Not Waving, Drowning
Curled on the couch, Jamie tried to pick a stubborn popcorn kernel from her teeth, worrying it with a fingernail.
“We need to talk,” Emilio said.
The popcorn was wedged painfully between a side molar and gum. She stared at him. His tone sent a panicky thrill down her spine.
“I’ve decided to join the PsyKorps,” he said. “They say I’m qualified. One in a thousand has the physiology to accept a shunt. I have it.”
“I make enough money for us,” she protested. PsyKorps? Unthinkable. PsyKorps Agents could riffle through a person’s thoughts, pick through their innermost being. “You don’t need to sell your soul to the government. My job gives us food and a roof over our heads.”
“PsyKorps does good work,” he said. “Keeps the airplanes able to fly, for one. Catches criminals. Monitors state events and provides absolute security where needed.”
She would have said, “You can’t,” would have asked, “Does this mean you’re leaving me?” but the look in his eyes forestalled her. She tried again to unwedge the popcorn, bowing her head so her bangs obscured her tears.
He had made up his mind, she could tell, and was prepared to resist any argument. Why bother?
After lovemaking that night, he stroked her hair , still struggling to control his breath. Once the gesture would have suffused her with love, left her sodden as a sponge with helpless emotion.
But now the touch roused impatience. He’d caused the pain that led her here, curled in her bed around his decision. She had fallen in battle. Her enemy knelt beside her, inexplicably tender.
All’s fair in love and war, she thought, one of the brittle observations that had swirled through her mind since Emilio’s revelation.
She went into the bathroom to splash water on her face, driving away the heat of tears.
When she came back, Emilio was sprawled, comfortable as a sleeping cat. Light laddered across his body from the streetlight outside. A car screeched past on the street. This area was respectable, but barely. It was what they could afford, if they wanted this much space. If their income doubled, they could move someplace nice, Greenwood maybe or Queen Anne.
In three months Emilio would be an active Psi. Then they’d know whether or not they could stand it, a Psi and a normal living together. Others before them had tried and failed. Living with someone who could read your mind when you couldn’t reciprocate – like a rat in a cage, an experimental animal. She couldn’t imagine it.
Their marriage was a patchwork of compromise, but she’d thought it was a partnership. Had he ever agreed?
He snored and stretched out in his sleep when she nudged him.
She wanted to shake him awake and say, “Can’t we go back to the way things were, where I told you about my day? Sure, I always saw the envy in your eyes, but there was no need for it. I’d share it with you, share every scrap of it. I would have done that willingly. Instead, you cut out my heart without asking, you tore it away and never consulted me, just made it collateral damage, an accident of your own quest.”
The last realization pissed her off. She’d been reduced to a peripheral, an odd accessory, while on her part, he’d been the piston to her pump. Now she couldn’t function anymore, as though an integral part had been teleported away, its means of abduction unfathomable.
She hugged the pain to her as though it might fill that void. It was the only thing she could think of, now that he’d gone away, leaving his body behind to let her know what she’d miss.
“I want to go over what the process will be like,” Emilio said during dinner. “So you know what to expect.”
Jamie’d been too exhausted to cook. The day had passed in one weary, numb blur. She’d ordered pizza. It sat congealing on the kitchen table between them.
Why bother, she thought, but she nodded.
“The shunt won’t immediately function,” he said. “I’ll have to work at learning to focus and hear thoughts. They said I could practice with you, would you be up for that?”
He beamed at her, pleased to have found a way to involve her in the process that would subtract him from her existence. But she couldn’t think of how to put that without feeling as though she were raining on his parade.
“Okay,” she said, and put a smile on her lips to match his. She wasn’t sure if it fooled him or not.
Aside from that, they didn’t talk about it.
It wasn’t that it wasn’t on her mind constantly. When she woke it was her first thought. It chased her, circling like the shadow of a shark, into the murky depths of her dreams. She felt submerged, awash, only her arms above the surface to try to signal. Not waving, drowning.
Sometimes she wanted to talk about it, but she was afraid of what he’d say. It’d only make him move faster. She had always disliked the inertia of action that sometimes surrounded him. But now she prized that quality, thinking that where her words couldn’t prevent him, perhaps that force could.
But it didn’t.
A PsyKorps handbook, mental exercises Emilio was supposed to work on before the shunt was installed, to prepare him. She flipped through it. Envision water, it said. Imagine a pool that is deep and clear. Sunlight plays on the water’s surface. Watch the patterns that the light creates.
She closed her eyes and tried to see the pool. There was only darkness behind her eyes, flecks and freckles of light that seeped below her lashes, the imaginary light that one sees in a darkened room.
Emilio kept a notebook, as the handbook suggested, detailing his moods and influences that might affect them: sleep and food and sex. He wouldn’t watch TV with her, saying that he didn’t want those patterns imprinted on his mind. He shied away from music as well, and kept his laptop closed.
He went for long walks in the park near them. He invited her along, but she declined after the first one. She could tell he wanted to walk in silence, but to her the silence ate away at their relationship, with the sureness of waves eroding a shoreline, erasing its contour grain by relentless grain.
While he was gone, she lost herself in videos, painful love stories that made her go into the shower and cry. These bouts left her feeling ragged as a torn towel, fragile and frayed. She would not show this side to him, she kept it shelled inside. He would see and despise it soon enough.
Marriage depended on the ability to lie about little things, about daily farts and other human matters. Perhaps the lies kept us human, kept us from being forced to judge publicly, to confront the things that would tear us apart.
The day of the shunt’s installation, Emilio rose and sipped some water. They had forbidden him any food the night before. She’d contemplated fixing his favorite meal: steak au poivre and broccoli, and cherry pudding for dessert. Too obvious.
She drove him to the hospital.
“You don’t need to stay,” he said. “If you want to just take the car, go shopping, come back in three hours.”
She knew all that. He’d explained it to her several times. But she nodded, smiled, and waved goodbye. He never looked back at her. She stood there with her glassy smile, watching him go until he was gone. She settled into the orchid-scented waiting room with her paperback.
Trying to read was a futile enterprise. The words crawled along the page like recalcitrant insects, persistently worming outside of meaning. She looked at the page. Three chapters in and she still had no idea what was happening. She didn’t want to read any further.
To pass the time, she walked the corridors, sniffing the changes in the air. A redolence of diapers rode the nursery floor, while a seventh floor lounge smelled of talcum and old age. Several times nurses or interns asked if they could help her. Each time she shook her head, trying to look as though she knew where she was going.
When she stepped into the operating room theater where a cluster of medical students sat, she paused, trying to see if the body lying on the table was Emilio. She couldn’t tell. Several figures blocked her sight of what might or might not be her husband. She settled into a stiff-backed chair, careful not to sit too close to anyone who might ask why she was there.
The students ignored her, though. They chattered among themselves. Someone said something about paying attention, and a dark-haired girl scoffed.
“Like we haven’t already seen this in first year!” she said. “This may be the only West Coast hospital installing psychic shunts, but that gets tired after a while. It’s a simple process, one that any of us could do in our sleep.”
Jamie hoped that her husband’s doctor wasn’t asleep. Or maybe he or she would be, and they’d make a mistake, fail to install the shunt correctly.
Across the way, someone raised their head, looked directly at her. A PsyKorps uniform. Someone watching to make sure that nothing went wrong. Someone who could read her mind already. Terror seized her. They’d tell him all her doubts and fears and despairs. He’d know she’d been lying the last few months, pretending to be happy.
But they went back to watching what was happening. It was Emilio. She could see the hawkish curve of his nose. His face looked vulnerable but serene, surrounded by white draping.
Afterwards, he came out in a wheel chair. She helped him into the passenger side of the car and drove him home.
She couldn’t help but ask, “How do you feel?”
He was silent, his gaze turned inward, as though he was assessing his mind, to see what slithered or shone there. “I feel all right,” he said finally. “My head’s sore, but there’s not as much pain as you would expect.”
“Not sensing thoughts yet?”
“That won’t happen until at least tomorrow. There’s a self-dissolving seal over it, to let me come into it slowly.” He frowned. “Are you okay? I know this is hard on you. You’ve never liked hospitals.”
How like him, to take her pain and make it something habitual and thoughtless and reflexive. “You’ve never liked hospitals.” I’ve never liked things that took you away from me, she thought, you turd. Remember that woman at work that had the crush on you? You thought it was funny, but I was ready to go down and punch her out. You never understood that, never understood how much it hurt that you’d been flirting with her. Leading her on. Encouraging her. Were you secretly hoping she’d make a pass, flatter you, make you feel desirable in a way that apparently I can’t? You are desired, she thought. But I want you in a way that you can’t give me.
That evening, sitting out on the deck, he said, “I need you to help me practice.”
Nice to hear you say you need me. She flinched internally. What would it be like when he could hear those thoughts? A disaster. But she said, “What do you want me to do?”
“I need to practice receiving,” he said. “What I want you to do is focus your thoughts, make them easier to hear. Imagine a word, an object in the shape of a word – don’t tell me what it is. Think of yourself throwing it at me.”
She thrust the word hello at him, imagined herself clubbing him over the head with it. She thought he jumped in his seat, but he smiled. “Hello!” he said. “That was your word, wasn’t it? I heard it in my head.”
“What does that mean, that you heard it rather than saw it?” she asked, curious.
“There are three main sensory modes,” he said. “Well, two important ones and a lesser one that they haven’t explored more. People tend to think in terms of what they can see or hear or feel.”
“Feel? How would that work?”
“I’m not really sure,” he said. “But when I’m thinking I hear it as a voice in my head, so it makes sense that I’d perceive your thought that way as well. Let’s try again!”
Each time she imagined herself pushing the word towards him, while shouting it somehow into the void. She tried simple words, then harder ones, fortitude and visceral. He perceived them all.
The shunt worked.
“What’s the next step?” she asked. Despite herself, she had gotten caught up in his excitement.
“Later, we’ll try some sentences,” he said. The effort was telling on him. His face was drawn and gray as a migraine sufferer’s. “I’ll nap, then we’ll go out to dinner and celebrate.”
At the seafood restaurant, they ran into their friends Betta and Tim. Would Emilio tell them, she wondered. They were staunch liberals, and she’d never heard them refer to the PsyKorps with anything but disdain.
He said nothing about it as they exchanged small talk. Finally Jamie said, “Tell them your big news, Emilio.” She felt a mean thrill at his frown.
“Finally found employment,” he said.
“That’s great,” Betta said. She had worked with him at a start-up that had gone under years before, but they’d maintained the friendship. “Where at?”
“PsyKorps,” he said.
Betta didn’t even flinch. “What, working with their IT staff? Bleeding edge tech over there.”
“In more ways than one, eh?” Tim said. “I hope they’re paying well.”
“I’m becoming an agent,” Emilio said. His tone was polite. Jamie could see the danger signals in the crinkling of his eyes. He was furious, and growing stiffer and more polite the angrier he got.
There was a pause.
“Oh,” Betta said. “Well, that should be interesting, shouldn’t it?” She stepped away from the table. “Tim, we really need to get going. Call me sometime, Jamie!” She fluttered her fingers in farewell. Jamie suspected Betta wouldn’t be returning the call.
Emilio waited until their meal had appeared.
“Why did you do that?” he asked.
She bit the tip off a breadstick, contemplating him. “It didn’t cross my mind that you’d try to hide it,” she lied. “What’s the point of that? People will find out, and if it’s after you’ve kept it from them, they’ll feel angry. Betrayed.”
“We’re supposed to keep a low profile,” he said. “Not draw attention.”
“So no one will know mindreaders are walking among them,” she said.
“Is that how you feel about the Korps? Snoops and spies?”
“It’s how you used to talk about them too,” she said.
He crumpled the napkin in his hand, clutching it as though it held the temper he was struggling to contain. “Can’t you just support me in this?”
“I could have,” she said. “You never offered me the chance to.”
“Do you want a divorce?”
The answer was too complicated for her to express. No, she wanted things to go back to the way they had been. She didn’t want this world where he could hear what she was thinking. She took all her rage and fury and hurled it at him, was rewarded to see him pull back as though she’d punched him.
“How did that sound?” she said with a nasty sneer. She pushed her plate away and stood.
“We have to talk about this,” he said. “What it means for you.”
“Talk about it?” she said. She laughed. “That’s two-way communication. Wait another week and you’ll be able to pull it from my mind.”
“Is that what this is all about?” he said. How could he look so stupid and bewildered? “Is there something you don’t want me to know? Have you been keeping some secret from me?”
“Nothing like that,” she said.
She couldn’t answer through the tears choking her.
She walked out of the restaurant with Emilio scrambling to pay the bill and catch up. She didn’t want to strand him, so she walked a block over to the bus stop, and left him with the car. He wanted to be independent of her? Well, that cut both ways.
She rode the bus home. When she came in, he was sitting in the living room in the dark. The moonlight made his face a gleaming mask, tilted as he stared at his clasped hands.
She paused, wondering if he would call to her. He didn’t. She took a shower and went to bed. An hour or two later, he crawled in beside her. She moved over. He pulled her close, cuddled her, let their warmth seep together.
He rested his chin on her hair, not speaking, just brushing his fingers back and forth along her arm. It was one of his signals that he’d like sex, and she hesitated, not sure whether or not to give in. Would it solve anything? Would it make things worse?
In the end she reached back, let her fingers stray over the curve of his side.
When she came, he was staring into her eyes. She shuddered and laughed and gasped. “What?” she said.
It struck her. He was trying to sense her emotions, trying to feel what she had felt at the moment of orgasm. An experiment, to see how much he could perceive. Indignation filled her. She pulled away.
“What did I do?” he asked.
She thought-screamed at him. Snoop! Spy!
He didn’t deny it.
“I want you to be happy,” he said. “Now I can tell when you really are.”
She thought about pills. And booze. She bought a joint and smoked it, sitting out on the deck watching the shadows among the blackberry vines. A warm haze suffused her and she let herself slip away into that fog. But when Emilio came home and found her there, her anxieties reasserted themselves.
He didn’t say anything, just took the roach and inhaled the last smoke. She wondered what the PsyKorps thought of drugs, even legal ones. It didn’t seem as though they would help you much in envisioning a clear pool.
“They want me to stay there for training next week,” he said.
“Stay there? As in overnight?”
“Yes. They want us getting to know each other and doing some team exercises.”
“Well, that should be interesting,” she said.
“Will you be all right if I go? You seem so fragile lately.”
Fragile, she thought. Smashable. But already smashed. Maybe the only way to make something non-breakable was to break it. A very Zen approach.
“I’m not fragile,” she said. If he thought her fragile, wouldn’t he be in even more of a hurry to get rid of her? She’d read an article the day before that had said when people developed cancer, women had a much higher chance of their partners leaving. She’d thought another one of those uncontrollable thoughts, yep, he’d be out the door like a shot.
Could she blame him for it, really? You go through childhood thinking they’re promising you your soul mate will come along eventually. And then you find yourself with someone who you think might fit the bill, only to discover that they’re as broken as you are. Marriages were work, but no one ever told you that.
She was trying to figure out where she fit into his new life. The fear was that there was no niche for her. And he didn’t care about that, or if he did, he’d factored it in and it didn’t outweigh the other considerations.
No, she couldn’t stand it. He knew that no marriage had survived this. He’d accepted that. It wasn’t that he was stupid, or overly optimistic. It was that the marriage’s dissolution, the almost certain possibility of its destruction, didn’t matter enough to make him reconsider.
Could he even go back, at this point? He’d signed papers. They’d given him training and installed a very expensive piece of equipment in his head.
The Korps hadn’t even bothered to talk to her about the transition, she realized. They’d written her off without even thinking about it. She wondered if that was how Emilio and the other new agents would bond with each other, commiserating with each other about the partners that had tried to drag them away from their ambitions.
He stood watching her. She wondered how much of her inner turmoil he could perceive.
He said impatiently, “It takes effort to read someone, Jamie. I will never read you unless you ask me to.”
“You can control it that well?” she said.
“Why do you think they give us all this training? They don’t want rogue psis running all over the place giving them a bad name, you know that as well as I do. They had to struggle hard enough just to get the airport screening process in place. Everyone screamed privacy laws all over the place.”
He leaned back on the railing, regarding her. “Believe me, I understand,” he said. “But we can get through this, Jamie.”
“When no one else has?”
He caught her hand. “No one else is us. No one else loves each other the way we do.”
Despite the wariness that barb-wired her, the emotion in his voice warmed her.
But was it real?
She kept watching him, waiting for him to get inside her head. Early in their marriage, he had asked, “What are you thinking?” so many times. He wouldn’t be able to avoid it. Curiosity would force his hand.
He practiced every day, asked her to help him, and she did, thinking word after word, then phrase after phrase. He drove himself hard, would not stop until he was shaking with weariness.
He gave her some of the money from the Korps for household expenses, and she put it away. She wondered what he was doing with the rest of it. Building himself an escape fund, money so he could leave when he was ready?
She had thought it would be a revelation when he gave himself away, but it was nothing more than her thinking that she needed salt and looking up to find him handing her the shaker.
He paled. “I’m sorry, you were thinking loudly,” he said.
“You couldn’t help yourself, could you?” she asked, her voice and heart cold. “Must have been asking for it, on some subconscious level I don’t have access to.”
“You don’t need to worry,” he said. “Listen, Jamie, we’re all broken inside. We’ve all got bits that we want to keep hidden. Look, every time I find something out, I’ll tell you something in exchange. I picked my nose when I was little, did I tell you that? A nun at school shamed me out of it.”
But she had stood, was walking out of the room. He followed her, proffering more secrets: the roommate he’d been attracted to in college, his hatred of his mother’s pressures to succeed, the time he’d taken money from the store he worked in.
“It’s not that,” she said, packing her bags. “Or maybe it is, I don’t know.” She looked tired and broken, and he felt a wash of guilt and shame over how he’d treated her, but he couldn’t make her perceive it, no matter what he said or did.
Emilio watched from the doorway as Jamie marched away, suitcase in hand. Mist filled the air, glistened on the back of her unhatted head. She’d get the rest of her belongings later.
He stood there with his fists braced against the doorway, watching till she was gone, broadcasting guilt and shame and sorrow, but there was no one around to hear him at all.
Cat Rambo lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. Her collection, Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight, is a 2010 Endeavor Award finalist. Her short stories have appeared in such places as Asimov’s, Weird Tales, and Tor.com. Her website is located at http://www.kittywumpus.net. Redstone SF interviewed Cat in our June 2010 issue.