Sometimes Jerry O. Bunnell, Jr., concentrates on pleasant thoughts, and just for a moment he can find himself transported to a better place, a finer clime. The beach at Sosua, for instance, with its pale blue water and splashing young girls, some of them topless.
Or buried alive, maybe, his eyes informing him that it is dark, and feeling the tug of gravity pulling him gently into the quilted satin lining. His imagined hands glide over the glassy smooth cherry-wood boundaries. When the panic blossoms those same hands provide him with the means to claw at the coffin lid, tearing off his fingernails and bleeding, the drops tasting salty sweet as they drop onto his lips in their raining profusion.
Coughing, then spasms as his brain is starved of oxygen and begins its terrible death wail.
And then … nothing.
Wouldn’t it be loverly?
To be or not to be. The only freedom.
For everyone but me, Jerry thinks every few hours. “I am who am,” he says to himself. That’s from the Bible.
Lately, too, Jerry has begun rethinking his notions about Hell.
But mostly…. Well, mostly Jerry thinks about how he got to this point. He wonders how everything went so terribly, terribly wrong.
As it happens, Jerry was enjoying his retirement. No one was more surprised by that fact than Jerry.
He had held on as long as he could at Soundsquare Publishing, and with some success. But by the time he turned 75, the pressure – the looks, the condescension – had grown untenable. When he was finally called in for a talk with Carl Allen, Jerry knew what was coming. He immediately offered to work part-time, without benefits.
“What benefits?” Carl asked.
Jerry noticed again how well suited Carl was for his job as a newspaper editor. His bland face never revealed anything.
“Well,” said Jerry, “there’s my medical insurance.”
Carl shook his head. “Are you serious? We pay what? Three hundred bucks a month for your Medicare supplement? That’s peanuts, Jerry. You’d stick around for that?”
Jerry’s temper flared – just like he’d promised himself it wouldn’t. “That’s a helluva lot less than you’ll have to pony up for my replacement.”
“What replacement?” Carl asked, his monotone never wavering.
Jerry knew Carl was right. He was a friggin’ dinosaur.
Once he’d been a pretty good reporter, but that takes too much emotional stamina. It’s hard to piss people off day after day, but there’s no use being a reporter if you’re not up for that. And he wasn’t. Hadn’t been in more than a decade.
At some point the tables had turned. Jerry had once loved making people angry. Angry people say stupid things, including the truth.
Eventually Jerry found that he was the one who couldn’t control his temper. He’d seen too much stupidity and too much greed. Put it this way: he’d sat through far too many city council meetings, and he’d witnessed more crummy deals going down than any man should.
Of course he was angry. Who wouldn’t be?
Fast forward six months. Who would have ever guessed I’d end up here, Jerry thought, in this weird place?
If someone had two years before asked Jerry where he’d like to retire, Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic, would have never come up. Not in a million years.
But here Jerry was, and boy was he enjoying himself.
Compared to Jarabacoa, Jerry’s life back in the States would have been damned cramped. That’s one way of putting it.
He was living on his Social Security payments of $2,300 a month, plus about $1,600 he drew out of his 401k. That was money he’d put away years back, before Soundsquare bought the company and stopped offering retirement accounts.
Who could live in the U. S. on less than four Gs a month?
But in Jarabacoa, he was doing just fine. Jerry couldn’t afford one of the wood-and-stone mansions in Rancho Las Guazaras, but he didn’t need one. He had a nice two-bedroom house down near the park where the two rivers meet. It was pleasant to walk down to the confluencia when the weather was nice, which it mostly was.
Jerry had a car, but he rarely drove it. When he wanted to go downtown, he’d just walk out to the street and raise his hand. Someone on a motoconcho — a motorcycle taxi — would immediately stop. For $5 he’d be at the store in five minutes.
Jerry often enjoyed an ice-cold El Presidente on the shady plaza for $4, U. S. And buddy, it was always ice cold.
Yeah, there was poverty. He was surprised to see when he first arrived that there were people, often entire families, living in the ditches along the roads. Most of the time their home consisted of tarps or something else waterproof stuck up on sticks.
That’s where they live, Jerry thought, and for a moment he tried to imagine what that was like.
For the first time in his life, Jerry was one of the wealthy people. He would occasionally drop by the church on the plaza to put something in the poor box.
He didn’t go to the services, but he wasn’t one of those idiots back home who thought religious people were awful. He knew they did good work.
He’d grown up in a strictly Christian household and had learned his Bible. He didn’t believe it, but it was useful for a writer to have a better than passing knowledge of it.
He’d left the church early when he realized it was all superstition and nonsense. What did Einstein say? If people have to be afraid of finding themselves in eternal torment in order to do the right thing, that speaks pretty poorly for people.
Or words to that effect.
Anyway, he felt pretty good about slipping a few dollars into the box. He liked doing it anonymously.
For the first time in his long life, Jerry was a nice guy.
He was learning a little Spanish, but he wasn’t working at it very hard. It wasn’t like it was necessary.
“Que pasa?” he would call out in greeting. The response was always the same: “Good day, Señor. How may I help you?”
Just like their teacher taught them in school, he thought. After a week or so, they changed it up slightly, referring to him instead as Señor Jerry (“Señor Herry”). He liked that, too.
There were other gringos around, and from time to time Jerry would join them in the park or in their apartments for games and drinks and dinner.
Jerry had even begun asking himself a question that a year before would have made him laugh. A cynical laugh, yeah, but out loud.
Can people change?
It sure felt like it.
Admittedly, the town wasn’t much to look at. Jerry described it to his girlfriend, Mavis, as a kind of Legoland, with everything built out of concrete blocks. The construction was poor and uninspired, but the locals gaudied up their houses and buildings with bright paint, cheering what would have otherwise been too dreary to bear.
The surrounding mountains were green and thick with conifers. They reminded him of his home back on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.
All in all, it was a damned good life, because, too, he could sometimes drive down from his cool mountaintop perch in Jarabacoa to the hot coast, where the blue water waited. He would spend a few days on the beach with his ice cold Presidentes. He’d watch the girls, some of them topless.
“Keeps me young,” he would tell himself.
He knew Mavis wouldn’t mind. “Look, but don’t touch,” she once told him.
Jerry snorted. “Like that’s gonna happen.” He was old now, with a potbelly he considered acceptable for his age. He was letting his hair grow long, like when he was a kid in the sixties, though it no longer flew out from his scalp like an explosion.
Now it was white and flimsy and whipped about with every breeze.
His flesh had once been as rosy as the girls’ breasts, but now the only color was provided by sunburn.
Jerry was no young girl’s idea of a catch, that was for sure. And he wasn’t paying for it, though the opportunity was ever-present.
Of course, Jerry was only temporarily a lone bachelor. Mavis had some work to finish up, but she’d be down directly.
Mavis suited him just fine, with her sleek red hair and her loud laughter. She was a brilliant companion.
He knew her hair color wasn’t natural, of course, but rather a choice.
He liked that, too. Bright red hair. If that isn’t Mavis, what is?
Who can say? he often thought. Maybe I love her. He was looking forward to introducing Mavis to Jarabacoa, and to the new Jerry Bunnell. She’d soon get to see both in person. They would sit on his back porch, look out over the forest and listen to Mavis’s collection of old Broadway records. The real thing, you know. Vinyl 33 and a thirds.
Wouldn’t it be loverly?
Jerry would often muse on his wisdom in choosing New Worlds to help him set up his retirement. Dumb name for a company, but they were great. They took care of everything, just like they had promised.
They had worked with him to find Jarabacoa, where there were other New Worlds clients living in retirement.
They also handled his meager retirement funds, and had managed to actually make some money in the market.
Stupid name, he thought, but I am grateful to those guys.
It was unusual for Jerry to feel grateful, so he savored that, too.
When Jerry later recalled the events of those last Jarabacoa days, he often wondered if it was the sweetness of his new life that had caused him to so quickly panic when the bad news started crashing down. After all, he’d been through tough times before. Or it may have simply been the timing. He couldn’t believe it was possible that his life could rise and fall so quickly.
Jerry received the first shock on a Wednesday morning as he was enjoying a Skype chat with Mavis. Someone suddenly broke into their conversation, a third window popping up on Jerry’s Virtua-Reality Pad. A stranger’s face appeared, a fortyish woman with a highly disciplined haircut. A banner at the bottom of the new window read Ms. Heather Redd, New Worlds Unlimited.
Jerry was surprised. He didn’t know someone could just break in like that. But New Worlds had supplied the pad, and had set up his cloud service, so it was likely they had added bits and pieces to help them in their work. Jerry started to protest, but the look on the woman’s face stopped him.
She was clearly troubled.
“Jerry,” she said. “My name is Ms. Redd. I apologize for intruding into your conversation with Ms. Frohm. Should I call you back when we can speak privately?”
“No,” Jerry said. “We don’t have any secrets.” That surprised him. It was maybe the most intimate thing he’d ever said to Mavis.
“Thank you,” Ms. Redd said. “I’ve recorded your decision.”
She looked up. “I’m afraid I have some very bad news for you.”
Jerry stiffened. He saw Mavis turn her eyes to her screen. This is strange, Jerry thought. She is looking into my eyes. I am looking into hers. But the angles of our cameras prevent us from seeing each other eye-to-eye.
He’d noticed it before, of course, this optical disconnection, but now there was something in Mavis’s eyes that left him feeling odd – he was at a remove from her, as people used to say, and it bothered him.
“First, let me tell you that we’re going to do everything we can to make this better,” Ms. Redd said. It was clear she had rehearsed her speech. Or maybe she had repeated the words so many times already, in previous conversations. Maybe that was her job – delivering bad news to customers.
“The simple fact is that your 401K account was among about two dozen that were emptied on Thursday last week.”
“What?” Jerry shouted.
“Jerry,” Mavis said. “Hold on. I’m sure it’s insured.”
That was just like Mavis, Jerry thought. Always trusting. He ignored her. “I want to talk to Ed,” he told the New Worlds rep. “Get me Ed.”
“Mr. Bunnell,” Ms. Redd said quietly. “I’m afraid Ed has also gone missing. We are assuming he is the one who drained the accounts.”
Jerry was stunned into silence. Ed Blanton had been his man at New Worlds for more than a year, ever since the first time he’d walked into the firm’s Seattle office. The receptionist had punched a button, spoken quietly into her headset, and 30 seconds later Blanton had stepped into the lobby to greet him.
Blanton was tall and self-possessed, with elegant silvery-gray hair and an expensive suit to match. Most of all, he had the right pitch. “Mr Bunnell,” he said, “Jerry. Welcome to New Worlds. Your new and better life begins today.”
Jerry couldn’t recall if he had spoken to anyone else at New Worlds from that day to this.
“Tell me it was insured,” Jerry said.
“Mr. Bunnell, we’re going to do our best to make this right,” Ms. Redd said. “But we have some details to work out.”
“That isn’t what I asked,” Jerry said. He knew when someone was trying to avoid a question. He’d heard it all before, a thousand times. He grew more agitated. “Was it insured?”
“We self-insure, Mr. Bunnell, so in that sense it was.”
Jerry sat back. That was ominous. He heard Mavis’s voice. “In what sense wasn’t it?”
The New Worlds rep was quiet for a long time. “When you signed your contract,” she said, “it included a hold harmless against us if due to circumstances beyond our control your investment declined in value. Standard stuff, really.”
“Well surely having your employee steal my money was within your control!” Jerry bellowed.
Ms. Redd looked down at something below the frame of her video window. Undoubtedly a piece of paper on her desk. She spoke without looking up. “I’m afraid I can’t speak to that.”
Jerry heard Mavis gasp.
“Can’t or won’t?” Jerry shouted.
Ms. Redd paused a long moment. She was clearly giving Jerry time to calm down. Her next words had the opposite effect. “I’ve been instructed not to speak on that matter,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
All three paused. Jerry could hear his own rapid, heavy breathing in his earpiece. Could the others hear it?
Of course they could. He forced himself to calm down before speaking again.
“What happens next?”
“We’ve called in the police,” said Ms. Redd. “And they have indicated the FBI may be interested in the case because it involves not only interstate commerce but the international flow of dollars.”
“For now,” she added, “we would like you to stay calm and sit tight. Our first job is to figure out how he did it.”
“I don’t suppose you’re going to make up for my lost income in the meantime,” Jerry said.
“I’m afraid not,” Ms. Redd said. “But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.”
Jerry wasn’t having any of that. “No, let’s do get ahead of ourselves. What does this mean?”
Ms. Redd knew exactly what Jerry was asking. “Even if it comes to that, the changes we will have to make to your lifestyle will be minor, on the whole.” She paused. “I wouldn’t mention this at all except I don’t want to surprise you if we do have to make those changes.”
She paused again. “We would ask, however, that you curtail your visits to the shore for the time being.”
Jerry was surprised. “Why would I need to do that?”
“It all has to do with the way we budget,” Ms. Redd answered. “If you eventually determine you’d like to continue taking trips to the beach, that can be arranged. But if cuts are necessary, that would be the best means of continuing to live life in Jarabacoa in the style to which you’ve become accustomed.”
She glanced at something to her right and gave an almost imperceptible nod. She then turned back to Jerry. “Do you understand? No more trips to the shore for the time being?”
Jerry was fuming, but he agreed. “Yes.”
“Thank you,” Ms. Redd said. “I’ll be back to you soon.”
Her window deflated like a pierced balloon. It flew off the side of the screen and she was gone.
Jerry and Mavis looked at each other, their eyes never meeting.
Jerry stood on the back porch of his home, the second story porch, and looked out over the mountains. Here and there rusted tin roofs peeked through the thick foliage, metal shards infiltrating Eden and serving as a reminder to Jerry that he was surrounded by a foreign land.
That fact was much on his mind because he knew what had gone unspoken by Ms. Redd was more important than what had been said. If he couldn’t leave the mountain, he couldn’t return home, to America. Maybe that was why she cut off his trips to the shore. By now she would have limited his New Worlds debit card’s useful range to Jarabacoa and maybe a few miles beyond.
It was possible Jerry could raise a little cash by selling his car, and could buy a plane ticket. But what then?
He had no means of accessing his money. He had essentially signed over his life to New Worlds. He could fight them, of course, but with what? That took money.
He didn’t have money. He had a New Worlds debit card.
He had made that bargain six months before. It was just part of the deal, and at the time he hadn’t minded.
Other than Mavis, he didn’t really have anyone left back home. He knew a great many people, but called few friends.
And soon, Mavis would join him.
For the first time he wondered if he hadn’t been more than a little too quick to sign on the dotted line.
He didn’t visit Jarabacoa before making up his mind. New Worlds had put him into some kind of tank with tubes and wires and special goggles, and he’d taken a tour of Jarabacoa without leaving Seattle.
“Damnedest thing I ever saw,” he told Mavis afterward. “It was hot, sometimes. Other times cool. You could smell the place and taste the beer.”
“I had no idea that kind of virtual reality equipment exists. They ought to market it just for vacations,” he said. “Save people a helluva lot of money.”
After that, he’d quickly made up his mind. He would leave the USA forever. He was tired of dealing with his money woes. And as for America – he was sick to death of the endless nastiness between the left and the right. You couldn’t turn on the TV without somebody shouting about how evil the other guy was.
When the moment arrived to make that irrevocable decision, Jerry was calm and relaxed. He even made a joke about it, asking Ed if they had ESPN on the internet “down there.”
“If I can watch the Seahawks,” he told Ed, “my life is pretty much complete.”
He had found Jarabacoa exactly as promised.
He was home, here, for good. He’d be planted out there in those hills.
But that call … .
For the first time, a creeping anxiety rose in his mind. No, it was deeper than that. It made his guts tremble a little. He was actually fearful.
Time for an El Presidente, he thought. He strode purposefully down the stairs of his home, ensured the front door was locked behind him, and made his way to the sidewalk.
He raised his hand. As always, someone stopped. A man on a tiny motorcycle. Jerry looked at the bike with sympathy.
“A donde?” the man asked.
“La plaza. Cuanto dinero?”
“Doscientos,” the man said. Two hundred. Jerry did the calculation. $4.50 or so. He grinned ruefully. That 50 cents saved might come in handy.
He pulled out his New Worlds debit card and the man passed it over his phone. The phone chimed its agreement. Done.
Jerry realized he’d been holding his breath while the man ran the debit card. Maybe the world wasn’t falling apart.
Maybe they would get his money back.
For now, he just wanted to get into town and drink a cold El Presidente. He also hoped to run into some of his compadres, some of his fellow New Worlds retirees. Had any of them lost their retirement funds?
Of course he would be cool about it. He’d slip a few hints into the conversation, just to see if anyone gritted his teeth. He’d watch for someone who was into the rum today with a particular urgency.
There was no use acting all panicky. That wouldn’t do him any good at all. He had to keep his cool.
When he later recalled the events that followed that first call, Jerry was surprised to realize it had only taken him three weeks to “run off” Mavis, as he always phrased it.
Jerry had been married once, “and more importantly, divorced once,” he would tell people. He didn’t want to make that mistake again. His various girlfriends through the decades had each gone on her way, sometimes sadly, but more often with the two of them just happy to be done with each other.
But Mavis had been special.
Jerry knew exactly why it had happened. Within a few days Ms. Redd had forwarded an email from the honchos at New Worlds that said it was unlikely Jerry and the others would ever see again a penny of their stolen funds. New Worlds reps, including Ms. Redd, were to start making the necessary changes immediately.
In her email, she did just that, laying down the new terms for Jerry’s life: no car, no trips to the shore, and life in an apartment.
Small things for some men, maybe, but Jerry felt like he’d been neutered. Hell, she hadn’t even bothered to pick up the phone and tell him — you know, face to face. He went a little crazy.
After that, every Skype conversation with Mavis turned to the subject of money, with Jerry moving from frustration to anger to, worst of all, feeling sorry for himself.
Jerry was enraged with New Worlds, and with their incompetence, but he was powerless to do anything. Instead he lashed out at Mavis for trying to make him feel better. He didn’t need her support, he told himself, either moral or financial.
“Now, Jerry,” Mavis said to him, “don’t be like that.”
“Don’t be like what?” he hissed. “This is who I am. Pissed. What were you thinking? Why would you talk to them about me?”
Mavis was quiet for a moment. “I didn’t, Jerry. I talked to them about us.”
“Yeah, including my finances, my future and where I’m going to live for the rest of my life. I never said you could do that. I never wanted you to do that.”
“Jerry,” Mavis sighed. “They called. I answered. It isn’t like we haven’t discussed this. We’re going to live together. We’re going to share our incomes. We’re in this deal together. Or at least that’s what you always said.”
Jerry huffed. “You act like we’re goddamn married. We’re not, and we’re not going to be.”
And that was that.
The problem, though Jerry never said it out loud, was that Mavis had more money. It was that simple. She would be the breadwinner.
He sometimes told himself that wasn’t the issue, pointing out in his internal arguments that even before he lost his retirement account Mavis brought a larger pot of money to the table.
But the difference would have been considerably smaller, and besides, there was the shock of it all.
New Worlds, in its astonishingly efficient way, had arranged for Jerry’s quick move to his new apartment. It was all right, he acknowledged, but he had looked forward to welcoming Mavis into his pretty two-story with its broad lawn and mountain view.
They could still have that, but only because Mavis made it possible. He would be moving into her house, and not vice versa.
It ate at him, not least because there was nothing he could do. He was trapped. Maybe that was the worst of it.
Maybe that was what turned him into such an asshole.
After hanging up on their last Skype conversation, Jerry had immediately regretted speaking to Mavis that way, and had felt awful about treating such a good woman so badly. Once again his goddamn temper had gotten the best of him.
But soon, very soon, he was glad he had run off Mavis. No matter how much it hurt, it was better that she got away when she did.
The second phone call from New Worlds followed the first by exactly 30 days. Though it was 10 a.m., Jerry was still half drowsing in bed. He’d started doing that lately – staying up late watching mindless TV, and then sleeping late, sometimes til noon. One of the affordable pleasures of his new retirement, he would tell himself, with, as usual, a touch of self-pity.
Jerry reached for the phone on his bedside table. He punched the Skype app.
Ms. Redd. She had the same dead-serious look on her face. “Jerry. I hope I didn’t wake you.”
Jerry’s response was brief, his tone weary. “Nope,” he said. He stood so the camera wouldn’t reveal sheets and the headboard. He sat down at his desk in only his briefs and a t-shirt, but she couldn’t know that. “What is it this time?”
“Jerry, we’re going to be joined in a moment by Mr. Anderson, one of the attorneys working on the cases of those who were defrauded by Mr. Blanton.”
“Good,” Jerry said. “I’m glad to hear you’re going after that son-of-a-bitch.”
Ms. Redd momentarily turned her eyes away from the screen. Jerry watched as she put on a resolute face, then turned her attention back to him. “Jerry, we’re doing everything we can. But I’m afraid we have more bad news for you. Well, not more bad news, really. But we have a situation. It’s one I don’t have the authority to handle.”
“If he’s gonna tell me I’ll never get my money back, well, I worked that out for myself already,” Jerry said. He wanted her to know he was angry.
“Hold on for a moment. Mr. Anderson is joining us. Do I have your permission to stay on the call with you?”
“Sure,” Jerry growled. “Why the hell not?”
Another window popped open, this one filled by pinstripe-encased broad shoulders holding aloft a surprisingly soft pale face. Too young for all that butter, Jerry thought. But you know — lawyers. Sittin’ on their fat asses all day.
“Mr. Bunnell,” he said. “I’ll say good morning, though nothing I have to say is going to make it one for you, I’m afraid.”
Jerry sat silently. Here it comes, he said to himself. Here’s where the lawyer screws Jerry Bunnell.
“Mr. Bunnell, I can tell you we’ve now learned how Mr. Blanton was able to make off with your savings. It was really quite simple,” he said. “At some point you signed a power of attorney with him. With that he was able to create the documents he required to transfer the funds from your account.”
Jerry spluttered. “But I thought I had to sign a power of attorney to have you folks handle my finances!”
Mr. Anderson sat silently. One second. Two. “No sir, that’s not the case. Like many companies that manage the money of others, we can work quite well with simple contracts. There’s no need for a power of attorney. Mr. Blanton had the paperwork made up on his own. It’s quite impressive, by the way. It looks like formal documentation created by New Worlds.”
Ms. Redd spoke up. “He knew very well what he was doing from the beginning,” she said. “We know that now.”
Jerry sat back. He was deflated. He had been taken. Jerry Bunnell, cynical reporter, the fellow who had for decades eye-witnessed the crooks and the fools who trusted them. He was caught, hook, line and sinker.
“Well, surely he was bonded,” Jerry said, this time more quietly.
“True,” said Mr. Anderson, “and we have contacted the bonding agent. The problem is two-fold. One, we can provide no evidence that Mr. Blanton did anything illegal.”
“He stole my money!” Jerry shouted. “How is that not illegal?”
“Well, Mr. Bunnell,” the lawyer said. “That’s where this gets very complicated. You see, we don’t have any standing in this case. We weren’t the ones harmed by this action. You were.”
“Then I’ll file the charges and ask for the bond,” Jerry said.
This time the attorney paused for a long time. Jerry watched as he settled his pudgy self, sinking deep into his black leather chair. A thin sheen of sweat momentarily caught the light and glistened on his forehead. Jerry found it disgusting.
“Mr. Bunnell, as I told you, this is where it gets complicated. So let me start at the beginning. Please.”
“Okay,” Jerry said. “Let’s just get to it.”
Mr. Anderson took a deep breath, then began. “It seems Mr. Blanton didn’t just cash out your retirement funds. He actually wrote himself into your will, with a codicil indicating that any funds remaining in your account were to be deposited into his bank upon your death.”
He paused again. “Six weeks ago he filed your death notice from the coroner, providing proof you had died. Then he collected the funds.”
Jerry was dumbfounded. “Well obviously the papers were forged,” he said. “He can’t get away with that!”
“Mr. Bunnell,” the lawyer said, then stopped. He had lost some of his confidence and professional composure. He sat forward. “Mr. Bunnell,” he repeated. “The death certificate wasn’t fraudulent.”
Jerry was suddenly dizzy. “What do you mean it wasn’t a fraud? I’m not dead!”
“Well,” said Mr. Anderson. “I’m afraid that depends on the definition of dead. And that’s why we find ourselves in a bit of a situation.”
Jerry looked at the back of his right hand. It sure looked like his, though it was shaking more than usual.
And his cell phone – it was still warm in his grip after the long conversation with Mr. Anderson. He could feel it, couldn’t he?
He walked to his bathroom and flipped on the light. In the mirror he saw a pale, frightened old man looking back at him. Their eyes met.
Jerry O. Bunnell, Jr. Age 76.
Jerry stared into his reflected image, looking for details. Same age spots. And there was the thin scar on his lip he’d won the hard way in a flailing eighth grade fistfight with Andy Cuthbert.
He drew closer to the mirror and examined his eyes.
The irises were impossibly complex, a starburst of olive tissue with hundreds, maybe thousands of fissures and climbs.
How is this possible? he wondered. How can any digital representation include this kind of detail?
Then he recalled that the moment he turned away, his eyes would disappear. They would no longer exist. The whispering silicon engines that created them would quietly move on to another task. Creating that door, for instance. That wall. Surely that was easier.
This is how life works within the machine. That’s what Mr. Anderson had said.
Jerry was struck with a sudden thought: Schrodinger’s Cat and the whole notion of quantum physics. Dead and not dead, depending on how you look at it.
Now it was manifestly true, at least for Jerry.
During their phone conversation Mr. Anderson had provided more details, but he had immediately traveled far beyond Jerry’s technical understanding. And really, it didn’t matter.
Jerry understood the important point: he was now nothing more than polygons — a mathematical construct.
Or to put it in the simplest possible terms, he was a character in a computer game. A simulation.
Jerry was nearly mad with terror after hearing this. He had sat for a long minute staring at Mr. Anderson’s face. He trembled. He wanted to weep, but weeping seemed too small and feeble a response. How do you deal with knowledge like this?
Mr. Anderson tried to calm him. “Jerry, scientists tell us that you are what you were before.”
The lawyer then watched Jerry carefully for a moment.
“Listen to me,” he finally said in a firm voice. “You. Me. We are all just data within a context.”
“The important point, Jerry, is that you are who you were before. The same memories. The same intelligence. The same sense of humor.”
He paused again. “And you still have free will.”
Jerry said nothing.
“Pinch yourself,” Mr. Anderson told him.
That surprised Jerry. “What?”
“Pinch yourself,” Mr. Anderson repeated. “It can help.”
Jerry reached up with his right hand and pinched his cheek. It hurt.
“You see?” asked Mr. Anderson. “You’re you. You can taste food, feel pain, enjoy sex. Just like before. You didn’t leave those things behind. After all, you never tasted with your tongue, or felt a breeze with your skin. Those are data receptors. It’s the brain that tastes, the mind that sees.”
Mr. Anderson again sat quietly as Jerry gathered himself, digesting this latest information. After a time, he spoke. “Do you know the name ‘Randal Koene?’”
“Of course,” Jerry replied. His voice was hoarse. “Who doesn’t?”
Koene was as famous as Neil Armstrong. An historic figure whose name would be memorized by history students until the end of time.
After all, Koene was the first to download a mind – true consciousness – into a computer. Prior experiments had been unsuccessful, sometimes horribly so, creating dazed or enraged avatars that had to be put down.
It had been a singular moment in human history, all right — a singularity in ethical malfeasance and moral incapacity.
But then in December 2024 — that’s when it all began.
Patient BB’s wife said, “That’s him,” and human civilization took a path from which it would never return.
After Mr. Anderson signed off, Jerry had sat in silence, his mind smoldering with an incapacitating fear. He couldn’t think clearly, and for a time he wondered if something had gone wrong in Texas. Were they doing this to him?
He stared at the back of his hand and felt the warmth of the phone. Then he finally rose from his chair. He needed to see for himself how this worked.
Jerry O. Bunnell, Jr., 76 and ageless, peered back at him.
When he reached the sidewalk, Jerry raised the mathematical construction that served as his right arm. A connected series of polygons drove up on a motorcycle.
“A donde?” the fellow asked.
“La confluencia,” Jerry answered. He started to climb onto the back of the motorcycle, but paused. “Como se llama?”
“Pedro,” said the man.
“Cuál es mi nombre?”
“Señor Jerry,” the man answered.
“How do you know?” Jerry asked.
The man shrugged. “Es un pequeño pueblo,” he said. It’s a small town.
Jerry climbed on and grabbed the man by the shoulders. He knew the man wasn’t real, but rather was a program. A service-worker virtual robot, able to flawlessly handle a multitude of questions and requests.
He had been automatically dispatched by New Worlds – that is, created from very thin air – as Jerry exited his apartment. It was one of the services they provided to ensure his retirement was pleasant.
The other retirees, Mr. Anderson had told him, “are real. Like you.” But the locals were all computer-generated avatars. Placeholders for real human beings. Service workers. Now that he had a moment to think about it, Jerry realized New Worlds had created poor Dominicans whose only purpose was to serve the rich gringos. The metaphor stung.
In five minutes they arrived at Jerry’s former home. Jerry tapped the man on the shoulder and pointed. The man eased the bike to the shoulder of the road.
Jerry stepped from the bike, then turned to the man. He looked him in the eye, trying to examine his irises.
The man looked back at him curiously, and Jerry broke off his gaze. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
Jerry turned to the house. He wanted to know more — he wanted to ask questions — but he had been told firmly by Mr. Anderson that he must not change his behavior. “We can’t start a panic, Jerry,” he said.
During their phone conversation Mr. Anderson had provided Jerry with the whole story. Jerry approached New Worlds after learning that he was dying of pancreatic cancer. Jerry wanted out.
New Worlds presented him with two choices, and Jerry made a conscious decision to have no memory of his death, which would be hastened with a pill, or of the process of being downloaded. “Yours is a common wish,” Mr. Anderson told Jerry. “Virtual Jarabacoa is filled with them.”
There were other towns and cities like it on the New Worlds computers, and there were other towns and cities filled with those who knew they were living in a virtual reality. Jerry would soon be moved to one of those. “You have some very nice choices,” Mr. Anderson assured him.
Jerry had stared at the man, their eyes never meeting.
I just want to go home.
Jerry couldn’t recall why he had decided he didn’t want to know. He thought perhaps Mavis knew.
Mavis, he thought. He felt a momentary guilt. He hadn’t even asked about her. He had asked Mr. Anderson if he was able to converse digitally with the living – with “real people” back in the physical world.
Mr. Anderson had confirmed it. “I’m sitting in Dallas, Texas, right now,” he said. “Just 200 feet from you.”
Mr. Anderson saw the look of panic that swept across Jerry’s face. “We also have real counselors on staff, Jerry. If you want to talk to one.”
Jerry paused. That wasn’t the way he worked. Never had been. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Maybe later. I need to think about this.”
“I would recommend sooner rather than later,” Mr. Anderson said. “And let me assure you, you’ll feel better once you’re among people who know they’re enjoying their second life.”
Mavis, he thought again. She was alive. She must have known Jerry was dead, but she was willing to make that leap – that “transition,” as Mr. Anderson put it – to be with Jerry.
“Oh my God,” Jerry said out loud. In a long life of mistakes made in anger, none had been as awful. Had he just known.
He thought momentarily about calling Mavis, but decided against it. This was all for the best, he told himself. She is alive in the real world. That’s where she belongs.
Jerry approached the door of his old home. Mr. Anderson had promised to leave it unlocked.
Jerry opened it and found a gray-lilac glassy panel filling the door frame.
No, it wasn’t a panel. It wasn’t glass. It was nothing, and it filled Jerry with a weird sense of dread.
For the second time that day Jerry felt himself panicking. He calmed himself. Breathe, he thought. Draw in nothing. Exhale nothing. But at least slow down.
He remembered that he had heard himself panting during the first phone call. My God. They have thought of everything.
Jerry peered again at the open door. There was no light within, but no dark either. No floor, no walls. No boundaries. The room might have been a millimeter deep, or it might have extended to the moon.
He had been warned not to reach his hand into the room. He felt no urge to do so. He had simply wanted to see what an unrendered digital space looked like.
After all, this was the world he now lived in. He was paying good money for the banks of servers and processors that generated this house and this town, and that had previously generated the interior of this house, back when he could pay for it.
He had a sudden urge to drive to the edge of town. Mr. Anderson had warned him in no uncertain terms not to do so. “The interior of your old home will be deeply unsettling,” he told Jerry. “But you’ll get over it. We’ve found that seeing the end of reality is more than one wants to bear.”
Mr. Anderson then cleared his throat and adopted his most soothing tone. “Of course, it’s not like you’ll lose your mind or anything like that. You can’t lose your mind. We have that in safekeeping. But we have rules – agreements, really – that require that we ensure your experience is as life-like as possible. With the exceptions of death or insanity, of course. Those aren’t allowed.”
Jerry was already shaking from what he had learned, but this – this casual comment – this was something else altogether. Jerry’s eyes watered and his colon trembled. He hadn’t known such terror, such existential shrieking horror, was possible.
Later when he recalled the moment he was surprised he had realized so quickly the implications. At first he thought his response had been something more than mental – something other than a matter of brainwork. It was a kick in the gut, pure and simple.
But of course that wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be physical. Mind was all he had left.
That was all he was.
But after hearing Mr. Anderson’s comment, something deep inside Jerry had howled in primal terror. Even now, two hours later, he could still feel the reverberations. He knew he would feel them forever.
Jerry closed the door behind him. He’d seen enough.
“I am in Dallas, Texas,” Jerry told himself. “I am in an office building. This is me. These are my thoughts.”
“I am alive.”
He had taken to repeating those words often in the past few weeks. He found some comfort in them, some solace and some transport, like repeating a mantra. And it was all true. He was alive. His mind worked. New Worlds saw to that.
But that was all they provided. When the Social Security Administration received notice of Jerry’s death, they moved immediately to remove him from the rolls. And then … and then Jerry had no income. None.
He had nothing to pay for New Worlds services. Rather than moving Jerry to one of the nice new villages, New Worlds had “parked” Jerry in one of the computers in Dallas.
Now there was no exquisitely rendered village, no mountains, no beer. And no one else.
He had begged, but New Worlds had not allowed him to die.
In the course of Jerry’s third and last phone call with New Worlds — just two days after the second one — Mr. Anderson had made that clear. “Jerry, no one knows better than you that at this point there is very little settled law in this industry. The law might consider that a homicide.”
Jerry didn’t need to be told. While riding the motoconcho from his former home he had closed his eyes, leaned back, and tumbled off.
Christ, that had hurt. But at the clinic the doctors – the service worker avatars – had been instructed that no services were to be provided because none would be needed. Jerry had healed, instantly, and walked home. Once he arrived there he went to the kitchen, drew out a large knife and pulled the blade across his wrist. As his virtual heart hammered away, he watched the blade descend into his flesh. When he removed it, there was no wound.
New Worlds had changed his programming. After falling from the motorcycle he had bled, and he had hurt.
But this was different. It wasn’t like the common effects in the sci-fi movies, with the wound quickly closing and the carved flesh fusing. No, it was like it had never happened.
I must be insane, he thought. This can’t be real.
But no. Going insane was against the rules.
It was all real in the parallel reality in which Jerry now lived.
Jerry pulled a bottle of Brugal from the kitchen cabinet. He wasn’t ordinarily a rum drinker, but these were extraordinary times. If he was going to drink himself into oblivion — wherever that might be — he needed the hard stuff.
He soon learned another hard truth. The bastards in Dallas wouldn’t allow him to drink himself to death, but they were perfectly willing to let him wake up with a hangover that was the next best thing.
Two days. Forty-eight hours. That’s all the time Jerry was given to absorb the astounding news that he was both dead and alive. And then he had found himself once again looking into the soft, broad face of Mr. Anderson.
The lawyer had a simple message, so he kept the call brief: “The Social Security payments have stopped,” he said, “Further changes are required.”
When he took the call, Jerry was sitting on the cheap sofa in his modest apartment. A cool mountain breeze was blowing through the open windows, sometimes stirring his white hair. He could hear the urgent calls of the tropical birds and smell the strange sweet odors of unfamiliar foods cooking over small wood fires.
And then, a minute later, he was precisely nowhere at all.
It was unspeakably cruel, but business is business. “And New Worlds is a business,” Mr. Anderson said.
Now Jerry lives in a gray-lilac color that has no depth, no width, no smell, no sound . . . and no end.
Not blind, but eyeless. Not mute, but lacking a mouth. Not deaf, but in a place of utter silence.
Jerry is alone in a way that no one has ever been before.
No sweet release of death, he reminds himself. No comfort of a broken mind.
No, his mind – that is, Jerry – will continue like this, maybe forever.
Stripped of his five senses, and without needs or satisfaction. Without love, people, the smell of grass, the taste of beer.
Limbless. And utterly, perpetually solitary.
That was why Jerry had flown into a frenzied panic when Mr. Anderson had first sought to comfort him. You can’t die, he had said. You can’t go insane.
The realization had crashed down on Jerry instantly.
There is no escape. I have no way out.
This isn’t fair, he rages.
And lately … lately Jerry has begun rethinking his notions about hell.
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