The door was unlocked.
Whether that was some sign of some Sinister Thing or simply part of the gray-matter irrelevance of life, Max couldn’t know. Catie, calling from the remote hermitage of New York, had sounded worried enough: “But what if she’s dead? She doesn’t talk to anyone. And she’s always at that computer. Please, Max, it’s our mom—”
Max knew better. He hadn’t worried then, and he wasn’t worried now.
Still, the door was unlocked.
There was a quiet shimmer of air like the rising of heat as Max entered his mother’s house, the distortion of A.R. spheres conjoining, interfacing, clashing. His served a more utilitarian purpose—GPS, traffic information, that sort of thing. Max made it a point, in a city full of people utterly encapsulated and absorbed within their own personal bubbles of A.R., to remain as close to the Real as possible. He switched his own A.R. off and the air settled.
His mother, needless to say, was of a different sort. Her brand of A.R., meticulously cultivated in the obsessiveness of widowhood, belonged to that lucid Disneyride of Main Street, the falling-through-circus of concentric rings of projection and alteration. Legally, one would need a license to alter anything large, like a home for instance. That’s where the life insurance money came in. Max and Catie hadn’t seen much of her since.
But something was indeed wrong now, here in his mother’s house. Free-floating objects caught in stasis, some areas painted negative like untreated photographs, and other areas simply missing, revealing a square of dirty carpet, bare wall, the microfiche foundation that made the whole projection possible.
In the living room, he very much felt at the crossroads of something. Max poked around the A.R. construct of his mother’s childhood home (masked over Max and Catie’s own, actual childhood home), careful to differentiate via touch and sight that which was physical and that which masqueraded as physical. He could never remember.
Shit, Max thought, she’s always changing shit around.
“Hello? Mom? Anyone home?” he called out. Christ this is irritating.
It was straight out of the nuclear age, this projection; rather, it was the idea of the nuclear age as remembered by the historicity of men. He remembered his mother saying that years ago: the selling point. Bright and pastel and ostensibly perfect, except where the code crumbled. Everything was plastic.
Very real creaking betrayed a set of pristine steps as Max ascended. An ominous electrical buzz emanated from behind the door to his old bedroom. Entering, Max found his mother at the family’s VIC-20, that infinitely-modifiable eighties relic now Frankensteined by thirty years of exponentially more powerful components. It took up half the room.
“What do you want?” She hadn’t even bothered to turn around.
“Catie is—we’re worried about you.”
She continued typing. Lines and lines of code cascaded down a screen the size of a small microwave.
“I’m fine, honey.” The last word was acid.
“You never answer the phone.”
“I can’t find it.”
“You can’t find it?”
“It’s around here somewhere. Lost it while re-coding the couch. 1964 Henroden sofa.”
“That’s helpful. What about email? Catie’s been emailing you. She’s worried sick.”
She actually laughed at that, even stopped typing for a moment.
“Has Catie been on the BBS lately?” The code resumed its fluttering.
“Woah, we have a BBS? Like, a family BBS? That exists?”
Max’s mother sighed. “No, we don’t,” she said humorlessly.
Max let this thread of conversation fray away, started pacing around his old bedroom. It was unrecognizable. It wasn’t just the code: his bed and all his personal affects—all the data of his childhood—were since displaced by the VIC-20 and its labyrinthine structure of upgrades and peripheral components, all partitioned to the basement.
Suddenly she clapped her hands and let out a small, uncontainable squeak. “Yes yes yes! It’s finally fixed!” She swiveled towards Max wearing what appeared to him the first positive expression she’d worn in years.
“What are you talking about?”
Downstairs, the A.R.’s many betrayals of programming were, somehow, corrected. The colors bright, the objects settled, the holes covered. No microfiche in sight. They stood in the living room, Max’s mother beaming.
“Wow,” Max said.
She then went room to room, with Max following, sweeping her hands over everything as if discovering her own home for the first time and whispering “yes yes yes” to herself. Then, settling on her heels in the kitchen, Max’s mother seemed to relax, slacken, unburdened of something.
“Well,” she began slowly, “What do you think?”
Max made a show of looking around. “I mean—well. It looks nice.” He said finally.
“That’s all you have to say?” She leaned forward, arms folded, face hinting at that ancient expression of motherly fury. “‘Nice?’ I can’t believe you!”
Max winced, feeling an argument unraveling before him like a carpet; an open invitation, as it so often began.
“It’s just—don’t you think it’s all a little perverse? I mean selling this. It’s your childhood. You said it yourself.”
“People like it. It’s com-forting. I’m com-fortable. Don’t you want your mother to be comfortable?”
“Comfortable—yes, yes, of course but—” Max stopped. He never was able to defuse that particular line of maternal logic. They looked at one another, his mother in a mute rage. Max decided he’d just tell Catie their mother was alive if not particularly well, at least.
“Just find your phone and stop worrying Catie.”
Max turned to leave. “And lock your door. Wouldn’t want anyone smashing your new showroom.”
As the door closed, Max heard his mother shout something like Was that a threat?
No, no threat, Max thought.
From outside, the house looked decidedly old, all the decades of cracked plaster and re-applied plaster, the long terrible streaks of water damage delivered by burst pipes. Entering his car, Max contemplated switching on his A.R., but thought better of it. Instead, he’d follow the roads, the tolls, the highway noises, all the signposts and landmarks of memory, back home.
John was born overseas in a military family and has had work published in Aphelion, Entropy2, Alfie Dog, and Corvus.
Image by Torley