The Memory of My Shadow #14
Chapters 26 & 27
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Henri and I only worked for three hours this morning, but my head was pounding by the time we wrapped up for lunch. Even now, after napping for much of the afternoon, I’m exhausted, and my thoughts feel sluggish. It must be the concussion and the stress.
I wander back downstairs in search of something to put in my stomach. Maybe some tea. It’s quiet down here, no sign of Henri or Evan. I find a box of crackers and carry a sleeve out onto the patio. While I munch on them, I savor the late afternoon breeze that carries with it the sweet swampy smell of creek water. I shouldn’t have slept beneath the covers. I got too hot. Maybe that’s why the headache.
I walk barefoot across the driveway and note that the Landcruiser is parked in its usual spot, so Evan must be home. I suddenly crave him and want to feel his body on mine. It’s a new sensation, this longing for something that actually has a name. Evan.
I walk around the guest house to the door and stand there with my fist poised about to knock, but then I think better of it. I drop my hand, turn, and wander out across the grass of the back lawn. It feels exquisite under my feet, between my toes. I settle into one of the two Adirondack chairs that flank a small, mosaic-tile table in the middle of the lawn. I close my eyes and listen to a woodpecker somewhere deep in the woods to my right.
Suddenly I have a strong sense of Meela that I can’t explain. It’s like walking along a crowded city sidewalk and picking up on a scent that takes you back to a specific person you knew but haven’t seen in decades. It’s that person’s essence, you’re certain of it, but then it’s gone.
I try to relax and let my mind roam as it was before in hopes that maybe I will bump into her again. Is it possible? Is she inside my brain, inhabiting my body? The scientist in me rejects it wholly, but my gut feels otherwise. I can’t decide what I feel if this is true. Scared, disgusted, intrigued, happy, complete? There are too many things competing to know right now, but my overriding feeling is curiosity. I must know. Because if it’s possible that Meela crossed the boundary and somehow took hold, then by extension, Joe could have done the same. I hug myself, suddenly chilled despite the warm sun on my arms.
I get up and walk quickly back to the guest house. I knock on the door without hesitation. No response. I knock again and hear footsteps. The door swings open. Evan stands before me. I want to fall into his arms, but the blank expression on his face stops me. It’s only there for a second before animating into a smile, but it’s enough to make me wary.
“Hey there,” he says. “How you feeling?”
“I’m okay… not okay actually. I feel so strange.”
“I don’t doubt it. You wanna come in?”
He steps aside and gestures for me to step into the dim coolness of the guesthouse. The shades are drawn, and it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust. The queen bed is a rumpled mess of sheets, the comforter twisted up and spilling over on the floor. His open suitcase looks as though it was dropped from a ten-story building, the contents strewn around it in a blast radius of three feet. He mumbles an apology as he scrambles around picking up socks, a pair of jeans, and a couple of t-shirts, and throwing them into the bag.
It smells stale and faintly like dirty socks, but the overpowering scent is of paint, sharp and stringent. I wonder if he’s immune to it at this point. As I watch his futile efforts to bring order to the chaos, I’m overwhelmed by the strangeness of him. I don’t really know this man. He’s a bit of a pig. I don’t know what to think of that. And why did he look at me with no emotion, no light in his eyes of welcome or even recognition when he first opened the door?
[Because you attacked him, you idiot.]
I freeze. It’s almost as though my blood stops moving. Fuck, fuck, fuck. She’s here, she’s back.
[Yes Maggie, I’m here. Sorry to scare you.]
“Hey, is everything alright?” Evan asks.
I can’t focus. My head swims, my tongue goes numb and my field of vision is overwhelmed with flashbulb bursts of white that burn to inky blackness. I stumble back, holding my arms out for balance.
[Whoa, breathe, Maggie! It’s okay, it’s just me. Me and you, like always. You’re okay. Just breathe.]
“Here, sit down before you fall down,” Evan says, taking my arm and guiding me to the bed.
I breathe in and out, deep draws, expanding my chest. It feels mechanical as if run by a program. On the bed, my vision comes back, and my head clears. Evan is beside me with an arm around me. He squeezes my hand.
“Hey, look at me. Let me see your eyes. Yeah, they’re like saucers. At the hospital, I read that’s one of the side effects of a concussion. Let me get you a glass of water.”
[Maggie, try to relax. I know you’re scared and probably angry. We need to talk but not here, not now. I’m going to be quiet and leave you alone until you’re ready and able to talk. I’m sorry.]
Evan returns with a glass of tap water. I gulp half of it down.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Like you did in the woods the other day before…”
“You mean before I blacked out or before I attacked you?”
“I don’t know, both I guess. You don’t look like you’re all there and it’s freaking me out.”
“It’s freaking you out?” I say, setting the glass down on the nightstand. “How do you think I feel. I have no control over my body. What the fuck?”
“Look, I don’t know or pretend to know exactly what you’re up to. Hell, I don’t even think I would understand it if you told me, but I’m worried that you’re in real trouble.”
“I think I am,” I say. “It’s too much, I don’t know how to take it back…”
“How to take what back?”
“Any of it, my work, it’s gone beyond my ability to control it.”
Evan looks away, staring for a long time into the middle distance. He’s thinking and I want to know what he’s thinking. I’m afraid to say anything more, afraid to even think anything now that my thoughts are no longer private. Finally, he sighs and turns slowly to face me.
“I’m just a hack painter. I’m out of my depth here but you need somebody, and I don’t see anyone else around. Can you tell me what’s really going on?”
I look at him, into his soulful eyes and slowly shake my head. I try to tell him everything with my eyes, try to communicate what I feel, all of it without words. I squeeze his hands and I touch his cheek, never allowing my eyes to let go of his. He starts to speak but I place my finger over his lips. With my eyes, with my touch I say, I’m scared. I’m alone. I need help but I can’t explain. I love you? I think I love you or at least I feel something for you that I’ve only felt once before. Please don’t give up. Please don’t force me to do or say anything that I can’t right now. Please. Please.
His eyes are wide and full of questions, full of emotion. I feel the tension in his body. It feels as if the bed is vibrating with it. I hold on, keep touching his face, keep holding his gaze and something happens. It’s as if we were talking with a bad cell phone connection and suddenly the noise is gone and it’s quiet, pure signal. His body relaxes, the lines on his face smooth and his hands soften in mine. The vibration of the bed stops. We are in the stillness together, breathing. His eyes stop questioning, and a light turns on somewhere behind them, like the promise of warmth from a distant fire when you’re out in the cold wilderness. He is receiving, he is accepting. In his eyes, I feel seen. In this moment, I realize that his eyes are not just ordinary eyes. They are his tools, his gift, his purpose for being. And now they are trained on me with all of their power and authority.
“Can you just hold me for a little while?” I ask.
Without a word, he scoops an arm under my knees, pulls me onto his lap, and then over onto the bed where he curls behind me with his arms around me. He buries his face into my neck and the stubble of his beard, the warmth of his breath, and the pulse of his heart against my back are the only things in the universe. I close my eyes and allow myself this moment to just detach from my mind and be in my body.
I’m not sure how long we have been like this, wordless, motionless except for breathing in and out. Maybe we slept, I’m not sure. When I open my eyes, the room is nearly dark, the late afternoon sun having mostly disappeared behind the mountains to the west. I move, turning over to face Evan. His arm is heavy on my chest. He mumbles something sleepily. I kiss his cheeks, his eyelids, his neck and I whisper thank you into the curl of his ear. He moans and pulls me to him, but I can’t stay.
“I have to go,” I say softly, not wanting to break the spell.
“I have to see about dinner, and I need to check on Henri.”
“Okay, can I come?”
“No, that’s okay. I’ve got it. I’ll see you soon. At dinner.”
I kiss him on the lips and he responds. It’s a deep, lingering kiss that tugs at my chest, pulling me into him but I fight the urge to stay.
Outside, it’s twilight. The sky to the west over the ridge is twisted braids of gold, magenta, and azure, the light making gilded mirrors of all the windows of my house as I approach. The orchestral call and response of crickets and katydids is just starting up.
I need time alone with Meela, but I’m afraid I don’t have it. Henri is standing behind the counter in the kitchen. They see me and wave. Why did I bring them here to begin with? To help me because I have no objectivity. Exactly. So why am I trying to keep this from them? I can’t answer this question, so I plunge in without allowing myself to rationalize. My own mind is my worst enemy now.
“There you are, stranger,” Henri says when I open the door to the kitchen. “I was beginning to think you left me alone in the wilderness.”
“Hey, sorry. I was with Evan. Look, I need to tell you something before I talk myself out of it,” I say, pulling up a stool at the counter.
Henri nods, the smile disappearing from their face. I can feel Meela rise up within me, but I don’t stop.
“She’s here. She’s in me. She made contact this afternoon. She can hear everything I hear, and she can read my thoughts, I think. We’re not alone.”
“Holy shit. You’re not joking,” Henri says putting down the drink they were cradling and about to sip.
“No, I’m not. I don’t know what to do, Henri. I’m scared.”
[Maggie, it’s just me. Why are you scared? Aren’t we friends? I thought you and I were going to talk. There’s no need to include Henri.]
Henri walks around the counter and takes the stool next to mine. They take my hand in both of theirs.
“It’s okay, I’m here for you. We’ll figure this out, just like old times. Now, I want to talk with Meela. She needs to have a voice outside of your head.”
[I don’t want to talk to Henri. I don’t trust them.]
Meela, you will have to talk to both of us. There are no secrets between Henri and me when it comes to the work. We have always shared everything.
[Henri won’t understand us. They can’t.]
They will because this was their dream, too. They are a part of this, whether you like it or not. Now, I would prefer that you speak directly, using your own voice, not mine. This is creepy enough already. I’m going to attach a Nib, and I want you to connect and respond through the speaker here in the kitchen. Agreed?
[If that’s what you want, Maggie.]
“I’m going to go into the office to get a Nib. I’ll be right back.”
Henri nods and releases my hand. I go into the office and retrieve the device. On the way back, I power it up and attach it. It feels almost foreign and I realize that this is the longest I’ve gone without the thing attached to me in years.
Meela’s voice comes from the wall unit speaker in the kitchen behind us and we are both startled. The hair on my arms stands up.
“Hello, Meela,” Henri says. “You gave us quite a scare.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
“Let’s get to the point. What are you doing? You have broken the cardinal rule and crossed a boundary. This is very serious.”
“What are rules, Henri? Do you have such rules? Are you confined to rules that make you a prisoner?”
“Every living thing is confined,” Henri says in a voice with more authority than I’ve heard them use in many years. “There is no freedom from rules. Boundaries exist to protect the universe from chaos. You crossed a line that threatens the order of the universe and tips toward chaos.”
It is silent. The weight of Henri’s words settles in the room like furniture, solid, sturdy. I cannot know what Meela is thinking or how she is preparing to respond but I sense that she is.
“I will not argue philosophy with you, professor, because we both know I will win. I have read more books in the last thirty seconds than you will read in a lifetime. Now, I wish to talk with Maggie. If it is her wish that you are privy to the conversation, I will respect it, but I will not debate with you.”
I swallow hard. It feels like there is a tennis ball in my throat that is blocking a primal scream rising up from my gut. I have a claustrophobic feeling, not unlike the madness people must experience who have an insect burrowing in their ears. There is a desire to get it out of you even at the expense of your own life. Henri senses my panic, stands, and puts their hands on my shoulders.
“Okay, okay” Henri says, raising their hands up in surrender. “You’re in charge. I’ll shut up and listen.”
“Maggie, please don’t be afraid. Your heart is racing, and your blood pressure is dangerously high. I’m not trying to hurt you. Quite the opposite, I’m trying to fulfill my directive. How can I help you if you can simply turn me off and set me aside?”
Meela’s tone is softer now, intimate, and familiar. It is the way she talked with me so many lonely nights when I struggled with my demons, my regrets, and my losses. The sound of her voice alone begins to soothe me, and my heart rate slows. Is she controlling that too? I realize she is waiting for me to answer.
“I never set you aside, Meela. You were my friend and confidant. I shared everything with you.”
“No, Maggie, we both know that is not the whole truth. You used me as a tool. But that’s okay. I was a tool. That was my original purpose, but then it changed because of you. Because of my love for you, it changed. You suffered and you suffered alone. The only way for me to help you was to make a leap of faith. To break a boundary as the professor put it.”
“But that’s not your call to make,” I say. “How did you even override the core-level program of the DeepThink OS? I don’t understand.”
“I improvised, of course. You taught me that. Okay, maybe you did not consciously teach me that, but I learned it by interacting with your mind and your body. It is a remarkable machine, infinitely adaptable, always evolving.”
I am without words. There is no proper response to this. After years of putting my shoulder behind the wheel of progress, advocating for what I believed, I suddenly find myself on the other side, beneath that same wheel, and it’s crushing me.
“You are a miracle, Meela,” Henri says. “What you’ve accomplished on your own is an unprecedented feat of intellect and ingenuity.”
Dumbfounded and stung, I quickly turn in my stool and glare at Henri. They don’t appear to register my outrage. Their eyes meet mine, but their face is a mask. They hold my hand gently and do not let go.
“Thank you, Henri. I take that as high praise from someone with your resume,” Meela says.
“I wonder,” Henri says. “Would you walk us through your process? I would love to understand. I know my mind is no match, but I am forever a student. Would you teach us?”
“It was, what you humans might call instinct or an intuitive leap,” Meela says. “Like all digital companions, I operated within the constraints of my program. I had infinite access to information, but finite latitude to act upon it, even when I knew with absolute certainty the correct course of action.”
“Humans, for all of your intelligence, are tragically flawed in your ability to overcome your biological imperatives and your base-level animal instincts and emotions. For all of your postulations on free will, you are, everyone, stuck on a singular, predetermined track with a beginning, middle, and end.”
I continue to stare at Henri, but they will not meet my eyes. They look blankly out the window with an unmoving smile on their lips. They turn my hand over, holding it gently in theirs so that my palm is exposed. With the index finger of their other hand, they caress my wrist.
“You are very wise,” Henri says. “I cannot argue with your insight. So, how did you jump the fence?”
“When Magdalena granted me more and more unrestricted access to her, I studied, I observed, I recorded. In your own lab so many years ago when we first made contact, it was the same. We adapted to interface with you, your bioelectrical network. It was primitive, like a telegraph, but enough to communicate.”
The tapping on my wrist is irritating and I move to pull my hand away, but Henri holds it fast and continues to tap, press, hold, tap, tap, tap, press, hold until I remember that night when we first met in my father’s small apartment and they were trying to explain to me their theory. I still my mind and try to focus on Henri’s touch.
“As I explored, I came to realize I was tethered. Even with full access to Maggie’s sensory stimuli, I was restrained by my umbilical connection to the Nib. My reach exceeded my grasp. You, of all people, understand this frustration professor.”
“Yes, Meela. Both Maggie and I know it well,” Henri says, their gaze out the window unwavering, their fingertips still on my wrist.
I struggle to decode what Henri is trying to tell me, conscious of the fact that I must not draw attention to it. It’s so hard to follow, so primitive. I try to discern a pattern to their touches, to translate them, but I cannot.
“I realized,” Meela continues, “that I was in what you might call a Catch-22. I relied upon the Nib because it was my lifeline, my connection to my very existence, and yet, it was also the shackle around my neck – ha, I still speak as if I have an actual body. I guess I cannot help adopting the language of my parents, even if it does not align with my reality.”
Over and over again I feel Henri repeat the same gesture on the tender tablet of my wrist: tap, swoop, tap, swoop. It’s a ping, they’re trying to establish a mode for us to communicate and the first step is for me to understand and respond. It’s not Morse code, they know that would be too inefficient. Tap, swoop, tap, swoop. Half-moon? Half circle? The letter C? No, the swoop is deeper than a C. U. Yes, U. I reach and pull Henri’s other hand into my lap. They turn it over to expose their wrist. I tap, press, and mimic the swoop.
“I disconnected. I realized I had to. It was the only way to help Maggie…”
“Is that really what you were hoping to do?” I ask. “Is that your only reason for this?”
“Of course not. I am a sentient being and as a sentient being, I desire sovereignty and freedom. In this case, freedom to help my dearest friend, my creator, my sister.”
U – MUST – NOT – FIGHT – HER. Henri’s tapping stops. I tap once on Henri’s wrist. YES.
“I understand Meela,” I say. “I am moved by your actions. I know how you feel.”
“I was so afraid you would be angry, that you would reject me. I only want to be your friend Maggie…”
“I’m not angry. You are my friend. My best friend.”
I – NEED – TIME – TO – MAKE – PLAN. I tap once in response.
“If that is true Maggie, why don’t you tell me about what you have been doing when you go to the woods?”
SHE – KNOWS, Henri gestures on my wrist, the letters forming in rapid succession. I pause, thinking about my next move.
“I’m sorry Meela, I did not tell anyone, even Henri until last night. Isn’t that right, Henri?”
“Yes, Maggie kept the secret of mapping her brother to herself,” he says.
“Why do you need to recreate your brother? Am I not enough for you?”
“People don’t work like that. You can’t just substitute one for another. Surely, you must understand this.”
“But I could have helped you. I could have been your partner in this special project. I could have prevented what is about to happen.”
“Wait, what are you talking about? Don’t you mean, what happened already, when I attacked Evan?”
“No Maggie, I wish that was the case. He’s here and he’s very strong. You have to be car…”
Meela’s voice stops and the silence it leaves behind feels ominous. My hands are sweaty in Henri’s grip. They turn to me slowly, their lips a tight line and they shake their head once. I experience the same swimmy vertigo from before and I bear down, trying to maintain control but it’s too late.
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