I swayed in rhythm, holding her head against my shoulder. One hand stroked the long black hair, the other held a wine glass steady. The song coming out of my brand-new vintage-style record player was slow, sappy, somewhat crooning. A song pulled from her music library that, if I was being honest, she had liked far more than me.
We stopped swaying as the track came to an end, but stayed in each other’s arms. She leaned back a couple of inches to look up at my face.
‘This is a perfect night,’ she said, looking around the room. ‘Isn’t it?’ The question should have sounded rhetorical – this is a perfect night, isn’t it? I played the words back in my head. Isn’t it? Was there too much emphasis on ‘isn’t’? I looked back into her eyes. They were wide and brown and one of the first things I had ever noticed about her; deep brown eyes ringed with yellow that made me – or at least the romantic in me – understand the phrase ‘windows to the soul’.
‘Pause programme,’ I said. The music stopped abruptly. Fluorescent overheads replaced the gentle fairy lights. The deep brown eyes froze in place, then paled, then disappeared entirely. I heaved a sigh – was this really so difficult for these people? I was sure paying them enough.
Arthur answered on the second ring, a slight fluster to his voice.
‘Yes, yes – hello?’
‘I thought we talked about the eyes,’ I said, skipping the pleasantries. After all, it was the middle of the night. I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time.
‘The – the eyes? The eye – Michael? Mike, it’s almost three in the morning!’ He sounded a bit less flustered and a bit more irritated now.
‘We talked about the eyes,’ I continued. ‘There’s a yellowish ring on the outside but only when it catches light from the side, and “This is a perfect night, isn’t it?” Really? I’m paying a lot of money for this, Arthur, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable—’
‘I’m asleep in my bed, Mike, this really isn’t—’
‘I just figure with how much I’m paying you, I ought to get the best customer service, no?’
There was a short silence. I could practically hear him gather his patience in a deep breath.
‘Okay, Mike, how about this – no, listen – all my guys are sleeping, as it’s 3am, but I promise you I will have someone over there at 8am sharp, to discuss any bugs or changes to your programme, alright?’
I stared intently at the ceiling.
‘I… oh, alright,’ I said. He wasn’t wrong – it was 3am. ‘I’m sorry to wake you up, Arthur.’
I meant it, a little, but still. With the number of cheques I had written to this man…
‘That’s alright, that’s alright,’ he said tiredly, the edge gone from his voice too. ‘You get some sleep now.’
He hung up. I flipped the living-room lights off and moved myself to the kitchen, hoping a drink stronger than wine might help me get a few hours rest. Just a few hours of sleep would make me a bit more patient when 8am rolled around, a bit more hopeful that maybe this time was different. Maybe this time, after almost two months of work, they would get it right.
When 8am rolled around, I was not well-rested. I had spent a few hours in bed, sure, but got only fitful bursts of waking dreams drifting into half-conscious memories. Yellow ringed eyes, widened in shock and pain, long black hair matted with blood, a flash of red and an old oak tree. I’d rather be awake.
As promised, Arthur’s man – in this case, woman, actually – arrived promptly at 8am. I wondered if she had arrived early and waited outside so as to be perfectly on time. That’s what I generally did for any important appointment.
From her demeanour, I could tell this woman knew her way around the business. She spoke quickly and directly, but not insensitively, and asked the right kinds of questions. Not like the guy they’d sent a week ago, who had asked straight-faced exactly how many freckles I would like across the nose.
‘Bernadette,’ she said by way of introduction. I shook her hand and ushered her inside, where she immediately set to work.
‘Are the yellow rings always visible up close, or only in certain light?’ she asked. I liked that – direct. No unpleasant pleasantries. She had hooked her laptop up to my multimedia wall system and was typing at gunfire speed, keys clacking away almost non-stop as we talked.
‘Only in certain light – I’m really sure this should be in the notes somewhere, I told that short fellow—’
‘Anything that is not to your satisfaction will be redone,’ she interrupted briskly, though not rudely. ‘I generally find it’s easier to start fresh with those tricky bits than to try to fix something that we already know did not work.’ She slowed her typing a bit to look at me with a smile. I wondered if it was part of her company’s customer-service training, as it seemed a slightly unnatural motion for her. Nevertheless, I smiled back, and sincerely. Her brusqueness and professional demeanour had a real charm. She seemed simply capable, in a way none of the other Star Memory employees had yet. I respected that.
‘The yellow rings aren’t there if you look directly into them,’ I told her. She went back to machine-gun typing. ‘It’s more like there’s an empty ring, so it’s usually dark, but they get filled by light if it comes in from an angle.’
‘The same from all sides?’ she asked. ‘Whether you’re looking down, up or towards her from the sides?’
I hesitated a moment. Were they the same from all sides? Bernadette had paused typing, turning to look at me again.
‘I actually, um… yes, I think so? I mean, I don’t rem— well, I usually saw them from above or the sides, because of the height difference,’ I finally stuttered out. How did I not know the answer to this question? I felt a knot in my stomach, something like guilt or fear. But if she had noticed my sudden discomfort, she gave no indication.
‘Okay,’ she said. She typed for another few moments. ‘Let’s run a quick simulation with what I have so far, and see if we’re getting closer.’ I nodded, and she motioned me towards the centre of the room. I heard a decisive clack and the fluorescent lights faded, replaced by fairy lights all around.
‘I’m leaving out the audio programming, music and dialogue, so you can just focus on the visual components,’ the woman said, more softly now in the ambience. I nodded, my back still turned to her.
Then she was there in front of me. Not the Star Memory employee with her red curls pinned back from her face, but her – my Vanessa. Long dark hair, always falling over her face. I’d often wondered if she let it be so free to give me an excuse to touch her, to brush it away from her eyes and stroke her cheek. Probably not, but I liked the idea anyway. I’d been a bit of a romantic, back then.
After a moment, the hologram looked up at me through her curtain of dark hair, a doe-eyed, infatuated look. A gentle yellow light glinted around her pupils.
For a long moment, I looked into the eyes, trying to ease the knot of guilt that seemed only to grow in my stomach. Then I heard another clack and the lights shifted again. The image disappeared.
‘This is just a starting point,’ the woman said. I tried to respond, but nothing came out. I swallowed.
‘Mike?’ I started a bit at the sound of my name and turned around. ‘Yes, sorry, yes – the yellow is just right.’
This time she did not pretend not to notice my discomfort.
‘That ought to be a good thing,’ she said gently. Her brusqueness had faded considerably, and I noticed that underneath that appealing professionalism, she had very kind hazel eyes.
‘It’s… it’s just, I just realised the look is all wrong,’ I said. ‘Not the physical look, the emotion. It’s too… sappy. She wasn’t sappy.’
Bernadette nodded thoughtfully and turned back to the computer, clicking through file names that meant nothing to me. She paused on one, and shook her head, sucking her teeth in annoyance.
‘Darrell, of course,’ she said, more to herself than to me. ‘He’s hopeless. A good man, really, and pretty good at the appearances, but quite frankly I wonder if anyone has ever actually shown him genuine affection, with how over the top his simulations tend to be. I remember this one lady, oh boy, she wanted the usual dinner and starlit dance and sweet nothings but let me tell you, she did not appreciate having her husband’s voice comparing her legs to “the steadfast tree trunks of the oldest oaks in the world”, hoo boy…’ she looked up suddenly, eyes wide in mild alarm.
‘I am sorry, that was incredibly inappropriate of me,’ she said quickly. ‘I assure you, your confidentiality is of the utmost importance to us—’
I cut her off with an amused wave. ‘There must have been an airplane passing low overhead, as I seem to have missed absolutely everything you just said.’ She smiled gratefully.
‘Anyway,’ she said, regaining most of her former composure – though I still noticed an extra flush to her cheeks, over and above the base pink of her freckly skin – ‘I do believe I can fix that to your satisfaction as well. One of the reasons Arthur hired me, if I’m being honest, is to have a more… feminine perspective. I’m not sure it turned out quite as he expected, but I do pride myself on my work.’
‘I’m sure, no matter the justification of his decision, that you were a wise choice for the position,’ I said, in what I hoped was a generous and conversational tone. To be frank, this woman had me feeling a bit off-balance.
‘Let’s give this a go – just focus on the expression this time, the emotion,’ she said, giving me the opportunity to turn away and re-focus.
Bernadette – or Bernie, as she had asked me to call her on the second day – arrived promptly at 8am the fourth day in a row, bringing with her a medium cappuccino with one sugar for me, and an Earl Grey tea for herself. She greeted me with a smile, and set to work immediately.
‘I know you said it was alright, but I don’t think we completely nailed the hand gestures in minute three of your interaction. Would you mind if we went back to that for a moment? I think it will help us get the movement from standing to dancing right a few seconds later.’ I nodded agreement, and we launched straight into the minutiae.
We worked like that for another four hours – her smacking away at the keyboard, then running the interaction, then smacking away again. I focused my attention on the hologram, drawing on my memories, closing my eyes and comparing them to the image in front of me. Much of the time I simply thought aloud, musing about a freckle placement or a lip curl. As soon as I’d speak, I’d hear the gunfire clacking behind me. Sometimes she seemed to begin typing before I had even opened my mouth, as though she knew when I had a thought or a change. But I spent most of my time with my back to Bernie, so I don’t see how she could have known any such thing.
We went over the details, painstakingly reviewing the work of the various Star Memory employees who had come before. She made more suggestions than any previous employee too, probing my memory for details I would not have considered important, until I saw their effect. She nailed down the cadence of the voice, the tone of the laughter, even the way Vanessa would shift her weight from one foot to the other, always with her right foot just a bit behind her left – a remnant of a car accident from her childhood that had left her ankle permanently at a slight angle.
For nearly two weeks, Bernie and I hashed out these details. Frequently, she offered to stay overtime, even joining me for a drink to continue the work on more than one occasion. I was blown away by her astuteness, by the accuracy of her questions and where they led. And she, for her part, walked the perfect balance of professionalism and kindly interest. Her questions were always pertinent, but never prying. I found myself enjoying her company, not just as someone providing me with a service I had been wanting for years, but as someone to talk to. I hadn’t realised how few people I had really talked to in the last four years.
On the twelfth day, Bernie turned from her computer and said ‘Mike – I believe we’ve reached the point where messing around with the programme any further will only worsen it.’ I felt a sinking feeling in my chest. I had grown so accustomed to her company and conversation, to our routine. The end of this work, even in success, seemed a hollow prize.
‘Oh,’ I said lamely. Perhaps Bernie noticed my hesitation, because she quickly added:
‘We don’t have to do it now, or even today. And I can always leave you the programme to run when you’re ready, on your own time.’
I searched for words, and failed.
‘Would you like a coffee?’ I blurted, after a brief but painful silence. To her credit, Bernie’s expression showed no pity or overwrought ‘understanding’. I never could stand that. It’s one of the reasons I’d barely spoken to anyone since those first few months after Vanessa was killed.
But Bernie merely agreed, and took a seat on the puffier of my two armchairs while I busied myself in the kitchen.
I stared intently into my mug of coffee, swirling it slightly, pretending – as though anyone would ever believe it – to be fascinated by the movement. I knew what I wanted to say, but my heart thudded painfully at the prospect.
‘Bernie,’ I began slowly. ‘I need… I have a question.’
I paused to choose my words. ‘Can you do non-memories? Scenarios that never actually happened, I mean?’
She looked hesitant, even wary. I worried that she would be angry, concerned that I was asking to throw away our last few weeks of work.
‘It’s possible, certainly,’ she said slowly. ‘The principle doesn’t change – we recreate from memories that aren’t always a hundred per cent accurate anyway. But…’ There was a long pause.
‘Well, the rules of the company are the same. I mean, the… limitations we have, as a matter of policy.’
I looked at her blankly. She didn’t seem upset by the implication of a change, but something was certainly bothering her.
She shifted her weight uncomfortably and looked up at the ceiling, as though searching for guidance there. Finally, she pursed her lips in something of a determined set, and looked back at me.
‘I mean with regards to intimacy.’
She looked at me with an expression between frustration and embarrassment.
‘We can’t do porn, Mike.’
A laugh burst out of me so abruptly that Bernie jumped minutely. First a single, harsh bark, then I felt the laughter boil up in my stomach until I had to lean over, laughing and wheezing, my eyes watering.
‘I… sorry,’ I said, wiping my eyes. ‘Sorry, I – you thought I was asking about porn?’
Bernie looked, if possible, even more uncomfortable. ‘Well, really, it’s a request we get a lot and I can’t help but notice you’ve been… dissatisfied with the scenario, so yes, I did assume…’ she trailed off.
‘It’s not porn,’ I assured her again, still chuckling. It had felt good to laugh like that. It struck me suddenly that I hadn’t laughed like that – full-bodied, genuine laughter – since before the accident. The realisation made my new request feel all the more right.
‘Well, in that case, yes – we can create scenarios of imagination, say, rather than memory,’ Bernie said, clearly trying to return us to comfortable, professional ground as quickly as possible.
‘Great,’ I said. I had stopped laughing completely now, and my new plan had me thinking soberly and solemnly. ‘Bernie – before I say anything else, I just want to say thank you for the amazing work you’ve done. I think the programme is probably perfect. But I’ve realised, or at least, I’ve been thinking… it’s not what I want anymore. Maybe it never was. Maybe that’s why I’ve been so dissatisfied, so picky about everything.’
She nodded but didn’t speak. I took this to mean that she was not going to protest the change or bring up the sunk cost (a cost I’m paying for regardless, I thought), so I quickly began to explain what I wanted, before I lost my nerve.
After almost two weeks of daily work, adjustments, tests, conversations, frustrations and off-the-books whiskey sunk into the first programme, I was shocked when, after a mere day and a half since beginning the new one, Bernie turned away from her computer and said, ‘Well, Mike – I think it’s ready.’
I blinked a little stupidly at her. ‘You’re sure?’
‘As sure as I can be without a test run,’ she replied. I had asked that we do no tests – I did not want to see any portion of it until the real thing. I only wanted to do it once. ‘But if you want to go over some of the parameters again, I’d be—’
‘I trust you,’ I interrupted. My heart rate had sped up, and I felt a combination of dread and excitement and uncertainty. Was I ready for this? Was this really what I wanted? I was sure Bernie would think no less of me if I backed out, took the original programme, or just called the whole thing off. I was paying by the hour, after all. It was no skin off her back.
‘Let’s do it,’ I said firmly.
I swayed in rhythm, holding her head against my shoulder. One hand stroked the long black hair, the other held a wine glass steady. The song coming out of my brand-new vintage-style record player was slow, sappy, somewhat crooning.
She pulled back from me and looked up at the sky.
‘This is a perfect night, isn’t it?’ she said. It sounded right.
‘I’ll remember this night forever,’ I told her.
She shifted her gaze from the sky to my eyes.
‘A perfect night to end a perfect six years.’ She smiled as she said it, but her eyes looked just a little sad. Bernie really knows what she’s doing, I thought. But then I refocused, not on Bernie, the puppeteer and programmer, but on her – on Vanessa. My Vanessa. My beautiful, brilliant, funny, long-gone Vanessa. My four-years-dead Vanessa.
I put my hand on her cheek, as Bernie had told me to do at this point. Vanessa’s hologram placed her own hand over it, holding it there, pressing her cheek into my palm. I remembered in a wave all the times she had done that before, little moments of love shared between us.
‘I love you to the moon and back,’ she said.
‘I love you to sun and back a hundred times,’ I replied as I had a thousand times before. My voice cracked.
Bernie stayed with me for another off-the-books whiskey and soda, but we didn’t speak. I could feel her watching me, maybe waiting for me to say something, but she seemed to have decided that if we were going to talk, I should be the one to begin. I felt an overwhelming gratitude for her, sitting there with me, drinking a drink I was almost certain she didn’t like, saying nothing.
When I polished off my second glass, I finally broke the silence.
‘Thank you for everything, Bernie.’ I looked intently into her eyes, hoping to convey the sincerity I felt. ‘You’ve been far more patient than I deserve, and you’ve given me something I never thought I could have.’
She smiled, setting her own unfinished drink down. She ignored the coaster placed conspicuously on the end table, but at that moment I didn’t care much about rings on my furniture.
‘I’ve created a lot of these programmes, for a lot of different people with different situations.’
She seemed to be musing out loud more than anything, so I just nodded and waited for her to continue.
‘And the truth is – and I hope you don’t mind me saying this – I can usually tell when someone will never be satisfied. It’s usually the ones who have a simple memory they want to relive – a perfect night, a memorable conversation. When it’s done, or nearly so, they always seem to find something wrong with it. Because ultimately, they don’t want to relive that moment – what they want is new moments. And the programme reminds them that all they have are those imperfect memories. I’m afraid, for a long time, I really thought you fell into that group.’ She looked thoughtful. ‘I’m glad you could find what you needed in the end, though, and I’m glad I could be the one to help you get it.’
I smiled at her, again hoping to convey in expression what I could not in words.
‘It’s been a pleasure to get to know you, Mike – though I’m sorry about the circumstances. I’m sorry about your wife.’ It was the first time she had said anything like that – presumably part of the Star Memory employee training, not to offer unprofessional emotional support, or something like that. That seemed like the kind of slightly ridiculous rule Arthur might insist on. But it wasn’t the first rule we had broken, as evidenced by my empty liquor glass and her half-full one, if not also by the darkening sky outside that told me she had, again, stayed well past the usual 5pm cut-off.
We both stood up, and on a whim I reached forward to hug her. I didn’t trust myself to speak. I didn’t trust my voice not to break.
We hugged for just under the amount of time that would have been awkward, then pulled apart. She seemed for a moment on the verge of saying something else, but then merely nodded at me and turned to the door.
My heart thudded as I watched her go. ‘Bernie,’ I blurted to her retreating back. She paused with her hand on the doorknob.
‘Yes?’ She turned around, looking at me with an unreadable expression.
‘Do you – would you want to have a drink with me? Outside of this house, I mean? Another time?’
There was no mistaking the smile this time. It wasn’t kindly or consoling or patient or a plastered professional grimace, as so many of her smiles to me had been before. It split her face, crinkling her hazel eyes and making me grin in return, though she hadn’t yet answered.
‘I’d love that, Mike.’
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