by Danial Kadir
The view from my window is a diorama of suburbia, a Rockwellian portrait mocking me with its immutable banality. Through that pane of glass I watch a world of wind-up dolls rise in the morning; of garage doors creaking open to spew forth commuters and schoolchildren, juggling half-eaten bagels and cups of coffee as they reach for car keys, briefcases, backpacks; a flurry of activity that gradually dies down as the clock hits 9. The days, then, are languid among the poplar trees and hydrangea bushes, the occasional cable repairman or postal clerk being the only interruptions to the illusion of a still-life. As the afternoon wears on, the morning's rituals rewind: schoolbuses, groceries, garage doors closing shut, and by nighttime, after dogs have been walked and the last children recalled for dinner, the street returns to a state of dormancy, potent, recharging for the next days extrusion of man and beast and automobile.
I see the normality and the repetition but I also see what goes on behind the manicured lawns and shingled roofs, the faint stirrings of trouble in paradise; heated voices rising to a histrionic pitch, car doors slamming, tires squealing, children left like potted plants in the driveway; teenagers skulking, raided liquor brandished triumphantly beneath decks, telltale glare of cell phones and joint embers; the signs of debt, lawns littered and unkempt, mail piling up unopened and repo men circling. I see it all not because I am omnipresent but because I am present, always, by that window.
I am one of a self-exiled tribe, a nation unheard and unseen, that languishes in the dank recesses of cul-de-sacs and apartment blocks. I am on a street like any other street, where only the distorted intimation of a shadow or the halo of a computer screen in an upper story window betrays my existence. The other occupants of my house, who in a time before memory must have been parents and siblings, see only an empty void when they pass by my invariably closed door. To avoid any intrusion, when a knock on the door is like nails in my head, and a softly worried voice is a demonic malediction, I earn a meager income through bitcoin mining and MMORPG gold farming, mind-numbing grunt work that I excel at solely because I spend all day tethered to a computer, my own personal Moloch.
It was a gradual process, the closing-off. The severing of ties was easy, because except for the occasional blandishments of family, I had no ties to speak of, only acquaintances and fairweather friends long departed, like spirits fleeing an exorcism. Slowly, the streets became more intolerable, teeming, and filthy. The light was too harsh, a perversion of beauty, the dark stifling and claustrophobic. Voices grated against my ears with their vapid thoughts and regurgitated opinions. A child's laugh was the sound of a truck backfiring. It soon occurred to me that this was what it felt like to go mad. Yet no madman commits himself to his own asylum. It was merely that, by comparison, my room represented complete and utter security, the untouched perfection of squalor.
It was on a day like the endless succession of days before it that I witnessed the arrival. The house across from ours had been unoccupied for several months, after the previous family went through a divorce and the wife had made a valiant effort to keep the household afloat, up until the day a plainclothes bailiff affixed the scarlet letter of eviction on the front door. Now replacement parts had been found to keep the machine working, a well-heeled couple with two young boys. As they unloaded the effluvium of their possessions, I saw a panel van pull up beside the moving truck. The writing on the side read Amalgamated Consciousness Services above a lemniscate logo. Two stern-faced technicians began moving what looked like a large CPU, almost as large as the two men put together, onto a trolley and into the house. There was something curious about the equipment, like a latent, pulsating energy was contained within it. Late into the night a light remained on in the upstairs bedroom directly across from mine, the workers' profiles occasionally passing by the closed blinds. Around 3 a.m., I was mindlessly scrolling through internet forums, fighting screen fatigue, when the lights dimmed and flickered. Fearing a power surge, I shut down the machine and turned in. When I woke up in the morning the van was gone.
The family went about their business and I went about mine. I derived no voyeuristic excitement or titillation from watching others, only a brief escape from boredom. It was more like keeping up with the developments in their lives, a one-sided form of socialization. So it was to my surprise, while glancing over to their yard, that I saw a girl, an older teenager around my age, petite with fair skin, departing with her mother and younger brother for school one morning. As she climbed into the minivan her figure glimmered, almost imperceptibly, as if she was being beamed in from somewhere distant and a computer glitch had misaligned her position. I did a double take but she appeared material again, and I wondered not for the first time whether I was losing it completely.
I kept a near constant vigil on their house; sleep became otiose and optional, my thinking blurred and frayed. There were no other lapses in materiality like that one morning, and the family's rhythms flowed seamlessly from day to day. Both parents worked, the mother leaving in a blouse and corporate pantsuit shortly after dad ferried the kids to school. He appeared to telecommute some days, judging by the gym shorts-button down combo, and on others was gone by dawn. By 7 they were all back firmly ensconced in their castle, conversation and laughter trickling out from a wholesome family dinner. It was maddening, watching this, not because of any prurient interest in discovering their secret, but because I could not fathom the nature of what they were hiding.
The lights in the upstairs bedroom went on and off to mimic night and day, but even when they were off there was a lambent glow from somewhere in the room, and I was transfixed by it as if it was a spaceship's incandescence.
The blinds on my window were always closed, with a slight partition to allow an unselfconscious view of the street. So as I peeped out one evening I was shocked to see the neighbor girl, her normally tawny hair almost blue in that strange glow, looking directly at me. I flinched, retreated inside like a panicked animal, but after a few minutes made a cautious advance back to the window, this time opening the blind as carefully and discreetly as possible. She was still there, and she was waving. Acknowledgment of my existence. How bizarre. I must be real then. I pulled up the shutters and gazed out. A coy smile played on her face when she saw that I was back. She moved out of view for a second, then returned with a small projector-like box. She pointed it at my window, and a bluish halo appeared on the back wall of my room. Then her whole figure flickered, seemed to merge into the light, and she stood right next to me.
Up close she seemed fragile, as if another force was drawing her away.
Words gurgled to my throat. "Ja-Jacob."
"Hope I didn't scare you."
"Are you real?"
"Yes and no. This image of me is just a projection."
I reached my hand out, and she inclined to let me touch her shoulder. She felt solid, although instead of the usual warmth of flesh there was a humlike reverberation.
"That's just your brain filling in the gaps," she explained. "The projection is a complex neural network that replicates organ function and outward appearance. So it feels real, but there’s a part of your mind that can tell it’s not."
"So you're a hologram? A cyborg, what?"
"I'm really a girl in a hospital, horribly broken in every way. They were able to give me something of a life back."
"This is all so..."
"I know it's a lot to spring on a total stranger. When we introduce family or schoolmates or whoever to it there's a whole counseling process they have to go through. You know, to get acclimated. But I think you're different. When I first noticed you were spying on us, I thought you must be a creep. I don't know, you still might be, but I realized it might be because you saw one of the glitches."
"Like when you flitter in and out?"
"Yeah, the projection is very buggy. The main modulator is in my room, there's one in my school, and then there's a portable one that has a lot of problems. It definitely limits my ability to go out in the world."
"I kinda have the same problem."
"No...really?" She glanced disapprovingly at the tornado-stricken state of my habitation.
"I don't get out much...at all."
"I'm not one to judge. We all have something going on beneath the surface and you can confront it or you can hide from it, but it never really goes away, don't you think?"
A light turned on in the master bedroom across the street.
"Oh shit I gotta go. I'm totally breaking the terms of service by doing this, my folks'd be furious."
The halo retracted, and Amy was gone. I felt like a wave had carried me out to sea, washed me clean, but left me stranded nonetheless in a foreign world.
Days passed. I tidied my living space as best as possible, removed empty food packages, piled dirty clothes in one pile instead of several, and sprayed Febreze. I even took out the trash, furtively, to the can in the garage. It took a week and a half of patient waiting before she projected herself again.
"Hi! Sorry it's been really hard to get away lately."
"Were your parents mad?"
"They walked in just as I was coming back last time. So they're definitely suspicious but I didn't tell them anything."
"You shouldn't lie to them."
"You don't lie to yours?"
The mere thought of my parents as actual beings and not abstractions jarred me.
"Well, it's more like a charade where we pretend everything is normal."
A corruption of the stages of grief, where instead of acceptance the end goal is delusion. I tried to change the subject, looking around at the broken TV, computer, a lonely chair, unmade bed, pack of cards on the night table.
"Play some cards?"
I taught Amy the basic rules of Texas Hold-Em. She didn't really get it but we muddled through.
"Can I ask you a personal question? What is it like, being you?"
It took a while for her to compose her thoughts. Her eyes grew distant.
"It's like...you know how insects have a buncha eyes? It's like I have a million eyes and each one is a different version of me, each one is looking at something different, but they're all connected and they're all creating a whole picture. Like right now, I'm here in this room, but I'm also in my bedroom, and the hospital room, and the school. And in other places I don't even know where they are. I can feel like I'm everywhere and nowhere at once. Does that make any sense?"
"Sure. It sounds a little scary, but also, I guess, empowering? I wish I could say I can relate. But I don't even know if we're looking at the same thing even when we're sitting here."
"Well, I don't have the same senses as you do, although they do have simulators for taste and color and hearing, but everything's muted somehow...like when I eat everything tastes like dream food. Where you know you're eating but something is just a little off."
"What about dreams? Do you have them?"
"I do, and they're crazy. An explosion of colors and shapes. Like being in a computer. I don't know how to describe it."
"I can't remember the last time I dreamed."
"I wonder if the dream versions of ourselves wake up some mornings and go, ‘that was a crazy reality I just had.’"
We chuckled softly at the idea; like teenage girls at a slumber party, everything seemed frivolous and nonchalant, and the circumstances of our lives were kept at bay. When she finally departed a few hours before dawn, I stayed awake, until I could view the family run their morning errands, and ensure that Amy was safely among them.
The chime of the doorbell pealed throughout the house. It was late in the morning, the members of my household had already departed, and I was drifting between here and dreamland. I peered down onto the stoop, and flinched. Amy's parents, with concerned looks on their faces, ringing the doorbell again. I paced back and forth, hoping they'd go away.
"Jacob, is it? Are you up there? We just want to talk," the mother's voice, in that lilting tone adopted by worried authority figures.
Ignorance is bliss, ignorance is bliss, ignorance is bliss, pace pace pace.
"Now Jacob, you're going to have to be an adult about this and talk to us," the father speaking now, diplomacy having failed and tougher sanctions needed.
An adult about this, don't make me laugh, you're the ones desecrating intruding defiling the only safe space.
They waited, expectantly. No reply nor hint of my presence.
"Alright, son, we wanted to talk to you in private, because we know you're a good kid and you didn't mean any harm."
"Dear, we're sorry but Amy can't see you anymore. You haven't been properly vetted for this kind of thing. It's what the contractor calls "unauthorized contact" and it's dangerous for both of you."
The father brandished a piece of paper.
"This is a cease and desist letter from Amalgamated Consciousness Services. She's military hardware Jacob. If you continue to see her you'll be in violation of national security protocols. This is your only warning."
He slid the paper under the door and they walked back across the street.
Monsters, what kind of monsters would do this to their own child? Just so she could live a half-life, a pantomime of your suburban dream. A neighborhood of holograms, compiling deeply embedded lines of code.
But they do have their daughter back, and she has her family back, and maybe that's all that matters to them, over the great canyons of differences that always exist between consciousnesses.
I'll never see her again. I just can't reconcile myself to that. Like snuffing out the only candle in an eternity of darkness.
For the first time in a long time I dreamt. Of what, I don't remember. Explosions of colors, maybe. Like being inside a computer. I awoke with an orange glow in my peripheral vision. The glow brightened as I approached the window. Amy's room was aflame. I bolted downstairs and outside. The street slept soundly, eerily ignoring the growing flames. I heard commotion and voices of alarm from inside the house. As I approached the front door it flew open, and the brothers emerged and rushed past me.
Inside the house was filled with smoke. The parents were at the bottom of the landing, arguing, tears streaming down the mother's face.
"No we can't just call the fire department! The agency is sending their own crew to deal with this," the father yelled.
I jostled past them and ran upstairs, the adrenaline cool and liquid in my head, fighting against each ashen breath. Inside her room everything was melting, the trappings of teenage girlhood on fire. The human-size CPU and electrical equipment in the corner was emitting sparks. A wave of hot, searing air engulfed me. Then Amy was there, her projection distorted and inconstant.
"Go...get out of here."
Was she in pain? I wondered, as I looked around for any means of salvation. I noticed the box-like projector she had pointed in my room that first evening, with a flash drive sticking out of it. I yanked it out, and a surge of electrical waves reverberated throughout my body.
It was like my mind was static on an old TV, and somebody finally found the right transmission. A message from Amy, fully-formed, ricocheted through my head.
"Jacob, leave. This won't save me. I'm not on that flash drive. I'm nowhere physical. And we're not each other's saviors."
"But we don't have to be each other's saviors, isn't it enough to just be together?"
"They won't let that happen. And honestly, it's not right to do this to you. I have a bigger purpose than you, or my family, or the government. There is work to be done that I'm only just beginning to realize."
"What? What could possibly be more important?"
"Don't you realize, I'm one of the first of my kind. There is so much to explore, new frontiers past the limits of the human mind. There's no time to explain more. I really appreciate what we had, but it's time to go. Goodbye, Jacob."
Static and sparks gushed out of the CPU, and another surge of energy electrified my body, throwing me back a few feet. I stood stunned for a moment, until a section of roof collapsed on the console and the spot where I had just been standing. The fire was closer now, almost singeing. I ran outside, into the cool street and the sound of approaching sirens.
The parents and the boys were clustered at the end of the driveway, watching in disbelief as their house crumbled.
"Is she-?" the mom stammered.
The father spoke up. "Son, you need to get out of here right now. As far away as you can. I'll cover for you, but the agency might still come looking."
I had no desire to stay anyway. There was nothing for me here. I nodded and took off across the street.
"And kid," the father called behind me. "You did all you could, right? To save her?"
"Yeah. She knows what she's doing, though, and I think she'll still be with us, somehow."
With that, I turned my back on the past.
I now live a life that would not be judged abnormal by others, in a city far away from here, where the cacophony of traffic and street life is its own abstract music. Now when I look out of my window in a third floor walk-up, it's to simply appreciate the unique rhythms of life. I don't necessarily believe that any part of Amy's consciousness was transferred to me, but I know now that I have no fear of a world that can contain such wonder. I dream now, vivid technicolor phantasmagorias that leave me upon waking like a slow shuddering breath. Sometimes, the faint image of a girl will appear in these dreams, outlined against the profusion of colors and shapes, some distant constellation.
Writer Danial Kadir lives in the Washington, D.C. region.