Read an Excerpt
Picture yourself stepping into a small, cuboid room. In the center squats an old recliner, upholstered in black vinyl. To the chair’s back is affixed a jointed metal arm, possibly on loan from a desk lamp. At the end of the arm, where the bulb and shade would have gone, hangs instead a sparkly gold motorcycle helmet, a vintage, visorless number with a chin strap.
“It’s safer than it looks,” the woman standing beside you says, with an edge of humor. Her eyes and hair verge on black, her skin on white. Her voice has a hoarseness you might associate with loud bars and lack of sleep, but other things about her—from her black skirt and blouse to her low, neatly fastened ponytail—suggest alarm clocks and early-morning jogs. Her name is Mira, short on the i. Mira Egghart.
Safe isn’t the first word that comes to mind. A dozen or so symmetrical holes have been bored into the helmet’s shell, and from each of these holes protrudes a small metal cylinder, and from the top of each cylinder sprouts blue and red wires, forming a kind of venous net over the hemisphere.
That first word might be demented. Or menacing. The thing has the look of some backroom torture apparatus, slapped together from junk on hand with the aid of a covert operative’s field manual.
“Have a seat,” says Mira Egghart.
Maybe you’re thinking better of it. This could be your last opportunity to blurt apologies and flee. But just suppose that things haven’t been going well for you lately. Assume, for the sake of argument, that in fact things have been going very, very badly. I hesitate to say how badly. Let’s say you founded a company that has more or less been stolen from you,
and now you’re just about broke. Broke and alone. Having split with your fiancé months before. And that these circumstances barely even register because someone very close to you has been losing a battle with cancer. Or has slipped into a coma. Perhaps this person is your business partner. Your best friend. Your brother. Your identical twin. Let’s go for broke and say all of it, all the above, and that the thought of being back out on the busy midday sidewalk—among all those people with places to go and lives to lead—is enough to make the air turn viscous in your lungs. Allow for the possibility, too, that—God help you—you’re already a little bit into this Mira Egghart.
Presto. You’re Fred Brounian.
Or who he was then.
Fred Brounian sank lower in the chair than he’d anticipated. The springs were worn. A tear in the vinyl ran along the inner wall of one of the arms, bleeding yellow foam. He was facing the door, and next to it, a rectangular window set into the wall, which he only then noticed.
Behind the glass lay another room, smaller still than this one, just deep enough to fit two office chairs at what must have been a shallow, shelflike desk supporting the two flatscreen monitors whose backs he could see. As he watched, a tall, thin, sixtyish man with a gray Roman haircut floated into view, like a walleye in an aquarium. The man eyed Fred impassively over the straight edges of a pair of half-frame reading glasses slightly wider than his head. Then the man, too, lowered himself into a chair, sinking behind the monitor and out of view.
“We’ll be watching over you the whole time,” Mira Egghart explained.
She crossed to the other side of the recliner, taking a plastic jar from a steel serving trolley. “I’m going to stick some electrodes to you. They’re just to record brain waves and vitals. I’ll have to apply a little gel for conductivity.”
She confronted him with a glistening dollop on her fingertip, and proceeded to rub cool spots of the stuff onto his temples and the center of his forehead. Silvery rings adorned at least three of her fingers, moving too fast and close for him to get a good look. After gelling each point, she reached down to the table for a poker-chip-sized white pad and stuck it on. Her eyes avoided his as she worked, darting instead around the various features of his cranium.
“Undo the top two buttons of your shirt, please.”
She counted down the ribs from his clavicle with a sticky fingertip,
dabbed more gel, and painted a tiny, wet spiral over his heart. Her hair smelled like freshly opened apples and something ineffable—dry ice,
he thought—one of those dizzying alchemies of hair product research.
From the degree to which she was leaning over him (he counseled him-
self not to look down her blouse), and the slight squint in her eyes, he thought she must be nearsighted. The wrinkles at the corners suggested she was around his age, mid-thirties. Her nose, though not indelicate,
had a slight finlike curve to it, which taken in combination with those dark, peering eyes, gave her the slightly comical look of an inquisitive bird. He wondered how many condemned men, as they were being strapped into electric chairs, had spent their last moments checking out the ladies seated among the witnesses.
She reached up and pressed the helmet onto his head.
“The session will last twenty minutes. All you have to do is sit back and relax. Let’s get you reclined. The lever’s on the right.”
He did as told, window swinging away, ceiling swinging into view.
Directly above, in the firmament of perforated tiles, a poster of a spiral galaxy had been taped. Mira Egghart’s upside-down head, like a wayward planetoid, floated into view.
“You probably won’t want to, but if you feel you need to stop, just say the word—the helmet has a mic attached. Or if you can’t speak, just wave. Please don’t handle the helmet yourself.”
If I can’t speak . . .
She left the room, switching off the light. The instant she did so the air grew swampy and his skin prickled. These days, Fred didn’t like the dark, nor any hint of confinement. He could turn his head only slightly in the helmet, but by keeping his eyes trained down his face, he was able to see Mira now standing in the control room. She leaned forward over the desk, reaching up toward the top of the window, her blouse taut against her breasts and lifting to reveal a glittering stud in her navel as her fingers clasped the pull of a black shade. She brought it down in one quick motion, after which, just above the window, a dim red bulb went on.
As best he could with his head immobilized, Fred looked around the room:
Jar of gel.
Galaxy wheeling above.
Ten days prior, an email had popped into Fred Brounian’s inbox:
Subject: Help, Avatara
From: George Brounian
He was at his usual booth in the cafeteria of the old Tisch Hospital building, worlds away from the NYU Medical Center’s ultramodern lobby and newer additions. It was lunchtime, the stink of gravy unwholesome in these antiseptic conditions. If the place were really working the way it should, he always thought, those microbial mashed-potato mounds,
along with everyone scooping them into their mouths, would have been sprayed with disinfectant and swept down some chute with a biohazard sign on the door.
As talismans against being thus expunged, the doctors and nurses had their lab coats and scrubs and ID badges. Long-term visitors had to improvise their defenses. At the table to his left, the woman with eyes permanently blasted from crying had her stainless-steel knitting needles and chain-link fences of pink and fuchsia yarn. The old guy in the threepiece suit (the same one every day, with what looked like a chocolate pudding stain on the vest) had his table-wide gauntlet of stock listings
(in search of the magic buy or sell that would pay his wife’s hospital bills,
Fred imagined). Fred himself, whenever he claimed a booth down here,
would swing open the barricades of his briefcase lid and laptop screen with the authoritative air of a doctor sweeping the curtains around a sigmoidoscopy patient. He, too, had his daily examinations to perform—
his tentative probes up the asshole of the cosmos, trying to figure out what this unrelenting shitstorm showered down on him and his fellow hapless sentients was all about, and whether there might be any effective way to treat it.
On the day in question, six months to the day since George had been wheeled through the ER doors, and three months, more or less, since a team of IT workers had mercifully stuck a wireless router to the cafeteria wall (visitors couldn’t websurf up in the wards), Fred had been reading an online article by an MIT professor who claimed that the universe was a giant quantum-mechanical computer, computing every possible occurrence in parallel, spawning exponentially expanding infinitudes of alternate realities at every moment—this particular reality being only one decoherent history in this unfathomably vast multiverse of the possible.
He’d managed to find the hypothesis somewhat consoling, as it seemed to imply that he had other twin brothers out there, an infinite number of George Brounians, a portion of whom, by sheer statistical necessity, wouldn’t be at this moment lying wrapped in tubes and wires like some fly bound in spider silk, waiting to be eaten. He’d been half entertaining the idea of leaning over to impart this happy news to the knitting woman, when it struck him that there would also be an infinite number of people whose parallel lives were more or less the same, and an identical number whose lives were somehow worse. Picture an infinite number of Fred Brounians, sitting in an infinite number of hospital cafeterias, pawing an infinite number of five-day beards, contemplating an infinite number of Fred Brounians, when in comes an email from their comatose twin.
The body of the message was blank. The subject heading meant little to him. Avatars—computer ones—were a regular part of their business.
There was also a mystical connotation, he was pretty sure, some kind of god or apparition or something. Some of the less socially equipped programmers in the office had been following an animated series called
“Avatar” on Nickelodeon. No other references immediately came to mind. As for that final a, Fred didn’t know what it signified, though it rounded out the word rather nicely. As for his brother’s name in the sender heading, it might not have fazed him—after all, the message must have been a server glitch, or a bit of viral marketing malware—were it not for the word “help.” There were all too many reasons George could need help at any given moment. One poorly propped pillow and his air passage could be cut off. A little vomit or even postnasal drip could asphyxiate him or slide down and infect his already damaged lungs.
Dozens of things needed to be done for him every day, and any lapse of attention could result in his death. Not that Fred believed there could be any connection between this email and a medical emergency. But there he was, dazedly heading for the elevators.
He found George much the way he’d left him an hour ago, lips in that leftward droop, head tilted to the same side.
He touched George’s shoulder. Spread open one of his eyes. Which tracked nothing.
“Dude. You’ve got something to say to me, say it to my face. Hey.”
He tickled him. He knew the spot, of course, side of the ribs, a little to the front. The slightest of flinches. Not even.
“Something happened?” asked a nurse, poised for a miracle.
He told her George had sent him an email. She thought this was funny.
He stayed with his brother for a while, doing the usual, massaging
George’s hands and feet to aid blood flow, smoothing the sheets to prevent wrinkles from chafing his skin and giving him lesions, holding up one end of a one-ended conversation, asking him what the deal was,
joking that next time he should have the courtesy to write more than a subject line. Fred tried to keep it light around George, when he could. He wanted the world to seem like a place his brother might care to revisit.
He was helping the nurse log roll George into a sling scale for the daily weight check, when, with a jolt, he realized he’d left his laptop downstairs.
If it was gone, there’d be no affording another. He darted into the hall, slalomed around gurneys, jumped down flights of stairs, reaching the cafeteria just in time to see someone making off with it, with his whole briefcase—a woman in a dark blouse and slacks and pulled-back hair, heading for the exit. He was charging at her, about to call out, when he got a line of sight on his table, and saw his own briefcase and laptop just as he’d left them.
The woman, meanwhile, set down that other briefcase on a booth wall, popped open its gold clasps, and extracted, with silver-ringed fingers,
a sheet of sky-blue paper and a roll of tape. He wondered—briefly,
nonsensically, he was tired—if the briefcase might be George’s, if the woman might know him. Women never carried these big, boxy kinds,
and George, too, owned one of them; George had bought Fred and himself a matching pair, their monogrammed initials the only difference,
ten years ago, when they’d started their company. The style had been outdated even then, but that was the point—George had hoped the old-school captain-of-industry look would help them feel more
CEOish. Returning to his table, Fred continued watching the woman.
She approached the bulletin board slowly, yet once there, attacked with swift rips and fingerstrokes of the tape, then stepped back to regard her handiwork, a little wide-eyed—proud, if still overwhelmed by the enormity of what she’d done. Then she blinked, and spun, one hand shutting the briefcase, the other pulling it after her out the door.
The old man licked his finger, and, with such slowness as might stop time itself, turned a page of newsprint.
The knitting needles click-click-clicked.
After staring at the mysterious email a while, peering into the empty pane where the message should have been, Fred looked up avatara on a couple of reference sites. A Sanskrit word, literally meaning “descent,”
referring to incarnations of Hindu gods. Or, more generally, the descent of the divine into the form of an individual. The avataras were innumerable,
legend went. Whenever there was imbalance, injustice, or discord,
they would appear to set things right.
The coincidence of the email’s arrival on this half-year anniversary made him wonder if it was a prank of some kind. Probably not. Who could have been ghoulish enough to send it? Whoever it was might have known George, though. Avatara was the kind of word he would have loved using, though Fred had never heard him use this one specifically.
George had been into such stuff—mudras and bandhas, siddhis and miracles, an inner world he could care about, Fred imagined, precisely because it was in no way existent, in no way subject to any law or whim other than George’s own. Not that George ever found any answers that really worked for him, or did so for long. Perhaps because his twin tended toward idealism, Fred had become more specialized in doubt. It didn’t exactly translate into practicality as often as he would have liked;
yet until recently, he’d prided himself on not being the type to sit around thinking about God’s great plan for him, or even to sit around researching the possibility that the universe was a giant quantum-mechanical computer.
Or to nearly tackle some woman for carrying George’s briefcase
(still calling it that—George’s briefcase—in his mind). Or to daydream about avataras—what would they look like?—descending to hospital cafeterias from the pure blue sky.
He’d been gazing off at that square of sky-blue paper for several minutes.
At last he walked to the bulletin board. His first reaction was to laugh,
silently. Not so much a laugh as an imagined laugh. His own, or George’s.
They had the same laugh, and these days, even in the simulations in his head, it wasn’t always easy to tell them apart. Sometimes the solution was for the laugh to replicate and divide, so that it was both of them, virtual
George and virtual Fred, sharing a laugh at this so-called study.
Do you feel . . .
Your life is without purpose?
Your days are without meaning?
There’s something about existence you’re just not getting?
Are you . . .
George’s laugh was delighted at what seemed to be a developing theme of the day. Fred’s own was just grimly amused. The word agnostic made him suspicious. Some kind of Scientology pitch, probably. But no,
his Inner George was saying, look at that.
The smaller print at the bottom: Department of Neural Science,
New York University. Followed by a Web address. The pedigree made
Fred curious. He returned to his laptop and typed in the URL. A page appeared, dense with text:
Among the healthful psychological qualities associated with individuals who describe themselves as having experienced a “spiritual awakening” are:
• A sense of well-being and connectedness in the world.
• A sense of “being in the moment.”
• A sense of union with a “higher” force.
• A sense of calm detachment from everyday difficulties.
• A decrease in negative emotions such as anger and fear.
• An increase in positive emotions such as compassion and love.
By reproducing the “peak” experiences commonly associated with spiritual awakening, this study hopes to help participants change their long-term cognitive patterns, leading to enhanced self-efficacy and quality of life. It should be stressed that these sessions will not involve religious indoctrination of any kind.
The treatment, the site went on to state, involved visualization exercises as well as subjecting the brain to mild but complex electromagnetic impulses, the effects of which were not thought to be harmful or permanent. Possible short-term side effects included nausea, dizziness,
and disorientation. No known long-term side effects, but as with any new area of research, risks could not be ruled out. Those selected would be paid fifty dollars for each of four weekly hour-long appointments,
and some follow-up interviews over the ensuing months. At the bottom of the page were links to articles about other studies: one finding that church attendees had stronger immune systems, while those without a spiritual practice suffered the stress equivalent of forty years of smoking;
another concluding that people of faith exercised more.
I’m not really thinking about this, am I?
I believe you are, Freddo.
He closed the browser window, determined not to be. But staring into the blue light of his screen, he began reconstructing the woman’s face. And that doppelganger briefcase sailing out of the room. Fifty bucks for an hour’s work, he thought. He was here at the hospital all the time anyway. If the study were here, too . . .
Even with these reflections, he’d never have returned to that website were it not for those other reasons, harder to explain, even to himself:
Because if George were the one sitting here, he—George—would have done it in a heartbeat. And because a sizeable part of Fred wished it were George here instead of him, felt it should have been. And because,
clicking on the link and filling out the questionnaire, Fred was able to feel what George would have felt—a peculiar, tense electricity in his chest and limbs, as though the study’s purported electromagnetic signals were already coursing up through the keyboard. Like the onset of panic but without the nausea. Like the opening hole of despair but more like hunger. A sensation so long unfelt he couldn’t straightaway place it as hope.
Ten minutes had passed, and if there was one thing Fred was now sure of, it was that this fright wig of a helmet didn’t do a damned thing. It felt just like any other helmet—padded, close, and hot. He couldn’t feel anything resembling a current, couldn’t hear anything but, possibly, the slightest hum, coming from somewhere behind the chair. From beyond the room came other faint noises: footfall on the floor above; a distant siren’s wail, trailing off so gradually it seemed never to fully end. The shade was still down, the observation window black. What was the use of having an observation window, if all they did was drop a shade over it when the experiment began?
That word had never been used, of course. “Study” had so much more reassuring a resonance, to the studied and studiers alike. But what was it they were really studying here? The whole deal must be a sham of some kind, he decided, one of those power-of-suggestion-type experiments,
an elaborate sugar pill administered to see whether the patient might be suggestible enough to effect his own spiritual transformation.
He berated himself for not trusting his instincts and bolting the moment he’d seen the suite’s tiny reception area, little more than a widened hallway beyond a door off the elevator bank, into which a coat rack and a couple of classroom chairs and a metal desk had been crammed.
The desk had nothing on it—not even a phone—and no one had been sitting behind it. But he hadn’t been able to face the obvious. Sure. The quirkily hot science nerd chick with the vaguely erotic gel rubdown, the bespectacled wizard in the control room, the seven-page questionnaire and three-page liability waiver—all verisimilitude enhancers, avenues of suggestion-delivery. This gaudy piece of junk on his head—nothing but a stage prop. Fifteen minutes now, it must be, and nothing. Who knew, maybe they didn’t even expect him to imagine any experience here; maybe they were testing something else altogether, like how long a person might submit to sitting here like some mental defective in a
Burger King crown, waiting for his divine purpose to be revealed.
How dare they.
How dare they take advantage of desperate, unhappy people like this. He was a second away from ripping the piece of crap off his head,
leaping out the chair.
How about picking up the aluminum trolley and driving it through the goddamned window?
Where to then? The coma ward? The office of his ex-company? His parents’ apartment?
The lava cooled in the pit of his chest. Expanding his lungs around that congealed lump seemed more effort than it was worth. What was the point? So sad it was funny, even, imagining he could shuffle in here slope-shouldered, head under a cloud, and stride back out transfigured,
head poking above said cloud, bathed in epiphany. Funny/sad/
maddening. The combination was exhausting, and before he knew it he was drowsy, drifting off, half in pain, half in pleasure, to a sound in the room he hadn’t noticed before: a faint and, now that he was attuned to it, almost painfully high-pitched tone. Sometimes, lying in bed late at night, he’d hear small, insistent noises like this burrowing into his ear. This tone, though, wasn’t a single note but an interval, possibly a major seventh. There was a smell in the air, too, like wet earth and ozone,
and the sound was broadening and flattening out, sounding first like applause. Then like escaping steam.
Then like a shearing of machine parts—a hot little saw burning from the front to the back of his skull.
And here he goes, seeping out into the room.
No difference between his sweating palms and the sweating vinyl of the chair. Between the compacted springs within the chair and the tensing and relaxing of his muscles.
The helmet pulsating within him like a second scalp. The charge of its net of wires his own hair tousling in a breeze. The chair beneath him an internal pressure, the frame and stuffing the weight of his own bones and innards. Air and time alike circulating within him. The high electric whine: within him. Like a voice. Like a pulse. Like a single, continuous thought, a focused point of attention expanding, carrying him outward in all directions. The galaxy approaching, as if he might contain it all,
every last thing everywhere, but for the fear, rising up like an arm to pull him back.
Maybe he moans, or maybe it’s the electric sound, sliding down again to a low hum and ratcheting like the sealing of a vault, as, with a nauseating snap, the world presses in:
Hot vinyl crawling beneath his palms.
Helmet crimping his skull.
Reddened galaxy glaring down at him—blindly—like the muscled socket of an eye.
“So,” Mira said. “How did it feel in there?”
She sat nearby in an office chair, a notebook computer balanced on her stockinged knees. Fred was noticing, in the light from the standing lamp beside him, the faint outlines of contact lenses in those dark eyes of hers.
She was examining him as well.
“Yes. It felt . . .” He laughed. He shook his head.
“Why did you just laugh?”
“It’s just hard to find the words. I’m feeling a little . . .”
“That will go away soon.”
He felt along his collarbones, the walls of his chest. “It felt like a jailbreak.”
“Oh? How so?”
As he attempted to describe the sensations he’d felt—the expansion,
the freedom, the envelopment of the chair and the air around him—she began to type without breaking eye contact. Her typing was beyond fast,
more words, he was pretty sure, than he was managing to speak. She seemed at once excited and intent on hiding her excitement behind a veneer of objective inscrutability. It was hard to stay focused on what he was saying. The soft clatter of keys made him hyperaware of being a test subject. Yet, too, in a tactile kind of way, there was something delightful about the sound. He could almost feel the little concave buttons springing beneath his own fingertips, the electrical impulses zapping through the circuitboard and the nerves of her arms.