Symbiosis

By Karla Fetrow

It wasn’t real.  Not the thumb sucking kid being dragged along with tight fingers wrapped around his spare wrist.  He was just a large sized doll with a full-sized mama girl.  There wasn’t any telling her age.  Maybe twenty-two.  Maybe thirty-four.  Each facial feature was meticulously crafted by Maybelline, and her long locks by three hours at the hair dresser and Living Color.  Possibly she wasn’t real, either.  She marched; she didn’t stroll or look casually into the store windows, and relentlessly bounced her puppet child behind her.  The kid reached for a leaf from an artificial bamboo plant in a plastic container, and it popped back up, unviolated.  “Don’t touch,” scolded the mother.  “You’ll get dirty.”

Forty thousand square feet of mall space with sliding escalators, glassed in shops and recycled air.  In the middle of the hallway, smaller booths lined up, breaking the pedestrian traffic into two lanes.  What looked like a hospital bed occupied one of the center spots.  A young man, perfectly composed, lay on it, one end cranked up so he was in a semi-sitting position. Double pinpoints of red lights beamed down at his forehead.  The technician overseeing this delicate procedure, announced proudly to whoever would listen, this was the newest, most advanced method of relieving stress.

Stress was big business.  Everyone had it.  If  you weren’t stressed, you were incompetent or uninformed; maybe even lazy.  It was good to keep your guard up around the unstressed.  They were lacking something.  Yet everyone looked for stress reduction the way they looked at reducing ten pounds when they began to feel overweight.

The turquoise isn’t real.  It’s made from turquoise dust and resin.  The words came as naturally and casually through his mind as his random thoughts, yet hit him with a  jolt.  Those weren’t his words.  They were an intrusion.  He wasn’t even close to the jewelry shop and its fake turquoise.  He looked suspiciously at the laser beams to see if one had been stealthily directed his way. The machine was turned off.  The young man got up smiling, displaying what must have been an accumulation of twenty thousand dollars worth of dental work throughout his youthful years in flawless, gleaming teeth.

It was the flaw that attracted me; the single crooked eye tooth that he would touch nervously with his tongue.  Luke scowled, stuffing his hand deeply in his pockets.  Who was interrupting his orderly world, his stern disapproval with the human race?  He had no interest in men and their tongues.  It was inappropriate.  It wasn’t him.

He would think of basketball.  Something distracting always worked in those mind control movies.  He used to bounce a basketball out in the back alleys when no one was around.  He wasn’t fervent about it, just idly liked the sound of it hitting the pavement.  Boing.  Boing.

We played for hours.  The others were taller, faster, but I was more nimble.  I couldn’t shoot the baskets like the taller ones could, but I could always take the ball from the apposing team.  I’d bounce it to Ricky.  He could shoot.  He could shoot it clean every time.

This wasn’t happening.  It couldn’t be right.  He’d played basketball alone, without others.  In an alley, not in a weed infested, cracked concrete outdoors neighborhood court.  These images of sun browned kids, leg muscles jumping like steroid contestants, wasn’t his.  Instead of thudding in listless rhythm, the ball bounced furiously and watchful eyes grew around it.

It must be the mall.  It must be the cell phones, the auto massages, the virtual flying machines and the stiff, white mannequins.  It must be the recycled air, trying tirelessly to feel cool and refreshing, sprayed with a light perfume that was supposed to suggest rain forests.  A rain forest with a plastic, bamboo tree.  He tightened his lips grimly.  He had to get out.  He was no longer sure whether the thoughts were his or the others.

After exiting the double doors, he had to control himself to keep from sprinting through the seven floor parking garage to reach his vehicle.  He abandoned his attempts at composure once he’d set himself firmly behind the driver’s wheel.  The windows up, he turned the key, comforted by the simultaneous sounds of the air conditioner and the engine.  The voice was gone.  He relaxed, rearranging the scramble in his brain into organized word patterns.  It was probably a buried memory, triggered by one of the passers by, a memory so vague, so unimportant, he could no longer associate it with a face, only a voice.

He had one chore left to do before going home; checking up on his cousin Paul.  Paul never attended family functions.  Paul couldn’t keep a job.  He had been living on unemployment for the last three months and rarely even left his apartment.

It was as he had supposed.  The place hadn’t been touched since the last time he’d visited, the only difference was in the collection of dishes that were now growing a flourishing mold, and the collection of crumpled prepared food packages had left the garbage can to travel around the kitchen.  Paul was in front of his television, intent on the controls for a video game.  “I tell you,” he said.  “Every time I play this game, it teaches me new tricks.  You should try it sometime.”

“I don’t think I have time,” stated Luke.  He set a care package of milk, eggs and bacon on the table, then on second thought, stacked it in the near empty refrigerator.  “You missed Sylvia’s wedding.”

“Oh, sheesh.  Did I?  When was that?”

“The third.”

“What’s today?”

“The seventeenth.”

“That long, huh?  I must have dropped a few days here and there.  Give her my regards.  Oh!  I can’t get around the General.  He defeats me every time.  This is what hooks you, you see.  Watch what he does.”

Luke watched, with no more animated interest than he might have for the new “Be All You Can” reality show that was rocking the nation’s networks.  There was no longer much difference between gaming and television, except in games you have some control over your characters.  Even advertisers were using Sims, cutting the costs of using real faces.  Real faces that weren’t really real.  Faces that had been nipped and tucked, bleached and dyed, and carefully retrieved with make-up.  The General kicked some ass, and Paul went back to a save spot to try again.

Paul wasn’t interested in real company.  He was interested in lives he could control; bad assed lives that could creep through tunnels, throw bombs and rattle machine guns.  He wasn’t any different than anyone else, really.  He just didn’t bother going through the motions to disguise it. He didn’t even notice when Luke left.

Somehow, computers were different.  Behind them were real faces, layered back from glass and pixels, from skin and bones, to the tiny nerve endings of fingertips typing words.  Words revealed so much more than the surface composure of surroundings; the paneled walls, the woven rugs, the carefully chosen artwork and books collecting dust on their shelves.  They went straight to the source, that naked, twisted personality with all its motivations, preferences and knowledge.  Once you’ve placed your words into cyberspace, they can’t be changed.  They’re there for the world to know forever who you are and what you’ve contributed or didn’t contribute to knowledge and society.

Yes, computers were different.  He liked surfing the net, dropping into forums, and leaving a word here or there, mainly so others would know he too, was around; a personality, a form, a living entity with a palm print.  There were people he followed, people who were interesting in their own ways.  They had a gift for gaining attention.  A gift he’d often found elusive and puzzling.  They weren’t always especially clever, controversial or humorous, yet they swept through the network like fireballs, stirring people up.  Making them open up and reveal themselves.  They were energized.  They were alive.

There was a scandal going on at one of the forums.  He liked scandals.  Not that he got very involved in them, but scandals always brought  a host of opinionated surfers honing in like piranhas in an eating frenzy.  Everybody loved gossip, and gossip brought them out; the biters, the cringers, the gleeful, the pacifists, the self-righteous; completely exposed. It was all about Dixie.  She must have been in her cups again.  When she was sober, she was friendly and very witty.  When she was drunk, she was vulgar and suspicious.  She said mean things than became belligerent when her intended victims answered back.  This was the real world, the one just inside your doors, breathing in the hallways and whispering around corners.  He left a comment, knowing it would stir things up some more, but glowing with anticipation of what the answers would be in the morning.

As he typed the last words, he felt a presence, like a ghost or like knowing there was someone  looking at him through a window he couldn’t see out.  It passed rapidly and a moment later he shook himself.  It was just fatigue, nothing more.

The cockroaches were having a field day under the bed. It was unfathomable what they feasted on; bits of paper, shreds of wood, plastic.  They could eat plastic.  The insects rule the world.  They kept discreetly out of sight, but he could hear them as he laid his head against his pillow, clattering their hard-shelled  bodies against each other, obscenely fat with wire insulation and Hostess wrappers.  If he took his computer apart, would he find a cockroach in control, relaying back messages he had thought were real but were only cockroach dictations?  He squeezed his eyes shut.  This was insanity.

“Do you know when you’re dreaming and when you’re awake?”

His eyes snapped open and he looked around his room intently.  It was the same.  The Venetian blinds let in slants of pale lamplight from the streets, making his reflection in the dresser mirror across the room nothing more than an eerie dark head without features.  “I’m dreaming now,” he murmured, “I just closed my eyes for a minute and began dreaming.”

It was starting to rain.  The drops tinkled against the roof like a melody, each soft “ping” like the ping of a piano key.  “Can you play?”  His fingers spread over the board, one of them finding the “C” note that matched the tune of a rain drop.  The other fingers fell into place corresponding, matching the sounds of the rain, the music crescendo pitched higher and higher, more and more furiously, until it ebbed in wistful sighs, the raindrops and the piano like musical tears.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m looking at this box.  It’s very strange.  Its corners all run perpendicular to each other, it’s full of little doors that won’t slide open and some sort of script.  Have you ever seen one like it?”

“No.”  He turned it over in his hands.  Some kind of magician’s trick, probably one of those phony ancient Egyptian artifacts.  They were a dime a dozen at the trade outlet.  He started to give it back, but she was gone.

He hesitated.  This was a dream after all.  The room looked remarkably as it should look, each item of furniture in place, the rain streaming down the window, the only difference was the box he held in his hands.  Was it raining when he went to bed?  He couldn’t remember.  He turned the box over and over.  It was impossible to decide which end was up, and the visual perception of it was so distorting that, depending on how you turned it, sometimes it appeared to have three sides, or four or five.  She was right.  The little doors would not open, no matter how much he pushed, pried or looked for a key.

There was a knock at his door.  He raised his head in surprise.  Who would be coming to visit this late at night?  It was her.  She was drenched with the rain and shivering.  “May I come in?”

“Silly, of course you can.”  He brought her a towel, the largest, thickest one he owned and wrapped it around her shoulders.

“I’m sorry I left like that.  I just had to get out.  Sometimes it feels like the walls are collapsing in on me and I need space.”

“I think I understand.”

“I wouldn’t have been gone so long but I wandered too far.  I got lost.” She giggled nervously.  “I almost thought I wouldn’t make it back.”

He smiled to himself.  She was a drama queen.  She couldn’t have been outside more than five minutes.  Yet she looked like she’d been out for hours.  The water streamed from her hair in rivulets, her lips were blue and her skin pale and chilled.  Luke wondered, had he lost time; did it become as distorted as the box if you allowed yourself to be drawn into the wonders of its inner workings?  “You shouldn’t leave if you don’t know your way around,” he commented.

“But I have to, you know.  I don’t belong here.”

“Why did you come back?”

“You don’t remember?”

“I don’t know who you are, where you came from, how you found me.  What is there that I’m supposed to remember?”

“I don’t think I can tell you.  It was your responsibility and now you’ve forgotten.  You’ll have to sort it out.”  She went to the window and opened a peephole between the slats of the blinds.  “The rain has stopped.  It’s time.”

“Are you leaving again?”  He was suddenly crushed with anxiety.  He felt he should know her.  There was something familiar about her, even though there was nothing about her that struck a memory.  In fact, she truly didn’t look like she belonged.  Her hair, as it dried, took on every hue between ginger and dark brown.  Her skin, now that a warm flush had returned, was dusky, like someone who spent long hours in the sun, but not one who stretched out inactively to improve a sun tan.  The color tones were uneven and seemed to be layered, one over another, giving a perception that if you touched her, you wouldn’t touch solid flesh right away.  Your fingers would sink into a loose collection of molecules first, like digging your fingers into freshly turned earth.  He wondered if this was what people called seeing an aura.  He wondered… “Are you a ghost?  My imagination?”

“I’m as real as you are.  You’ve forgotten is all.  People do that.  You have to tell them the same things over and over because they forget.  What was in the headlines yesterday?”

“I didn’t read them.”

“Yes, you did.  You just think you didn’t.  There was a tidal wave in the Philippines.  Twenty-three people dead.  And the day before that?”  She finished for him.  “Two thousand troops were sent to Nigeria. The old news is forgotten with the new, and so it slips like it never was.”

“The news is always the same.  Nothing gets better.  Nothing gets done.  What’s the point of remembering it?”

“It gives you power.”

She picked up the box he had laid on the piano to answer the door.  “Are you coming with me?”

“Where are you going?”

“Outside.”

It was just a dream after all; why not?  Shrugging inside a jacket, and picking up a hat, he followed her.  As he stepped over the threshold of his apartment, he realized he was not in his yard.  There was no concrete walkway piled just a little above the short cropped, sun frazzled crab grass.  There was no fence, once painted blue, now gray and blistered.  The light was artificial and a little too bright.  They had stepped inside a mall.

To be Continued…