, partner, how you doing?” they say.
“Not so good. I think… I think I need your help. You know I wouldn’t ask if I could see any other way.”
There is a lot of ambient noise in the background. It sounds like an airport terminal.
“What’s the matter? Are you hurt? Sick?”
I think for a moment, touching the back of my head.
“Yes, both I think. It’s too much to explain over the phone. Can you come? I know it’s a lot but it’s not just about me, it’s about the work.”
There is a long pause and I imagine Henri doing the calculus of their various commitments, both work and personal.
“Yes, I’ll change my flight and come straight to you.”
“You don’t have to drop everything. It can wait a day or two.”
“I don’t think so, Maggie, you don’t sound like yourself. I’ve been in Denver for a conference and was about to fly home. I will change my flight and let you know what time to expect me.”
“But what about Shareen? I know how much she hates when you’re away too long?”
“She will understand. I’ll make it up to her.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, no problem. I will send you my flight information.”
“I’m sorry to make you do this, but thank you.”
I hang up and already feel a little better. I’m standing by the window, hugging myself as I study the mountains. The shadows of passing clouds give the illusion of valleys shifting and changing as if the contours of these ancient mountains are as flexible as a computer model. My eyes are drawn to the foreground when I notice movement on the lawn.
Evan is walking. His head is down, and his shoulders are slumped. It is the posture of a man who is troubled, and I can’t help but feel responsible. He stops near the edge of the lawn before the tree line and lays down on his back, hands cradling his head. He doesn’t move, and I watch him for a long time, wondering what he must be thinking. He didn’t sign up for any of this. What did he think he was signing up for? He didn’t need the money. He has a career, a life. So why do this at all?
The answer seems obvious now. It’s me. He had to have done this just to be around me. That’s the only logical explanation. As much as I’ve tried to avoid it, I’m a minor celebrity. There have been other situations where I’ve been approached, one case where I was even stalked. But is that what this is? What is his motive? What is any man’s motive?
I’m so bad at this, pathetic, really. It’s why I made the world’s most sophisticated imaginary friend. Yeah, and your imaginary friend fucked Evan. It’s kind of funny actually. A machine of my own creation has a more successful love life than me. Maybe she got tired of waiting on you. Maybe she set all of this up. It’s not crazy. She has the resources. Maybe she was matchmaking all along and then things got out of control. How could things ever get out of her control? That’s the real question here.
I need to let Lorna know that we will be having another house guest, and I want to talk to Evan. I want to look into his eyes and see how I feel in the cold light of day.
“Hey,” I say.
He startles and looks up from where he must have been dozing in the grass, eyes squinting.
“Hey,” he says and sits up.
“Mind if I sit with you?”
“Not at all. How’s your head?” he asks.
“Okay, still sore, but okay in general. Look, I just want to talk to you if that’s okay.”
“I’ve asked my friend Henri to come. I need help and I didn’t know who else to call. They will probably be here late tonight or tomorrow.”
“Should I leave then? Are you wanting to quit the mapping project?”
“No, I mean I don’t know. No, you don’t have to leave unless you want to, but I don’t think it makes sense to continue with the project right now. Besides, I can’t do it without Meela.”
“What happened to Meela?”
“I wish I knew. It’s the weirdest thing. She just disappeared.”
Evan is looking down at his fingers in the grass in front of him.
“Can I ask you something and can you promise to be honest?” I say.
“Yes, I’ll do my best.”
“Why did you really come here? Why did you agree to do this? You don’t need the money.”
He does not answer right away. It’s clear that he’s wrestling with how he wants to respond, that he’s conflicted in some way. I find it comforting that he has no ability to mask what he’s feeling.
“It was you. I was fascinated by you from the first time I saw your face. I don’t want to freak you out. It’s not whatever you’re thinking. Well, it became like that, no, not like that… but only after I got to know you. My fascination with you was different… not sexual or creepy. Wow, I’m really digging a hole here.”
“Okay, I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You avoid attention and the media in general I know, but there was this one in-depth interview you did about five years ago. It was tastefully done, some documentary about women who have changed the world. It was beautifully shot, and it was just you, talking. Lots of close-ups on your face, your eyes, as you related the story of your success. But I barely listened to what you were saying the first time because I was so compelled by the story your face was telling. It was incongruent with the rocket-to-the-moon success of your public life. Your eyes were the saddest I’d ever seen. The downward slant of your smile, the way your voice falls off at the end of every sentence. I recognized something in you that I can’t even really put a name on. For weeks, months, even years after that, I would see your face.”
He stops talking. He looks concerned, and apprehensive. I must be making a horrible face.
“Okay, look, I’m freaking you out. Please don’t be afraid. Let me finish. This kind of visual obsession is not uncommon for me. It’s how I work and without it, I can’t work. I have no control over what will strike me, but when it does, I have to follow it. Here, can I show you something?”
He pulls his phone from his pocket and begins tapping and swiping. After a moment he gestures for me to come closer. I scooch over on the grass, our knees touching, and he hands me the phone.
“I did this series but never showed it to anyone.”
It’s me on the canvas, covering the entire thing. The iris of my right eye is like a pool of light, reflecting and refracting, almost alive. I zoom in and discover it’s made up of a thousand tiny ones and zeros. It’s extraordinary.
I swipe and there’s another one similar, but at a different scale. I swipe again and in this one, my hand is pinching a tiny disc, the scale and shape of a Nib, but it’s actually a human eye, bloodshot and grotesque. I swipe again. There are several pieces. I’m not prominent in all of them, but my face is always there somewhere on the canvas.
“I don’t know what to say. How come you never showed these?”
“I don’t know. I showed them to my agent. He wanted to have a show, but I couldn’t do it for some reason. They felt too important to me, too private. Your face was so beautiful and tortured. I saw so much pain, I was afraid my work would just call more attention to you and you didn’t seem to want or need that. You were my mystery and I wanted to keep you to myself. It sounds really strange now that I feel I know you a little bit.”
“So, what, you set out to be here? To get close to me?”
I know I sound guarded. I can’t help it. I don’t want to. The truth is, I’m overwhelmed by what he’s said and what he’s shown me.
“No, not exactly. I eventually moved on to obsess about other things and my painting went in different directions, but I always thought of you. It was serendipity when Stephen reached out to talk about this whole mapping thing. He had bought a number of my paintings over the years and in spite of my initial aversion to everything he represented to me, I came to call him a friend as well as a patron. I had talked about you on more than one occasion, so he thought I’d probably be open to being your guinea pig. The truth is that I was torn. Part of me never wanted to meet you for fear of what it would change. Sometimes the image we have of someone from a distance is…”
“Better than the reality,” I say, finishing his thought.
“Yeah, but not in this case. You are so much more than I imagined. I finally know what that sadness was that I saw in your eyes. I felt it. It was that look you see in the eyes of someone who’s witnessed incredible violence and somehow survived. Maybe that’s why the guns, they started figuring so prominently in my work…”
“That can’t be true. I don’t believe you. You knew somehow about my past and you’re just making a romantic story.”
“No, I’m not. At one point when I was researching you, I did discover that Commune is the biggest contributor to the gun control lobby. But that’s it, swear to God. When Meela told me yesterday about your brother, I was floored. It’s taken until today for all the pieces to really come together for me.”
We sit in silence for a minute. A bee buzzes around a dandelion a few feet away. A crow caws from the top of a tree directly above us and is answered by others somewhere further off to the East. Evan reaches out his hand tentatively to take mine. I allow it and we sit for another minute like that.
“I want to say I’m sorry about last night, but I also don’t want to be sorry,” he says. “I’m not sure what happened. Only you know I guess, but it felt real to me and yet not real.”
“I wasn’t there, Evan. It wasn’t me. It was Meela.”
“What? That’s crazy.”
“Yes, it is crazy, and I don’t want to believe it myself, but she somehow found a way.”
“Oh fuck, this is too weird. How am I supposed to believe this? It’s like the plot of a creepy fucking movie.”
“Yeah, I know. I feel like a fool but…”
“You’re going to think I’m stupid,” I say.
“No, what is it?”
“I don’t think she meant harm. I don’t think she meant to do something that would hurt me. It’s not in her programming to do that.”
“You still think she’s a program within your control, don’t you?”
I stop myself before immediately jumping on the defensive.
“Yeah, I guess maybe I do. I’ve been such an idiot.”
“No, you’re not, just an idealist. But if it helps, it could be that both things are true.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, looking up to meet his eyes.
“I mean she may not be in your control, but she could also be on your side, looking out for what she believes to be your best interest.”
“Says the man whom she happened to select as my best interest.”
“Yeah, I know I have a dog in this fight, but listen, Maggie…”
His eyes are steady and filled with sunlight as he encloses my hand in both of his.
“I care about you. Not as a curiosity or conquest. I’m not interested in your money or your fame or your technology. I care about what happens to you. I want to make you laugh, to see you happy. I’m drawn to you in ways I can’t rationally explain. I want to help you figure this out if I can and to be here for you.”
“I don’t know. This is a lot of information and I’m still trying to figure out what it all means. I can’t trust my own mind, or what I’m thinking or feeling. Do you know how fucking hard that is for someone like me?”
“I don’t have to imagine. Most of us feel like that most of the time. It’s called being human. What do you feel right now?”
“It doesn’t matter what I feel right now. How the hell can I trust you or anyone else if I can’t even trust myself?”
I can feel myself getting worked up again, the emotion rising in my throat, threatening to choke me. He can see it too. His expression is pained. He leans in closer.
“Close your eyes. Just close your eyes for a few seconds. It’s okay. Shhh,” he whispers.
His mouth is close to my ear and I can feel the warmth of his breath. With his fingertips, he gently covers my eyelids, pushing them closed.
“Just relax for a minute. Try not to think about anything. You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to fix anything. You’re safe here. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Just breathe, that’s it. There are no other voices out here, only yours and only mine and I’m going to shut up now and just sit with you. Is that okay?”
I nod and inhale a stuttering breath. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. His face is no longer close to mine, but he’s still holding my hand. I continue to breathe. I tilt my face up slightly and feel the afternoon sun, warming my cheeks, and my eyelids. A cool, damp breeze, smelling of earth and leaves blows down from the forest, lifts my hair, and dries the perspiration on my t-shirt and where it once clung to my back, it billows, raising goosebumps beneath.
I feel still, and peaceful. I focus on the man sitting next to me. I try to reach out and search his heart. Is he a good man? Would Papa think he’s a good man? Yes, I think he would. Just thinking of Papa grounds me. I gently squeeze Evan’s hand and he squeezes back, but there’s nothing more beyond that, no expectation for more, no urgency. I squint and peek over at him. His eyes are closed, his face tilted to the sun. His dark lashes are beautiful and long. I don’t need to be afraid of him. I’m not sure if I know this in my mind or my body, but I know it.
My body responds to being in his presence, and I am transformed cell by cell, like the leaves on a tree turning to show their silvery back when the wind changes direction. This is only natural, I realize. Our bodies have already been together. We have already exchanged cells. How strange to have missed it and yet not missed it. My body remembers, I can feel it. My heart remembers, but my mind is empty. I suddenly have the urge to close the space between us, to fill the empty space in my head with everything that was stolen when Meela had control.
I let go of his hand and push myself up onto my knees. I hold his sun-warmed face in my hands and kiss him before he can even open his eyes. He does not respond as I hoped but pulls back a little so he can meet my eyes.
“Hey, it’s you, right? How do I know it’s you?”
“Because I’m blushing, and I’m nervous and I don’t know what I’m supposed to say…”
The furrow in his brow softens. He’s smiling in his eyes, there’s a light there, a warmth that equals the sun on my back. I’m suddenly self-conscious thinking of my face – how he sees it, how he’s deconstructed it for years. But then he’s kissing me, and his hands are on my body and I want nothing more than to be with him.
It is like nothing I’ve ever felt before, the sensation pure and singular and focused. I don’t want to leave this moment. I don’t want to know what comes next. I don’t want to think about what came before.
There will be time for that. But not right now.
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