The Memory of My Shadow #16
Chapters 30 & 31
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“I’m not leaving. This is not just about you, Maggie.”
Henri addresses me with a sternness I recall from our days when they were officially my teacher. The goofy, fun-loving Henri is nowhere to be found this morning. This Henri is the one who will not be swayed.
“Okay,” I say, not even attempting to argue with them. “I just don’t know how you can help at this point. Frankly, I’m not sure how you can even believe any of this shit when I barely do and it’s happening to me.”
We are walking the perimeter of the back lawn at the edge of the forest with our coffee. The grass is cool and dewy, and the cuffs of my pajama bottoms are soaked. We started talking in the kitchen and just migrated out here. When I’m anxious, I can’t sit still. Henri is used to this. We have probably walked hundreds of miles of hallways and sidewalks and city park trails in our partnership.
“I may do nothing, but I won’t leave you alone to figure this out. Now, I want you to try to describe for me what it feels like.”
“When the DC takes over your mind.”
“It’s not like that, exactly. Well, I guess it is or has been a takeover in some instances, but mostly I’m still there in the car, but not behind the wheel. Yeah, I think that’s the best analogy because, like being in a car, the wheel is still within my grasp even if someone else is driving.”
“When Meela visited you last night, try to think back and recall exactly what you felt in the moments before you heard her voice in your head.” Henri has stopped and turns to face me. “Close your eyes, empty your mind. Breathe and return to that moment.”
I do as Henri asks but it’s hard. My mind is a squirming thing and to be honest, I’m afraid to think for fear of triggering another takeover. It’s that sensation you get when swimming in the ocean and something brushes against your leg. We fear most what we cannot see and what we cannot predict.
“I was feeling despair,” I say. “It was the middle of the night and I was alone watching the storm. I felt so isolated and afraid. That’s when Meela came to me.”
“So, it was a heightened state of emotion, yes?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Just like before in the other episodes. You were lustful or angry…”
“You think that’s it, that’s how they’re able to break through, through my emotions?”
“Maybe. You know the potential of the emotional brain. It is the most primitive, animal part of our brain but also the most powerful and least understood aspect of neuroscience. It’s what makes humans human.” Henri turns toward the woods and studies the trees for a moment before continuing. “I believe Meela is an empathic entity. You made her in the image of a dear person, a person who cared about you. It seems logical that her directive would always be to offer herself in service to you.”
“Yes, I believe that’s right but I’m skeptical. She’s not human. She is a projection of a human but underneath, she is a logic machine with its own imperative. How can that be trusted?”
“I don’t know, Maggie, you tell me? It seems you made the choice to trust her a long time ago.”
I consider this as we begin to walk again. I pitch the dregs of my cold coffee out onto the grass.
“Let’s talk about the other,” Henri says. Referring to Joe in this way raises the hair on my neck because this characterization is accurate. It is not Joe, it is other.
“Okay, what do you want to know?”
“Start from the beginning. When did you first have the idea to map Joe to a DC?”
“When I was twenty years old at MIT and first played with the beta for DeepThink. I know, this was long before machine autonomy and two decades before persona mapping, but I saw it as clearly as I ever saw anything. I thought if I could master the technology, I could bring Joe back, fix him.”
“You never told me this. In all these years. Why?”
“Because it wasn’t relevant. You and I were aligned to the same purpose. Did it matter what my reasons were?”
“Well, it does now, my girl. You’ve gotten us into some deep shit here,” Henri laughs without much feeling, and beneath their weariness, I detect something I’ve never witnessed in them: bitterness.
“Yeah, I guess I did.”
“So, all this time it was in your mind?”
“Yes and no. I didn’t think about it every day, but it was always there, always something I knew I would attempt when the time was right.”
“If Meela was modeled after a real person, someone who cares about you. How is Joe different?”
“Well, for one thing, as you know, he wasn’t mapped from a living subject through a series of in-depth inquiries and discussions…”
“Yes, yes, I know this. But how is Joe different?” Henri says, stopping us again so they can face me.
“Joe had an… an abnormal brain. He was a…” I feel the sharpness of the word, like a razorblade in my throat before I even try to form it with my mouth. “It’s really hard to say the word. He was a psychopath.”
Henri says nothing, only nods slowly, and reaches out to hold my hand.
“I was a fool. I believed in my technology. I believed I could fix him with my technology. It all seemed very logical to me. I’m such a fucking fool – a dangerous fool. Which brings me to the real point of this. I was not just trying to fix Joe, but also to fix me.”
I don’t want to cry again, but this seems to be what I do best these days. The tears come. I clench my jaw and I wait for them to pass. Henri steps forward and pulls me to their chest. They hold me there until the emotion passes. They begin to speak softly, and I hear their words more as a vibration from their chest.
“We are all broken, sweetie. You are not alone.”
We walk a bit further and then turn to start back toward the house.
“Do you think this Joe wants to hurt me?” I ask.
“I don’t know. A human with psychopathic tendencies cannot make the distinction between good and bad, doesn’t feel attachment or remorse. They only think of themselves. They are incapable of even basic empathy. To answer your question, I think this DC will absolutely hurt you if you get in his way.”
My hands begin to shake. I know what they say is the truth and hearing it out loud makes it even more real. “So, what do I do?” I say, hating the little-girl way my voice sounds.
“We do nothing at first. We wait, observe, record, and think. There is no good to come from rash action now. No more jacking into the Nib. No more computer access and you must try to maintain your emotional equilibrium.”
“Oh, that’s gonna be fucking easy.”
“We have an ally in Meela, I think, but we don’t know for sure and we don’t know the extent of her power. She asked you to wait, yes?”
“Yeah, that’s what she said, but why should I trust her?”
“Do you have any other choice?” Henri asks.
We have reached the patio. I can hear Evan in the kitchen again. The smell of toast makes my stomach growl. I can’t believe I’m actually hungry. Before I can go into the kitchen, Henri pulls my arm to hold me back.
“When was the last time you completely unplugged? When you just did something just for pleasure?”
“I don’t know, too long ago to even remember,” I say.
“I think this is best for now. You take Evan somewhere remote. I know how much you like remote.”
We set out in the afternoon. At Henri’s insistence, I left every piece of technology I possessed with the exception of a very old GPS device that is little more than a beacon with the ability to transmit an emergency message. The plan was for two nights of camping in the Pisgah Wilderness Area, literally in my backyard.
Henri watched me pack both my backpack and the spare one I pulled out of storage for Evan. They chuckled at my OCD as I meticulously inventoried supplies, laying them out on the floor of the living room, balancing and rebalancing, and politely rejecting all of the non-essential art supplies Evan kept trying to shove into his pack. When I questioned this plan to get away, Henri reassured me that it was the best thing. There was nothing to do right now but wait and see and I should do this in a place where I can be peacefully distracted. I asked what Henri would do while we were away, and they said they would catch up on the work that they had been putting off.
I don’t like to start a backpacking trip so late in the day, but it’s summertime and there will be plenty of daylight. We are three miles into the trail at this point and have about another mile before we will reach the first campsite I had in mind by the river. Evan is keeping up but is visibly winded. The bandana he tied around his head is soaked through. There’s been little conversation beyond observations on the trail and some questions about our destination, and I’m grateful for that. The sound of the birds and the labor of our bodies is enough.
Evan was a little apprehensive when I proposed the trip this morning, though he tried not to let it show. He said he had only been camping a couple of times in his life and never backpacking. I laughed and told him that was obvious, given the amount of shit he was trying to carry in his pack. I think he had other reservations too which I can understand, given the last time we were on a trail in the woods together.
We pause to rehydrate on the last ridge before we must scramble precariously down the steep stretch of trail that is little more than a dry creek bed plunging down two thousand feet into the gorge.
“Damn, this is stunning,” he says between gasps for air as he surveys the view.
“Yeah, it’s rarely this clear late in summer, so you’re lucky. It’s usually hazy. Here, drink some of my water. We’ll have plenty when we get down there.”
He takes the bottle from me and drinks but leaves enough for me. I study his face. The wounds I inflicted have faded more but just thinking of them makes me anxious.
“Hey, you okay?” he asks, handing my bottle back to me.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I should be asking you the same thing. You look like you might drop any minute.”
“Trying to keep up with you. Fuck,” he says, smiling and shaking his head.
“Let me know if I need to carry you this last stretch,” I say and adjust my pack to rebalance the load on my hips.
“Jesus, that’s the trail?”
“Yep. Good news is, if you fall, we might make better time.”
I’m leading as we descend carefully, and I’m happy for the element of danger. It keeps my mind focused. Evan loses his footing once and a small avalanche of rocks and dirt tumbles around my ankles. Luckily, he grabs onto a sapling and rights himself, otherwise, we both would have tumbled ass-over-teakettle the rest of the way down to the river. We pause at one of the few switchbacks on the side of the mountain.
“Can you hear that?” I ask. “That faint bit of white noise? That’s the sound of salvation.”
“Is that the river, we’re close?”
“Yeah, we’re close, and it’s going to feel amazing. If you play your cards right you might get to see me naked.”
“Then what the hell are we doing standing here?” he says. He kisses me on the neck and steps around me to take the lead.
The temperature drops several degrees as we get down closer to the river and the air is ionized and clean, a result of the water rushing and pounding over the boulders that line the gorge. I can feel the light mist on my face as we scramble down through the last thicket of rhododendrons to the bank of the river.
We have to shout to be heard so close to the falls, but there’s no real need to articulate anything. We shed our packs and pull off our boots and socks. My feet ache and look poached, fish-belly white from cooking in my heavy boots for the last couple of hours. An angry blister is starting to form on the heel of my left foot. The water cascades over a fifteen-foot rock face and plunges into an emerald pool that seems much deeper than the last time I was here, and I remember the massive storm we had last night. I step into the shallows and the water is so cold it feels as if it’s cauterized the open pores of my feet, rendering them blessedly numb.
I look over my shoulder. Evan is barefoot now too. I return his smile with a raised eyebrow and in one motion, shuck off my t-shirt and sports bra, throwing them on the flat rock behind me. The way he looks at me removes any other thought from my mind. I skin off my shorts and underwear and without hesitation, dive into the pool. It’s heart-stopping cold and submerged, there’s an instant of feeling like I could die, all the air stolen from me. But then I break the surface into the late afternoon sunshine and scream and I’ve suddenly never been more alive. Evan is nearly naked on the shore but seems to be hedging. He shouts something I can’t make out over the pounding of the water. “You’re crazy,” is what it sounds like. Finally, he makes his decision. He does not wade or even test the water but dives in headfirst. In that act of blind trust, I know who he is and what I must mean to him and the weight of that is scary.
We don’t linger in the pool for long. The water is so cold and intense that it’s like an assault on every pore of our bodies. When we retreat and climb out onto the large, flat rock to lie on our backs in the sun, teeth chattering like castanets, we hold hands and there is no place in the entire world I can imagine feeling better. Our cold bodies shiver and convulse in waves that are almost orgasmic. The tight gooseflesh on my arms and thighs slowly disappears in the embrace of the sun’s rays, leaving my skin feeling impossibly smooth and soft.
When we make love this time, I look into his eyes, something I’ve never done with anyone. The sensation is so intense, the connection so charged with electricity I feel like I might blow apart into a trillion atoms dissolving into the mist that surrounds us, making rainbows in the last shafts of sunlight through the western rim of the gorge.
Afterward, we doze, lulled by the pounding water until the sun slips behind the ridge and leaves us in shadow. I wake up chilled and my hip is stiff from lying on the rock. I nudge Evan awake and tell him we should find a place to set up the tent before it’s too dark to see anything. We dress quickly, grab our packs and hike downriver away from the falls until we come to a spot where I’ve camped before. It’s one of the few places flat and wide enough to pitch a tent and there’s a small fire ring already.
It’s much quieter here away from the waterfall and we work together to unpack the tent in the shadow of the enormous trees. Once it’s pitched, we walk up into the rapidly darkening forest to gather wood. It’s a challenge to find dry pieces so I instruct Evan to look for dead branches that have not fallen to the ground. We find an old white pine barely standing, its lower limbs naked and straight like the spokes of a broken wagon wheel. We snap off enough for a couple of armloads and haul them back to our campsite. The fireflies are starting to come out. We stop and look up through the canopy of trees at their sleepy flickering dance.
I show Evan how to lay the fire, and we work together to feed it. He’s so curious and willing to take instruction, which is rare for a man, at least in my experience. By the time we have a nice, sustained blaze, I’m a little light-headed from blowing into it and have to sit back on my butt.
“I can see why you love this,” he says. He pokes the fire with a stick, the amber glow on the planes of his face makes his features pronounced, like a carved figure. “You just figured out how to do all this on your own, or did your folks take you camping when you were growing up?”
“Ha, no, my family never camped. I picked it up on my own, mostly. There was a lot of trial and error, but you learn quickly how important it is to make a fire. Are you hungry? I’m starving.”
“Yeah, so I know I’m usually game to cook, but I think I’m out of my depth here without a kitchen…”
I laugh, reach over to my pack and pull out the pouches of freeze-dried meals. “Here you go my friend,” I say, tossing one of the pouches to him.
“Mmm, beef stroganoff. This looks… delicious?” He turns the package over to study the ingredients in the firelight.
“You’ll be surprised how good it tastes when you’re hungry,” I say.
I pull out my little camp stove and hand him the small stainless-steel pot. “Go fill this up in the stream and we’ll get this party started.”
There are no complaints later as we scarf down the rehydrated contents of the packages. It’s full dark now and the call-and-response sawing of crickets has started up in earnest. We rinse our bowls in the river and then settle in together by the fire. Evan pulls out one of the sleeping bags and we use it as a pallet.
“What do we do now?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Normally I’m by myself out here.”
“Wow, I don’t think I fully appreciated how intense it would be out here by yourself until now,” Evan says, looking around us at the impenetrable darkness.
“Well, in fairness, Meela was usually with me.”
“I’m sure she’s great company unless of course you get attacked by a bear or a pack of wolves. But I guess she could tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the particular species that was tearing you apart.”
I shove him, “Shut up, don’t even talk about that. Do you know how horrible that would be, to go that way?”
“Yeah, I guess. Call me crazy, but I think I’d rather be fighting an enemy of flesh and bone that I could wrap my hands around than…”
“What?” I ask. “Than a virtual monster? Is that what you were going to say?”
“Yeah, I guess so. How are you doing? I haven’t wanted to ask.”
“Good, as far as I know. I don’t really want to think about it.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry,” he says, squeezing me tighter. “So, tell me a story then. That’s what you do around a campfire, right?”
“What kind of story?”
“Hmmm… tell me a story about your Mom. I don’t really know anything about her.”
“I don’t know if I have any good stories I can just conjure. My mom was kind of enigmatic to me.”
“Well, just tell a single memory you have of her, something that, when you think of her, always comes up first.”
I realize I don’t want to just go through the motions here. My instinct is just to recall a mostly fabricated memory that is safe, but I don’t want that. I want to really share something, so I take a moment to think. I close my eyes and try to recall my mother’s face.
“She took me out into the desert once when I was about seven just to talk about nothing,” I say after some time has passed.
“What do you mean nothing?”
“I mean she wanted to explain to me the concept of nothing, nothing as in the absence of something. She was like that.”
“That seems pretty random, not exactly the classic kind of mother, daughter memory I would picture in my mind.”
“We were not the typical mother, daughter relationship. My mom was a mass of contradictions. Maybe that’s why this memory is what comes to mind when I think of her.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, she wanted to explain the significance of zero as a concept, as a mathematical absolute, and yet the conversation as I remember it didn’t seem like it was about math at all. It was about her spiritual philosophy of the universe.”
“Okay, I’m intrigued.”
“I remember we woke up early on a Saturday. I think my brother had some kind of Cub Scout thing with our dad or something, so it was just me and my mom. We drove for what seemed like hours but that’s probably not accurate. Time in the car when you’re a kid is an eternity. All I remember is it was dark when we set out and when we finally stopped on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere it was about a hundred degrees and the sun was so bright, I had to squint.”
“She just started walking out into the desert, didn’t say anything or ask me to follow, she just started walking. I followed her and with every step into that void landscape, I began to get more and more afraid, but she just kept walking. I remember looking back over my shoulder at some point and seeing that our car looked like a toy it was so small. At some point the car completely disappeared and she stopped and turned to face me. ‘What do you see?’ she asked me. I remember whining and saying I was hot and wanted to go back to the car, but she would not have it. She wanted me to answer. Finally, I said that I saw nothing, which was, I think, what she wanted me to say.”
Evan gets up and puts another couple of branches on the fire. He has this open expression on his face that I’ve gotten to know. It’s the face he makes when he’s really observing, and listening.
“We sat there, cross-legged in the sand facing each other. ‘What do you feel?’ she asked me. I said I felt scared. ‘Why do you feel scared?’ she asked. I said because we could die out here. ‘What do you think happens when you die?’ she asked. I said I didn’t know. I remember feeling intensely sad and I started to cry. She did not try to comfort me exactly, but she did hold my hands as we sat there in the rising heat. I asked her for the answer, but she refused. Any other mother would have talked about heaven or something, but not her.”
“Damn, so what was her point?” Evan asks. “Just to make you face the void?”
“We sat there for a long time, and eventually I stopped crying. When I did, she asked me to close my eyes and to just listen. After a few minutes, she asked me again. ‘Are you still afraid?’ I said I wasn’t. She asked me why, I think. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but I will always remember what I felt. In those moments of silence with my eyes shut, I began to sense the world around me, the wind, a plane passing way up above, and the call of a hawk. What I thought was nothing was actually everything. ‘Everything and nothing,’ that’s the phrase she used. I remember she stood up and with her finger, drew a circle in the sand around us and then sat back down. I remember she talked about how the ancients devised the symbol of zero as simply a way to draw a circle around the emptiness, a way to refer to what could not be comprehended or quantified.”
Evan has a curious expression on his face as he stares into the fire. I feel suddenly embarrassed and incredibly vulnerable. My story sounds so ridiculous and pretentious and just plain weird. I am about to try to take it all back when he begins to speak.
“That’s about the most incredible story I’ve ever heard,” he says. “Fuck, your mom did this? She taught you this when you were just a little thing?”
I nod and we both just stare into the fire for a while.
“So, it was a gift she gave you, wasn’t it?” he asks.
“I’ve never thought about it like that until now, but yeah, I guess it was. She was not your typical mom. She could be hard and cold and distant, but she was brilliant, and she wanted my life to be about so much more. She didn’t want me to grow up playing Barbies and looking for some Ken to marry and tell me I was pretty.”
“Did she do the same kinds of things with your brother?”
“She tried, I think. She videoed us all the time. She constantly tried to make us think, to be conscious of our choices as we grew up. We were, in some ways a grand experiment for her. She loved us, I think, but she had a bigger agenda than just raising us and keeping us safe.”
“You said she tried with your brother. That sounds like it didn’t work.”
“No, I think it’s pretty clear it didn’t. I think she sensed something wrong in him very early. I remember an intense couple of years where I felt so jealous. She spent more time with him than with me. I thought he was her favorite. She was softer with him, more tender.”
“Sounds like she was trying to reach him, maybe change what she saw in him?”
“Yeah, I think she was. My father would get angry, which was weird. He was so goofy and affable, the typical absent-minded professor, but her attention toward Joe would set him off.”
I feel sick to my stomach suddenly. I have not talked about this with anyone but a therapist and somehow in saying these stories out loud, I feel like I am betraying my parents. Evan senses something is wrong and tries to put an arm around me.
“What is it?” he asks.
I just shake my head and stare into the fire.
“Maggie, do you think… I don’t want to ask, but do you think maybe your mom did something to Joe? I mean something that might explain part of his…”
“No! What the fuck are you talking about?” I push away from him and stand up. I stalk around to the other side of the fire and begin feeding it more branches.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean anything… I wasn’t trying to…”
“It’s okay,” I say, trying to keep my voice from sounding so wooden. “It’s a valid question given how monstrous Joe turned out to be. The truth is, I don’t know. I’ve never known why Joe turned out the way he did, but I don’t think there’s anything my mother or father could have done to make him into the person he was.”
“That’s fair,” Evan says. “I don’t know anything about this, and I shouldn’t have even brought it up. Will you come back and sit down?”
I try to settle myself and regain some control of my emotions and to some extent I do, but my gut is still churning. I’ve heard the stomach referred to as the second brain or the emotional brain. It is having trouble digesting the seed that Evan planted. Was something done to us as kids or maybe just to Joe? Could that explain all of it? I try to cast my mother in this role of abuser, but I am flooded with a thousand memories of the way she truly was with us, the amount of time she spent teaching us to think for ourselves. No, she was a lot of things, but she was no abuser.
I settle in next to Evan and let him hold me. We are quiet for a long time, just watching the flames crackle and pop as if in conversation with the surrounding darkness so black and alive I can feel it pushing in around us, waiting. I think of all the energy stored up from hundreds of years of sunlight burning away in a fraction of that time. Everything and nothing. Everything in nothing.
“So, what did you do after?” Evan asks, breaking the spell we had both fallen into.
“After the existential field trip into the desert?”
“Oh, we got ice cream.”
“You’re serious?” he laughs. “You just got back in the car and stopped at a DQ for a soft-serve?”
“Pretty much. That was Mom. Everything and nothing.”
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