Haunted Passages: Mike Nees
You accept the charges, pull the latex cap over your scalp. You can already hear the ambient noise that will signal my arrival, like the startup sound your computer used to play. That soothing drone topped with a few stray piano chords. It doesn’t come out of a speaker, no—it’s just suddenly in your head. Strictly speaking, it isn’t even a sound, is it? How many people must know it, you wonder, without ever having heard it?
You aren’t fooled by the flood of relief that follows. It isn’t yours. I’m the one who spent all week waiting for this, worried you wouldn’t take the call. Now, as the lines between us blur, you feel the tight squeeze of the cap around my big head, the concrete floor under my thumping foot. All the glances of my fellow inmates. When you begin to feel distinct again, a shiver rises up in you. I taste the deep breath that you hold in your lungs, as if we were about to speak in the old-fashioned sense.
Hello, you think.
I don’t need the mind-meld to tell me that you’re over it, all of this. It does drive the point home, though. All these dark corners of your psyche lapping at the picture, threatening to swallow it up. It’s all real, I know. It’s your authentic pain. But I can’t shake the feeling that you suffer like this to spite me.
Hey babe, I think.
I try to lean back, but the wires that connect my cap to the computer aren’t very long. One of the guards sneers at me.
Atop the swivel chair in our bedroom, you pull your knees up to your chest. Your old gym shorts slide down your thighs. You wish we had an agenda, like a sidebar of items you could cross off as we addressed them. How much easier it would make everything—safer, you think. That’s the word. Even in your mind, you make words count. Passing thoughts have to justify themselves. I understand the appeal of it now. How comforting all the hem and haw can be.
My head spins a bit when you glance up at the alarm clock on the dresser. That wood grain relic with its electric-red numbers. Who knows how many mornings I’ve smacked it and rolled over? What bliss it would be to wake up tomorrow to that screech of death.
All you see is the time. It’s important to get this out of the way, you think, before we’re cut off: your parents can’t afford the bail this time. The bail is insane. You know I’m only calling you this way, as opposed to the old-fashioned way, because it’s more persuasive. Coercive, you think.
I let it go. You can tell there’s some rebuttal I’m holding back, but I leave it alone. I wonder about Derrek and Janie instead. They’re fine, you think. When you call their names, it only takes a few seconds for them to appear in the doorway. Through your eyes, I watch them tumble into the room. Derek points at the cap on your head, and you tell him that Daddy’s “on the line.” Pushing his older sister aside, he climbs up into your lap and peers back at me. “Hi Daddy,” he says. His giant, four-year-old head consumes your field of vision—I wonder how long it’ll take his little body to catch up already. “Daddy thinks you have a big head,” you tell him. “Cause I’m smart,” he says.
“I have a big head,” Janie says, inching into the scene.
For long, expensive minutes, you serve as a human webcam for them, and thought-to-speech generator for me. Even after the computer makes you confirm your PIN for an extra payment, a small fortune just to keep me on the line, it pains you to wrap things up. You’re already bracing for the weird imprint of me this will leave behind. How he’ll roam your head for the next hour or so. Sometimes he’ll loiter into the weeks that follow, spectral and flickering. Watching from the wings.
For now, our minds just swirl around each other, waiting.
Listen, I think. The case looks bad. I’m not going to beat this. You’ve been trying not to think about it, but you know it’s true: I’m finished. I just want to come home and be with you guys before I’m put away for good.
As you prepare to reiterate about the money, I reach for the point I’d shelved: Nils can post the bail. He still owes me. All you need to do is tell the judge that I’m welcome back home.
I can feel your panic, of course. The blood that pounds in your ears. But you don’t have to do it. You’re the one in control here.
I still have so much to learn about this mind of yours. So many deliberations I don’t understand. I can feel the scales, yes, but there are invisible weights that you shuffle between them. There are thoughts that fizzle out before they can be judged. And what is this fierce cluster of memories bubbling to the surface? This brain ghost of Napoleon who seems to haunt you? You’re remembering the night before you flunked History, how you’d just bought a new laptop, and it came with the cap. How—reluctant, but desperate—you logged onto one of those shady websites and downloaded a free chapter on the Invasion of Russia. How it wasn’t knowledge that seeped into your skull, but an unreadable text dump that still mocks you to this day. I see it now, or one of its mangled regiments, marching out of the wilderness, and into the front of your mind: DYSENTERY, ХОЛОДНЫЙ AND ГОЛОД, THE GRAND ARMÈE MARCHÉ À ПИРРИХА VICTORY … I feel, for all the years you’ve pushed it back, traces of the story that you’ve nonetheless absorbed. A nagging sense of frostbite, the Emperor pushing towards the Russian capital. How it’ll burn itself to the ground to spite his arrival.
It’s already an hour past the kids’ bedtime when you tear us away from the old zombie shooter in the Denny’s arcade room. “Her aim is unreal though,” I say of Janie on the ride home. In the rearview mirror, I see her bask in my flattery, but you keep griping about all the strangers who snapped pictures of us. My case is all over the news. Ringleader of the first hack into a major cap network, I’ve become ratings gold. It’s more like I’m the first to get caught, in truth, but I don’t mind when they leave that part out. Another unflattering detail they tend to neglect: I’m no hacker myself. Nils and the team handled that part, eavesdropping on mind-melds for over a month before anyone noticed—enough time to collect a fortune’s worth of the PINs. My job was turning those into money. Only for a series of plea deals did I get pushed into the center of attention. I never could’ve predicted it, all these eye on me, but it hasn’t felt strange. I suppose I always did see myself as a kind of commander, destined for infamy, even if my wars were fairly small until now. I wonder how many people must know me, without ever having met me.
And I wonder what will happen to all those memories of me after they slip out of reach. After they cross the drain, and drift into the sewers of these strangers’ minds—what decides their fate then?
I know my presence keeps you on edge, even when I’m sitting still. I suppose it’s a commander’s energy that revs in me. You have your own relentless engine, though. You’re the one who insisted on the custom home, after my first big score. And it was you who oversaw all the details. As we pull up to it now, I’m newly impressed by your choice of mounted lanterns for the front lawn, and that big porch the kids love to take over.
“If she turns out to be a cop,” I say of Janie, watching my leftovers spin, “don’t say I didn’t warn you. Those zombies were helpless.” You ignore me. My sentencing tomorrow, you focus on the to-do list from our lawyer instead. Always planning, you’ve already read the list a hundred times. “She has the game memorized,” you eventually say. “She knows which corners of the screen all those zombies jump out of. In real life, you don’t have that advantage.”
You make it sound like everything was staged.
Janie was all smiles, I think, all this time—when did those stop being real? How far back? I remember picking her name in Antigua, in the same cave where I proposed—was that fake too?
You know as well as I do that we stole some good moments from these months together. We had the weekend your parents took the kids. Our date night, our dumb shows. The butt-grooved couch. I ought to ask if all that was fake, but I save my breath. I have a much bigger question to pop. One last proposal, you could say. I keep turning it over in my head, as if I had time to spare. There’s a ghost of you who still lingers in here, resonating from our months-old call, and she winces at my plan. She begs me to let it go.
But consecutive lifetimes? It’s a punishment out of mythology. It’s not like I killed anyone—I know this isn’t lost on you. I can hear it in your voice, as your eyes well up: “This was good,” you nearly whisper. For a second I think you’re talking about the soggy French Toast you’ve just finished off. “This could have worked,” you say.
You’ve been so careful not to utter anything like this. I try not to get too excited. You’re just erring on the side of pity, I tell myself. But still—maybe it’s real. Maybe it’s not too late. “I have to tell you something,” I say, and this alone terrifies you, I’m sure. The way your eyes wrench. “I found a way out of this,” I say. “Something Nils can do. It’s just that, if we do it, we need to do it now.” I know exactly how the back of your neck must tighten, like the last time you thought you were rid of me, only to learn you weren’t. “Have you heard of dual minds?” I ask. We both know you have. The fringe-y people who download their dying loved ones for good—you’ve heard the interviews. They can hear the person’s thoughts, like in a mind-meld, and they can speak for the person, if they want to. It can’t be reversed, no, but if you look into it, as I explain, everyone who’s done it stands by the decision. I can live on in your brain, I tell you. They’ll never find me in there. “Nils has a guy.”
I drum my fingers on the table. “Everything in your head feels right to me. I make sense in there. I want to wake up in there, with you.” I explain the procedure, how it’ll only take a few hours for Nils and them to manage the transfer. Nothing invasive; we just wear the caps. I’ll fall asleep in my brain and wake up in yours. They’ve proven it, I clarify. It’ll be the real me in there. With you.
“What happens to your body?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I say, but you insist, so I explain how it’ll be vegetative, basically, after the transfer. They’ll take it someplace and shoot it in the head, make it look like suicide. No one will know the brain was already vacant if they find it in pieces. “But why would they do all of this for you? We have no money left.”
“Nils might need me around to consult on things.”
“I hate Nils.”
“You’ll have full control. They say I’ll be like a folder you can open or close.” I don’t know how true it is, but I tell myself it’s all plausible. “It’ll be like I’m not even there,” I say. “Bury me as deep as you want.” You start chewing the tip of a nail. I try to let the room breathe.
You always accept the charges, I think.
If we do it, it’s not like you’ll be turning random corners in your head to find me blocking the way. And even if I did roam a bit, would it really be so bad? A pinch of surprise when everything’s bleak?
I watch you adjust to the idea. Frightening, yes. But so was everything else, wasn’t it? Like your other brain ghost, I think, I’ve reached the gates of Moscow. How far I’ve marched to get here. But something changes in your expression now. It isn’t fear in your eyes anymore. It’s something worse. “Every time I think I’ve overreacted,” you say, “you go and prove me wrong.” You shake your head, and suddenly I can see your pity for all this. This toy-cluttered house, and my need to be in it. I know it without another word: you’re burning it all down. You’re going to start over someplace I’ll never see, where my friends and enemies will never find you. You’ve had it planned since the arrest.
I can’t bear to listen as it comes out. I only sift pebbles from the stream of sound: the house is already listed, the school transfer settled. You won’t take a trace of me with you, not even my ghost.
A riot of impulses light up in me. I want to flip over the table. Wake the neighbors. You’ve been fondling this match in your pocket for so long, I think; even the ghost of you in my head must’ve known the plan. How tightly she’s held the truth to her chest. Only now, as you rise from your chair, does she whisper from the wings: It’s over, friend. Give it up, or she’ll never take your calls again.
Down the hall, you turn a corner and disappear.
Mike Nees lives and works in Atlantic City, where he is a case manager for people living with HIV. His fiction has appeared in Typehouse Literary Magazine, matchbook, and elsewhere. He hosts Atlantic City’s Story Slam series, more on which can be found here.
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