The dinner was perfectly pitched. When you’re a professional cook, there’s an important balance to strike for Thanksgiving, making it clear that this is a family meal prepared with more love than professionalism.
Juliette was quite capable of making a restaurant-ready meal. It was, after all, her job, her career, her vocation. But she was more than a chef, and the wife and mother in her knew that polishing this experience too far would draw attention to the food and not the gathering. As she bustled from kitchen to table and back again with countless dishes, the ingredients were piled upon each other in mismatched dishes, rather than artfully arranged in designer-signed platters. The herbs were liberally sprinkled, not measured. The last dishes to come out were hotter than the first. A home cooked meal, not a paid-for experience.
This was her intention, she planned things like this, thought them through carefully. This I knew because after seventeen years of married life, I knew her better than she knew herself, or so I liked to think.
Peter was opening a second bottle of wine before we’d even sat down or properly started on the first, setting expectations for the evening with a smile, and a sweater that was also made with more love than skill.
Our home was a collection of tree trunks. A log cabin the size of a detached house. It mirrored in its design, materials and colors the values we liked to think we had in our family. Warmth, comfort, safety, among other things. In a log cabin you are always connected to each other, and that’s how we all knew that Gail was in her room. We could hear her footfalls in the dull sound and subtle signals that came to us through interconnected tree trunks that made up the house, and presently she was coming down the stairs to join us at the table.
After Juliette had rushed back to the kitchen three times to pick up items she’d forgotten (the pepper mill, two serving spoons and finally her glass of wine), she sat at her usual place at the table. I sat to her left, putting my hand over hers as she settled her glass on the far side of her plate. Gail and Peter pulled out their chairs and settled also, and we all inclined our heads for just a brief moment to acknowledge our good fortune.
“Bon appetit!” said Gail.
“Thank you, my love,” I said, and kissed Juliette on the cheek.
The replay stopped there. The illumination in the room flared slightly, all the details pixelating, my family dissolving into thin air, then the grey-edged white panels of the therapy room reappeared as the illusion faded. I was still looking at where my hand held my wife’s as the holograms dissipated and the wrinkled skin of my actual hand showed through the projected skin of my younger self.
Juliette’s hand disappeared entirely, as did the warmth of her touch. A cruel reminder.
As I stood, the chair I’d been sitting on disappeared in a blur of computer graphics. I looked for the telltale yellow line that indicated the bottom of the door to the room, turned to face it, and presently in walked Doctor Hamada, my psychotherapist, digital clipboard in hand.
“Ok Mr. Milton, you seem to be willing to immerse yourself more in the re-creations, which is good. Holographic immersion isn’t for everyone, but when it works it’s far more rapidly effective in resolving emotional trauma than a verbal exchange. Now that you’ve allowed yourself to feel something during a sim, tell me how you think that affected you.”
She was more professional than she was kind, but that wasn’t to say she wasn’t kind. Her features didn’t seem to communicate what she was feeling to the outside world. Second-genners are rarely very expressive immediately after their treatment and she didn’t look a day over twenty.
The sound of my voice, old again after the end of the simulation, almost surprised me.
“I want to say I feel better, but it’s too much of a fantasy to be real.”
She nodded for me to carry on.
“I know that’s not how it happened, so I don’t feel it changes anything to witness it, even when you can make it so realistic. Even if I can feel something when I’m there. It’s what I wish had happened, not what really happened.”
She made a brief note.
“I miss her terribly,” I added.
She picked up on a point I’d made. “Thinking back to our earlier discussion, Robert, do you think it’s accurate to say that this scenario is what you wish had happened that evening?”
I thought about the question, struggling slightly, but I soon saw what she was getting at.
“You’re right. It’s what I wish had happened if I could rewrite the two months before the meal, as well as the meal itself. If I can’t change any of the events before the meal, then I take your point. What I wanted that evening wasn’t to have a perfect day. Given my recent behavior and my state of mind, that wasn’t an option. What I wanted was to start to repair the damage I had already caused.”
She nodded, satisfied, and I understood that this was the conclusion I had been led towards all along. She was very good at her job.
“Excellent. Would you like to experience that simulation?”
I didn’t. It would put me back in the position I had been in on the day. I wanted to do anything but live the guilt of that moment, but if I had the opportunity to change the outcome, even for a moment, even only in a simulation, perhaps it was worth it.
What came out of my mouth was: “Yes. I think that’s a good idea.”
The dinner was perfectly pitched. Juliette knew exactly what balance to strike for Thanksgiving and she did it almost effortlessly, despite how things were between us. That did nothing to reduce my growling stomach, which was making me impatient, or my anticipation that something would inevitably go horribly wrong with the meal.
I could hear Gail moving around upstairs and turned to Peter, who was fooling around with the wine bottles, wearing an ugly, ill-fitting sweater, and snapped at him.
“Get your sister to come downstairs, would you? We’re supposed to be together as a family, not playing games in our little corners.”
Peter looked startled, put the wine bottle down and walked to the stairs. I caught Juliette giving me stricken look from the kitchen.
I felt awful. My own misery had nothing to do with my family, but here I was taking it out on them and seemingly unable to control myself. If anyone was going to ruin this Thanksgiving it was clearly going to be me.
When we were all sat down, Juliette had to get back up three times to fetch things she’d forgotten from the kitchen. I wanted to sigh and grind my teeth as her chair scraped back and forth across the floorboards again and again. When she finally had her glass of wine in hand, we all lowered our heads in a ritual we’d followed for years, but today taxed my patience and stoked my irritation.
As my eyes looked down at the table’s edge, I thought about the contrast between everything I had in my life and my utter lack of gratitude in this moment. For the last two days in particular, but really for the last three months, I’d been a source of cantankerous resentment in my family’s life. There was no denying it. I felt a cold empty pain in my chest, which I recognized as guilt.
When I raised my head, my wife and kids were looking at me. We only usually drop our heads for a moment each meal, and I’d stared at the table for at least a minute.
I stood up, walked around my chair and put both hands on its back, leaning forward.
I pursed my lips, trying to find the words.
“I am so sorry. To all of you. For how I’ve been these last days and weeks.”
How to continue? How much to say?
“I’ve been struggling with something really selfish and stupid, and because it has no outlet elsewhere, I know I’ve been taking it out on you.”
“I didn’t realize I was doing this, not really, or at least I found it very hard to control, but it’s completely unfair on you all and it’s entirely my fault.”
“In particular, I’m sorry to you Juliette. I love you more than I know how to say, but for some reason, that’s made you the recipient of the worst of my moods and aggression, and I don’t know what I can say to take it back.”
I had to wind this up or it would turn into a meandering monologue with no end in sight.
“Today is Thanksgiving. I have the most wonderful family anyone could wish for, and I don’t want to be the one making today, or any day, any less amazing than you all deserve. I’m sorry for how I’ve been and will make every effort to get back to myself again.”
I sat back down, not really knowing what was going to happen. Declarations like this were not in our habits and it must have come as a shock to them all.
“Dad,” said Peter, “we all know you’re dealing with something. Why do you think we bend our heads and let you snap at us? We’d never accept it if we thought it was your nature. Putting up with your moods these last few weeks is our way of being supportive, since we don’t really know how else to help.”
“We do wish we knew what was wrong though,” added Gail.
Juliette didn’t speak, she had those tears in her eyes that indicated she’d start sobbing if she tried.
I looked back at the edge of the table for a moment.
“You know the de-aging protocols we’ve been working on at the lab?” I asked.
They all nodded. Of course they knew, my work and my team had been featured in every newspaper and science journal in the world over the past few years. De-aging was the ultimate goal we had been chasing for almost fifteen years now. It was the single project that had defined my entire career. It was all I ever talked about, all anyone ever seemed to want to ask me about.
“It’s strictly confidential for another three months, so you can’t tell anyone, but you’re basically all going to live forever. No more aging. We can reset the human body to its early twenties.”
Everyone knew where the science was heading, but the first viral hard reset of the human body was a breakthrough we hadn’t expected for generations. We’d achieved it much faster than anticipated. Broad human trials were less than three years away now.
“And they won’t give you credit for it?” asked Juliette, looking for the source of my pain and completely ignoring the momentous announcement I’d just made.
I shook my head. The irony was beyond describing.
“No, that’s not it. I’ll get most of the credit, with my team. But there are some people, with very rare gene expressions. For them, the process will not work. One in three million people, approximately.”
Their expressions began to change as understanding dawned.
“And I won that particular genetic lottery. I’ll die of old age, senile, half-blind, but everyone else will live in perfect health.”
They all looked at me in disbelief.
“I’ve been having a hard time accepting the cards I’ve been dealt. I bottled it all up. I’m so sorry.”
In the minutes that followed, my family proved to me a thousand times over how lucky I was to have them. They gathered around me, smothered me with their love, and when the catharsis was done, we had our best Thanksgiving dinner in years.
The room faded, the lines and panels reappeared, and I found myself on the floor, legs crossed, head bent, sobbing uncontrollably, eighty-four years old again and just as alone as I had been for going on thirty years.
When I opened my eyes, Dr. Hamada was there. Her clipboard was discarded and she had a hand on my shoulder.
“Thank you, Mr. Milton. I’m sorry you had to go through that, but I’m now comfortable that with a couple more sessions, without the use of simulation, I will be able to sign the psychological evaluation and you will be allowed to proceed with your viral regeneration procedure.”
“Why? That simulation was still a fantasy. It’s still not what happened. I shouted at my family, said things that had no purpose other than to hurt.” My voice broke and dropped unusually low. “She ran outside, to get away from me. You know what happened next.”
I swallowed hard and looked at her, angry at how fate had rolled the dice, raging against the injustice of it all.
“How is that right?” I asked. “That science overcame the reason I couldn’t undergo rejuvenation, but that she died that very night because of the way I treated her?”
Dr. Milton tilted her head to one side, as though considering how to reply.
“She died because you had an argument and she ran outside, into the snow. She slipped and fell. Her head hit a rock. The causes of her death are, in order, your unfortunate genetic circumstances and their effect on you, your mood and behavior, your wife’s reaction, the climate and weather at the time, the presence of the snow and the position of the rock. In the chain of causality, your actions represent only a single link.”
“My children and I are estranged, I’m pretty sure they feel the same way I do: I’m responsible for my wife’s death, when she was the very inspiration for the technology that will keep everyone alive. They can’t stand the sight of me, and who can blame them?”
Then came the argument that had been burning in my gut ever since I had been offered the treatment.
“Should I in good conscience even accept to live a life without her in it? Do I even want to?”
Dr. Milton stood me up, picked up her tablet and tapped a few commands. A plain table and two chairs materialized in the center of the room for us to sit down at.
She leaned her forearms on the table and took a deep breath.
“How do you think we build these simulations, Mr. Milton?”
I shrugged. I was a retired epigeneticist. I knew almost nothing about field projection technology.
“Do you think a supercomputer is capable of designing simulations of your children from scratch, without recorded data from the event, accurately enough to fool you into believing they’re actually there? Let me assure you, it is not.”
I sat a little straighter in my chair.
“Your former employer, out of recognition for your central role in the development of the rejuvenation process, offered to carry out the procedure for free, despite the expensive customization the virus requires given your genetic profile. But when you failed the psychological test, who do you think paid for the seventy hours of treatment you’ve received in this facility?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Who do you think provided accurate models of your home, the dinner, the details of discussions that evening, the layout of the food on the table or the brand of the wine?”
“Are you saying that…”
“How do you think we constructed perfectly accurate 3D models of your children and wife, and obtained the necessary permissions to use them in simulations with a third party?”
“They did this for me?”
“There’s a pattern to your reactions, Mr. Milton, a particular defensive strategy you use when you’re upset. That night, when you were distraught and angry, they tried to help but didn’t know how, so they bore your anger and your frustration while you shut them out. When your depression got the better of you after the death of your wife, again they didn’t know how to help and you retired into self-imposed isolation. Now, years later, they learn that the famous inventor of the rejuvenation process has failed the psych profile and has been denied access to the treatment he himself developed. It made the news, you know. That gave them a way to help. Your treatment here, the hundreds of hours spent preparing the simulations, it’s all them.”
“Where are they now?”
“They’ve been staying locally. They’d like to spend a little time with you before your rejuvenation, which can be scheduled as soon as two weeks from now. They’re in a hotel a short distance away.”
On that day I received the first hug from my son and daughter in almost thirty years. That they had been watching over me all this time, waiting for their chance to reach out and help, was a trait they’d inherited from their mother. More proof of my immense and undeserved good fortune in life.
My grandchildren were all younger than the years we had been estranged, and I was meeting them for the first time. A source of happiness as unexpected as it was intense.
They helped me through my embarrassment and burning shame with a kindness that can come only from family.
It was Gail who explained the timing.
“It’s twelve days to Thanksgiving, dad. Now we have you back, we wanted to spend it all together, the Thursday before your treatment. Then once the virus is administered and the process has started, you can come live with us for a couple of months as you go through it. You’re doing it so late in life that we were told you’d need some support from loved ones.”
I would be younger than my children after the treatment. About half their biological age, in fact. It would be strange and unsettling, but as my twelve-year old granddaughter took my hand, I realized the only way I could allow myself to live a second youth without Juliette by my side, was if I could spend it with them.