I shouldn’t do it at work. I knew that.
But it was February.
February in the Bronx blew in icy cold winds and gray skies. After half a mile of gray slush and exhaust fumes, I arrived at a classroom full of students whose moods matched the weather. They’d morphed into powder kegs ready to explode at any small provocation.
“Yo, miss, he took my pen.” “Yo, miss, if he look at me again Imma pop him I swear to God.” “Yo, miss, tell this motherfucker to shut the fuck up, he sound stupid.”
I gave up on teaching, handed out some worksheets, and plopped into my desk in the corner, fantasizing about being anywhere else on the planet. A soulless cubicle in an office. A warm beach in Mexico. A retirement home in Detroit. Anywhere else.
To distract myself, I pulled Jack’s ancient creaking laptop out of my tote bag. I’d been carrying it around for weeks by that time.
I’d seen my fiancé working on this machine several times in the past year. The machine stood out. Jack usually used up to date technology; this clunky laptop looked 20 years old and groaned like a dying animal every time he started it.
Jack’s job required high levels of clearance; when he was alive, I respected that and never pried into what he was doing.
Now I had the right to pry.
After the accident, I didn’t touch his clothes hanging in the closet and I left his books on time, space, and human consciousness on the shelf with my YA fantasy novels and Jane Austen. But I went to the wall safe in our apartment, took out this machine, and put it in the tote bag I carried with me at all times.
One of Jack’s colleagues, Chris Hadersfelt, came by the apartment not long after the incident to make sure that Jack had left nothing sensitive at home. He’d been apologetic and thorough while rifling through each nook and cranny of our apartment. I happily opened the wall safe for him, which now held only a few pieces of jewelry and backup financial information.
“Is there anywhere else Jack might have stored things from work?” he asked me when he was done.
“Just at his office,” I answered. They must have already gone through his workspace.
“Well, keep in touch, Carly,” Chris told me. “If you need anything, even just to talk, give me a call. He was a good friend of mine too, you know.” I should have volunteered then that I had tucked away in my purse an item that he wanted. But I didn’t. I hugged him and sent him out the door.
This machine had something to do with the final chapter in Jack’s life. Maybe somewhere on this machine I’d find out something about how or why Jack died.
But I didn’t open it until that day in school.
Doing it at work was a mistake. I turned on the machine and scrolled through some data that made no sense to me, until I found a place with a simple tag: On/Off. It said Off. There seemed to be no other type of data entry allowed, only this On or Off. Curious, I typed On.
The world went black. I had just been in a bright fluorescent classroom surrounded by all the students and bells and chaos that go with a poor urban high school. Then nothing. No sound. No colors, no light.
Soon I could hear one sound: my heart, pumping slowly in my chest. The bed beneath me was soft, the sheets cool and pleasant. And then I opened my eyes and I could see again. (Why hadn’t I thought to open my eyes before? So simple.) It was still dark but I could make out shapes by the nightlight in the corner.
I was in a bedroom. It was nighttime. I was moving across the room into the bathroom without ever choosing to do so. Sudden harsh light flooded sleep dilated pupils – not my pupils. I looked into a mirror at a middle-aged man standing where I should have been.
I stared out of his eyes, felt his hand rub across the stubble on his chin and the pleasant release as he voided his bladder. Then there was the soft scratch of the carpet under his feet as he walked back into his bedroom and slid between the sheets. The blackness returned, no light, no sound. The man had gone back to sleep, but I was still there, riding along with him, experiencing nothingness. It was nice.
And then I was back in my classroom.
Astrid, a pretty Puerto Rican student who had come to my classroom with a tracking device around her ankle (courtesy of her last stint in Juvenile detention) held my face between her hands. “Miss, Miss, you ok Miss?” A few students were gathered around me, peering into my face. One had splashed water from his sports bottle on my face. I spluttered, wiped it off, and sat up.
“Of course I am, I’m fine.” I used my stern teacher voice, but it was hard to pull off. I’d scared the kids; I could see it in their faces, feel it in their hushed stillness. A moment later the nurse showed up, breathless, with the first aid kit in her hand. “I’m ok,” I insisted, but it was too late. Someone had called an ambulance, and probably afraid of a lawsuit more than anything else, my inflexible principal insisted I go to the hospital and have a full range of tests.
I didn’t tell the doctors about the weird experience I’d had. I let them think that I had just passed out. “I feel fine,” I assured them over and over. Eventually they let me head back to my apartment, my teacher’s tote bag clutched tightly to my side, that strange little machine secure inside.
My sister called me while I was still headed home. I didn’t want to talk to her, but I immediately guessed that my principal had contacted her. Best to deal with her now rather than later.
“You all right, hun?” Hannah never used to call me hun. She wasn’t the type to use a lot of endearments. It shook me up a little bit and then I remembered. O ya. Jack died. THAT’s why she’s treating me differently. I’d forgotten about it for most of a day: a new record. “Mr. Davidson from your school called. He told me you’d been taken to the hospital.”
“I’m fine,” I said, speaking firmly to convince her that she didn’t need to come up here and check on my in person. “I fainted in school, but it was nothing.”
“Fainted… You’ve never fainted before have you?” She sounded concerned.
“No, but oh my god, you have no idea how hot it is in those classrooms at this time of year. I’m in this tiny little classroom and that old heating system is on all day and it just roasts us. Even though it’s freezing outside the students all have their heads hanging out the window to cool off.” I went on with a familiar litany of complaints about my job. She’d heard this all before. Nothing new.
“You should just quit your job,” she told me for the 1000th time. “Start over with something different. It would help you get your mind off everything.” I promised I’d think about it and hung up the phone.
I was lying of course. I was only thinking about one thing. Oblivion.
As soon as I got home, I closed the curtains, locked the doors, and pulled out the machine. The hinges creaked as I opened the lid and plugged it in. As before, a list started forming at the top of the screen. I used the arrows to scroll down through it, name after name. There were small rows of information, places associated with people and notes that didn’t mean much to me. I couldn’t see any order to it. Some of the entries used symbols I didn’t recognize. Some were in English, but not many.
My eyes hit the words Cancun, Mexico on one of the entries and that was it. I was done trying to make sense of it. I just typed ON where it said OFF, blinked my eyes, and looked out into a different world.
I hoped to be floating in a clear blue ocean or lying on a warm beach. Instead, I was packed tightly into a crowded bus and it was hot. I was standing on aching feet in a body covered in a uniform for the “Paradise Resort” hotel. No beach, no sand. Not a great smell. Everyone was talking rapidly in Spanish around me, but I couldn’t understand a word of it. I didn’t care.
My host got off the bus and walked to a small, beat up brick house with a thatched roof shed in the yard. The parts of Cancun I’d been to were nothing but expensive resort after resort, so many that it was hard to find sunny spots on the beach in the afternoon in between the shadows from all the hotels. I’d never seen this side of Cancun before.
My host sat down with his family for a simple meal which I’m have refused as too strange, but my host relished the flavors and the textures and the spice and therefore, so did I.
At some point, I wondered how I was supposed to turn the machine back OFF when I was stuck in this man’s head. My students had snapped me out of that first man’s head, but physically I was in my apartment now, with the door locked and no one expected any time soon. How long before someone would come to my apartment to see what had happened to me?
Well, Hannah will show up tomorrow if I don’t report to work, I comforted myself, and settled back to enjoy the ride.
The man’s children put a stop to the whole experience very quickly, however. One of them walked up to my host after dinner, where he sat talking quietly in Spanish to the family around him. Her name was Linda and she couldn’t have been more than six years old. She reached up to touch my host’s cheek with her hand and look me straight in the eye.
“Who are you?” she asked in Spanish, but I understood. I looked back at her, knowing that she could see me somehow, riding along behind this man’s eyes.
I tried to say something in response but my host seemed to have no notion that I was floating along behind his eyes. He spoke rapidly to the girl.
“No,” she said, shaking her head at whatever her father was saying to her. “You’re someone else. This isn’t right.”
And she leaned up even closer until she was practically pupil to pupil with me and pushed me out of my host’s head and back into my cramped New York City apartment.
That was the beginning. I spent my days stressed by my job, saddened by the grief that weighed on my heart, wishing I could get out of my life.
My nights I spent as other people. I was an overweight French man watching TV in a language I didn’t understand or an old woman sitting in a wheelchair in a nursing home. It might not sound exciting but I preferred it to my own life.
The trips weren’t always bland. One night, I was dancing at a club with a brunette in a short, tight dress, college kids I think, and she looked at me through flirty green eyes and I felt it in my gut. I rode along while this guy brought her back to a dingy apartment and stripped her naked. I felt the silky breasts, the warmth between her long, long legs. I’d barely let myself fantasize about sleeping with a woman before but now I lived it.
That’s when I realized how free I was. I could try anything, anyone, do anything and walk away without any of the consequences. The only problem was that I had no control. I never knew whose head I was going into.
Even worse, I couldn’t control when it stopped. Kids seemed to see straight through to me; anytime a kid came close I’d be shoved back to my body quickly, but sometimes there were no kids around the host.
“Hannah.” How to explain it? On the cell with my baby sister, trying to tell her that she might need to help me control a problem. “Can you call me before work every day? I need someone to call and make sure I’m awake.”
“Sure, I guess,” she said.
“It’s hard to get up sometimes without Jack around.” I hated myself for playing that card, but I did. “If I don’t answer, keep trying ok? Come by my apartment if you have to. Bring your daughter.” My students had snapped me out of it the first time, so I was pretty sure kids could pull me back to my body on either end of my mind trips.
“Carly . . . Are you ok?”
“Yes. Please. Just promise you’ll call, ok?”
“Ok. Bye.” I used to talk to my sister for hours on end, but now I rarely squeezed her in. I just wanted to jump back into someone else’s life.
If she did stop by, I would have to explain why my apartment was such a mess. I fed my two cats once in a while, but I ignored the litter boxes. Most days, I managed to keep reporting to work but as soon as I made it home, I plunged headlong out of my mind.
I liked the peaceful minds the best, but I never knew what I’d get.
One day I was stuck in the mind of an angry trucker for at least 6 hours. He was on the road, raging and fuming inside at that bitch, nagging too much it drove him crazy. I wanted out of his mind but I couldn’t figure out how to leave. There were no other people around him, nothing pushing us apart.
He finally pulled over at a truck stop and I saw some kids hanging around a minivan over packed with toys and DVD players for a long trip. Go there, go there, go there, I thought over and over and I don’t know if I influenced him at all or not but he finally went near one of the children, who walked up to him as if he knew him, looked him in the eye, and asked that question that I usually dreaded. “Who’s in there?” Then he pushed me out.
Thank God. My hands and legs were tingling and numb from sitting still for so long and I’d urinated on myself. Disgusting. It must be time to quit this.
Surely I could stop anytime that I wanted.
But the next night I plunged back in as usual, and this time I sunk into a dark deep pool of water, an abyss of a mind, a chasm. No nagging emotional turmoil, in fact, no emotions at all that I could feel. Well, maybe a bit of self-satisfaction and pleasure rolling around at the surface but I couldn’t touch the depths below, just feel myself floating above them. He was a teen, I decided eventually. He was padding around a smallish apartment for a bit, chatting with his mother (Did he love his mother? Did he feel anything for her? Hard to tell).
He went back to his room and parked in front of his computer and began to play some sort of shooting game. He was at it for hours, controlled, concentrating, chatting with other people over the internet occasionally. I would never spend my time that way in my real life, but this brain, this mind, I could roll along with it endlessly, feeling absolutely nothing except that total, nearly perfect calm control. I sunk into it as deeply as I could, obliterating my own stress and loneliness and fear in his emotion free brain.
A sister came in at some point (Nine or ten? Glasses, not very pretty, called Becky), chatting about something random before taking his face between her hands and asking that dreaded question. “Who are you? Who’s in there?” and I tried to hold on as tightly as I could, clinging to that mind, but it spat me out and I wound up back in my apartment, right leg tingling from lack of blood. I’d probably been sitting there for hours. And I just wanted to go back in.
I’d never wanted to visit the same mind twice before. I’d always been happy to float from person to person, which meant that I hadn’t been keeping track of whose minds I’d visited at all. Whenever I was ejected from someone’s mind, the “ON” next to their name became an “OFF.” I still had the screen on the little machine open from that day, however, so I looked down the list and eliminated all the female names and out of the rest, well, it took some time but I finally found him again. Gregory James. 20 years old. Los Angeles, California. I would be back.
Greg became my life. Not my hobby; if he had been a hobby I would have popped into his mind for an hour or two in the evening and that would be it. But I tried to spend every waking hour floating along in that void of a brain. What did it feel like when that was your mind, I wondered? Always in control, always calm, always collected. No loneliness, no anxiety, no depression, no grief.
If it wasn’t for Becky, maybe I would have stayed in Greg’s mind until my body died from dehydration. But she kept pestering me back into reality, over and over, more frantic each time. She was upset, I could see, and complained more than once to his parents that there was something very wrong with her older brother. She alternated between avoiding him, as if too deeply disturbed to be near him, and later following him everywhere every minute, so that I would no sooner pop into his mind than she would force me out again.
Was Greg a real person? I thought of these people as real, but who knew? Perhaps the machine just induced very detailed, realistic hallucinations. Maybe I’d gone crazy. But his pest of a sister felt real. His life felt real.
I decided to find out. I needed to get away from my apartment anyway; I’d managed to keep Hannah appeased and away, but Chris was urgent on my answering machine.
“Carly? Carly, are you there? Pick up if you’re there. I know you haven’t been reporting to work, Carly. What’s happening? Is there something I should know about? Carly… Talk to me.” He’d been keeping tabs on me; time to get away.
I knew I couldn’t ignore him or he’d show up in person, so I answered his next call.
“Carly,” Chris said, skipping over the greeting entirely. “You have to know they’re watching you. The company knows that you have they’re property.”
“Then why didn’t they call me and ask for it back? Or come and get it themselves.” I wasn’t surprised to hear this news.
“They were curious, Carly. You’re just another research subject to them at this point. They have been observing your trips and taking notes. They know what you’re doing. This can’t end well.” He gave a shaky, nervous laugh and I wondered if he cared about what happened to me after all. Probably not, I decided. He’s just worried that my actions will reflect on him.
“Why him?” Chris asked finally after a pause. “You’ve never gone back to the same person more than once before. What is it about this guy? Is it some celebrity or something?”
“No, it’s just a guy. A young guy.”
“So what makes his mind worth the repeats? He’s interesting, sexy? What is it?” His tone was urgent.
“His mind is quiet. Content. His mom has cancer, I mean it’s not very serious but he doesn’t worry about it, doesn’t think about it at all. He doesn’t have much of a job. He almost never goes out of the house. He’s completely content and peaceful with his world the way it is.”
“What is he, some religious nut?” More shaky laughter. “He meditates and prays to Buddha every day?”
“I don’t think so.”
“So it’s just that he’s happy? This is the first happy person you found? We ARE a fucked up species.”
“No. He’s not happy. He’s like a lake. Calm, quiet. Nothing stirring in there. It’s peaceful inside his head.”
“Sounds like visiting a graveyard to me.”
“Maybe it is.”
“Carly… Let me come pick up the machine. You don’t want to be one of the company’s research subjects, trust me. They’ll treat you with all the care they’d give a lab rat. Let me come meet you.”
I thought about it. “I’ll come to you,” I said finally. I named a restaurant nearby and promised to come meet him that evening for dinner. “I’ll bring the machine then,” I lied.
I had money in my savings. As soon as I hung up, I called for a cab and headed straight for the airport. I bought a plane ticket to Nevada and drove from there to California to try to avoid Chris and any other hounds from Jack’s company. I rented a furnished apartment in a sketchy part of town. The landlord didn’t question the information I made up to put on the lease. It took me several days all together to get down there and moved in.
That was the longest I’d gone without mind traveling since I started. I tried to pop into Greg’s mind eight or nine more times, but every time Becky ejected me as soon as I made it into Greg’s brain.
So I quit long enough to take my frantic trip to California, where I waited impatiently for 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, and then I dressed in casual clothes and headed over to Computer City.
I knew Greg’s routine well enough by then to know that he worked Wednesday mornings. He wouldn’t show up for a while, so I hung out near the repair station for a couple of hours, pretending to contemplate one of 15 different types of mouse, computer, and monitor combinations until he finally walked in the room with head half lowered, shaggy black hair covering his eyes, trying to blend into the furniture as much as possible.
It took me a minute to recognize him; he looked like a stranger. His face was more intense from the other side of his eyes, looking into a mirror. When I’d seen his face in the past, all my thoughts and feelings about it had been tinged by his thoughts and feelings. And there’d been a depth, a richness that could not be captured here from the distance of a few feet.
I tried to catch his eye as he walked by but it was a challenge. A shy kid. He glanced at me for a moment. I saw the flash of bright brown eyes (Like Jack’s), but he just kept going. No recognition, no horror, no joy.
I’d spent weeks feeling this guy jerk off beneath the sheets at night. I couldn’t help it; I felt like I owned him. But he gave me nothing at all as he disappeared into the back part of the repair section.
There. I’d done what I’d set out to do. I’d proven that these people existed, that they weren’t just elaborate hallucinations. And I’m sure my fiancé had been mesmerized by the implications for our theories of mind, body, and human consciousness. But I wasn’t worried about all of that. Proving that Greg was real wasn’t enough. I wanted more.
Greg worked part time repairing computers. I doubted that he could possibly make enough money to make a career out of this. He still lived with his parents, even though he was a couple years out of high school. I had no idea why such a smart guy wasn’t in college or trying to make something more of his life. I didn’t care. I pretty much thought his life must be perfect the way it was. I approached the help desk, where some other young guy (presumably one of the more sociable of the geeks) looked bored.
“My computer is broken,” I started off.
“What’s it doing?” he asked.
“It won’t start at all. It just beeps a lot when I try to start it.” I was just making up symptoms. I had no idea what could go wrong with computers but that sounded realistic to me at least.
“Laptop or desktop?”
“Do you have it with you?”
“No,” I said. “It’s too heavy for me to lift up. Can I get someone to come repair it at my house?”
“Sorry, we don’t do that. You’ll have to bring it in if you want it to be repaired.” Crap.
“Well, I guess I’ll see what I can do. Thanks.”
I went outside and waited in my rental car for Greg to emerge, which he did later that afternoon. How could I approach him without seeming creepy? He stood around on the curb, probably waiting for a ride. I rolled up to him and lowered the window.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hello. Can I help you?” he asked.
“I hope so. You work here, right?” I gestured at his chain store uniform.
“You fix computers?” I was trying to make eye contact with him but he seemed fascinated by the tips of his shoes. Still no sign of recognition. Shouldn’t he know me in some way?
“Yes. You can bring yours in and they’ll take care of you inside.”
“Well, that’s the problem. I really can’t move it. It’s a very large computer. Maybe you could come by my apartment and fix it for me? I’m happy to pay whatever Computer City charges. Off the books, you know?” He gave me a strange look.
“I don’t do that,” he said. “I mean, I wouldn’t have any tools to fix it with. We keep them all here at the store.”
“But maybe you could at least tell me what’s wrong with it. Please?”
“There are computer repair guys that go home to home. Look on the internet. You’ll find a lot of guys who do that.” He turned away from me.
“If I could use the internet, I wouldn’t need a computer repair guy.” Impatience leeched into my voice. “Look, you’d be saving me a lot of hassle if you could check it out. I’ll pay you a hundred and fifty bucks just to come look at it. Up front. Maybe you could tell me if it’s fixable or if I should stop wasting my time. I wouldn’t know how to start to find someone else to do it.” I could see that he was tempted despite his better instincts.
“Where do you live?” He asked finally.
“Nearby,” I lied. It was a twenty minute drive but this was L.A. after all.
“My mom is coming by soon to drive me home.”
“I could drive you home after you’re done. It’s no problem. I just really want to get this computer going since I’m starting a new teaching job here and all my lesson plans are on there.”
I shamelessly played up my advantages here. I knew what I looked like. I was a slight white woman with unkempt hair and no sense of fashion. Not terribly threatening. I looked neither young nor old, but I certainly looked the part of a teacher, and most people trust that teachers are harmless souls, despite the occasional horror story that makes the news.
I’m not sure what tipped the scales for him, probably the money, but soon enough he’d made a call to his Mom saying he didn’t need a ride after all and I had him in my car and we were speeding away toward my apartment. I got a little lost on the way there (hey, I’d just moved in), but he seemed to know the area, and he helped me get back to my apartment.
Here the fun would begin. I didn’t even own a desktop and the only machine I wanted him to play with was the little strange one. Maybe he would know how it worked or what it was meant for. Why did such a thing exist in the first place?
He hesitated as he came into my apartment. He looked around for my desktop while I went and got a couple sodas. I guided him past his reluctance onto my couch, where I sat a little too close and kept watching for any sign of recognition from him, some knowledge of how intimate we had been.
“To be honest, I don’t have a desktop. I just didn’t want to bring this into Computer City for anyone to look at. But I want to know what it is.” I pulled the machine out of its case and powered it on. It grumbled and moaned as it started, as it usually did. Every time I started it again, I was terrified that it wouldn’t boot up, that it had reached its limit. But the screen came up eventually with the list of names and symbols.
“Oh,” he said. He never talked much. He took the machine from me and started pressing buttons, flipping the screen in and out, and somehow he managed to pull up a bunch of computer code. I guess he knew how to get into the inner workings of the machine. I couldn’t hold back my nervousness.
“You’re not going to break it, are you? I mean, I still want it to work.”
“What does it do?” He was in that state of focused concentration again, I could see it. His brain was working at a thousand miles an hour but if I’d been in there with him, I’d have barely been able to feel the motion of all that thought underneath the surface of his mind.
“Get me back to the main screen again and I’ll show you.” I was relieved that he was able to pull the list of names up again. I searched for the perfect name and handed it back to him. “Type ON where it says OFF.”
I held my breath, waiting to see if he would do it.
His fingers moved and he typed the letters. Now I could watch what had happened to me so many times.
His face slackened, slickened, emptied. His eyes stared at nothing. I leaned him back up against the couch and pulled his legs forward so he was lying down. I watched him for a bit, looking for any sign of life. Other than the motion of his chest lifting and falling, he could have been dead.
I reached up and felt my own face, wondering what I should feel like. I brushed the hair out of his eyes so that I could finally get a good look at his face. I wonder if that’s scaring him, I thought, to see himself like that, to see that he’s not in control of himself.
I went into the restroom and looked at myself in the mirror. Long, mousy brown hair, green eyes peering from behind thick glasses. Forgettable. But he wouldn’t forget me, not after this.
“Are you in there?” I asked. I looked into my own eyes, searching for some sign that Greg looked back at me. I closed my eyes after a moment, trying to feel him tossing around in my brain. Nothing. I felt the same as always. But I knew he was in there with me.
Maybe this experience would finally shake him out of that calm state of his. Maybe he would be forced to engage, to react, to feel. I wondered if he was experiencing my own memories of being inside his head. Probably not; it had been a while before I had been conscious of other people’s memories. For a long time, I had only felt their physical sensations. Thoughts, feelings, and memories had come later.
They would come eventually, though. What would he think?
Maybe it would be horrible for him. I didn’t really care about that, though. I wanted to own him, to own that calm and cool brain. I knew I couldn’t do that, really, but now I had it captured, at least, planted firmly inside my own.
For a while, until the company found me.
Then who knows what would happen.
I went back to the couch and looked at him lying there, peaceful, mindless. I locked the door and closed the windows. There would be no accidental encounters with children any time soon, not if I could help it. I could take care of his empty body for quite some time, and keep him with me all that time, trapped inside my skull.