By Jason L. Rowell
He woke up, the bright red message flashing “End of Reel.” Over and over, a hell of a way to start another day. He reached over, slapping blindly at the deck on the bedside table before clumsily finding the off button. As the Stimdeck wound down he removed the input electrodes tossing them on top of the small black deck and placed his bare feet on the cold floor. With his head heavy in his scarred hands he sighed trying to pull together the motivation to stand, to push himself out of the soft comforting bed and face the world and the cold reality that Molly wasn’t around. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the fuzzy glow of the deck’s status LEDs and in it the image of a glowing lotus half buried beneath the mounds of tapes and cases. He fumbled through the tapes, tossing most aside but picking out the one with the holographic blossom on it, he held it in his hands studying the petals as they shimmered across the smooth surface. He had this one specially made, just for him. Just for today, just for one final knock out.
He’d always been able to take a punch. That’s part of what lead him into the ring, why he’d been one of the biggest names in boxing. There were only two times he’d ever been knocked on his ass, neither of them happened in the ring. The first time was on a blind date, Frank his manager set him up with his niece Molly. Molly, was a creature of infinite grace and the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on. She had hair that reminded him of the way light looked if you caught it just right in a bead of honey, her smile was the thing that made him forget that he had three broken ribs and a busted nose. He never knew what a woman as smart as Molly had ever seen in a meathead like him, maybe it was the security she felt when she leaned against him, maybe those deep blue eyes of her saw something in him that everyone else missed. He didn’t ask too many questions or think too hard about it, all he knew was that somehow he made her happy and that became all he wanted in the world. The second time was the last time he woke up in bed beside her.
It’s been five years, five years since she died you’re always told that it gets easier, that the pain fades and that you move on, maybe some people do. He never could. StimCorp covered the cost of the funeral spared no expense really, paid him what their lawyers considered to be a reasonable sum, not that he thought any sum could be called reasonable, and put safety checks in place so another accident didn’t happen. To him it felt like they were there to make sure there were no other payouts. He hated that, referring to it as “the accident.”It wasn’t an it, it was her, it was Molly. But none of that, the money the safety checks, referring to it as an accident, none of that changed that she was gone. Molly was gone and along with her the bright blue eyes, the golden hair and the reason to get out of bed, the reason to fight for anything.
Molly worked for StimCorp for fifteen years in their white clean sterile offices. She lead research and development for them, no piece of tech passed out their doors without Molly’s slender fingers touching it somewhere. It paid well and allowed her to play with the newest toys and tech. He never really cared for whatever new gizmo she was working on but loved to see the spark in her eyes when she got excited about it. All those little things that she loved to work on, including the first Stimdeck. She was excited when she brought their first deck home a prototype that they were told was finally ready for in-home testing. The thing was the size of a keyboard, maybe a bit bigger wires ran out of it on different sides and the top popped up to slip a tape into, buttons ran down the front of the black matte plastic deck, one labeled stop, another with play. She’d made him sit on the couch in their living room, it had been new then but now it sat neglected in his living room a film of dust covering the cushions. After she sat him down she talked on and on about the possibilities of being able to experience someone else’s memories first hand. Not just what they saw and heard, but what they smelled, tasted, and felt. He remembered the way the sun had illuminated her honey colored hair, the way her hands moved as rapidly as she talked, the sounds her feet made across the floor as she paced. He remembered reaching a hand out and lightly grasping her wrist as he told her to slow down as she talked so he could keep up, smiling the whole time. Molly hadn’t been able to tell him anything about the Stimdeck project for months, legal contracts and non-disclosures had stood in the way, and now that she could talk to him about it, she was a torrent of information and ideas. She showed him how the deck worked, where the inputs connected to it and how they fit on his temples, being patient with him as his thick fingers worked the inputs clumsily trying to get them in the right spots, her hands gliding over his fingers, with a delicacy he could never manage, guiding the inputs to the deck and then to his temples.
StimCorp hadn’t been able to send any tapes for the deck home with her, the marketing department was still arguing over what to put on them she said, but they did provide blanks and everything needed for him and Molly to record their own. They started out with small events to test the deck’s capabilities, dinner together one evening, a walk through the city at dusk and an afternoon in Molly’s garden. He sighed heavily remembering Molly’s garden. The smell of her roses, the way the wind from the ocean blew her hair back, even the way she shielded her eyes from the afternoon sun. That tape had always been his favorite, and Molly’s garden seemed a lifetime ago. A dream that the gray rain soaked city outside his high rise window could never imagine, a warmth the city seemed incapable of.
After a week of recording their own tapes and sharing them with each other, Molly brought home their first officially produced tape. It was a night out seen through the eyes of one of StimCorp’s young executives. Dinner at one of the city’s most expensive restaurants, dancing at one of the most exclusive clubs, and barreling down a seaside highway in a car not slated to be released to the public for another two years. This became the standard marketing tactic to show off the deck’s capabilities, “Live the life you want.” became StimCorps motto. That night Molly fell asleep with the deck on, the seaside highway racing past her as she drifted off. The doctors said that when she woke up to the static at the end of the reel, it had wiped her mind. Something about the brain’s transition from delta to theta waves, he never was too interested in the details, all he knew was that Molly was gone. The half crooked smile, the gleam in her eyes when she laughed, the blush in her cheeks when she got excited, all of it gone. Just gone, no explanation, no preparation just an empty side of the bed where she should be, a hollow deserted kitchen and a garden turned barren.
The morning that he found her he’d reached over to grab her hand and hold her in the still sounds of the morning before facing the rest of the world. As he found her hand he knew immediately that there was something missing, her hand limp and waxy in his grip. He shook her gently at first and then hard enough to whip her head back and forth trying to stir some life in her. The final nail through his heart was when her eyes opened, lifeless and still. That moment was when he knew she wouldn’t be back. He called emergency services, followed the operator’s instructions on how to perform chest compressions, and gave it all he could knowing that the pumping was futile, knowing that another beat would never come from her heart. Eventually he lay over on the bed beside her cool body holding her to him and crying into her hair. His great sobs echoed through the still house, a low great moan that called back to him every time he gasped for breath. When the medics arrived at the house he’d stopped crying for long enough to compose himself and direct them to the bedroom. None of them made eye contact with him, and after a while the medics pushed a shining steel gurney through the house carrying Molly on top of it. He brushed his fingers across her still lips and through her hair one last time as she passed.
After Molly and the medics left, he wondered around the house lost and alone, not daring to enter the bedroom for fear of disturbing what last traces of her may have remained there. He avoided their room, convincing himself that it was already haunted, cursed or sacred ground to not be disturbed. Every now and then he would compose himself, think that his tears had flushed themselves dry, he’d reach for the phone to make a call to Molly’s family and let them know what happened. Everytime the shaking reciever reached his ear the torrent of tears began again. He was finally able to get through a phone call or two, neither one without deep sobs and cries of confusion and pain but enough of the message got through to Molly’s family, she was gone, he was deeply alone. They would come, help him with the arrangements, viewings, the wake, Molly’s clothes and belongings. The things she left behind that way he could take care of himself. The truth was, he didn’t know how to take care of himself anymore not without Molly.
The wake was beautiful, the funeral home was packed with Molly’s co-workers, family and friends. The make-up on Molly’s face was perfect, the funeral home had used several of the images from the tapes he and Molly had made to ensure that she looked like the radiant angel that he remembered. Her lips were red and cold, her skin flawless but stiff. When he leaned down to kiss her forehead one last time a flaw in the make-up showed through, just behind her hairline, the skin was shades of violet and blue beneath the cosmetic foundation. His tears fell from his eyes and rolled over her cheeks leaving little trails in the pale powder that covered her face. He was lead away from the coffin and someone slipped a drink into his hand. The rest of the day was a haze of tears and alcohol. He kept enough of a grip on himself to sit up in the chair during the graveside service.
The sun was out, not that it had any right to be according to him, it should have been a dull gray day, the skies should be crying along with him. But there was no time for the world to noticed Molly’s passing, the birds chirped along like they always did, traffic still sped by on the near by exchange and the world was the same for everyone else. Molly’s family stayed for a week after the funeral, cleaning the house, going through Molly’s things, cleaning and cooking for him. Someone changed the mattress on the bed, didn’t ask him about it. Someone took from him the last place that he’d held her and the last place he had seen her alive. The night that the new mattress came he accepted it and had it put in their room. He kindly asked everyone to leave their house and drank himself to sleep on his new bed, the same bed he found himself now sitting on, thinking through those last happy days.
For months after she passed he’d see her around the house, she’d just turn the corner just ahead of him but when he caught up there’d be no one there. He kept seeing her car in the driveway expecting her to walk in the front door any second only to remember the wake and her bruised blue skin. After the third time he found himself waiting by the door he sold the car. That made it easier to deal with: at least he didn’t expect her to open the front door anymore, and it was better that someone used the car than it rusted in the driveway undriven. That’s what he told himself anyway. It didn’t change anything, he’d still see her, disappearing into a crowd sliding onto a barstool next to some stranger, ringside at his fights, there she was and yet, it wasn’t her.
He spent the first year after everything happened slipping away, there never seemed a point to it anymore. He wasted away to a third of his weight, a diet of frozen soy meals and cheap vodka, the kind that came in a plastic jug, didn’t do much for keeping him filled out. His name still held weight though, enough to draw a crowd even if some of the crowds were in back alleys and weren’t exactly legal. He’d show up and get beaten. Broken nose, bruised ribs, the physical pain was a nice distraction but after a while even that wasn’t enough for him to feel anything. After a while he was back to being as hollow as an empty bottle. He wanted to feel something, anything even broken again, at least with broken there was the hope of being fixed. Numb was worse. Numb meant that it didn’t matter, broken or fixed, whole or shattered, numb doesn’t care.
After his last fight he woke up, drunk and nearly drowning in a city gutter as the city spat it’s cold impersonal rain down on him, another empty man who couldn’t hack it anymore. Desperate to feel anything he stumbled into the storage shed where he kept all of the things from his other life, his happy life. The things that had been left behind after he kicked Molly’s family out. He knew they were only trying to help, trying to deal with things so he could process but it still felt like vultures picking through the bones of their relationship.
He came across Molly’s deck, not sure why he hadn’t thrown the damned thing away. He fit it on, and for a moment her smile flashed in front of his eyes. He could feel her fingers as they helped him guide the inputs into place. After that first flash of Molly’s smile he slipped into the world that the Stimdeck could offer him, recordings of dates he and Molly had, the night that she cooked him crab legs and he sliced his finger open on the shell. The day that they spent at the beach when their car got stuck in the sand and he used driftwood to dig the tires out. That piece of driftwood still hung over the fireplace in his living room. Then he began to fill the hole in himself with journeys he never actually took, sights he’d never actually seen, two young lovers in Tokyo where he’d always wanted to take Molly, joy he no longer felt.
After a while, the feelings in the decks wouldn’t last, he’d be left with pain, a pain of memories he never got to have with Molly. The things they never did together or said to each other, but at least the pain was something. The pain wasn’t hollow or empty, the pain wasn’t numb. His tastes in tapes quickly spiraled downward as he tried to grasp for any feeling at all, for anything. He began looking for tapes on more taboo subjects, a junkie’s high, robberies, violence. But none of it seemed to fill the hole in him. He spent most of his money from the settlement and the sale of their house on his tapes trying to find something that would fill his void, something to spark him back to his old self. His apartment was covered in them now, they piled up to dangerous heights and threatened to bury him in an avalanche of black and clear plastic, but still nothing among them kept his interest, nothing kept his mind off of Molly. He always returned to dinner with her when he laid down to sleep. But today nothing motivated him as he sat by the side of his bed, barely aware of his feet on the cold apartment floor. No junkie’s overdose, no gang shooting, no decadent sex scene, nothing held any appeal as he listened to the rain pour down and wash over the gray scale city. A life without Molly wasn’t something he ever wanted.
After a match one night he caught up with Frank, he asked him about some people who could work on a tape for him. After Molly’s passing StimCorp placed security measures on all of their tapes before they went out now to prevent another accident. Instead of static you got a message stating “End of Reel.” until you shut the deck down. This allowed the user’s brain to transition normally between the different states of sleep without incident. All of the tapes were now safe, the original tapes were recalled and the new safety measures added. That was unless you knew some people willing to fix them for you. Suicide by tape wasn’t uncommon but wasn’t reported on heavily either, it was one of those facts that usually only the desperate knew, and knew how to do. Frank nodded to him, said he knew a guy. Frank said he was sorry to see him go but knew that he just wasn’t the same without Molly and he’d given him the guy’s number.
He picked up the tape with the shimmering lotus on it once again, holding it in his hands feeling its weight, tracing his fingers over the surface, and studying the lotus’ petals. He slid the tape into the deck and lay back on the bed placing the inputs on he reached over and flipped the switch labeled “Play” and breathed the first easy breath he’d drawn in five years. Existence around him grayed for a moment as the deck spun up, and then the world exploded into a sunny summer afternoon in Molly’s garden. The smell of roses and sea breeze washed over him. There she was again smiling at him. She was as beautiful as ever, her honey colored hair blowing in the wind, her smile as vivid as he remembered. The eyes that he fell in love with and woke up to on the best days of his life, once again looking back at him, tasting the salt in the air his heart began to fill, the void within himself shrinking. As Molly reached out to take his hand the world slipped into a state of static and he drifted off to sleep.
Image credit: “Jardin Fou P1010419” by thierry ehrmann