I can’t accept the idea of talking to you when you’re simply not here. The instruction guide on the coffee table looks like a take-out menu, foldable with several pictures and satisfied client reviews.
This isn’t some antiquated form of long-distance communication like writing a letter or sending a text. I’m the type of person that keeps a strip of neon tape over the webcam's lens, who unplugs the microwave when it’s not being used. You were the type of person who worshipped algorithms, who installed a VPN on all our neighbor’s computers and guaranteed that we had backups on the cloud of everything from receipts to high school prom photos.
When the doctors told us that you were dying, the first thing you did was search the internet for alternative forms of treatment: Glioblastoma multiforme symptoms and cures.
“They have no idea what they’re talking about,” you said. “I’m too young to have a brain tumor.”
The doctors forwent surgery due to the size and location of the mass, giving you at most five years to live. You spent one of those five years doing nothing, crying and laying in bed while I stuck around picking up the pieces of your wilting persona, doing the laundry, cooking, making sure the house was clean and that you were fed.
It was around the second year after your diagnosis that you decided to start living.
“Fuck cancer,” you said, "and fuck death too."
I thought your mental outburst was a surge, a lapse in judgment or epiphany common in the dying that I had frequently read about in health magazines.
“Okay, and what do you want to do first?” I asked, thinking you would say something cliché like travel the world or go bungee jumping.
“I want to have a baby.”
The doctors thought we were insane, that it was in no way a sound plan for you to get knocked up, lay off your cancer meds, and risk dying even sooner, all for the slight chance of possibly surviving a risky pregnancy.
You started working free-lance, developing security parameters for non-profits. You gave consultations to big-money tech companies in exchange for fast cash to guarantee that you could help out with the medical bills and still save up to give our son or daughter a comfortable future.
I’ve thought about hosting a funeral for you and putting up a tombstone in your honor at the local cemetery; that way, she would at least have some sort of closure, a place where she could go and visit you.
After the procedure, I was mad and confused, threw away most of the pictures I had of us, disposed of your clothes and jewels, and trashed anything that reminded me of you. The computer, however, is still here, unplugged from the wall but still functioning, the last piece of evidence and my only tangible form of speaking to you.
The neural engineers at BRAINSTEM said all I have to do is turn on the desktop, place the Cortex Key in the USB port, install the app, click on the icon —a rudimentary image of a brain —, and type in your PIN.
“It’s super user-friendly,” they boasted. “It’ll take about two minutes to boot her up.”
You were supposed to die, so why didn’t you?
“I want to see her grow up,” you said. “I want to see her graduate, go to college, get married and get old.”
“I know, honey, I know.” That was my usual response, the only thing I could offer you at that time when you faced the reality of your future while holding our daughter in your slender, twig-like arms.
“This isn’t fair. There must be something we can do.”
You got progressively worse after Beth’s first birthday —that's when you started to often experience tremors that made it a danger for you to hold her. We hired a nurse, and a nanny, someone to play with Beth and to take care of you while I was at work. You hated it.
“She’s my daughter. I should be the one taking care of her.”
I blamed myself for not staying at home more often, for not being a better husband and father. Honestly, I just needed to get away because the harsh reality of dealing with a young child and her sickly, dying mother was too much for me. I’m sorry about that, I really am. I should have been there for you.
You couldn’t hold Beth without feeling tired in a few minutes, so we would position her between our bodies while we laid in bed, keeping her in the center of us, watching her jostle, roll, and gibber. Our daughter was well-behaved, tranquil; it was almost as if she knew that her mom needed her to be tame, that you couldn’t actually provide for her.
One day while we observed Beth drooling and sucking her toes, you inquired about the short-term future, “What are we going to do when she starts walking?”
I was half-asleep, worn out from work, and barely registered the urgency of your question.
“What do you mean?”
“When she starts walking, what are we going to do?”
“I guess we could baby-proof the house and instruct Monique to pay more attention.”
“And what? I could take a couple months and work from home until we get a better handle on the situation.”
“And what about when she stops using diapers, starts eating solid food, and saying real words? What about when she goes off to school, makes friends, has playdates? What about when she starts reading, starts having to deal with bullies, creeps, and the troubles of being a girl? What about —”
“What about what? She’s fine right now. She’s got a whole life ahead of her.”
“Yeah, she does, but I don’t.”
Beth’s now at school, a good school, those kinds where they have real teachers that hover around the students in the classroom, where they prioritize human contact and reading physical books and not just watching video lessons. I migrated to working out of a home office in our former guest room, the one we used when Monique or the nurse were asked to stay over. This way, I can take Beth to school and be here when she arrives after.
The desktop computer I don’t use, it hasn’t been turned on since the day you left, and though I’m sure this is stupid, I think that you’re in there, locked up inside that vessel of motherboards and wires, tangled up in the digital web of codes and symbols like a prisoner.
The people at BRAINSTEM informed me that you couldn’t interact with anyone or anything until properly installed and activated.
“No, she won’t be able to speak to you through any household appliances, sir. It doesn’t work that way,” they said. “Think of her like a genie in a bottle; she can’t do anything until she’s been rubbed.”
“So she can’t hear, see, or speak to me until I’ve used the Cortex Key and started her up, is that it?”
So every day, I scan the instruction guide. I’ve memorized the steps on how to install and uninstall you. Once you’ve been activated, I can set up restrictions that prohibit you from circulating on private networks. I can limit your interaction to a time frame. I can even keep you from accessing other media platforms and devices. In other words, I can control you.
I’m responsible for keeping Beth away from her mother, for breaking my promise to you in letting you see her grow up. I’m the bad guy, not you. You’re the victim, the one who was dying, the desperate one, the one who was going to leave, and the only one who decided to do something about the future. I know all of this, that you were scared and feeling helpless, that you wanted more time no matter the stakes. It was unfair, I know, but still, I can’t help but think about the alternative options.
What if you hadn’t been sick or hadn’t decided to get pregnant? What if we had consulted more doctors or experimented with holistic remedies? What if we had been more religious?
What if you had stopped working on the last year you had to live and never found them? What if you hadn’t sent that e-mail to BRAINSTEM? What if I hadn’t gone along with it and signed the papers? What if I had said no?
You were supposed to die, so why didn’t you?
Beth is turning six next month, and I asked her what she wanted for her birthday. She said that she wants a mommy because the other kids have their mothers, and she wants one too. I know you can’t actually speak to her, the same way I know you aren’t dead, but somehow I think this is your fault. That you talked to her while she was young and whispered things into her ear about how you would never leave her.
I was on the other side of the bed, half-asleep, but I heard you.
“Mommy’s going to live forever and ever,” you told her when she was two, three months before the transfer process, and six months before the estimated time the doctors said you had left.
At that time, you were taking pills for everything; supplemental vitamins, capsules for seizures, pain, nausea, and hallucinations. You started sending out messages to all your friends, stating that you’d be fine, that if anything went wrong, you loved them. Your parents had died a few years after we got married, which made you thankful since we didn’t have to seek their approval or explain to them the mechanics of your cheating death.
“Are you sure you want to go through with it?” I asked the day before the transfer.
“Are you serious?” you returned. “Of course, I’m sure. Why? Are you having second thoughts?”
I shook my head. “I’m just checking if this is really what you want. Beth is going to ask questions about this. She’s going to wonder why she’s talking to her mommy through a screen. She’s going to want to see you, touch you.”
You started bawling instantly. “I know that. But what would you prefer I do? Die? At least this way, I can see her, speak to her, help her, even if not physically. She’ll still have her mommy, and she’ll know that.”
“I know, I know,” I said. “It just may take some time getting used to it, that’s all.”
“Promise me something?” you choked out.
“Promise me that you’ll always be there for her, that you’ll do everything I can’t. If something goes wrong, promise me you’ll tell me about her and make sure she knows who I was.”
I promised you that I would tell Beth everything I could. But I never confessed to her that you were technically still alive. Beth asks a lot of questions about you. She wonders about where you lived growing up, about what you did for work, your favorite food, how we met. She refers to you in the past tense, mentioning you as someone important, but only in her history.
I blame myself for that as well.
I’ve been keeping the promise I made to you that I would always be here for Beth. I’ve been playing the dual role of mother and father well, at least from her perspective, I guess. I make her breakfast every day —she loves waffles. I read to her before bed —the classics like Cinderella and Snow White, none of those comic books about androids saving the world, or tales about vampires and ghosts. I also help her with her homework —though you probably would have done a better job at teaching her math.
BRAINSTEM told me that the transfer was a success, that your mind had been fully uploaded to the Cortex Key, and that your body responded to the procedure well. The contract stated that your organs would be donated but that if I wanted anything, like your eggs, they could still be cultivated.
“Who knows, maybe you’ll want to give your daughter a brother or sister,” one of the workers from the company said.
They handed me a brochure and a guide for the Cortex Key.
“Do I have to do this as soon as I get home? Is it against the law if I give myself some days first?”
“Of course not, sir. Take all the time you need. Some people like to take a grieving period, take a vacation, prepare the family. It’s fine.”
They talked to me so naturally as if they were handing me the keys to a new vehicle or hotel suite.
“Enjoy,” they said as I was leaving. “If you have any complaints, let us know.”
I came home and let Monique, the nanny, go home early. Beth and I watched TV on the living room sofa. I took her to the park and waited for her to say "mommy", but she didn’t. We came back home, I cooked dinner, and I still waited for her to ask, for her to say: “where’s mommy?”, but she didn’t then either.
I never talked to her about what happened; she knew in a way that you were sick and that you had left. I just assumed that it was better to let her deduce that you were dead and to refer to you as part of her past and not her present.
Every day I think about the Cortex Key, how it’s in the drawer of my bedside table. I imagine what Beth will say or do once I tell her that your body has turned to data and that she can speak to her mommy. I kick myself for lying, for keeping our daughter only with me, though I never guaranteed that I would wake you up.
The instruction guide says that I can bring you back whenever I want. It also says that there’s a return policy; that I can take you back, and in return, they’ll offer discounts on other mind-bending procedures. I don’t know what to do; I haven’t known what to do about you since the day you were diagnosed.
Maybe I should have talked you out of the pregnancy or convinced you to spend the little time we had left living our best lives. Maybe, I should have told you how I really felt about transferring your brain. Maybe, I should have just told them to stop the process mid-procedure. Maybe, I should have told the truth to Beth.
You were supposed to die, so why didn’t you?
Now I’m here, thinking to myself, much like I have been doing for the past years, how I hate that you’re not alive, but how you’re also in a way not dead.
Beth is going to be back from school any second now. I’ll make her a snack, help her with her homework, maybe we’ll even watch a movie together, and I’ll hate myself because no matter how much of a good dad I am, I’m keeping her from you, from the one thing she wants and doesn’t know she has, her mom.
If I ever end up turning you on, I imagine the first thing I’ll have to do is ask you for your forgiveness and say I’m sorry. I'll also have to reveal the reason for everything, for the wait, why Beth is almost six if when you left her, she was only two. I'll have to say that for the longest time, I wished —and still wish— that you were, in fact, dead.