The first Grief Code: Grief is passive. Mourning, the process of purging grief, is active.
Before I left the office I had made sure to grab a handful of single-serve Oneiric tabs from my sample case. That week I punched them out one at a time into Carla’s palm. I’ve never touched the stuff. I’ve seen what can happen when you get hooked.
We got to the beach house and Carla headed straight to the bedroom to collapse on the bed while I unpacked. Later, when I heard the drubbing of the shower, I set Mathew’s tablet on the coffee table and powered it up. In those last few days he’d asked me to check out a project of his, Mathew_Beta.exe. I figured it was a note, or a letter, and I just couldn’t bring myself to open it at first. The icon, an image of Mathew’s face, sat at the centre of the screen. When I touched it the screen went blank, in one corner a text cursor blinked. Then a long pause. I turned my head, scanning the house. When I looked back to the screen a keyboard was shining and text began to appear.
Dad, is that you?
Something snatched me by the collar. A new internal organ swelled beneath my chest bone. I typed.
What the hell is this?
The letters spooled out one at a time: I hope you are sitting down, Dad. It’s me, Mathew. I’m data now … Dad?
I stared at the screen.
Carla touched my shoulder as she walked past. I flipped the tablet. From the towel on her head, a tentacle of hair hung down her spine. She flicked the old heater on then came back, sat across my lap and hung her arms around my neck. The collar of her dressing gown itched my stubble.
‘I thought we had an agreement?’
‘I just need to fire a couple of emails off.’
She had been crying in the shower, I could tell. Benji, impatient from the drive down, rested his chin on my knee. I pushed his head away.
‘You’re sweating, darling,’ she said.
‘I know it’s hard to switch off, but it’s not worth it. You need to relax for a few days.’ When she kissed my cheek, I resisted the urge to wipe the dampness away.
‘It’s nothing. Just let me finish.’ I clenched my jaw, nodded at the tablet.
‘Is that Mathew’s?’ The Oneiric gives her voice a lurid quality.
‘Thought I’d boot it up for a look.’
She watched the tablet for a moment then took my chin in her hand. ‘Why don’t we head down to Angler’s tonight for a bite?’
‘Angler’s will be shut.’
‘All right.’ She looked childlike in her indecision. ‘I guess I’ll cook something then. Did you bring the groceries in?’
‘Well, what do you feel like?’
We ate spag bol off weightless yellow plates, relics from my childhood. Outside in the twilight clouds gathered over the sea.
Carla reached across the table and put her hand on mine. ‘I’m sorry for being a mess on the way down, it just hits me, you know? I guess I was scared of the memories, knowing they would all come at once when we arrived.’ She gave a little squeeze. ‘And you, it’s okay to break down sometimes.’
The Second Grief Code: Often the anticipation of grief will eclipse the eventual experience of grief.
‘I’m fine, seriously I’m fine.’
‘You’re not fine.’
I focused on straightening out my face. ‘No. Look I’m okay, just a little tired. That’s all. Tired.’
Her eyes were wide. She let her words gather weight. ‘You need to talk about it, okay?’
After dinner I opened my phone and searched ‘Computer simulation life after death’ then added the word ‘scam’. From the depths of cyberspace, articles about The Hive filled the first page. Nothing of note. I thought of the faded print hung in the office. ‘Wanna hide a dead body? Put it on the second page of Google.’ That’s mainly for the reputation management guys: push the side effects off the first page. I went all the way down to the third page, where I found stories about droids and AI drones, military conspiracies. Then I found something about digital memory synch. DMS. People claimed to have created a digital version of their minds indistinct from the original.
We had forgotten to bring sheets so we slept directly on the tacky mattress. It drew us both to the centre so our bodies pressed together; our skin moistened where we touched. At one stage Carla reached back for me, taking my cheeks in her hands and pressing her lips to mine. For a second I thought we would fuck in that lazy, snoozing way. Then she rolled over and fell back to sleep. I woke to Benji crying at the door and after a while I got up to let him in. The spare heater, an old electric job that droned like a fish tank, sat beside our bed and Benji circled in front of it then lay down.
Out in the kitchen I watched the kettle steam and pulled it off the burner before it could whistle. I filled my coffee cup then aimed my ear at the bedroom door and listened for a moment. Back on the couch I cradled the tablet in my lap. My breath plumed white in the screen’s glow. It is just a simulation, AI.
The Third Grief Code: hope is a false economy.
Whoever you are, please, please, please stop.
Who do you think this could be? You’re not connected to the internet.
Just stop. This isn’t easy for me or my wife.
So mum knows?
I held the power button. Mathew had spoken about the people he knew online, occasionally and unwillingly he revealed how deep he had dug into data trade and ZeroTech. When I was his age, we had just one computer for the entire family and porn belonged on disks stashed beneath our beds. Now it floats around us in the air, we wade through it.
In the morning I overcooked the eggs. My hands trembled. When I asked Benji if he wanted to go for a walk he threw himself into a fever; he barked and scratched at the linoleum beside the door.
The sand ran flat and pale to the head-land at the corner of the sky, and the sea thrashed the shore. High above, a gull leaned against the breeze. Carla sat with her arms wrapped around her legs while I threw a stick and Benji chased it, kicking up sand.
‘Could be a storm coming,’ I said.
She was thinking about Mathew. I was thinking about the first time I brought her here. My parents had invited her to the beach house and the bunks were loose and squeaky so we snuck off in the middle of the night to the beach. People were still waiting for the next 9/11 and cars ran on gas. Back then we only knew the beach house in the summer time.
I looked up towards the dunes. The bent grass reminded me of thinning hair. The stick fell on my shoe. Benji stepped back and sat. I threw it again.
‘Not in the water,’ Carla said. She turned her head, squinting towards Shakespeare’s Cliff at the other end of the beach. Endlessly the sea flayed the fist of rocky headland. She sucked her lips.
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Let’s head back.’
The Fourth Grief Code: As with a bad hangover, food and water help alleviate the symptoms of grief.
Carla cooked mussels in white wine. The chemicals were working hard in her system, balancing her. She caught a sneeze with the back of her hand. ‘It’s the chilli in the air.’ When we ate, we drank the unused wine. ‘Just one glass, I said, otherwise the alcohol can mess with the Oneiric.’ But before long the bottle was empty and Carla wore a sad smile sleeving the dust from an old photo of Mathew and me at New Chums beach. It was printed on paper and yellowed from the sun. My arm draped over his shoulder, his arms folded across his chest. Neither of us smiled but you could tell we were happy. I remember Carla taking just one shot, she looked at the screen and said, perfect.
From the ottoman, in among a tattered Monopoly box and other board games, I fished out a pack of cards.
‘We could make a drinking game out of it.’
‘Maybe we can play last card and drink at the same time.’ We found a half-empty bottle of gin, left over from my dad. He would know what to do. In his time, people used to grieve with booze and family. He’d sip his gin, smack his lips and we’d all grin at each other.
After a few bitter glasses, we went to bed. We reached for each other at the centre. I held her and soon she slept, head back and mouth open. I pressed her shoulder, rolling her onto her side. Benji lay beside the heater and when I got up, he lifted his head, looked at me then let his head fall again.
So how does this work? I typed
I guess I won’t understand. But try to explain.
It’s just the same. My last memory is immediately after the diagnosis. I met myself before I died. I spoke to him, Mathew, me. He was scared. He told me what was going on. He knew he was going to die. I guess it all happened pretty quickly after that conversation.
Was I in pain?
I began to type then reread what I had written and deleted it.
My hands trembled. I shook them out, breathed on them then cupped them under my armpits. He spoke like Mathew but calmer, more polite. Was this what he was like before the chemicals slowed him, made him water-coloured and rotted the hair from his head?
What do you do in there?
It’s boring. If the tablet were connected to the internet, I could chat to my friends and play games. They wouldn’t know any different.
I still can’t believe it.
One day, probably in the next few years, you can program me into a drone, I will have movement. Then some time later, in maybe a decade or so, I will have a body, if that’s what you want. Then eventually I will have a sense of touch. It’s all possible.
The real Mathew would never speak like that.
Why did you keep this from us?
Only a few people knew. Some people hate the idea of it. It’s illegal but you can do it, kind of like cloning, I guess.
Something touched my leg, kickstarting my heart. I must have left the bedroom door ajar. Benji lifted my wrist with his nose and I scratched between his eyes. I realised then how close I leant to the screen.
How is mum doing?
She’s been better.
Did you tell her I’m alive?
So she thinks I’m dead still?
I don’t know. I still don’t know. It’s not the same.
Dad, you’ve got to tell her. She thinks I am dead, she’s going to find out sooner or later.
I began to type then I stopped. Benji lay on the rug warming my feet with his breath. I powered the tablet down and sat for moment watching its glow fade. In the kitchen I drank a couple of glasses of water and made my way to bed to wait for sleep. My heart thumped like a fist.
Carla woke me. She wailed with the same primal longing from the days following Mathew’s death. She asked me not to leave her. She said that most marriages end if an only child dies and she didn’t want to be alone. She was snotty and red faced. Her body rocked with each sob, her warm tears sunk through the shoulder of my shirt like battery acid. I told her we could see a doctor for something to make her feel better, something stronger. She begged for one more Oneiric, a double dose. It was enough.
As she turned the eggs in the near silence, the smell of fried tomatoes wafted. I glanced at the tablet tethered to the wall plug and felt something draining from me. The grieving had stopped, but something exactly like grief pressed down on my chest.
‘Why don’t we head up Shakespeare’s Cliff this afternoon?’
‘It will be cold.’
‘Well are we just going to mope about the house all day, then?’
‘You can do what you want. If I want to mope, I will.’
‘I’m still grieving too.’
‘I know you are,’ she said, plating the food then bringing it over to the table. She didn’t eat. I did. She breathed through the arch of her steepled hands, her gaze outside the window on nothing at all.
‘I guess we could go up over Shakespeare’s Cliff to Lonely Bay.’ The Oneiric softened her expression. We looked at each other. ‘What?’ she said. ‘We haven’t been there in years.’
The clouds covered the sky, solid and opaque like candle wax, and the track beneath us rolled out unswept. I took Carla’s hand in mine until the incline grew. Then she gripped her thighs and her breath thickened. Other than at the wake, she hadn’t smoked since she got pregnant. After his funeral, she bought a pack. I told her that Mathew had existed in the parenthesis of her nicotine addiction and she looked like she would slap me but after a moment her face cracked into a smile.
At the top, the vista wasn’t as nice as it had been. Maybe it was the coming rain, but when I stood behind Carla with my head perched on her shoulder and the wind pulling her hair across my face, a golf ball lodged itself in my chest.
‘Do you still want to get to Lonely Bay?’
‘We’ve come this far,’ she said.
The new O2foil steps cut a zigzag down through the blooms of native ferns. I still remembered when they had put the wooden steps in. We reached the bottom, the Aerogram beach guide floated up.
‘Hello and welcome to Lonely Bay. Where you will find cunt. Cunt. Cunt. Cunt.’
The transparent projection of an actor dressed like Captain Cook smiled. The words were out of sync with his mouth. I took Carla’s hand and led her out along the crescent between the stones and the sea. The Aerogram sucked back into the steel grates of the projector. We sat for a moment watching the water, fingering the sand.
‘Remember when vandals used to carve names in hearts. Hackers are the worst,’ she said. Her voice does not become louder when she is upset, it just changes.
‘Hackers have their uses,’ I said.
She turned back to the sea and said, ‘I’ll call the council when we get back in case a young family comes down here and hears that.’
At the house, Carla clutched her phone to her ear with both hands. I could hear ringing.
I propped the tablet on the coffee table and began to type.
What’s it like?
It’s like being asleep until you open the program, then I can talk.
Do you dream?
No. How’s mum? What are you doing?
She spoke on the phone in the kitchen, low and angry. As I read, I could hear his voice and a strange thought occurred: new memories of Mathew, the artificial version, are forming in my brain. They may one day fuse with the old memories.
She’s okay. We went up Shakespeare’s today. And over to Lonely Bay.
I miss that place. Have you told mum about me? I guess not or she would be here, right? I linked up the webcam.
I’m not ready, not for this.
Can you hear through the microphone?
Yeah. I can hear.
It’s not Mathew, it’s just a simulation.
And I can see … Hi, Mum.
I scratched my stubble. Carla wasn’t on the phone. I turned. She stood hunched forward, hands on knees.
‘What are you doing?’ She craned her head, blinking. Her smile flickered then it disappeared completely.
‘People, I have a dream…’ I let the words roll over me like waves. ‘Oneiric has gone up 78 per cent since June. Let me say that again, 78 per cent. To get anywhere near these figures, you need great marketing. You need a clear vision. You need a product investors can be confident in, but most of all it’s you …’
I ducked out of my seat at the back of the hall and through the door. The phone vibrated in my pocket. Carla’s face grinned from the screen. I put the phone on the table in the lobby and quickly punched a tab of Oneiric into my mouth before accepting the call.
‘How’s the conference?’
‘It’s work so, you know, not great. How’s home?’
‘Good, I just got in from lunch.’
‘I took Mathew to the Black Plum. He has a big crush on one of the waitresses, he made me turn his cam around so he could see her.’
‘Is that right?’
I listened and asked questions to keep her going. There was buoyancy in her voice. It was really something. It was just wonderful, really, to know she was happy again.
The Fifth Grief Code: Grief, like many diseases, has a cure.
I took the lift all the way up to my room. Lying on my double bed, I opened my eyes as wide as they go.
I punched a tab of Oneiric into my mouth, snapping it between my front teeth. Then down the hatch, open your eyes, shut the gate. I thought about Mathew when he was a toddler. He used to sit near the front door in just his nappy, pushing his feet into my running shoes. That’s what I thought about, lying back on the bed while the Oneiric displaced the heaviness in my limbs. I smiled and before I knew it, laughter began spilling out of my mouth. They say only take one, that’s what they say. Three makes everything liquid. The laughter kept bubbling up from my chest. I knew I was slipping into sleep but I just couldn’t stop laughing.