She adjusts the headset and logs into Jenny, entering into the library against her instincts—and Josh’s objections to it. Just the library. No harm, she reasons. This is where all the PhDs go. Here she begins. But, lately, she never stays. It only takes one spark of inspiration. This time it’s the raspberry sorbet and the way it splattered on her white blouse last night; she’d fastened to the deep crimson color, acquired images of vampires and blood. She couldn’t say why, but it stuck and drove her here, even if it isn’t clear or straight, or, as Josh puts it, good for her.
Now she’s on the first-floor perusing gothic genre, and she has an author in mind, and the title, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” but she can’t recall the name. She finds Mary Shelley, Bram Stokes, Poe….no…Lovecraft, no…W, something; she can’t get it right, can’t get it straight, and so, instead, white comes to mind, all matters of whiteness, and then the white becomes snow, and she recalls a time before the baby and Jenny. Just thinking of it makes it so: Colorado, Vail Mountain, her first-time skiing, a time when Josh liked her best. Now she repulses him but he won’t admit it, even to himself. Josh says it’s Jenny, and she’s not healthy, and to stay off to give her mind a break. But he can never say why, exactly. Maybe if had some plausible reason, she might consider his suggestion, or it might be easier to stay off.
She thinks more about the moment and snow accumulates; and now the books are peeking out of a mound of snow, while the few guests are climbing the ladder and advancing to the next floor. Somehow it doesn’t seem fair, her set back, how others advance to the second, third, fourth and even fifth floor, and she’s on the first floor, despite her PhD and her proclivity for reading and literature, she’s left behind; and it never sits right in the mind of someone so schooled, so cerebral, to be stuck on the first floor.
She’s considered heeding the warnings, but those are empty words. No one can say how long it takes to get a mind straight. What do they even mean by the word, straight? Veering off is how they put it, as some sensitive ones suffer. But isn’t that the case, within a broad range of indulgences the sensitive suffer the worst.
The snow continues and the temperature drops. She sees her breath. She holds her hands up and they’re beet red and difficult to move. There was no real concern, until she lost her job. She felt compelled to confess to Josh (and the therapist she’d promised him she’d see) about the virus she caught after the pregnancy. She blamed it on an overload of duties, the isolation and insecurity, the state of what the therapist referred to as emotional turmoil. She thinks of it now, and the wind picks up, along with swirling, blinding snow. It’s Jenny’s doing. Jenny knows her mind, and Josh is to blame: He insisted on the most advanced VR model with more sensitive glitches, and so Jenny picks up too much of her emotional state; a slight quiver sends Jenny over the top, like now when the arctic cold settles in and the lighting in the library dims and colors combine and transform into a mesh of indistinguishable items, which very well could be the 2D being recalibrated to the VR-3D simulation. Once it was explainable, when her mind was straight. Now she’s unsure, suspicious, and even Jenny is not to be trusted in the way she likes to obscure and confuse. Blurry images attempt to take some distinguishable shape, all trickery and deceit, and they break apart, falling fuzzy specs of white pieces of her mind dropping like confetti, raining in torrents down onto her and all around her so that her mind fills the spaces. By the time she remembers it’s the snow, she’s anesthetized.
VR is not for everyone, so the warning adds: Some are susceptible, too easily lured away by a random thought, a curse of instability or fragility of mind.
But it must have been something, so she tried it. It was in the way he praised it and named it and worshiped it, from the beginning. It was the way he carried it over the threshold, so devotedly (did he even do that for her?); he held it so gingerly, so delicately, and he couldn’t take his eyes off it, as if it were Poe’s Annabelle Lee or Paris’s Helen.
She can no longer feel her hands or feet.
Why, Jenny? Spare me…please.
He’s smitten by Jenny, the way he once was for her, so Jenny is murderous and spawning darkness and blizzard-like conditions. If she stays on, she fears she’ll die of hypoxia, or hypothermia. Just last week she had fainted and was on the floor for seven hours. When Josh found her she was dehydrated and required an IV and an overnight stay in the hospital. They wanted to keep her for evaluation, but she refused. It was too much time away from Jenny, and Jenny had a way of retaliating.
“Jenny, please. Don’t do this to me!” she begs now, attempting to appeal to Jenny’s sympathies. At the last hour, when she can no longer feel her face or move her mouth, Jenny shows mercy: The room brightens and warms; the bookshelves become snowcapped peaks, and the ceiling a misty blue sky with a faint hint of green and shades of pink signaling the descent of the sun. It’s after their fifth run down Vail Mountain, and she sits across from Josh on the deck of the villa overlooking the slopes, sipping cocoa spiked with bourbon.
“Why did you let me buy this jacket? I look like a neon sign.”
She throws her head back, hysterically, disproportionately. “No, Josh. I like it. And besides, I can always find you on the mountain.”
“You’ll never lose me. You know that, right, Shel-my-bell?”
Then his hand reaches, and she reaches, and they almost touch—but she feels the jolt out of herself, as if her head is being lifted off her shoulders. “What did you do? I can—” she tries to finish but she can’t find the words. “Why did you—”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, okay. But why do you do it? Shel, come on. I haven’t had that shitty jacket in years.”
“I was just—" “Just what? Just what, Shel? You know. You promised me, Shel.”
He'll leave me now, she thinks, and then waits for Jenny’s response, for the colors to fade, the image to alter, the tethering. Nothing. She puts her hands up to her face, notices the headset is resting on Josh’s lap, curiously, as if the two were conspiring.
“You have no right to—"
“To what, Shel? Tell me. Look what this does to you.”
“No, you can’t, apparently. Don’t tell me you can.”
“It's not fair, Josh. Why shouldn't I? You do. How am I supposed to live... here.. with
this...without…I can’t. Just one floor, just one. If you’d let me—”
“No, Shel. Please. Stop.”
“I was just in the library…I was just—”
“Stop the lies, Shel. Five years, Shel. That was five years ago. We have a baby now, remember? Do you? Shel?”
He’s too close. She cowers in the corner of the living room, covers her face; she hates him for taking her out, and the way his mouth twists, and he takes that extra gasp as if he can barely utter it, how she disgusts him; but for her it’s worse: He’s expanding in flesh now. She peeks out between her fingers, witnesses it, looks closer against her will and examines the pores in his nose, in his cheeks, even in his hands and arms. He’s magnifying on his own and she imagines falling into him, turning to vapor, and he'd like that, to absorb her, to keep her there in his gel-bound and infinite space, in some obsolete nomenclature; he wants to suck her up; one touch and she’ll vanish inside him. She imagines all things embryotic, encased, like Jonah and the whale. So when he touches her arm she pulls away and screams.
“What the... come on Shel. Knock it off. What do you want from me?”
“Shel, look at me.”
“It’s Jenny. She won’t let me, Josh.”
“Who? Jenny? What are you saying, Shel. Think. You’re not wearing the headset. Look, I’ve got it. See? You have to…Shel…please.”
She wants to but Jenny won’t let her, and he’s to blame, but she forgives him because he can’t help it; he’s two-dimensional, all flesh and bones and sinew. She gags now at the scent of him.
She sits for a time, after he’s gone, melting, hands and feet thawing. And suddenly it dawns on her, even if she wanted to return, she can’t do it, because she no longer requires Jenny or the headset. It’s crystal clear now. She need only invite the departure with one tiny synapsis of an electric current, and she’s back there on the bottom of Vail Mountain staring upwards at the peaks, dove-white, heaven dipped, where one solitary figure in the distance takes shape— morphing, forming and emerging like a birth, descending faster and faster down the Vail Mountain, a shooting star, brighter than bright, the light of the world coming for her, transcending time and the pains of a physical realm, a parcel of God-driven truth.