by Jedd Cole
Brandt stood over Viola in the moist darkness of the bedroom. Closed blinds reflected the soft blue-green of alarm clock digits fading from one minute to the next to the next. He caught himself counting her breaths. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven breaths per minute. The ghost sheet moved over her chest and stomach in steady rhythm, rationalized.
“Viola,” he said. “Viola.”
She stirred and breathed deep, as if she had been holding back her lungs, saving them for something important. Over her face a flutter of light.
“Brandt,” she said. “What time is it?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He looked away from the clock so as not to lie.
“What?” she said, and sat up against her pillow, pulling the sheets up to her chin. Her eyes did not really open. The womb of night-sleep-darkness still retained her.
“I messed up, Viola.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve made a mistake.”
The next minute was like a cloud that covers your hand and your eyes, so you can’t measure the depth above or below you.
Viola did not move. She said nothing.
Brandt felt his skin crawl with the dripping that he felt but could not see.
“Say something,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Where’s your monitor?” she asked.
“I’ve been so...”
“What did you do with your monitor, Brandt?”
“I took it off.”
“You shouldn’t do that,” she said. In the dark pits of her eyes a glinting of blue-green stars, falling. She cried into her hands, her breath skipping over imaginary sidewalk cracks. “Is there another woman?”
Brandt felt relieved that she’d connected the dots so he didn’t have to say it first. “Yes,” he said.
“I’ve needed you so many times before.”
“Are you blaming me?”
He almost said, yes, tried to remember the words he’d thought of earlier, the line of argument, points upon points. It was like the cue cards were all out of order. He made a leap, said, “It’s the monitor, Viola. It’s that horrible thing on your neck. You should take yours off too.” And he knew he’d spoken wrong.
“So now it’s the monitor’s fault.”
Words ceased, making way for the dry sliding of sheets. He saw her shadow swing out of the bed and stand in front of him, move around him. A switch ticked somewhere like a lost clock second. Blue-green fled from the brightness of the overhead light, too bright for the night.
“No. No, Brandt.”
Silence. Viola leaned on the doorframe by the light switch. Her auburn hair tumbled from her head, atrophied into discord by sleep. She crossed her arms in front of her nightshirt. She seemed fragile. Her gaze trickled downward.
“What happened?” she said.
Brandt started trembling. He felt like a wasp had been released in his esophagus, trying desperately to find a way out, bumping into walls. “I kept staring at my monitor the other day,” he said. He didn’t know why he’d started there, with that moment of the long story. He’d already made up his mind by then, standing in front of the mirror, almost ready to run.
“Why were you looking at it?” said Viola.
“How can you not? It sticks out of your neck like some parasite.”
“I don’t look at it.”
“Brandt, that must have hurt. Why would you do that to yourself?”
“Why are you hurting yourself? Why are you hurting me?”
“Viola, why the hell do you care about the monitor? I’ve done worse things since then!”
There was a silence. Just a second. Then, quietly, “What did you do, Brandt?”
Brandt suddenly felt cold without the monitor always telling him things about the world and himself. Pulse. Blood pressure. Rising or falling? Should he sit or stand?
He decided to sit on the edge of the bed, said nothing for a long time.
She walked over and sat down at arm’s length. “Brandt, it’s late. Maybe...”
“I was in the woods,” he said.
“Centre Park. We used to take walks through there, remember?” He thought a pleasant memory would make it easier, but it smelled dirty as he said it. “It was late, no one was around. I was walking through the woods and I couldn’t find the path we used to use. I was staring at a pine tree.”
“A pine tree.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“Viola, I love you.”
He wished he could not see her eyes. She squirmed a little on the side of the bed and a few more tears came out and he watched her listening to the voice in her head, the buzzing and tapping that he had removed from himself without permission. He watched her modulate her breathing, rub the flesh between her thumb and index finger. He could almost hear her monitor in his own head.
“Just tell me straight,” she said.
As through a funnel, swishing back and forth, he felt a single sentence emerge, soaked with pain and stripped of all feeling.
“I saw a synth walking on the sidewalk by the park and I offered to pay her if she came into the woods with me.”
“Brandt.” Her voice made a clicking sound like marbles settling into a mesh bag. “A synth?”
“Synths aren’t real. You said there was another woman.”
“What’s the difference?”
“A synth is a synth, Brandt. They’re robots, machines. Hell, they’re just vending machines, Brandt.”
“Why did you take your monitor off?”
“You never want me.”
“Come on, we’ve talked about this.”
“I’m your husband.”
“The monitor is very specific, Brandt.”
“Yes. Very detailed.”
“We didn’t always have monitors, you know.”
His body was a clenched fist, and he was ready to scream, What! What! Tell me my verdict! He began to quake in his thighs.
“I don’t want another miscarriage,” she said.
He stared. “Miscarriage?”
“Yes. I never told you.”
“Tell me what? What?”
Despite the light, a shadow seemed to fall around her face, and her mouth became a moist line. “After the car wreck...”
“You were fine, though. Everyone was fine.”
Her arms dropped to her sides and her eyes, which had roamed the floor looking at invisible birds, now focused on Brandt’s chin. A drop of liquid hung there alone.
“We were not fine.” She shook her head. “I didn’t tell you.”
“After that, we would be together, and I would see that look on your face, and it would tell me things. I got scared.”
“What did it tell you?”
“The chances. The chances were always there. I couldn’t get them out of my head.”
“Why? Why didn’t you just ignore it? It’s just a computer.”
“Shut up.” Suddenly she was crying, and Brandt could not recall the moment it had begun. Had she always been crying?
It took a moment for her to find the middle place. Brandt could sense her monitor like a third person in the room.
“I was just trying to do the best thing for us,” she said.
“The best thing.”
“I was worried. The numbers never looked right.”
“It’s been years. Please, Viola — we’ll find a counselor, a doctor...”
The air between them formed into a concrete lump. “Go to sleep,” she said. “Let’s just...go to sleep.”
He thought of a thousand times before, a thousand “let’s just go to sleeps” buzzing through nights that seemed scattered, distinct, each drawn out like threads until now.
“You won’t even try taking it off? Just tonight?”
She shook her head. “Why wouldn’t I use it, Brandt? It helps me. It helps you, too. You know how things improved when we finally got ours. Quality of life, Brandt. You’ve seen the ads, the numbers. That’s us.”
“Don’t you get it?” he said, shaking. “Numbers. That’s all it is — numbers in a vacuum.” A beat. “You used to walk for hours with me rain or shine. Look at that.” He pointed at the frame above the bed.
It was a charcoal of Ontario Creek winding through Centre Park, where he’d proposed.
He looked at her face. The light touched her to dissolve her. She stared through that wall into something that swallowed the light and did not return it. A thin line of shadow carved each strand of her hair, the back of her neck, the monitor, her shoulder.
“It’s gone, isn’t it?” he said, to himself rather than to his wife, but he saw her ears perk up at the words.
* * *
Brandt left the apartment then, with its night thoughts and walls. He sat on a cold bench in the underground metro station. Even at midnight, the place writhed with the bodies of numbers moving here and there, onto and off of the trains, up and down the escalators. He watched the stairs, but not one body cast a shadow.
He observed their bodies. All of them with an extra neuron on the backs of their necks, on their wrists, or on their arms. The old one in the wheelchair had his on the ankle. A shackle. Brandt felt his hand moving slowly up to his neck and scratching the old bump and indentation like a freedman’s mangled wrist. It had burned like fire when he took the monitor off.
He was waiting for the Blue Line headed south, toward Pike Street and Jester Hall where his sister Bristol lived alone. Centre Park at Beech Wood Bridge would be one of the stops, number seventy-six.
“Are you okay?” Bristol had said on the phone. “Don’t you know what time it is?”
“No, I... uh, I think Viola and I need some space. Can I crash there?”
“I know this is weird, Bristol. I need to regroup. Make some calls.”
“My boyfriend is here all week,” she’d said. “Would it be awkward?”
Brandt had swallowed hard, closed his eyes. “Nope.”
His plan was not to regroup; his plan was to get out of the city and never come back. Maybe it would be easier in the morning. He looked up and saw the marquee overhead, brightly suspending all the trains in a crystal list, followed by the hours, the minutes, the seconds, counting down. Always down.
No one sat on the other benches. People stood still, one leg cocked to one side, or they paced back and forth. All of them identical: looking at their devices, at their newborn digits, their little black and white and red and green and blue and purple friends, brothers, sisters in hands tapping, twitching — mouths moving, talking to the air in front of mouths laughing, replying to thousand-mile-distant bodies, numbers, talking back, listening or not listening, thinking or not thinking.
He boarded the Blue Line plastered with colors and smiling faces telling him to make it for the August 22 concert featuring the Philharmonic’s new music director, Francois de Beauregard. The train filled itself with beats of music — steady, regular beats. Four beats. Always four: even, round, repetitious, marching.
He sat down, facing the aisle, on an old cushion that had cracks in its seams, revealing yellow foam. The bodies in the train were scattered, none less than two seats apart from one another. They stared dumbly and some blindly into empty spaces in front of or beneath them. Buds grew out of their ears. Mouths moved talking to invisible ears in Beijing or Rio or Munich. Who slept?
Brandt looked left and right and counted the bodies — thirty-four — and suddenly felt that they were the souls, plump and alive, and that he was the only empty body. Disconnected.
A few rows down, a synth sat in her long coat, the kind synths wore in public. She was a synth because you could see the seams in her smooth plastic skin, more beautiful than its imitation. Her hair was molded out of ceramic, perfect in its artifice. Her eyes turned to meet his. She glowed with electricity, monitoring the train and the people around her and the gravity of each cubic inch.
It was the same synth he had paid at the park. They were all the same synth he had paid at the park. She stood, walked her plastic body up the aisle and sat down beside Brandt with slow, calculatingly sensual movements. He did not look at her but he could tell she was looking at him. She emitted a faint ticking sound of servos.
Brandt was staring at his left hand, how it was pink around the knuckles. What did that mean? He moved the gold ring on his left fourth finger and saw the pale indentation, like where his monitor used to be. He shoved it back.
He was crying. What was the difference between his blindness and their blindness? Were their knuckles pink? Did they have pale flesh beneath their monitors and their wedding bands? Were they unfaithful to one another?
“Hello there,” the synth said. Her voice had the high-frequency stamp of the unreal.
Brandt noticed a counselor coming over in her blue-green uniform with the Priority Health insignia on her skirt. There was a look on her face and a monitor gracing her neck. She looked him over with concern and spoke words, but he did not remember them to respond to them.
She got out with him at stop seventy-five, just one short of the Beech Wood Bridge. The counselor led him down the sidewalk under the billboards of mere logos and barcodes whispering enticements.
They reached the one-stop clinic in five minutes sixteen seconds, and she must have checked him in. Brandt looked up into the eyes of a doctor, a man in another blue-green uniform. He was sitting on a stool, one leg cocked up on one of its rungs. Brandt was on an examination table covered in tissue paper. A poster on the wall showed a happy-seeming black lady with the words Freedom from uncertainty is free to you.
“Let’s see... how long have you been without your monitor, Brandt?”
“You don’t know?”
“Okay.” The doctor was holding a tablet. He tapped it with latex-free fingers. “I’m just going to ask you some questions, okay, Brandt?”
“Focus on the time you’ve been without your monitor.”
“Have you experienced any blurred vision?”
“Have you experienced any disorientation in the last couple of days?”
“Okay. Try to be honest. There’s nothing to fear here. Have you been sexually active?”
“Past couple of days.”
Brandt swallowed. “Yes.”
“Have you ever paid for sex?”
“Did you pay a person or a synthetic?”
He looked at the doctor. There was no expression whatsoever. “A synthetic.”
“Okay. Have you experienced any genital rashes, lumps, or acne since then?”
“Very good.” The doctor tapped the screen in his hands several times. Ran his fingers across it. “Have you experienced any anxiety in the past couple days?”
“Did it occur before or after your contact with the synthetic?”
“Both. Before and after.”
“How much did you pay the synthetic?”
“Never mind. What was the synthetic’s serial number?”
“I don’t remember.”
“What was her designation?”
“Her call sign. Name.”
“Mona Lisa, I think.”
The doctor chuckled. “Okay. Did you feel anything sharp in your upper arm or wrist during contact with the synthetic?”
“Excellent. How do you feel right now, Brandt?”
“Well, don’t worry. We’ll get you a monitor shortly.”
The doctor tapped the screen and asked forty-eight more questions. He plugged the tablet into a computer console and settled on his stool.
“It’ll just take a moment to tabulate the data for a diagnosis,” he said. After a few minutes he sighed and added, “I guess it’d be too much to ask Congress for some faster computers, huh? Well, it’s worth it as long as we can get monitors out at no cost to you. Right?”
Brandt didn’t say anything.
The tablet beeped four uncomfortable minutes later. The doctor smiled and exchanged a couple airy comments with Brandt before leaving and sending in a nurse carrying a clear plastic bag. In the bag were several glass tubes and bladders and probes. Stickers with barcodes. A monitor encased in shrink-wrap.
“Can you lie down on your stomach for me?”
The smell of iodine. Pressure on his neck.
* * *
Brandt knocked one-two-three-four times on the apartment door. Number three-oh-seven. The motion caused a slight increase in his blood pressure — negligible. He felt a vague chime inform him of his heart rate’s steep climb — correction recommended. He deepened his breathing to compensate. The chime faded. The doorknob turned slowly and a crack of light appeared next to it, glowing, widening. Pupils contracting from the white light. Viola’s face in the doorframe.
A three-second-long memory of walking in a museum. Painted faces in frames.
Viola’s pupils dilated thirteen percent. The air from the doorway contained trace amounts of perfume, tobacco smoke. Carbon monoxide six parts per million — negligible.
She looked into his eyes, then tilted her head twenty degrees to look at his neck. Her mouth straightened and he registered a small smile — negligible.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Let’s go to bed.”
Brandt went inside. He took off his clothes in the darkness of the bedroom. They lay together in that darkness, saying nothing. Viola’s breathing slowly decreased from twelve to seven breaths per minute, indicating sleeping-state. A chime spread through his bloodstream — blood pressure indicative of extreme emotion. He again compensated with deeper breathing, a scale in his head moving up and down, up and down.
He thought of the woods on the sandy side of Ontario Creek one thousand, two hundred feet from where it emptied into the river and the shadow of Beech Wood Bridge. He counted the pine trees. At one hundred fourteen, he entered sleeping-state. When he woke up at six-fifteen, he couldn’t remember if he had dreamed. Sleep duration: two hours forty-two minutes. Increased sleep time highly recommended.
Viola still slept beside him under the sheets. The orange light of dawn slipped between the gaps in the vertical blinds, almost touching her shoulder.
Copyright © 2015 by Jedd Cole