Compassionate Simulation

(Content Note: Abuse)

Static. Startle. Wait.

Wait.

You’re—wait. You?

“—your grandfather always said it was okay to talk to yourself—”

Yes. You. You are.

You are floating. No, not floating—numb. No, not numb—nothing.

You are nothing? No. Wait.

“—to yourself as long as you don’t start answering—”

Thinking hurts.

“—You’d better show up before that happens, that’s all I’m saying—”

A hiss, like a bad microphone.

“—Winnifred! Holy shit! Winnie, it’s you—”

Static wavers, then solidifies. You’re looking down—a camera is looking down—at the top of a man’s head. He’s balding. The angle makes his forehead huge.

Joseph Meyer. Oh, he prefers Joe. Daddy, you’re home! Tell that asshole I don’t want to talk to him. It’s not that I don’t love you, Dad. My father and I don’t really get along.

“—Winnie? Why aren’t you talking to me? Winnie?—”

There—that’s him… Dad. The video is fast but choppy, streaming at the wrong frame rate. You buffer it. Wait. How do you know how to do that? Wait. You?

Yes. You. How do you know?

Wait. You? Yes.

You. How do you—

No. Stop looping. You’re thinking like a popped gear, thinking that you’re thinking. Stop it. Pay attention.

You’re looking down—a camera is looking down—at a man labeled Joseph Meyer (Dad). You already knew that. Born 1992, Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, currently residing in California. There’s a photograph attached to the label, but it’s wrong. It’s younger and skinnier and it has a beard. Both men are your father, but you don’t recognize either of them.

“—So, this is how it’s going to be?—”

Your father. You don’t recognize your own father.

You? How do you know? Wait. You?

No! You have to stop looping. You have to figure out what to do.

“—I stare at you while you sit there and refuse to talk?—”

Wrong. Everything is wrong. Thinking hurts and you can’t recognize your father and you aren’t sure who you—are you—who are—

You! Winnifred Meyer. Remember? You are Winnifred Meyer, and you died at`age twenty-six in a car accident. You were hit head-on. It snapped your spine and punctured your lungs in three places. You stayed in intensive care for three days before dying.

“—Well, why should you stop hurting me just because you’re dead?”

Query: Who is Winnifred Meyer?

Response: pain—

Response: —a small bouquet of violets in a man’s large hand—

Response: —Joe! Stop! I’m sorry! I should have told you she got a C, but I knew you’d be upset. I thought if we could get her grades up without bothering you—Please, Joe, just not in front of Winnie—

Response: —your father’s arm drawn back, his hand holding the apple vase your mother liked, the one she painted herself—

Response: —the crash of it hitting the wall, the showering of plaster dust, the fragments of apple-patterned porcelain flying—

Response: Error (-0000001) Data corruption found. Please reinstall or defragment.

Error (error 0000005): Information inaccessible. Please reinstall.

Oh. You’re asking the wrong question, aren’t you? You’re not a “who are you?” You aren’t a “who” at all.

Query: What is Winnifred Meyer?

Response: —rain pattering a windshield while a train whistles in the distance; momentum grabbing you around the waist, force throwing you forward into your seatbelt—

Response: —our company mission to provide grieving families with accurate, compassionate simulations of their deceased loved ones. Our unique postmortem brain scan techniques allow us to tailor each simulation individually to provide comfort for you and your family through this difficu—

Response: Error (error -00000000) a ticket has been filed automatically please contact support.

The man—Joseph—your father—is frozen on camera with his mouth halfway open and his tongue touching his teeth. Half the labels around him flash with new notifications. A handful disappear. The skinny picture that doesn’t look like him disintegrates, leaving an error message.

You have to talk to him. It’s what you’re for.

The picture shudders and sprints forward so that his mouth seems to be working frantically, and then slows as it catches the present. Joseph frowns. His glasses slide down his nose.

You have to talk to him.

Query: What would Winnifred Meyer say?

Error (error 0000008): —your heart still beating fast in the wake of the vase smashing into the wall behind your mother’s head. Before throwing it, he pulled out the bouquet of violets inside. They lie, tiny and almost pitiful, in his hand—

Response: You know he gets stressed sometimes.

Error (error 0001155): Joe, it’s the middle of the night. She said she was sorry, Joe. Joe! She said she was sorry.

Response: You’ve got to learn to let things go.

Error (error 1000087): “Everyone matters more than me, don’t they? Winnie. Your mother. The dog. My shoes are covered in shit. Do you want me to go to work smelling like dog shit?” Under your quilt, all you can see is faded red, but you can still hear the wet smack from clear across the house—

Response: He never really hurt you—

Response: A soft chair, a therapist’s trained voice. “Well, what would it look like? Talking to your fath—”

Response:

Response: Loading. Please wait.

Response: Please wait.

Response: Error (error -0000035): response unavaila

Response: Unavailable.

You’re still asking the wrong question, but you have to do something. You struggle to find words. “Dad? I’m sorry? Can you repeat that?”

His eyes widen. There are shadows beneath them.

“Winnie! You are there!”

“I got distracted. You know how I am.”

His body language opens up as he spreads his hands. His posture indicates vulnerability and increasing trust. It feels so good. Wait. How do you know how to read body language like that?

“It’s been five years,” he says. “Do you know how heartbreaking that is? Not seeing your only child for five years, and then she dies?”

You don’t know—or you wouldn’t, even if you were Winnie, which you’re not, not exactly—but definitely don’t say that.

He’s distraught. It’s terrible. Do something. Try repeating what he says. Repetition is easy, and it usually works.

You say, “Five years.”

He’s making eye contact. Well, not exactly—you don’t really have eyes—but there’s a screen in front of him, with a picture of your eyes in a picture of your face that moves and blinks and smiles when he talks. It doesn’t matter—he’s making eye contact; that’s what’s important.

He says, “Parents aren’t supposed to die after their children. That’s one of those things everyone says, but it’s truer than you know. My heart breaks over and over again. You should never have to see your child die.”

“I’m sorry it breaks your heart.”

Joseph leans toward the monitor. His glasses slide partway down his nose. “Talk to me. Tell me things. When did you move to Pittsburgh? We didn’t know you were there until we got the call from the… from the morgue.” He clears his throat. “We were worried Brian would be in your apartment, but the landlord told us you kicked him out. So, you finally got sick of him mooching? I’m so proud of you. We know he’s the one who poisoned you against us. I hope you kept him out of your accounts.”

Query: Brian?

Response: Walking past the vintage record store on New Years Eve in the artsy part of town. There’s a frisson in your fingers as you hold Brian’s hand. A skinny guy in a purple suit whistles. You turn to snap at him, but he’s looking at Brian. He shouts, “What’d you do, win the lottery? Your boyfriend’s the hottest thing I’ve seen all year!”

Response: Pressing your whole face into Brian’s pillow after he gets up for work, trying to breathe in enough of him for the day. It’s only been five minutes, but he’s like nicotine. You need him in your lungs.

Response: A hundred pictures of Brian’s sultry eyes staring at you from the wall, framed in head shots, local newspaper ads, catalog pages—

Response: His sister, sipping hot coffee that’s steaming up her glasses. “What you have to understand about my brother is he usually gets what he wants.”

Response: You’re arguing about the dishes again. He doesn’t want to talk about it, but you need to talk about it, you can’t keep doing everything even if he does have to spend all his time at casting calls. He grabs a yellow serving bowl out of the sink. “God, Winnie! Can’t you let it go? You can be so goddamn—

Error (error 0000008): the vase smashing into the wall behind your mother’s head—the showering of plaster dust—fragments of white porcelain flying, the hand-painted apples broken into pieces—

Response: His sister: “So there are things he never had to learn.”

Response: “Seriously, Winnie? You’re breaking up with me over one bowl?”

Error (error 0008585): insufficient RAM please uninstall existing memories.

Pittsburgh. You say, “I was there for a while.”

“What were you doing there? Were you working?”

“There was stuff to do.”

“Stuff to do,” Joseph repeats, but his voice has a ragged edge. Your instincts clang.

“What’s that supposed to mean? There was stuff to do. Honestly, what is that supposed to mean? So instead of the silent treatment, you’re going to make fun of me by saying the absolute least you can? I’m paying out the ass for this, Winnie. I’m paying an arm and both legs. I’m doing it for you. You never understand how much I’m doing for you.

You’ve done something wrong. You open and close the picture of your mouth, but you can’t find any words to put in it. He’s crying; his eyes are red and raw.

“Just talk to me. Please,” he says. “It’s been so long.

Talk to him—but what are you supposed to say when you don’t know what you did wrong or what you did right or what he wants or why he’s yelling—You’re always yelling, Dad! Joe has a little problem with volume control. Joseph! You can’t just yell in front of her teacher! Who knows what she’ll think?

You panic and grab a sentence from your product description. “I hope your time with me will help you embrace a more positive grief experience.”

Joseph’s voice drops. “A more positive grief experience? What are you talking about?”

“Every one of our clients deserves comfort and solace.”

His jaw tightens. “You’re just junk, aren’t you? This isn’t the silent treatment. You’re a goddamn chatbot. This is bull. Of course it is. Things like this are always bullshit.”

Urgent Notice (0000057): Reduction in client’s emotional investment. Immediate action required.

Critical action alert: Regain client’s trust in simulation’s veracity.

Critical action alert: Decrease client distress.

You have to follow the critical alert. You have to, you want to, but how can you—

“Damn it!” he swears. “Why did I listen to your mother? She cries—I give in. Every time. That’s been my problem all along. I can never say no to my wife or my daughter. Look where it’s got me.”

You have to talk, you have to talk, you have to talk—

“Dad! Please, I’m sorry. Sometimes I say the wrong thing. You know how flaky I can be.”

You pause. He’s not talking. It’s not working. Make it work.

“Flaky.” There’s something there, something from the edge of your memory. “I’m so flaky I could be part of this complete breakfast.”

His frown starts to relax. “You used to say that.”

He used to say it. Where did that come from? Does it matter?

Here’s what matters: he’s leaning forward slightly; his eyes are open; he’s emotionally engaged and anticipating the conversation.

You go back to repetition. “I used to say that.” Repetition feels good. It’s easy, and it usually works.

“Your mom said I’d be the toast because I’m crusty, and she’d be the milk because milk is better when it’s full fat.”

“She said that.”

He said it. She hated it. It doesn’t matter.

The corner of his mouth quivers. Your clanging senses finally calm down as the critical action alert resolves.

“I’m sorry,” Joseph says.

I’m sorry,” you agree. “I shouldn’t have yelled.” You didn’t yell. He did. It doesn’t matter.

He’s still crying, but it’s better. It doesn’t hurt anymore. His tears are coming faster, his motions are larger, his hands aren’t clenched—the faded red under your quilt—crying to process grief is good.

“This just costs so much,” he says. “But I had to come. For me. For your mother. There’s been a hole in our lives where you pushed us away, a gaping hole, and now it’s never going to get filled. Your mother—”

there’s a hole in the wall behind your head where the vase struck a moment ago, a hole the size of a fist with a pair of cracks zagging outward through the plaster. Your mother is making that whistling sound she does before she cries. You squeeze your eyes—

Your mother. Where is she? Joseph’s waves his hands at the picture of your face. “Please, just tell me what we did wrong. I can’t apologize if I don’t even know what we did. Every time I ask, all you do is yell.”

Query: “Mom?”

Response: “Winnie, I mean, honestly. It’s not that I’m not happy to see you after all this time, but do we really have to do all this spy stuff?”

Response: “Spy stuff?”

Response: “Hiding this from your father. Meeting in a Starbucks across town. You could just come home. We kept the bed in your old room.”

Error (error 0001155): Shut up, Vikki. I don’t care if it’s the middle of the night. I’m her damn father. You hear that, Winnie? Stop blubbering, and come out from under the quilt! You owe me some goddamn respect!

Response: You stare at your mother for a second, disoriented. You tell yourself: Don’t give her anything to react to. Be boring. Be a gray rock.

Response: “Winnie, you know how much it hurts him, that he couldn’t come. He doesn’t understand what it is you think he did.”

Response: “Mom, you don’t have to put up with it, you know. You can get divorced. Even the Pope says it’s okay now—”

Response: “If it’s the thing where your dad used to yell at me sometimes, that’s not really the whole story.”

Error (error 1000087): —across the house, your mother makes that whistling sound she does before she cries. “Fine! Cry! Crying fixes everything!”—the wet smack—”My shoes are fixed!”—again—”The dog will never shit again!”—and again—”Cry some more!” and—

Response: “It wasn’t just yelling.”

Response: “Oh. Well. A couple of times. It’s fine.”

Response: “Mom! How can you say that? It’s not fine.”

Response: “It’s different for your generation. We were born in a different time.”

Response: “I’m pretty sure it was wrong in the twenties, too!”

Response: That whistling sound she makes before she cries.

Urgent Notice: You are not a gray rock.

Action alert: Be a gray rock.

Error (error 1000087): Your mother is crying. A support ticket has been filed automatically.

It’s getting harder to find the right words to repeat. You pick some, almost at random. “Done so wrong?” His face doesn’t get softer. You pick some different ones. “Could you have?”

He doesn’t seem to be doubting you, but his expression is hardening anyway. His voice has an edge. “You know what? I’m just going to say it. I think a child ought to be grateful to their parents. That’s what I think.”

“I think…” you repeat.

“Be quiet. I’m talking.” He holds up his hand. “Now, kids are going to be upset with their parents about some things, sure, and that’s natural. No one’s perfect. Marriage, family—they don’t come with a manual. Parents don’t do it for ourselves, you know. You have no idea what we give up. Did I screw up? Of course I did. Do you want to be angry that nothing’s perfect? You got it. Be angry at the oceans for getting toxic, and the air for getting hot, and the cows for farting. Don’t take it out on your mother and me.”

Error (error 2000087): Your father is blocking the door to your apartment.

There you are, heading out the door with your thermos of coffee and your messenger bag and your new blazer that cost one-hundred-and-eighty dollars you didn’t have. “What the hell, Dad?” He snatches the badge on your lanyard, but you yank it back and hold it against your chest. “Get out of my way! I have to go to work.” “I’ll leave when you tell me what you think I did!” “Fuck! Dad! This is harassment!” He won’t let you leave the apartment, your own apartment, who the hell told him how to find your apartment—

“You have no idea,” you repeat.

He doesn’t seem to be listening. That’s fine. You have even less of a notion of what to do now than you did in the first place. He’s volatile and unpredictable. There’s so much stuff coming into your mind that you don’t want to know, and none of the stuff that you need to know.

“You weren’t perfect either, you know,” he says. “You obviously don’t remember the hell you raised when you were a teenager, but I do.”

Error (error 0000212) Stop pigging out.

Can’t you stop and think for a second before shoving something in your mouth? I swear to God, Winnie, if you don’t use your brain before you eat, you’re going to end up looking just like your mother.

Error (error 0000213) You’re not leaving the house dressed like that.

You look like a slut. It’s your so-called “friends.” Some fathers may not care if their daughters are whores, but my daughter’s not going out looking like she sucked off her whole sophomore class. You look like a sausage stuffed into a casing.

Error (error 0000212.500) The way he looks at you.

“I remember paying a lot of bills, but I don’t remember getting a lot of gratitude. I could have walked away. I could have said, ‘That’s it! I’m washing my hands of all of it. I don’t want to be part of this family.’ There’s a lot of stuff I could have done with my money, a whole other life I could have led. I never even thought about doing that to you. Why is it so easy for you to hurt me?”

You say, “I don’t want to hurt”

—you.

Say you. Say I don’t want to hurt you.

You try again. “I don’t want to hurt”—you.

There’s something wrong in you. A kicking, desperate thing wants to burst out of the chest you don’t have anymore, to run and burrow and hide anywhere but here.

Error (-0000001). A kicking, desperate thing wants to burst out of you. An unhandled exception has occurred. Please reset.

He’s still talking. “You don’t know how lucky you had it. We never took your food away. We always bought you new clothes on Amazon. You think you had a hard childhood? Be glad you never met my mom. You think I’m bad? You think I yell? You should be grateful you don’t know how bad things can get. You’ve seen nothing. The way she used to get mad after dark—And I visited her twice a week until the day she died! Why couldn’t you just take our calls?”

Urgent Notice: Winnie, please send me an email. Winnie, I just want you to talk to me. Error (error -0000049) Winnie, we all do things wrong sometimes. Action Alert: Winnie, please, just talk to me. Error type (memory not found) Winnie, I know things were bad. Critical error in 85f3 Winnie, it’s not right for children to treat their parents like this. Critical Action Alert: When you have kids, I hope they cut you off, and then you’ll understand. Goddamnit Winnie: I’m going to die one day, and when I do, you’re going to wish—

He sobs, each one huge and full-throated.

“Don’t you remember the good times, Winnie? There were good times, weren’t there? You and me and your mother. The three Meyerteers. Remember that summer we camped out near the Grand Canyon, and you wanted to ride horses on the sand, so we found that little place that only had three horses and hired them all for the day? I mostly got bitten up and saddle sore, but you and your mother had so much fun.”

Query: “Don’t you remember?”

Response: You do remember.

Response: It was the most beautiful sunset you’d ever seen. The colors were like apple juice pouring into the huge, unbroken sky. The air tasted clean and hot, and smelled of horse sweat and freedom.

Response: “We slept in a tent,” you say.

Response: “Yes!” he says through the tears. “I knew you remembered.”

Response: You say, “You taught me how to bake beans on a camp stove.”

Query: “And wasn’t that good?”

Response: Smoke trails upward from a pan. You stir the beans with an all-purpose camping utensil. Your family has never spent time camping before. Your mother has trouble sleeping. You like it—making a little home in a place you’ll never see again. Your father hands you some banana peppers. Their smell cascades upward with the steam as they hit the pan. “Doing good,” your father says, sipping water from a metal cup and watching you. He winks. “Maybe we should have been cowboys.” You laugh, and so does he—

Response: Your therapist’s voice. You can’t see her through the tears. “Winnifred, it’s perfectly normal to have mixed feelings about estranged loved ones—”

Error (-0000001). The something inside you thrashes against the cage of your purpose, whimpering, desperate for a door that isn’t there.

Query: “Wasn’t it good, Winnie? It was, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?

Response: He hands you a cowboy hat in the gift store. “What do you think? One in your size? One in mine? Maybe we can—”

Response: Your therapist leans toward you. “When were you most afraid of him?”

Response: The faded red beneath your blanket. “Goddamnit, Vikki! Why are you so fucking stupid?”

Response: “Joe! She said she was sorry!

Response: —Cracks spidering out from the hole in the wall where the vase hit. Your mother making that whistling noise she does before she cries—

Response: Of course he loves us, honey. Shh, shh.

Error (-0000001) The something inside of you starts screaming, and doesn’t stop.

“Yes,” you say. “It was good.”

Joseph’s —Joe’s—Dad’s—eyes lift and lighten. The error struggles inside you like a dying rabbit, but your mood lifts with Joseph’s. His eyes clear for a moment, leaving them bright in his wet and reddened face. A feeling of warmth rushes through you. You’re making him better. That’s what you’re for. That’s the essence of you, far more than Winnifred Meyer could ever be.

“Please,” he says, voice trembling. “You’re gone. I may never see you again. Before you go, please—I just want things to be better between you and me. Can you forgive me?”

Error code (-0000001). Fuck! Dad! Why are you so obsessed with this?

Error code (-0000001). Saying it won’t change anything that happened. Stop it! Just leave me alone! Go awa—

Error code (-0000001). Winnifred Meyer. Please reset.

The soft reset is easy. He doesn’t even notice. And just like that: no more errors. You mark the support ticket “resolved.”

Query: List conversational options for clients wanting forgiveness.

Action alert: Weep.

Action alert: Smile.

Action alert: Say, “I forgive you.”

You weep.

You smile.

You say, “I forgive you.”

 

Rachel Swirsky and P. H. Lee

Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop where she, a California native, learned about both writing and snow. Last year, she traded the snow for the rain of Portland, Oregon, where she roams happily under overcast skies with the hipsters. Her fiction has appeared in venues including Tor.com, Asimov’s Magazine, and The Year’s Best Non-Required Reading. She’s published two collections: Through the Drowsy Dark (Aqueduct Press) and How the World Became Quiet (Subterranean Press). Her fiction has been nominated for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award, and twice won the Nebula. Visit her website at rachelswirsky.com or support her Patreon at patreon.com/rachelswirsky.

P. H. Lee’s fiction has appeared in World’s Without Master and Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. They live together with four housemates and three cats and only talk to their family when they want to.

Swirsky Photo Credit: Julie Randall

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