We call them Angels.
Who coined the term first, nobody knows, but it caught on, unexpectedly, in a time when its original meaning from the biblical lore has long been forgotten.
The word couldn’t be further from the original intent. Or too close, depending on who you talk to.
The first ones to ascend were children. Everyone under the age of eighteen who died tragically and unexpectedly in car crashes and freak accidents. They returned exactly thirty days later, well and alive in their homes, causing confusion and shock in those they left behind. But when they returned, they were different: wiser, older than their years, no longer the children that their loved ones knew. Many believed they were gifts from God, miracles, heralds of heaven on earth. Some believed they were abominations.
What happened to them, exactly, remains vague and slightly ominous to this day.
It was all peripheral to me for a while. Truth be told, even though the world was descending into an existential crisis of sorts, our day to day lives remained unchanged. Angels or not, my typical day consisted of me going to work, watching the clock strike four, then going back home to take care of my little sister and have myself a glass of wine while waiting to fall asleep to the drone of the television.
In my completely selfish little bubble, I really didn’t care one way or the other. Until, of course, my sister died, and my life was suddenly less meaningful than before.
Kristen, my little sister, was the only reason I got up in the morning, day after day. Our parents died a few years back and we only had each other. Being five years older, I was supposed to take care of her, but really, she took care of me. She was sixteen going on thirty, mature for her age, and whip smart. Much smarter than me. And stronger.
My heart splintered into pieces when I got the call from the hospital: There was an accident… She just got out of surgery. Ma’am, I’m sorry, I really can’t tell you more. But you should get here. As soon as you can.
I knew she wouldn’t come back. Not the same, anyway. Angels never do.
I wait for her return today.
I was sitting at my kitchen table with a glass of wine in my hand, watching the clock, when I heard her familiar voice. It sent a chill down my spine.
“Hey, big Sis.”
She seemed to have materialized in my kitchen. One moment I was alone, then she was there. It was uncanny.
“Kristen.” As many times as I have said her name in my life, today it felt foreign in my mouth. I was planning on a sisterly hug or maybe some tears but instead I felt an uneasy feeling in my stomach. “You’re back.”
My sister, or the girl in my kitchen who looked like her, smiled at me with her eyes crinkling at the corners. A friendly, open, beautiful smile. The only problem was that it wasn’t Kristen’s smile. Kristen usually smirked with her chin slightly jutting out. Confidently, unapologetically.
“How have you been? I hope you’ve been taking care of yourself.”
If wallowing in depression is considered taking care of myself, then I have certainly been doing that. I eyed her warily. “Where did you go?”
A chuckle bubbled out of her mouth, catching me off guard. “You never were good at small talk, Sis.”
That, at least, was true. You didn’t have to be supernatural to presume that about me though. “Kristen.”
She looked sad. “Is it not enough that I’m back?”
Is it? My heart ached. I wasn’t ready for this. It should have been enough, but it wasn’t. I felt nauseous. “I need to know. If it’s really you.”
There was a pause. A beat too long. “Of course it’s me.”
I stayed silent, swallowing what tasted like bile rising up in my throat.
I should have expected this. I did my research. The Angels were all painfully tight lipped. They all gave vague soothing answers and submitted willingly to medical tests, which came back normal. Their answers to questioning were all eerily similar and consistent, almost as if they were collectively coached. Still, nobody could deny they were all friendly, polite, perfect children.
But not the same children.
Looking at the girl in my kitchen, I felt certain of this, deep in my bones. Kristen was gone. This girl, whoever she was, was not my sister. My stomach churned and it was all I could do to keep myself together until I reached the bathroom to vomit my dinner.
You know the moment, that one crazy euphoric moment, when you think, this is it, you’ve been waiting for this, this is the start of the rest of your life.
It could have happened anywhere, anytime, doing something absurdly insignificant, like eating chinese food straight from the carton, chuckling along a laugh track of a sitcom rerun, ratty pajamas and strewn socks on the floor. It didn’t matter. The moment came because it was with that one person, the one girl that changed everything, that changed you.
Suddenly you knew that nothing could be the same anymore.
Her name was Lena.
Raven haired with big brown doe eyes that felt like a warm cozy blanket on a rainy day. She was brilliant, too, and kind. You could barely keep up with her. Because of her you turned into a different man, a better man. All of a sudden you were seeing independently released movies literally only five people have heard of and reading Sartre and volunteering at the animal shelter.
You were the best version of yourself around her. You couldn’t remember the last time you pulled out a seat for another person in your life, and yet, with Lena, it came naturally, like a primal instinct almost forgotten. You had this insatiable need to be her provider and protector, and there was nothing wrong with that, was there?
In short order she became your everything, and you tried your best to be everything for her. You should have seen the signs, but you were too busy loving her. Nobody ever warned you about that kind of love. The dangerous kind. The stuff of tragedies, recorded for posterity, an omen for future lovers and naive dreamers.
You couldn’t believe it when she stopped answering your calls, your number blocked, her friends stonewalling you, a girl army of sharp tongues and quick wits, preventing you from even talking to her.
You just needed a few minutes, that’s all. A few minutes to explain. After all, eventually she would see that you were the only man for her, the only one who understands her, who will love and protect her no matter what.
You were prepared for this, you were prepared to fight for her. You weren't the type of man who quit when the going gets tough.
That restraining order really was a bit overboard on her part, though.
There were five of us.
Two women, three men, all dressed to kill. All terrified. Though, of course, we would die first before we admitted this to each other.
We all came for the coveted McMillan internship interview. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. We were all young, driven, newly minted MBAs, called to compete. Some of us had multiple advanced degrees. We waited in a glass walled conference room for an excruciating two hours, at first with excitement, then, as the minutes passed, with increasing worry.
Eventually, we all seemed to collectively agree that something was very wrong.
It was Shannon, the only other female of the group other than myself, who tried the doors first.
“They’re locked.” She whispered loudly in surprise. She turned back to all of us, looking alarmed, wisps of her fire red hair falling free from her loose chignon. “Why would they be locked?”
“They can’t be locked. Here, let me try.” A wiry Asian man with glasses stood up and also tried to wiggle the doors. From our earlier introductions I knew his name was Harry. I had clocked him to be my biggest competition. He had a dual Master’s from MIT and was razor sharp.
However, he was wrong. As I expected, the doors didn’t budge.
“It’s a test.” A low voice.
I turned, surprised. The words came from Grant, a tall, dark man who had been quiet for the better part of the last two hours. It was the first time I heard him speak since we were all introduced. He was standing near the back of the room, hands in his pockets, dark eyes watchful.
I paused, considering him. He held my gaze without flinching, telling me something without words. I nodded in his direction and spoke to the group. “Of course. It makes sense. This is some kind of field interview. To see how we can problem solve, work as a team. That kind of thing.”
“Uh-huh. Your name is, what again, Jackie? Julia?” An irritatingly confident voice sliced through the room. It was Erick, all flaxen curls and pale blue eyes, with an annoying dimpled smile to match. I glared at him in response. I took the trouble of remembering his name. The least he could do was not pretend he couldn’t remember mine.
“It’s Jenny.” I muttered through gritted teeth and Erick’s smile widened.
I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Every time I introduce myself I watch as the other person nods with a snap judgment based on my name and my looks alone. Jenny. Nobody is ever threatened by a Jenny. Jenny is the name of your kindergarten teacher, your school nurse, your middle school bestfriend. All hugs and unassuming brown hair and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.
Oh, how I am not that girl.
Erick continued to smile. He seemed to be one of those boys with a permanent arrogant smirk fixed on his face. “Right, Jenny, if this is some kind of test, maybe we should get to know each other. Maybe we should start with you. That makes sense, right? Get to know the team.”
I didn’t disagree, but I didn’t like the tone of his voice, or the way his eyes bored into mine, like I’m a specimen he is about to dissect. I decided to match his tone, I couldn’t help myself. “Let me guess, Erick, you volunteer to be team leader?”
I said it as a taunt, but Erick playing captain was actually fine with me. I like to sit back and watch the group dynamic. Control doesn’t have to be overt. It can be subtle. No, I was not a natural leader, but I don’t have to be.
Erick shrugged nonchalantly, like this was a high school group project. “Sure. I mean, someone has to facilitate, right?”
I stifled a groan and sat back to look around at my companions.
Shannon didn’t seem to be paying attention, she was wringing her hands on her lap, mind elsewhere. If I had to guess, she was probably still worried about the doors.
Harry seemed preoccupied as well, no doubt his mind going in all kinds of directions. He was frowning at something on his phone and was purposefully tapping on his screen.
Grant seemed to have resumed his position in the back as the quiet one of the group. A calm seemed to radiate off him. It was a stark difference to the nervous energy of the room.
Something told me to keep my eye on him.
I turned back to Erick and sighed. “Fine. Should we start with our backgrounds? Our favorite colors?” The sarcasm dripped from my words and I realized I probably need to reel it in. Something about Erick just makes me agitated. Maybe it’s the frat boy square jaw.
“We don’t have time for this.” Shannon suddenly piped up. “What is wrong with you people? This is obviously not a normal situation. Why would they lock us in? Why wouldn’t they tell us the objective of the exercise? Something’s not right here.”
“Oh come on.” Erick rolled his eyes. “Calm down. This is probably exactly what they’re testing for. Which one of us immediately panics? Who can try to solve the problem with composure? Obviously you’re not doing too good in that department, Red.”
Shannon’s cheeks flushed and she reached for her purse. “Ugh. I’m calling someone, I’m out of here.”
“You can’t.” Harry said suddenly, standing up. He was seemingly about to comfort her but then hesitated. “We don’t have any service. This whole room is a dead zone.”
“What? But I was literally just on my phone a few minutes ago!” Shannon cried, frantically swiping at her phone. “We all were! While we were waiting, we were all on our phones.”
I didn’t have to check my phone to confirm. I already predicted that they would do this. If somebody were locking you in, they wouldn’t want you to have access to one of the best ways to get out of a locked room: the ability to call for outside help.
I took a breath. “So, this is some kind of... an escape room situation?”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” Erick said bluntly.
“What other goal could there be?” I shot back.
“Judging from the way you’re both at each other’s throats I’d say this looks more like a Hunger Games situation.” Harry quipped with a wry smile on his face.
Shannon laughed at that, albeit somewhat hysterically.
As if on cue, all our phones dinged at once. We all looked at each other silently for a beat before we reached for our phones to look at our screens.
I sucked in a breath as I read the short message:
First Objective: Exit the room. The last one out will be eliminated.
“Okay, so, escape room.” I declared. It took all my self control not to turn to Erick and say I told you so.
Ding! Another message:
You have one hour.
I sighed. Great. I set a timer on my watch to start a countdown. I wondered what would happen if none of us could exit the room in one hour. It really couldn’t come to bodily harm, could it? I mean, this was McMillan. The biggest consulting company in the West Coast. If this was an unorthodox exercise, I’m sure the environment would be controlled.
Harry was frowning at his phone and was murmuring to himself. “Interesting, they can send messages to our phones but I don’t see any bars. I wonder…”
“Wait.” Shannon’s voice was soft, worried. “What does it mean by ‘eliminated’?
“Death, probably.” Erick responded with a grin and Shannon paled. “Geeze, Red, calm down. Obviously it just means out of the running for the job. Oh my god, how did you even get here?’
“Hey, man, take it easy.” Harry stepped forward, subtly putting himself in front of Shannon. It was a protective move. I made note of it, it could prove useful later.
I noticed Grant eyeing the situation as carefully as me. Our eyes locked for a second. His expression gave nothing away.
Erick sighed loudly, exaggerating the exhalation. “Whatever. While you guys panic and freak out, I’m going to try to get out of here.”
I stood up, time to come up with a plan. My timer read: Fifty-eight minutes.
Here’s what I know: two of the four walls were glass, overlooking Downtown San Francisco. We were twenty stories up. There were two exits, both of which were held shut with what looked like standard deadbolt locks.
There were two large vents, about two feet wide. Judging from our sizes, Shannon and I were probably the only ones that could comfortably fit through the openings. They wouldn’t put such an obvious exit, would they?
I studied the corners of the vents carefully. The screws were smooth, almost melted in, the edges were flush against the wall with the slats too narrow for even my thin fingers to go through.
Erick was going around the room, turning over every movable object he could find. He was flipping over every book on the shelves, no doubt looking for a secret door.
Grant started methodically stomping on the floor, looking for hollow spots. Shannon and Harry followed his lead and began stomping as well. Erick took the cue and tapped on the walls.
“Here!” Grant called, outlining a spot on the floor with a mechanical pencil. “This area here is hollow.”
Harry used his knuckles to knock on the spot three times, then did the same at a different spot three feet away. It did sound different. He studied the area closely. “Okay, agreed. The floor looks smooth though. I don’t think there’s a hinge mechanism.”
“So we have to break through?” Erick looked absolutely ecstatic about the idea. “I’m sure we can find something to smash that spot with.”
“It doesn’t look big enough to be an exit.” Grant said thoughtfully.
“No, it doesn’t.” I murmured, more to myself. I knelt down over the marked area and ran my hands through the surface. My fingers caught on a raised area near the corner. “Wait, there’s something here. Give me your pencil, Grant.”
He handed it to me and I shaded the uneven area with the lead. Slowly, I recognized letters where the area was subtly scratched so as not to pick up the pencil shading:
T... H... E... G... L… A... S... S… I… S... N... O… T..
“The glass is not? I don’t get it.” Shannon said softly.
R… E… A… L...
“The glass is not real!” Harry cried, you could almost see the lightbulb flash above his head. “I knew something was off with the layout of the room. When we got off the elevator I saw floor to ceiling windows lining the hallways, when we entered the conference room the glass walls didn’t match their location outside… That must mean…”
He tried to pick up one of the chairs but they were deadbolted into the floor. The table was, too, as well as the shelves. We all slowly realized that every single piece of furniture in the conference room was immovable.
Thirty more minutes passed as we all tried to think of different methods to break the glass.
“I don’t know....” Shannon said softly as she studied the windows. She regarded Harry worriedly. “It looks pretty real. I could almost feel the wind from outside... hear the noise from the streets...”
“They can make anything look real.” Harry said confidently. I noticed he was squaring his shoulders. “I’m telling you, the layout of the room doesn’t make sense. There has to be another room beyond that glass.”
“There has to be something we can use to smash it.” Erick grumbled, frustrated.
“We have ten minutes, guys.” I warned, checking my watch.
“Oh, fuck it.”
Before we all knew what was happening Harry was already running across the room and going full speed into the glass that had a clear view of the San Francisco streets twenty stories below.
I felt a hand grip my arm. I was surprised to realize it was Erick’s.
“Wait! No, Harry, what if--” Shannon yelled, the words evaporating from her lips as Harry hit the glass.
The glass broke, too easily, and we all watched in silent shock as Harry fell through.
“My headache is a ten out of ten, Dr. Gillis. And I usually have a high pain tolerance.”
The patient plopped onto the exam table relatively easily as he said this, even though just a few moments ago he insisted he was in so much pain that he had to be transported to his room in a wheelchair.
Dr. Anne Gillis tapped her pen on the patient’s chart. The name on top said: Joe Sims. She was thankful for the mask covering her facial expression. “Okay, Mr. Sims, and it says here you’re also allergic to all anti-inflammatories?”
“Yes, I can’t take any of them.”
Anne could guess what was coming next:
“The only thing that works is this one medicine they gave me years ago… I think it starts with an N. Noro? Noco?”
“Yes, that’s it.”
Now, Anne was a relatively young doctor, but this wasn’t her first rodeo. At the same time, she really does try to give every patient the benefit of the doubt. Some patients just make it very hard.
“The good news is that your MRI came back normal, Mr. Sims. That tells me this headache is most likely not a tumor or a bleed. This might be an atypical migraine, or even a cluster headache. You can still take Tylenol for this, and I can prescribe you a triptan, a medication class that can be very effective for these types of headaches.”
“I’ve tried those, they don’t work.”
Anne tried to keep her voice even, light. She’s always been told she had a calming bedside manner. “The next step is for you to see a neurologist.”
“I’ve already seen neurologists. I really just want Norco. Why can’t I just have what I already know will work for me?”
Anne softened her voice. “It has a risk for addiction, Mr. Sims, and it’s not something I would recommend in this situation. Rather, let’s find the cause of your pain and try to focus on that.”
The patient’s demeanor morphed into something ugly. “Have you ever been in pain, Dr. Gillis?”
“I also don’t appreciate you talking to me like I’m a child.” Joe stood up from the table and walked across the exam room to the stool where Anne was sitting. At six foot two he towered over her, his expression eerily blank.
“Mr. Sims, I’m sorry you feel this way, but I believe we are done here.” Anne stood up and positioned herself close to the door, keeping her eyes on the patient. Thank God Joe didn’t think to block her exit. She thought back to de-escalation techniques she was taught in medical school and thought about employing them, but at this point she just really wanted to get out of there.
She could feel it in the room, the change of energy, the electric feeling of something about to happen.
Joe’s blank look suddenly reverted to something human again. Now it looked pleading, desperate. “I’m not making this up, Doctor, there is something in my head. It feels like it’s trying to claw its way out. I need that Norco so I could sleep. Please.”
“I’m sorry, Joe.” Anne reached for the door.
“I’m sorry, too.” Joe whispered.
The last thing Anne could remember was everything going blank.
Anne struggled to open her eyes, the light in the room was too bright. Her head felt like it was about to burst open.
“Turn the lights off.” Anne snapped irritatingly. A car horn blaring from the parking lot amplified the pounding in her head.
Not pounding, exactly. More like... clawing.
Like something trying to claw itself out.
Anne sat up suddenly. “Oh my god, wait. Mr. Sims.” She looked around frantically, her eyes finally resting on her bedside visitor.
“Hi, Anne.” The woman said, a placating smile on her face. She was striking, with dark skin, high cheekbones, and dark hair that shone copper against her white coat.
She radiated a calming but intimidating quality. Like she was in charge here, and she was being magnanimous in allowing Anne an audience.
“I’m Dr. Leigh.” The woman paused. “You can call me Theresa. I understand you’re a physician yourself?”
For some reason Anne found it hard to remember the answer. The pounding in her head was too loud. “Uh, yes.” Anne finally managed to respond. “Sorry, yes, internal medicine. What... happened?”
Theresa had a slightly amused look on her face. “You were found unconscious in your office.”
Anne ran her hands through her hair, expecting to feel a goose egg, or maybe staples in her scalp, but felt nothing. That couldn’t be right. If Joe hit her hard enough that she lost consciousness, there should be some kind of break in the skin or at least some swelling.
Her head did hurt something fierce, though, like it was being hit repeatedly with a baseball bat. She looked at Theresa imploringly. “I was struck? By that patient, Joe. I’m being admitted for observation, then? You must be the hospitalist. I’m assuming my head CT is clear? Was the police called? This guy, he’s dangerous, I mean, look at me, he must have--”
“Anne.” There was something about how Theresa said her name. Like it was a delicate thing, easy to break.
Anne didn’t like it. It made her feel like a child, being distracted by a lollipop before her shots.
“You’ve told the nurses in the ER a patient named Joe Sims hurt you?” Theresa asked neutrally.
“I have? I don’t remember that.” Damn, she must have some amnesia from the traumatic brain injury too. “But yes, I mean, the last thing I remember was him threatening me in my office.”
“Okay. The problem is, the police looked at your files, and there’s never been a patient named Joe Sims in your system.” Theresa said gently. “You’ve also not been in your office all week. According to your own office records, you’ve taken the week off. Your nurse found you this morning.”
The room felt small all of a sudden. Anne found herself breathing more rapidly. “But… that’s impossible, he must have registered under a different name, or altered the files somehow… And of course I was seeing patients, I was looking right at his chart--” Anne’s eyes suddenly focused on the embroidery on the woman's white coat: Theresa Leigh, MD, Psychiatry.
Wait. That can’t be right.
“Why... are you seeing me, Theresa?” Anne asked slowly.
Theresa gave a small sigh and stood up. “I’ve been asked to consult on your case. Apparently there’s been some… concerns.”
“But.. why?” Anne fought to keep her voice even. The pounding in her head was getting worse. Her own voice sounded too loud, as if the sound itself was physically scraping, etching words into her brain, like nails on a chalkboard. She winced. “Ow.”
Something clawing itself out.
“Are you in pain, Anne? I can get the nurse to get you some pain medicine.”
“I’ll come back when you’re more… comfortable.”
Sedated, more like. Anne thought. But before she could protest Theresa was out of the room. A moment later, a young nurse with large brown eyes not unlike a baby deer took her place.
The Bambi-eyed nurse was smiling. “Hi, Dr. Gillis, I’m Lisa, your nurse for the night." She said her sentences liltingly, like a nursery rhyme. It grated on Anne's nerves. "What is your pain level? On a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst--”
“It’s a ten.” Anne answered before the nurse could finish. Anne grinned rather maniacally as she said this, as if Lisa was privy to her inside joke. The nurse’s smile faltered with something that looked like fear. Anne felt like she was on the verge of either laughing or crying.
She stared the young nurse down.
“My pain, Lisa, is ten out of ten.”
Part One: Carla
Have you ever met someone who is too perfect?
So perfect that you kind of want to hate them but you can’t because they are, in fact, too damn perfect?
Okay, let me take that back, maybe hate is too strong a word. Let’s go with unfairly dislike. I’ll just say that if somehow, someday, I find out that this person was actually not that perfect, like maybe they’re harboring a secret skin condition or something, I would be relieved and admittedly even a little bit elated.
What I’m saying is: I really, really don’t like my brother’s girlfriend Annalise.
I’m not proud of it. I just can’t relate to her.
Don’t get me wrong, she has been nothing but the model potential future sister-in-law to me. She’s polite, she’s funny, she never oversteps her bounds. She even managed to charm my usually ice-cold mother which is an impressive feat in and of itself.
Oh, did I mention she is also drop dead gorgeous? Like, so unnaturally beautiful you want to keep staring at her but you can’t because it would be too creepy after a certain point? She has this really thick dark hair that glints like a freshly shined shoe, and cat-like silver-blue eyes under lashes so long you almost think they’re fake (they’re not). Also, she’s a runner (of course she would be) so she has that really lean runner’s body with hard abs and long legs. Somehow, of course, even with all that cardio, perfect Annalise manages to keep her boobs to balance out her twenty-two inch waist.
With those stats you’re probably thinking she must be an airhead instagram model or some such. Nope. She’s studying to be a clinical psychologist. Her parents are both doctors or something like that. So yeah, she’s smart too.
It’s not fair.
My brother, Jake, is of course head over heels in love with her. So is mother, actually, maybe even more than my brother.
“Annalise!” My mother would coo enthusiastically every time we all got together. “You look stunning! I love that outfit. How come you can eat so much and not gain an ounce? Oh you’re training for a triathlon? How fun! How’s graduate school? Wow, I don’t know how you do it all. My son sure is lucky to have you. Oh you baked us cookies! You shouldn’t have! Oh, oooh. They are delicious!” Eventually my mother would happen to look in my direction and be obligated to give me a perfunctory nod. “Oh, hi Carla.”
You get the point.
I asked my brother right after I first met Annalise: “But seriously, Jake, don’t you think she’s just a little too good to be true?” and he just shook his head in that amused way when he thinks I’m making a joke.
I wasn’t joking. There’s something not right about Annalise. Everything about her is too good, too perfect, almost… rehearsed. Jake just can’t see it because he always assumes the good in people.
Anyway, having said all that, I’m really not looking forward to having dinner with everyone tonight.
Part Two: Annalise
I’ve always hated the phrase “not like other girls.”
It’s one of the things guys always say to me, like they’re giving me some sort of contest prize: you know, Annalise, you’re not like other girls!
Jake likes to say that to me and it gets on my nerves. Oh, I know he means it as a compliment, but of course he’s painfully unaware that it’s low key misogynistic and actually even a little bit insulting, but I digress, it’s beside the point.
The point is, it’s true, I’m actually not like most girls. But not in the way you think.
For one, I’m a little… crazy.
No, not quirky. Not that manic pixie dream girl kind of cute crazy (don’t even get me started on that). No. I’m clinical. My parents even had me committed at one point. It’s the main reason I want to be a psychologist.
Don’t worry, it’s okay, I’ve made my peace with it.
Besides, I’m pretty good at pretending to be normal. It takes a lot of effort, keeping the crazy under wraps, but for the most part, I manage to do it. I probably have no business being in any kind of serious relationship, though.
Jake and I are having dinner with his family at some fancy restaurant tonight and it’s giving me so much anxiety that I ran an extra three miles on top of my usual five. My legs felt like jelly by the time I finished but it did the trick. It calmed me down.
His sister, Carla, is a few minutes early like usual. She is already at the table, with her blonde hair in a ponytail and face completely free of make up. She had on a plain white T-shirt and an old pair of comfortable looking jeans, an outfit which I’m sure she didn’t put any thought into selecting but ended up looking effortlessly attractive and classy. If you look up All-American girl in the dictionary I’m pretty sure you’d see a picture of Carla Marie Donovan.
She’s that generic type of pretty: pleasant enough face with conventional, symmetrical, forgettable features. No, not exotic, like I’ve been told I am (looking vaguely ethnic invites such comments), but pretty. Prom queen of a small town type of pretty. Or a Disney channel series lead. Likable, wholesome, normal. I’m a little jealous, honestly.
“Hey, Annalise.” Carla smiles at me tightly. That was another thing about Carla, I could sense that she really doesn’t like me. To this day I can’t figure out why. I always turn up my efforts to be the perfect friend when I’m around her. I even write down a list of jokes the night before we get together because if there was one thing I noticed Carla appreciates, it’s being funny. Sometimes I do make her laugh, but I could tell she still doesn’t like me. I try to give her the benefit of the doubt. She’s probably just being overprotective of her brother.
To be fair, she probably has good reason to.
Jake. Good old Jake. He’s like the dream Midwestern man. Dependable, classically handsome, and emotionally available. Everything is simple and logical to Jake. Unlike my brain, which weaves and turns like an unnecessarily complicated lattice, Jake’s mind seems to operate in straight lines. If he wants something he goes for it, if he doesn’t, he lets it go. If he loves something or someone, he loves them. Fully. I’ve never had a more stable relationship in my life.
I can’t explain it, but lately, it’s been kind of… suffocating.
It’s really not fair to Jake. After all this time, I don’t see why he’s still with me. Maybe he likes broken things.
I shake the thought away, for now I need to focus. I hug Carla. “Hey, Carla, how are --”
“Annalise!” I cringe at the loud gushing voice of Jake’s mother as she saunters ostentatiously towards our table. “How lovely to see you! What a cute dress, and look at your waist! I don’t know how you keep so tiny! How are you, my dear?”
I give her my warmest smile. When I first met Jake’s mother, she mistakenly said some borderline racist things about some local election, and at some point, when I had to casually mention, “actually, I’m half Indian” she apologetically backtracked and she’s been overcompensating ever since.
She meant well, I actually wasn’t even offended. I just wish she would stop trying to make up for it, I could tell it makes Carla uncomfortable.
I see Carla in my peripheral vision fight to roll her eyes. It would be almost comical if it wasn’t pertaining to me.
I sigh inwardly. I shouldn’t have agreed to this dinner in the first place. Not with what I am planning to do.
It’s my fault for putting it off for weeks. I keep chickening out. Tonight. I’ll have to do it tonight. After dinner.
Part Three: Jake
I think it’s fair to say that, like your typical Joe, I don’t understand women. Not at all.
I look at the three women I love most in the world sitting around the dinner table and I fight the urge to scratch my head in confusion like an idiot:
Mom is her usual over-the-top self. Carla is rolling her eyes at everything mom says. And Annalise is a bundle of nerves shaking her right leg under the table not unlike an over-caffeinated squirrel.
I wish I could call a timeout so everyone could just calm down for a bit.
The rundown is this: I am in love with Annalise and tonight I am going to ask her to marry me.
I was running late because I had to coordinate with the servers about when to bring out the champagne. The ring is now burning a hole in my pocket but the right moment just does not seem to come. The atmosphere was too tense.
I really don’t see why. I know my mother loves Annalise, but for some reason she kind of overdoes it when she’s around her and it just makes everything unbearably awkward.
And Carla. I don’t know what’s been up with her lately. Normally she doesn’t have any trouble making friends and getting along with all kinds of people. But around Annalise she’s stiff and even bordering on cold.
And my poor, lovely, Annalise. She’s been more withdrawn lately. She seems to have this idea that my family secretly hates her. Which might be true in Carla’s case, I don’t know. But I’m sure Carla will warm up to her eventually.
“Annalise.” I clear my throat and immediately it gets too quiet. Disconcertingly, I realize I can hear my own heartbeat in my ears. I shake it off. Now or never, Jake. “I just want to say that the last eight months have been the best of my life. You have been an amazing girlfriend and friend.” I move to go down on one knee. My hands sweat as I reach for the little red velvet box in my jacket pocket. “I would be the luckiest guy in the world if you do me the honor of becoming my...”
Annalise starts to have a panicked look in her eyes and the words trail off from my mouth. She looks pained. “Oh, um, Jake… maybe we should…”
I feel a twinge of pain in my chest. No, no, no.
Mom turns pale as a ghost and looks like she is about to be sick. A hush falls over the entire restaurant.
“Oh my god.” Carla cries, looking back and forth at me and Annalise in disbelief. “What is happening?”
I feel lightheaded. Did... did Annalise just say no? I can’t comprehend it. We were so happy, so perfect... weren’t we? I blink my eyes. The walls appear to be moving slightly. The floor looks really close all of a sudden.
I hear Annalise’s worried voice faintly. She sounds far away. “Jake? Are you okay? Jake!”
Every time I go to sleep, I dream that I am someone else.
Adam stared at the typed words on the screen until the words stopped looking like words and began to look like gibberish.
His cat, a cute but slightly sociopathic multicolored calico who turned up one day at his apartment to set up residence, curled up on his lap ready for a nap. Adam had named her Valentine after a heart-shaped patch on her back.
Adam was supposed to be writing code for a client - some app for a new line of shoes made from recycled wastes of the Amazon rainforest or some such - but he couldn’t focus today. He was getting a migraine, and this morning he woke up again drenched in sweat. When he checked his weight on the scale he found that he lost another two pounds.
Even he had to admit he was looking rather emaciated these days.
His doctor told him he was just depressed, that all his tests came back normal. He asked for a full body scan just to be sure but the doctor just chuckled him out the door with a script for Zoloft.
He was depressed. He’s always been kind of depressed.
Adam sighed and decided to check his emails while he sipped his morning coffee. Caffeine helped with migraines, didn’t it? He squinted at his monitor. There was a notice from his bank stating the balance on his checking account was getting dangerously low. He transferred some money from his savings but even that was also slowly dwindling down. He was hopeful when he was invited to interview at Virtual Games - a new start up that was supposed to be the next Google - but he didn’t make it past the second round of interviews.
Thank you for taking the time to interview at Virtual Games, San Francisco! Unfortunately, we decided to go with a candidate with more experience. We will be keeping your resume on file should a position open up that fits better with your profile. Thank you for considering Virtual Games!
Adam tried not to take it personally. He knew he was a good programmer, great, even. But he never did well in interviews. It might have something to do with his crippling social anxiety.
No, he did better working for himself. He didn’t want to work for some big pretentious company anyway.
Another email caught his eye. The sender was blank, but the subject line was: I need to talk to you.
Adam hesitated only slightly before clicking on the e-mail. He knew there was a chance this email was a scam, or worse, a virus or worm concocted by some sadistic computer savant. But Adam’s computer had a pretty good firewall that he built himself, and he used a completely different server for his personal stuff. He was confident that even if this email contained some kind of worm, that he would be able to identify and stop it in its tracks. Maybe even trace it. He wondered idly if there was some kind of reward for that - catching a cyber criminal. Maybe it could be his second source of income.
Adam clicked to open the message:
I’ve been trying to reach you for months. I need to tell you something very important. It’s about your dreams, Adam, and what they mean. I’ve been having dreams, too. But about you.
I know it sounds crazy, but if you just give me a few minutes, I can explain.
P.S. Have you been to the doctor lately?
Adam frowned. What the hell? He didn’t know anybody by the name Lucas. He’s also never told anyone about his weird dreams, not even his doctor. He only mentioned the sweats and the weight loss at his last check up.
It still could be a scam. But the message was too specific, too personal while still being vague enough that Adam had no idea what it could possibly mean. He couldn’t just ignore it, could he? He had to at least investigate.
Adam clicked on “reply.”
A plain black chat window appeared. Adam felt an immediate pang of regret. For a smart guy, he sure does dumb things.
He stared at the cursor in the chat window with dread as it began to type:
A long pause.
Thank you for talking to me.
Adam tried to close the chat window but the button did not respond. He tried to go through the task manager but it was not identified as one of the programs running. Damn it.
Don’t panic, Adam.
Shit. Adam guessed he might be being watched or recorded through the very computer the chat box was operating from, but like any neurotic programmer he had his camera and microphone covered up with two layers of duct tape. He eyed the duct tape suspiciously as the chat box filled with more words.
My name is Lucas Greer. I believe that somehow, every night, you have been seeing my life when you dream. I also believe I see your life when I dream. At this point you’re probably thinking I’m insane, and you might be right. But I have thought about this a long time, and it’s the only thing that makes sense. I also have proof.
Adam would have called bullshit immediately if it didn’t feel true. He had been dreaming as if he was seeing the life of another person for several months now. The images were not always clear, but they were consistent. A sparse apartment, taking the train to work, a job in front of a computer. There was a recurring theme of an ex-girlfriend that this person was still in love with. She even had a name but Adam couldn’t remember it. Helen? Hannah? The details always escaped him when he woke up.
He took a deep breath. His head was now pounding. Fine. He will play this game for now. He typed back: “Okay, what’s your proof?”
I know things about you… from my dreams, you see. I’ve been practicing lucid dreaming for a while now and when I wake up I immediately write everything down so I don’t forget the details. I know you have a cat, Valentine, who has a heart shaped patch on her back. I know you’re a programmer and you’re self employed. You live in a small apartment north of San Francisco. Your apartment is sparsely furnished, mostly you have computer equipment. You’ve been losing weight. You’re worried about your health. Anyway, eventually I figured out your computer system and now, here we are.
Adam hesitated, then typed: “Those are all things anyone could easily find out about me.”
Okay... but how about the things you know about me?
Adam paused. Valentine purred softly on his lap. Finally he typed: “I don’t know anything about you.”
I don’t believe you.
Adam was losing his patience. The curiosity of the initial email was wearing thin. He typed another reply: “Let’s cut to the chase. What do you want?”
The chat box was silent for a while. Then:
I want to switch with you. The next time we go to sleep.
Okay, so maybe this Lucas guy was missing a few marbles. That or he was hacking into his servers now as they speak. Adam wondered briefly if he could just shut down his computer now, kill all running programs. Since this particular computer was not connected to his personal network and is on a different server, it was probably not sending worms to all his other computers at that very moment.
You don’t have to do anything, you just need to know about me - that I’m real and that I exist.
When you go to sleep tonight, I’ll do the rest.
Adam almost typed “but I don’t want to.” But that would be like admitting that he believed this silly story. And he didn’t want to do that because he didn’t believe it. Did he?
He turned off the computer. He didn’t turn it on for the rest of the day.
Needless to say, as much as he tried, Adam didn’t sleep a wink that night.
If I had to describe life it would be the color of fire.
Because really, don’t we all have that little flame inside of us, waiting to go ablaze?
Remember when you were young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, alight with that electric confidence of youth, the world at your feet?
Or the first time you fell in love. That pink kiss. The blush in your cheeks. That giddy feeling, of embers burning, crackling, deep in your chest, threatening to burst.
How about the last time you burned with secret shame, or smoldered in anger, or cried so hard your eyes turned crimson? Or the time you shone, so bright, at your peak, after you worked so hard to get there, knowing that in the doleful years that follow, there might be loss, the slow decline of a flame dying.
Yes, if I had to describe life as a color, it would be fire. Wouldn’t you?
My head is so full of plans that it seems aflame. ~ Marie Curie
The Safe Bet
Humans are so damn obsessed with the afterlife.
And golly, there are so many options to choose from - heaven and hell, of course, with all its variations, then there’s reincarnation, and lastly, but certainly not the least likely: oblivion.
Let’s stop for a minute and entertain the infamous Pascal’s Wager on this particular matter:
If we believe in an afterlife, and it really does exist, and we live our lives with the main purpose of being accepted by that desired posthumous destination, then those efforts can yield infinite gain. If it is not real, but we live our lives like we believe in it anyway, well... we don’t really lose anything (or do we?).
On the other hand, if the afterlife exists and we happen to squander our ticket (by, say, being a thoughtless hedon), then we would have infinite loss. And by that I mean, spending the rest of eternity constantly being whipped by horned demons while simultaneously being on fire definitely sounds like the worst case scenario.
Alternatively, it’s probably not very much fun to reincarnate as an earthworm.
So if you were a betting man (or woman), how would you wager?
It sounds like it makes perfect sense to work for a ticket to the pearly gates just in case. Doesn’t it? Pascal even goes as far as to say: even if you can’t believe, just act like you do. It’s still the safer bet, apparently.
The biggest pitfall of Pascal’s wager of course, is that it assumes there are only two choices. Afterlife or no afterlife. God or no God. It kind of skips the vital question of: but wait, which God? Which afterlife? Depending on which one you decide, the process of acquiring your eternal ticket can be very different. Because what if you buy the wrong ticket?
In ancient Egypt, for example, you better have a really nice tomb.
I’m being facetious. Nobody really has a definitive answer, do they? Or if they do, it’s more likely they just decided to double down on their wager. Like a gambler who went full tilt.
I do find it very interesting, though, that from essentially the beginning of time the vast majority of humans pretty much decided: “yeah, there’s gotta be something after all this, right? It can’t just be nothing... can it?”
It’s almost as if to long for the hereafter is in our genes or something. Though, to be fair, oblivion after death - after life - does sound pretty anticlimactic.
My name is Harper and in six months I am going to die.
I know this because I paid for the privilege. You can do testing for anything nowadays, and apparently your expiration date is one of them.
I had money to spare, I was bored, and yes, I foolishly thought the test would tell me some distant faraway age like eighty-two or maybe even one hundred and two. When I found out my expiry date was in six months, I began to have a really, really bad case of buyer’s remorse.
I went through quite a lengthy denial period, where I thought I could go through the rest of my life pretending that if I just do things exactly the same way and not change anything I would conveniently forget and everything would be fine and dandy. (This was by far my favorite coping mechanism. But it didn’t last. Eventually my anxiety bubbled up and exploded like a shaken champagne bottle.)
Next came an obsessive, defiant, planning phase. Everyday I would think of elaborate plans to avoid death like I could somehow scheme my way out of it. I mean, theoretically, it seems doable. Plane crash? Don’t go on a plane. Car accident? Just stay home all week. Heck, heart attack? Pop three baby aspirins and hang out in the hospital lobby, right next to the crash cart ready to wave a big sign that says “I’m having a heart attack.” Unfortunately the test didn’t provide the cause of death, just the exact time, so I couldn’t really plan in specifics.
Eventually all the planning became incredibly exhausting and I settled into a kind of defeated acceptance. My plan was still not to actively put myself in a situation where I could die, I was not quite ready to submit to my annihilation, but if I somehow still find myself in that situation anyway, I figured I should really work on trying to be okay with that.
So then I commenced on a hedonistic three months where I blew half of my life savings and did literally anything I could think of. I ziplined through the forests of Peru, skydived over the French countryside, drank the best wines and indulged in rich Italian food, snorkeled off the shores of Bali, shopped with abandon while perusing the streets of Tokyo, London, Dubai…
You get the idea.
The most pathetic part of this whole thing was that I didn’t have a family to spend my last few days with. Or close friends, really. My impending death would not be filled with earnest mourning and last minute tearful proclamations of love and reminiscing. Oh sure, my funeral would be packed, but nobody would miss me, not really. As an orphaned twenty-two year old who inherited too much money at an early age, not only was I kind of an entitled asshole, I also haven’t really lived yet. I haven’t fallen in love or had kids, wrote that great American novel, won a Pulitzer, or experienced any of that syrupy sweet stuff life is supposedly made of.
Anyway, that’s why I’m hanging out in the hospice ward.
My friend here is Lucas. He is twenty-nine and has end stage heart failure from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. He described it as his heart being too big - literally but I suspect it's also an accurate description of him figuratively. I befriended him five months ago when I found out I was going to die. And no, surprisingly, he does not have any wisdom to impart about acceptance and healing and the meaning of life. He is very not okay with his young, awesome life being cut short, thank you very much.
He did have some useful information for me though.
“It’s quite experimental.” Lucas warned in an ominous tone.
“They usually only accept terminal patients… you know, because of the ethical issues.” He eyed me warily. “But in your case, they made an exception.”
He was adorable. He said that last line like a late night infomercial. Or maybe a used car salesman.
“This is not some elaborate black market scam to harvest my organs, is it?” I raise an eyebrow at him. “I mean, no offense, but you look like you could use a new heart.”
Lucas had to grab his oxygen mask after laughing so hard at that one. The nurse at the station gave me a dirty look.
After Lucas recovered he looked me in the eye. “How much do you have left?”
“Time? Or money?” I joked. The look on his face was not amused. I cleared my throat. “One month. And as you know, money is not an object.”
“Well, one month can give you… at least eighty years in virtual time. So pretty much a whole lifetime, if you decide on it.” Lucas shrugged. “Once you jack in though, there’s no going back. Your clock will end as scheduled and that’s the only way out. Also, it’s totally immersive, so you won’t even know you’re in virtual. It will be like… you’re in a dream but you don’t know you’re in a dream.”
“So I would really believe everything was real? Like I would grow up to be ninety years old and I would actually think I lived all those years even though really it will only be one month?”
“How many of the other people will be real?”
“Most will be computer generated. You might meet some real ones, if they are in the same time dilation settings as you. There are very few people with the resources for a whole month, you know. Most people can only afford one day.”
“So there’s a chance that I will marry a program?” I furrowed my brows. “And then if we have kids, they will also be programs?”
Lucas cocked an eyebrow. “There’s a high chance, statistically. Like I said, there’s only a few real participants at any given time. Not that it would matter to you, you won’t know the difference.”
I thought about this. Would it really bother me if I didn’t know? I bet my computer generated kids would be adorable.
His expression suddenly turned serious. “There’s something else. It’s rare, but there are a few cases of people noticing little things not quite right and they become increasingly convinced they’re in a simulation. Which of course is true, but when you’re jacked in and you’re not completely sure if you’re crazy or just being paranoid, it can be terrifying. They call it Simulation Induced Paranoia, or SIP.” He paused. “Participants become really…. distressed.”
I chewed on this for a second. “I still want to do it.”
He looked surprised. “Really?”
“I really don’t have anything to lose.” I replied nonchalantly, like I just decided on a dinner entree. I should probably be alarmed that I was acting so cavalier. Lucas wasn’t exactly giving a stellar sales pitch. Then again, it was true, I really had nothing left to lose. I’ve done what I could with my twenty-two years. Might as well have another lifetime to try again.
Lucas stared at me for a moment then sighed. “That’s the thing. The longer you’re in virtual, the higher the chance you might experience SIP. Remember, Harper, a month is a lifetime. The chances are very low of course - less than 1%, the virtual worlds are very meticulously programmed after all. But if you experience SIP, there’s no cure, no safe word, you’re stuck until your clock runs out.”
“I already decided.” I said resolutely. Once I’ve made up my mind on something I was usually unshakable. It was one of my many flaws. “In fact, let’s do it tonight. I want to get my whole lifetime, not a year less.”
Everything was too bright, the sounds too loud. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. Jacking in was a very jarring process, it felt as if all my neurons were firing up all at once. Somehow I felt tremendous pain and the heights of delirious ecstasy simultaneously. Like I was feeling every possible thing all at the same time. There was a terrifying moment when everything went black, and for what felt like an eternity but was probably only a few seconds, I truly wholeheartedly believed I was actively dying.
Maybe I was supposed to die on the table during the procedure. Or maybe I really did unwittingly offer to have my organs harvested for the black market. Damn it, I probably caused my own death in my extreme efforts to avoid it...
I blinked twice. The room slowly came into focus.
“Hey, sleeping beauty.” A familiar voice.
It was Lucas. But also, it was not Lucas. He did not have his portable oxygen tank close by. His lips did not have their usual bluish tint. He looked… healthy.
Everything came back to me at once.
“Oh shit, Lucas. That was nuts.” I shook my head, clearing the cobwebs. “That felt too real. I really felt like I was in there for twenty-two years.” I checked my watch. I’ve only been in Virtual for twenty-two minutes.
He chuckled, swiveling back and forth on the expensive office chair I bought him for Christmas last year. My boyfriend never could sit still. “You’re a champ, Harper, you were the one who wanted to push the time dilation to a year per minute. I was worried pushing it that far would compromise the world building, but your mind was amazing at meeting the program halfway to fill in the gaps. You made yourself a rich orphan, really? Money is no object? Hah!”
I disconnected my neurojack from the surgically implanted access port behind my right ear. That rich orphan stuff was my subconscious free at the wheel. I didn’t intentionally decide on it. I turned back to Lucas. “Why did you add all that stuff about Virtual in there, and SIP? Don’t you think that was a little too… meta?”
Lucas suddenly broke into that grin that melted my heart so many years ago when we met during undergrad at MIT. “Well, since you wanted to put the expiry dates into the program so people would know how much time they had left, I thought, what the heck, why not make it interesting? Why not make a virtual game in Virtual?”
I was not amused. Lucas had a penchant for bloated code and unnecessary side doors. Also, for not telling me about an adjustment until after he has done it. “That’s messed up. You should have run that by me. The expiry date was a suggestion from the beta testers and we all agreed on it. We didn’t agree on putting the game into the Virtual Universe as a side door..” I paused. “Also, what if I didn’t jack in? I would have died in a car accident or something?”
Lucas turned back to his computer and typed a few lines of code. “I had carbon monoxide poisoning ready to go, but I was prepared to improvise. And anyway, I didn’t actually think you would gravitate towards the game during the beta test, I just put it in there as an Easter egg of sorts. I figured most clients would only think about jacking in when they were close to their expiry dates, if they do at all. But on second thought, maybe I should take it out of the programming, it’s too much work to keep up.”
I jumped off the table and stretched my legs. My entire body felt stiff like I haven’t used it for months. “Yea, take it out. You’ll have enough work as it is when we start accepting our first commercial clients next week. We have four people scheduled on our first day which I already think is too much.”
“We’ll be fine.” Lucas was now typing more purposefully. “That reminds me, I need to finish debugging this before Monday. Do you mind picking up dinner?”
“Sure.. from that new Thai place again?”
I smiled as I gave Lucas a quick peck on the cheek before I grabbed my purse to pick up the take out. Everything was going well for our start up. It was hard to believe that only two years ago Lucas and I were broke PhD dropouts who took a leap of faith building Virtual from our one bedroom Boston apartment. And now… well, let’s just say our first official month in business is projected to generate six figures in profits even after subtracting overhead. Mid six figures. And as soon as we open up our second and third facilities the growth would be exponential.
To top it all off, I was pretty sure Lucas was planning on proposing to me next week on my birthday. I saw a charge from some jewelry company on his credit card statement while I was doing some filing last month. Judging from the amount, it could only be an engagement ring. Lucas never would have spent that much on a piece of jewelry otherwise.
I sauntered out of the elevator from our high rise office with a pep in my step. The weather outside was just the right amount of sunny. Even the Boston air didn’t feel as suffocatingly polluted. Yes, everything was going well. Perfect, even. I eyed a meticulously trimmed bush suspiciously as I walked by. Maybe too perfect.
I felt a sudden stab of panic. The smile dissipated from my face.
I’ve always been told that I need to listen to my gut. As if my gut is some kind of wise master with vast amounts of secret knowledge that even I am not privy to.
I am very, very suspicious of my gut. Because isn’t my gut just the subconscious spouting haphazardly constructed algorithms from an accumulation of past experiences? What if my experiences are wrong? Memories can be surprisingly unreliable. Just think of all the wrongfully identified criminals. Or that experiment where 25% of people remembered a childhood memory of being lost in a mall they’ve never been to. Yeah, not exactly a stellar resume, gut.
So instead, I like to waste an inordinate amount of time deconstructing every situation and analyzing every option until I am so mind-numbingly exhausted that I just pick the option that my gut was telling me to choose in the first place.
I will say, for the most part, Ms. Gut does end up making pretty decent decisions. So maybe I should give her some credit. I still don’t trust her 100% though.
Side note: How I titled this post reminds me of that Ariana Grande song “Positions” and I cannot unthink it. Also, “gut” no longer feels like a real word.