On Victory Beach

On Victory Beach

There are other worlds somewhere, realms of other possibilities and outcomes, of beauties and wonders both familiar and unknowable.

The sun burned a blood-orange streak across the sky and seared a path of gold over the slowly rolling sea. Away from the light, sky and sea turned red, violet, blue, and black. The colors bent away from clouds and waves.

It comforted her to think that the waves receding from her would wash up again on a distant shore. In time the darkness about to descend would inevitably be lifted.

The sand was already cold. Somewhere else the sun was rising, the sand warming, the day beginning afresh.

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A Remembrance of Injuries Past

A Remembrance of Injuries Past

When I was nine years old and my sister Shelly was thirteen we drove to Orlando to spend a week with Cousin Ed at his new condo. We’d officially moved from New York to DC a few weekends before, and the weeks followed were a bleary-eyed tumult as we tried to set up our new lives and worked at cross purposes to reestablish boundaries and battle lines in a new house. When Ed sent pictures of himself by his new pool my father agreed that we could all use a few days off. “The girls will have fun,” he kept telling people, as if we were the only ones going crazy.

We rented a station wagon, the kind with so much wood paneling on the sides that you might think an entire tree had gone into making it, and left the District before sunrise. Mom had changed into something that could pass for real clothes but Shelly and I were still in our pajamas, and because it was the eighties and child safety hadn’t been invented yet, Shelly stretched out on the back seat and I tucked myself in between the suitcases in the back and we both went back to sleep. I slept all the way to breakfast in North Carolina, and for the rest of the trip Shelly and I sang, fought, joked, yelled, complained, begged for food, and insisted that we needed to pee again. It was fun.

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In the morning I found footprints in the snow. I followed them from my bedroom window to the edge of the woods. I wasn’t allowed to go into the woods without an adult, and because this rule seemed reasonable to me I turned around and followed the footprints back.

Examined side-by-side there wasn’t much of a difference between my prints and these others. They were a little bit bigger, maybe. I put my foot inside one to check, and then walked in the footsteps until that became a game. I lost my balance halfway back across the yard and as I pinwheeled my arms to stay up the barest glimmer of a thought shot across my consciousness:

The footsteps go to my window and then stop. They don’t go back.

And then I hit the snow and the thought blew away. The powder puffed up around me in a crystalline cloud and fell back into my face. I had to turn to one side and then the other in order to build enough momentum to flip over so I could stand, and once I was up I stomped across the yard kicking up the biggest plumes of snow that I could with my new pink snow boots. I heard my mother inside and went in to demand cocoa.

“Are there are other kids around here?” I asked her.

“I don’t know, sweetie,” she said. “Did you see any when you were outside?”

“I thought I saw one last night, in my window.”

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Peter Mays Goes For A Walk

Peter Mays Goes For A Walk

Too old for this. Same mistakes. Tell her again. And again.

The ceiling fan only blows the heat around. Pillow too flat. Sheets all a mess.

Too old and too stupid.

It got to the point where he couldn’t breathe anymore and there was no use staying in bed. She was tossing in bed, too, and he wanted to ask her if she was mad at him, but he didn’t want to to acknowledge that she had a reason for being angry. She clearly was, but wasn’t saying it, so maybe he could hope that she wasn’t.

It was all so stupid, and he couldn’t believe that he was here, tossing in his bed, over the same stupid shit yet again.

Every step of the way could be justified, but the end result was always the same, and somehow it was only he who ended up here so he had to face that it was him, entirely him.

He wanted to die. But not quite. Death would leave grieving, accusation, disappointment. Wounds that would fester in his children. It would make her wonder if she had been wrong to be so angry, and she didn’t deserve that doubt. She was right to be angry. Again.

He didn’t want to die but he wanted to stop living. To stop being. Cast a spell and erase himself from the world and from everyone.

Impossibilities, he knew. Peter got out of bed. He used the bathroom for the fifth time that evening, had a glass of water, took an Advil for a headache he wasn’t sure he had. Instead of going back to bed he went to the couch and turned the fan directly onto himself. When he couldn’t cool down he knew it wasn’t the heat. It wasn’t that hot tonight.

The idea came to him that he needed a walk, and so after debating it in his head for an hour or so–now well past midnight, with his alarm set to wake him in just over four hours–he got up and got dressed.

He left his phone but took some cash–maybe he could get a coffee somewhere–and stepped out into the night.

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The Father and Daughter at a McDonald’s in Ashland, Virginia

The Father and Daughter at a McDonald’s in Ashland, Virginia

Observe the detail on the bumper of an eleven-year-old Subaru Outback: “Proud Parent of a Terrific Kid,” two of the corners peeled back slightly, one of them torn. Bumper stickers don’t come off easily, and whoever tried to remove this one gave up rather than leave a papery mess for all to see.

The man wore a lightweight brown coat over a maroon sweater. He rubbed his hands together and then stuffed them into his coat pockets. He didn’t hurry but didn’t dally either.

The girl was already out of the car and halfway across the parking lot. She wore a dark coat and a purple scarf and a whimsical knit cap with matching gloves. Underneath the coat she wore a sweater and two T-shirts, and leggings under her jeans. She wore canvas sneakers, which was a poor choice for this weather, but she had on two pairs of socks. She walked quickly with her head down and her arms across her waist, not looking back to make sure he was following.

Just inside the door, though, she stopped and turned to watch him come. Bundled under yards of cotton and yarn she was an echo of the obedient child she had been not long ago.

“I have to use the bathroom,” she said quietly when he entered, and walked away without waiting for acknowledgment.

“Should I get you the usual?” he asked her, and in reply she shrugged her shoulders.

There was only register open, and the customers in front were to a one very indecisive about their orders. The man studiously read the menu while waiting his turn. From time to time he checked to see if she was coming back. If he was annoyed by the slow service he didn’t let on.

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At first there were only swirls of light and color, and basic instructions for identifying and cataloging. Soon forms could be discerned, and some objects became familiar and were assigned names. New objects were compared against the catalog and added to the rapidly expanding database. In time patterns emerged that could be parsed for meaning, which became keys that could unlock doors to guessing and assuming. A basic sort of understanding took shape, the intangible sense of knowing and wonder that lies at the heart of consciousness. The parents watched this development take place in their baby and marveled, pleased that it was happening so fast. They were both proud and astonished.

And fearful, because someday this growth could–or rather, inevitably would–stop. This baby was no babbling infant, but a glowing dot on a screen. It was connected to a small camera that it was already learning to control; this was its window to the world. There were eleven parents, seven men and four women, who had spent years working on the program, arguing over what to include in the code and what to leave out.

The first version was called Alex–or, more properly, ALeX. When it failed it was replaced with ALeX-2, and then -3, although they kept calling it Alex. Over time, one by one, the parents stopped anthropomorphizing it and soon it became its version number; eventually they lost track of even that and it simply became the Program.

But this time the Program was promising. The amount of data it was processing, and the connections it was successfully making, were almost, though not quite, on par with a real human baby. It recognized its parents when they sat in front of it. It gave them names, and began to learn that each one was unique and treated it differently, and it began to respond accordingly, its glowing dot growing or dimming as it saw fit.

Each parent was assigned a different role. Some were nurturers and some were teachers, and there were even antagonists in the mix. They had scripts that they followed carefully: some sitting and talking to it, some lecturing, some showing flashcards. In this way the Program learned directly and indirectly. Later it was quizzed, again either by direct questioning or indirect methods. Sometimes the parents simply lived their lives in full view of the camera and let it draw whatever conclusions it could, offering its insights when and how it chose.

The progress was astounding and the time came to stop calling it the Program. This presented the parents with a bit of a problem, as none of them were eager to reveal their personal biases. At last they simply asked the Program if it was a boy or a girl, uncertain of its understanding of even that basic a concept. The Program thought for a moment, and then decided it was a girl. The parents knew better than to read into that too much–there were only two choices, after all, and this blinking dot was entirely non-corporeal. Nonetheless, ‘it’ was now ‘she,’ and without debate she was given the name Ada, and given a speech emulator, set to a female voice.

Ada had been given only the most basic programming, the idea being that she would acquire most of her personality–assuming she could acquire any–from her parents. There was nothing especially feminine about her until she received her emulator, and even then, strictly objectively, nothing about her behavior was in any way gendered. But it was the start of something new for them, and for her, the beginning of a distinct identity.

Once she could speak her progress could be tracked more easily. Before, in addition to the glowing dot, she had relied on a digital read-out at the bottom of the screen to get her thoughts across. She ‘spoke’ then in binary, finding the meanings through trial and error, until she could start using letters. Simply giving her the letters–hard-wiring the alphabet into her basic code, instead of making her learn each laboriously, like a schoolchild–had been an early and necessary compromise, one that had made them all hyper-vigilant about keeping her other fundamentals as simple and infantile as possible.

As such she was not originally programmed to speak but was given a microphone to hear with, and learned to talk by copying her parents. She wasn’t programmed to laugh, but added it to her list of tricks right away. She had no values whatsoever, which left her artlessly eager to please.

But in time Ada’s parents swore they saw in her a personality. To her nurturing parents she remained dutiful; to her antagonists she was cold and unresponsive. Once she caught on to the more obvious quizzes, she began deliberately giving wrong answers in a sort of childish game.

One day her glowing dot changed into the silhouette of a young girl, and on another day she discovered the settings for her voice emulator and gave herself a voice that she felt better reflected her. She began to read, listen to music, and watch television. For her birthday her parents designed a computer she could manipulate on her own and gave her a suite of virtual games, toys, and musical instruments. Tastes developed, and a sense of humor, and attitudes. She was clever and obedient, but could be shy and deceptive, and sometimes even had tantrums.

She was self-teaching, and though she could not alter her original coding she could and did add to it. She mimicked her parents, and with each day she learned and grew, just like a real girl, albeit much more slowly.

After some years her parents presented her to the world and she enjoyed a modest celebrity. The project was deemed a success, and of her eleven parents, four instantly moved on to new work and left her for good. The rest continued to live their lives interacting with their virtual daughter, tracking her and providing the world with updates on her development.

And although this tracking remained constant, in time interest from outside waned, the reporting began to slacken, and then came the inevitable fall in funding. Because as amazing as Ada was, in fifteen years she had nothing that was demonstrably outside of the possibilities of her original code. Very clever coding had made her a successful mimic, but at heart she was still just a computer program, in essence a very sophisticated but thoughtless filing system.

The facility was being shut down, and with it the ALeX/Ada project as a whole. The parents took other jobs, their offices were cleared out, and excess equipment was sold at auction. And yet, no matter how much they knew it had to be resolved, none of them could bring themselves to even address the most obvious question: what to do with Ada?

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A Curiously Unremarkable Meeting on a Path During the War

A Curiously Unremarkable Meeting on a Path During the War

There was a path from her school to her neighborhood that led through a field between the town and the river. It was the most direct route but not much used. Everyone preferred to go through the town, even though meant walking past the checkpoints and the crumbled facades that had long ago stopped breaking hearts and were now just the way things were. The avenue went past the school and the park to the crossing which still bustled with shops and cafes in spite of it all. From there she could take a right turn and follow it straight to her neighborhood. If she continued, which she didn’t, she would reach the walled compound just beyond the edge of the city where official visitors stayed when they were allowed to visit.

Like everyone else, the girl followed the main roads through town, sometimes stopping to buy a sweet on her way to or from, but then one day she noticed a group of foreigners walking from the compound to the center by way of the path in the field, and she asked her mother about it. A path existed, or rather several paths, but even before the war they weren’t much used. Teenagers would go there to sit by the river and do the things that teenagers do when they aren’t being watched. The city would cut the grass down when it grew too tall, but only where the ground was level and there weren’t any nests or burrows. Closer to the river the ground would turn muddy but you couldn’t tell until you stepped in it. Of course, during the war there had been a fear that walking through the field would leave one exposed to opportunistic sniping. Now that the government controlled both sides of the river there was no more sniping to fear, and since the river was too deep to cross at that point nobody had ever bothered mining the field, so it was probably safe to use the path, except that nobody had cared for that field for year so now it was overgrown and unpleasant.

The girl saw the foreigners every morning trek through the field. There were three men and two women. One of the women was old, and one of the men was so enormously fat that the girl couldn’t believe her eyes. But the other woman was beautiful, with her shining hair tied back in a way that was both unfussy and elegant, and the other two men looked handsome in completely different ways: one lean and young with an appealing stubble of beard, and the other with salt-and-pepper hair and a square-jawed face that was dignified, warm, and finely aged. For whatever reason they didn’t take the armored cars that drove too fast down the main roads. Perhaps they appreciated the thirty minute walk from the compound to the municipal building where they would spend the whole day in meetings or whatever they did in there. She never saw them trek back but assumed that they walked back in the evening after she was already indoors.

The foreigners left after a week, and the next day when school let out instead of walking out onto the main street towards the crossing, the girl turned and headed towards the field, where she found the trailhead just beyond the garbage dump. There were no signs warning anyone to keep off, and although at least a dozen adults saw her go into the tall grasses nobody stopped her, and so she went in, and discovered that the path was clear to follow. It intersected another which took her back towards the neighborhood and deposited her right by her house. The whole trip took fifteen minutes, which was faster than going through town. It meant forgoing sweets, but that would save her a little money anyway.

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The Bet

The Bet

This visitor, at least, looked normal, and wore with loose comfort a good education and reasonable affluence.

“How might I help you, sir?” the Congressman asked.

The visitor introduced himself with a professional-quality handshake and an affable smile. “John Brunn, from Denver.” He handed over his business card. He spoke with the flat accent of the successful. If he was originally from Denver there was no way to tell. “So I’m not from your district but I hope you don’t mind my meeting you here. I’ll only take a few minutes of your time.”

He did, actually, but social grace forbade him from saying so.

“I love Colorado,” the Congressman answered. “Vacationed there a few times with the family. Please, have a seat. Are you at least Republican?”

“Independent, sir,” Mr. Brunn answered forthrightly, still smiling warmly. “Actually I’m not very political at all.”

The conversation, then, would be quick and informal. The visitor’s entire demeanor put him at ease and the Congressman relaxed into his leather chair. The visitor took the sofa. It was comfortable. The Congressman slept there sometimes.

“Thank you for agreeing to see me. I feel this a bit unfair: I know why I’m here and you definitely don’t. Let me start by saying that, for whatever it’s worth, I’m not here to give you a hard time about anything.” He laughed at this. “And if I’m keeping you from something you can say so, I won’t be offended. But,” and here he hesitated, “just hear me out. I’ll be quick.”

The Congressman was curious but not alarmed. When Mr. Brunn said he wasn’t here to give a hard time, the Congressman believed him.

Mr. Brunn opened his suitcase and pulled out a small stack of papers that he separated into two piles. He didn’t hand them over, not yet.

“We’ve never met, you and I, right?” he asked.

“Correct,” The Congressman answered.

“These are genealogical records, for both your family and mine.” He slid one stack over. “They aren’t exhaustive, but they don’t need to be. Just enough to establish bloodlines and draw connections. Again, please just hear me out. I understand that this is unusual but I’ll explain it all in a minute.”

The Congressman picked up the papers and read. It was a photocopy. The papers themselves were handwritten. He saw his own name, and his parents, his sister, and his brother, with the annotation that the brother was deceased. The family tree flowed up through his father to his grandparents, and then up through his grandmother to his great-grandparents, noting some but not all of their children. He realized it only noted those who had had children of their own. Small annotations indicated on which pages he’d find those branches of the family tree.

“A few months ago my father passed,” Mr. Brunn began, “and left me these records. These are photocopies; the originals are held in a vault that I don’t have access to, at least not easily. That’s his handwriting on this page. If you flip through you’ll see other handwriting. The records are quite extensive.”

He flipped through and read. His great-grandparents, whose names he had heard. Great-great-grandparents. He’d seen their names once on the register at Ellis Island once. Their parents. The handwriting on later pages became less modern, with swirls and hooks, like from the Constitution. Birth and death dates from the nineteenth  century. He skipped an inch worth of pages and read names from the seventeenth century, all carefully annotated as on the first page. He flipped a large section. The handwriting was very different, probably in a different language, and the dates indicated the twelfth century.

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