In “The Virtual Swallows of Hog Island,” a programmer finds himself working for the self-proclaimed “Bad-Boy of Virtual-Reality Therapy.” While his boss is breaking new ground and breaking the rules and his coworkers are engaging in questionable uses of the latest technology, the lonely programmer is in a state of mourning over his deep personal losses and must figure out his own form of therapy.
Everything had been going along just fine. Helen Viorst was in the game. She was playing well, as she had been for three months of intensive outpatient therapy. The trouble hit when she was sent into her Childhood Kitchen. In this part of the game, I’d coded a close-enough replica. In my career, I’ve recreated hundreds of Childhood Kitchens. The program auto-adjusts for approximations of era and status, and the vast majority of our clients were raised with great wealth. But I’ve found that you’ve got to get the appliances spot-on or everything falls apart. You’d be surprised how much time as a child you spent considering the internal organs of your Childhood Kitchen. But remember the Refrigerator blinked open with holy light and offered Food. The Oven burst wide with Maternal Heat and offered Nourishment. The Washing Machine made things clean and new, Redemption. Of course, as ever, the necessary finishing touches (the ones that spark Deep Trauma) were provided by Helen’s memory, things she spilled in sessions with her therapist, Klaus Han.
(I’ll get to Klaus in due time.)
Helen’s details included a certain kind of cookie called Friar Tuck Melt-Aways, with a chocolate candy inside. I found the brand name and recreated a box of them. She offered both of her parents’ shoes—her father wore fine Italian leather lace-ups that cuffed his ankles and her mother wore open-toed high heels with lots of unnecessary straps that hung limply around the delicate, “almost birdlike” bones of her feet. And, most importantly, Helen whispered to Klaus Han in her session—you can listen for yourself, her voice goes raspy for a moment on the tapes—that she would hide underneath a table (made of Pink Ivory wood imported from Mozambique) built into the corner of the kitchen, and curl up next to her terrier, Duchess.
“There was a heating vent under there,” Helen said. “Duchess and I used to hide next to it while my parents fought. I could see their shoes and, because they didn’t know I was there, they said the cruelest things to each other.”
In this particular nook of her virtual reality, Klaus had said, “Go literal, Archie.” And to get a feel for Klaus, I think it’s important to note that my name isn’t Archie. It’s Archer Frimm. And he told me this in his office while he was using a touch-up kit to dye the white roots of his hair. His bulky hands were fitted into latex gloves so as not to stain his fingernails and he was daubing his temples with a small brush—the size of a doll’s janitorial push broom—while looking at a mirror propped on his desk.
I’m not going to lie. I have issues with Klaus Han. He once took me out for drinks when I was a new hire and he leaned over his plate of puffed-up three-cheese gougeres and duck rillettes while fishing shiny cocktail onions out of his martini and, with overblown exhaustion, he said, “You know what they call me. The Bad-Boy of Virtual Reality Therapy. I’m a renegade.” He waved his fat hand, the kind of bulbous knuckles you’d find on a boxer. “It is what it is.” And then he went on to tell me that he himself had dabbled in coding as a boy but thought it was way too tedious for his expansive imagination. “I do ideas.”
I probably nodded and smiled at all of this. And as I think about it now, I hate my face, sweet and slightly misty with perspiration. My God, I wanted Klaus Han to like me even though I was already sure I despised him.
At the end of the night, he hugged me sloppily—all meaty paws and clapping my back like I was a colicky baby—and while chest-to-chest, he whispered into my ear, “I didn’t expect you to smell like money.” He’d meant it as a compliment, but I left thinking that he was the kind of man who’d let another man know that he was blatantly smelling him. People shouldn’t acknowledge that they’re smelling other people. I know Klaus well enough guess that, if questioned, he’d say it’s primal, something like: “No way around it. When we embrace, we take a whiff. There’s DNA in that scent.”
However, Klaus is brilliant. I’ll give him that. His methods do make him a renegade. And this was what he was famous for—knowing the precise moment in a patient’s therapy to pivot away from the big World-Building phase of the Archetypal Abstractions of trauma, grief, and despair, and go for something simple and profound. The root of the cause.
Look, I’d built an incredible Jungian, Freudian virtual reality for Helen. Sure, I relied on worlds I’d built before. She began as only a Shadow of herself, navigating all the basics: a deluge, an apocalypse. Klaus said, “I’d go with nuclear war for this one. Okay? Can you manage?”
Helen had battled an angry giant—Daddy, of course. We even made the giant a little jittery sometimes, like her own father, who was known to do a few lines of coke at the office holiday party or after a big merger or with his mistress at the Grand Hotel Vigdof in Chelyabinsk—Russia, that is, where the old man had a lot of shady pharmaceutical ties.
As a Shadow, Helen was hounded by a wolf who nipped at her constantly but never devoured her whole, aka Mommy. And Mommy also became the threatening Maiden; I stuck that bit in when Helen was trying to survive the Deluge.
Helen, who’d had no children of her own, had also been through Creation. “Really turn up the green. Make this a beauty, okay?” Klaus told me. “Don’t hold back on Eden.”
Eventually, during all of this, Helen went from Shadow to Animal—she chose to be a bear, which Klaus thought was “very interesting” and “a good sign”—to Child—she’d been big-eyed and unusually small in her youth and unable to swim. She would enter her Childhood Kitchen as a Child. It was the last level she had to pass before becoming Self.
It was easy to code: the built-in table, the melt-away cookies, the heating vent, the terrier, and, most of all, her parents’ shoes. Basically, I designed her Childhood Kitchen without ever having to code her parents’ faces. (Faces can be very time-consuming and if the patient has a good imagination, they’re not as necessary as you’d think.) From the hiding place with the dog, I just intimated the parents from the shoes up.
“She’s going to get the cookie and make it to the next level,” Klaus face-messaged me from a Chinese poker game. “Go ahead and start rendering her Self. This one is a go-getter.”
I’d only heard her voice up until this point—everything at the agency was on a need-to-know basis. We had celebs in all the time and if they didn’t ever make it to Self, which they often didn’t, there was no need to let coders know that the celeb had been here at all. Klaus attached the video with the audio this time so I could capture her full expressions and gestures and body.
And, to be honest, when it popped into my queue, I was knee-deep in trying to revamp a World for an eleven-year-old boy who’d found his older brother’s body—the teenager, fit and strong, had accidentally hung himself on some kind of boat rigging. The boy, alone in a boathouse, had tried to cut his brother down with a dull knife used to cut bait. It’s tricky because a kid with Survivor’s Guilt needs to feel empowered—I’d created a large metal mecha for the boy to climb into, beefy robotics—but these types can’t be armed with assault rifles because they just can’t be responsible for any more Death. So I was trying to create a world where the eleven-year-old was saving white-throated sparrows who’d been tangled by debris along the coast of an island off of Maine. He didn’t have to kill any Beasts at all. The boy was also Klaus’s patient and, to be honest, Klaus had lost interest in the kid. He’d lost interest in most of his patients except for Helen Viorst. He’d left a face message for me in which he looked fat in his eyes, his cheeks rubied as if he’d spent the night drinking. He puffed his cheeks and let the air out slowly—the deflation of a balloon. “On that Everly boy,” he told me, “why don’t you just have at it?”
So I was still working on the boy as the tape loaded, but then suddenly there was Helen Viorst, a real beauty. Just a couple years older than I am, early forties at the most. She has black hair with purplish undertones. She still looks like someone who can’t swim, not enough buoyant fat.
I went back through the tapes, starting at Session One. She came in wearing willowy pants, chunky jewelry—all real gold, I assumed—and a low-cut blouse. I watched her fine arched eyebrows tighten with pain, her shoulders buck with difficult memories, her lips fall open and her eyes go wide as she looked off, distantly.
What had I learned about her specific suffering? Her father had his Russian mistress—and other ones too—her mother blamed youth and, strangely enough, she blamed Helen. Their house was so big and wide and empty that Helen’s father rode around in it on his motorcycle once while high. Her mother tried to drown herself in the pool three times. The Christmas tree once caught on fire. How? She wouldn’t say, but they all nearly died.
I thought of her at night sometimes when I was trying to fall asleep, my wife right beside me, behind the scenes. The way Helen cried—I hate myself for saying this—but it sounded beautiful and lush, like an orgasm. And sometimes I wondered if she would ever think of me. The fluorescent lights in my office give me migraines so I keep it a little dark while I take people’s traumas and turn them into games. I’d made her father a coke-headed giant. I’d made her mother a wolf. I was going to try to make her into herself. Something I couldn’t do for my wife or myself; the miscarriages—three of them in a row—were hard on us.
While I was doing the coding of her forehead, Klaus popped his head into my office. His real, live head—flashing smile, trimmed mustache, a suit jacket and shirt unbuttoned so that a glimpse of his undershirt was visible. His chest was hairless—organically?
He said, “Listen, Archie, I’m asking you because you’re the best. Do up a render of me, okay? I’m going to send you some footage. A few speeches I’ve given so you can use them.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “It’s not really policy.”
“Do I seem like a policy guy?” he said, and then he smiled like a drunk father at a wedding. I’ve coded my share of drunk fathers. “Are you the only coder in this place who hasn’t self-rendered and fucked a celebrity in a gaming room?” His expression read: My sweet, sweet boy.
So, self-rendering and fucking renders of celebrities were widespread issues. Bobby A and Bobby B—there were two Bobbies and the lettering was how Klaus distinguished them so we all followed suit—had offered more than once to stand guard while I “tested my code.” And it wasn’t just an old-boy’s network. The female coders were in on it too. Jill and Marcy had both, separately, walked up and whispered, “So who’d you pick?” And when I said, “No one,” they both looked at me like I was a pet ferret someone had chosen to bring to work that had gotten loose and then, against all odds, hired. Part animal, part miracle.
And it was widely rumored that Klaus kept a vast selection of celebrities’ renders—from various eras—and sold them on the black market, which was where he made the bulk of his cash. He was a wealthy man. Surely Klaus had renders of himself. Did he just want a really good one because he actually thought I was the best? Or were his just outdated? The photo of Klaus on our promotional materials was from a bygone era. I’d stared at it and thought that the Klaus I knew was in there somewhere.
About me, Klaus was right and wrong. I hadn’t fucked any celebrities in the gaming room, but I had in fact rendered myself and my wife, Evangeline. She was very scientific about the miscarriages. She mourned the first, but then explained the statistical frequency of miscarriages with the second. After the third, she decided it was better to shut things down for a while, a fallow fields approach. She didn’t mourn at all, or not in front of me. She said that each time she started to express her sadness, it was as if she gave me permission to be sad, and my sadness was too much for her to bear. “This is simple biology,” she kept explaining. “This is just how the body works. You can’t take it personally.” I imagined the small fetuses in their watery worlds, drowning, and how I couldn’t save them. What kind of father could fail, so consistently, at saving his children from drowning? Of course it was personal. Failure usually is.
It was after the second miscarriage that I created a game where Evangeline and I would simply walk around Hog Island in Muscongus Bay, an Audubon nature camp. I decided to mourn here, with her but apart. It’s where my parents took my brother and me before my folks got divorced. It had only a few buildings and modest lodgings—wool blankets, cots, communal meals. I remember being windblown and sunburned, picking mosquito bites so they scabbed up on my legs. I kissed a girl on the ferry there, my first kiss. I rode my hand quickly up her sweatshirt to cop a feel, but she caught my wrist and gave me a look.
I remember my father on those trips. He wore a skimpy European bathing suit. It was so tight and rubbery that it looked like that part of his body was made of seal. He was fit in a way that embarrassed me. I was chubby and slightly knock-kneed; still am. I remembered how another guest picked a fight with him one night at the communal dinner, questioning my father’s masculinity because he had a soft spot for puffins. “Evolution!” the guy shouted drunkenly. “You can’t coddle a species. Not even our own.” And he stared at me. I was what coddling would lead to, a fat kid who looked boiled.
My brother ignored it all, dipping a roll into sauce.
My mother picked up her plate and took it to the kitchen to scrape it into the garbage.
My wife and I have never been to Hog Island IRL. She’s having an affair with a soccer player on my indoor league now. His name is Victor but his nickname on the team is Vic-turbo. I never call him Vic-turbo. We live very far from Hog Island, like seventeen hours by car.
When I looked through Klaus’s footage, I realized very quickly that it was all at least ten years old. He was about twenty pounds trimmer. He wasn’t sausaged into his suit jacket and his hair was thicker, though equally dark, what with his frequent self-administered dye jobs. Basically, unlike his promotional photo, I could tell it was Klaus, and maybe that’s what he wanted: younger but recognizable.
“He’s making a play for Helen Viorst,” I said out loud to no one. “That rogue.”
I thought about what he’d do if I refused to do the coding. I imagined the bulk of him—so hunting-lodge cocky. He didn’t smell like money, by the way. He smelled like a man, like cigars, though I’d never seen him smoke, like a forest filled with bears. Squat as a discus thrower, he always gave the threatening impression that he could put you in a headlock and choke you out.
He’d fire me.
Evangeline would take issue. She works longer hours as it is and makes far more money. She’d say, “If I ever get pregnant, how will I be able to be at home with the kid? And now you’re unemployed?”
We’ve been trying to have a baby for years. We now see an obstetrician who specializes in preventing miscarriages. But do you want to know my deep-down fear? It’s that I’m the problem somehow, and if she were to get impregnated by someone else—for example, the guy on my indoor soccer league, Vic-turbo—the pregnancy would go perfectly, producing a very athletic baby. Vic-turbo’s from Belgium. I imagine them having sex and eating waffles and chocolates, drinking beer and solving mysteries. That’s the sum total of my associations with Belgium.
I flipped to the most recent session between Klaus and Helen. He’s using his therapeutic monotone, explaining how the next level will work. “Your goal is simple: Get one of the cookies.” But the sub-goal, of course, was to listen to her parents say the cruelest things to each other but for Helen not to absorb them. “Stay on task,” Klaus told her. “You are in it for yourself. You are your own protector. Get the cookie and get out.”
“What about Duchess?” she asked.
Now, this was the part where Klaus lost his footing. He didn’t always understand such sentimentality. “Duchess?”
“Yes, the dog. I think you need to let Duchess go.”
She stared at him blankly, took a deep breath, and clutched her hands together.
As soon as I uploaded a fully rendered version of her as Self and of Klaus, ten years younger, he sent me a quick face message. “Nice render! Thanks for being so fast, Archie.” He was lying on his stomach, his face cupped in a massage parlor’s padded face-holder, his cheeks and moustache stretched wide.
That boorish fucker, I thought.
I went on a tear as any good workaholic would, running through job after job.
I invented a level for a highly celebrated, high-ranking war hero who’d attempted suicide. He was a Child. It was summer. He ran through a sprinkler that shimmered in sun, over and over.
At one point, he stopped and looked around his backyard. His mother was standing nearby, wearing a two-piece.
He said, “Is this it?”
No one answered.
He ran through the sprinkler again.
I invented a level for a grieving widower in which his wife was alive and he was watching her jump off a dock into a lake where he was waiting for her.
I meant: Don’t get over her. Live here.
I invented a level for a girl who’d been raped by her neighbor in which she got to run through the woods in the body of a lion.
Nothing to catch. No hunters to outsmart. Just running for as long as she wanted to run.
I made a world for my wife where she could be happy—in an apartment across town where she wouldn’t be my wife. In the world I made for her, I still love her and drive by her apartment sometimes because it’s the only way to make my nerve endings bristle.
When Helen was about to start her gaming session, I tuned in on a sub-line.
She was in one of the gaming rooms—which are a lot like racquetball courts—and was fitted with goggles, again not unlike racquetball.
Klaus cued up her session and then left, as was the standard protocol. But he could always patch himself in from another gaming room. He’d dabbled in coding. That wouldn’t be hard.
On my small screen, Helen appeared under the built-in table in her Childhood Kitchen and it was just the way I’d made it—appliances and all. Her caustic mother and her loud father weren’t speaking yet, only clomping around in their highly detailed shoes. Helen pulled the terrier onto her lap. The cookies were in place on top of the counter. The heating vent was keeping her and Duchess warm.
Klaus had told me that the mother and father should speak in Near-Audibles. This means that the hushed tones approximate speech and the player’s subconscious will fill in the words. It had been one of the innovative techniques that made Klaus a renegade.
I rendered the rest of the house around her. It was just a rough sketch and would only come into play if Helen wandered out of the kitchen. People did, sometimes, wanting to revisit their youths. Like the Near-Audibles, the loose renderings would get filled in by the patient’s subconscious.
Things were going okay, as I said. Her mother was speaking in a Near-Audible and her father responded likewise. Helen was on task. She wasn’t absorbing their words. She was reaching from under the table to find the box of cookies, her small hand patting around nervously.
Her parents were hissing at each other. Her father took two quick lunging steps at her mother. Her mother took one small step back. He was shouting when Helen’s hand touched the corner of the cookie box. She sat up a bit to make herself taller. Duchess almost slid off her lap but she kept one hand curled around the dog’s ribs.
Her father’s shoe stepped on her mother’s dainty foot. He was pinning her to that spot.
Helen looked up and saw the loose etchings of their faces but quickly, so very quickly, her mind filled it in—her father’s wildly etched hair became actual hair. His blobby hand became sharp and clear.
Her mother fell back on one leg to try to keep herself upright as her ribs crashed into the counter.
But Helen stayed true to herself. She pulled the Friar Tuck cookie box down. She popped the lid.
Her mother was on the marble floor crying. Her father’s shoes paused, pointed toes facing Helen. She froze, holding Duchess and the box of cookies.
Her mother, with her cheek on the floor, looked over. Their eyes locked. Her mother raised one finger to her lips, blood trickling from a cut above her eye.
And then a fire alarm started squawking overhead.
Her father cursed in a Near-Audible and staggered out. Smoke poured from the heating vent and rolled in across the floor. Helen pulled a cookie out of the box and shoved it into her mouth. She achieved her goal.
The screen should have gone blank. The next level should have started, but it didn’t.
A new pair of shoes skittered in, white suede bucks. They stopped at the built-in and a voice said, “No, no, no.”
Klaus’s face appeared, flushed and grinning. “Helen,” he said. “You didn’t start the fire.”
“But I did,” she said.
He covered his nose and mouth with his arm and shook his head. “You’re a little girl!” he shouted. “You deserve to be protected.”
It was a breach that went beyond all rules, policies, and standards of care. Therapists weren’t allowed in the Games. The Games were about the achievement of Self—a kind of healing that also empowers, a kind of healing that the patient controls and therefore owns.
Not Healing brought to you by Klaus Han.
A woman’s legs appeared—Helen’s legs. Helen as Self.
This had never happened before either. There were levels, goals that, once achieved, could move one to the next level.
But there she was, leggy and beautiful. Her pale skin, blotchy.
She crawled under the table and pulled Child-Helen out along with Duchess. She had no intention of letting go of Duchess and never had. I realized now from Child-Helen and Self-Helen’s desperation around that dog that it must have died in the actual fire. Child-Helen clung to Self-Helen, the dog’s puffy head between them. “But Mommy,” Child-Helen said.
“That’s what Klaus is here for,” Self-Helen said. “He will help Mommy because he’s a professional who helps people.”
Over Self-Helen’s shoulder, Child-Helen watched Klaus kneel next Mommy and wedge his arm under her.
Soon they were all out on the front lawn—massive and green with an empty fountain. Daddy was passed out on the grass. Klaus was easing Mommy onto a black wrought iron lawn chair. Self and Child were holding on to each other tightly while Duchess tore around the yard, yapping.
The screen went blank.
Klaus Han had gone into the virtual reality. He had entered a patient’s World. He had blurred levels. He’d let Self save Child.
It was dangerous and groundbreaking.
I heard someone running and skidding down the hallway. My office door flew open.
Klaus was beaming. “Who says you can never go in? Huh? Huh? And the two of them! Am I right?” He was breathless and triumphant. His hair slick with sweat, he was one ebullient bear. “How did I look?”
“God damn it, you’re right!” He spun around then and headed quickly back the way he’d come, leaving my door wide open. (Helen was technically still mid-session.) How did he know I’d watch? He just knew.
His voice rang down the hall. “I’m going to present this at the next conference! Bobbies! Did you hear that? Renegade!”
I will never smell like the DNA of Klaus Han.
I set to work then because I knew what I needed.
I worked until the last session of the night. It was the Everly boy patching in from his house, which was often the case with minors. I cued up his World from my desk and uploaded a prerecorded video of Klaus reading the rules of the level from the information I’d sent him.
Soon enough, the Everly boy was peering out from within the massive robot helmet, eyes blinking. He walked through green fields as the winds picked up and the sky turned gray. He clomped heavily through the high grass, over the rocks, searching for white-throated swallows caught in fishing nets and plastic bags.
He squatted down when he found one, the hydraulic gears of his robotic suit hissing, and he delicately cut it loose with a small knife that popped from a toolkit embedded in his arm gear. Then he found another swallow and another. The birds’ wings fluttered wildly. Pale chests, intricately patterned wings, blunt tails. I coded each of the swallows individually, changing something infinitesimal in each of their wet black eyes, shifting the fine yellow dots and stripes on their heads. I remembered how I’d always loved the pictures in my father’s Audubon books. I admired him now for having a soft spot for puffins even though it had embarrassed me at the time. I remembered Klaus waving his fat-knuckled hand and heard his voice in my head. It is what it is.
We are who we are. We need what we need.
As the game went on, the boy collected points for each swallow he set free.
But, eventually, he came upon one that seemed dead. Still and dry-eyed, its wings were lifeless. The boy cut it loose, but it didn’t move. He held it in his large robotic hand, feathers ruffling, and stared at it from behind his shielded helmet. He looked like he might start to cry.
Don’t cry, I urged him. Don’t.
As a boy, I would go for walks on Hog Island alone and I’d let myself cry because I could always blame it on the wind. I was lonesome then in a way that feels so familiar now.
But the Everly boy didn’t cry. He trusted the game. He lifted his metallic hand in the air, and the bird shuddered. Its wings twitched and it hopped to its delicate pinkish claws, shook its head, and batted off into the air.
I watched that moment again and again. I watched it as many times as the boy had saved swallows. Maybe more.
And then I walked out of my office and down the hall, past Bobbies A and B and Marcy, who were joking as they shoved themselves into their coats, heading home for the night—to lovers or not. I didn’t know.
I slipped by them, unnoticed, and made my way to the row of gaming rooms. None of them were occupied. I opened a door and stepped inside. I put on a pair of goggles hanging from the peg, tightened the rubber strap and thought—ever so fleetingly—of my father’s rubbery bathing suit and how he had seemed part-seal.
I used the computer in the wall to cue up my game.
(I’ve told no one about my game and I won’t. The secret rises inside of me, all yeasty ferment. Sometimes I imagine how it shows on my face—a puffed-up, blanched unspoken.)
It’s a simple game with only one level.
I go to Hog Island alone and drown myself over and over again.
I intend to play it until I don’t need to play it anymore.
“The Virtual Swallows of Hog Island” copyright © 2017 by Julianna Baggott
Art copyright © 2017 by Mark Smith