an old drawing of a red fish, with a thin mouth that extends out from its body like a tube

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Galapagos Man, Do You See?

‘Where are my shoes?’

 

Alana is threading her way through New Year party detritus, coming towards him. Wallace tries not to stare at her legs: muscles shifting smoothly over the schematic correctness of tendon and bone. 

 

Positively Vitruvian, dah-ling, drawls Sober Cynthia, who is the only version of his ex-wife his Therapized® brain can now produce. Probably the representation is inaccurate, though a version of Sober Cynthia did exist off and on, during their long, often painful marriage, mainly coinciding with the times when they tried to get pregnant. During these times, Cynthia maintained her own body with the fervour of a racehorse breeder, which in turn, strangely, excited Wallace – the hormone injections, the chart with days marked, temperatures recorded. A glimpse into some private, increasingly guarded realm. 

 

I never liked that woman, says the Therapization® of Wallace’s mother, Xueling – all that remains after a month’s worth of sessions with the technician, who had unspooled memories from Wallace’s chip, snipping at cortisol spikes. Refining them into Memory™. I’m glad she’s out of your life. As he watches this version of her in his mind’s eye, its ribcage buckles and a miniature version of his stepfather, Beale, appears, growing from Xueling’s side like a benign tumour. The Beale-Therapization® waves, yelling squeakily: Women? Who needs ‘em! An avalanche of potential – that’s what you are, my boy. 

 

Hate to disappoint you, Beale, he thinks, but the avalanche has long since rumbled down the hill, taking out some unfortunate skiers. Atop Mount Wallace, everything is still and cold. Even staring at Alana’s legs – the legs of his best friend David’s wife that staring’s not even for the right reasons; the classic reasons, shall we say: old perv, sweet young thing, et cetera. Instead, in this dim New Year light, her legs seem to embody something more, some awesome untapped reserve of kinetic energy. All that life left to her, and she has chosen to let David – only two years younger than Wallace, soon to be 63 – into it. 

 

An a-va-lanche, the Beale-part squeaks. It’s what he used to say when he first taught Wallace how to make sales. Present your offer. Overcome objections. Close. Close. Close. Now, Beale’s voice is soft, barely there. He’s been Therapized® from a real-life six foot two to a manageable five inches. 

 

Alana is standing beside his chair, waiting for an answer. The other guests – mainly Wallace and David’s business associates – have all gone. Fanning out to after-parties, perhaps, greeting another year in a whirl of noise. Wallace remembers that he has nowhere else to go, apart from down the driveway to David and Alana’s guesthouse, where he has been staying for months now. He would like a drink with David; in fact, it’s all he wants. But David has gone to bed.

 

‘I don’t know where your shoes are,’ Wallace replies. ‘I haven’t seen them.’

 

The party – that brief respite – is over. He’d liked observing the few people he didn’t know, noting their wood-stain tans, how they still lived lightly in bodies that gave them little trouble. Alana’s friends, he assumed. Before dinner, he had walked in on a group of them in the bathroom, solemnly dividing tabs of some psychedelic, a young red-haired man dabbing a finger on each outstretched tongue, like an Orthodox priest giving Communion. 

 

Alana, swallowing, had seen him. ‘Wallace. Anything you need?’

 

‘No, no.’

 

When they’d come out of the bathroom, he’d dived in among them, shaking hands and flashing his business smile. For a moment it felt like it had in the early days, when he’d first arrived in America. 

 

You’ve still got it, Beale’s Therapization® had said, in between pre-sale vocal exercises. Be an orca among seals. His stepfather’s somewhat eclectic curriculum had consisted mainly of nature documentaries, in which cute baby animals were chomped or abandoned or sprayed across the cliffs/icebergs/pampas. He would also take Wallace to the bookies, introduce him as my associate, and let him choose the horse. Wallace liked the la-di-da names: Marquis Granderson of Bath, Tommyknocker Boo Austin, Banded Fritillary. Watching the horses run, he felt the sting of the jockey’s crop, the suck and heave of their gigantic lungs.

 

Alana’s friends weren’t challenging. They were already high, smiles wide and loopy. A pod of seals. Talking to them was an exercise in temporary control. 

 

Alana falls into the chair opposite Wallace. ‘Happy New Year,’ she says. 

 

Thready and golden, the edges of her Afro catch the lamplight. He wonders if there’s a pointedness to her words. You-have-overstayed-your-welcome. He remembers all the times she’s interrupted conversations between him and David, all the times she’s let the kids run right into the guesthouse, leaving muddy footprints on the rug Wallace brought from the house where his mother died. 

 

He has lived in David and Alana’s guesthouse for a year. It was David who raised the subject – casually, as the car nosed through midday traffic – who said, ‘Why don’t you stay with us for a while, just until the renovations are done? I heard you’re practically tearing down that house… No, listen – you’re my best friend, OK, don’t go renting somewhere, come and stay, I’d be thrilled. Alana will be thrilled… No, no, we’ve just come back from the honeymoon, all that’s done with.’ 

 

A thick pane of glass had separated them from the driver. Wallace had pressed a button to wind down the window, feeling warm air battle with the crematorium smell seeping from their suits, their hair, their skin.

 

‘Happy New Year,’ he tells Alana. 

 

They sit together in the living room, two people bound by an uneasy truce, feeling the trickle of years. The first half of the twenty-first century. Gone. 

 

‘Can I turn on the 3D-V?’ says Alana, dreamily. 

 

Her accent is a smoothened, regionless singularity – more American than America itself. She sounds like every lady cop in the early-2000s dramas syndicated to the UK, the ones Xueling would watch religiously, curled up on their threadbare sofa. 

 

Look, Wallace-ah, says the mother-part. They talk to the victim, get her to look through a little book, pick out eyes-nose-mouth-chin-forehead; they draw it all to get the murderer, Marquis Granderson of Bath. Can’t argue with memory. 

 

He wonders if it’s the alcohol, or whether his chip needs a firmware update. Are Therapizations® usually this chatty?

 

Sure,’ he tells Alana. ‘It’s your house.’

 

‘It’s not really, though, is it?’

 

‘How so?’

 

‘The pre-nup.’

 

‘I’d forgotten.’

 

She looks at him. ‘Nah. You don’t forget.’

 

Pressing right index finger to left palm, Alana activates her chip. The 3D-V comes on, and a film starts playing. In the space between chairs and fireplace, a young man gets into a fight in a New York back alley. This filmic version of the city is still graffitied, still ugly, still lived-in – the rich and superrich nowhere to be seen. It’s full of vehicles belching smoke, the looping screech of sirens, people going in and out of offices and shops and their homes. 

 

Wallace thinks of those yellow rectangles of light, suspended against a twilit sky. Impossibly vast edifices; the air, unfiltered, tasting of smog, rain, a million meals cooking. He remembers the small town where he grew up, at the southernmost tip of the now-defunct United Kingdom: redbrick houses creeping towards the distant green of the downs. 

 

‘Ugh, a remaster,’ says Alana. ‘Old movies for the new year. How ironic.’

 

‘You don’t like it?’

 

‘I’m surprised. My chip’s on predictive – it should pick what people in the room want to see.’

 

The police show up and shove the male lead into the windscreen of a cop car, his cheek flattening against the glass. Through the 3D projection of the windscreen, Wallace can see the silk wallpaper of the living room, which has a stylised jungle design: leaves, creepers, vague animal shadows. The boy’s shocked face is just above Wallace’s right shoulder. If he reaches out a hand, it will pass straight through the pixelated skin, the few hairs on the boy’s upper lip. 

 

Who’s the actor again? He looks familiar, thinks Wallace. 

 

The Xueling-Therapization® chimes in.

 

Didn’t he play some movie vampire?

 

Yes, yes, says Sober Cynthia.. The main criteria for that role: Handsomeness While Brooding. 

 

We Require Handsomeness of the Eternal Variety, they exclaim. 

 

As their laughter tickles the edges of his brain, Wallace remembers meeting David for the first time, in the foyer of that London office. Two nervous kids, trying to hide behind graduation certificates and newly practiced handshakes. In the corner of the room was a ficus, pot-bound, desperately sending out pale, aerial roots. More life, it seemed to plead, more life. After David went in for his interview, the receptionist came out and watered it with a little watering can, though the soil was so dry that most of the water just sloughed off onto the carpet. 

 

As Wallace waited, he imagined the ficus gurgling, coughing, thirsty and drowning at the same time. 

 

*

 

‘Is this movie even good?’ says Alana. ‘I can’t tell.’

 

He wonders what she’s on – what sort of lightshow’s going off in her brain – and whether the red-haired, ponytailed man is a friend from liberal arts college or a hanger-on, a procurer, someone with a name like Jet or Snake. High Priest Snake, with his beautiful apples. Wallace has never been one for drugs, bar the odd joint at university; to him there is something endlessly seductive about alcohol – its creeping warmth, the way it doesn’t impose or transform, just heightens – so it has never occurred to him to complicate things. 

 

Just say no, says Sober Cynthia, adopting a Nancy Reagan haircut and twinset. The Therapization® is pretty funny, just like real Cynthia was during the early stages of their relationship. Before all that baby stuff got in the way. It’s nice just having the Memories™, sorted and pruned, inconsequential.

 

‘As long as you enjoy it, I guess,’ he says to Alana. 

 

Anxiety in her tea-coloured eyes. ‘How do you even decide whether something is good?’

 

She’s young enough to be his daughter – 35, 36. Legs curled beneath her, she kneads the flesh of her calf between manicured fingernails. Jesus. He doesn’t want to be anywhere in the vicinity of a bad trip, to wit; spiders bursting from arms, walls melting, et cetera. 

 

A Beale lesson: Look After Number One. 

 

Wallace remembers the time David, in the aftermath of a particularly taxing Bikram session, had turned to face him from his supine position on the mat – sweating, dehydrated, on the cusp of renewal. ‘Wallace,’ he had whispered, as if anguished at some new, painful discovery. ‘I’m old. What does she see in me? Is it just the–’

 

‘Ssh,’ Wallace had said, remaining primly in Corpse Pose. ‘I’m meditating. Tell me later, OK?’

 

But David never did. 

 

Wallace activates his chip, and, using the neural link, navigates to a review aggregation site. These sites, somewhat of a holdover from the late 1900s/early 2000s, resurged by the million in what sociologists now call the Great Criticism Boom of the 2030s, an odd side effect of pandemics, climate catastrophe and hypergentrification. People stayed at home. They bought things, they watched things. And under that buying and watching was a sort of panic, that they were going in blind, unable to buy or watch the right things. So to see that the e-reader or the frying pan or the 3D-V you were thinking of buying had 4.9 stars and 10, 329 reviews – namely, that it was the very best out there, the choice of an intelligent and au fait person – well, that was relief, which is pretty much the same thing as happiness. 

 

This site uses a five-point popcorn scale, as well as critic reviews, to measure quality. As the webpage scrolls across his corneas, Wallace finds out that, after some soulful monologues and easily avoided errors in communication, the male lead will eventually die in the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, a controversial artistic choice that Roger Ebert, the influential film critic, compared to being squished by a falling refrigerator. The film itself has a paltry 2.25 popcorn boxes. 

 

He’s unsure how to break this news to Alana. Never mind the quality of her trip: the worry in her eyes and the way her fingers are pinching her calf is having a strange effect on him. 

 

Be an orca. An orca among seals. 

 

Mini-Beale’s voice is very faint. 

 

‘Reviews aside, this film is considered something of a cult classic,’ Wallace says, finally. 

 

‘A classic?’

 

‘Yes.’

 

She smiles, satisfied, curls herself further into the chair. Wallace swallows more whiskey, realising that he is pretty drunk. 

 

In two days – on the anniversary of his mother’s death – he will turn 65. As a gift to himself, he will go to Dr Adebayo for a telomere scan. He and the smiling, bald doctor will discuss setting up a donor roster (for those organs which haven’t yet been replicated in bioflesh); he will be shown pictures of the imposing Swiss facility where, alongside the organs of others, David’s lab-grown heart, liver and kidneys now reside.

 

According to David, these contingencies have increased his lifespan by an estimated 57 years. He is now expected to live into his 130s. This, he explained to Wallace, renders the age gap between him and Alana meaningless. 

 

Galapagos man, Galapagos man, sings Sober Cynthia. Tell me things only such a man can. 

 

How does it know that phrase? Wallace thinks of editorials, headlines, banners – a cascade of criticism and protest against what the talking heads call ‘the elite life-prolonging industrial complex’. Where had the term come from originally? A fucking New Yorker cartoon or something? 

 

The Cynthia-part giggles. 

 

Stay in your memory-box, thinks Wallace feebly, hating the familiar, pleading tone.

 

*

 

‘Can I ask you a question?’

 

Wallace looks up. Alana is leaning towards him, hand half-outstretched, as if to touch his shoulder. 

 

‘Did you always want to be a Chief Operating Officer?’

 

COO. See Oh Oh, he remembers. At this, the Therapizer® in his chip hums. A spurt of warmth tingles up his arm, taking the edge off.

 

‘Why do you ask?’

 

‘Oh… I don’t know. It’s such a lofty title. Not the kind of thing a kid has any concept of, really.’

 

‘Well, I’ve wanted to be an executive since I was 12 years old.’

 

‘Wow,’ says Alana. ‘You must have been some driven kid. I can barely get Benny and Walt off the VR headsets long enough to recognise that this is the real world. You know, the one we all live in?’

 

‘It’s true,’ says Wallace, already loading up the Memory™, the one that explains it all. 

 

‘I believe you.’

 

‘You haven’t seen.’

 

Wallace waves his hand to pause the film, leaves the main couple clinched in a kiss in the centre of the living room. ‘Here.’

 

She holds her palm slightly above his outstretched hand, letting their chips interface. 

 

SHARED NEURAL LINK CREATED_ 

 

WALLACE LIU > MEMORY_DRIVE > CHILDHOOD > 10-15 > DID+YOU+ALWAYS+WANT+TO+BE+WHAT+YOU+TURNED+OUT+TO+BE > PLAY

 

They are with Beale. That first sales trip – driving down the motorway, leaving town behind. Wallace sits in the passenger seat, holding the SUV’s disc-shaped steering wheel lock on his lap. Alana’s memory-form sits in the back, watching the grey English countryside pass. When they arrive at the care home, Beale gets out amidst dying geraniums, bushes scrubby with thorns. He clamps the lock back around the steering wheel and angles the wing mirror up. Then, he puts up his fists. Dancing in place, he throws punches at his reflection. 

 

Look at us, eh. Bloody lions. 

 

The ignominy of a 12-year-old’s skinny frame! But Wallace perseveres. Shuffling feet turn into a war dance. Punches are thrown at the window’s reflection – pigeon-chested, sweaty Wallace who brings smelly food in metal containers to school. Weirdo. Garçon de Riz. (The class has just started learning French, hence this inventiveness.)

 

He’s panting. Beale’s warm, heavy arm settles around his shoulders. 

 

You and me, boy. Effin See-Ee-Ohs of Beale Enterprises.

 

Inside the care home, they sell a large box of dechokers to the manager on duty, whose nametag reads SHONDA. 

 

‘What’s a dechoker?’ asks Alana’s memory-form.

 

The Memory™ pauses around them. ‘A lifesaving device,’ explains Wallace. ‘You see the plunger here, the mask at the other end? If someone chokes, you just slap the mask over their mouth and pull the plunger. Sucks the food right out of them.’ 

 

The scene un-pauses, right when Beale asks Wallace to demonstrate the use of a dechoker on him, thereby convincing SHONDA that this purchase is absolutely necessary. Beale lies down on the dingy sofa and mimes choking. Makes a meal of it, really – back arching, spasms, the whole nine yards. 

 

Wallace puts the mask over his mouth, pulls the handle. Beale sits up, grinning.  

 

Well done, he says. One eyelid dips in a wink. Look at that, he says, louder, for the benefit of SHONDA. Wallace here saved my life.

 

The Memory™ is smooth, regular, Therapized®. It exists in isolation. In it, Beale has not yet left – he will never leave. Its lack of emotion is, in itself, a graceful kind of logic. It is all Wallace needs to understand.

 

Alana says, ‘I wish my kids were more like you.’

 

Wallace shrugs.

 

They un-pause the film and watch the male lead try his best to give off an impression of supreme aliveness, though the film itself is nothing more than a vehicle conveying him towards an inevitable, untimely end. 

 

Should he tell Alana? Warn her? How invested is she in the film, anyway?

 

On the other hand, there is something enticing about being the only one in the know; being, however temporarily, the only one with the full picture. It means that only he can recognise how crucial the male lead’s performance is, how it creates and defines belief. After this film, the actor would pivot towards challenging indie roles, distance himself from his years as a teen heartthrob. He’d fully inhabit that face – grow into the beetle brows, the great block of his jaw. Here, however, Wallace sees him as he was. The boy’s youth seems both intimate and achingly, inhospitably remote. His performance – a brasher version of the callowness he must have also, at the time, possessed – creates a smooth shell over the humming gears of story, elegant like the crystal in a watch.  

 

If Wallace sees the actor in public – an old man, sipping coffee in a train station, an airport perhaps, somewhere where people come and go – he might approach him. Wallace might look at the actor across a gulf of steam and say, apropos of nothing, ‘Look at you. How much you have gone through, over the years.’

 

If he’s lucky, the old man might turn to him and speak.

 

‘Oh, Galapagos man! Don’t you see?’

 

*

 

Ten minutes until he will allow himself up to the bar cart. 

 

No, five. 

 

He pours whiskey-tinged meltwater down his throat. 

 

Get all da way outta here, says Sober Cynthia, in a faux-hardboiled accent. 

 

Fine. 

 

‘Would you like a drink?’ he asks Alana. 

 

‘Sure. A Negroni, please.’

 

As Wallace fusses with bottles and garnishes, he remembers the way Cynthia’s face would get when they drank and is grateful that he can now remember it without pain – without any associated emotion, in fact. The half-fuddled look in her eyes, the lurking aggression; not the mellow peace of a good trip but the anger of someone fighting their own inebriation, even as they prolonged it. 

 

All that sweet-smelling brown hair, tossing carelessly. Nose wrinkling every time she took a sip. Like a rabbit’s – small and pink. Wait, why is he thinking of rabbits all of a sudden?

 

Back to Cynthia. Her family old money, London-rich, a second home in Canterbury, practically in the shadow of the cathedral, where Henry II’s knights murdered Saint Thomas à Beckett at the altar. This story fascinated her. All Henry said was, Will someone not rid me of this turbulent priest? which, apparently, was enough to get his knights sharpening their swords. In the end, this was all Cynthia wanted – she told Wallace when they first met – someone who could parse her speech for what she called her ‘sideways thoughts’, which were rarely obvious, even to Cynthia herself.   

 

Wallace was happy to do this. In a way, Cynthia reminded him of Xueling, whose intentions often spiralled around some ill-defined, yet crucial, emotion. And it was good; for years it was good. Until Cynthia had, inexplicably decided that she wanted to have a child. 

 

He passes Alana the glass. ‘Here you go.’

 

‘Thanks.’

 

She takes a sip and they drink for a while in silence. Then, she says, ‘Sometimes, you look at my boys like you’re scared of them. Especially Walt.’

 

‘Do I?’

 

‘Mm.’

 

‘Well, of course I’m not.’

 

‘Sure,’ she says. ‘I’m not accusing. Just making an observation.’

 

‘Right.’

 

‘Do with that information what you will.’

 

Wallace has never paid that much attention to Alana’s kids, two of them, from a previous marriage to a college classmate turned hedge fund manager, one of the few remaining New Yorkers. According to David, Husband #1 is keen on hunting. He drives a Jeep into the glass-domed Sport Safaris and brings back reams of dusty, raw-smelling skins, which he sends by the bundle to Benny and Walt. They sit in closets, gathering moths, but the boys love them. 

 

‘The guy will literally go into the wilderness and slay beasts for them,’ David had said. ‘I mean, sometimes it’s hard to compete.’

 

‘But you pay for everything,’ Wallace had replied. 

 

David had shrugged.

 

Walt, the younger boy, has a walleye that looks off to the side. Its glancing roll makes Wallace uncomfortable, makes him feel caught. To make matters worse, Walt also has a strawberry birthmark on his temple, a splash of red that extends around the eye socket, as if the blood vessels under his skin are rebelling against its inherent wrongness. Every evening, he and Alana do vision therapy. The exercises look like nothing much but are meant to reinforce the eye-brain connection, force that momentary sparkle of neurons. 

 

Wallace looks at Alana and says, ‘How on earth could I be frightened of Walt?’

 

‘I don’t know,’ says Alana. ‘I do know that before I got it Therapized®, I had all this terror associated with my kids. Like dark clouds, following them around. Being scared of someone isn’t a million miles away from being scared for someone, don’t you think?’

 

Wallace shrugs. ‘Maybe. They’re not my kids, though.’

 

‘I think I was terrified that I’d mess them up, you know? Like, cause trauma that’d ruin their lives.’

 

‘Sure.’

 

They watch the film for a while. Then Alana says, ‘He’s scared of lasers, you know.’

 

‘Who?’

 

‘Walt.’

 

‘OK.’

 

‘His birthmark, I mean. He won’t let me take him to get it peeled.’

 

‘That’s a shame.’

 

‘And he’s scared – get this – of the concentration of heavy metals in drinking water.’ She puts on a little-boy voice. ‘Bad faucet, mommy, bad faucet. We drink bottled, of course. But Walt doesn’t even like showering. He thinks he’ll absorb mercury through his skin.’

 

I never messed you up, interjects the Xueling-part. How could I? You always wanted so much to please me. My Wallace. It was like we had the same mind. 

 

You shouldn’t be speaking like this, he thinks. Why are you here?

 

Remember how we used to cut each other’s hair in the kitchen – wrapped in the tablecloth, using the same scissors? And when you accidentally cut my ear that time I said, don’t worry, Wallace-ah, you’re still mine, I still love you.

 

He shuts his eyes. The Xueling-Therapization® smiles like a Christmas card angel. But then its features begin to change – subtle, random shifts in proportion, until the face is an uncertain patchwork, a series of archetypes (long-nose-almond-eyes-widow’s-peak) filtered through memory, like features described to a police sketch artist. 

 

Is this the woman who did the hit and run? whispers Sober Cynthia. 

 

who fixed the horse race? murmurs mini-Beale.

 

…who stole something indescribably precious from you? 

 

They mutter together, accusingly.

 

The Xueling-part puts its hands on its hips. I love my Wallace, it says.

 

You’re lying, thinks Wallace, but the Therapizations® are arguing too loudly to hear.

 

The movie couple, muted, is having their first fight. The boy grabs the girl’s shoulders, pushes her against the wall. Unafraid, she shakes herself free. After all, the boy only has an hour left to live. Nothing he does has the potential to remain. 

 

Wallace turns to Alana. ‘Would you show me?’

 

‘Show you what?’ 

 

‘The Memory™. With your boys.’

 

She looks at him, a long, quizzical look. 

 

‘OK.’

 

SHARED NEURAL LINK CREATED_

ALANA WIJAYA > MEMORY_DRIVE > ADULTHOOD > 35-40 > HOW+DO+YOU+LOVE+YOUR+CHILDREN+WHEN+ALL+YOU+HAVE+IS+FEAR > PLAY

 

Come on, you two, calls Alana. We’re going to be late. 

 

Wallace is sharing an alcove with a plastic skeleton. He and the skeleton are both draped in fake cobwebs, which should feel soft and tickly, though of course Wallace is not precisely Wallace, but a memory-form, so he can’t feel anything. As he watches, Alana picks up two orange plastic buckets shaped like pumpkins from the side table, stands there with one in each hand, waiting. 

 

There’s a clatter of feet on the stairs. Benny and Walt burst into the room. 

 

Wallace’s memory-form jumps, though his movement is not really movement at all.

 

Hold on a second, who–

 

(or what)– 

 

The two small figures grabbing at the pumpkin buckets are covered in golden fur, long tails snaking behind them. Lion skulls cover their heads like hoods, manes thick and shaggy. The skins smell like blood and dung and grass, baking under the Serengeti sun. 

 

Where is VR-obsessed Benny? Where is fearful Walt?

 

The skins have transformed them into strange, unknown creatures. 

 

Ow! cries Alana; she drops a bucket and one of the gold-furred creatures reaches down to pick it up. Damn it, Benny, that really hurt.

 

A tooth has snagged her hand; Wallace can see a spot of blood, welling slowly. 

 

I’m not Benny, says the bigger lion. 

 

And I’m not Walt, pipes the smaller.

 

Yes, you are. Don’t be silly.

 

The lions move around the foyer on all fours. Despite the wrinkling of the skins and the dragging tails, there is something graceful about their movements – slinking, circling, flowing in and out of corners.

 

I guess your father got you those costumes, huh, says Alana.

 

What father? We’re not your kids anymore.

 

Nuh-uh. They’re gone.

 

Benny, says Alana sharply, and Wallace can feel the fear mounting, irrational, uninvited. Stop it. Can’t you see Mommy’s hurt?

 

Benny laughs and continues slinking, but Walt drops the pretence immediately. He runs over to Alana, buries his face in her jeans. And as she kneels to hug him Wallace can almost feel it, her (his) arms around the child, trying to find underneath the lionskin the warm, compact body of her son.

 

They are back in the living room. At the sight of his face Alana laughs, sipping her drink. 

 

Once, as a child, he read a story by Ray Bradbury. In it, children summoned lions from the holographic walls of their nursery. The lions devoured their parents. That was what passed for science fiction back then, a hopeful wildness about it. Now, he can’t help thinking of the corpses, stacked in the back of Husband #1’s Jeep, heads lolling with every bump. Waiting to be skinned and shipped and gifted to Benny and Walt. Tied on by the au pair, who swore under her breath at the fiddly configuration of straps. 

 

Just in time for Halloween!

 

He imagines the hybrid figures of Benny and Walt slipping – tails and all – right into the living room’s jungle wallpaper. Dwindling to nothing but two bright pairs of eyes, soft breaths in the dark. 

 

*

 

The movie is over; the young man is dead. The towers fall offscreen, which is just as well, because a more in-your-face exploitation of tragedy would have undoubtedly given Roger Ebert an aneurysm. Instead, there is a series of cuts – a carousel of faces looking out, uncomprehending, towards catastrophe. 

 

The father. The girlfriend. The little sister. These pale discs, holed for breath and sound, represent all the love accrued by the boy during his short life. With the fall of the towers, this love transliterates itself from the language of hope and action to the language of memory. It becomes a rainy-day ache under the breastbone, a stubborn ingrown hair that, despite vigilance and expensive epilators, always comes back when its host least expects it. 

 

Wallace looks over at Alana. She’s sipping her second Negroni and examining a toenail. The film’s wink-nudge series of signifiers – meaningful looks, September 11, 2001 written on a teacher’s blackboard (in itself a relic, an artefact), the slow sifting of ash – don’t seem to have disturbed her at all. Perhaps only carnage would have done it, imbued that dusty, shelved fact of the external world with recognisable emotion. And Wallace is suddenly angry with the filmmakers: for their assumptions, for the datedness of the film. There’s a hubris in it, he thinks. Then: How can she understand? She wasn’t even born. 

 

Whiskey down. His throat burns. 

 

Perhaps, he thinks, he should get in touch with the male lead’s agent, or message him on social media. But what, in the end, would that achieve? The actor’s old now, and famously crotchety. What would Wallace even ask?

 

What is your childhood memory of 9/11? And did you flash back to it as you filmed your final scene in the movie, the one in your father’s office, in the tower, where you stood against a bank of tall windows, lit by the morning sun?

 

Alana stops picking at her toenail. She laces her fingers and stretches, arching her back. In the space in front of them both, the credits slowly appear.  

 

‘Did you say whether you’d seen my shoes?’

 

‘Yes,’ says Wallace. ‘I mean no, I haven’t.’

 

She frowns. ‘Maybe I left them near the moringa grove. A bunch of us was out there earlier.’

 

Ah, yes – the seals. And High Priest Snake, leader of them all. Hey, says mini-Beale sycophantically, you were bloody amazing with them earlier, weren’t you? Like I said. Still got it. 

 

Wallace imagines its tiny fists waving, chubby as a baby’s. Being Therapized® has changed the Beale-part somewhat – its blond hair is thick and full, the muscles of its shoulders and arms gone soft and cuddly. Wallace can barely remember the cigarette smell, though he does have a Memory™ of Beale standing in the smoking area at Heathrow, puffing on something small and pixelated. 

 

In this Memory™, Beale is older, thinner, diminished somehow. He always appears like that in memories after he and Xueling ended things. 

 

Wallace’s carry-on is digging into his shoulder. He’s worried about getting past security, allocating enough time to say goodbye to Xueling. Already, he’s put his passport, with the ticket to JFK inside, down on a café table and almost forgotten it. 

 

Someone from the company’ll meet me there, he tells Beale. They’ll have a sign with my name on it and everything. 

 

Beale smiles, wreathed in pixelated smoke. He says, Bet you can find this lovely lady’s shoes.

 

Wallace and Alana head out towards the moringa grove. The trees seem to be suspended by their white crowns, which glow gently in the security lights. Despite the aridity, the moringas bloom year-round, tricked into it by a complex system of pipes and sprinklers, which funnel water from an aquifer far away. Sometimes, early in the morning, when everyone but Wallace is asleep, the au pair will pick up the flowers that have fallen on the ground and make tea.  

 

A glint at the base of a trunk. Wallace walks over and picks up the shoes. The velvet is wet with dew. 

 

‘Here you go.’

 

Alana comes running, the unselfconscious, loping run of a child. ‘Oh, thank you,’ she says. Folding her legs under her, she sits on the grass. One by one, she dries the soles of her feet on the edge of her dress before she slips the shoes on. 

 

He can tell that she is still high. As he watches her, he remembers the movie. A square of white wall, lacy with sunlight; September 11, 2001 written on the board. Then, it is no longer the movie. It is the markers-and-body-odour smell of a classroom, pain from a graze on his knee. He raises his head at the sound of his teacher’s voice and sees the lost look on her face. 

 

Alana can’t understand, says mini-Beale, sadly.

 

You see, says Sober Cynthia, she wasn’t even born.

 

‘You know that kid dies,’ Wallace says, suddenly. 

 

‘What?’

 

‘The boy in the movie, the main character. You know he dies, right? Gets caught in the Twin Towers on 9/11 and is crushed under the rubble?’

 

She looks up at him. Behind her, a lens of lemon yellow spreads slowly over the horizon. There’s the moon, delicate and uncertain as a foil cut-out. 

 

‘Why would you say that?’

 

‘Because it happened.’ 

 

‘In a movie!’

 

‘In real life, too.’ 

 

He is alive to the feeling of his own anger. The Therapizations® clamour, egging him on. 

 

Galapagos man, Galapagos man. Tell me things only such a man can.

 

‘No,’ Alana says – slowly, as if explaining it to Walt. ‘That boy, he doesn’t exist.’

 

‘Plenty of other people died.’

 

‘I guess, but that’s history.’

 

‘It’s also the truth.’

 

‘What’s the difference?’

 

‘I don’t know,’ he whispers.

 

Alana starts to cry. ‘It’s no kind of truth,’ she says. ‘It’s just nasty – a thing that didn’t even happen, a horrible nasty thing, to change someone into nothing like that, to take them away from their family.’

 

That’s my son, says the Xueling-part, wryly. He can’t be trusted with scissors.

 

Let me look at you, thinks Wallace. Stop hiding your face from me. With a nervous squeak, the Beale-Therapization® burrows into Xueling’s side and vanishes. The top of its head disappears into the place where the cancer was found, the site of incision. 

 

‘Dig it out at the source,’ Dr Adebayo had said, as if discussing a gardening project.Hack off its roots, stop it from growing.’ 

 

Xueling, jaundiced, had lain in the bed. Wallace had looked at her – his mother, who’d emigrated from Suzhou by way of the UK towards retirement in the US to be with her fantastically successful son – and thought, How dried-up she looks, how old. A betrayal. He’d snipped her ear and the blood ran down her neck and into her hair, but she’d kept her lips firmly closed. And when it was time for them to swap, she made a show of cutting his hair so carefully, so perfectly, that she was beyond any sort of reproach. 

 

He would have paid to grow an entire new body for her – organs, bones, slippery veins. 

 

If she said yes, of course. If she wanted it. 

 

I didn’t, says the Xueling-Therapization® out of its shifting face. I chose not to accept bio-modifications because I don’t love you enough and I didn’t care about leaving you behind. 

Ma, don’t–

 

Look at you, Mr. Galapagos Man, says the Xueling-part, sadly. What are you going to do with all that life? 

 

NEURAL LINK MALFUNCTION_

 

WALLACE LIU > PRESENT_MOMENT > ADULTHOOD > 60-65 > WHAT+DO+YOU+DO+WHEN+IT+ALL+COMES+CRASHING+DOWN > error/2084927_???

 

Alone, the Therapizations® whisper. 

 

Hello? Anyone?  

 

What’s happened? 

 

I don’t know. It’s all gone dark.

 

Somewhere beside him, Alana snuffles weakly into her hands. 

 

‘One day, he’ll go too.’

 

Wallace gathers himself. His vision has returned, but small sparks seem to be fizzing across his retinas. ‘What? I mean, who?’

 

‘David.’

 

‘What do you mean?’

 

‘We’ll live here for a while and we’ll have a baby, probably, but 130 isn’t forever.’

 

It’s true – their age gap is meaningless only for David. One day, he’ll die and leave Alana and the kids behind. Wallace thinks again of Benny and Walt inside the lion skins. And in that moment their costumes – last-ditch bonding attempts from an absent father – stop scaring him and begin to inspire, what? Pity? Recognition? 

 

Paws covering soft hands, heads shielded by massive jaws. Inside the costume, Walt can go door to door and take foreign, untested candy from strangers’ hands. It is a way to face the world.

 

Wait. 

 

He and Beale kept rabbits. How could he have forgotten?

 

Yes, there it is – the memory, unaltered. Somehow, it has escaped the Beale-purge. 

 

Beside the moringa tree, Wallace and Alana sit on the grass. Hesitantly, Wallace reaches out to touch Alana’s shoulder. When she leans towards him, he puts his arms around her. This close, he can smell a mixture of perfume and alcohol, feel the hammering of her heart against her ribcage. 

 

As they sway there gently, together, Wallace thinks of the hutch in the shed, the mass of soft fur among the straw: grey, white, bright calico. Beale bought him the buck and the doe and Wallace took care of them while Beale smoked and worked on his car. When they bred, Beale made a deal with a pet shop in Eastbourne. He’d phone up and a man with a pet carrier would come and collect the babies, taking them, squiggly and warm, from Wallace’s hands. 

 

Wallace loved the rabbits. Not the selling, but the feeling of having raised many fragile things, beautiful in their dependence. 

 

The pet shop man said they were the best rabbits he’d ever seen. 

 

He wants to show Alana this, but the memory is not yet a Memory™, so instead he clasps her hand tight, willing her to somehow feel what he remembers. 

 

Bzzt. 

 

A small shock in his palm. The malfunctioning chip.

 

Alana gasps softly.

 

Suddenly, the world is different: moringas, haloed, gently pulsating, each pebble urgently real, concepts like shape and colour and weight and texture blurring together until seeing feels like holding, like rolling their coolness around in his hand. The small shadows of rabbits, hopping through grass which swirls like the whorl on a baby’s head.

 

He remembers holding the pregnant doe in his arms, feeling life push against that hot, distended belly. How the babies nuzzled her as she lay, exhausted, waiting for the milk to come. 

 

Alana raises her head and they look at each other in recognition. 

 

Soon, perhaps, there will be a baby. They will celebrate in the only way they know how, with the things of this world – balloons, streamers, the bottle of champagne David has set aside in the cellar. The boys will circle the crib warily and push their fingers into the little one’s fists, hoping for the moment of holding. And while all this goes on the baby will lie there, swaddled and red, sleeping mostly, waking only for Alana. 

 

The sun is rising over the bay.

 

Yes, Wallace thinks. Sooner or later there will be a baby, and all the parts of it will be new. 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer and archaeologist based in Sheffield. She was shortlisted for the 2020 Bath Short Story Award, and her novel-in-progress, which draws on both her archaeological experience and her childhood in Singapore, was selected for the 2021 Stinging Fly Summer School. She is currently completing a PhD that explores identity and personhood in Ancient Greece through the macroscopic and isotopic study of human skeletal remains.

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