Late one autumn evening, the holograms stop obeying. You’re sitting at your computer, at the kneehole desk in the study, fixing lines of code, grief lodged inside you, still after all these years, a feral thing.
Your wife’s hologram is a bluish phantasm, nearly transparent, yet like enough to the real thing. Just as she did when she was alive, she sits cross-legged on the couch, reading the newspaper, gasping at headlines. From a pipe installed in the rafters, jasmine wafts in, her scent. Quixote curls at her feet, shimmering blue, licking his paws, unable to stop. Your son and daughter skate through the house at top speed, sliding down bannisters. They never travel without roller-skates anymore. They shriek with recorded delight, never aging. Once in a while, they shout, “Can’t catch me!” You smile to hear it.
Black smoke from a faraway wildfire obscures the moon. “Can we live through any more of these fucking headlines?” your wife asks. You glance at the clock. Right about now, she’s supposed to say, “Should we order out for dinner?”
To your surprise, Quixote stops licking his paws and begins to bark at the open window, which is something he did quite often when he was alive, but which you didn’t program into his hologram. From the open window: crowds camped out in makeshift settlements are moving down a hill away from the blaze. A shadow across the yard. Probably nothing. Surely the creek will stop the flames.
You shut the window. Quixote stops barking, returns to the floor by your wife. He keeps looking up at you and whining. He’s waiting and panting. Not in his code.
You check the program, and it’s a jumble. What are all these strange, intricate changes to the code? You didn’t make them.
Is there a way to fix this mess? You hunch over the computer, trying to find the problematic bits, but there are too many of them, stacked on top of each other, their import muddled by each other. Your head’s about to explode. Rewrite the code—calm down. Code should be streamlined, and yet you find yourself adding duplicate exclusions: Your wife cannot swear. Your dog cannot bark.
Your son skates into the room. “I’m bored of skating, Mommy,” he says to you. He’s not supposed to say that. He should never get bored. Your daughter is not far behind him, crashing into him with a short frustrated laugh, knocking him down. They look up at you from the floor, their eyes big.
“We’re boooooored!” they say. “Can we go outside?”
In spite of the dread and anxiety, your heart catches. A familiar question, this, a question with which you were frustrated during their lives. The holograms are supposed to be happy.
They skate around the study, arms outstretched, knocking things off shelves and laughing. Your wife turns the page of the newspaper and looks up, a blue scowl on her lips. “Can you take them outside? I need to know what’s happening to our country,” she says. Off book again.
You breathe deep. Maybe someone’s hacked into the system?
The holograms can’t leave, they exist only within this house. You’ve constructed what lies within these walls with such glorious precision. Your wife continues scowling.
There’s only one thing to do. You put your hands on the children’s backs and lead them through the foyer to the front door. You throw it open. Stars above the foothills. Stench of smoke. People migrating across the hills. The world’s burning. It’s terrifying.
“Happy now?” you ask.
Your children gaze out the front door, entranced by the smoke and stars and faraway fire. Sound floats into the house from the darkness: songs of abandon, songs of sorrow. It’s the slow strum of ukuleles and guitars made by people moving across the dark foothills. Singing their way through darkness.
“Where are they going?” your daughter asks, gesturing at the mass of shadows. Her code shouldn’t have allowed her to ask the question. Her voice is that of somebody older than she was when she passed away.
Your son says, “They’re looking for a home, dummy.”
“Don’t say ‘dummy.’ Their houses probably burned down. I guess they’re searching for shelter,” you say.
Your wife emerges from the study. She carries the newspaper rolled up in one hand, as if she’s about to use it as a weapon. “You taking them out to play or not?”
“We can’t go outside,” you say. “Look at what it’s like out there.” No rain for months, air thick with burning grass and oak trees.
The children look at each other and laugh. With delicate coordination, they step with trepidation across the threshold of the front door in their skates. They should come to the door and find they can’t pass through it. But nothing stops them, and they don’t vanish without their laser source.
They slowly roll away. They skate past your car parked at the top of the hill. They glance back at you from the top of the long steep driveway and smile.
Stunned, you watch as they skate forward. With a shriek of glee—like they are the top of a roller coaster—they begin their descent down the driveway.
“Are you going after them?” Your wife advances upon you with the newspaper.
You flee into the night.
Night air slaps your face. Gravity pulls you down the driveway. Your lungs burn as you chase the children. Tough to breathe. An acrid taste fills your mouth. Your eyes sting.
You can’t catch them in time. Where driveway empties into street, unable to keep their balance any longer, they collapse in a silver-blue heap, their transparent limbs pretzeled together under the glow of the streetlight. Their shrieking turns into wailing. High pitched weeping. Pain and humiliation. Defeat.
Is it possible the holograms have hurt themselves? Can they feel the pain they’re expressing? You think back a decade to the weeks after their death in the wildfire. You coded them to perform love and joy, but never pain. All these years, it’s been comforting to know the holograms weren’t suffering, not suffering the way your corporeal children suffered. The way the rest of the world was suffering. Maybe you wouldn’t have programmed them had you understood they’d be able to grieve, to lament.
Takes a few minutes to reach the heap of them. By the time you arrive, they’re disentangling, sobbing loudly. The soles of your bare feet are raw, abraded, bleeding. You reach out. Your hand turns blue as it passes through them. Right, right—simply projections.
Someone rolls out of the shadows, hovers next to them. A bald man in colorful rags on a unicycle, knapsack and guitar case strapped to his back. “Know where the coder lives?”
His voice is smooth and pleasant. You’re the coder, but you’re vulnerable here under the streetlight. The world’s so dangerous, so full of clashing needs and desires, and not enough of anything to satisfy them. Could you take this unicyclist? Maybe.
“Nope. No coders here,” you say. The dissonant music comes closer.
The stranger wobbles to and fro, precarious. He telegraphs skepticism with his eyebrows. “That your house?”
“Who wants to know?”
He frowns. “So that’s how we’re playing this? You program all these wildfires and refuse responsibility?”
“Can I learn how to ride that?” Your son points at his unicycle.
“There’s a whole group of us rolling down the hillside. We can show you.” The unicyclist whistles long and low, jerks his thumb.
In a moment, you and the children are surrounded by a jamboree of strangers riding unicycles. Dressed in rags all colors of the rainbow. Some play instruments as they ride. Guitarists, flautists, drummers. Notes from an oboe emerge, a thread of melancholy in the wild din.
“So she’s the coder?” someone shouts.
The bald unicyclist nods. “Those are her kids.”
A woman rolls into the center of the circle as the crowd of vagrants whirl around you. She dismounts and offers your son her unicycle. Your son nods and removes his roller-skates. They lie blue on the ground. She holds the unicycle steady. Her kindness makes you want to cry.
Another man cycles over, offers your daughter his unicycle. Steadies it for her.
The children topple, remount, balance.
The woman looks defeated. “You coded all those wildfires, and now you won’t even take responsibility?”
“I didn’t code any wildfires,” you say. “I have nothing to do with the way the world is now. I didn’t do anything.” Pressure builds inside your chest. You can’t even get your hologram children to obey you. Why is this fucker blaming you?
“Didn’t you?” the bald unicyclist asks. He shakes his head with disgust. And then you wonder if he’s right, if you might just be responsible for this mayhem.
The bald unicyclist joins the circle of unicyclists riding around you. Faster and faster they ride, blurring together beneath the light from the streetlight. Their tunes shift, increasingly jangly and off-key. The glory, the destruction. The night sky reddening from the wildfires. You want to shout stop. You also don’t want to show how fearful you are.
Who knows who these people are? Why have they come? The stress, the chaos, the sounds are overwhelming. You retreat into yourself, the one quiet place, sinking to the asphalt on your hands and knees. Beyond the whirling rapturous circle of unicyclists is the interminably long driveway. How do you reach the house, how do you get to your computer to fix the code, to save the world? Your house is so inconsequential, so far away under the stars.
Yellow lamplight glows through each of the windows. You see your wife, tiny, beneath porchlight. She’s still gripping the newspaper like it’s an Uzi. She’s managed to cross the threshold of the front door, notwithstanding the code, but she doesn’t descend. Why doesn’t she come down? You wave at her, hoping she interprets it as a cry for help. She waves the newspaper cheerfully in response.
And just as grief threatens to overwhelm you, split you open here on the asphalt, the bald unicyclist whistles, jerks his thumb. One by one, unspooling, the unicyclists slowly ride out of the circle and into the street. The man and woman who donated their unicycles to your children ride piggyback, rags streaming behind them. You watch as your children roll away.
“Wait! I admit it. I am the coder.”
Your son turns and waves. The whole shimmering blue line of unicyclists escape down the dark hill, taking your children with them.
You weep as you shamble up the driveway towards the house. Sure, the children were projections, but they were your projections.
Your wife has disappeared inside by the time you arrive at the front door and open it. Panting, Quixote runs to greet you. “I could’ve used you outside, Boy,” you murmur. You wonder whether your children’s code will change again, whether it will one day tell them to return home. Probably not.
You trudge inside. Your wife stands by the window of the study, holding open tomorrow’s newspaper. How can she stand to examine the horror? Astonishing, the fortitude with which she’s been programmed. Quixote paces.
You look through the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the unicyclists traveling down the foothills, glowing blue, some glimpse of your children. Instead, to your dismay, you notice the blaze approaching. Much closer than it was before the unicyclists arrived.
“Paper says there’s no containing those wildfires,” your wife announces, matter-of-fact.
Remember the other time? The first wildfire in which you lost your family—their bodies? You forgot to say goodbyes, returned to a burnt shell of a home. Firetrucks and ambulances and smoldering ashes. You rebuilt your house. It was insufficient, so you rebuilt the whole fucking world, its foothills, its trees, its streets, as far as the eye could see. Holograms to stand in for your beloveds, to say their lines, to console you. You hunched for hours over your keyboard until the world was serene perfection, not a wildfire in sight. But, of course, it was a starry-eyed plan. Nothing you code could keep danger at bay, keep loss from your doorstep.
You place a jazz record on the player, you won’t go gently. Quixote circles you barking. Your wife whirls in a pool of light. She tries to press against you and her blue arms pass through yours. An attempted embrace—a failed embrace. Here, the wildfire finds you.
Anita Felicelli is the author of the short story collection LOVE SONGS FOR A LOST CONTINENT and the novel CHIMERICA. Her criticism and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, Salon, Catapult, the New York Times (Modern Love), and elsewhere. She lives in the Bay Area with her family.
Jody Zellen is a Los Angeles based artist who works in many media simultaneously. She received a BA from Wesleyan University (1983), a MFA from CalArts (1989) and a MPS from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (2009). Zellen has exhibited nationally and internationally since 1989. One of the things that motivates her as an artist is to use digital technologies to enliven and activate both public and private spaces. To that end she has created both interactive installations and iOS apps. Her free apps include: Spine Sonnet, Art Swipe, 4 Square, Episodic, Time Jitters, News Wheel and most recently, The Unemployed which coincides with an installation at Los Angeles International Airport.