I did not choose to kick the stone in the street or hit the garish man, he says to the baby blue tie, just as I did not choose to begin brother-loving my sister until after she was, you know, way gonezo. But sure glad she is, he says. Gonezo.
He clears his throat. Forces his eyes open, closed. The dim light in the unfamiliar room casts shadows of sterility in far pockets: a plastic-sheet-covered table here, a marble bust there. Everything in its place yet seemingly untouched, as if the house’s owner fled but its housekeeper still tended to the webs and grime. A sanctuary in which he has no business loitering — though his being there, he senses, is involuntary.
His last memory vines itself into the walls of his head bank: the cracked street in the morning, the sun revealing itself between buildings, making clear the garish man’s retreat down a nearby alleyway — this after he had struck the garish man on his bare ankle with the rogue stone. Could a nonverbal retreat be hostile in nature? he wonders, accessing details of the scene in question: a considered eye-shift; a crescent lip; the turn of hip and heel.
He wishes he could apologize to the garish man, despite the man’s garishness. Explain it hadn't been his choice to kick the stone in the street, just as it hadn't been his choice to start brother-loving his sister until after she was, you know, but instead he stands straight-backed in front of the baby blue tie and the man whose neck it hugs, spewing yarns about Freida’s final, wretched days, as if Freida were a cartoon villain and not his rotten, rotting sister.
And why suddenly the spewing? He’d spent the past two-plus-something years carefully and meticulously suppressing each untoward emotion. Manipulating his affect in front of their mother’s chipped porcelain mirror, the mirror helping him contort his face into something expressionless in spite of the disdain, jealousy, and anger horneting within. Smooth them out, Theo, his head bank would whisper. The creases and the lines. Then, like that, his forehead would disappear, even if the inside-feelings persisted. Repeat for wild, dilated eyes (close to calm; squint to sedate); teeth on mouth (unbite; stretch to pencil-line thinness); manic brows (massage down; finger-sculpt); bulbous cheeks (dimple-twist and settle); taut nose (condense flares; slow-exhalate; force-flatten), et al.
Strained reflection through expressive suppression.
Though it helped (oh, that forsaken mirror with its ornate musculature — how it’d be the envy of the garish man, yes, it would!), it hadn’t been enough to quell the inside-feelings. For those, Theo resorted to whiskey (neat), self-deceit, and the abandonment of friends, family, and sleep, all of which were fittingly (and perhaps ironically) Frieda’s favorites.
But now, to his detriment, he’s unraveled the twine of emotional retardation he’d so carefully tied. The feelings, the faces, emerge from a forgotten recess in his body like bats from a cave, scrambling as they adjust to their new surroundings — the relief he felt as her head lolled to its side; the elation after deliberately smudging the eye makeup; the snowballing fear of realizing that, despite her flaws, she’d lived more honestly than him, and wasn’t that something to admire, if not love? — all of these echolocating in his head bank now, and for what? Why? This stranger in a tie?
He fights to maintain supremacy over his stoic countenance when—
Yes, I'm standing in front of him now, says Baby Blue over the phone. His ExcessPal ID? Yeah, I got it. Theodore T. Partridge. Um, 12785. No, six — 12786. Likely a subscription tardiness, if I had to guess, but you're the technician.
Baby Blue looks at him then all suspicious-like, even though it's he, Theo, who should be wary of this stranger and his home. Curled lip (failure to unfurl); heavy breathing (attempt to stabilize denied). May I ask what's happening to me? he says. Intonation in voice not complete-hidden.
Seems like stage one, maybe beginning stage two, says Baby Blue. Listen, can you just send someone, like, nowish maybe?
The urgency cuts through Theo’s remaining defenses, making him feel as if he'd done something wrong. Had he?
As if so on cue, the far-off ticking of a grandfather clock metronomes its way through him, heightening his current emotional imbalance. Out of sync. Not right. Very bad. Freida's high-pitched voice, a sound he hadn't considered in years, bounces around up there, reverberating, and he believes it.
Out of sync.
Not bad, says Baby Blue. Yes. See you in 20.
For a moment, the tick-ticking retreats, muffled beneath the weight of the two men’s silence.
Then: Care for some chamomile? says Baby Blue.
My synapses feel as if they’re rewiring themselves, says Theo.
Ah, says Baby Blue, adjusting his already straight tie. Well.
Theo says, Do you remember the worst things you’ve ever experienced?
I’ve never tried it, Baby Blue says. The EPal system, if that’s what you’re asking. Not that I’m judging or anything. Like, I get it.
Theo pulse-checks himself. Result: very not ideal. Abundantly clear now, in fact, inside-feelings and outside-expressions both wildly out of his jurisdiction. He uh-ohs as additional tendrils of remembrance creep into his head bank. The careful insertion of the EPal chip, reprogrammed to be remembered as self-therapy. The magnetic pull at the back of his neck as he carefully sifted through the unwanted moments and chose which to bury: Freida easing the tail of his special stuffed pig into the blades of a box fan; accolades showered upon her from friends and family while his promotions and independence went unacknowledged. These memories and more handpicked by Theo, now doubly harmful upon re-entry.
Stage two? says Baby Blue, attuned to the unique shift in Theo’s demeanor.
Why did I do it? Theo says.
A lot of people do it, says Baby. If they can afford it.
No, says Theo, not the system. The smudging.
Are you sure, says Baby, about the chamomile? He checks the corner of the room, as if forgetting that’s not where the grandfather clock stands.
The final tendril then worms its way inside: the gentle thumb-smudge of Freida’s under-eyes after she’d passed. They were alone in the hospital room when it happened, he realizes, and he wanted her to be found like that. Eye makeup streaked, face in a state of disarray, to show off to others how he’d always seen her: as tarnished.
But that small, seemingly insignificant gesture had only made him feel closer to her. It helped him understand her lifetime of intentionalities, the result of her own unhappiness and lack of self-worth. In just that one action, they transformed from parasitic siblings to symbiotic ones, having each used the other for their own personal gains. Yet he couldn’t bear to live with the recognition, that it required his stooping to her level to feel, well, necessary.
Oh, OK, all right, says Baby Blue, reacting to what Theo had apparently just vocalized as well as thought. I’m an only child, so, OK.
Theo says, The inherent desire to keep my selfishness at bay was, probably, the most selfish act.
Well, hey, says Baby. I gave someone wrong directions once instead of admitting I just didn’t know.
Theo checks tear ducts (moisture-block half-failure); pain-sensitive structures in head (temple-grip unsatisfactory); ear oversensitivity (force-cool insufficient). All suppression tactics no longer feasible.
Stage three, Theo says.
Rehumanization, Baby says. Nice to finally meet you.
The other vines then come twisting in, crawling up, too many to track or make sense of, until his head bank becomes overgrown — the pain and selfishness and anxiety, absent for two-plus-something years, suddenly refamiliarizing themselves at once, not as weeds to be subdued but as a garden to be cultivated. But even when this happens, in a too-clean house in front of a man whose name he doesn’t know, Theo feels welcome, realizing just how singularly he’d lived under the EPal.
Pleasure to meet your acquaintance as well, he says, and though he still grapples with the flurry of arduous emotions, he means it.
As if so on cue again, the clock noises soft-bellow themselves, becoming instead a deeper, rumbling echo: the doorbell. The technician, no doubt, come to collect the delinquent payment — but after getting all the memories back, despite the pain they could and probably would cause, Theo knows he doesn’t want to lose them again.
Baby Blue walks the technician into the room. She whispers a “thanks for calling” to Baby, a “happens all the time,” and before Theo can speak or explain his situation, she presses a button on her tablet and his body goes limp, collapsing itself against the wall. He tries to stand back up, get her attention, but she’s already gloving her hands, tilting his head forward, thumb-running the bump where the EPal had been injected.
Out of sync.
Looks like a simple dislodge, she says, her voice starting sounding far-away and grainy. Sorry for the inconvenience, sir.
But the late payment? says Baby Blue. I’m not sure he really, you know, wants to—
No, oh, no, she says. Checked his records after we hung up. This guy, Partridge? Lifetime subscriber. Already paid in full. Should be all set following a quick reboot.
Baby Blue looks at him like, Shit. Then the technician hoists him from the ground. Carries him to the door. Back onto the street. The sun still peeks through the buildings, lower now but no less bright; it immediately sets fire to his head bank, the vines quick-burning, memories emptying, faster even than they had re-entered.
On the street, her arms still support his weight as he gradually regains some motion in his legs. Repeat with arms (sensory-flash to wriggle); lax muscles (flex-dash, fast); torso (coil-suck to withdraw); loose, heavy neck (force-uplift); closed eyes (wide-smash to settle), et al.
And who was it carrying him? Of course. Smeared-sibling Freida, enacting another cruel punishment. The blight on his life.
He feels her hands on his back give a subtle push, and like that, he trips over the curb, bumping into another woman walking by.
But how had he gotten here? He did not choose to bump into the well-dressed woman, just as he did not choose to kick the stone in the street or hit the garish man, but as soon as those blissful trivialities began to re-vine themselves, they just as quickly wilted away, leaving Theo in sync, all right, and very good, yes, yes, very good indeed.