Just in time for Valentines' Day.
This story is very different than most of my other work. I wrote it a few years ago after my grandfather died of Alzheimer's. Watching him fade away was like watching a hard drive being erased a little at a time. It made me ponder the possibility of digitally preserving thoughts or even consciousness. That led to more questions.
This short story explores those questions. Think of it as half Transcendence and half The Notebook.
PS: I realize the title isn't the greatest, but it was the best I could think of at the time.
4 A.M. at the Paradise Lost and Found
by R.A. Mathis
Simon sank into a chair by the crackling fireplace in his study. The flame’s warm glow drew long, twirling shadows across the room. This was his favorite place. His sanctuary. His prison.
He contemplated the substantial library that filled the case along the nearest wall, a polyglot collection of tattered paperback novels.
If you were stranded on a desert island and could bring only one book…
A weathered paperback had a permanent place on his chair-side table. The title Paradise Lost adorned its cover in faded letters. He picked his reading glasses from a pocket and pondered their smooth glass lenses and fine silvery framework. He didn’t need them. He didn’t need the book or the hands that held it either. Everything around him was a collection of comforting illusions of days long gone.
He checked the grandfather clock standing sentry by the door. Only a few hours remained, but he was ready.
A beautiful face stared down at him from a portrait over the fireplace, its angelic gaze filling him with melancholy. The fireplace still shone brightly, but Simon could no longer feel its warmth. Solitude’s smothering chill blocked every sensation but grief and anguish. And bittersweet memories of her.
He opened the paperback to a yellowed page and read words he already knew by heart.
Grace was in all her steps,
Heaven in her eye, in every gesture dignity and love.
Simon closed his eyes, his thoughts returning to a warm spring day during his last year of post graduate school.
“It’s going to work this time.” Simon slipped the scan-cap onto his head. Myriad wires ran from sensors all over its surface to a supercomputer a few feet away. He knew he was close. He crossed his arms and stared at the computer monitor on the desk in front of him. Success was almost within his grasp. It’s got to work.
He’d been cloistered in the virtual reality lab for two solid days with no sleep; his only sustenance the nutrient deprived student fodder of the lab’s vending machines. He stretched his tired limbs and shook the cobwebs from his head. One more try.
Simon pictured a triangle in his mind’s eye as he stared at the blank computer screen. He closed his weary eyes tightly and concentrated. The triangle became ten triangles, then a hundred, then thousands. They swirled around him before coming together to form a giant pyramid with him at the top. He was elated. Simon felt as if all his dreams were about to come true. At the apex of his reverie, he heard a voice say, “Simon!” Where did it come from? “Simon!” There it was again, cold and severe. “Simon.” He suddenly felt sick. The pyramid shifted. Pieces began falling away. Small ones at first, then huge then massive slabs cracked loose and tumbled into the void below. It was slipping away. The pyramid lurched as its disintegration accelerated. Simon lost his footing and slid down the crumbling mass. He clawed at the air as he tumbled into nothingness among a jumble of polygons. The voice called again, “Simon. Wake up.”
Simon opened his eyes. He was face-down on the desk. It was a dream, the same one he always had. A fellow grad student was poking his shoulder. “Dude! Wake up! You’ve been out for an hour.”
Simon wiped away his drool with his sleeve. “Sorry. Guess I dozed off.”
“Go home and get some sleep.” The student said over his shoulder as he walked away, “And take a shower. You stink.”
Simon gave himself a whiff and recoiled from his own stench. He removed the cap and closed his eyes again, once again willing the image in his mind to the computer screen in front of him. He opened his eyes slowly, expectantly.
He turn off the monitor with an irritated flick and gathered his things.
He needed a drink—after a nap and some serious personal hygiene. Simon left the lab and its fluorescent gloom behind, his steps slow under the weight of failure. The sun assaulted his eyes as he stepped into the open air. He shielded his face like a vampire caught in morning’s first light. He lowered his guard as his eyes adjusted to the land of the living. Then he saw her. And nothing else mattered.
She sat alone on a sunny spot of grass next to the university center reading an old paperback novel and eating a brown-bag lunch. Between bites of a homemade ham and cheese sandwich, she absently brushed a rebellious lock of nutmeg hair from her sea blue eyes. She was the most beautiful thing Simon had ever seen.
He sat next to her and said the only thing he could think of. “Come here often?”
She gave him an annoyed glance. “Has that ever worked?”
“No.” He smiled then blushed as he again realized how badly he needed a shave and a shower. “How am I doing this time?” he asked, trying to fix his unkempt hair as inconspicuously as possible.
“I know I look a mess, but I’ve been working in the lab. It’s a huge project. I’m going to change the world.”
She rolled her eyes. “Am I supposed to be impressed?”
He cringed. “That came out all wrong.”
She put her book down. “You don’t talk to girls much do you?”
His blush deepened. “No…But… I just had to talk to you.”
She smiled and held out the uneaten half of her sandwich. “Hungry?”
“Starving.” He gladly took the ham and cheese. “Thanks. I’m Simon.”
She brushed back her unruly hair again. “I’m Maggie.”
He looked at the weathered softcover in her hand. “Where did you get that old thing?”
“It’s an antique,” she said with a hint of annoyance.
“You don’t like digital readers?”
She held the book to Simon’s nose and flipped the pages. The oddly comforting aroma of old paper filled his nostrils. The scent reminded him of the old stacks in the library where the books waiting to be scanned into the mainframe were kept. He decided that if knowledge had a smell, this would be it.
“You can’t digitize that,” she said.
“What are you reading?”
“Milton’s Paradise Lost.”
“You’ve read it?”
“Then how do you know?”
“I’ve heard…well…I mean…”
“How are you going to do it?”
“Change the world, of course. Please try to keep up.”
She was lovely, intelligent, and sweet. One in a million, Simon thought.
He gathered up his nerve and asked, “Are you busy tonight?”
“Sorry. I have a date.”
Simon’s face flushed again. He felt like a fool. Of course she had a date. A girl like her probably had guys lined up just to be near her, but something inside him wouldn’t give up so easily.
“Is it serious?”
“No. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Good. Cancel it and go out with me instead.”
Maggie laughed. “You have some nerve. I’ll give you that.”
“I’ll die if you don’t.”
“I doubt it.”
“But what if I did? Would you want that on your conscience?”
Maggie gave him a perplexed look. “You’re a strange one, like a puzzle missing some of its pieces.” She returned to her book.
Simon hung his head in defeat. His heart felt like a soaked sponge sagging in his chest. “Okay.” He got to his feet. “It was nice meeting you.”
She shrugged. “I like puzzles.” She stood, plucked the pen from his shirt pocket, wrote an address on Simon’s hand and said, “This is my dorm. I’ll see you at eight.”
Simon arrived at Maggie’s dormitory an hour early. He spent the next forty-five minutes pacing across the street in front of the old brick building working up the nerve to go in. When he finally mustered the courage he squared himself and marched across the quiet lane to find her sitting on the steps, smiling at him.
“I got tired of watching you walk back and forth,” she said with a smile that stirred his soul.
He reached to his back pocket and pulled out a tattered pulp science fiction novel. He gave it to her and said, “For you.”
Maggie’s eyes widened. “Where did you get this?”
“It’s an antique. Do you like it?”
She held the book to her nose and inhaled deeply. “I love it!” She kissed his cheek. “Thank you.”
Simon blushed. “You’re welcome.”
“What do you want to do?” she asked.
“Are you hungry?”
“I just ate.”
“How about a movie?”
She held up the novel. “I’m more of a book person.”
“Oh.” Simon scrambled to think of something else, but his brain stalled. Nothing would come. He tried to look cool in spite of the sweat beading on his flushed forehead.
“How about if we just go for a walk?” Maggie suggested.
She put her arm around his. “Lead the way.”
Shadows inched across the manicured landscape as they walked aimlessly around campus, talking about everything and nothing. They strolled past gardens of solar panels whose faces rotated automatically to catch last rays of twilight. Wind harvesters creaked overhead on the warm breeze that heralded summer’s impending arrival. The same breeze cooled Simon’s brow and swept his anxiety along on its journey to parts unknown.
Around dusk they found a small all-night café and went in for a snack.
“What scares you?” she asked over coffee and scones.
“I dunno. Failure, I guess.”
Maggie wrinkled her nose in thought. “No. I don’t think so. A guy like you can handle failure because you never give up. You’re driven.” She looked into Simon’s eyes. “I bet you’re most afraid of being alone.”
Simon squirmed in his chair. She’d hit the nail on the head. He cleared his throat. “What scares you?”
He laughed. “I’m serious.”
“So am I! Have you ever tried to sleep in a room with a clown doll on the shelf?” She shivered. “It’s terrifying.”
“Okay, what’s your favorite flower?”
“Red poppies. I just love how bright and happy they are. So full of life. When I’m sad, I close my eyes and I pretend I’m in a field of them that goes on forever.”
They talked till dawn, sharing each other’s hopes dreams. I didn’t take Simon long to realize Maggie wasn’t one in a million. She was one of a kind, the only person to ever truly understand him.
Days turned into weeks as they spent every possible moment together, walking, talking, and falling for each other over scones and coffee. She would always find him waiting in front of her dorm with red poppies or another old book for her. She had no idea where he got either of them.
Simon sat alone in the lab late one night facing his nemesis. The blank computer screen stared back at him, daring him to try again. He had reviewed every line of code. Every connection had been checked and double checked. This semester, his last semester, was almost over. It was now or never. He made one last adjustment to the scan-cap, slipped it onto his head and closed his eyes.
Maggie woke with a start an hour later. A loud popping noise had pulled her back into her dark dorm room from bright dreams of sunshine and poppies. She sat up and looked for her roommate. The girl was still in bed, dead to the world. Then she heard it again. Something was tapping her window. She crept out of bed and peeked through the curtain to see Simon standing on the sidewalk three stories below.
She opened the window and said in a loud semi-whisper, “It’s three-thirty in the morning!”
Simon replied in an imitation of her husky tone. “I know! Can you come down? I have something important to tell you!”
“Can’t it wait till tomorrow?’
“No! Let’s go for a walk!”
“A walk?” She stepped away from the window then poked her head back out and said, “Okay, I’ll be right down. By the way, you don’t have to throw rocks. I have a phone.”
She met Simon on the front steps. He had a bigger smile on his face than usual.
“What’s with the grin?” Maggie asked.
“I did it.”
“The experiment finally worked, of course. It just took a few adjustments. The computer can scan and interpret thoughts. I did it!” He grinned. “Please try to keep up.”
Maggie took his hand. “Congratulations! I’m so proud of you!”
“There’s one other thing I want to tell you.”
“Yes?” Her eyes sparkled in the street light.
“You know I’m not good with words,” he said.
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
“Very funny.” He swallowed, his old anxiety returned. “I just wanted to say…I mean…I’ve never said this to anybody else. Well, besides family, but that doesn’t...”
“I love you too, Simon.”
He picked her up in his arms. “Marry me!”
Maggie laughed. “Wow! You get right to business!”
“Marry me, Maggie. I can’t live without you.”
Her smile faded as she looked deep into his eyes. “Yes.”
The campus clock tower struck four as they kissed.
Simon whispered, “I could never live without you.”
After graduation, Simon took a job with a biotech firm. It was a good job, but it wasn’t his dream. After long days at the lab, he spent long nights in their garage turning his vision into reality.
Late one summer night, Maggie was shaken awake.
“Come down stairs! Hurry!” Simon said excitedly, “It’s done!”
She checked the clock by her bed as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. It was four A.M., but Maggie wasn’t upset. She knew this was what she’d signed on for when she married an eccentric like Simon. She gave a drowsy smile and tried to hide her amusement as he led her by the hand to the garage.
Once there, Simon helped her put on a bulky headset and said, “This is just the prototype. The final product will be much more compact.”
“What’s it do?”
“You see that?” He pointed to a robotic arm on his workbench. “Imagine it moving to the left.”
She did. It did. She looked wide-eye at Simon.
He was ecstatic. “Keep going. It’ll move anyway you want it to. Try the fingers!”
With only her thoughts, she was able to manipulate the arm through any maneuver she desired as smoothly and nimbly as if it were her own. “This is incredible!” She hugged Simon’s neck. “You did it, baby!”
“I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“You’re going to get a big promotion for this.”
“No. We’re going to start our own company. It’s time to change the world.”
“I always knew you would.” She smiled.
“I can do anything as long as I have you.”
“There’s only one thing missing.”
“A house full of kids to share it with.”
He took her in his arms. “What do you say we start right now?”
Over the next ten years, Simon’s technology revolutionized fields from medicine and commerce to manufacturing and communications. Billions around the world used his thought-activated devices. Their business, Cognitech, grew beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. But their happiness was incomplete. Their greatest dream had not come true.
The autumn sun dipped below the horizon as Simon drove home after a tough but rewarding day at the helm of the corporation. With a thought, he activated a prosthetic earpiece and called Maggie. No answer. Another thought brought up a holographic map projected inches in front of his left eye. A red dot shone at his address. She was home. Why doesn’t she answer? He remembered she had a doctor appointment earlier that day. More fertility test results. More disappointment. His brow furled. He disengaged the car’s autopilot and mashed the throttle.
Simon found her sitting alone in the dining room. “Hi, sweetheart!” He tried to sound cheerful in spite of the look on her face. “What did the doctor say?”
She shook her head. “I thought I was finally pregnant.”
Simon held her hand and smiled. “It’s okay. We won’t give up. Medicine can do anything these days.” He paused. “Did the doctor say why you haven’t…?”
She nodded. “Cancer.”
The color drained from Simon’s face as he fell into the chair next to her. “Where?”
Maggie’s eyes welled with tears. “Everywhere.”
She sobbed. “Four months. Maybe six.”
“No! There’s got to be something we can do. We’ll go to the ends of the earth if we have to. We can beat this!”
She sank into his arms, heaving as she wept.
He held her and tenderly kissed her head. “It’s going to be okay.”
Weeks later they sat in a Vienna oncologist’s office. Maggie was pale and gaunt. Dark circles ringed her eyes. She asked Simon, “Do you think he can help?”
“He’s the best in the world.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Simon stared at the floor. “We have to hope.”
The door opened. The doctor entered. He shook his head. “I am sorry. There is nothing I can do.”
More test results. More disappointment. No cure. No hope. And precious little time.
Simon said, “This isn’t over. There are other doctors.”
The doctor excused himself. “I am very sorry. Take as long as you need.” He left, closing the door behind him.
“No,” Maggie said sternly.
“No.” She shook her head. “No more doctors.”
“We’re not giving up.” Simon sighed. “We’ll talk about it when you’re being rational.”
“I’m the only one being rational.”
“How can you say that?”
“You’ve spent the last ten years building Cognitech, working day and night. You missed birthdays, holidays, anniversaries. I slept alone more nights than I can count” She laughed softly. “But I never complained. I loved you enough to not stand in the way of your dreams.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. That’s just who you are. I knew it when I married you.”
“Then let me help you. I have to do something! Please.”
“You can’t fix this. Nobody can.” She took his hand “Love me enough to let me make this choice. No doctors. No drugs. No treatments. Just us. Can you do that for me?”
“Yes,” he whispered.
“Good.” Maggie reached out and tenderly touched his cheek. “Paris is beautiful this time of year.”
The next afternoon, Simon pushed her wheelchair down brisk Parisian streets. He smiled as she excitedly pointed out the buildings and scenery to him. A gust of autumn gave Maggie a shiver. She pull her blanket closer. Simon stopped, tucked her in and said, “It’s getting cold. We should head back.”
She answered, “No. I’m fine. Let’s go on.”
Simon gave a doubting look then kissed her cheek and pushed on. He tried to capture every moment, hiding every sight and sound deep in the safest part of his memory where only his heart held the key. He soaked in her bright eyes and giddy smile, burning them indelibly into his mind. This was the most alive she’d been in a long time. He reached down to stroke her hair and realized the same was true of him.
A small café caught Maggie’s eye. It looked warm and inviting in the late afternoon chill. Simon asked, “Hungry?”
She nodded. “Coffee sounds nice.”
They found a small table by the widow and ordered an early dinner. Maggie barely touched hers. They watched from their cozy nook as pedestrians rushed to cover when a sudden downpour drove them splashing from the street. Simon took her hand. “Looks like we’re stuck here.”
“Sounds great to me.”
They talked until streetlamps burned brightly against the night. It was the first time in ages. No doctors. No treatments. No Cognitech. Just them.
Winter’s first snow fell outside as Simon sat alone in his study two months later. The fireplace was dark and cold. A half-empty bottle of whisky warmed him instead. He’d never felt so helpless. So useless. He took another swig. The grandfather clock struck four. He watched with bleary eyes as the hands crept across its face. The chimes softly marked the passing of another hour. Time was his enemy, the clock its willing accomplice – mercilessly burning away every minute of every day. Stealing her from him one second at a time. No matter what he did, he could never hope to win.
He gripped the liquor bottle tightly and stood to face the timepiece. Simon raised a trembling hand and hurled the container at the thief. Chimes clanged angrily as the flagon shattered against the clock. Pungent spirits drenched the old wooden watchman, but the pendulum still swung inexorably. The glass window covering the face was spattered and cracked, but the hands marched on. I can’t save her. He fell to his knees in defeat as bitter tears began to flow. It was the first time he’d allowed himself to cry. I can’t stop time.
Simon suddenly raised his head. Or can I? If his technology could read brainwaves, why not copy them? He put on a pot of coffee and got to work. If I’m going to stop time, there isn’t a moment to lose.
When all was ready, her time was almost gone. Their bedroom looked more like a hospital ward than a master suite. A vase of red poppies was its only cheer.
Simon sat at her bedside and held her withered hand as the winter wind howled outside. “It’s me, sweetheart.” He thought he was too late, but then half-closed eyes drifted to his face.
“Where’ve you been?” she whispered.
“Working on a way to save you.”
She glanced at the strange looking equipment he’d placed by the bed.
He said, “It’s ready. I know you’re tired, but I need you to hang on for just a few more days. Do you think you can?”
She gave a barely perceptible nod. “As long as you’re with me.”
“I’ll be right here.” He kissed her forehead and placed the neuro-topographer at the head of her bed.
Simon spent the next three days at her side reminiscing about their life together. He held her hand and gently stroked her hair as he talked. She listened peacefully – squeezing his hand every so often to let him know she was still with him. All the while, the topographer silently went about its work. Simon kept one eye on the small data screen that reported its progress. It was agonizingly slow. After twenty hours: Fourteen percent complete. Two days: Forty-eight percent complete. Three days: Eighty-six percent complete.
Simon awoke at four in the morning on the fourth day to the sound of electronic beeping. At first, he thought it was her life support, but quickly realized there was no emergency. Her respirator was humming and hissing normally. The beep was coming from the topographer. He checked the data screen. One hundred percent complete. It was then he noticed her looking at him.
She whispered, “Can I go now?”
Simon’s eyes filled with tears. He choked out, “Yes.”
She mustered her strength and gently caressed his cheek. “I’ll be waiting for you.” She closed her eyes as Simon took her hand in his.
It didn’t take long – just a few minutes.
Her vitals flat-lined as Simon softly kissed her forehead. He ran a hand over a little black box attached to the topographer. She was in there now. Her body was dead, but she still lived. Her consciousness, her being, was digitized and preserved within its circuitry. He’d saved her. Time couldn’t claim her anymore.
Simon integrated her new existence into the Cognitech mainframe, sold their house, and made a Spartan home for himself in the lab so he could always be with her. His only luxury was an exact replica of his old study adjacent to his own private lab in a quite section of his company’s headquarters.
Simon lost interest in the company and gave up his duties as CEO. As the years crawled by, he became obsessed with finding a way to communicate with her. He had high hopes for the first few years, but they faded after more failures than he cared to count. Her programing was too primitive. Preservation was its sole purpose. He hadn’t had time to incorporate communication. An upgrade was out of the question. His computer models indicated that the slightest change to any algorithm could ripple through her entire being. She’d be corrupted. Her ‘mind’ torn to tatters.
He often starred at the powerful computer and pictured her in it. Alone. Trapped in an electronic tomb. He could hold her in his hands, but she remained just out of reach. Was she conscious or in some kind of digital coma? Was she really in there or was he just fooling himself? All knew for certain was that he had to be with her. To see her beautiful smile, feel her gentle touch, and hear her sweet voice. He never gave up. Year after year. Decade after decade.
Simon sat alone in his dimly lit study tucked away in a corner of Cognitech. The entire building was empty. Tonight, Milton’s masterwork shared the chair-side table with a small headset and a vase of wild red poppies. He ran a weathered hand through his snow-white hair as he stared longingly at the painting of her. “Happy fiftieth anniversary, sweetheart.”
The clock struck four as he picked up the sleek headset – remembering the clunky eyesore he’d presented to her decades before. This is just the prototype. The final product will be much more compact. It seemed like yesterday. He said to her portrait, “I’ll bet you’re wondering what this one does.” He donned the device. “Let’s find out together.”
It now took moments instead of days.
This was it. No going back. He hesitated as doubt took hold in his mind.
Simon picked up the book, hoping Milton could give him comfort. He pick up the old book and flipped the pages in front of his face, inhaling deeply as he thought of that spring day long ago. He put on his reading glasses and turned to a passage he knew by heart:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.
My mind, he thought. Is that what I’m about to put into that box? My soul? Or just a lifeless copy – the original lost forever.
He pondered the question, then decided to proceed. Whatever happened would be better than going on any longer without her.
Our state cannot be severed, we are one.
One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself.
The room faded. The ticking of the clock grew more and more distant until it, too was gone. Nothingness overtook him.
Then he felt something. A breeze – soft and warm on his face. Simon opened his eyes to find himself standing in a field of the reddest poppies he’d ever seen. Their rolling undulations in the gentle wind looked like wildfire.
“Come here often?” a familiar voice said from behind him. He wanted to turn, but was afraid. Afraid it wasn’t real.
A hand touched his shoulder. He turned to see Maggie smiling at him. She wasn’t withered and sick anymore. She was the young, healthy, beautiful girl he’d met so many years ago. He caught sight of his hand as it reached for her. It was young and strong again.
She said, “Welcome to Paradise.”
Simon grabbed his wife and kissed her as tears rolled down his face.
Maggie whispered, “I’ve waited so long.”
“I know. We’re together now. Forever.”
“Forever.” She nodded with a smile. “I have a surprise for you. Cover your eyes.”
“No. I want to look at you.”
“Please? I’ve been planning this a very long time.”
“Okay.” Simon did as she asked.
It only took a second. Maggie said, “You can look now.”
He opened his eyes and stood speechless.
Maggie beamed. “Recognize it?”
He stood in a small college coffee house. “Of course I do. How did you?”
“This is Paradise. We can do anything here.”
They found an empty table and talked for hours as rain pattered against the window.
Simon reached across the table for her hand. He wanted to take in every part of her. He was studying the nape of her neck when it happened. So fast it was almost imperceptible. She flickered. For the slightest moment her face fluttered like a candle too close to an open window.
“What’s wrong?” Maggie could always read him too well.
He forced a smile and convinced himself it was just his imagination. “Nothing. I’m fine. Where to next? Tahiti?”
“Let’s go home.” Maggie gave a sly smile.
They stepped from the café to their front door in a blink.
Simon paused before entering their home. He’d missed this place. This life.
Late that night, Maggie lay in his arms amid the tangled, sweaty sheets of their bed. She sighed. “I really missed that.”
Simon laughed. “It’s nice to be appreciated.”
“Wanna go again?” she said in her most mischievous voice.
He ran a hand down her back and grabbed her naked bottom. “Time to find out if this really is Paradise.”
She sat up suddenly. “I have a better idea!”
“I doubt it.”
Maggie wrapped herself in a quilt and dashed from the bedroom. She returned with a photo album, plopped into bed next to Simon, and excitedly opened the picture book.
Simon said dryly, “I like your first idea better.”
“Come on. It’ll be fun.”
“Okay, let’s have a look.” Simon pointed to a picture of them in sombreros and laughed. “Ha! Mexico! I can’t believe you talked me into hiking that bug infested jungle and climbing those pyramids. My legs ached for a week!”
She looked confused.
“I don’t remember that.”
“Sure ya do. It was our honeymoon.”
She shook her head. “I can’t remember any of it.”
“Of course you can. We’re part of the mainframe now. We can do differential equations in our sleep. We can recite the collected works of Shakespeare and Tolstoy off the tops of our heads. We remember every second of every day.”
Maggie just stared at him. “I don’t remember.”
“We’ve had a big day, that’s all. Let’s get some sleep.” Simon turned out the light. He knew she’d see through his façade if he left it on. He pulled her to him and stroked her hair until she fell asleep. He watched her for hours afterward; feeling her warm breath against his chest.
He awoke the next morning alone. He called, “Maggie!” There was no reply.
He grabbed some pants and ran into the living room. Empty. He dashed to the kitchen on the verge of panic and found her staring into the open refrigerator.
“Thank God! I thought I’d lost you again,” Simon said with relief.
Maggie looked upset. “I was going to surprise you.”
“Sorry.” Simon smiled. “I’ll go back to bed. This never happened.”
“No. I was going to make your favorite breakfast, but I can’t remember what it is.” Tears filled her eyes. She began to tremble. “What’s happening to me?”
“I don’t know, but I’ll fix it.” He held her tightly. “It’s going to be okay.” His stomach knotted with the memory of the last time he told her that.
He went to his study and ran a diagnostic. He ran it again, then seven more times. Each with the same result.
She entered before he started another. “Sorry, but I couldn’t wait. Did you find anything?”
He looked away and nodded – his jaw clinched.
“What is it?”
He looked into her frightened, trusting eyes. “Your program’s been corrupted. It’s causing holes in your memory. And they’re getting bigger.”
“But how? I’ve been fine for years. Why now?”
“When I put myself in here with you, the newer coding caused compatibility errors. I thought I’d found a way around it.”
“How bad is it?”
She sat next to him. “How long?”
He choked out, “Four months. Maybe six.” He put his face in his hands. “It’s all my fault.”
She put her arms around him. “It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just life.” She cupped his face in her hand and gently lifted till their eyes met. “Let’s make the most of the time we’ve got.”
A few weeks later, Maggie found herself in a strange place. She asked Simon, “Where are we?”
“I don’t recognize it.”
“We’re in the living room. You had another episode.”
“How long was I out this time?”
“A few hours.”
“It’s happening faster than we thought, isn’t it?”
Simon nodded. “It’s just accelerating so much faster than I ever thought it could.”
“I can feel it. Just like last time. Pieces of myself falling away.”
Simon just stared at her.
She smiled softly and took his hand. “I need you to do something for me.”
He didn’t answer. He knew what was coming.
But it didn’t come. Nothing did. She was frozen—trapped in an endless loop of broken algorithms. She stood there, flickering every few moments like a bad fluorescent bulb. Simon held her hand. There was nothing else he could do.
After three days, Maggie finally awoke. She looked around the room in disorientation and asked Simon. “Where are we?”
She shook her head “I can’t do this. I can’t fade away again.”
“Let me go,” she said, “while there’s still some of me left.”
“You have to. For me. Please.”
Simon sat there a long moment – struggling to form the word and then to release it. He finally said, “Okay.”
“Thank you.” Maggie kissed him softly. “It’s going to be okay.” She took his hand. “I’m ready.”
“Yes. I want to be myself when it happens.” She asked again. “Please?”
He nodded, unable to speak.
“Thank you.” She kissed him again.
He pulled her to him and embraced her.
“This isn’t the end,” she whispered, “I’ll be waiting for you.” Maggie flickered and vanished. She was gone, slipping just beyond his reach. Again.
Simon fell into his chair. He neither moved nor ate nor slept for three months. He just sat – paralyzed by the pain of her absence.
Milton’s words echoed in his mind as he gazed at her portrait above the fireplace:
Grace was in all her steps…
Guilt gnawed at him. He pondered the curse of his self-imposed immortal isolation.
O sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams
That bring to my remembrance from what state I fell, how glorious once above thy sphere.
That bring to my remembrance from what state I fell, how glorious once above thy sphere.
It may have been a fitting punishment, but it was more than he could bear.
The grandfather clock chimed four A.M. He watched the pendulum swing – back and forth like the Reaper’s scythe. “You win,” he said.
What comes next?
She said this wasn’t the end.
She said she’d wait for him.
Maybe she was.
Perhaps there really was something more.
He hoped so.