Chapter 1 1
To look into my own eyeball seemed wrong, but there it was, floating in a cylinder of pale blue light. I’d barely lifted the scanning helmet and already the final layers of the hologram’s architectural netting were coming into shape, rebuilding the orb’s structure from the core. The color started pouring in next, painting the sclera white and the pupil black, and then the iris ballooned with hazel and splinters of brown, mixing into that marbled, light-shot round. Hairline blood vessels branched into the vitreous humor, and the faint outline of the central canal shaded in, dividing the lobes. It was like watching the whole, wet organ mature in time-lapse.
“Here’s the left one,” Dr. Breeze said. He passed his hands over his controls, and another light cylinder appeared on the imaging platform, another spheroid eye growing inside. Now there were two floating eyes, staring straight at me, plucked out of my skull by the wonders of Dr. Breeze’s tomographic supertech.
“Definitely some cataracts forming,” he said. “You’ve been getting some halos at night, you said?”
“I have,” I said.
“Look here,” he said, drilling into the cornea with a little light wand and uncovering the gooey lens. “This area should be totally clear, but there’s some clouding starting to happen. You see that? That’s the cataracts. Nothing major at this point. It’s normal for your age.”
I tried to see the cloudiness Dr. Breeze was talking about, but the separate parts were a tangle of glistening, indistinct membranes, nothing like the diagrams in a book. I might’ve asked for more information, but Dr. Breeze was already wandering over to his workstation to read the fresh data streaming into his monitors. He tapped his keyboard, pulling up interpenetrating screens and graphs, casually manipulating the left eyeball by remote. The eye rotated on its axis and grew to reveal its finer detailing. It pumped up to the size of a grapefruit, an office globe, a beach ball. From his monitors, Dr. Breeze peeled back the whole cornea, slitting through layers of aqueous organ into the depths.
“Any plans for the holidays?” he said, doing his bedside conversation routine.
“Nothing much,” I said. “You?”
“Some family’s coming in from out of town,” he said. “They like to drink and eat. We’ll go to some restaurants.”
“Sounds nice,” I said.
“I was going to go out and cut a tree this weekend,” he said, “but the kids all cried about it. They say they don’t want a Christmas tree this year. It’s murder.”
“Kids are pretty sensitive these days, aren’t they?” I said.
“They think in a different way than we did,” he said, “that’s for sure. I always liked going out and getting a tree when I was their age. The hot chocolate, the smell of the sap. Not how they want it anymore. I was talking to my son the other day, and he was saying the tree farmers are running death camps. We should put them all in jail.”
“That’s a little extreme,” I said.
“Toronto,” he said, leaning toward his monitor, altering his settings. “The kids want to put everyone on trial. They feel like they missed something. Maybe they’ve got a point, but still, I don’t really—”
Dr. Breeze interrupted his speech with a little sound in his throat, not the kind you want to hear from your doctor. He didn’t explain anything but returned his attention to his monitors, leaving his words and my mangled eyeball hanging.
The gentle padding of his fingertips on his plastic keyboard became the only sound in the room. I sat there looking at my destroyed eye. The left eye was still bloated and enormous, with deep gouges in the jelly and a rip opening all the way to the branching fibrils that attached to the optic nerve. The right eye was small but intact, staring off into the corner. It was disconcerting. Maybe this was what people felt like back in the nineteenth century when they saw their photographs, I thought, like some personal essence had been extracted and abused.
Dr. Breeze rose and approached the holographic eyeballs, inspecting them from different angles. He was almost exactly my age, my height, my hair color. The algorithm had really gone overboard on this pairing. I watched him watching my eyeball, awaiting his reassuring words.
“Cataracts are a naturally occurring condition,” Dr. Breeze said. “The cloudiness in the lens is causing a diffusion of light in the vitreous humor here. It explains the sensitivity you were talking about. You should probably get a new prescription. You don’t smoke or drink these days, do you?”
“Not anymore,” I said.
“Good,” he said. “And you’re not obese.” He spun the enlarged eye with his little wand again and zoomed in even closer. He didn’t say anything as he peered at the macula and the surrounding blood vessels.
“Are you seeing something in there?” I said.
“Something,” he said, distracted. “Probably nothing.”
He rotated the sphere one more time and blew it up even larger, to the point of data breakdown. The eye outgrew the platform, and we could only see a detail. The clarity was abraded, the foundational pixels showing through.
“Here,” he said, pointing at some smudges in the depths of the iris. We were down into the zone of microscopic information now. The smudges could be mitochondria under a microscope or blurry topographies on Mars.
“These are called prions,” he said. “They’re misfolded proteins. In and of themselves, they’re harmless enough, but they can cause other proteins to lose their shape, and that isn’t so great. They can also indicate the beginning of several neurodegenerative diseases. You don’t eat beef, do you?”
“God, no,” I said. The last hamburger I’d eaten had been somewhere in the vicinity of 2028.
“Squirrel?” he said.
“Any trips to Papua New Guinea? Or Kuwait?”
“Okay, that’s good news,” Dr. Breeze said. “In some cases, this kind of prion can lead to what we call spongiform encephalopathies, and that can get very ugly. Very ugly indeed.”
I felt a needle of fear jab my skin, releasing a numbing agent, preparing me for what those ugly symptoms might be. Dr. Breeze continued staring at the giant, ripped, holographic eyeball, looking straight at me but focused on another plane.
“The prions are basically like termites in wood,” he said. “They turn the healthy tissue into cobwebs. The word prion is a compound of protein and infection, so, you see, the growth is kind of like an invasion from inside your own body. Life expectancy is only a year once the symptoms kick in. And unfortunately there’s no cure. The diagnosis is one hundred percent fatal.”
“And what are the symptoms, exactly?” I said.
“It starts with a fever,” he said. “That leads to problems speaking and swallowing, then to memory loss and dementia and coma. It’s very painful the whole way through. You end up dying of pneumonia in most cases.”
He said this with none of the friendliness that coated his opinions about music or books. I stared at my eye floating in front of me. The blood vessels were a wild maze inside the flayed layers. I’d walked into Dr. Breeze’s office assuming I’d come out with a new eyeglass prescription. I hadn’t imagined I’d come in and face my doom.
“So, what are the chances?” I said, since he wasn’t saying anything.
“Given what I’m seeing here?” Dr. Breeze said. With a click of his wand he reset my eye to pristine condition. All the cuts and slashes disappeared, leaving a gleaming, immaculate sphere floating in the air. “I’d put the odds at about, say, one in a million.”
I walked out of Dr. Breeze’s office a half hour later, into the late-autumn, late-afternoon sun, feeling like it was a good day to keep on walking. I had a few deadlines at work, but nothing that pressing. The last flaming leaves were sticking to the trees, the rush-hour cars were flowing home in their silent aisles, and over the hills, beyond the radio towers, the sky was raining light. Something about Death appearing on the horizon just to tip his hat and walk away put a nice glow on everything.
I headed downtown, against the current of bike commuters and scooter traffic. I heard someone singing in a tent. On the Steel Bridge, I paused for a boat protest going by, a motley little armada of canoes and motorboats decked with flags, manned by a bunch of kids in black bandannas. These days, the protests were a permanent fixture in town, like fire hydrants or garbage trucks. At all times, somewhere, a crowd was massing to remind the rest of us of some social injustice or historical wrong. This month the big subject was the Toronto Trials, twenty years old next year. It was hard to believe.
This group was flying the old logos, shouting the old slogans. “Solidarity with Air!” “Solidarity with Trees!” “Solidarity with Rock!” Most of them looked like they hadn’t been born at the time of the verdicts, but that only seemed to make their rage stronger. They were like Breeze’s kid, still wanting to make someone pay. In a few hours, they’d all end up downtown for the ritual glass breaking, maybe a mattress bonfire, more call-and-response. In the morning, the shopkeepers would sweep up the damage and file their insurance claims, and what was the point? Every revolution became a bureaucracy in the end. Someday they’d understand that. Although maybe some never would.
Passing under the bridge, the protestors’ voices became echoey before brightening again as they came out the other side. Soon the boats had disappeared around the bend, leaving a dimpled, silver wake, and I continued my way downtown, through the early gangs of weekend partiers, the knots of young dudes, the gaggles of bachelorettes. I passed through clouds of weed smoke and clouds of peppermint vape smoke, making my way up the hill toward the eyewear emporium in the shopping district in Northwest where all my fresh optometric data had already flowed.
“Hi, Jack,” the young woman in the foyer said. “Welcome. Billing information the same?”
“Should be,” I said.
“Great,” she said. “Come on in. Modern frames are on level three. We’re glad you’re here.”
The elevator door opened into a giant white room scattered with about a dozen customers in their VR goggles, doing the silly tai chi of the virtual retail experience. My own goggles appeared almost immediately, delivered by a kid in a white jumpsuit, and when I slipped them on, the room subtly changed hue. A pinkish color rose on the walls, and the air filled with rows of frames floating at shoulder height. Tortoiseshell. Rimless. Pentagonal. They snapped into focus, grouped by style, as beside me appeared a hovering, virtual hand mirror.
I waded into the rows and started my browsing. The first pair I tried were oval tortoiseshells with a powerful zoom function. The controls were different from my old glasses, and I accidentally zoomed in on a woman in the cat-eye section, ogling the scuffs of her clogs, the creases of her elbow, and when I zoomed back out, I found she was staring straight at me. It was kind of embarrassing for a second, but I managed to pretend nothing had happened. I took a long moment to alter my mirror settings, upping the contrast, fixing the gain, and then, casually, let the tortoiseshells fade and kept browsing.
I tested some thick purple frames, some round white frames, some wire rims. Each pair had its own interesting character, but none seemed right for my face. I was at the age where I wanted glasses that read as dangerous yet mature, rebellious yet scholarly, glasses that said I was seasoned but not totally done with life yet. Was that too much to ask? I knew I’d probably end up with the same horn-rims I’d been wearing since my late teenage days, but I kept looking anyway, just for fun. I was almost fifty, and feeling lucky. Maybe now was the time for a complete style update.
As I moved through the aisles, swiping at frames, I noticed the woman in cat eyes hadn’t stopped looking at me. Her gaze seemed to follow me around, exerting a constant pressure on the side of my face. I wondered if she’d sensed the zoom somehow after all, but that seemed impossible. Or maybe she was just checking me out. Could it be? It’d been a long time since I’d entered into that little game, but the mechanics weren’t hard to recollect. The little glances going back and forth. The invisible strings springing to life. Nothing would come of it in the end, I knew, but it was always a pleasant chemistry while it lasted.
I paused in the wireless aisle and allowed her a clean look at my profile, and then, gradually, I worked my way into her blind spot. It turned out she was about my age, as far as I could tell. Medium height. Hard bangs. Nice arm shape. Her cheek was smooth and olive-complected, obscured by her ragged rocker bob, and her clothes were youthful but well-put-together. She wore a yellow, short-sleeved sweatshirt, a denim miniskirt, and lavender clogs. She had a very nice-looking backside.
I watched her try on a pair of hot pink frames and for a second caught a sliver of her face in her mirror. She had pretty lips, a graceful chin, a kind of squashed-looking nose. I was only catching fragments of her, but something about her features struck me as familiar. I tried finding the connection in my memory but whatever impressions I had floated at the edges of my mind, out of reach. Maybe I’d worked with her somewhere, I thought, or bought something from her at a grocery store. And then, suddenly, a name came to me. Sobie.
Sobie was her last name, I remembered, but that was what we used to call her. She’d dated my friend Jude for a while, and she’d lived with a person named Charles in a house with a broken hot tub. In our twenties, we’d gone to many parties together and sat in many of the same bars, though I couldn’t recall us ever being in a room together by ourselves.
Sobie had clearly recognized me but didn’t seem that eager to make contact. I could understand. We hadn’t seen each other in twenty-five years, and in that time many big changes had occurred. Entire worlds had come and gone. If a person didn’t want to look back, no excuse was necessary as far as I was concerned. But even as we continued our browsing, giving each other our space, building a kind of force field of mutual obliviousness, I could tell she was keeping track of me. It was possible I even caught a flicker of mild disbelief in her eyes, like she still couldn’t entirely convince herself it was me.
In the end, we started talking almost by accident. Or maybe we engineered it, it was hard to tell, it was such a delicate, unstated agreement we’d fallen into. We both picked our frames at about the same time and went to the main desk to place our orders. The store imaged the frames on-site, and during the lag time the customers were sent to a waiting area. The waiting area was another white room, much smaller than the showroom, with blond wooden benches and a few tables with simple flower arrangements in Mason jars, expressly real. I went in and most of the seats were already taken, so I decided to go ahead and sit on the bench near Sobie and see what transpired.
“Sobie,” I said.
“Jack,” she said. She’d always had a funny, understated way about her, I remembered now, and her black eyes had always had that slightly amused, belligerent sparkle. Her voice was exactly the same—low, slightly guarded, a little weary.
“How’s it going?” I said.
“Pretty good,” she said. “You know. Up and down. You?”
Discreetly, we were both scanning for age marks, looking at ring fingers. The meeting was made all the stranger by the heightened, return-to-reality effect from the goggles we’d just been wearing. And then, on my side, by the fading death magic of my prions.
“Are you visiting town or something?” she said. “I haven’t seen you around in forever.”
“I moved away,” I said. “And then I moved back. About a year ago.”
“Hardly anyone moves back,” she said.
“I got a job,” I said. “It was hard to say no.”
“What kind of job?” she said.
“At a newspaper,” I said.
“You’re a reporter?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“That’s right,” she said. “I remember you liked to write.”
We’d arrived at the first fork in our conversation. We could either keep things shallow and talk about the weather or politics, or we could go somewhere deeper and try to get into something personal. I had the sense we were both willing to go deeper, but that left us a lot of options. Health? Family? Kids? Thankfully, we had one giant topic between us, which was all the people we’d known. It turned out we only had to say a name and a whole world of association flowed into our heads, a whole glittering tree of ganglia that very few people in the world besides us shared.
“You ever talk to Trey?” I said.
“He’s in Sacramento,” Sobie said. “He’s working for the city. In parks. He doesn’t love it.”
“How about Heather?” I said.
“Which Heather?” she said.
“The one who set her hair on fire that time,” I said, “with the blowtorch.”
“You mean the Heather who lived in that apartment over the bowling alley,” she said.
“Yeah, that one,” I said.
“She’s a nurse now,” she said. “The other Heather died, actually. Liver failure. It was really sad.”
We kept going like that, saying names back and forth as the other customers came and went. Sobie had good intelligence on many of our old friends, which I found impressive because a lot of them had disappeared along the way. We’d all been reckless people then. We’d betrayed each other and failed each other in many ways. But for those who’d come out on the other side, who’d graduated in a sense, a certain understanding was shared. It was hard to explain what that understanding was, exactly, but Sobie and I both seemed to have it.
“You remember that guy Gabe?” she said.
“He didn’t like to wear a shirt very much, did he?” I said.
“I wonder if he has to wear a shirt now,” she said. “Probably.”
We were still catching up when the clerk appeared and handed Sobie her new glasses. She opened the box and pulled out a pair of big, magenta Yoko Onos. She put them on and blinked a few times and posed for me, turning her face side to side. She had a little scar on her lip, a white mark in the upper corner, like a faded cleft. I remembered that now, too.
“These look all right?” she said.
“They look great,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “I guess I’ll trust you on that.”
My frames came soon after, the same old horn-rims. We didn’t bother pretending they were anything special. We left the store together and walked outside to find that night had fallen. The street was busy with homecoming commuters, restaurant goers, and beggars mumbling on every corner.
We stood on the sidewalk for another few minutes, trading a few more names as the superbuses passed violently by and the crowd flowed around us. A guy played chaotic flute music from a doorstep. The whole time, a faint smile hovered on Sobie’s lips, like she still had something she wanted to tell me, a little secret she wanted to get out.
“What?” I said.
“Oh, nothing,” she said, shaking her head, smiling.
“Come on,” I said.
“It’s just, the last time I saw you,” she said, “it was pretty intense, that’s all.”
“I don’t remember,” I said.
“Really?” she said. “You don’t? At all?”
“I don’t remember a lot from those years,” I said.
“Neither do I,” she said. “I wish I remembered more. But I remember this. It was in a parking lot out in East County. We were all out there for some reason. You were wearing a suit that night, I remember. It was light blue. And you had a ruffled shirt. You were all dressed up. There was a group of teenagers who were making fun of you, and you talked back.”
“That sounds like what I’d do.”
“Yeah, and they really kicked your ass,” she said. “It was terrible. That was the last time I saw you. You were covered in blood. I mean, it was gushing. Gushing out of your nose. Blood all over your face. All over that cheap suit, on the lapels. And you were lunging at these kids, wiping your blood on their shirts. That was your way of fighting back, I guess, with your blood. It was crazy.”
“They broke my nose that night,” I said. “If it’s the night I’m thinking of.”
“You really don’t remember?” she said. “God.”
“I couldn’t even see the bottom at that point,” I said. “I still had a long way to go.”
“I thought you were dead,” she said. She looked at me warmly, her new glasses flashing with the passing lights. “Anyway. It was good running into you, Jack. I’m really glad it turns out you’re not dead.”